Thursday, 17 November 2011

When I were a lad... 2

A tale of boats and the seaside in the 1960s

From around 1957 to 1968 I lived in Clacton-on-sea.  Whenever I could I would go boating or sailing, sometimes with my friend John who went to the same Technical College I attended.  John lived in Mersea Island and came from a family that was well into the traditions of sailing and boating and we would sail together and muck about in his canoes.  John had two canoes and one was getting a little weathered, so one winter he had started to refurbish it and had found his sailing club commitment was preventing him from finishing the job.  He did not really need two and he realised he was not likely to get it finished in any reasonable time and summer was well on its way, so he decided to cut his losses and sell it.  It was in need of a new canvas upper deck but otherwise was sound.  He was prepared to sell it for a reasonable sum and I eagerly arranged to buy it from him.
It was quite large as canoes go, being a wide two-seater kayak style, with a plywood hull and canvas upper decking and was very stable. I was already familiar with it, having borrowed it once or twice when we went canoeing around Mersea Island and was very pleased he wanted to sell it and I had already decided it was the one for me. I duly parted with the cash and we hoisted it up onto my car’s roof rack and I drove it home. 

It was much too big to go around the back of the guesthouse, so I had to set it on two trestles in the front garden and it only just fitted there. A foot longer and I would have been seriously in trouble. As it was, Mum and Dad, who rather preferred flowers in the garden to a great big half finished canoe, did not greet it with any great enthusiasm, although I think Dad was secretly pleased that I was as interested in boats as he was. I was allowed to keep it there until I had finished the refurbishment but only on the condition that I found a place where I could keep it permanently away from the house. 

A couple of miles along the coast in Holland-on-sea there was a boat club, which allowed members to keep light craft in a locked compound on the top of the cliff, so I arranged to join the club and keep it there, but first I had to finish the decking and re-varnish it.
John had included the material he had intended to use for the top deck when I bought it, which was in fact not canvas but a tough white plastic.  This was fitted by laying it over the framework, cutting around the centre opening where the crew sat and then nailing battens onto the frame with copper pins to grip the edges and hold it in place.  This took very few evenings and soon it was ready for a new coat of varnish. 

Me and my cousin in my finished and seaworthy canoe
During the mid sixties, there were a number of riots reported by the press, taking place at various seaside towns, where Mods and Rockers would congregate at weekends and the rivalries between the two different fashion supporters would occasionally flare up into a small battle fought out on the beaches with bottles, and deck chairs being slung about.
The press found these to be good copy for selling newspapers.  Since it was ‘in the public interest’, the public was informed that major battles were occurring at many seaside resorts and the youth of today were running riot; literally. 
There was a lot of TV coverage as well, and they showed pictures of young men running around in a disorderly fashion on beaches and various seafronts and reported total mayhem.
Because it was good footage (and increased paper circulation), the press had to continue to keep the public well informed, but unfortunately like all trends it would not last long, so something had to be done to prolong these riots for the remaining summer.  For this reason, during the various interviews with the Mods and the Rockers they would slyly ask if they would be attending the next riot, and then name a time and place, insinuating that they knew where the next one would be.  Of course since they were supposed to be spontaneous, no one really knew where they would be least of all the Mods and Rockers themselves.  Once a venue had been suggested by the press, word soon got passed around amongst them that there was to be a good fight at wherever, and so in this way the press made sure that there would be a good turnout of Mods and Rockers at the place of their own choosing. 

