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Havering about Scotland

Sometimes an idea comes that refuses to let go.

Many ideas for books appear and despite initial excitement, fail to make it past a few thousand words, as you realise there’s just not enough there to justify continuing. Boredom and/or apathy take over and things are quietly put down. And the remote control quietly picked up.

The result is you end up with documents and notebooks lying around that are occasionally opened or read in the hope of regaining some of that initial enthusiasm. This can last a short while until eventually they are dropped for the second, or third, or fourth time. Sometimes you see a project name and have no idea what on earth it was and even reading it gives no further clues.

One idea that wouldn’t let go was this one.

A visit to a large university town in the north of England promised new charity shops to browse. (We all make our own entertainment in our own ways). In one of these I found a Golden Nugget. It was a book by Dave Barry, an American humorist, who I hadn’t heard of before but plenty others had. He was on the cover, dressed in fancy dress as George Washington standing on the prow (or is it the bow?) of a small boat.

The book was called Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States. I opened it, started reading and started laughing. I turned a few more pages. And laughed some more. Barry was as irreverent as possible, leaving no target unhumored, from the US’s short but hilarious history. An example:

Things were also very bad for the American family farmer, whose fields, by the late 1980s, were parched and dusty because of the bright lights being shone on them by television news crews doing heart-rending reports about the plight of the family farmer.

I loved it*. It was cheeky, fast-paced, full of gags and never let up. I didn’t get all the references but it didn’t matter. Funny is funny.

It was after I’d finished I thought: someone should write about Scottish history like this. Someone who knew how to look up Scottish history on the internet and who could write jokes, about looking up history on the internet. I looked around but as I didn’t work as a commissioning editor or have any writer-elves in the attic, I decided I’d do it.

A Haverin' History of Scotland
The cover of the book

The book – now called A Haverin’ History of Scotland – took several years to write. I started in Twenty Oatcake and finished in Twenty Oatcake**. Despite its non-serious approach, I still had to look up the actual history with its pesky facts to find something that might somehow please god be turned into laughs. Hours were spent in the National Museum squinting at the labels (I’d forgotten my glasses) or reading history books (not all come with pictures). Eventually it was done. It was way over the word limit, so out came potentially libellous stories about **** ******* and * * *******.

Of course, comedy is subjective and not everyone will laugh at the same things. For example, what is funny about William Wallace? To some, not much. He is an iconic warrior and legendary freedom fighter who died horribly in the worst of the Medieval ways.

He is also a tourist who only got to visit London once and never got to take home his souvenir fridge magnets. There’s no way that’s too soon.

The book was taken up The History Press, who have a well-deserved reputation for deeply researched tomes on all subjects under the historical sun. I hope A Haverin’ History of Scotland doesn’t ruin it.

*Not just that bit, the whole bit. Barry uses footnotes as a comedy tool so I copied it. That was the only thing I copied. Honesty. Nothing else, m’lud.

** Not putting proper dates is another thing I paid homage by doing.

Top 10 Aviation Films

It’s a subjective exercise picking a favourite anything and for every fan of Top Gun there’s another who thinks its gung-ho brash and bluster style is just too much. Here’s my 10:

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

There’s a stiff RAF officer played by Peter Sellers and crazed USAF B-52 nuclear bomber pilot played by Slim Pickens (later to be seen in the farting scene in Blazing Saddles).

The aircraft play a crucial part as they are they can start World War III if they are not recalled in time.

This film by Stanley Kubrick was made in the middle of the Cold War and while its special effects are rudimentary it retains its power to both chill and entertain.

 

The Sound Barrier (1952)

In the post-war period British aviation continued its innovative ways that had found such success in the 1939-45 conflict. This David Lean-directed film showed how the British attempted to break the mythical Sound Barrier first. Not all survive it…

Angels One Five (1952)

Battle of Britain film with stiff upper lipped officers and daft inexperienced junior pilots. ‘Septic’ is not a name you’d see on a Top Gun helmet that’s for sure.

The Battle of Britain (1969)Battle of Britain film poster

Michael Caine, Robert Shaw, Susannah York, Spitfires, Spanish Heinkels, a great theme – plus a whole lot more. Laurence Oliver plays Hugh Dowding and Trevor Howard plays the commander of 11 Group, Keith Park. There are rumours of a Ridley Scott Battle of Britain film but it will take some effort to rival this epic telling of the only aerial conflict of the war.

Reach for the Sky (1956)

Kenneth More played the much-loved war hero and double amputee Douglas Bader. One not just for Sunday afternoons.

Firefox (1982)

Clint Eastwood steals a top secret Russian fighter jet which has a voice-activated cockpit – it’s the future!

633 Squadron (1964)633 Squadron

A brave mission, with many repeated shots of Mosquitos flying up Scottish glens – I mean Norwegian fjords. Can you spot the models being swung round on string? Not bothered, it’s a stirring war movie made in the 1960s and one of the main stars is not one of the Mosquitoes drafted in for the flying sequences but the dramatic theme tune.

