In September 2005 I decided that I needed a new flying challenge. I was stale. I completed my Instrument Rating a few years prior, together with my Multi Engine Rating, and Night Rating. I needed to rejuvenate my flying mojo. To do that I required a new challenge.
I was fortunate that I had been able to put some of the more interesting types of aeroplane into my logbook since getting my licence in 1989.
Through both training schools and friends, I had been privileged to sample the delights of many different aeroplanes. Reviewing my logbooks, I see many different types, from 1930s biplanes to Modern Hot ships.
Whilst I had flown a good number of tailwheel aircraft, and had handled them, I hadn’t completed formalised differences training which is required in the United Kingdom to fly one.
The necessary training was a short course consisting of a minimum of 5 hours flying time. Naturally, this was open-ended, and the number of hours required to complete the training is dependent upon flying ability and aptitude.
I flogged round the circuit at Redhill Airfield in G-BMKB, a Piper PA-18 Super Cub under the guidance of my instructor, Jim. Jim was a highly experienced tailwheel pilot, despite him being in his early twenties.
My general handling abilites seemed to be fine. Take offs were, shall we say, interesting in the early days, but with practice I could get the tail up and correct the swing nicely.
Landings however, were a different matter. My early attempt saw the little aeroplane leap back into the air like a startled Kangaroo, or slalom left and right as I wrestled with the rudder pedals to stop it chasing its own tail.
Jim normally sorted things out, and it wasn’t long before I could land the aircraft nicely in a three point attitude. I didn’t like wheeler landings – and still don’t, but I regarded them as a necessary evil.
I see that I completed my training in the minimum hours required, and have a nice sticker in my logbook proclaiming that I was comptent to fly more interesting types.
Towards the end of August in 2007, I decided that I would invest in a group-owned aircraft. A colleague at British Airways said that he wanted to get rid of his share in a Super Cub based at Redhill, and the price was right.
On a Sunny Saturday, I arranged to meet him and he would let me fly it prior to the sale.
I arrived at Redhill to find the aircraft sitting on the ramp outside the hangar.
I was walking towards the aircraft when I received a text message telling me that the seller was delayed by half an hour and that I should “Have a poke about and see what you think”
I did just that.
I opened the window and door, and had a good nose round the cockpit, which looked well kept, clean and tidy. It also had a radio and a VOR. Luxury!
I unclipped the cowling, and took a dekko at the engine, and whilst I was peering intently into the void I heard a voice say “Good Morning, are you interested in buying a share in Betty Boo?”
He looking meaningfully at the registration – G-BTBU
“She’s known by everyone on the field as Betty Boo”
I guess he was in his early sixties, with a mop of grey hair, and oil on his hands.
After a bit of general chit chat, he finally cut to the chase, and asked me about my flying background.
“Are you a shareholder in the group?” I asked. I wasn’t about to give my background without good reason.
“Yes” he replied, “I am. Been in the group for years”
“Well, if you must know, I learned to fly as an Air Cadet about six miles from here at RAF Kenley, back in the seventies”
He fixed me with a steady look, saying “I used to instruct at Kenley in the seventies.”
“What’s your name?” I asked
“I’m Stewart Rhodes.”
“Bloody Hell!” I exclaimed. “Dusty Rhodes! You sent me solo in 1976”
I shook his hand, but I could see that he was not convinced.
Anyway, I ended up buying a share in Betty Boo, and enjoyed flying her, after I had been checked out by Dusty Rhodes.
How weird. Small world?
Yes. The same man taught me in 1976 in a Kirby Cadet MkIII glider, and then sent me off again 31 years later in my own aeroplane.
Today should, by rights, be a good day for me to write an article.
Maybe words to titillate the senses; maybe to educate, entertain or inform? Or maybe an opportunity for me to be self-indulgent.
Why does today augur such good omens?
