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About the author
I am a hang glider pilot, photographer, and amateur philosopher. My profession is software engineering. See Programming career for brief details of the latter. (The link skips down this page.)
The image of Venus in a dungeon is from the series Fireball XL5 in TV Comic, week ending December 15th, 1962. I lay awake nights wanting to save her as the water rose to the level of her breasts. When I grew up, I would replace Steve Zodiac at the controls of XL5 and, assuming one of us saved her from the dungeon, I would then possess Venus and my life would be complete. See Night flight to Venus, my Comet Miniatures 1/200th scale Fireball XL5.
After we moved from north London, where my dad lived, to the central south coast of England, where my grandparents (on my mother’s side) had retired, at eight years old I was surrounded by fir trees, sandstone ridges and quarries, and disused air raid shelters – instead of (or rather, as well as) streets of houses and shops.
Crossing a plateau of waist-deep heather on a lower slope of a nearby hill in about 1965 with my brother and school friends one day, we were surrounded by buzzing and several thwacks – then the staccato of what sounded like automatic fire. (It was rifle and/or pistol fire by several shooters simultaneously, which the mind seems to perceive as automatic fire, likely from watching too many war films on television.) We lit out of there and they moved the firing range to a safer location soon after. To this day (2018) the cool still air of summer mornings carries the sound to us from that (safer) outdoor firing range.
We were under fire in other ways too, or perhaps more like secret agents parachuted behind enemy lines. It was like going back 200 years. For example, we lived opposite a hospital and, when we first moved there, an occasional black or Indian doctor would walk down the street. When they did, often the proverbial ‘little old ladies’ stopped and watched them go by. They had never seen a coloured person before except, presumably, on television.
This is what we’ve waited for
This is it, boys, this is war.
— from the lyrics of 99 Red Balloons by Nena, 1984
At school I looked forward to flying F-111s in Vietnam. Then the RAF cancelled its order for F-111s and Britain, unlike Australia and New Zealand, did not follow the Americans into Vietnam. (Rightly, I think now, but all I wanted was to be a flying superhero, which — until hang gliding appeared — required a war.) Then I wanted to be a top motorcycle trials rider like the guys who practised on my local hill. I was unable to afford a good bike and I am the world’s worst mechanic, so I was unable to keep an old bike running.
As a male in your late teens in Britain of those days, you either went into the military or further education. I went to sixth-form college because I found physics easy and I am grateful for the way they unobtrusively made leeway for this troubled and troublesome individual.
While I believe I still hold a rifle accuracy record from sixth form college (all the bullets from the magazine went through the same ragged hole in the target – which I still have) shooting was not really my thing. Hang gliding was a new phenomenon in Britain in 1974. It was the only thing available to me as a route to stardom. Furthermore, it was the big thing at the time: Everyone was talking about it both in print and on the radio and television. I figured I could fly one from the heather-covered slopes of the same hill where we did our off-road biking, which I did.
As a hang glider pilot, I expect to be admired by men and loved by women. Everything else is rubbish.
In an attempt to avoid unemployment, I signed up for a course in computing at the Polytechnic of Wales, situated in the hang gliding country of south Wales, where, the previous year, I had worked as a hang gliding instructor. I then worked as a computer programmer, mostly in the defence electronics sector. See Computer commuter for more, including a fatal road crash that was later found to be a murder.
When The New Avengers first appeared on British television in 1976, I had the bizarre sensation of wanting to somehow climb in through the screen of our small black-and-white TV to get at Purdey, played by Joanna Lumley, to possess her.
Eight years later, a taller (and younger) version of Purdey walked into my life. We were never more than ‘just friends’ (unfortunately). She is the girl with her arm around me in the 1984 photo, although I have cropped her out. Sorry.
The BPA sweatshirt reminds me that I founded a university parachute club in early 1979. (First jumps from a Cessna 206 at Shobdon airfield, Herefordshire.) See Parachuting in Miscellaneous photos.
