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 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.
As darkness settled on a deserted main street in London where we waited during the severest winter in Britain for 200 years, the cold seeped into my young bones and I willed a brown London Transport bus to appear. A brown London Transport bus? The yellow sodium street lights of the time turned the red into brown, no matter how hard you looked.
The Big Freeze began on December 26th, 1962 according to a television documentary made shortly afterward and available on YouTube (see under External links later on this page). Warm air arrived on January 26th, but three days later, the freeze resumed. Therefore, it might be on or about January 29th that my brother and I were out with our mum, shopping maybe, or perhaps we went to the cinema (movie theater).
Unknown to us, there was a ‘wildcat’ transport strike. The temperature dropped, there were no pedestrians out, and ever fewer vehicles passed by until, eventually, that shopping street was empty except for us. I tried sheltering from the cold in a short corridor between store fronts that led to the store-front door — common in London in those days. The stores remained lit at nights and promised warmth, drawing me in as a cave man (boy) is drawn to the camp fire presumably, but it was equally cold between the store front windows. Eventually a bus arrived and mum flagged it down and we got on. Was it going the right way for us? It did not matter. Our mum was not very good at providing us boys with adequate clothing. She did not feel the cold as we did, but she knew that we were freezing to death that evening. The driver told us to sit in the front seats just behind his cab. That was where the heater was. We were saved. There were no other passengers and he took us to the Nag’s Head junction bus stop a short walk from home.
Buses then had a crew of two; a driver and a conductor, who took your fare and issued a ticket from a machine hung around his or her neck. However, as I recall, there was only a driver on that bus.
This photo fails to show the way that, at night, the yellow sodium street lights of the time turned the red into brown. The radiator grill identifies it as a diesel bus. The one that saved us was more likely a gasoline (petrol) bus with a narrower nose.
As a socialist, I am in favour of unions and the right to withdraw labour — within reason — but our lives were saved that day by a lone strike breaking bus driver.
This view from our back window in north London was before the Post Office (Telecom) tower was built. Boeing 707s flew overhead.
See under External link later on this page for a comedy set in 1960s London that illustrates where I grew up until about eight years old.
We took the steam train down from London to where our grandparents (on my mother’s side) had retired on the south coast. Eventually, we moved in with them. 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. It was far less confining than a north London street, but the move came with a cost that soon became apparent, even to me at that age. North London in the early 1960s was not the intellectual and cosmopolitan utopia of popular belief though. A random counter example was Margaret, one of our next door neighbors (in those multi-story apartments) who my mother often heard crying at night over her baby son, blinded in one eye by other children wielding sticks when she left him unattended in his pram in the street while she went into a shop.
…he drew the symbols of provincial life (a calendar draped in spider webs) and of Parisian life (a speedometer powered by a 300-horsepower engine, held in place by a naked woman).
— Stacy Schiff, Saint-Exupéry, a Biography, 1994
Our old dad, who fought in World War 1, taught us better weapons handling than we display in the photo. (See Personal and other trivia, a sub-page of my review of the 2011 Zack Snyder movie Sucker Punch for more of my father at that time.) Incidentally, illustrating the compressed history of the USA, some of the U.S. Army generals in that war had fought against the Indians (native Americans) on the arbitrarily defined and ever shifting ‘frontier’ late in the previous century.
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 the cool still air of summer mornings carries the sound to us from that (safer) outdoor firing range. (See Old firing range in On the hill part 2: North, east, and west for photos of it in 2021.)
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.
I carried on making plastic model airplanes, a pastime that I had started in London. Showing my newly completed Airfix 1/72nd scale F-4 Phantom to my grandmother, she commented that airplanes were OK to look at, “But you keep out of them.” As it turned out, I largely complied with that injunction. I became a hang glider designer and test pilot instead…
That was several years later, however. In 1966, nobody had heard of a hang glider. Not in Britain anyway.
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. (See Off-road bikes.)
During the first moon landing in the summer of 1969, I was 13 years old. (See T minus 15 seconds, guidance is internal, my review of First Man, Universal Pictures, 2018, about the first moon landing.) At the same time, a big event in the UK was the Daily Telegraph/BP Round-Britain powerboat race. I cut out photos of the event from the newspaper and stuck them to my bedroom wall. See Round-Britain powerboat race 1969.
