Vivien

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Musings

Hogmanay

One of the most surprising things about Christmas and New Year in Scotland is that Christmas was not celebrated as a festival and was virtually banned in Scotland for 400 years, from the end of the 17th Century to the 1950s. The reason for this dates back to the years of Protestant Reformation, when the straight-laced Kirk proclaimed Christmas as a Popish or Catholic feast and as such needed banning. In fact Christmas Day was not declared a public holiday until 1954 and Boxing Day became a public holiday in 1974, so at the time of the story there would not have been a Christmas holiday closing of the Mill but just a holiday for New Year’s Day.

It is believed that the Vikings originally brought many of the traditional Hogmanay celebrations to Scotland in the early 8th and 9th Centuries. These Norsemen, or men from an even more northerly latitude than Scotland, paid particular attention to the arrival of the Winter Solstice or the shortest day, and they fully intended to celebrate its passing with some serious partying. In Shetland, where the Viking influence remains the strongest, New Year is still called Yules, deriving from the Scandinavian word for the midwinter festival of Yule.

The origin of the name Hogmanay is not clear. It may have been introduced to Naval Lord Middle via French. The most commonly cited explanation is a derivation from the northern French dialectal word hoguinané, or variants such as hoginanehoginono and hoguinettes, those being derived from 16th century Middle French aguillanneuf meaning either a gift given at New Year, a children’s cry for such a gift, or New Year’s Eve itself.

Other people think the origins may have been from Gaelic (Goidelic) and yet others reject both the French and Goidelic theories, and instead suggest that the ultimate source both for the Norman French, Scots, and Goidelic variants of this word have a common Norse root. It is suggested that the full forms invoke the hill-men (Icelandic haugmenn cf Anglo-Saxon hogmen or elves and banishes the trolls into the sea (Norse a lae “into the sea”.)

There are a number of traditions and superstitions that have to be taken care of before midnight on the 31st December. These include cleaning the house and taking out the ashes from the fire, there is also the requirement to clear all your debts before “the bells” sound midnight, otherwise you will be in debt all year.

Immediately after midnight, it is traditional to sing Robert Burns “Auld lang Syne”. Burns published his version of this popular little ditty in 1788, although the tune was in print over 80 years before this.

 

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? 
Should auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne,
For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup o kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

 

 

One of the chief parts of the Hogmanay party, which is still continued with equal enthusiasm today, is to welcome friends and strangers with warm hospitality and of course lots of enforced kissing for all.

‘First footing’ (or the first foot in the house after midnight) is still a common tradition across Scotland today. To ensure good luck for the house the first foot should be a dark male and he should bring with him symbolic pieces of coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and a wee dram of whisky. The dark male part is believed to be a throwback to the Viking days, when a big blonde stranger arriving on you doorstep with a large axe meant trouble and would not have been auspicious for a happy New Year.

Musings

Christmas in the Netherlands

Hello everybody,

I haven’t written any blogs for two years because my father died in January 2014 and then I moved house. I have now written another book called “The Anstruther Lass” a historical romance set in Dundee in 1865 and so I decide to start writing blogs again to promote the book.

As it is nearly Christmas and the hero in the book is a Dutchman, I did some research about Christmas in the Netherlands and I thought you might all like to hear about it. So here goes:

For a start, the most important day during December is 5th December when Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) brings the Dutch children presents. The name Santa Claus comes from the name Sinterklaas. St Nicholas’s day is actually on the 6th December but the major celebrations are held on 5th December. The children leave a shoe by the fireplace or windowsill and they hope that Sinterklaas will come during the night with some presents.

The other difference is that St Nicholas does not live at the North Pole but in Madrid, Spain. That is probably because from the sixteenth century till early in the eighteenth century the Netherlands was under the Spanish Crown as part of the States of the Holy Roman Empire in the Low Countries.

Celebrations start on the second Saturday of November when Sinteklaus travels to a city or town in the Netherlands, and every year he chooses a different harbour so as many children as possible get a chance to see him.  Legend has it that St Nicholas originally came from Turkey and is venerated as the patron saint of sailors, which is the reason he arrives by boat.

He travels with his servants called “Zwarte Pieten” (Black Peters). When they come ashore from the steamboat all the local church bells ring in celebration. Sinterklaas, dressed in his red robes, leads a procession through the town, riding a horse.  He is welcomed by children cheering and singing traditional Sinterklaas songs, the Zwarte Piets throw candy and traditional biscuits into the crowd.( I don’t know what the liberals and PC experts in this country would make of this but probably they would try to ban it saying that the Black Piets human rights were being abused! )

Another thing that is different, children are told that the Zwarte Piet’s keep a record of all the things they have done in the past year in a big book. Good children will get presents from Sinterklaas but bad children will be put in a sack and a Zwarte Pieten will take them to Spain for a year to teach them how to behave. (Sounds like the stuff of nightmares!)

The children leave some hay and carrots for Sinterklaas horse as they are told that during the night Sinterklaas rides on the roofs on his horse and that a Zwarte Piet will climb down the chimney (or through a window) and put the presents and/ or candy in their shoe.

In many families, the children are told that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten make a weekly visit from November, so the children leave their shoes every Saturday until the main Sinterklaas party on 5th Dec.

Sinterklaas parties are held on St Nicholas’ Eve, ‘Sinterklassavond’ or ‘Pakjesavond’ and special biscuits and sweets are eaten at the party One type of biscuit is called ‘letter blanket’ or blank letter, (meaning letter cake which is made from marzipan or pastry. The biscuits are made in the shapes of the first letter of the people’s names that are at the party. Another sweet biscuit served up is, ‘peppernoot’ made with cinnamon and spices in the pastry biscuit mix, and kerstrans, a Dutch Christmas ring cake.

The children will receive their presents during the evening, there might be a knock at the door, and they might find a sack full of presents!

On the 6th of December, Sinterklaas leaves the Netherlands by steamboat via the entrance of the port of Rotterdam, called the Hook of Holland and he travels back to Spain.

Christmas day is much quieter and the Dutch celebrate with a Church Service and family meal. Although the children have already received their presents throughout December, some lucky Dutch children also get a visit from Santa Claus (who is also called Christmas man/ Kerstman to avoid confusion with Sinterklaas).  He comes from Lapland in Finland to deliver more presents!

Musings

Speech for Old and Bold Ladies night December 2012

SPEECH FOR LADIES NIGHT

Hello everyone, Well it’s that time of year again and you’ve got me again.  Christmastime Some people love it and some hate it.  One of the problems is buying presents for people. Now us girls always think it’s difficult to find something for our men but I think men have an even more difficult time thinking of something that their partner would appreciate. I know it’s ladies night but it’s in our nature to be kind and feel empathy for our partners so here’s a little story especially for the men.

 A man on his Harley was riding along a California beach when suddenly the sky clouded above his head and, in a booming voice, God said, ‘Because you have tried to be faithful to me in all ways, I will grant you one wish.’

The biker pulled over and said, ‘Build a bridge to Hawaii so I can ride over anytime I want.’

God replied, ‘Your request is materialistic; think of the enormous challenges for that kind of undertaking; the supports required reaching the bottom of the Pacific and the concrete and steel it would take! I can do it, but it is hard for me to justify your desire for worldly things. Take a little more time and think of something that could possibly help mankind.’

The biker thought about it for a long time. Finally, he said, ‘God, I wish that I, and all men, could understand women; I want to know how she feels inside, what she’s thinking when she gives me the silent treatment, why she cries, what she means when she says nothing’s wrong, why she snaps and complains when I try to help, and how I can make a woman truly happy.’

God replied: ‘You want two lanes or four on that bridge?’

 So it would appear that even God can’t understand women, But however confused you men feel your lady or wife or partner, whatever you call her, please believe me She is your best friend. Although there is another contender for the role of best friend.  It is said the A dog is mans best friend.  How many of you here have a dog?  Does anyone here own a Schnauzer? If yes “You’re going to love this” If no response. Well my friend Anita has a Schnauzer

 Anita found out that her dog could hardly hear, so she took it to the vet. The vet found that the problem was hair in the dog’s ears. He cleaned both ears, and the dog could then hear fine. The vet then told my friend that, if she wanted to keep this from recurring, she should go to the chemist and get some “Nair” hair remover and use it in the dog’s ears once a month.

Anita went to the chemist and bought some “Nair” hair remover. The pharmacist told her, “If you’re going to use this under your arms, don’t use deodorant for a few days.”

Anita said, “I’m not using it under my arms.”

The pharmacist said, “Well. If you’re using it on your legs, don’t put any moisturiser on them for a couple of days.”

The lady replied, “I’m not using it on my legs either.  I’m using it on my Schnauzer.”

The pharmacist says, “Well in that case don’t ride a bicycle for a couple of days.

 Thinking about pets it reminds me of a story I heard the other day.

A Jewish lady whose husband had died used to go to the beach in Florida where she lived.  One day she saw an extremely distinguished and handsome man arrive on the beach.  He sat down near her and started to read a book and she thought I’ll strike up a conversation with him.  So she days “I haven’t seen you on the beach before” He replies “Oh my wife died a year ago so I thought I would come down here and relax” and he goes back to reading his book. The lady thinks how can I engage him in conversation and get to know him and she thinks I know I’ll talk about pets, so she says “Do you like pussycats” He gets up, rips off her bathing costume and makes mad passionate love to her.  When it’s all over she says, “Oh, how did you know I needed that?” and he replies, “How did you know my name was Katz.”

 Well enough about sunshine and Florida and back to Christmas, and another aspect of Christmas is that it is party time; there are work parties, leisure pursuit parties. And then there are girls night out parties. I actually feel some sympathy with the lady in this story, as my husband is a stickler for being on time, which is unfortunate for me as one of my faults is that, I am sometimes late. In fact he says I have two late wives, the first one died in 1999 and my present wife is always late.

Well. The other night this lady was invited out for a night with “the girls.”

She told her husband that she would be home by midnight, “I promise!” Well, the hours passed and the drink was flowing and she was having fun dancing and suddenly she realised that it was nearly 3 a.m., so a bit loaded, she headed for home, thinking “Oh no He’s going to kill me”.

Just as she got in the door, the cuckoo clock in the hall started up and cuckooed 3 times.

Quickly, realizing that her husband would probably wake up, she cuckooed another 9 times. She was really proud of herself for coming up with such a quick-witted solution (even when totally smashed), in order to escape a possible conflict with him.

The next morning her husband asked her what time she got in, and she told him “Midnight”. He didn’t seem pissed off at all.

Whew! She thought Got away with that one!

Then he said, “I think we need a new cuckoo clock.” When she asked him why, he said, “Well, last night our clock cuckooed three times, then said, “Oh shit.”, cuckooed 4 more times, cleared it’s throat, cuckooed another 3 times, giggled, cuckooed twice more, and then tripped over the cat and farted.”

Christmas wouldn’t be the same with all the Christmas ads  on TV..  I like the Morrisons one with the rather depressed Mum battling through her Christmas preparations, it’s the most realistic and packs a powerful festive punch, I also like the Aldi  one with the three little angels contemplating their chocolate reindeers. The Famous Grouse adverts arc always excellent and this years is particularly good where you think the Grouse is being shot at  and then the smart little bird takes a bow surrounded by  party poppers  But the one I love the most is the John Lewis Ad, you think the snowman has abandoned his  snow girl, but no, he shows his  love and goes the extra mile to buy the perfect gift.     Its quite heart warming and I like to think that all you men here tonight would go that extra mile because with all our faults and although we ladies sometimes drive you mad, I know that you all love us.  I think Charles Aznavour’s romantic song describing his beloved will strike a chord in your heart for your feelings for own wife or partner. It goes like this: She

May be the reason I survive
The why and where for I’m alive
The one I’ll care for through the rough and rainy years
Me I’ll take her laughter and her tears
And make them all my souvenirs
For where she goes I got to be
The meaning of my life is

She,

So Please Ladies raise your glasses to all the men here tonight and to HMS Sussex Shipmates Association. MERRY Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.

 

Musings

Speech for Old and Bold Ladies night December 2011

Thank the guest of honour

(For gods sake Vivien find out what the bloody hell his name is before you sit down for dinner!!)Say how interesting his speech was etc etc

Do you believe in Father Christmas?

(Someone is bound to say yes so adlib say your weren’t supposed to say that, there’s always one isn’t there? Well you believe if you want to it’s a

nice thing to believe in. Just like when George Osbourne says…. Go back to speech)

No of course you don’t, but it would be a nice thing to believe in. Do you believe George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he says that his measures of austerity will solve the country’s financial debt problems? Well, we would all like to believe that. Do you believe that we can slow down Global warming? We would all like to believe that too. But the fact is that we just don’t know. We live in an unsure world.  When you think about it, we live on a tiny planet 93 million miles from the Sun.  Nobody even knows how large the universe is; let alone how it was created.  But one thing is sure; humankind has always needed some kind of celebration.  The pagans celebrated, “The birthday of the sun” around the 25th December and when the Romans arrived in Britain they brought their festival Saturnalia that lasted from then 17th to 23rd December. The Christian church was astute enough to know that rather than fight beloved pagan customs it was better to accept them and subtly transform them.  And so Christmas became the Winter Festival.

