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.
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.
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. 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.
…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
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. (See a photo of it in Miscellaneous photos 6, on the hill.)
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. (See Off-road bikes.)
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. (See Miscellaneous photos 6, on the hill for photos of the same place mostly taken in 2020.)
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.
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.
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.
See Joanna Lumley – IMDb.
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 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. (See New avenger.)
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. 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.
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)
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.)