Well, for a start, it just happens to be the birthday of William Shakespeare, or so the historians think. The actual date of the bard’s birth is not recorded or documented, but his baptism was, and he was christened on 26th April 1564. It was normal to have baptisms three days after the birth, so I guess its a reasonable assumption.
Weirdly, William Shakespeare died on the 23rd April 1616. This is documented, so either way you look at it, this should be a good day for a struggling penman to bash out a few words.
Now, flashback to the early 1970s.
Confounding my father’s prediction that I would be an imbecile for the rest of my life, I did pass my eleven-plus exam, and made the cut to get into Grammar School.
English lessons with Mr Dobbins were dreary and dull, but at least he taught me the fundamentals of grammar, and spelling.
Even at that age, I was a voracious reader. My bedroom bookshelves housed the complete works of Issac Asimov (all read, I add), but I recall that I also dabbled with H G Wells, Jules Verne, E E “Doc” Smith and Arthur C Clarke.
However, nothing prepared me for the sheer, unadulterated hell of classes in English Literature.
Miss Briggs, my English Mistress, was a true hippie, complete with an Alice headband, long dresses and mauve tights. I think she knitted her own shoes.
But she was a nice soul, generous with her praise, and gentle with her frustrations at dealing with a totally disengaged class.
The english literature syllabus back then required that students were able to understand the context of the books studied, and could explain the use of metaphores, and allegories.
This meant that the works of the great writers were dismantled, sentence by sentence, line by line, chapter by chapter.
And then the probing questions and tests to establish our understanding…
“Mark, what did Shakespeare mean by his obscure use of the word and in this sentence.
After two years of dissecting Macbeth and Richard the Second, I was put off Shakespeare’s works completely,. So whilst I could (and still can) recite several speeches and soliluquies, I ended up leaving school with a deep seated loathing for Shakespeare, and a not much better opinion of the mediaeval writer Geoffrey Chaucer. Maybe this was a reaction against learning The Millers Tale and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale in Middle English.
What the hell were our educators thinking???? My old school friends, with whom I still meet regularly, all left school with the same feelings.
It was many years before I came into contact with the Bard again; I was in my mid twenties, and had joined my local drama group. After gaining confidence and appearing on stage in a lot of very minor bit parts, I was finally being offered more principle or leading roles.
One winter evening, I went to a meeting of the players, to discover that the next play we were producing would be A Midsummer Night Dream.
My heart sank. Not Shakespeare…
However, I soon discovered that when read and performed as the great man intended it to be, it was truly joyous, and is a great piece of literature.
I have never managed to read any of his works as a book. I have watched and genuinely enjoyed some excellent performances of his work, so the cultural damage inflicted upon me as a kid have been repaired, but it has taken over four decades!
If they had required that I study Science Fiction, I would have probably passed my English Lit exam with an A+ rather than a C-.
The other thing of note about today’s date, is that it is Saint George’s Day.
For those that aren’t familiar with Saint George, let me briefly explain. St. George is the patron Saint of England. Not Britain. England.
The true history of St. George is lost in the mists of time, but he did exist. It appears from several accounts that he was a serving officer in the Roman army around 300AD. Legend has it that he killed a dragon that was slaughtering the residents of a local town. He was offered a monetary reward from the King, but refused to accept it, and donated it to the poor of the town.
This made him worthy of Sainthood.
There are accounts from 12th Century Genovese books that refer to Saint George’s colours being a red cross on a white background.
Other accounts tell of him fighting alongside the English Knights Templar during the crusades of the 12th Century.
In 1348 King Edward III of England incorporated the Cross of St. George into the English Royal Standard, and by the end of the 14th Century, St George was adopted as the Patron Saint of England, and the Protector of the Royal Family.
It has been this way for centuries.
Now, the English seem to have a reputation as a self effacing race. We don’t normally go in for self agrandisement, prefering understatement to get by. That and the much publicised “Stiff Upper Lip”.