Just like our ancestors, we need a celebration to provide us with fun, joy and to take our minds off the problems of everyday life. And we do have fun with parties, balloons, Christmas Trees, Christmas crackers, sparkling lights, plenty of food and drink, and gifts.  It’s also a time when with all the organising life can sometimes be confusing.  Have you seen the Nutcrackers? I can’t remember where I put them. Did you remember to send a card to Great Aunt Agatha? But I hope none of you were as confused as Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska, the other day. She telephoned the Senate, and said, “Can I speak to Senator Feinstein”, the person on the other end of the telephone said, “Its Yom Kippur” and she replied, “Well Yom, can you take a message for me?”

Christmas can also be a worrying time.  “Is the Capon or Turkey going to be big enough?” “ Will he like the present I bought Him?”  But these worries are nothing compared to the story of the poor blonde flying in a two-seater airplane with just the pilot. He has a heart attack and dies. She frantically calls a May Day. “May Day! May Day! Help me! Help me! My pilot has just had a heart attack and is dead. And I don’t know how to fly help me! Please help me!  All of a sudden she hears a voice over the radio saying, “This is the tower, I have just received your message and I will talk you through it.  I’ve had a lot of experience with this kind of problem.  Now, just relax. Everything will be fine. Now give me your height and position.” She says “I’m 5ft 4 and I’m in the front seat.”

“O.K.” says the voice from the tower. Repeat after me:”Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Another aspect of Christmas is that it is party time, just like the celebration here tonight. But one thing about this venue is that there are toilets.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed but Brighton and Hove have closed down practically all the public conveniences in the town.  They are now flower shops, like “At your convenience” or snack bars and you just can’t find a toilet when you need one. Like the two girls, Sue and Lucy who had gone out to a Christmas gathering and were walking home. Sue said to Lucy “I’m bustin’” “So am I” her friend replied “Oh no, what are we going to do there are no toilets around here?  “Its Ok, look there’s a churchyard over there.  We can just nip in and have a wee behind one of the gravestones.  No-one will see us”. So the two friends crept into the dark graveyard and relieved themselves.  “Have you got any tissues?” Sue whispered. Lucy whispered back, “No, I’m just going to use my knickers and throw them away.  “I can’t do that I’m wearing my best silk cami-knickers, oh wait there’s a wreath here I’ll just use that. Sue and Lucy, happy that they had seen to their immediate needs set off for home.

A few days later their husbands met in the local Pub for a drink. “Here I don’t know what the girls were up to the other night, my wife came home with no knickers on.”  The other replies, “Well, you should worry, I found a card in my wife’s silk cami-knickers which said, “We’ll never forget you from all the lads at the Fire Station.”

Finally, especially at Christmas we should all be careful of how much we drink as it can affect how we are perceived.  Like the two old boys at the bar where one slurs into the others ear, “See that picture of those two old soaks? That could be us in 10 years.” “You silly old fool” says the other “that’s a mirror.”

Well. In spite of all the hustle and bustle of Christmas it takes our mind off the problems of the world and we focus on our families and loved ones. It is a time for giving, laughter, for celebrating and having fun with all the people we hold most dear. I wish you all a happy Christmas and I hope that all of you enjoy the holiday and have a wonderful time.  Merry Christmas to all of you!   Please raise you glasses to our guest speaker (Hope to hell Vivien that you haven’t forgotten his name after giving the stress of giving the speech!) and his wife and to HMS Sussex,

Musings

A picture of Stella

A picture of Stella

Stella Serck-Roche was a beautiful woman, even at 99 yrs old.  I remember that I took her to buy a watch at a jewellers in Blachington Road Hove. It’s run by an old chap and is an Aladdin’s cave.  Anyway Stella had a lovely time chatting to the jeweller and chose a watch. At the time she had her leg bandaged as she had a thin skin   condition and as the wife of the jeweller also had the same condition and had a bandage of her leg she came round from the back of the shop to say hello to Stella.  She took one look at her and said ”Ooh Isn’t she pretty” I told Stella but she said “Well I was beautiful when I was young but not now.”  She was wrong she was still lovely at 99 yrs.old.

But there was more to Stella than just a pretty face. She had a great amount of charm and charisma.  She spent Christmas Day with my family and myself and she charmed my two sons, my husband, my father and another male friend. She had a wonderful time, she sparkled and everybody adored her.  It was like that wherever she went.  She liked to always look nice, wore beautiful clothes and like to have her nails done at a salon.  When we arrived the whole salon would go quiet and everyone would stop talking and watch Stella.  People would mouth to me “How old is she?” “Isn’t she fantastic.” When I took her to the hairdressers, the hairdresser was just finishing her hair at 4 pm and said to the Junior “You can go home if you like” but she said “No I want to listen to Stella”.

I think Stella was a comedienne, from an early age.  I know that she used to perform for the troops, mimicking certain singers and she was a very poplar act.  I remember her telling me that when she was at her Swiss Finishing School, they had a system that if you had done something wrong you were given a red baton.  You could pass this on to any other girl surreptitiously and who ever ended up with the baton received the punishment.  Well, Stella didn’t like to pass on these batons and a friend said to her “If you carry on making those faces that you do at dinnertime, I’ll get rid of your batons for you.”  So they made a deal and you can just imagine two 16 year olds giggling at Stella’s funny faces.

Stella was well read and loved to read biography’s of famous people although her eyesight was fading so it became increasingly difficult for her to read.  But she always read the Daily Mail, from cover to cover,  every day with the help of a magnifying glass, from cover to cover.  If she couldn’t manage to read it all, she would save up the articles she wanted to read.  She would drive me mad as there were newspapers strewn all over the flat which looked very untidy but then  she would have a blitz and stay up till 5 a.m to read them all, so I could finally throw them all away.  She loved to talk about anything that was currently in the news and although she was profoundly deaf we still managed to have lively discussions with me shouting in her ear.

Stella was unique  and I feel privileged to have known her.  I will miss her greatly, as I am sure you all will but perhaps we can all keep her alive in our memories of her.  I think when Stella appears Heaven is going to be a much more amusing place.

 

 

Musings

European Sewer Tours

From: Edward Keogh <keogh829@btinternet.com>
Subject: Sewer Tours

To: vivien@vivien-carmichael.co.uk
Date: Friday, 5 October, 2012, 16:05

Other Sewer Tours, European and British:After posting my blog a friend sent me this information about European sewer tours.  Here is the link  http://bit.ly/UoaMAc and the info he sent      Want to to take a European Sewer Tour? It’s simple, fun, inexpensive, and smelly! Here’s how…

PARIS

Visit des Egouts de Paris Entrance: Ticket kiosk at the south end of the Pont de l’Alma, opposite 93 Quai d’ OrsayHours: Saturday to Wednesday from 11AM to 5PM in the Summer, 4 PM in the winter (closed for 3 weeks in January for annual sewer cleaning)Cost: €3.50 (less for kids ‘n old people)Public Transport: Metro- Alma-Marceau station Bus: Pont de l’ Alma (lines: 42, 63, 80, 92) RER: Pont de l’ Alma station (line C)Phone: 01 53 68 27 81Minitel (the old French phone monopoly’s proto-internet): 3615 code PARIS then “ENV” and “EGOUTS” Call in advance to arrange for a tour in English by one of Paris’ sewer workers. A more comprehensive English tour is available monthly from independent tour company, pariswalks.com this engaging tour costs around €13 (including admission) and lasts for an hour and a half. Check their website for tour details, but usually occurs the last Sunday of the month. The Paris Sewer Museum is the most comprehensive sewer experience for tourists anywhere. Walking over channels of real French poop, the visitor is bombarded with detailed information about this 2000 km system while experiencing it firsthand. Crowds line up before 11, but settle down later. But beware- the Sewer Museum Gift Shop- a must for any connosewer- closes promptly a half-hour before closing. If you are lingering, consider skipping ahead and pick up a T-shirt (€15), some postcards (€. 50), and even a commemorative medallion (€2) celebrating the Egouts.   BRUSSELSMusée Des Égouts Located: in the Toll House at Porte d Anderlecht 1000 BrusselsTours: Wednesdays (except holidays) at 9AM, 11AM, 1PM, and 3PM. Group visits (10-20 people) can be arranged on other days.Cost: €3 for most people, €2 for younguns, and free if you live in Brussels and have an ID card.Phone: 02/513 85 87Public Transport: tram 18, bus 47 – but a nice walk from the Gran Platz and central train station.

BRUSSELS

Less slick than its counterpart in Paris, the Brussels sewers you see are less prettied-up and are more realistic. Also on view is an underground river that used to be an open sewer running through through the city. Now it’s hidden and just dumps the shit in the North Sea. Tours are given in French and Flemish (aka Dutch) If, like me, your French is only good for saying, “un,” waving some euros around and pointing at a pastry, you’re in luck. All the exhibits are labelled in English as well. Our guide also spoke a fair amount of English for our benefit once he saw we were interested. Just don’t start yelling, “merde” a lot.

VIENNA

The Third Man” Vienna is blessed to have two sewer tours that both revolve around a really fat man (Orson Welles) running around a stink hole. To fully enjoy the sewers of Vienna, you should be familiar with the 1948 film, The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed and starring Orson Wells. Not only does the film capture the bizarre nature of living in an occupied, half destroyed city at the onset of the Cold War, but proudly features the sewers of Vienna as a major player in the thriving black market at the time. If you are in Vienna and want to see the film, it plays late nights in the English language movie theatre near the Opera. 

THIRD MAN LOCATION TOUR

Location: Meet tour guide wearing a red and white Austria Guide badge outside the Stadtpark U4 subway station’s main exit on the street Johannegasse.Times: Monday and Friday at 4PMCost: €16Public Transport: U4 underground to Stadtpark. The English language tour is given by a native film historian who guides you through a myriad of locations featured in The Third Man. The whole thing lasts 2 to 2.5 hours – 1.5 hours of which are in the sewers and along the banks of the underground Vienna River. Wear comfortable footwear that won’t slip easily on a wet floor, and bring a flashlight – or better yet, grab one of the cool candle torches they pass out on the tour. THE RETURN OF THE THIRD MANThe “official” City of Vienna TourLocation: Buy tickets at the trailer in the middle of Esperantopark in Karlsplatz at the corner of Operngasse and Friedrichstraße.Tours: Daily in the summer, Sun.-Tues. from November to March. 9:30AM to 4:30PM, tours every half-hour.Cost: €6.50 for adults, €2.10 for studentsPhone: 01/585 64 55Public transport: U2 underground to KarlsplatzNOTE: As of November 2002, the sewers have to be closed for urgent and extensive repair work but that the tours will recommence when this is completed (information: + 43 1 7951493119) Tours last 25 minutes and are usually in German. English tours are available once or twice a day. Check in at the ticket booth or call for times. This tour only covers a much smaller part of the sewer network, but is hosted by actual sewer workers. Not only do they talk about what it is like to work below the streets, but also they conduct a multi-media extravaganza loosely tied to the movie. There’s special lighting effects, video projection and someone dressed like Orson Welles who shoots a gun at you. Really.

PRAGUE

1 Tour, 1 Museum FOREIGN VISITORS SEWER GALLERY ENTRANCE(Cizineck Vstup Do Kanalizace Pod Orlojem)Location: Old Town Hall in the main plaza (look at map for name of plaza and public transport information)Hours: 9AM-4PM most daysCost: 10 Kr. (about 30 cents) Go into the Old Town Hall to the left of the Astronomical Clock. Head to the back of the room and ask for someone to open up the sewers for you. If they look confused, show them the Czech name. The older ladies who work there are sometimes reluctant to take you down there and ask you to come back when one of the old men is working. There is no sign announcing this tour, so just be persistent. They will pull a skeleton key out of a drawer and take you outside, around the clock to an anonymous door and lead you down into the gallery.  This gallery was built in 1906 when the “most modern sewer system in the Austro-Hungarian Empire” was completed to show off to foreign dignitaries. Now you can get that same special treatment for a sawbuck. EKOTECHNICKE MUSEUMLocation: 6 Papirenska, PragueTours: Weekends from 10AM to 4:30PMCost: 70 Kr (about $2.50)website: www.ecotechnickemuseum.czPhone: +420 2 33 32 26 98How to Get There: This museum is a bit off the beaten path, since it is located in an old sewer processing facility at the edge of the old city. There is a way to get there without the 1/2 mile walk, but this way is easier to describe. Take tram 25 out of the city to the last stop (Jugosavskych Parzyland – or as I say, “Yugoslavian Partyland”) and walk directly north towards the river. Make a right on Papirenska and walk past the odd little riverside garden homes until you enter an old industrial park. The museum is on the left in the old building with two smoke stacks. The Ecotechnicke Museum is housed in the first sewage treatment plant of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, built in 1907 and used until 1967. On this site, at the end of the city’s sewer system, giant machines would mechanically separate the sewage before dumping it in the local river. The museum shows you how this pioneering work was done. Only some of the staff speaks English, so it may be wise to telephone in advance to see when they will be there.

