Wednesday, July 22, 2009


July 21st 1969.

You had to have been alive at the time. Reading about it now, way after the event just isn’t the same. Today, we all know it happened, and that it worked. You can read the last page of the book on the Apollo missions if you want to.

That evening, we sat at home, not knowing if the biggest scientific act of faith that man had ever attempted, was going to end in a huge pile of tears.

We’ve had all the build up over a period of years, and 40 years on, if I look outside my family, the single greatest thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life was the Apollo 11 programme which culminated in the Eagle touching down at Tranquility Base. I simply can’t let today go past without heartily doffing my cap at the Apollo 11 Moon landing.

If you were young then (which I was), interested in things aeronautical (which I was), fascinated by astronomy (which I was), liked Science Fiction (which I did), thought that the Moon was made of Green Cheese (which I didn't) then you couldn’t help but look on with awe at the goings on in the Apollo programme. Nothing remotely like it had been seen before.

We watched the development of the massive Saturn rockets, their successes and their failures. We looked on in horror at the gruesome suddenness of the events surrounding Apollo 1 (or 4 depending on your numbering system). We followed the fairy tale, exquisitely timed trip of Apollo 8 around the Moon, which made Christmas 1968 utterly and truly magical for me at least. And then the slow build-up through Apollo 9 and 10 to the launch of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.

Throughout all this we’d had the BBC doing what they did so well then in the way they told the unfolding story of it all, the perfectly chosen music (at least it was then!) of Also Sprach Zarathustra, James Burke and Patrick Moore doing the words, and all of us watching the amazing “Journey into Space” images which seemed at that time, to be literally from another world. I lapped it all up.

I don’t know how many people in the world watched the landing. It was the first all night broadcast the BBC had ever done. My wife and I sat riveted as it all unfolded. 3.56am was the time when we finally drew breath that night. We were sitting in a comfortable room in Surrey, England, and we felt as if we’d gone through the wringer. I recall, unbelievably, reading years later that Armstrong’s heart rate did not exceed 70 beats per minute during the landing. He should have been where we were!

That was 40 years ago. Of the twelve astronauts who have ever set foot on the Moon, three are dead. The youngest of those remaining will be 74 years old on his next birthday, and who knows, when the time comes to celebrate the Golden Anniversary, whether any of them will still be with us to join in.

I’ve written about this before, following an excellent book called “Moondust” where Andrew Smith, the author chased down the remaining astronauts whose feet had touched the Moon’s surface, to see what had happened to them since their voyages there.

Seeing that most of the men who were chosento become astronauts were all selected from the test pilot/fighter pilot spectrum, it is a bit surprising to see the way many of their lives have turned off in radically different directions.

Armstrong is a recluse. Charlie Duke is a motivational speaker on things spiritual. Alan Bean is a painter. Ed Mitchell has devoted his life to studying human consciousness and psychic and paranormal phenomena. David Scott is another sort of recluse, having fallen from grace in NASA’s eyes. John Young turned into a professional Space visitor – flying 6 times into space. Harrison Schmitt became a Republican Senator.

Most seem to have had an obvious difficulty coming to terms with the psychological, the spiritual and perhaps the metaphysical issues thrown up by what they did. Not surprising really. As James Lovell said talking about that amazing image of the almost insignificant Earth bathed in blue light above the Moon’s horizon, "Everything that I ever knew - my life, my loved ones, the Navy - everything, the whole world was behind my thumb." Talk about getting it all into perspective.

How do you top that? The answer is very, very simple – you don’t. And that’s what I suspect caused the subsequent turmoil in all these men’s minds.

Also, maybe, without realising it, we’ve seen the pinnacle of man exploring away from the Earth. Man has never travelled as fast since the Apollo 17 module returned to Earth. The thought of starting to spend trillions of dollars to go to Mars simply “because it’s there” doesn’t hang together today. If you look back with a boring Accountant’s hat on, it’s not at all easy to justify Apollo’s $20 Billion (and that was in 1960s money) price tag. A decent push into computer development, the Fuel cell (which still isn’t a commercial proposition) and a bit of CNC Machine tool expansion? I don’t think so.

The majority of Americans today think they’re currently spending more on Space than they should, and given the Financial chaos engulfing us all, it’s almost impossible to see anyone standing up and speaking the way Kennedy did some 45 years ago. The only real reason you can come up with to do it is it simply because you wanted to. And you’d need to convince the rest of America that they needed to forego a raft of new hospitals, roads, war expenditures and face a pile of tax increases to even consider it.

Can you even imagine Obama uttering words anything like these - “…. I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on Mars and returning him safely to the earth…..

No, I can’t either, although I have a real, real wish that he would. It made life so exciting.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


“It’s a …. , It’s a … It’s a natlob”.