So, it’s our Patron Saint’s day today. We are in lockdown. So none of our pubs will be open for the discounted English Ale, cheap Cider, roast beef sandwiches and pork pies . There will be no give-away straw hats, or plastic flags. No Public Holiday.
I’m sitting here in the early evening enjoying my back garden, listening to the birds as I mull over this article. My terrace is bathed in warm, golden sunlight, as Sol starts to dip majestically behind the trees lining the nature reserve.
I am so very fortunate. I have managed to make the right decisions – either by luck, intuititon, or skill, that have resulted in me living in a beautiful part of the UK. Or it could be SWMBO’s excellent judgement.
I don’t question SWMBO’s judgement – she is, after all, with me, so her decision making and judgement skills are refined.
I live in Hampshire which, like most of the UK, has a timeline of civilisation that extends 14,000 years into the past.
Roman Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in AD 43 and shortly thereafter (in the larger scale of things), Winchester became the County Town of Hampshire.
For those of you that are unfamiliar with the British concept of county towns – a county town was the ancient equivalent of of a capital city, but at county level. Traditionally, a county town is the most important or significant town in a county.
Winchester is not only the county town of Hampshire, but also a city in the truest sense of the definition.
In the UK, most people use the term “city” to describe any large town, but the status of a city was traditionally only given to towns that had a Cathedral – King Henry the Eighth establishing the first ones during his reign. To this day, the UK’s monarch has to grant city status to any town.
Winchester cathedral was consecrated in 1093, and is a wonderful old building, which seems to have history seeping out of its walls and emanating from its very fabric.
Winchester is about 24 miles west of where I live. It is a beautiful old city. It is where the ancient English King, Alfred had his royal seat.
The old part of the city, in which the ancient cathedral sits, is a maze of tiny cobbled streets and lanes.
The area in which I live is also historic. There has been a human settlement here at least since the 14th Century; the Roman army crossed the River Wey at Lindford, about 1 mile away, whilst en-route to battle in the west of the county in the early part of the the last millenium. The crossing over the local stream has been here since 1350, but the current bridge was refurbished in 2008.
So, we are in Lockdown.
According to Her Majesty’s Government (HMG), we are allowed to exercise once a day. So, this last Sunday, SWMBO and I decided that we would partake of some gentle exercise in the form a walk through the Deadwater Valley Nature Reserve.
It was a beautiful afternoon, with a light zephyr tousling the crowns of the trees as we left the house. A six minute walk up the hill took us to the entrance of the nature trail.
The trail is cool, the smell of damp sphagnum moss mixed with that wonderful, rich, loamy, peaty aroma. The sunlight pierced the canopy with spears of golden light, impaling the shy bluebells and forget-me-nots hiding on the floor of the woods.
We continue wandering, sowly, drinking in the scents of the woodland. The information board informs me that this is a home to Stag Beetles, Slow Worms, Sparrowhawks, Red Admiral butterflies, Nuthatches and Goldfinches – together with the occassional Roe or Muncjac deer.
We plod on, hand in hand, humbled by the sheer abundance of plants, insects and wildlife.
We see few people on the trail; those that we do are keen to ensure that we all comply with the two metre separation. Sometimes, we yield to walkers coming towards us, standing in the undergrowth so tha they may pass. Natural selection seems to ensure that next time we meet fellow walkers, they hold back for us to pass.
However, the social niceties are maintained, with many “good afternoons”. “please”, “thank you” and “have a good one” as we contine our walk.
The trail isn’t crowded by any means; we are in solitude for most of it – just us, walking, talking, laughing. Soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying nature.
We continued on, walking generally north until we reached the exit point, where the new housing estate starts.
Not wanting to just return on the same route, we decide to wander through the small town suburbia and re-enter the reserve a little further down.
It’s a relief to leave the road once more, lined as it is, with high density housing, and populated with bus stops, garage blocks and parking bays.
We re-enter the reserve, skirting the sticky muddy morass near the stile, and test the waterproof capabilities of our footwear as we stride on through the silty puddles that surround the more glutinous mud.