By that time I had acquired a broken nose (bike crash), a crushed vertebra (hang glider
crash sub-optimal landing), and not forgetting a splinter of bone sticking out of a knuckle from skiing on the army’s dry slope at Aldershot. (The army nurses at Frimley Park hospital could not help with that one either.)
In the mid-1980s, being unemployed, I took up BMX racing. (Each race, which lasts about 45 seconds, is termed, bizarrely, a moto.) No longer able to afford to run a car, I raced only at my two local tracks, but I eventually reached national level and I won the Bournemouth Summer Series in my bike/age classification in 1985. Tim March, the gentle giant with a Billy Idol hair-do, was the club’s most famous rider.
The photo of me during a race was taken by a track-side photographer at the Branksome track, near Poole in Dorset, which I am told no longer exists. (That is, the BMX track no longer exists. Poole is still there, last I heard…)
A young woman of Mediterranean appearance (olive tan, full red lips, long black hair) joined my writers’ circle. Perhaps because we were both from north London, we kind of spoke the same language. At least she did not regard me with that ‘alien’ suspicion characteristic of provincial women. As well as being a classic beauty, as a history and philosophy graduate, she was impressed by my breadth and depth of knowledge in my chosen subjects, while being appalled at my ignorance of things that were, to her, common knowledge. She stole the show when when we dropped in to an exhibition of 50 of my paintings (mostly of hang gliders) at the local arts centre in 1985.
Unlike me, she had superstar social skills. We were in a pub named The Ship and an older chap, who I decided must be a retired merchant seaman, argued with her about something I no longer recall. She pointed out a flaw in his reasoning, and he said, “Now, don’t contradict me Madam!”
She replied mildly, “Why not?”
He had no answer other than to start chuckling.
We also dropped in to the local Eighteen Plus group, of which I was a member (not to be confused with the holiday outfit Club 18-30) and one young fellow, a summer beach lifeguard with a PhD in chemistry, also found her amusing. He summed her up to me afterwards as “The last of the beautiful people!”
She was married to a medic in the military who was, she was certain, having many affairs. She wanted to have an affair in reprisal, which is where I came in. Unsurprisingly perhaps, we did not last long as a couple.
I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.
— Norman Tebbit, RAF pilot and airline pilot, and Thatcherite politician
In the summer of 1987 I started a programming job in London. Because I was paid in arrears, but accommodation and travel costs had to be paid in advance, I was temporarily in debt and I saved money by not going home on the first few weekends. (Initially I slept on the floor of a shared house in south London and I used cardboard boxes for furniture.) We had troubles at home and, unknown to me, my mother suffered a semi-paralyzing stroke (a blocked blood vessel in the brain).
How long since you wrote to your mother?
For you the hours may fly
But these hours are years to your mother
When the mailman passes her by.
How long since you wrote to your mother?
Better get that letter done
For mothers fade like flowers
When they miss their wandering son.
— From Stars and Stripes during World-war II
I spent my weekends and holidays over the next eight years taking her out in a wheelchair. We went to a BMX race day at the Iford track one Saturday. I thought I recognised a few faces, but I could not be sure.
The underground station at London Waterloo is (or was then) connected to the main railway station by a pair of escalators, fairly high, one up and one down, with fixed stairs between them. With my green rucksack on my back and black briefcase in hand, I raced up the central stairway, emerging into the cold air panting in the expanse of the railway station with its huge arrivals and departures board consisting of rotating slats bearing train details above the gated entrances to the many parallel train platforms. People milled about or waited by the shops and cafés all round the edges and some in sort of islands in the middle. As the weeks and months went by, I noticed more young men, many with rucksacks, charging up that central stairway.
On that weekly journey by rail and tube train, with plenty of waiting and walking, I had time to ponder why had this experimental deployment of fit and able young (and not so young) people with our noses pressed against computer screens in the service of fat men in suits scrabbling around finding market niches to line their pockets with money had been carried to such an extreme. And how long would it continue before we came to our senses and resumed space exploration while prioritising sport, science, art, and literature?
That’s a bit of Purdey on the right of the photo, incidentally.
For more photos I took during this period, see Scenery in Miscellaneous photos.
