Monthly Archives: November 2014

What planet are they on?

imageThe NASA Hi-Seas (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) project is intended to simulate what an actual mission to Mars may be like with the crew spending most of their time in a structure located in a barren landscape here on Earth. Obviously, on the actual trip resources will be limited and one reason for the project is to explore ways to improve sustainability. Kate Greene, one of the participants in the mission, has suggested the a crew of women only is the best solution as most women burn 2,000 calories whereas a man will burn in excess of 3,000.

A no brainer you may think. But in a spacecraft full of women the calorie issue will be a minor consideration. In my experience women require a lot more stuff than men. A lot more.

Every holiday I have ever been on which involved a woman packing the suitcases meant that there was enough clothes and stuff to last a month, not just the 14 days of the holiday. The cases as tightly packed as the baggage of an ardent Scottish Nationalist’s filled with a loathing of the English. Invariably, I would wear a couple of pairs of shorts and shirts and walk around in the same sandals for two weeks.

imageOne experience remains lodged in my mind. A holiday in Cyprus with Val, her son Andrew and my daughter Laura. In Paralimni to be exact, a hell hole between Ayia Napa and the border with the north of the island. The holiday highlight; a visit to view, fr om a safe distance, Famagusta, an abandoned town with the washing still on the clothes lines after umpteen years, something I could have experienced in parts of any industrial town in the North of England any day of the week.

But enough of the travelogue. The bus that delivered us to the hotel, a concrete edifice that wouldn’t look out of place in Glasgow, stopped at the other side of a vast patio. Mindful of the health and safety issues the bus driver dragged our cases out of the storage compartment and dropped them onto the ground with a dull thud; the corpse of Cyril Smith accidentally falling off the slab onto the mortuary floor. As Val, Laura and Andrew gambolled towards the hotel contemplating the weeks ahead of them I contemplated the two ominously large cases, the distant hotel entrance and the intense heat. This was in the days before suitcases with wheels had been thought of. I grabbed hold of the handles and braced myself for the snatch and lift. Pulling myself upright I just managed to get my knees to lock and like an Olympic weightlifter I staggered slightly to the left and to the right seeking the point of balance. Then, having stabilised myself, I did a slow ,goose step towards the hotel under the glare of the midday sun and the disdainful gaze of the German contingent sprawled by the nearby pool; the main opponents in the clandestine competition to place towels on the sparse scattering of sun loungers. As I stumbled over the into the foyer I received an empathetic welcome from a group of blokes waiting for a taxi. “Well done there, mate!” said one, “right on!” another blowing his cheeks out.

Based on this, admittedly limited research, I would recommend that NASA recruit men of lean wiry stature, sparse hair and a total lack of interest in fashion. Anyway, if the TV programme ‘The Apprentice’ is anything to go by a capsule full of blokes will make a more congenial environment than a group of women in such a restricted space. Definitely a no brainer!

Life is a sair fecht

Poppies picture

In my daughter Laura’s recent entry I could be making an almighty arse of the whole thing in her blog   she writes of the loss of her mother when she was 9 years old and how the grief has dogged her; in her childhood, her teenage years and her life as a motherless mother. Above all, she misses a mothers confirmation that she is managing her family well.  I have always been aware that, as a father, I could not give my daughter the essential maternal support; that I would inevitably fall short. In the years that followed the death of my wife there was a loss of equilibrium, balance and direction it was as though we as a family, had lost our navigator. We were metaphorically lost at sea.

I thought of my own family trauma as I looked at the sea of poppies in the moat of the Tower of London. I thought of the damage to the family unit that is a consequence of the premature death of a loved one. For although each poppy represents a dead soldier it should be remembered that it also represents a family which over the years following the World War, if not forever, must have been haunted with grief.