Looking at the tracks in the earth, I immediately deduce that the trail is used by mountain bikers, hikers, walkers, children and dogs.
Eat your heart out Sherlock Holmes. Go back to your flat Hercule Poirot.
Whilst the nature reserve isn’t large, we have never visited before, so I was happy that I had a fully paid up account with the Ordnance Survey, and had access to excellent charts.
Using the app, we quickly planned how we would return to the end of the park nearest our home.
Our route back took us past a picturesque pond, which, according to the information board, was home to Toads, Frogs, Herons and Dragonflies.
Sadly, we didn’t see any of them, but it has given me an excuse to come back again to check it out more regularly.
I would not necessarily have discovered this wonderful place if I hadn’t been on lockdown – so something good has come about as a result of COVID19.
My day today has been filled with catching up on various tasks around the house, so maybe tomorrow I will dig my bike out, and go and explore in a bit more detail.
A great way to do an hours exercise without having to go to the gym, which I find abhorrent at the best of times.
On a sunny and bright January Sunday I escorted my elderly Mother to her local church.
A confirmed Christian, my dear old Mum has been attending the same church since I was a child.
I attended this very church until I started work; I was confirmed there when I was about thirteen.
My Parents continued as paid-up practising Christians, but I lapsed over the years, perhaps because I came to realise that, in my own very humble opinion, most religions (with the exception of Buddhism) are possibly the root cause of most types of conflict – best summarised as “My God is better than your God, so I will persuade or force you to believe in My God”.
I reckon that over the centuries, this has probably caused more wars than everything else combined. So, I got heartily fed up with it and decided that whilst I do believe in a force of good and evil, I stopped subscribing to any belief system that punishes people for being human.
That’s not to say that I don’t believe in a supreme infinite being.
I don’t think for one moment, that the perfectly integrated natural world in which we live happened by some cosmic accident. That would be akin to me taking a 5000-piece jigsaw, and throwing the pieces into the air, and then have them all land in the form of a flawlessly completed puzzle.
Folks, that just ain’t gonna happen is it?
Somehow, I feel more connection these days to ancient paganism. My Great-Grandfather was a Senior Druid. The limited amount of research I have conducted into both my Great Grandfather and Druidism shows them to be cognisant and respectful of the seasons – the natural flows and rhythms of the planet. Living in harmony with nature, and looking for ways to co-exist with our fellow inhabitants of this lonely rock we call home.
I don’t go to church that much these days, mainly family “duty” missions – hatchings, matchings and despatchings.
Having said that, whenever I visit my dear old Mum on a Sunday, I willingly take her to morning service, as I know it gives her great pleasure, and that in turn makes me happy too.
I normally combine this with a pleasant and relaxed drive through the beautiful Sussex countryside, through forests and heathland, traversing the undulating folds of this green and pleasant land, passing through villages that were already old when the Doomsday Book was still in draft form.
The trip normally routes via a small farm where we stop, and collect a dozen fresh eggs from the tiny stall at the gate, leaving a couple of pounds in the honesty box.
The last port of call before home is normally into a pleasant country golf club that serves the best coffee for miles around according to Mater.
But back to the story…
Having attended Sunday school since I was old enough to walk, I have a relatively good understanding of the Christian faith and see that it gives a lot of comfort and support to a lot of people.
I, therefore, believe that I am not a total charlatan or hypocrite when I take my mother to her local church on a Sunday morning. In some respects, I find it quite cathartic.
So – coming back to 0830 on that January Sunday.
It was a beautiful, crisp, clear morning, with azure blue skies; sporadic fluffy white clouds, and a cool wind, stirring the bushes as I walked the route to the church, over paths and roads that were etched into my memory over fifty years ago.
However, the speed at which I walked them was considerably slower than way back then. Echos of my childish laughter bounce back from the weathered brick walls and moss-clad fences.