About 30 years ago, my eldest daughter was about 3 or 4. She was standing out in our garden, staring very intently and pointing at one of the bushes in the flowerbeds, and out came that little pearl. We both looked at what she was staring, and could see absolutely nothing. She was of the age when she was just getting the hang of speech, so the words which were being learnt were changing each day. Most of them were the results of the infant mind struggling to get something new and remarkable out for the first time, but you could see that most of them were clear attempts to copy the words we all use. All of a sudden however, we were in virgin English territory with this one. What on earth did she mean?

The way ones children, and now in our case grandchildren, come to terms with language is quite entrancing. I suspect our family is not alone in that several of the odd and priceless words which appear at these early ages have become part of a private family vocabulary, almost a code which is known only to immediate close relatives.

Now, 30 odd years later, when someone in the family points to something which no-one else can see, or no-one knows what it is, it is greeted by the simple response that “It’s a natlob”. We all know what it means, which is what communication is all about, but the price you pay is that everyone else around who’s outside the family thinks we’re nuts.

A few days later on from the natlob, another one appeared out of the blue. This time it was a “lunt”. We don’t know what was either, and still don’t.

Fast forward thirty years, and the youngest grandchildren are at the same stage, and more words are being collected into the private vocabulary. Sometimes they are the result of mispronunciation which when you hear it, actually sounds better to us than the real English word. In our family, the bird which displays the beautiful plume of blue feathers is known as a “peapock”, not a “peacock”. And when you get hurt and get carted off to A&E, we go to the “Hopsickle”, and not the “Hospital”.

These words just sound better to us than the real ones, so we use them.

My wife is now referred to by all the Grandchildren as “Ranna”, which was the first effort of Grandchild 1 to form the word “Grandma”. It has stuck with us all for all their lives, and Grandchildren 2 and 3 now also use it. My youngest grandchild has a slight lisp which sounds lovely. When he saw Milly, our youngest dog, his first attempt to speak her name came out as “Mirrie”. So what do we do? Milly’s name is now Mirrie. I’m not sure the dog understands, but we all refer to her by this revised name.

One of the grandchildren rushed in a few years ago to us, put one of his toys in our hands, with the urgent call of “Bassawendi”. We thought he’d been watching a documentary about some African tribe on the television, but there was nothing on the TV we could see that was remotely relevant. This phrase became part of his vocabulary and, as he played with his toys, once in a while, out came the call – “Bassawendi”. None of us could make any sense of it, and we all racked our brains to decipher what it meant. Of course, one day it all came clear. We were all watching TV with him, and “Bob the Builder” was on. All of a sudden on the programme, the Postman came on and handed a letter to Bob’s sidekick, Wendy. Out came the cry from our grandchild - “Bassawendi”.

Ah, we all thought as the penny simultaneously dropped in all our minds - “It’s a parcel for Wendy!” was what the postman actually said. So now, when the postman comes to our house, the cry is simple – “Bassawendi”. Silly but, there you are.

We should probably all write these down and record them for posterity. They only mean anything to half a dozen people, but they form a real family bond and part of a secret history, which can be very important. We all look back at our offspring’s childhood, and we’re (or at least I am) always amazed at the things we have forgotten. My children’s upbringing is littered with stretches of time where my memory is a blank or a fuzz. Now that may be my brain just dropping these things off the memory hooks, but when occasionally we all talk about these things and someone remembers a long forgotten episode, it always brings a simple glow of pleasure to us.

And, given what’s going on in the world, that can’t be bad.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


I have watched the Tour de France on TV for about 25 years now. I am not a cycling person, far from it, but from the day I turned on the daily report on the Tour goings on, watching Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault battling away, the almost human amoeba-like writhings of the peleton, looking at the luscious French countryside, the enormous mountains, and the blood, sweat and tears that are all part of the Tour, I was hooked.

The TV commentary to start with was a bit “off the wall”. You’d be looking at a titanic battle of men straining everything, and then, in an instant, they’d be off, talking about the cheeses that are made in the village or town you’ve just passed through, or admiring a 13th century Chateau. As a family, we used to visit France every year for our summer holiday, and to see on TV the places we’d visited gave a real edge of pleasure to it all. One year, I watched on TV as the peleton blasted down a hill in the Alps past a small chalet where we’d spent two weeks the previous July. It shouldn’t make a difference, but it did.

As a sporting event, I can’t think of any other which grabs a nation so completely. It is watched by more people than any other sporting event in the world – upwards of 3 million each year. Some of the classic climbs, Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez can each be lined by up to 500,000 people clinging to the vertiginous slopes and making the narrow mountain passes almost solid with humanity on the day they climb them.