ROME

Cloaca Maxima – Ancient Roman SewersLocation: Foro Romano (Roman Forum)Cost: FreePublic Transport: subway Line B exit at Colloseum and walk west down Via Imperiali. The good news is that you can see the world’s oldest functioning sewer (about 2500 years old) for free. The bad news is that you can’t go in it. (Ooze did. It was only the most amazing sewer of all time.) There are three good places to see it. It’s worth it to get an idea of how the system worked, and how it continues to with hardly any mantainence. Those Romans were pretty crafty. From the Via Imperiali, you can look down into the more recent excavations and see the top of the Cloaca, and the broken remains of other sewers that run through the forum. If you enter the forum itself from the Romulus and Remus entrance around the corner, and walk down to where the Temple of Mercury once stood, you will find a door leading into an ancient wall marked, “Cloaca Maxima.” The mouth though is where you can see it best– Cloaca Maxima MouthLocation: on the banks of the Tiber river at Ponte PalatinoCost: Free A short hop from the Mouth of Truth (below) will take you to the bridge Ponte Palantino over the Tiber River. Looking out down river, you can see the opening of the sewer. You can trot down the stairs and walk along the riverbank to get closer. You may not want to go down there alone since there might be transients (aka evil Gypsies from myth and legend) living under the bridge. Some even camp on top of the sewer pipe. They didn’t bother Ooze. Not even to wave cardboard in our faces and take our wallets. Go figure. Mouth of Truth by CampidoglioLocation: It’s one of the most popular tourist stops in Rome. It’s outside a church. You’ll see plenty of Americans. Figure it out.Cost: FreePublic Transport: Line B to Circus Maximus. Walk towards the far end of the park and the river. Locals believe that if you stick your hand in the mouth of this ancient face, and you are lying, it will bite your hand off. Most people don’t realize they are sticking their hands in an ancient sewer grate. Suckers.  LONDONBirthplace of the Modern Sewer There are no tours of London’s Victorian sewers, but you can visit a small part of them at the Abbey Mills Pumping Station, Newham, which began pumping sewage as part of the Joseph Bazalgette-engineered sewer system in the mid-1800s.  Abbey Mills, known as “the cathedral to sewage” would lift sewage from North London 40ft so that it could flow out of town several miles before being emptied back into the Thames. The tour happens annually in May and numbers are strictly limited.  To take part, you’ll need to send Thames Water a message and they’ll pass on your details to the organiser. See

http://thameswater.co.uk/

 Bust of Sir Joseph Bazalgette Location: Victoria Embankment – far west endCost: FreeSir Joseph Bazalgette built 82 miles of ‘interception sewers’ along the banks of the Thames taming London’s Byzantine disease ridden sewers. Known as the Victoria Embankment on the north side and Albert Embankment on the south, the muddy flood-prone banks became parks on the top and sewers and subways underneath. Bagazelle’s bust looks proudly over his cholera-stopping handiwork. Of course, it seems like if you crossed the street AND looked both ways in 1888, the Victorians would have probably erected a satue of you.  London DungeonLocation: 28/34 Tooley Street Website: www.dungeons.co.uk (complete directions, etc.)Cost: £12.95 (~$20) If you really want to spend twenty bucks on a tourist trap, please do. I didn’t have the cash, (no freebies for ooze) but there’s a simulated Victorian sewer ride where you witness an animatronic Jack the Ripper kill a lady. Probably the only regular sewer tour of sorts in the city. Fleet StreetLocation: Fleet Street in the central business district The Fleet River meandered through the heart of London dumping into the Thames. As London’s population grew, it became a notoriously filthy craphole known as the Fleet Ditch. By the mid-18th century the city created a sewer by covering over the river and creating Fleet Street. Today you can walk along the street and imagine it as a big open sewer. The Crossness Pumping StationLocation: Belvedere Road, Abbey Wood, London SE2 Website: www.crossness.org.ukCost: £3Note: Only open by appointment only, on 24 days of the year. Call 020 8311 3711 on Tuesday or Sunday between 9.00am and 4.00pm. See website for more details. The Crossness Pumping Station was built by Sir Joseph Bazalgette of Victoria embankment fame. The building features some nifty ornamental ironwork and still contains the four original pumping engines used to keep the system flowing. The group responsible for the restoration of this landmark hopes to establish a Museum of Sanitation Engineering. [Photo from their website. Ooze has not yet visited site.] MANCHESTER, ENGLANDFilthy Town!England’s second largest city rose to prominence as an industrial powerhouse in the 19th century. Growth and unfettered capitalism combined to create a deadly stew of filth. The city is currently experiencing a post-industrial renaissance turning its old infrastructure —canals, trains, and factories— into picturesque views from expensive new lofts. Manchester Museum of Science and IndustryLocation: Liverpool Road, Castlefield Manchester M3 4FP.Telephone: 0161-832 1830 (24hr information line)Hours: Open every day except Sundays and Bank Holidays from 10.00am-5.00pm.Website: www.msim.org.ukCost: £4.50 Not many museum exhibits start with a life-size diorama of a cholera funeral, but the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry spares the B.S. Sewers save lives. The museum devoted the basement of the world’s oldest passenger train station to the study of sewerage in Manchester from Roman times to the modern age. No other museum or tour explains the whole sewerage process –toilet facilities, water supply, piping and purification– as clearly or completely. Unfortunately you do not get a peek at a real working Victorian sewer, you have to settle for a walk through a simulated sewer (crafted from the bricks of an old one) with fake poo glazed on the walls, piped in sounds of scurrying rats, and a pumped-in odour more reminiscent of cat urine than sewer. Good for sewerphobics, (which seems to include most of the British public) bad for sewer enthusiasts. Temple of Convenience Location: In the middle of Great Bridgewater Street at Oxford Rd.Hours: 12 -11pmCost: Free The Temple of Convenience started life as an anonymous underground public toilet with stars in its eyes. Today it’s a tiny underground pub. A bar, a few seats, some Belgian beer and a jukebox crowd the tiled floor. Ironically, it’s own toilets are reported to be quite filthy, but I wouldn’t know. Pubs close early in England, and I got there too late. I urinated into the canal for good measure.  nt available at the Sussex History website. Ooze has yet to visit. 

BARCELONA, SPAIN

Museu de ClavegueramLocation: Pg. de St. Joan, 98. The museum enterance is right off the street in a little modernist building that looks like a busstop. Metro Stop: Verdaguer Phone: 93 457 65 50 Hours: Tue-Su 9am-2pmCost: €1.20Website: BCN.es -They recently rebuilt their site in java, so this link might not call up the official web page directly. You can always go to the main website, click on English and look under, “Directories » Museums” to find the Museum del Clavegueram entry. Catalonia was under the thumb of the central powers in Madrid for hundreds of years. When the fascist dictator Franco finally died in the mid 70’s, natives were finally able to reclaim their dying tongue–and they did so with the kind of passion a Quebecois would be envious of. Unfortunately, it was only after I was on my way that three words, tancat per reformes, appeared under the heading, “comments” in the English section of their website. After a series of phone calls (to a wonderful Catalonian speaking machine) and fruitless visits to the museum itself did I discover the phrase means, “closed for repairs” –which the museum still is.  Lovely city though. When the facility is reformed, you’ll be able to see exhibits on the city’s sewer history, ramble through a big chunk of them dug up during construction for the 1992 Olympic games, and make an appointment to see the real thing. UPDATE: For a good view of the Barcelona sewer, see a scarecrow-like Christian Bale wade through Catalonian poo in The Machinist. Interestingly, the movie was shot to look like Los Angeles, but is in fact Barcelona. LA doesn’t have sewers nearly as cool. Museu d’Història de la CiutatCity History MueumLocation: in Plaza del Rei in the Barri Gotic. Hours: June-Sept. Tue-Sa 10am-8pm, Su 10am-2pm; Oct.-May Tue-Sa 10am-2pm and 4-8pm, Su 10am-2pm. Cost: €3.50 Note: Most displays are in Spanish and Catalan, but pamphlets are available in English. Missed the working sewers of Barcelona? Underneath the central part of the old city is an even more ancient roman town. Recently excavated and on display underneath the King’s Plaza, the museum displays a few ancient sewers that haven’t seen human waste in a millennium or so. When you fly 7000 miles to see a closed sewer, you take what you can get.

 HAMBURG, GERMANY

Abwasser- und Sielmuseum(Sewer Museum)Location: 20359, Bei den St. Pauli-Landungsbrücken 49Telephone: 34 98 50 55Metro Stop: S1 Jetties U3Websites: (in German) Hamburg Magazine’City Planet’ Thanks to the magic of machine translation, Ooze was able to track down information on touring the Hamburg sewers. The Sielmuseum, from what I can gather, is a small collection of objects fished out of the sewers. Old buttons, bicycles, and even someone’s birth certificate. The other tour includes a tour in a sewer boat much like the ones you see in Paris. Do you know German? I don’t. These tours are only available by reservation in advance. German bureaucrats must hate e-mail since it took over a month to get rejected from both tours. They also have a JavaScript sign-up sheet that returns error after error. Ooze suggests you call first! Be an asshole and find someone there who speaks English to explain the whole thing to you. And let us know.

TRIER, GERMANY

Emperor’s BathsLocation: Kaiserthermen – southeast corner of city wallsHours: Apr.-Sept. 9am-6pm; Oct.-Mar. 9am-5pm.Cost: €2.15 “The oldest town in Germany, Trier was founded by the Romans during the reign of Augustus and had its heyday in the 4th century as the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Near the southeast corner of the city walls, the 4th-century Kaiserthermen (Emperor’s baths) are most memorable for their gloomy underground passages remaining from the ancient sewer network—avoid contact with the walls.” – Let’s Go Germany  I’m not sure what disease you catch from 1500 year-old crap, but I’m sure the helpful German guides will be happy to tell you. Ooze has not yet visited this site.

 

EMMEN, NETHERLANDS

Sewer Rats in “Natural Habitat”Noorder Dierenpark (a zoo in north Netherlands)Location: Hoofdstraat 18- Post bus 1010 – 7801 ba Emmen – a 2.5 hr. train ride from AmsterdamTel: +31(0)591 61 88 00Website: www.zoo-emmen.nl  Sewer rats are frequently seen in their natural habitat on many sewer tours. While interesting to watch, sewer men face the ever present danger of a rat attacks. The expression “dangerous like a cornered rat” didn’t start life as a cocky metaphor. If you want to get up close and personal with these sewer denizens, visit the Emmen Zoo. Behind Plexiglas in a drippy simulated sewer, you can watch these creatures frolic, bathe and live in a naturalistic way. Except for the faeces eating part. Even the permissive Dutch draw the line there. For more information, read the Rat & Mouse Gazette review. note: Apparently in the summer, you can ride a “Sewer rat” roller coaster in Adventurpark Hellendoorn, a Dutch amusement park also in northern Netherlands.

 

Musings

Brighton Sewers

Brighton Sewers

I first went on the Brighton Sewer tour when I was 18 yrs old.  Varndean Grammar School arranged it after we had completed our A levels. We were all in high spirits and we found it very exciting and exhilarating especially when we exited through the manhole in Steine Gardens.  I went on another tour in 2003 and enjoyed it just as much and it gave me the idea for the start of my book, “The Grail of the Unicorn Planet.

Brighton’s Victorian sewers were built in 1860 and they were so well designed that they are still in use today. The Victorian bricklayers look hundreds of tonnes of sand from the beaches to make pug to cement hundreds of bricks. You can still see shells encrusted into the mortar. Indeed, this is one of the fabled reasons that Brighton’s beaches are pebbly and not sandy. Using only manual labour and no hydraulic diggers or power tools it was a remarkable feat. The men were paid between 10 and 15 shillings (50p to 75p) per 12 ft length of the sewer tunnel, depending on the thickness of the brickwork. The best men could earn £4 and 10 shillings a week.

There is clean spring water bubbling from the freshwater river that still runs under the City.  It used to flow into the sea in Pool Valley and the fishermen of the original village of Brighthelmstone used to moor their boats in the small pool or mini-harbour. Pool Valley now accommodates the Bus Station.  At first the sewage was discharged directly into the sea and barnacles can still be seen on the walls where the tide used to come in. Brighton council were pressured by Brighton residents to build an intercepting sewer stop the sewage from reaching the sea. Works commenced in 1871 and was completed at a cost of over £100,00 in 1874.Various improvements and repairs continued on the system until the construction of a relief sewer in 1929.

During the late 1990’s a massive storm water collection drain was constructed along he beach using tunneling machines similar to those used to cut the Channel Tunnel. These machines were lowered to the tunnel depth via several deep shafts sunk at intervals along the beach, which were eventually capped and covered, Pebbles were replaced on top of the shafts to return the beach to its former appearance and public use. This prevents raw sewage from being discharged from emergency storm-waste outfalls, one of which can still be seen in the stone groyne adjacent to the Palace Pier.

Nowadays, instead of discharging into the sea during storms the relief tunnels now terminates at the most terrifying sewer feature in England. Eddies vortex is a smooth edged, 10ft wide plughole sucking the sewage, and anyone who gets to close 100ft straight down to the concrete storage tunnel beneath. With no ropes or rails, a slip could be fatal and needless to say this is not part of the Sewer tour for the public.

Nor is the new sewer tunnel from Brighton Marina to Friars Bay.  The project also includes a new waste water treatment works at Peacehaven, two new pumping stations and a new long sea outfall.  The new sewer tunnel will carry waste water from the west to the new waste water treatment and then take the treated waste water to the long sea outfall where it will be released 2.5 km off shore.