I now meander, rather than stride. Mum is now much slower since her falls and as it’s a beautiful morning, I am content to wander next to her, as she regales me with an endless stream of chatter, telling me all that has happened in her busy week.
I greatly admire my Mother. My Father was her rock, and when he passed away 8 years ago, I thought that the strain and grief would kill her as well. However, the old girl is made of much sterner stuff, and it wasn’t long before she bounced back.
However, I know the amount of grit and strength this demanded of her.
She now enjoys an active social life, working part-time in the church cafe, attending various church groups – and up until recently, driving every week to meet up with her “old ladies” (all, of whom were younger than she was!) in one of the local towns, a short drive away.
She is now a regular bus rider and travels all over the counties of Sussex and Kent to visit different towns and shopping centres. Far from becoming a hermit, I now almost have to make an appointment to see my own mother!
So, it was on this lovely day that we sat down in the small Methodist chapel, resplendent in its gleaming white paint.
I recognised many of the folk in the congregation. Some I knew from years ago; the parents of some of my contemporaries, now aged, stooped, wrinkled and infirm. Some were my age, in their late fifties or early sixties and at least one nodded to me and smiled a greeting.
I joined in the hymns – somewhat unenthusiastically I admit. I have never been a great fan of Charles Wesley, and this service merely reinforced my views that he should have been taken away and summarily pecked to death by ducks for writing such appalling dirges.
I have more affinity with the happy, loud hymns created at Gospel churches. They seem to know how to really enjoy their worship.
The service was officiated by the incumbent vicar. His sermon gave me the inspiration to write this article.
His lesson was actually quite interesting and contained one very important quote. He was referring to the offertory, and he made the statement “you are only giving back a tiny fraction of what the Lord gave you”
This fragment of his sermon stuck with me, and my thoughts kept returning to it, unbidden throughout the following weeks.
Yes, for the comparatively paltry amount of a fiver, which is what I furtively chucked into the collection plate, I have always been on the upside of the equation. I am fortunate in so many areas of my life.
I am relatively fit and whilst I am no Einstein, I do have a reasonable level of intelligence and education. I hold down a good job, and as a result, I live in a nice house in a beautiful part of Southern England, surrounded by nature and enjoy a good standard of living.
I have been so privileged, that through my accident of birth, I was born into an age of good medicine and healthcare and into a temperate and civilised country.
In addition, the country in which I live, has a decent democratic society, with a generally compassionate and caring nature.
I could have so easily been born into poverty and disease, or a totalitarian society with brutal law enforcement, where there is no such thing as individual freedom or a free media and press.
What value could be placed on these fundamental privileges?
So, yes, the old padre was correct in his sermon.
My fiver, will hopefully go to aid those so desperately in need of it; medical relief in sub-Saharan Africa? a school in the slums of Brazil? clean water in the hinterlands of Tanzania?
It matters not where it goes. I do know that it will be sent where it is needed most – and hopefully will make a difference to someone’s life.
Unless you have been living on the Cook Islands for the last few months, you will have heard of Corona Virus, now known as COVID 19.
The virus is officially a global pandemic, and is now rampaging across every continent, leaving a trail of dead.
Here in the United Kingdom, we are in a state of national emergency, and state-sanctioned lockdown is in effect, with only absolutley essential journeys authorised. All retail shops except those selling essential supplies such as food, maedicines and perhaps bizzarely, alcohol are closed.
The London Underground has shut stations across its network, and passengers figures are plummeting.
Working at home has been the norm for many workers. As a result, the economy is in freefall, with the retail and hospitality sectors being worst hit. Clubs, pubs, cinemas, churches, sports centres, museums and public buildings are now all closed for the immediate future.
The aviation and maritime sectors have been quick to feel the impact of travel restrictions, and many airports are struggling as flights have become virtually non-existent, passenger traffic stagnated, and many airlines now trying to mitigate their losses by flying freight.
Whilst the global shutdown is severely damaging both our manufacturing and financial economies, we are reaping some form of benefit; pollution levels have dropped across the planet, and air quality is improving.