The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

It’s an American film from the 1970s and is actually about something, with incredible flying sequences including a couple of shocking moments.

The Dam Busters (1955)

This is one of the stand-out war movies. It’s in black and white, it’s got clipped accents, an actual wartime hero in the shape of Richard Todd (who took part in D-Day) who played Guy Gibson and it’s got Lancasters, an un-PC dog and the best theme tune of all time. The daring exploits of 617 Squadron were portrayed in this film which bears repeated viewings.

The Right Stuff  (1983)

The film version of Tom Wolfe’s seminal book about the test pilots at Edwards AFB and the early Mercury astronauts. Yes, you can tell the aircraft are models but who cares with a cast including Sam Shephard, Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid and Ed Harris. Contains scenes of bravery and crewcut haircuts.

Not Fake News – Apollo 11 and the Truth

In July 1969 two American astronauts walked on the Moon. It was widely reported on the radio and television with live broadcasts recording every moment from lift-off to the tense landing and then the return journey to splashdown on Earth’s Pacific Ocean. Newspapers also reported on this, the biggest news story of the age – the Space Age.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon
Fact

At the time the Soviet Union was the USA’s rival in space exploration. It was first in space with its unmanned satellite Sputnik in 1957 and the first astronaut/cosmonaut was Yuri Gagarin, who orbited the Earth in April 1961. When Apollo 11 set out for the Moon the Soviets sent information on its own unmanned spacecraft, so that it would not interfere with the American spacecraft’s trajectory.

In 1977 Hollywood made a film called Capricorn One about a space mission that was faked, with a sinister government (this was soon after Watergate) setting out to cover up the deceit and kill the witnesses – the three astronauts themselves.

Over the years since a disturbing trend has taken hold that suggests that the Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s were faked, that the astronauts didn’t walk on the Moon, that the photographs and movies were filmed (by Stanley Kubrick, whose epic 1968 sci-fi movie 2001: A Space Odyssey
brought new levels of special effects sophistication to audiences) and that the government and NASA made the whole thing up.

2001 A Space Odyssey
Fiction

This trend has perplexed many of those who were around at the time and also those who have grown up watching the films taken by the astronauts or listened to their testimonies. How can something so plainly visible and so public somehow not be true? The answer of course is that some people have become so detached and wary of official or government news that is frequently put through the PR Spin-dryer that they have extrapolated this to the biggest event of the 20th century.

They are prepared to disbelieve all the witness testimonies, the hours of film, the thousands of still images, the audio recordings, the scientific experiment results – everything – in order to believe the conspiracy.

There has been ‘evidence’ put forward on TV shows and blogs – and even published books – that are supposed to make us doubt. The work of those 400,000 who took part in this gigantic endeavour is pushed aside because of the way the shadows fall ‘the wrong way’ in a photograph. Spurious claims about the lack of starlight, or the amount of radiation, or the way the dust isn’t shown underneath the landing module, or something else all are given reverence as Facts.

And while the government bend the truth sometimes (and also lie) this should not be taken to mean that they are lying about the Moon Landings. American’s president Nixon may have said there would not be a whitewash in the Whitehouse but when he spoke to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, he was on Earth and they were on the surface of the Moon. To say they weren’t is to call these courageous and decent men liars. Something that is a disgraceful thing to do.

What is to be done?

Everytime you’re on twitter, Facebook, YouTube or in conversation and someone tells you that they landings were faked – tell them They Went.

Apocalypse Now and The Dambusters

What connects the movies Apocalypse Now and The Dambusters? Yes they’re both war films and yes they feature highly in ‘most popular movie’ lists but there is another link, provided by music.

The raid on the Ruhr dams in the Second World War took place on 16/17 May 1943. The RAF’s squadron commander was Guy Gibson, who survived (unlike half his crews) and became a well-known figure, after being awarded the Victoria Cross for his efforts.

He was later invited onto a BBC radio programme called Desert Island Discs. One of his musical pieces chosen was “Ride of the Valkyries”, composed by that favourite of Adolf Hitler: Wagner. (Nowadays this choice might be deemed inappropriate, but in those days of war against fascism they had much bigger things to worry about).

Gibson said of the piece: “It reminds me of a bombing raid. Though I don’t say it’s like one.” He died in 1944.

This piece of music was of course central to a memorable scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now, used in another aerial attack scene, this one featuring not Lancaster bombers but US army helicopters in a fictional assault on a village.

 

 

Cartier-Bresson Image

Great story in the Guardian in a series on people who feature in famous images.

That’s Me in the Picture

Incredible to think you could somehow phone up a figure as famous as Henri Cartier-Bression and ask if he could do you some copies.

Reminded me of the story of the young and aspiring comedy writer Peter Cook who wrote to the BBC and ended up going out for lunch with the writer of one of their hit show The Goons, Spike Milligan.

That sort of access is just not so easy nowadays which is a sad, but understandable, thing.