Brighton is the only city in the whole country that conducts sewer tours so if you would like to book a tour on line here is the link http://bit.ly/B7JZj

Emma Kennedy takes a deep breath and descends into Brighton’s Victorian sewer system – and meets two of the bravest men on earth

 

 

Musings

Plenty of legroom

Plenty of legroom

I read a letter in the Times yesterday Tuesday 25th September, about Igor Sikorsky, the subject of my last blog.  So I thought I would post it.

Sir – the suggestion that Vladimir Putin’s presidential airliner should include a “patio” (Celebrity Watch, Times3, Sept 20 has historical precedence.

The outsize aircraft built by the Russian aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky in 1913-14 variously featured an “observation balcony” and a “promenade deck” in which members of the Tsar’s suite were famously photographed enjoying an in-flight stroll.

 

Christy Campbell

London SW17

Musings

Plane Facts!

In my first book, “The Skimming Stone”, Archie and Ally time travel back to the Second World War, meet Jazz, a Spitfire pilot and witness a dogfight and a victory roll.

This spiked my curiosity about aviation and how it all began so I turned to the Internet and this is what I found.

Do you know when the first airplane made a flight?

I may surprise you to know that it was back in 1903, on the 17th of December to be precise, Orville Wright made the first flight of 120 feet at about 10 feet from the ground and reaching a speed of only 6.8 miles per hour.  His brother Wilbur Wright made the next test flight and managed to fly 175 feet followed by Orville who then flew 200 feet. After these first attempts, the brothers got the hang of flying and on the fourth and last flight that day Wilbur flew to a height of 852 feet in 59 seconds.  The frame supporting the front rudder was badly broken but the main part of the machine was not damaged and they estimated that it would be ready for the next flight in a day or two. Man had achieved one of his greatest wishes – powered flight.

After this do you know when the first commercial plane was designed and produced? Was it in the 30’s, 40’s or 50’s.  You will probably be as surprised as I was, to learn that it was in 1912.  It was called, “The Grand” and featured such things as an enclosed cabin separate from the pilots cabin, a lavatory, upholstered chairs and exterior catwalk atop the fuselage where passengers could take a turn about in the air. You will note that this feature has not been incorporated in later designs! Enough said. You may think that the nationality of the engineer behind this new airplane was British, German, American or French but you would be wrong.

His name was Igor Sikorsky and he was Russian. Born in Kiev on May 25th 1889, he developed an early interest in aviation due to the influence of his mother who was a doctor and his father, a psychology professor. The career he was to follow was settled when he met Count Zeppelin on a tour with his father in Germany. He graduated from the Petrograd Naval College and went to Paris to study engineering and returned to Kiev and entered the Mechanical Engineering College of the Polytechnic Institute in 1907.

After graduating, he decided to return to Paris which was then the aeronautical centre of Europe, to learn what he could of the embryo science having learnt all he could he returned to Kiev and tried to build a helicopter.  This failed so he then turned his attention to fixed wing aircraft.  He conceived the idea of an aircraft having more than one engine that was a most radical idea for the times and he gave the world its first multi-engine airplane the four-engined, “The Grand.”

He then went on to design and build an even bigger aircraft, called the, “Ilia Mouromets,” after a legendary 10th Century Russian hero The plane was of a revolutionary design and luxurious, incorporating an insulated passenger saloon comfortable wicker chairs, a bedroom, a lounge and the first airborne toilet. If it hadn’t been for the First World War it would have probably have started passenger flights in 1914.  As it was Sikorsky simply redesigned the aircraft to become the worlds first purpose built bomber.

Ilya Mouromets bombers carried 800 kg of bombs and positions for up to nine machine guns were added for self-defence, including the extreme tail and a crew of up to twelve. In fact, it was so well armed that some fighter squadrons of the Imperial German Air force feared to engage it in combat. It was, effectively, the original, “Flying Fortress.” In August 1914, the Ilya Mouromets was introduced into the Imperial Russian Air Force and on 10 December 1914, the Russians formed their first 10-bomber squadron slowly, increasing the number to 20 by the summer of 1916. In all, 73 aircraft were built between 1913 and 1918, flying over 400 sorties.

Following the Russian Revolution Sikorsky, sacrificed a considerable fortune leaving Russia and emigrated to France and then travelled to America in 1919. After a fruitless search for some position in aviation, Sikorsky resorted to teaching.  He lectured in New York until in 1923, a group of students and friends pooled their meagre resources and launched him on his first American aviation venture, The Sikorsky Aero Engineering Corp. The Company went from success to success and Igor went back to his original dream to design a helicopter and in 1943 the manufacture of the R-4 made it the world’s first prction helicopter.

Igor was an inventor and engineer but he was also a philosopher, with an intense interest in man, the world and the universe. So he was especially proud that his helicopters saved lives when the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service used them. He once said that pilots of helicopters have contributed to, “one of the most glorious pages in the history of human flight”

We tend to think that technology increased exponentially after the 1960’s, but as you can see it was going at quite a pace from as early as the 1900’s.  Igor Sikorsky was called, “a humble genius” and he died in October 1972 at the age of 83 years. He liked to say,  “the work of the individual still remains the spark which moves mankind ahead”. I wonder what he would think of the latest developments in space travel and that we have managed to land a space buggy on Mars in spite of doing this blind because of the distance and time delay involved. I like to think he would be excited by all the work going on to improve the speed of space travel, (see my blog Star gazing, Exoplanets and Space travel published 03/04/12 ) and that he would hope that this would lead to man achieving his other great ambition – to be able to fly to the stars.

Musings

UFO’S and Aliens – Foo Fighters

Perhaps the strangest reports of UFO sightings occurred at the end of the Second World War. Pilots, who are usually rational and sensible persons, reported seeing fast moving round glowing objects following their aircraft while flying over Germany at night. Sometimes they were described as fiery, glowing red, white or orange. Pilots and their aircrew reported that these objects flew formation with their aircraft and behaved as if under intelligent control. Sometimes it seemed as if they were toying with them like playful dolphins riding in the slipstream of boats, making wild turns around them before simply vanishing.  They could not be outmaneuvered or shot down. They became known as “Kraut fireballs” in the European Theater of War and were later dubbed as “Foo fighters” by Donald J Meiers of the 425th Night Fighter Squadron who was an avid fan of cartoonist Bill Holman who used the nonsense word “Foo” in his Smokey Stover fireman cartoons.  The descriptions of sighting varied but all the pilots agreed that the mysterious lights followed their aircraft closely at high speed.

 

The reports from the Pacific Theater of War differed from the European sightings and the ball of fire was described as resembling a large burning sphere which “just hung in the sky” although sometimes it followed aircraft.  As in the European Theater of War no aircraft was reported as having been attacked by these strange “Foo fighters”.

Some explanations were put forward.  One was that it was a device operated by special SS units. The device was a Jet-propelled flak mine that flew by means of gas jets and spun like a Catherine Wheel around the fuselage.  Miniature klystron tubes inside the device would give out electrostatic discharges interfering with the ignition systems of the bombers’ engines and would have a distracting and disruptive effect on the pilots. Other theories were firstly that it could be a type of electrical discharge from airplanes’ wings called St Elmo’s fire. Secondly ball lightning or thirdly caused by aviators vertigo experienced in night flights.

At first, witnesses often assumed that the foo fighters were secret weapons employed by the enemy and the jet propelled flak mines is the most generally accepted answer today, but doubts can be thrown on this theory by the fact that they were also reported by German and Japanese pilots.

During WWII the foo fighter experiences of pilots were taken very seriously, and accounts were presented to heavyweight scientists but the phenomenon has never been satisfactorily explained and most of the information about this issue has never been released by military intelligence.

Do they know more than they are divulging? Are they hiding facts because they are afraid of the effect it would have on the general public if it were made known?

It sounds far fetched I know, but I like to think that there are other life forms in the universe and that perhaps they are monitoring our progress. Perhaps like the Altairians in my book “The Grail of the Unicorn Planet” they think that Earth is a primitive planet. They are waiting for us to grow up and stop killing each other and then they may be inclined to contact us

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the strangest reports of UFO sightings occurred at the end of the Second World War. Pilots, who are usually rational and sensible persons, reported seeing fast moving round glowing objects following their aircraft while flying over Germany at night. Sometimes they were described as fiery, glowing red, white or orange. Pilots and their aircrew reported that these objects flew formation with their aircraft and behaved as if under intelligent control. Sometimes it seemed as if they were toying with them like playful dolphins riding in the slipstream of boats, making wild turns around them before simply vanishing.  They could not be outmanoeuvred or shot down. They became known as “Kraut fireballs” in the European Theatre of War and were later dubbed as “Foo fighters” by Donald J Meiers of the 425th Night Fighter Squadron who was an avid fan of cartoonist Bill Holman who used the nonsense word “Foo” in his Smokey Stover fireman cartoons.  The descriptions of sighting varied but all the pilots agreed that the mysterious lights followed their aircraft closely at high speed.

The reports from the Pacific Theater of War differed from the European sightings and the ball of fire was described as resembling a large burning sphere which “just hung in the sky” although sometimes it followed aircraft.  As in the European Theater of War no aircraft was reported as having been attacked by these strange “Foo fighters”.

At first, witnesses often assumed that the foo fighters were secret weapons employed by the enemy but later it was found that they were also reported by German and Japanese pilots.

During WWII the foo fighter experiences of pilots were taken very seriously, and accounts were presented to heavyweight scientists but the phenomenon was never explained and most of the information about this issue has never been released by military intelligence.

Some explanations were put forward.  One was that it was a device operated by special SS units. Jet-propelled flak mine that flew by means of gas jets and spun like a Catherine Wheel around the fuselage.  Miniature klystron tubes inside the device would give out electrostatic discharges interfering with the ignition systems of the bombers’ engines and would have a distracting and disruptive effect on the pilots. Other theories were firstly that it could be a type of electrical discharge from airplanes’ wings called St Elmo’s fire. Secondly ball lightning or thirdly caused by aviators vertigo experienced in night flights.

Do they know more than they are divulging? Are they hiding facts because they are afraid of the effect it would have on the general public if it were made known?

It sounds far fetched I know, but I like to think that there are other life forms in the universe and that perhaps they are monitoring our progress. Perhaps like the Altairians in my book “The Grail of the Unicorn Planet” they think that Earth is a primitive planet. They are waiting for us to grow up and stop killing each other and then they may be inclined to contact us

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Musings

Alex’s War: Chapter One The Beginning May 1939

This is the beginning of my father’s story and tells why he decided to join the Royal navy.and the first chapter of my fathers experiences in the Second World War

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sails shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

 

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

 

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

 

Sea fever

By John Masefield

 

 

It was really the dance that did it. The thought had not crossed his mind until then.  It set him thinking.

Alex was an indentured apprentice engineer for MacFarlane Engineering Company Ltd who made electric motors. As an indentured apprentice he spent six months in each department, learning the trade, the design office, drawing office, fitting shop, winding shop where they made switch gear for the motors. The company was a family business and treated him very well, and indeed one of the sons lectured at the college on his study nights.

Alex and the other apprentices had motorbikes and there was a biker who worked at MacFarlane’s whose age and experience meant he could always fix any engine faults.  His name was Mr De Vine and they all thought he was divine!   He taught them how to take 10,000th of an inch off the head, which gave more compression and made tjeir bikes go faster. MacFarlane’s was a good company and they allowed the apprentices to use the workshop to repair and tinker with theirr bikes at the weekends.  They were all immensely proud of theirr bikes and enjoyed biking and exploring the countryside around Baillieston where Alex lived.

They explored the Trossacks, lured by the mystery of those mist-covered mountains.  They would ride up past fields of purple heather, past lakes and fast flowing streams. Sometimes, suddenly they would come out above the mist into bright sunlight. The scenery then took on an ethereal look. It seemed like they were on an island and the tops of other mountains were isles in a swirling grey sea.  Roaring through the wild countryside they were like a pack of young lions.  Reveling in the throaty growls their engines made as they revved them up. . And the very best thing of all was that there was not a soul around to shake a disapproving head or brandish a fist at them.  They were young and free and the world was beautiful.  Not even the gathering storm clouds of World War 2 could dampen theirr spirits.

One of the  groups favourite haunts was the Argyllshire coast and they would often take tents and camping equipment to Troon or Ayr camp on one of the stretches of golden sands. . Argyllshire is a long legged peninsular running from the entrance to the Clyde and stretching towards Ireland. On a clear day you can see right across to Ireland and they were  overjoyed if this happened. The fine weather meant that they could spend the days swimming and lazing in the sun. In the evenings they would light a big fire and cook beans and sausages, and sit and chat till the embers died.

One particular weekend Ales and his group of friends I had driven to Macrihannish, a small town, which is five miles across the peninsular from Campbeltown on the outside of the leg facing Ireland…  The HMS Hood was berthed in the bay and they all stopped to admire her.  There was a local dance that they planned to attend in the evening and they changed from motorbike gear into their glad rags at a local pub where the landlord knew us. Alex and the lads  I set off full of excitement and expectation.

“All the lassies I’ve seen are beautiful” the handsomest one of the group remarked.