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.
By this time the Leica, the most modern of my late father’s many cameras, was almost certainly malfunctioning. When we sold it some years later, it no longer worked, but it was repairable.
This is a crop of a group photo taken when visiting relatives in Wiltshire. I had just returned from the 1975 British hang gliding championships, coincidentally also in Wiltshire. I beat the reigning champion, Brian Wood, but so did many others. I did not even reach the finals.
Brian Wood was Britain’s first (and only) hang gliding media superstar; the personable boy next door with a London accent, who was also one of the top practitioners of this new activity that had replaced the space program as humankind’s sporting and technological frontier. In this photo, the wide angle lens makes the glider, which has an 80 degree nose angle, appear narrower than it is.
Life takes some strange turns. In 2019 at the age of 70 Brian Wood returned to hang gliding and, with his wife Fran, has visited me at home several times.
See my Hang gliding pages.
In an attempt to avoid unemployment, in 1977 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.
China had just undergone one of its periodic upheavals and, according to the news media, ‘the gang of four’ were deemed the cause of all its ills. I was teamed up with a Welshman of Polish descent, who had been in the British Army for seven years, and a young Chinese fellow. None of us knew anything about computers when we arrived. The Welsh guy keyed into the teletype terminal “2 + 2=” then he looked at each of us uncertainly before adding “Calculate please” and pressing the return key. The printer rattled out the message “Bad command or file name” (or something similar). The Welshman shook his head and said “This is the work of the gang of four.” Mr. Choui, our Chinese friend, nodded solemnly, whereupon the Welshman and I burst out laughing — to Choui’s consternation.
The DECSYSTEM-20 is the cabinet at the back (with the ‘terracotta’ burnt orange horizontal stripe). We had one where I studied computing in the late 1970s. I attempted to write a hang glider stress analysis program on it in Fortran 4.
As a hang glider pilot, I expect to be admired by men and loved by women. Everything else is rubbish.
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.
The tree at the end of the garden in the September 1980 photo was soon to succumb to the Dutch elm disease that ravaged Britain at that time. The garden was overgrown because my grandfather, whose retirement passion was gardening, had been killed in 1977 when he was hit by a motorcycle on a pedestrian crossing 200 metres up the street from home. (I was away at college in Wales at the time.) Two perhaps contradictory consequences followed, apart from the garden becoming overgrown. The loss of his state pension plunged us into deeper poverty, especially when I was out of work in the mid 1980s. Paradoxically, however, the food at home improved in quality. In my grandfather’s time, we had food delivered to the back door by local shopkeepers (for some reason). He had a slightly pompous way of talking to the locals and he spoke proper English, in contrast to the confused tenses and pronunciations characteristic of provincial people, and they reacted accordingly. We had been unwittingly reduced to something like World War 2 rations while the rest of Britain had progressed. When, after 1977, we shopped for ourselves at supermarkets, our food not only cost much less (essential for us then) but it was of superior quality and quantity.
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.)
This steel-framed bike, which I had a bike shop import for me in 1982, is heavy by modern standards (even the wheel rims are steel) but its long 47 inch wheelbase suited my kind of riding.
I bought the replacement BMX handlebar and pads from Hot Wheels, a BMX bike shop at the base of Pokesdown Hill, Boscombe, near Bournemouth. (In 2021 it is still a bike shop, but it long ago ceased to be called Hot Wheels.) The brackets at the base of the forks cracked and Mike Prescott of Prescott Cycles (long gone) at the top of Pokesdown Hill welded a repair, which held up.
I found it a drag having to ride around in circles to change gear on its derailleur system, so I had a Sturmey-Archer 5-speed hub fitted. It was simply not strong enough; stripping the teeth from the inside (or something) so I reverted to a derailleur system.
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.
Like all intelligent individuals who speak out when confronted with injustice or incompetence, my younger brother Ed accumulated more than his fair share of enemies and people who simply took advantage of him. Eventually unable to cope, over many years his state of mind deteriorated to an extreme.