I saw a few of these alleged riots, which seemed little different to the normal uncouth behaviour of a minority of the Clacton weekend visitors and continued to walk my dog in the sure knowledge that on Sunday evening when the pubs and fish and chips shops shut, they would all head for the A12 and return home.  Clacton was not a refined place, unlike Frinton a few miles along the coast where the residents had even prevented the use of yellow lines on the road to indicate parking restrictions for many years after they had become commonplace all over the rest of the country, because they were 'vulgar',  In Clacton you could expect a bit of boisterous behaviour now and again.
Agate Road Clacton in the 1960s.  
 Meanwhile back at my canoe, one weekend I was busy sanding the hull ready for another coat of varnish when a couple of lads in mod gear ran down Agate road past me and disappeared out of sight. A few yobs at the sea end of the road strolled into view, shouted something unintelligible at the retreating pair and walked back towards the seafront. Although I was aware of this, I more or less ignored them because it was not particularly unusual and I was in no danger. For all I knew they may have been sworn enemies, or just mates arranging to meet later.  None too concerned I finished what I was doing and washed up went in to watch TV or read a book or whatever.
Later Mum and Dad and I were all watching the early evening news on the TV when there was a report of a serious riot that took place in Clacton. 
Of course we were all interested in this, mostly because it was news to us! 
Allegedly there had been total chaos and reports of cars being turned over and set on fire, with running battles all down the sea front. This was supported with a few seconds of film taken at this outrageous riot, of some young men running along a road and as the camera panned around, we could instantly recognise it was Agate Road with the two louts I had seen running away from about four other louts.  The camera was behind the yelling louts, so you could see there were at least six rioters and if the camera had panned a couple of degrees further round, it would have shown me calmly sanding down my canoe unaware that I was in the centre of this terrible riot.  No doubt they had had to cut out that bit, because it did not help with the impression they were trying to make. Over the next few days, we had about four friends and relatives phone us from other parts of the world to make sure we were still alive.
The reports had implied that there had been total war in Clacton and there were few survivors. According to the press, property had been damaged, blood spilled and general chaos had ensued. 
It amazed me how soon that was cleared up, because when I took the dog out for a walk later that evening, the place seemed quite tidy with no damage anywhere I could see, no burned out cars even though I was walking through the alleged site of a major battleground.  Mind you, I did see a chair on its side in the cliff top gardens.

I wonder where they got these statistics from? Maybe they were arrested before they got to Clacton.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

When I were a lad...

In response to a comment from Chris, this is a small part of something I have been writing for some time. I suppose it is an autobiography but it is what I remember of my life. The problem is that my life continues on, so where do you stop? Anyway, this bit is from my very early days, when I were a lad....

WWII had just ended and things were looking up, we were able to go to the seaside!   Dad had bought an ancient caravan from somewhere, he never paid more than ten pounds for anything like that, so we got real monster. It was ancient and heavy and we first used it at Tankerton in Kent.  Going all the way across  London, this was a real adventure to a distant and exotic place.

Our caravan with our current Standard car towing it.
(Standard is the make, not the description) 
It was sited there for some time and we spent our first post-war holidays there. Some of the family used it too. I remember my cousin Alan enthusing about it. He was also full of the train journey there and back. It was the first time he had ever been on a train in his life and I recall him telling me it went so fast he could see the clouds moving in relation to himself. I don’t think I had ever been on train then.  Because Dad had the Garage, we always went everywhere by car with him or by or bus with Mum. Mum had a fear of trains anyway and in particular the Underground, so even going into central London we either went by car or Green Line bus.