“Och, they’ll no look at you then you ugly great bam pot” someone else bantered back.

“Weel if I’m ugly you’re hideous” was the return comment.

The good-natured teasing and joking continued as they made their way to the local dance hall.  Alex and his friends  were happy and laughing and looking forward to an evening of dancing and meeting girls.  Little did they know that their happiness was to be short lived and their hopes for the evening were to be dashed.

They entered the hall and made their way to the bar and ordered our usual half pints of “heavy”.  They looked around and took in the ambiance. There was a band playing and the whole place was humming with music and conversation.  Then they noticed that the dance floor was filled with sailors from the Hood in uniforms, some in white with officer’s stripes and naval hats, and some just in the ordinary uniforms with ensign’s caps. The uniforms made them all seem handsome and gave them a certain edge, or at least the girls seemed to think so.   Faced with all the sailors in their glamorous uniforms Alex and hi friends I didn’t stand a chance. They couldn’t even get a dance.  It was then that Alex  remembered the old adage – “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em.”

Over the next few days Alex considered his options.HeI had wanted to be a footballer just like his father before him.  Alex’s father had played for Sunderland and for Scotland and was now the physiotherapist and talent scout for Glasgow Rangers. Alex had attended Allengate School and had played in the school team.  Scouts used to come around regularly to the school; and he was picked for Strathclyde, a team that played in the junior league. Alex played mid field which meant he could influence the game and also score goals.  Alex knew he was good, his father knew he was good, good enough to play for Rangers, but his father still did not pick him for this prestigious team.

Alex  can still remember his disappointment as at the end of the year the scouts came and took the whole of the youth team to play in various teams.   The scouts respected my father and said

“We’ll no touch you; we wouldn’t dare because your Dad is coming for you for Rangers. You’ll be playing in Ibrox by the end of the year.”

Alex knew differently as his two older brothers had already been there before him. In fact, his brother Jack would have definitely made it as a professional footballer and in the future was to play as an amateur in the Olympics at Helsinki. In later years Jack encouraged his own son, another Jack who was taken on by Arsenal as a junior and went on to become captain of Peterborough.

 

It was the very opposite with Alex’s father who positively discouraged his three sons and did not choose any of them for Glasgow Rangers as he said he did not want to be accused of nepotism. But as Alex was the youngest he still had a small glimmer of hope that he might relent and change his mind. But it was not to be. His father told him that he didn’t want him to be a footballer like him. A footballer’s career is short with a limited future and Alex’s father wanted him to get a trade, which would provide him with a secure future.  You have to bear in mind that in 1939, footballers did not have the kudos that they have today and even the premier league players were lucky if they earned 10 pounds a week.My daughter always says  “Dad,You were  born out of you time and if I had been born later you I would have made it as a professional footballer and had a successful and lucrative career.” But instead my father paid for his son’s apprenticeship in engineering and  Alex consoled himself by playing for Falkirk   They were still a first division team, but did not quite have the same cachet as Glasgow Rangers. He trained for two evenings, attended night school for the other three and was an apprentice electrician by day. AlexI earned eight pounds a week from Falkirk. In those days this made him rich in comparison to other lads of my age.

.Alex could see that war was imminent and he didn’t want to be conscripted into the army.  Alex thought that if he joined the Navy he would avoid this and as a bonus he would see the world. The other consideration was that he had nearly finished his apprenticeship. Then there was his experience at the dance as he could see that being in the Navy would increase his popularity with the girls. That was the clincher and Alex decided to go to the Royal Navy Recruitment office the next day,

 

 

 

 

The Second World War

I was listening to Jeremy Vine on the Radio the other day and he was talking to Antony Beevor about his new book called “The Second World War”. Jeremy was saying that it is strange that The Second World War fascinates everybody. This struck a chord with me as I am spell bound by the War and love nothing better than watching old war films. For although there was tragedy and hardship it was a glamorous and romantic time, stream trains gushing steam, whistles blowing, passionate goodbye embraces. There was a spirit of recklessness, servicemen knew they could meet a violent death; civilians knew they could be killed in a bombing raid.  People wanted to gamble, drink, dance and make love because they knew they may never have another chance

I have two links to the Second World War. The first is that in my book “The Skimming Stone” the two children are sent back in time to the Second World War by the benign Wizard Signet to put a great wrong right and tidy up some loose ends.  They experience the hardship of life in those war years, meet some interesting characters such as Jazz, a. Spitfire Pilot and watch a dog fight in the air.

The second connection is that my father was a Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Navy and he had a very interesting war. He was a submariner, a commando creeping through jungles to destroy Japanese air fields in the Far East, the ill-fated attack at Narvik in Norway. where they could not tell the difference between Norwegians and Germans. He was on HMS Nelson as part of the convoy that got the Oil tanker Ohio through to Malta preventing the fall of Malta.  All through this time he played football for the Navy, and after the war played against the national teams of Brazil and Portugal.

I started to write his story called Alex’s war, but when I told him he did not want me to carry on and publish his story as he felt it was immodest and people would think he was bragging.  Anyway as I have written various chapters that I think people will find interesting I thought I would put them on a blog!  So here is his story about the Tally-Ho submarine. Let me know if you would like to hear more and I’ll publish other chapters as blogs.

Alex’s War Chapter 9

The Tally-Ho

If only he cold tell, of the sights that he had seen,

Of seas that he had sailed, on that fine old submarine.

 

But his tales will go untold, because of history past.

Of lessons paid in blood, the “Silent Service” it was cast.

 

Soul of a Submariner. John Chaffey

 

During World War II, the “Silent Service” paid dear cost.

And the saddest words heard, were “overdue and presumed lost.”

 

Submarine Lore. John Chaffey.

 

 

You won’t find Alex’s name on any of the crew member’s lists of the submarine Tally-Ho, but he was. There, oh yes he was there.  Alex was serving as the Chief Engineer of the Tally-Ho on that fateful day on 24 February 1944 when she had a narrow escape. The Tally-Ho was reported missing, believed sunk and it was thought that all her crew had perished at sea.

 

It happened like this. Alex was the Chief Petty officer on board the HMS Canton, which was operating in the Indian Ocean and had docked in Colombo, Ceylon, to refuel. Alex was enjoying a brief respite of shore leave in Colombo.  Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka then is an island paradise, warm and tropical with lush green vegetation and beaches of golden sands. Alex was relaxing waiting for the HMS Canton to be ready to escort another merchant ship when HMS Tally-Ho came into port.  Their chief engineer had appendicitis and was rushed to the local Military hospital. The Tally-Ho needed a Chief engineer and as Alex was available he was drafted to take up this post. He had never been on a submarine before and it was with some trepidation that Alex joined the crew in his first and only post as a submariner. A sailor always stays listed as a crewmember on his mother ship while in a temporary post on another ship.

 

HMS Tally-Ho was a British T class submarine and was 276 feet 6 inches long and 25 feet 6 inches wide and had a height of 12 feet 9 inches   high   forward and 14 feet 7 inches aft. It was a large submarine but with a complement of 61 men aboard it sometimes felt quite crowded.  It had twin diesel engines and twin electric motors and could go at a speed of 9 knots submerged and 15.5 knots on the surface. It had 11 torpedo tubes, 6 reload torpedoes, a 4-inch deck gun and 3 anti aircraft machine guns.

The operating areas the submarine covered were mainly in the Malacca Straits, off Java, Sumatra and the South China Sea.  There were not many big targets to be found in the area and so the crew were not stretched.  This meant that the other side of the coin and a big bonus for them was that Japans anti-submarine activity was sporadic and not very efficient. Although as they were to discover, to their peril, not without some little success.

 

As an engineer Alex spent much of his time below decks on other ships and so being submerged was not so very different. He got over his initial fear and he was soon enjoying life on the HMS Tally-Ho.  There was a great feeling of camaraderie on the ship probably as everyone was living together in close proximity.  They all ate together, and even the Captain Lt. Commander Bennington joined his crew for meals. He was a popular Captain and cared about all his crew.  He would never leave port without all his men aboard.  The submarine operated out of Trincomalee and Alex remembers many occasions when Captain Bennington sent out search parties round the bars to find a missing seaman or two, so that the Tally-Ho could set sail. This was unusual as ships set sail at the appointed time and if any crewmember missed the boat they were in deep trouble.

 

The Tally-Ho had been enjoying much success in January 1944, and on the 11 January had sunk the Japanese light cruiser the Kuma. Their periscope had spotted her masts coming out of Penang harbour, putting to sea for a second day of anti-submarine exercises.  A F1M2 Pete and the destroyer Uranami accompanied her.  Little did she realise that the exercise was about to become the real thing.

 

There was a feeling of excitement and expectation when Lt. Commander Bennington gave the command to down periscopes and Action Stations. Crewmembers moved quickly to their posts and by 09.13 everyone were in attack position.  The Captain ordered a spread of seven torpedoes and gave the order to fire.  Alex knew that the torpedoes were in working order as he checked them every day but he still held his breath with the rest of the crew.  There was an eerie silence as everyone waited for what seemed to be an eternity and then two enormous explosions were heard in rapid succession like violent reverberating metallic hammer blows. The crew could not help themselves and all let out a tremendous cheer.  There was much backslapping as they rose to the surface and looked through the periscope at the stricken Kuma. The crew watched in awe as she sank by the stern and one of the crew, who was quite religious, and had been nicknamed “Holy Joe”, said prayers for the unfortunate sailors on board the Kuma.  They later learned that 138 lives had been lost.  Most of the sailors were just glad that it wasn’t them and were relieved when the Captain gave the orders to make good their escape.

 

After this the submarine successfully torpedoed and sank the Japanese army cargo ship Ryuko Maru on 15 January 1944, south of Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. They did not see much action after these successes until Valentines Day 14 February 1944, when they torpedoed and sunk a German submarine UIT-23 in the Straits of Malacca south of Penang. A week later on the 21 February 1944 they torpedoed and sank the Japanese army cargo ship Daigen Maru No 6 in the Straits of Malacca very close to their previous hit.

 

On the fateful day of 24 February 1944, HMS Tally-Ho was 1000 miles away from their homeport of Trincomalee, when they encountered an enemy torpedo boat.  The captain gave the command and they fired a spread of torpedoes. None of these torpedoes found their target and they dived to take refuge.  They sat stationary while the enemy sent depth charges.  They felt extremely vulnerable, as they stayed absolutely still and quiet with the engines cut off. Alex felt terrified as everyone could hear these depth charges getting nearer and nearer.  They all knew that at any moment their submarine could be blasted apart and they would stand no chance of survival.  The water would rush into the submarine and they would plummet to the bottom of the ocean.  There would be no escape and everyone would drown.   “Holy Joe” started to sing “Abide with me” and the Captain’s voice boomed out from the bridge over the tannoy.  “Shut that man up”.  Someone put a bucket over his head.

 

The captain gave the order to surface “We’ll take our chances up above; we’re not going to be a sitting duck any longer”.  When they surfaced it felt as if the whole Japanese navy was after them. The captain gave the order and they moved in close to the destroyer and mirrored its moves so that it could not use its guns on them.  The Captain knew that if they kept close to the destroyer its guns did not have the purchase to shoot at them.  The submarine played cat and mouse with the Japanese Destroyer for about 2 hours. Unfortunately the Tally-Ho did not move quickly enough one time and the Japanese destroyer ripped open the port ballast tanks. This was disastrous as it meant that they could not dive to shake off their pursuer.  To everyone’s amazement, a miracle happened and the Japanese destroyer disappeared.  It is not known whether the destroyer was damaged or if their Captain thought that they were finished and they could not survive. The answer to that question was never known.  What they did know was that they were alone, 1000 miles from our homeport and could not dive. Even though the odds were against them, the survival instinct is strong and they were determined to try to get to safety.

 

The problem was that the ship was listing to port and the engines were in danger of slipping off their mountings. If this happened they would probably pack up altogether and then they would be marooned in the Malachi Straits. Alex went up to the bridge to report on the damage to the Captain.  He told him about the problem, and while he digested this information Alex suddenly had a bright idea

“Captain, have you got a wooden bunk?”

“Yes, my bunk has a wooden structure.”

“Well, if I can take it apart and use the wood I can prop the engines up so that we can travel at a reasonable speed.”

“O.K that will be fine, send a couple of men to dismantle my bunk and use the wood.”

There was no shortage of volunteers and Alex chose Joe who had been a carpenter before he joined the Navy and Alan, one of his engineers.  They set to work and within a couple of hours they had constructed a wooden frame around the engine to hold it in place.

 

Alex tannoyed up to the bridge that they were ready to try the engines and the captain gave the order to go. They found that the engines could not go faster than 4 knots an hour; by trial and error.  If they tried to increase this speed the vibrations from the engine were in danger of breaking the temporary frame they had constructed. Alex reported this back to the Captain and he gave orders to start their long journey.  And long journey it was, as 4 knots is about 4 miles per hour, which meant that in one day and night they would travel only 96 miles. At this speed we would take 10 days to reach Trincomalee

 

They must have had a guardian angel looking after them, as they met no other ships on their voyage. When they reached Formosa they waited till nightfall to travel past the island as it was a Japanese stronghold, and they would have been spotted in daylight.  They crept past the island in the dark and they were on the home run to port and safety.