It’s not just transport that contributes to atmospheric pollution – industrial and manufacturing activities have fallen across the UK and Europe as countries shutdown their economies to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
This shows that it is possible to stop climate change, but the societal costs are far too high to make this acceptable.
I do believe that when the virus is contained or burnt out, we will emerge from lockdown and social distancing as a changed society.
So, what may happen?
Many firms that up until recently were resistant to their employees working remotely will have seen that some of their “trust issues” have been proved to be unfounded and that staff have been as productive, if not more productive that when working at the office.
Bearing in mind the cost of office space, many companies may find the savings realised by using smaller premises make remote working desirable.
After a major pandemic such as this one, people may be far more cautious about personal hygeine, and become much more concerned to see that public areas are properly sanitised. This could have an effect on the practice of hot desking at work.
The travelling public will probably also need to see evidence that public transport is cleaned and sanitised far more regulalrly and effectively than currently.
The lack of public trust in the health security of public transport could trigger more car use, as people seek to protect themselves with more regularised self isolating. Even car sharing could become less popular as people choose not ot sit in close proximity with another individual on their commute.
Who can really say?
If thousands more people take up remote working, there may well be more economic pain ahead for public transport operators.
Railway and air journeys that used to be undertaken for business meetings may well now be conducted using video conferencing using internet platforms such as Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams.
Will our current level of communications network provision be sufficient to accommodate this?
Individuals that were reluctant to order shopping on-line, or use home delivery services prior to COVID 19 have now been using them out of necessity, and many of these people will now be sold on the advantages, leading to further decline of England’s high streets.
Individuals that were previously regular patrons of theatre and cinema will have become adept at streaming movies and watching “live” performances from the comfort of their own homes, using YouTube, Netflix or Amazon Prime.
The question is – will they return to the cinemas and thatres with quite the same degree of regularity as they did before?
It seems that the mainstream media have been focusing on the leisure and retail industries and whilst they do report on the struggle for our manufacturing industries, they do not highlight the underlying problems.
In the UK there is evidence that our contingency planning for a “Hard Brexit” triggered our government to closely examine our logisitcal supply chains with the involvement of the retail and distirbution industries, and this has surely helped ensure that truly essential items remained on the supermarket shelves, despite the media-induced panic buying.
The other aspect to this is the lack of resilience that our manufacturers have against supply chain failures.
Whilst numerous products are proudly made here in the UK, few are totally built here. Huge numbers of manufacturers import sub-assemblies, parts and components from overseas which are used to build their product.
The world’s biggest exporter, China, is, to all intents and purposes, the birthplace of COVID19, and also its primary exporter. The subsequent lockdown of the Chinese economy led to an abundance of British manufacturers struggling to obtain the raw materials, parts, components and sub-components needed to build and sell their own products..
This may result in a baseline realignment of our logisitical networks, and maybe re-initiate inward investment.
Who knows, we may see a slow transformation back into a manufacturing economy again.
This is a bit of a mixed bag then; at more localised levels the possible resulting drop in bus and train usage could lead to more cars on the road, each contributing to climate change. On the other hand, more people at home reduces traffic of any kind on the roads.
There are so many possible futures that could result from the aftermath of CV19, which only action at government level can establish.
This could be a great opportunity for each state to re-evaluate its’s strategies for handling pandemics, and may trigger new systems to increase the robustness of manufacturing bases.
Who knows, it may even give us the required impetus to design an improved model for society that will offer progress on controlling our nemesis of irreversible climate change.
The following is a modified extract from my forthcoming hitherto unpublished autobiographical novel “Making Connections”
It was my fourth week at work, and my first day working with the phone installation team.
It was early October in 1975, and I was enjoying my new life as a Trainee Telecommunications Apprentice with Post Office Telecommunications, now metamorphosed into BT.
Based out of my home town of East Grinstead in West Sussex, I had an easy commute and was enjoying the mid-October weather, which was mainly dry and warm.