According to those who knew him in his last few months, weeks, and days, his final decline was mercifully rapid. Everyone who knew him that I have spoken to afterwards agrees that he is in a better place now, wherever that is, even if it is nowhere.
See my page about him, Ed, for more.
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 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. I slept on the floor of a shared house near Greenwich Park in south-east London and I used cardboard boxes for furniture.
I took the train every workday, arriving at Cannon Street station, and in fine weather I walked the rest of the way to the centre rather than take the tube. One lunch time rounding the corner of Hatton Garden (a street) where it joins Holborn, a black couple wearing well-cut and matching clothing passed me in the opposite direction. I was wearing dark red cords, a shirt that I had dyed red, and a red tie. “Look at that honkey!” exclaimed the woman, and all three of us laughed. Another time on Hatton Garden itself, a man with a long beard and dreadlocks, wearing black robes and a tiny round cap, hailed a chubby man in a suit walking on the opposite side of the street. The other responded with an exaggeratedly glum expression and pulled his empty trouser pockets inside out.
Hatton Garden’s many jewelry stores and associated workshops backed onto vehicle bays with signs bearing the warning Hazchem! “I wonder what Hazchem means,” I said to a colleague, a young fellow from north Wales with a similar sense of humor and similar tastes in science fiction to mine.
“Yiddish for Keep exit clear? Or maybe it’s a greeting.”
After that, whenever we passed each other in a corridor, one would nod at the other and say in a vaguely east European accent, “Hazchem.”
About a week later one of us (I forget who) said, “I found out what Hazchem means. Hazardous chemicals!” That fixed the greeting permanently in our routine.
My mother, my brother, ‘the mad uncle’ (as we called him) and I 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 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 dodgy geezers 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. By then I realized that she and I could only ever be ‘just friends’ and so I was match-making with one of my hang gliding crowd. That attempt, along with others among single males I knew, came to nothing. (See New avenger.) The photo was taken at the Point House café, just west of Hengistbury Head. Sadly, it is no longer a café.
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. English dictionaries for other language speakers really need to provide an indicator to philtre out words not commonly used.)
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. My Greta was, naturally, more beautiful than either of these women. For a related digression, see my page Fame by (virtual) association.
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.
Will said, “The only way to make any money is to sell something somebody else makes.”
— John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 1952, lamenting the plight of an inventor in the early part of the 20th century
In late 1989 my employer moved from London to an industrial/business estate near Slough in Berkshire, leaving half the workforce behind. My pay reduced while costs increased; the rail journey was long and tedious with many train changes, so I bought a used car. Eventually, after leading a team of seven programmers at one time in London, I was the only programmer left. The management discovered that programmers were a cost, in that the more of us they employed, the lower were their profits. (Actually, they never made a profit, otherwise we would have received the profit-related bonuses we were promised.) In contrast, the more sales people they recruited, the more money they made (reducing their loss presumably).
Eventually I obtained contract work nearer home, although still necessitating a weekly commute. It involved work for the Saudi navy, which used mine-hunter patrol boats manufactured near Portsmouth on the coast of Hampshire. This was just in time for the first Gulf war.
Following that, I became self-employed and then, when my money ran out, unemployed with occasional contract work. The most memorable of the latter being as a developer of flight crew procedures training based near London Heathrow Airport. Following that, in the fall of 1995, I signed up for a degree course in computing (software engineering management) jumping in on the second year because of my previous qualifications and experience. That was at the local university, so I lived at home.
This topic continues in About the author part 2.
Calculus section of Flying squad, a short history of the east coast U.S. hang glider manufacturer Sky Sports (computation in early hang glider development)
Winterwatch Special – The Big Freeze of 1963 on Michael Pearce’s YouTube channel starting at 3 minutes 43 seconds (to skip a pointless intro)
SMASHING TIME – full movie – 1967 – Rita Tushingham & Lynn Redgrave on YouTube, a comedy set in 1960s London that illustrates where I grew up until about eight years old. (Thanks to Davecat, American Anglophile extraordinaire, for bringing it to my attention.)