About the author part 2
This page continues from About the author. It starts during my period of unemployment in the mid-1980s, but with a flashback to 1976…
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 recognized 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.
A ‘dark blue’ nurse at my mother’s last nursing home knew Chris Foss and I lent her my copy of Diary of a Spaceperson, which she duly returned to me with this drawing inside.
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 3.