 

As The Tally-Ho approached Ceylon, they saw two reconnaissance planes in the sky above them, who dived down to get a closer look.  The Tally-Ho signalled and identified themselves.  The planes climbed and disappeared from sight and then they saw the coastline of Ceylon and the port of Trincomalee shimmering in the distance. They found out later that Tokyo Rose had been reporting over the radio that the Tally-Ho was sunk and all men aboard were lost.  She even had some of our crew’s names and had been busy enlightening their families over the radio waves that they would never see their beloved sons or husbands again. It is not known where the Japanese got their information from but the names they had were correct. Everyone in the port had thought that the Tally-Ho had indeed been destroyed, especially as the days went on and there was no sign of her.

 

When they reached the harbour every single boat and ship came out to greet them, sounding their horns and whistles. What a welcome they got. There were people lining the quays all waving flags and cheering. The crew were overjoyed as they had not expected such a welcome and smiled and waved back. There was a line of ambulances waiting to take all the crew to the medical centre, although luckily there were no serious injuries and no-one was the worse for wear. It had taken them 10 days over treacherous enemy filled waters, unable to dive and listing badly but they had made it.  They were home and safe.

Musings

Urban Foxes. Live in the City. Close encounters of the Foxy kind.

 

 

I was delighted when Channel Four announced their programme about urban foxes, firstly because I love foxes and secondly because one of the characters in my book, “The Grail of the Unicorn Planet,” is an urban fox called Rufus. In my book, the children are able to communicate with him, made possible by the wizard Signet. He is an important character as he prevents the children being caught by two dangerous criminals.  He also shows them how to use the T.A.M the device enabling Archie to space travel to the planet Altair to warn Signet that  the evil wizard Vastator is behind the plague on Altair.

I was even more delighted when two students appeared at our door, part of the Sussex University team taking part into the research on urban foxes.  They explained how the unit had needed special permission by the Home Office to trap a fox, as this is usually illegal. They caught a year old vixen in the humane trap and put a collar on her enabling them to track her movements.  They have called her Grace.  The reason the students called at our house was because her tracks showed that her territory is all the back gardens behind the houses up and down the street in Hollingbury Road.

We have a patio above an extension at the back of the house where we sit and drink Pimms or Sangria in the hot weather but the rest of our garden is an ecosphere. It is lovely as we sit on the patio and watch all the wild life, butterflies, squirrels and birds. Last year we used to watch three fox cubs playing with their mother on the next-door neighbour’s lawn.  The students explored our garden and found foxholes, so probably last year’s den was in our garden and the cubs chose the rather neater lawn next door as their playground.  The students think that maybe Grace was one of these cubs, as it is customary for female foxes to stay in their home environment and help their mother raise the next batch of cubs, like an older sister or aunt.

The students told us that the programme makers were also interested to research how foxes got along with cats.  They asked if we would mind putting collars on our cats so that they could track the cat’s movements together with the foxes to see if they interacted. We told them that we would not mind but our cats would probably object.  Especially Jemila, who is one quarter Siamese, as the last time we tried to put a flea collar on her she acted like a cross between a tigress and bucking bronco.  We thought that our other cat Treacle might be more malleable, but as we adopted her have no previous experience of her ever wearing a collar or how she would take to it. They said they would send a member of their team round but so far have not been back to us.

I leave food out for the foxes at my father’s house in Welbeck Avenue Hove, especially when it is cold and snowing. I don’t feed the foxes at our house because  they would never find the food in our garden!

I have had a few encounters with foxes.  The first when I went out in my father’s garden one day I found a fox curled up, sleeping in the sun on a flowerbed.  I wanted to be friendly and  talk to it but it leapt up and ran for its life. My second encounter with foxes was luckier and was very special to me. I lived in a small quiet road in Hollingdean near to my present house and one night parked my car  down the road as it was late and there were no spaces near my house.  As I walked up the road I saw a fox walking nonchalantly in the middle of the road following me.  I was so surprised that I said, ”Hello what are you doing here?” The fox walked over to the grass verge opposite me, sat down and studied me inquisitively.  He was not a bit frightened as I apologized that I had no chicken but would make him a cheese sandwich if he liked.  When I came out of my house again with the sandwich, he had disappeared.  I left the sandwich and in the morning it was gone so I don’t know whether the fox or the local seagulls enjoyed it.

The last encounter was very sad as one day when I went into my father’s garden I found a dead fox lying on the grass. I could not see any injuries but maybe he had been hit by a car and crawled into the garden to die. I cried my eyes out as he looked so sad lying stretched out on the grass.  I think he was a male as he was quite big and I only hope he didn’t suffer.  I phoned the local council and they told me to put him in a black bag by the front gate and arranged to collect him. My son comforted me by saying, “Don’t cry mum, it’s the circle of life and there are plenty more fox cubs growing up to take his place.”  I still wept for that poor old fox but I hope that Grace will play her part and help her Mother to bring up some new fox cubs and my wish is that they will thrive and become the next generation of urban foxes.

Musings

Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence

Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence

 In my book, “The Grail of the Unicorn Planet” the extraterrestrials that live on the planet Altair are highly advanced and benevolent.  They visit Earth, unknown to most of us but if they did show their faces they would be friendly. However some people believe that to try and make contact with aliens and send messages to outer space is foolhardy and even dangerous. David Brun, scientist and science fiction author and considers it may be risky to reveal Earth’s location to alien civilisations.  Another notable critic is the eminent physicist Stephen Hawking, who has said, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,”

Nevertheless, we have been sending messages since 1974 and are continuing to do so. So what messages have been sent and where have we sent them?

Well, the first time humans tried signaling aliens was in 1974, from the Arecebo radio telescope in Puerto Rico.  The message was aimed at a cluster of stars called M13, 25.000 light years away.  An answer if one ever comes will come back in 50,000 years, so perhaps we do not need to worry too much for after all the earth may not survive for that long.

The Arecebo message  used the binary system and consisted of the numbers one through to ten, then the atomic numbers of basic elements ,  formulas for sugars and bases of the nucleotides of DNA, the double helix structure of DNA, a figure of a human being and its height, the population of earth, a diagram of our solar system and an image of the Arecebo telescope with its diameter.

Perhaps the most bizarre message of all that was sent was the Poetica Vaginal.  Joe Davis is an artist and research affiliate at Massachusetts Institute of techology.  He was concerned that no image of humans had been sent into space representing the details of human genitals or reproduction.  So he made a message of the vaginal contractions of ballet dancers which were beamed from MIT’s Millstone Hill radar to Epsilon Endani, Tau Ceti and two other stars.  However, only a few minutes of footage was transmitted before the US air force which had jursidiction over this facility shut the project down. Nevertheless, the vaginal sounds that were sent will have reached Epsilon Endani in 1996 and Tau Ceti in 1998. Who knows what any extraterrestrials will make of the message or what sort of reply we should expect.

The Cosmic Call messages were designed with a copy of the Arecebo message, a bilingual Image glossary as well as text, video and other image files submitted for transmission by everyday people around the world.  They were transmitted to various constellations such as Cygnus and Andromeda in 1999 and 2003.

The Teen-age messages were composed by teenagers and four Russian scientists, mainly led by Alexander Zaitsev, a Russian engineer at the Russian Acedemy of Sciences in Moscow.  It consisted of three parts, the first being a coherant sounding radio signal with a slow Doppler wavelength in order to help extraterrestials recognise it as a signal. The second was analog information representing musical mellodies performed on the Theremin.  This electrical musical instrument produces a signal which is easily detectable across interstellar distances.  The third represented a well known Arecebo-like binary digital information and a greeting in Russian and English.  This message was sent in 2001 to six different constellations, including 47 Ursae Majoris, the first star to be found with a similar solar system to ours. The message, if there is anyone there to listen will arrive in 2047.

After this, a website was beamed into space  by a company called Deep Space Communications Network in 2005.  The website is called Craigslist and it beams messages from members of the general public into space. However as it sends messages into open space rather than to specific stars, it is unlikely anybody will pick them up.

Next, in February 2008, the Beatles song Across the Universe was sent out by NASA to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the agency’s founding.  The message was aimed at Polaris, the Pole Star, and should arrive there in in 2439.  However, Zaitsev, the Russian engineer behind the Cosmic Call and Teen-age messages, criticised the message stating that there were several defects in the method of transmission and also that Polaris is a super giant star that proably cannot support life.

Zaitsev, not content with the Cosmic Call and Teen-age messages set up a new project called A Message from Earth.  This comprised of 501 messages selected by a competition on the social network site Bebo.  As well as a million members of the public, various celebrities suggested messages, including the X Files actress Gillian Anderson and the Pop group McFly. All these people are now effectively ambassadors for the human race.

Lucy Hawking, writer in residence for Arizona State University’s Origins project and Stephen Hawking’s daughter ignored her fathers warning that aliens may be hostile and in February 2011 launched a writing contest called “Dear Aliens”. It asked students to answer “What would you say to extraterrestrials if earthlings are contacted from Outer Space? If you had to speak for humanity what would you say?  Over 1,000 messages were submitted to the contest.  Benjamin Lee, a seventh-grade student from Mesa, Arizona won the contest. Despite Stephen Hawking’s grim warning against attemping alien contact, in April 2011 Lee’s message was beamed into space, where it was bounced off the moon.

The message reads “Dear Aliens, Please help us save our world.  Not from you, from ourselves. We are destroying our planet and need help from more technologically advanced beings.  Our planet is polluted, many nations are at war, there is civil unrest and our economy is in turmoil.”

Lets hope that any extraterrestrials hearing the message are philanthropic and amiable, like the Altairians in my book. And that Stephen Hawking doesn’t get the chance to say “I told you so” to his daughter.

Information contained in this blog taken from

Earth calling: A short history of radio messages to ET . New Scientist. Space. 20 January 2010 Michael Marshall.

Is Stephen Hawking right about aliens? Alok Jha, The Guardian 30 April 2010.

Hawking: Aliens may pose a risk to Earth, mnsnbc.com staff and news service reports. 25 April 2010.

Messages to extraterrestials. Jason McClellen 30 August 2011.

 

Musings

Car trouble

I thought that the days of rogue cowboy garages was over but I was wrong. After having two clutches in quick succession, fitted by Lee Hire in Brighton they told me that I had burnt the clutches to a crisp and that the car would not go into gear because the gear box was  faulty. They suggested that I “pass” the car and its problems on to an unsuspecting buyer and I should buy an automatic car as it would be better for a woman of  my age!

I then found out that Lee Hire had fitted the wrong clutch.  I thought i would share with you all, the action I have now taken. So here is the copy of the letter I have sent to Lee Hire, telling the story and asking them to repay the costs

Dear Sir,

Re: Volkswagen Golf W382 UMO

The clutch went on my car was on 2 December 2011 and I phoned my breakdown service Smart Assist. They called your company, Lee Hire to assist me. As my usual garage was unable to carry out the work for a few days I agreed to have my car towed to your garage Lee Hire to carry out the work. The clutch was replaced and you charged me £326.33, the invoice dated 2/12/2011..

The clutch went again on 8 February 2012 and I had the car towed back to you as you had fitted the clutch 2 months previously and I felt the clutch you had fitted must be faulty.  At that time you advised that it was my fault and that I had burned out the clutch.  I have submitted a statement from an expert witness, Mr John Emerson, my mechanic that has repaired my cars for 30 years, who states that in all the years he has known me I have not been prone to riding the clutch, and that I have not had to have repeated clutch replacements.

You replaced the clutch again and because I complained that I thought the clutch must have been faulty or you had incorrectly fitted it you reduced the cost charging me £263.67, claiming that the reduction was due to the suppliers discretion.  After a few days I became concerned as I could not put the car into first or second gear and furthermore the clutch pedal did not go down to the floor, making it difficult and even dangerous to drive.  I took it back to you and one of your mechanics drove it around the block.  He agreed that it was terrible but said there was no adjustment available on the clutch as it is a hydraulic system and he thought that the gearbox was irreparably damaged.  He stated at the time that it was not my fault. He also advised me to sell the car and pass the problem on to someone else.

I then went to Caffyns, the Volkswagen specialist, for a vehicle check. They confirmed my findings that when the car was warm it would not go into first gear or reverse and the clutch pedal did not go down to the floor.  They thought that the master cylinder needed replacement and told me that the good news about the master cylinder was that there was no air in the system.  They could not tell without taking the clutch out, if this would solve the problem. They could not see any problem with the gearbox. I paid £61.99 for the vehicle check.

I went back to my mechanic, John Emerson, who then took the car back to my usual garage, Brighton MOT Centre. They conferred and agreed that the master cylinder was not faulty because if it had been, there would be no pedal at all. There was also no evidence of air in the system.

They found that your Company had used the wrong clutch.  I have enclosed a letter from this garage as another expert witness statement to corroborate this.  I have kept the clutch as evidence if you would like to see it. You had also cannibalised the first clutch and used the pressure plate in the second repair, presumably that was why you were able to reduce the second bill.

It is Lee Motors who are at fault. Your mistake in fitting two wrong clutches has caused me many problems. I came back to you after the second wrong clutch was fitted and you said there was nothing you could do.  In view of this I would ask you to pay me the following for the work I have had to pay to other garages in order to rectify your mistakes.