Garbo belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced.
— by Roland Barthes, author of The Jet Man and other illuminations of the human condition. (Philtre? A love potion, apparently.)
Unfortunately, I have no photo of the nearest thing to a proper girlfriend I ever had. Quite unlike Purdey (see New avenger) and equally unlike the last of the beautiful people, but even more desirable, if such could be imagined. She was a former Wren — Women’s Royal Naval Service. (Women in uniform! Woof!)
She styled herself on the Swedish-American film actress Greta Garbo, but my lady was cuter and curvier than the tall and lanky Garbo. I discovered the link with Garbo 20 years later, incidentally. A film maker had me describe her and, based on my reply, she then asked if my woman looked like Greta Garbo. I had no idea, so I Googled the actress and there she was! I was stunned! I must be better at describing people than I ever imagined.
And in 2019 I discovered another partial lookalike, the actress Lesley Manville. Again, the resemblance is only partial, but there is a distinct similarity. My Greta was, naturally, more beautiful than either of these women.
Lesley Manville’s Wiki entry states, “After turning down teacher Arlene Phillips’s invitation to join her new dance troupe Hot Gossip…” Now, here’s a figurative handshake chain to me: Hot Gossip’s Sarah Brightman (her single, “I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper” was a big hit in Britain) is involved with Virgin Galactic and was at the roll-out of SpaceShipTwo, which long-time hang glider pilot Mark Stucky attended, being one of its test pilots (and now chief test pilot and, from December 2018, officially an astronaut). Some years ago Mark and I corresponded about hang glider technicalities, initially by post (snail mail) and then by e-mail.
Greta and I sometimes met on a weekday evening at London Waterloo railway station and went to a café-bar on one of the streets below. Some weekends, we went to a cinema in Southampton, but I have no recollection of any of the films we saw. We were occasionally together for seven years. Those weekend outings cost me time that I would otherwise have spent visiting my mother in the nursing home, so it could not go on. Eventually, Greta moved in with me. However, because of a combination of unfortunate circumstances, that did not last.
The world ended when my mother died in December 1995. (New books I had bought her and Xmas tree decorations that she had owned from childhood were stolen from her room in the nursing home during those last days.)
Three years later, I completed the degree that I had returned to university for in the autumn. My final year project was a feasibility study of using a helmet-mounted display (so-called virtual reality) for hang glider collision avoidance training.
One time, after one of my hang glider crashes, my left arm swelled to twice its normal diameter and I could barely move it. I waited for an hour in the casualty department while lots of people sat around chatting like it was some kind of social club. They were clearly not emergency cases. Meanwhile, a small child was crying in real pain (not like reflex crying just to get attention) and her mother was in increasing distress about it, but she was left in the queue just waiting. I got up and left in disgust.
I went to work as a technical author for a helicopter-related software house. One incident that might have contributed to me being laid off just short of a year later, despite being hailed as the most productive individual there, is a long-standing problem we have endured as a family. Whenever there was a high profile murder or similar, often I or my brother was interviewed by the police. (They have to follow up every lead, no matter how unlikely it is.) A lady television presenter was shot dead in 2000 (or about then). I had never heard of her, but a bunch of armed police turned up at that workplace to interview me. We used to be certain who was carrying out this campaign, but that individual had died by then, so we had been blaming the wrong person all those years. It strikes me as a continuation, from school days, of the hatred that provincial Brits have for those they categorize as ‘London intellectuals.’
I then worked as a manual labourer for the new UK national minimum wage (£4.10 per hour) first in a machine shop then at a factory. It was a modern style factory, consisting of a handful of two-story workshops on a trading estate. Here is an example of how some highly intelligent and educated people live in societies that prevent them from using their abilities, and they find refuge in Britain: I somehow got into a conversation that included ‘imaginary numbers’ — the square root of minus one. (Square any number and the result is positive, so there is no such thing as the square root of minus one, but it is useful in computations of electrical alternating current — I am told.) Anyway, a lot of those guys seemed to have never gone to school and they clearly thought I was making it up. Then a little guy from Bangladesh, who knew only about three words of English, joined in on my behalf by writing down the arithmetic notation of such calculations on a bit of scrap paper.