Remembrance Day 4 August 1918

During the summer of 1918 the Lord Mayor of London wrote to his fellow mayors around the country proposing that a day of remembrance be marked on the fourth anniversary of the First World War’s beginning. It was to honour the dead and those still fighting. He also suggested a “heap of flowers” would represent the graves in France and Flanders.

A resolution was agreed, to be read out at each public gathering:

“That the citizens here assembled on Remembrance Day, August 4 1918, silenty paying tribute to the Empire’s sons who have fallen in the fight for freedom on the scattered battlefields of the world-war, whether on sea or shore, and mindful also of the loyalty and courage of our sailors, soldiers, airmen, and men everywhere, and those who are working on the munitions of war and helping in other ways for the preservation of civilization, unanimously resolve to do all that in their power lies to achieve the ideals on behalf of which so great a sacrifice has already been made.”

Events were to change the date and Armistice Day which occurred on 11 November 1918 was secured as the day when national remembrance would take place.

 

 

The Ones That Got Away – Rejected Sitcoms

As a budding radio or TV comedy writer the steps go:

  1. sketch show contributor
  2. sketch show writer
  3. sitcom contributor
  4. sitcom writer
  5. BAFTA winner
  6. film writer
  7. Oscar winner

Well, for a very select few that is.

I got to number 2! That was my level and I was happy to get there. After listening to and watching comedy shows when I heard my actual own material on air I was elated. I had many never to be forgotten moments. New Year was celebrated that bit more keenly if you’d managed to get a sketch on the shows being broadcast before the bells.

So once this had been achieved I thought I had nothing better to do than have my own sitcom on the TV or radio. Ah. Not quite so easy. While established shows will happily take your sketches, a production company is not quite so amenable to spending vast amounts of its own money on trying your show out. The BBC get deluged with budding writers and very, very few get their own shows made just like that. It takes years and having connections and agents and connections who are agents and if you have a mate who suddenly becomes a successful stand-up then that will help your knock at the door get answered. If you are a successful stand-up, even better.

Of all the submitted sitcoms that I have had rejected (the tears long dried) this one is perhaps my favourite. It stems from a subject that has never been depicted: planespotting and I figured there was a lot of laughs for both the committed aviation enthusiast and the innocent watcher in a world inhabited by dedicated, knowledgeable amateurs who seem to be obsessed with their goals.

A few years after this was rejected I watched the BBC series Detectorists which has some echoes of what I was trying to do, albeit from the arcane and ancient world of metal detecting and with much more skill and gentle comedy than my effort.

My own sitcom was called Plane Daft and here’s the pilot (pun very much intended) episode. (Still not sure about the ending.)

Plane Daft – Episode One – The Daft Busters

 

 

Dundeestruction – When the Hilltown Flats went down

In 2011 the famous Dundee Hilltown Flats were demolished in an explosive way. By explosives. Many thousands gathered, though the number who mourned their removal wasn’t counted. I thought about doing a book on Dundee and made sure I was in the city to take photos and witness this event.

Block of flats before demolition / Photos: Flickr

What might make poetry fans mourn is my tribute: a poem in the style of another of Dundee’s upstanding figures: William Topaz McGonagall.

McGonagall gave much in the way of entertainment but not to fans of the verse who he seemed to annoy. He enjoyed a renassiance which was too late for him as he was long dead before it arrived. You have to have a bit of regard for his tenacity in the face of widespread indifference.

If he was alive now he’d have a quirky twitter persona, a Radio 4 show and several books on the shelves, though possibly in Humour, and not Poetry.

He is remembered, and that is something. Something else is my poem written after soon the demolition and suitably named.

Lines on the Demolition of the Hilltown Multis, 31st of July 2011

Today will be remembered – the thirty-first of July,
When the Hilltown Multis came down from being in the sky.
On this very day, there was a great clatter,
Some said it didn’t – but I thought it did – matter.

Workmen had surrounded the site in fences steel,
In order that flying concrete on our brains we didn’t feel.
They flicked a switch and four great towers,
Were soon blown down, our senses overpowered!

Thousands watched the great drifting clouds of dust,
As many folks’ homes became totally bust.
Tears were shed and stories swapped,
When tons of high-rise to the ground were dropped.

So all of you whose days are full of trouble,
It could be worse, you could be rubble.

(With many apologies to Wm McGonagall)

Blocks of flats after / Photo: Flickr

The Gunner

The Gunner
At RAF Rochford on 26 August 1940 a visiting Medical Officer went to help the crew of a German Dornier that had crash landed. As he tended to the pilot he was aware of one of the aircraft’s machine guns being pointed at him by one of the crew.

The RAF officer moved away quickly out of aim; he went around the fuselage where he found the gunner had been dead the whole time.

On this day the Luftwaffe lost 44 aircrew killed, over six times that of Fighter Command.

Excerpt from The Battle of Britain A Miscellany, published in July 2015 by Summersdale and available at all good booksellers, online and offline.