My sister had been to the seaside before but I had never been, or if I had I did not remember because I was too small. It was not always possible to visit most resorts during wartime because of the defences and in many cases land mines all over the beaches. Beaches remained hazardous places for some time after the war, what with UXBs marked off, closing some beaches and barbed wire still in many places, seaside resorts were slow to get back to their normal pre war condition. When we got to Tankerton, despite the mess the beaches were in, to us it was wonderful.
I was given a strict edict not to touch any of the unexploded bombs we may find. They washed up on to the beaches regularly in those days and were often just marked to be disposed of later when the overworked  Bomb Squad could get around to them and so we actually played between them. That seems incredible now, but everyone who had lived through the war in any large town was used to them and we more or less ignored them once they had been spotted and flagged. One day I had been playing on the beach with some other boys with no adults around, when we came across a small bomb, possibly an anti personnel bomb or may be a mortar round, with nice fins on it like a little space ship. We knew we should not touch it so we didn’t, but we were sure in a vague sort of way the grownups should see it and we intended to take it to them.
To avoid touching it we carefully tied a piece of thick string we had found around the tail, religiously avoiding any physical contact with our hands. Once we had got it supported by the string, it was held between me and another boy and we started back to the caravan site with the bomb swinging on the string between us, detonator down.
My Dad was coming down to the beach to find me to tell me a meal was ready when he saw us coming off the beach.  I can still clearly see his reaction to the sight of a group of small boys carrying a bomb.  If you have ever seen a cat that suddenly spots a large dog running towards it with obvious murder in mind, Dad behaved very much like that. He froze crouching slightly and shouted very clearly and surprisingly calmly, ‘STOP WHERE YOU ARE. Put it down VERY gently and come here as quickly as you can.’ We did as we were told wondering what was wrong and ran up to Dad who had come no closer. He then herded us away as quickly as possible and fetched the police who called in the Army.
This WWII UXB was found on a beach near Felixstowe as recently as 2006
Later, when asked why I had disobeyed his explicit instructions to never touch a UXB, I told him completely innocently, that we hadn’t touched it once, only the string had touched it. I was completely sincere, I did not understand that he had meant not to move it. I really believed that it would only go off on contact with human skin.
Later in life, I often remembered that misunderstanding when giving warnings to my own children and tried to make my instructions to them clear by saying them in two different ways.
When my two boys were still at school in the 1980s, one of our friends had problems with an unknown man talking to one of their small sons. He had been told quite clearly not to talk to strangers and when asked why he had talked to this man, he was puzzled and said he was not a stranger he looked quite normal. To the boy, a ‘stranger’ was someone strange looking, not someone he did not know. Kids can be very literal in their interpretations.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Some of my favourite reads, No 1

The Time machine by H G Wells

This book has been as influential in its own sub-genre, time travel, as Wells other novel The War of the Worlds has been in alien invasions, in as much as the concepts he used have given the SF genre a whole bunch of ideas which have been consistently exploited ever since.
This rather short novel, just 102 pages in my edition, is well known but also not known very well. Many people have only experienced this story from the various movie versions which do not in any way capture the sense of wonder that old HG managed to instil into this wonderful story and since movies usually deviate from the original story line, the broader aspects of this novel are usually lost.
I first read when it when I was a teenager, long before I saw any movie versions and I have re-read it many times since and it still holds just as much appeal.

The story has all the ingredients of a good yarn, it involves a lost device that no one can duplicate, a journey into the unknown, with unexpected discoveries of vast scope, love interest, an implacable enemy, loss and a mysterious ending.
Although written in Victorian times it is still very readable, the language is not so different from modern writing and the ideas he coined have never really aged and have been used again and again.

The central character of the story is never named and only referred to as the Time Traveller. He shows his friends a model of what he claims is a time machine and in front of their sceptical gaze, starts the model which vanishes, apparently moving endlessly into the future.
Nothing is explained about how the machine works, or how it is powered but it certainly does something inexplicable.
The next time we see the Time Traveller, is when he arrives late and in a dishevelled state to a dinner party he had arranged with the same friends and on arrival, and only after eating like a starved animal, tells them a fantastic story.
He has built a full scale version of the time machine and claims he has just returned from a trip to the far future.
He spins a tale of discovery and adventure in a distant time where humans have evolved into two separate species, Eoli and Morlocks. He sides with the Eoli and befriends a small woman called Weena, but his time machine is captured by the Morlocks. He eventually recovers his machine and escapes, leaving Weena in the hands of the Morlocks.
In his haste to get away, he accidentally travels to the far distant future and finds the Earth barely habitable with a swollen dim red giant for the sun with strange creatures evolved into ominous and dimly seen forms in the feeble sunlight. He returns back to his own time and relates all this to his friends who are understandably sceptical.
For proof he shows them a flower (in winter) that no one recognises. Determined to rescue Weena, he rests, re-equips himself and sets off on the machine but never returns.