Then there was tall Pierre, who during a stock-taking day, was in charge of placing all the tools that lay around into their proper places. When you handed him something, he told you its name in French. I gave him a pair of pliers and he said “Pants.” I relayed this to the others, who had Pierre confirm it, and they fell about laughing while Pierre grinned uncertainly.
I spent much time writing down memories of my mother and of other events during her time in the world. Nothing much else held meaning for me.
On a wintry day in October 2000, Rebecca arrived in a wooden crate from California, initiating what was for me a new life surrounded by silicone rubber women.
One visiting lady photographer stopped work for a minute and said, “It’s not just a doll. It’s a whole world.”
See Life-size dolls for more.
She packed my bags last night pre-flight
Zero hour nine AM
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then.
— opening lyrics of Rocket Man by Elton John, 1972
While I largely gave up painting (pictures) in the early 1980s, I continued with plastic modelling, on and off, over the years.
The launch tower of the Vanguard rocket is 14 inches high.
The bikes are 6.5 inches long, nose to tail.
See Plastic models for more.
My hang glider in-flight photography really took off when I changed from a film camera to a GoPro and I had photos published on the covers of hang gliding magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. I took the photo that became the 2017 calendar cover over north Dorset, England, in 2016. I was flying a Wills Wing U-2.
See Hang gliding.
Who could be against environmentalism? Unfortunately, in Britain, it is used as an excuse to ban mountain biking from just about everywhere. Nobody evaluates the pros and cons. Instead, the environment charities buy the land, cut down the trees (without telling anyone first) and put up signs and fences, turning those places into what are effectively their own private gardens.
See Off-road bikes for more photos.
In provincial Britain during the 1960s, heavily-built types were assumed to be mentally dim. The occasional exception, like the science prodigy at our school who was a big lad wearing spectacles, paradoxically seemed to reinforce the stereotype, as did the one girl in our physics class who challenged the assumption that girls’ minds are ill-equipped for reasoning about the physical world.
The discarding of those prejudices has undoubtedly improved society. However, there is a down-side. Now the pendulum has swung the other way and men are supposed to be ‘hunky’ rather than slim and have ‘social skills’ instead of intelligence of the technical kind.
The goalposts have been moved. (Who moved them?) Is it a side-effect of democracy? How do we correct it?
It is imperative that we fix this problem. Although humans are uniquely cultural among living things, we are nevertheless primarily genetic beings. Women who select gangsters and businessmen (or other dodgy geezers with ‘social capital’) as the fathers of their offspring cannot expect the panacea of education to stand in for technical intelligence. The genetic quality of humanity is at stake.
To be clear, I have failed in life not because of external causes, but because I failed to measure up. Nonetheless, I have yet to hear an argument that assuages my fears for the future of humankind.
See Blade runner blues for more.
- In the early 1980s, I programmed radar guidance for point-defence surface-to-air missiles used in the Falklands War.
- In the late 1980s, I led a team of seven programmers at a software house in central London creating ‘interactive video’ computer-based training programs.
- During the first Gulf war, I worked for the computer-based training arm of a maker of mine hunter patrol boats.
- Operating as Flight Training Systems, I created the computer-based training program Aerodynamics & Propulsion in the early 1990s.
- In the mid 1990s, I programmed airliner flight deck procedures training at premises directly under the final approach to London Heathrow Airport.
- In the late 1990s, I wrote the online help for the Apache attack helicopter forward maintenance data station in time for the second Gulf war.
- In the mid 2000s, I led a team of seven (again) technical authors tasked with writing online help for automotive software. My last job involved compiling release notes for the same automotive software house.
The following comedy set in 1960s London illustrates where I grew up until about eight years old:
SMASHING TIME – full movie – 1967 – Rita Tushingham & Lynn Redgrave on YouTube.
Thanks to Davecat, American Anglophile extraordinaire, for bringing it to my attention.