Brighton MOT Center bill of                                                                           446.15

Caffyns bill of                                                                                                   61.99

Payment to Mr Emerson for all his time spent diagnosing the

correct fault and liasing with Brighton MOT Center                                        100.00

Loss of income for 2 weeks as unable to call on clients                                180.00

(Care worker – clients are in Peacehaven, Haywards Heath)

 

Total                                                                                                               788.14

f you do not pay the money by 15th March 2012 I will issue a county court claim against you.

Yours faithfully

Mrs V G Pirie

Cc.  *  Share Assist Breakdown cover       * 1st Assist Insurance        *  Trading Standards

Well, I don’t see how they can deny that they have caused this fiasco especially as I have kept the wrong clutch as proof.  They obviously thought I was just a daft blonde of a certain age who didn’t know a big end from a water pump! I may be blonde and over 40! but I’m certainly not  stupid.

Watch this space and I’ll let you know what happens.

 

Musings

Stargazing, Exoplanets and Space travel

Stargazing, Exoplanets and Space travel

I have always liked Science fiction and have been inspired by H.G Wells and Jules Verne and later Asimov. So as a writer I wanted to incorporate this as an element in my books.  Information technology means that we all have instant access to the latest developments in technology and we can see that Science Fiction is steadily becoming Science Fact.  Scientists at NASA are discovering more Exoplanets with their Kepler planet-hunting telescope every day.  So I thought I would tell you about one of the latest ones named Kepler 22-b.  It has been identified as having many similarities to our own planet Earth, making it the latest best potential target for life. It is about 2.4 times the size of Earth and lies in the so-called, “Goldilocks zone”, (the not-too-hot and not-to-cold habitable zone). It has a comfortable surface temperature of about 22C (72F) and orbits a star not unlike our own.  Astronomers believe that it probably also possesses water and land but this has yet to be proved.

Kepler 22-b is an impossible 600 light years away. So the question is, even if we think there is life on a faraway planet, how do we get there?

The nearest star is 4 light years away, a round trip of 8 light years. Actually, going at the speed of light would be impossible for anything with mass but at a velocity of 99% the speed of light, the journey would take just over 8 years as measured by the crew of the spaceship, but about 57 years as measured by an observer on Earth. Can you imagine that?  If you went on such a trip when you returned, a good many of the family and friends you had known would have died or aged much faster than you. If you left children of eight or nine years behind they would be Old Age pensioners when you returned to earth!

If it were possible to travel to Kepler 22-b, 600 light years away, at 99% the speed of light, it would take many generations of human life to arrive there.  So the films and series depicting families living on board a space ship would become reality instead of fantasy. Neil Young’s wrote about such a vision of the future in his evocative song, “After the Goldrush” when he sang, “Well I dreamed I saw the silver Spaceships flying in the yellow haze of the sun, there were children crying and colours flying all around the chosen ones.  All in a dream, all in a dream, the loading had begun. They were flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to a new home in the sun. Flying Mother nature’s silver seed to a new home.”

Imagine that, there would be some people who would be born and die on the space ship and never experience the smell of new mown grass, the feeling of warm sun on their faces, hear waves crashing on the shore or even see a live football match! But the flip side for these pioneers would be amazing sights and awesome experiences during their space travels that others left behind on earth would never see.

 

So is there anything on the horizon that could make space travel a more viable possibility? Could we travel as fast as light? Could we like the “Star Trek” crew of the Starship Enterprise go into warp drive and travel at superluminal speeds or like the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars switch our spaceships to light speed.  The laws of physics may prevent us from doing that but we will be able to go many times faster than our current propulsion methods allow.

Aerospace engineers are devising several innovative ways to travel to the stars. One of these being proposed is the use of electromagnetic propulsion. Unlike the rocket engines of today that run off chemical propulsion, this type of spacecraft would be jolted through space by electromagnets. When cooled to extremely low temperatures, electromagnets demonstrate an unusual behaviour: For the first few nanoseconds after electricity is applied to them, they vibrate. David Goodwin a program manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of High Energy and Nuclear Physics, proposes that if this vibration can be contained in one direction, it could provide enough of a jolt to send spacecraft farther and faster into space than any other propulsion method in development.

Another method being developed by NASA is one that harnesses the power of the Sun. Basically; fusion-powered spacecraft are designed to recreate the same types of high-temperature reactions that occur in the core of the Sun. The enormous energy created from those reactions is expelled from the engine to provide thrust. Using this type of propulsion system, a spacecraft could speed to Mars in just about three months. It would take conventional rockets at least seven months to reach Mars.

Yet another innovative method of space travel is to use light propulsion. To reach space, we used to use the space shuttle, which has to carry tons of fuel and have two massive rocket boosters strapped to it to lift off the ground.  The basic idea behind light propulsion is the use of ground-based lasers to heat air to the point that it explodes, propelling the spacecraft forward. Lasers would allow engineers to develop lighter spacecraft that wouldn’t need an onboard energy source. The light craft vehicle itself would act as the engine, and light — one of the universe’s most abundant power sources — would be the fuel.

 

Perhaps the most interesting of all the proposed new methods of space travel that Scientists are working on is developing an interstellar spacecraft engine using antimatter. What is antimatter? Well, it’s exactly what you might think it is – the opposite of normal matter, of which the majority of our universe is made.  Until just recently, the presence of antimatter in our universe was considered to be only theoretical, but in 1928 British physicist Paul A. M.Dirac proposed a new theory and a new paradigm was born revising Einstein’s famous equation E=mc².

 

When antimatter comes into contact with normal matter, these equal but opposite particles collide to produce an explosion emitting pure radiation, which travels out of the point of the explosion at the speed of light. Both particles that created the explosion are completely annihilated, leaving behind other subatomic particles. The explosion that occurs when antimatter and matter interact transfers the entire mass of both objects into energy. Scientists believe that this energy is more powerful than any that can be generated by other propulsion methods.

So, why haven’t we built a matter-antimatter reaction engine? The problem with developing antimatter propulsion is that there is a lack of antimatter existing in the universe. If there were equal amounts of matter and antimatter, we would likely see these reactions around us. Since antimatter doesn’t exist around us, we don’t see the light that would result from it colliding with matter.

It is possible that particles outnumbered anti-particles at the time of the Big Bang. As stated above, the collision of particles and anti-particles destroys both. And because there may have been more particles in the universe to start with, those are all that’s left.  However, scientists discovered a possible deposit of antimatter near the centre of the galaxy in 1977. If that does exist, it would mean that antimatter exists naturally, and the need to make our own antimatter would be eliminated.

For now, we will have to create our own antimatter. Luckily, there is technology available to create antimatter through the use of high-energy particle colliders, also called “atom smashers.” Atom smashers, like CERN, are large tunnels lined with powerful super magnets that circle around to propel atoms at near-light speeds. When an atom is sent through this accelerator, it slams into a target, creating particles. Some of these particles are antiparticles that are separated out by the magnetic field. These high-energy particle accelerators only produce one or two picograms of antiprotons each year. A picogram is a trillionth of a gram. All of the antiprotons produced at CERN in one year would be enough to light a 100-watt electric light bulb for three seconds. It will take tons of antiprotons to travel to interstellar destinations.

So you can see that there are problems with producing antimatter. But if it can be made, an antimatter engine will take us far beyond our solar system and let us reach nearby stars in a fraction of the time it would take a spacecraft propelled by a liquid hydrogen-engine like the ones currently used.

 

So there we are, electromagnets, light, fusion or anti-matter may lead to great developments in space travel. Technology is growing exponentially.  When you think of it the first working airplane was invented, designed, made, and flown by the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright in 1903. A 12-horsepower water-cooled engine supplied the power to the two propellers. When the motorcar was first seen on our roads in the late 1800’s someone walked in front of it waving a red flag! Since then we have developed jet propelled aircraft, beaten the sound barrier, sent men to the moon and constructed a manned space satellite orbiting the earth. In the last 100 years science and technology has taken giant leaps and new inventions are developing at a faster and faster rate.

 

So in the next hundred years there is a possibility that we may develop a fast method of space travel.  We may discover some forms of life on far away planets and who knows we may find some form of intelligent life.  But are we ready for this? The Altairians in my book “The Grail of the Unicorn planet” are in effect aliens and they describe Earth as a primitive planet. Life is not exactly harmonious here, with wars, squabbling politicians, natural disasters, and global warming. We humans are hardly exemplary so would aliens even want to be our friends?   Another thought is that they may be a threat to us.  But I am ever an optimist and I like to think that aliens would be benevolent and perhaps help us to grow

Holy days and the first day of the week

The Literacy class where I am a volunteer restarted after half term, last Monday the 20th February and I was very surprised to find that I learnt something myself. The teacher asked everyone, “What is the first day of the Week?” You possibly thought like me that it was Monday. or maybe you are cleverer than me and know that it is in fact Sunday.

Now I thought that in the bible, the Sabbath, or Sunday, was the last day of the week.  The day when you are supposed to rest and not work.  Then I got to thinking that this is only true if you are a Christian. In the Jewish faith Saturday is their Holy day and for Muslims, it is Friday.

Taking it further, if you are an Odinist, and worship the Moon, then Monday is your Holy day, and Tuesday is your day if you worship the God Tiu. Wednesday is for followers of Wotan and for worshipers of Thor, Thursday is their special day.

Now in this modern multi-cultural world where we should all accept and  be tolerant of other religions, perhaps we should celebrate all the days of the week as holy days or holidays. We could then not work at all and that would solve the problem of the first day of the week, but it may not be so good for the economy in general, especially as atheists would complain that they never ever got a holiday!!

 

Musings

The Odd Sock in the Laundry Syndrome

Do you ever find that when you come to sort out the laundry after it has been washed and tumble-dried that you are left with odd socks? Even though  you  have  washed  the  clothes  at home, they just can’t be found.

They’re not left in the washing machine or tumble drier so where on earth have they gone?

The answer is that they are not anywhere on this earth.  It’s all the fault of Lev and Soli. Now, at this point, you may well be asking, “Who the hell are Lev and Soli” Well, Lev and Soli are Mizakeen who are Jewish mythical creatures who are very mischievous.  So, what have these mythical creatures got to do with missing socks? Surely they just exist in myths.

Well, you see all the mythical creatures of this world like Fairies, Leprechauns, Elves, Unicorns, Dragons, Fenghuang, and Kitsune really do exist and they live on a Planet called Altair.  They do not think they are strange and all live in harmony in their different tribes. Altair is a very advanced planet and its peoples are capable of space travel. Altairians have to spend a year either on one of two similarly advanced planets or two primitive planets, in order to gain citizenship of Altair. If you will, it is a rite of passage but when they visit the primitive planets, one of which is Earth or Terra as they call it, they are not supposed to be seen. However, occasionally they are spotted by us mortals and this is how our myths have arisen. But I digress, back to the missing socks, which will explain it all, read an excerpt from “The Grail of the Unicorn planet”….

As they made their way along the main street towards the square and the café, Archie noticed a large shop and the sign displayed read, ‘The Schlock Shop’. Under the sign it said, ‘Dealers in odd socks’ and under this is said, ‘recycled and new clothing at reasonable prices.  There was a colourful display of suits, trousers, dresses, jumpers, shirts and T-shirts clothes in the windows and on rails outside.  Archie was fascinated,

             “What’s that?” he asked Fingal.

 

“Ah, that’d be a clothes shop.  It’s run by two Mizakeen, Lev and Soli; they’re shape shifters you know.”

Noticing Archie’s puzzled expression he continued.

 “Have ye never heard of shape shifters? Well they can change their shape to whatever form they want. Usually they change to their customers shape, I suppose the customers feel more comfortable and Lev and Soli make more sales.”“But why are they dealers in odd socks?”
“Well, now that’s how they got started. They’re mischievous by nature and when they went to Terra on their Serai, they used to take one sock from a pair, just to tease people.  They brought back a pile of single socks and started their business by unpicking the wool or the cotton fibres and dying them and make pairs of socks, coats, suits and all sorts of clothes. Now it’s become a tradition with the Mizakeen that when they visit Terra they take single socks and bring back piles of these for Lev and Sol.”Archie started to laugh,

            ”So that’s why my Mum complains that we always end up with are odd socks. She says one sock disappears like magic, off the face of the earth.”

 Fingal laughed again, “She’s right they’ve been sent to Lev and Soli’s Schlock shop on Altair.” “

So now you know, if you find that you have odd socks don’t bother to stress out looking for them just accept that they have joined the collection of socks at the Schlock shop. Why is it called the Schlock shop? Read a further excerpt from the “Grail of the Unicorn Planet”……

“It’s a play on words, you see Schlock means cheap tat, rubbish in Yiddish, you see the Mizakeen always do their Serai in Jewish families, so they pick up Yiddish on Terra. But they don’t just trade in socks now, No, when they became more successful they branched out and they recycle many different fabrics from the four planets we visit.  They’re very clever businessmen. Here you are now; they must’ve heard us talking; so you can meet them yourself. ”

 Archie looked at the shop and saw a flash and two men appeared.

“Look, Soli, socks!” one exclaimed looking at Archie’s socks.

“Didn’t I tell you they’d come back in fashion?”