My grandfather Clem was killed at the battle of Arris in 1917. A stretcher bearer, he literally disappeared in the mud. I often think of my grandmother, the moment she was handed the telegram, the traumatic moment when all her dreams crashed. You see, Clem had a dream. Before the war he had invested in a publishing business that he planned to set up, with his brother Richard, in Los Angeles. A dream that, along with Clem, was buried forever. My childhood memories are of the remnants of this sad, lost family; my grandmother, draped in sadness and dressed in ‘widow weeds’ living with her spinster sister and a slightly odd unmarried brother in a house where time had stopped. One of my grandmother’s stock pieces of wisdom was that ‘life is a sair fecht’. And indeed her life had been a hard fight.

For a great part of the last century the whole country must have been awash with similar dysfunctional families struggling to come to terms with with the aftermath of war; the unimaginable loss. the anger at vainglorious generals and politicians.

So, to my daughter Laura, who has battled with her own grief, I would say that life is full of such random twists of fate. If my grandfather Clem had lived to follow his dream, my mother, would have grown up in America, would never have met my father and I would not have been born. If my wife had lived, she and I would have followed our own dreams. Our daughter’s life would have followed a different path. Her family, her children would not exist today.

Life is a sair fecht, a hard fight and my daughter is fighting a good fight. Her mother would be very, very proud of her.







Willie von Braun

It is a clear cold November 5th sometime in the late 1950’s. I stood with my father and mother watching with, frosty clouds of bated breath, my elder brother Willie von Braun proudly preparing his rocket for take-off.


Influenced by the famous schematic centre page drawings in the Eagle comic and recent news of Russian dogs and monkeys being sent into orbit, Willie had decided that he would design and build his very own rocket, a large one. Amongst other components propellant was required; a lot of it and he had persuaded our gang to donate the gunpowder from our fireworks as fuel for his projectile.
This was a big ask. We reveled in our seasonal activities which involved harassing the town’s population by lobbing penny bangers, our weapon of choice, at innocent bystanders, creating shock and awe; mostly shock. We roamed around like small Hamas suicide bombers with our pockets crammed with explosives, probably enough, in the event of an accident, to blow a leg off at the thigh.
Willie constructed the rocket with our proud father looking on in admiration. It was large tubular object with a pointy nose cone, fins and supported on four spindly legs. Based on my avid reading of comics featuring daring stories of the Second World War I saw a bomb; our father impressed by his eldest sons scientific endeavours, a Starship.
imageOver the weeks leading up to Guy Fawkes Night the body of Willie’s rocket was gradually filled up with gunpowder from our dismantled bangers and other fireworks. I suspect that other chemical substances had been added. The previous Christmas, to my brother’s manic glee a chemistry set had been his main present; a reckless gift in my opinion. Soon after strange smells and noises seeped from the utility room and odd events occurred. A hole of about two inches in diameter appeared in our garden bench, a church pew salvaged the demolished surplus village church. The hole with scorched edges had been blown clean through the two inch thick seat panel. My mother and father looked at the hole, scratched their heads and talked in hushed voices of Acts of God and meteor particles from outer space. But I knew; not how but who.
The launch day arrived and on a clear moonlight night Willie’s rocket stood proudly but precariously on a plywood board, placed there at my father’s insistence to protect the lawn. The rocket pointed menacingly at the stars; the centerpiece of the that year’s display.



After a paltry show of the fireworks bought by my dad, Willie advanced confidently across lawn and lit the slow burning fuse, a product of his chemistry experiments, and retreated. Precisely two minutes later the rocket burst into life; more fizz than roar. It jigged about like a demented Riverdance performer then, failing to defy gravity, slowly toppled over to lie facing our small family group, hissing threateningly. My father was now brought to his senses and, drawing on his wartime experience as a Master Gunner in the Royal Artillery he now, at last, saw a bomb not a rocket. and swiftly shepherded us down the garden away from the potential blast zone. Thankfully there was no explosion; the rocket, in it’s death throes finally roared into life and sped around the lawn in ever increasing circles before finally expiring in the rose bed.


My father commiserated with the young von Braun unaware of the intricate Celtic pattern scorched in the lawn which would only be revealed  at sunrise.