There are so many things about this story that I have never lost, for instance the atmosphere created by the abandoned museum he finds and does not have the opportunity to explore fully. With all its future wonders and hint of strange and incomprehensible machines, it leaves the reader wanting to know more. What could you find in a place like that?
The landscape is littered with ruined and abandoned architectural marvels we never get to explore, and when he arrives at the aged and near dead Earth in the really distant future, here is another understated event with just enough detail to leave you hungry for more. He has created a whole new world with an entirely new ecology, tidally locked to face the sun with one hemisphere forever bathed in the crimson sunlight of a dying sun with the other hemisphere in perpetual dark. What mysteries are here? We never find out, the Time traveller is alarmed by one of the creatures coming towards him and he flees into time again, this time to return home and relate his story.

In some publications, there is an extra part to his tale that somehow got left out of the later printings, called The Grey Men, where after fleeing in panic from the Morlocks into the future he stops his flight before his final excursion to the extreme far future. In this short chapter he encounters small grey rodent like creatures, that he realises are the final stages of humankind’s descent into primitive creatures. This has only occasionally been included in certain printings over the one hundred and fifteen years since its first publication, but since it contributes nothing more to the main story, it is no great loss.

Because the Time Traveller never returns from his second trip the reader must speculate as to what happened.
Did he reach Weena? Was he successful and settled down with her in the future, helping the Eloi to defend themselves against the Morlocks? Was he killed by the Morlocks? Did his machine break down and leave him stranded somewhere?
Having left the reader in such a state of not knowing, many other authors have tried to write a sequel to fill in the gaps but, with mixed results.
Some have been really bad and others brilliant, continuing in the same vein and style with considerable success, but the most significant aspect of this story, and what I feel makes it such a great one is that you are left wondering what happened. A tidy ending giving you all the answers often destroys the charm.
A good case in point of that is Arthur C Clarke’s wonderful ‘Rendezvous with Rama’. A large asteroid sized object enters the solar system and it soon becomes obvious it is not a natural object, but is steered and has come from another star. An expedition is sent to explore it and find it is hollow. They manage to get on board discovering an artificial environment full of mysteries, but they cannot find the builders. Time for exploration is limited because it does not seem to be stopping and it is soon apparent it has not come to visit the Earth at all, but is only using our sun to give it a sling shot to help it on its way to its real destination and is not in the least bit interested in us or our solar system.
The first novel finished with the object speeding on out of the solar system and much like The Time Machine there are many unanswered questions left open, but Clarke finished by saying that the builders seemed to do things in threes, which suggests there will be two more following the first. If he had left it there, it would have been a great novel, but he wrote a series of sequels which essentially ruined the mystery and spoiled the whole thing for me, culminating in a novel I was unable to finish because I got bored with it.
Unlike Wells, Clarke wrote his own sequels although as collaborations with other authors, but The Time machine has had several new authors attempt a sequel to this book.

One of the best in my opinion is ‘The Time Ships’ by Stephen Baxter. The cover leapt out at me when I saw it in the book shop because it showed a scene so well drawn, I immediately recognised it was from Wells’ The Time machine. I had to buy it just to see what it was about and was not disappointed. I read this book from cover to cover in only a few hours. Baxter has introduced the idea that traveling to the future, returning to your own time and then attempting to return to the future again will not work because by returning home and telling people about your experiences in the future, will change that future. So the Time traveller’s second trip pitches him into a different version of the future with disastrous results.

One of the not so good sequels I have read was ‘A Scientific Romance’ by Ronald Wright. It was, he declared on a radio programme I happened to listen to, not Science Fiction. This was said with a sense of disgust for such a low genre, despite having written a story that involved a fictional scientific device. So much for snobbery, but I did not find his extension of the Wells story very entertaining and do not recommend it. It was rather like a lot of mundane 60s SF and more of a post apocalypse novel, complete with disused ruined motorways.

Another book loosely based on The Time Machine is Time After Time, by Karl Alexander
This book is the basis of a movie of the same title and is a strangely entertaining romp, where the Time Traveller is H G Wells himself and it takes the form of a chase through time in an attempt to capture Jack the Ripper. Not a serious attempt at a sequel but fairly entertaining.