He smiled at Archie and beckoned to him.

“Come in, my boy, have we got socks for you, we got knee high socks, ankle socks, trainer socks, sports socks, bed socks, thermal socks, wool socks, cotton socks, acrylic socks even cashmere socks, patterned socks, plain socks, argyle socks, striped socks, spotted socks and even tartan socks, we got black socks, white socks, red socks, blue socks, yellow socks, orange socks, purple socks and even sky blue pink socks. Fluffy socks, smooth socks. You want socks my boy? We got socks. Boy, have you come to the right place.”

 

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.(Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet Scene II, ii 1 -2). So speaks Juliet in Shakespeare’s famous work.

I was thinking about this, last week, when my friends came back from a holiday in Hong Kong and telephoned me to ask when they could come round to give me the present they had bought on their travels. They told me in was a framed pictogram of my name in Chinese with a translation of the meaning on the back.

“It describes you, exactly, its so funny.” I  was fascinated and in the hour it took for them to arrive began to worry.  “Oh my God” I thought I suppose it says “Witch who buy many shoe!” or even worse “Bitch who wery stubborn!”

They watched me with  grins on their faces while I hastily unwrapped the framed pictograph with my name Vivien on the front. When I turned it over to find the source of their great amusement I found rather than anything derogatory it was lovely. It said “Sweetheart, head in the clouds”.  I laughed out loud, because as a writer, I quite often write passages of stories in my head and then can’t wait to get to the computer to write them down. I suppose I’m in another world, the world of my imagination. and head in the clouds is quite apt.  As for the “Sweetheart”, well I can’t possibly say.

 

 

Literacy, Musings

Favourite words

Do you have a favourite word?  There’s certainly plenty to choose from, at least 250,000 distinct words listed by The Oxford English Dictionary. We have assimilated words from many other languages throughout history so that modern English contains a very large vocabulary. Some people refer to English as a “borrowing” language.

Historically, English originated from the fusion of languages and dialects, collectively termed Old English, which were brought to the eastern coast of Great Britain by Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) settlers by the 5th century. Then came Latin.  Many English words are constructed based on roots from Latin, because Latin in some form was the lingua franca of the Christian Church and of European intellectual life.

When the Vikings invaded in the 8th and 9th centuries the Old Norse language further influenced our language. The Norman conquest of England in the 11th Century gave rise to heavy borrowings from Norman- French.

Language is a living, breathing, developing thing and changing all the time.  You only have to look at Chaucer in the 14th century to see how different language was at that time. (“Freres ad feendes been but lyte asunder – Friars and fiends are seldom far apart.” From the Summoner’s tale part of the Canterbury tales.) Even now modern English is incorporating words from other European languages but also from all over the world including words of Hindi and African origin.

So there are a rich variety of words in the English language and it is fun to trace the history and origins of words.  One of my favourites is Duplicitous.  My father once asked me if duplicitous was a derogatory word and I replied  “Well as it is usually linked to the word b*****d, I think could you say that.” It means double-dealing or deceitful and comes from Old French early 15c and Late Latin c300 to c700.

Another word I like is Oleaginous, which means oily.  It kind of trips off your tongue, O  lee ag  in ous and sound just like it’s meaning. It comes from Latin oleaginous “of the olive” and from the French oleagineux circa 1630.

My husband’s favourites are Mellifluous meaning melodious and this also just trips off your tongue mel if loo ous. This word comes from the early 15c, and means “sweet, pleasing (of and odour, a style of speaking or writing, etc.) from Late Latin mellifluous “flowing with (or as with) honey,” He also likes Stygian meaning darkness, gloomy or rather pertaining to Styx, the river flowing through the nether world. It comes from Old Greek, an Indo-European language spoken in Greece in the classical period, circa 8c. B.C.E.-4c.d

He also likes Ichor, which is the fluid that serves for blood in the veins of the ancient gods.1630’s from Greek ichor, of unknown origin, possibly from a non–Indo European language.  I used both these two last words in my books to describe Vastator, villain wizard, and the first because he is dark and sinister and the second to describe the “blood” that flows in his veins because he is an immortal. My husband’s weirdest word is Chthonic, of Greek origin, meaning pertaining to the underworld.

 My last word is Copacetic meaning agreeable, satisfactory or Ok.  This is a modern word and used in America more than Great Britain.  I could not find its origin from the on-line Etymology Dictionary but it states in the Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial expressions by Richard A Spears that it is originally black and probably French.

Well, there we go, these are some of my favourite words.  How about you?  What are your favourite words? Let me know, as I may like them too!

Musings

Glasgow Rangers

I’m not usually a football follower but I was both shocked and affected by the news that Glasgow Rangers has been forced  into liquidation.

The reason  that I feel connected to this iconic football team is that my grandfather Robert Carmichael was the Physiotherapist and chief Scout for Rangers before and during the Second World War.  He played football for Clyde and then Sunderland  and when he ‘retired’ as a footballer, joined Rangers in this capacity.

In those days footballers did not earn the megabucks that they command today nor did they have the same “celebrity” status. Although my father and his two brothers were talented footballers my grandfather did not want any of them to choose football as a career and insisted that they all learnt other skills. He refused to pick them to play for Rangers. He paid for an apprenticeship in Engineering for my father who consoled himself by playing for Falkirk.  He earned £8 per week  which in 1938 was a lot of money but in these days it is peanuts.

My father’s elder brother Jack Carmichael played as an amateur for Queens park and played for England in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.  His son, my cousin, also Jack Carmichael played for Arsenal  junior team and then became captain of Peterborough.

My father played for the Royal Navy during and after the second World War, against such teams as Portugal, where they won and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where they lost! He was offered places in a couple of football teams, notably Portsmouth when he left the Royal Navy but declined as in those days footballing as a career was still not prestigious or well paid.

It does seem to be a mad world nowadays where footballers and managers are paid fortunes in salaries and in transfer fees. Football is big business and the demise of Glasgow Rangers is just business and not personal but it will certainly feel personal to the players and staff who are sacked.  I cannot help feeling that it did not have to be this way and that some form of negotiation could have been made to repay the debts. Whatever happens, i wish them well and I hope that Glasgow rangers will survive this storm and come out the other side far better and far stronger.

 

 

Volunteering in a Literacy class at the Friends Centre

Did you know that one person in six in the UK struggles to read and write? Poor skills compromise health, confidence, happiness and employability. These literacy difficulties will limit a person’s opportunities throughout their adult life.

But this is not the whole story. So much pleasure too, can be derived from a rattling good tale whether it is a thriller, romance, historical novel, or sci-fi. As a writer I am dedicated to words, books, reading and writing and loving reading as I do, I feel it is so important for people to be able to enjoy books.  There is such a wealth of knowledge, fun and enjoyment to be gained from literature. Anyway, because of this great passion I have for literacy, I am a volunteer at the Friends Centre and help to teach a class of about 10 people who are at various stages of learning to read and write.

One of the teacher’s most tricky jobs is to keep the students focused as they are all at different stages and if she concentrates on the more, or indeed the less, able the others become bored. So, she must divide them up to undertake different tasks and the volunteers, such as myself, are an extremely necessary and positive asset as they can encourage and supervise the smaller groups,

The students are a very diverse group, a mixture of young, middle-aged, male female, and are of different races, backgrounds and life styles. The teacher interviews and assesses each student’s needs and aspirations and writes an individual learning plan with them, (ILP). As you will imagine each student’s aims are different but there is some common ground, for example, they all want help with either completing or filling in the forms they so often encounter in life.

As a group, most of the class tend to have problems with concentration and for various reasons did not learn to read or write as a child. They all tend to fidget, yawn out loud, or burp or interrupt the teacher with inconsequential requests or their latest news, shouting, “I’ve got to leave at 11.30 ‘cos I’ve got to go shopping” or, “I’m moving to a new address soon”, or “I’m worried about my fiancé, he’s got a heart condition, What do you think I should do?” But to give credit when it is due, they are all very keen and turn up for the lesson each week.

The two ladies I am assigned to help are both very different. One always seems to have some problem or another and before I came to help used to leave the class in tears, missing a lot of the lesson.  She may say something like, “I’m feeling very paranoid today”, so I talk to her and ask why and try to reassure her that no one is out to ‘get’ her. She knows the sound of the different consonants and vowels and so can be prompted to spell words correctly. By giving her positive feedback, she now stays for the whole lesson and she is making excellent progress and enjoys herself.

The other lady is the ex-traveller who never went to school. She must be a strong person as she has had a very tragic and traumatic past.  She is, perhaps the least able of the students but is determined that one day she will be able to read. She is a good pupil and works hard. Last week she not only learnt the days of the week and seasons for the first time but also how to spell them. She has a long way to go but I believe that she has the determination to succeed.

Although I was not surprised at the ways in which the student’s lack of literacy affected them I was surprised by the manner in which they were being helped.   I had somehow imagined that the teacher would be training the students from the beginning like the first year class at infant school.   I thought that the teacher would write letters on the white board and give the sounds associated with the various consonants and vowels.  I did not realise that this would be completely unsuitable.  Indeed some of the more advanced students are undertaking Edexcel certificates and Reading or Writing certificates at Entry 1 or Entry 2. The other students achieve by completing at least 60% of their ILP tasks.

At the end of each lesson the students fill in an evaluation form on their ILP where they write down things that they have learnt and things that they still need to work on.

The Friends Centre don’t charge the students for the classes but  are funded by the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) so they do receive money. In order for this to continue the students need to demonstrate their achievement by passing their Edexcel certificates and Reading or Writing certificates at Entry 1 or Entry 2.  or achieveing 60% of the tasks on their ILP’s.  Not unreasonable but some students can feel stressed by certification and the Friends centre are looking at other ways to fund these students in the future.
I sometimes I wish I could do more.  However, I take my hat off to the Friends Centre who offers these courses free-of-charge, as I know they are providing a fantastic service, which is greatly appreciated by all their students, who feel enabled by their own efforts. They can clearly understand that with better literacy they can succeed in life and make a contribution to society.
Musings

Stargazing, Exoplanets, Aliens et al

Thanks to the BBC’s recent programmes on Stargazing hosted by professor Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain there has been an explosion of interest in Outer Space.  This used to be in the realms of Science Fiction but now it is, moving closer to reality.  Scientists used to pooh pooh the idea that there may be other life on planets in the universe but now with the discovery of Exoplanets they have done an about-face and admit that yes there is possibly other life out there.

Any life out there in Space could well be more advanced than us.  We have only discovered Radio telescopes 60 years ago and we are mere babes-in-arms.  It reminds me of the words in a David Bowie song, “There’s a star man waiting in the sky, he’d like to come and see us but he thinks he’ll blow our minds”

But to get back to Exoplanets, it has now been established that if they orbit at a certain distance from their sun known as the ‘habitable zone’, where conditions mean that water can exist in liquid form then life as we know it could potentially exist. There have been some exciting discoveries, such as VB10b a small star that could have a solar system similar to our own but on a miniature scale. Then there is HSD209458b, which scientists discovered in 2007 and detected water vapour, which makes it the first exoplanet on which water has been found.

However, perhaps the most notable is Gliese 581c,s the most Earth-like planet discovered to date. It is the third of four planets orbiting the red dwarf, Gliese 581, 20.5 light years away, completing each orbit in a mere 13 days. Significantly, it is one of the smallest known Exoplanets, measuring only 1.5 times the Earth’s diameter and only 5 times its mass and is certainly a rocky planet like own.  A small rocky planet with a mild climate where water can flow? Sounds like our own world, and brings us ones step close to the discovery we are waiting for: another earth, orbiting a distant Sun.

So there could be other life in the Universe, but what would these “Alien life forms” look like? Would they be similar to us?   Scientists have said that they will possibly have eyes.  They have found 9 different cases on this planet where species have developed and they have all developed eyes. To move on from here, if there is water they must drink so they would have some sort of digestive system.  They would probably have some means of movement too, be it legs, wings or fins or something else.  We all loved the adorable ET and my favourite was the hero in John Carpenter’s, ‘Starman’, whose spacecraft is shot down by the US government. He uses a lock of hair from the decease husband of recently widowed Jenny Hayden and clones into her husband.  I’ll never forget the scene when he sees a dead deer on top of the hunters van and brings it back to life and deeply moves the hostile Jenny into helping him to reach the landing areas where a ship will pick him up.

So what is my interest in Aliens and what they might look like? Well, I have just published a book ”The Grail of the Unicorn Planet”, where all the mythical creatures of our world, Fairies, Elves, Leprechauns, Dragons, Fenghuang, Kitsune and Mizakeen etc. really exist and live on the planet Altair. They do not think they are strange but live in harmony in different tribes. They are extremely advanced beings and I have invented a form of space travel that they use: a system that converts a person or matter into photons and transports these through radio waves to be reassembled at the desired destination.  on arrival.  They have been visiting Earth or ‘Terra’ as they call it for many thousands of years.  As it is one of the ‘primitive’ planets they visit they are not allowed to show themselves, but occasionally a drunken Irishman has seen a leprechaun, and other races have seen other creatures.  And this is how our myths have grown.  This is just a story. A crossover novel meant to be enjoyed by any ages from 8 yrs to 80 yrs.  It is pure fantasy but I can’t help thinking what if….?