So often with television, it can sanitise the picture in front of you. The size of the vista, the slope of the gradients, the simple enormity of the whole place can disappear when you watch it on the box. But if you actually go to these places, you begin to realise just how remarkable they are. I’ve driven up the climb to Ventoux, and also Alpe d’Huez, and you simply can’t believe that men can actually race up them the way they do. I could not get my car out of second gear up the 22 Alpe d’Huez hairpins, and yet, in the blazing heat of the July sun, the cyclists race up it under their own power. The word awesome is way overused today, but here it is absolutely le mot juste.

Over the years however, I’ve become a bit ambivalent about it all. The constant stream of drug and doping revelations, at the top, in the middle and at the bottom of the peleton, has caused me to look at it in two ways. For a couple of years recently, the passion for it has faded a bit, tarnished by the hypocrisy of it all.

Sport is or should be, in my mind at least, one of the last Corinthian activities. At its best it’s man against man, each straining everything to succeed, and when it really happens, the joy you can take out of it is immense. You look on at some of the great set pieces and just marvel at what you see. But then occasionally, the feet of clay replace the reaching for the stars, and it all comes crashing down. Think, for instance, Ben Johnson. The whole world watched him with utter amazement for just under 10 seconds, and then, a couple of days later, it all tumbled in on itself, and I, for one, felt hugely and personally cheated.

The Tour has had far more than its fair share of that. 1998, and the Festina affair, David Millar, Marco Pantani, the Simeoni affair, Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras, the 2006 winner Floyd Landis, Michael Rasmussen, Alexander Vinokourov and Jan Ullrich to name but the first 10 or so that come to mind. That list is not a few up and comings, people trying to get onto the bottom of the ladder of cycling success. It’s the crème de la absolute crème, and they’ve all been caught out. So, if you’re in a cynical frame of mind, you can’t help but think that it must be endemic among all the riders, and the fact that the rest of the names in the pack are not in the list, is only because they haven’t yet been caught.

The name of Lance Armstrong always crops up in this situation. Does he, doesn’t he?

I’ve watched most of his 7 wins to date, and as a sporting story, you couldn’t dream up a more amazing tale if you tried. And yet, with many of the people in that list of fallen names above, cycling for the same team as he did, with his disturbing relationship with the very dark and intriguing Dr. Michele Ferrari, the way his entourage seems utterly paranoid and ruthless in the way they fight off any suggestion of a drug taint, one’s mind is left to ponder. It’s all circumstantial, the no smoke without fire argument, but I can’t put it out of my mind completely.

I’m not sure I would actually LIKE the man if I met him, he’s so driven and focused that I think his whole way of life is beyond the understanding of us lesser mortals. But I do utterly admire him. Watching his exploits over the years has been one of the most inspiring pieces of sporting action I’ve ever seen. Have a rummage on YouTube and look at Armstrong vs Ullrich on Alpe d’Huez in 2001 and the same pair in 2003. Stunning, stunning stuff.

And then, Armstrong retires with 7 Tours to his credit. And the storytale ends.

Except this year, he’s back, and the tension and the excitement of the Tour is with us again. Watching Armstrong up against Cantador in the climb to Andorra yesterday brought it all back. The man is 37 years old, and he looks as fit as he’s ever done. Except this year, the other “Team Leader”, Alberto Contador, took Armstrong on, man to man, on the massive climb at the end of yesterday’s stage, and showed him a clean pair of heels. Some said that Armstrong was cycling to a team plan, but the look on his face and his utter speechlessness at the end, said some thing totally different to me.

It was a fabulous piece of televison, and who knows what it will mean to the Armstrong machine. Never lost for words, Armstrong was transfixed at the end of the stage, and simply didn’t know what to say, having just been beaten on a level playing field, to screw up a metaphor, into second place in the Team Ascana battle. To my limited knowledge, no-one has ever taken Armstrong on it the way Cantador did yesterday, and the ramifications for Planet Armstrong could be immense. Is this the year he comes back to earth, and is shown, after a decade of total domination, to be fallible, to have an Achilles heel? Is 37 just too old for even him to keep it all together? I can’t think of any sportsman with a more burning and long lasting desire to dominate and win in his chosen discipline, but, well, the next two weeks will tell us.

All I can say is that it’s great to watch. You can say all you want about the drugs thing, but watching the last half hour of the 7th Stage yesterday ripped all the spin, the PR and the politics away, and showed just what terrific entertainment the Tour is when it visits the mountains.

And just think, there’s a couple more days around Andorra, then a crossing of the Pyrenees, and right at the end, the Alps, culminating in Mont Ventoux (up the difficult side!!) on the last stage before Paris. That’s never been done before, and I can’t think of a more exciting and brutal finale to end the Tour.

Just look at the profile of what faces them on Saturday week, after 3,000 kilometers.

Can’t wait!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


I've been mulling over a post about cartoonists for some time. They seem to me to be some of the sanest people on the planet.

I'm collecting a couple of examples which hit the spot for me, but I saw one in the newspaper a couple of days ago which had me in hysterics. "Matt" in the Telegraph on Michael Jackson -