Yet another is a rather strange Stem Punk version of Wells’ theme, Morlock Night which similar to The Time Ships, suggests that messing with the future has dire consequences. The author had a second agenda where he wanted to somehow revive King Arthur whom legend says will return in a time of England’s greatest need, and we sure need him in this odd novel. Entertaining and fast paced, but a little predictable towards the end and not a best fit of Wells’ style.

Finally, one of my favourite Wells universe novels is ‘The Space Machine’ by Christopher Priest. Christopher Priest is one of my top ten fave authors and has written some great books. One I particularly like is the Prestige, which has also been made into a passable movie.
The Space machine is a wonderful example of imaginative writing, much in the style of Wells which cleverly combines both of Wells’ novels, the Time Machine and The War of the Worlds into a single story. He does a masterful job blending the two stories seamlessly into a single master work, resulting in a novel that is well worth reading.

There are many more Time Machine sequels, some of which I have read and forgotten as soon as I put the book down, some of these I put it down within a couple of chapters. I assume there will be more to come, The Time Machine is such a durable idea and with so much scope for making up an ending to the story, it will no doubt be returned to over and over again.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Half term and Halloween

November again and last week was half term. It has now become a tradition to spend the half term week with The Granddaughter (TG) at her family home in Cumbria. They live in an interesting town based around a gigantic ship yard where nuclear submarines and surface warships are built or fitted out. Most of the town grew up with the needs of the shipyard but government spending on warships has been in gradual decline since the Second World War as the Navy has reduced the number of ships year on year, so this industry is no longer the huge employer it once was.
Barrow town skyline
Barrow-in-Furness is right on the tip of the Furness peninsular and has sometimes been described as the longest cul-de-sac (dead end) in the UK. It is about 50 minutes from the M6 motorway, which for strangers to our island is the longest major road, linking London with Scotland.
To get from our home to theirs it is usually about a six hour journey from door to door, but can be longer.
An offshore wind farm
The town is on a rather windy part of the English coast and out to sea off the Cumbrian coast there is an impressive wind farm and in the hills around some smaller wind farms make use of the regular prevailing winds.
Lake Windermere in October
Despite being a town based on heavy industry, there are compensations because within half an hour you can be at Lake Windermere and well into the Lake District, an area containing many of Britain’s favourite beauty spots, with lakes, mountains and walks all within this small area.
On the way from Barrow to Lake Windermere you pass the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway (link), which every October puts on a Witches and Wizards week. One of the stations on this line was used in the filming of the Harry Potter Movies and so you can visit Hogwarts School Station. The line ends at Lakeside, which is the most southerly end of Lake Windermere. From there you can take the passenger boat service up the lake to the three small towns on the lake, Bowness, Windermere and Ambleside.
In Windermere there is the headquarters of the company Lakeland Plastics, a place which specialises in kitchenware and household gadgets. This is somewhere that The Better Half (TBH) always wants to visit when we are in the area. This store has branches all over the UK and do an Internet service but like an Internet book shop, a real bookshop is much better for browsing and finding new authors and Lakeland always seems to have a new selection of must-have gadgets.
Fell Foot park
Fell Foot Park

Some stone steps in Fell Foot

We went for a walk in Fell Foot park, a National Trust property, which was once a large private estate with a big house and landscaped gardens but which is now missing the house and the only remaining structures are the old boat houses bordering the lake.

The Lake shore at Fell Foot
The lake in autumn

A local inhabitant going about his business

Windemere from Fell Foot
 The largest of these is turned into a Tea House with chairs and table along the lake’s edge.
The architecture of this quaint building is eccentric to say the least, with castellation and large almost unworked stones for the lintels and sills on the windows.
The Tea House with its strange lintels
 This is repeated on a larger scale on the front entrance and requires a view from the lake to get the full effect.
This image is borrowed from from the National Trust site for Fell Foot
Meanwhile Halloween was nearly upon us and there were several home grown pumpkins to carve into spooky faces. Pumpkins do not grow to a huge size in northern Britain but TG’s parents work hard at growing many kinds of vegetables and produce some good results.
TG was keen to get the carving done as soon as possible and we all set to designing faces we could carve into our particular pumpkin. The result was quite spooky.

A whole gang of pumpkins