As I was only sixteen, I was still living at home and enjoying all of the comforts that Mum and Dad provided.
Getting up on this particular sunny morning, I showered and pulled on my Levis, a check shirt, and my jacket, and rushed downstairs to greet the world.
My dear old Mum, bless her, had prepared me a bowl of cereals, and gulping this down, I gave her a perfunctory peck on the cheek, grabbing my packed lunch as I rushed for the door.
Dragging my bike up the drive, I pushed and jumped astride it, nearly knocking down the neighbour’s nineteen-year-old daughter.
“Sorry!” I yelled over my shoulder, still accelerating down the cul-de-sac. Nice looking woman. Not interested in a kid of sixteen though, which was a shame as she was really hot.
The Telephone Engineering Centre was only just down the hill, right opposite my old school, and I zoomed down, eyes watering in the slipstream, arriving there within a few short minutes.
Swooping in through the open gates of the yard, I narrowly missed becoming a bonnet ornament for a bright yellow panel van which was just pulling out. Swerving, I dodged the truck, blasting through its sooty exhaust with inches to spare.
I carelessly rammed the front wheel of the bike into the rack, and snapped the chain around the wheel, locking it to the metal.
I noticed a door was ajar at the far end of the single-storey building, so, with a little trepidation, I walked down, and cautiously pushed the door open, and walked into the dimly lit interior.
“Ah…..you must be my new Youth in Training!”
I looked over to the corner, where the owner of the voice was seated – a slender man, in his mid-forties, whose mop of black unruly hair had been mercilessly bullied into a 1950s Tony Curtis style. On his lap, he was clutching a piece of equipment, whilst tightening something within it with a large, yellow handled screwdriver.
His rumpled tweed sports jacket was distorted by objects that had been rammed carelessly into the pockets, and his grey flannel trousers hadn’t seen a proper crease since 1953.
“Hello” I ventured, “I need to report to Mr Hudson”
“You’ve come to the right place then lad, as I’m Ben Hudson”
I shook his proffered hand, “nice to meet you Mister Hudson”
“It’s Ben” he chuckled, “no formality around here…..now, would you like some tea and toast?”
“Ben” I echoed. Bloody hell, a few short weeks ago, men of his age – my teachers at school, would have gone into meltdown had I addressed them in this way.
“Come on lad”, he said, placing the grey cased equipment onto the work bench, “Let’s go and grab some breakfast, and then we’ll head out.”
The restroom was full of sound – laughter, conversations, and odours of toast, coffee and cigarette smoke.
I followed Ben as he pushed his way to the kitchen counter, whereupon he dropped two slices of bread into the toaster.
Two minutes later, he passed me a plate with 2 slices of toast. “Butter is in the dish. We operate a tea swindle here which is 25p a week to cover tea, milk, bread and butter. Anything else you want, you buy yourself. You want to join, go and see Mitch, and he’ll put you on the list. Now, eat up because we have to get going.” So saying, he sluiced his plate under the tap and wandered out with his hands jammed into his pockets.
I hurriedly wolfed down the toast, and drunk the tea, (which I had to do really quickly to prevent the tannin from stripping the enamel from my teeth), then scurried after Ben, who was by now loading the back of his bright yellow Morris Ital van with plastic-wrapped phones, and cardboard boxes containing mysterious bits of equipment.
We got in, slamming the doors shut, and Ben drove us sedately out of the yard.
We meandered serenely through the sun-dappled lanes of West Sussex, the sleepy villages etching their historic lanes into my mind; Sharpthorne, West Hoathly, Danehill, Horsted Keynes, finally arriving in the small village of Scaynes Hill.
We parked up outside an elegant 17th century Manor House, with timber beams, and a patina of age on the whitewashed walls.
Grabbing a shrunk-wrapped telephone, a reel of cream cable and his leather tool bag from the back of the van, I followed Ben as we crunched our way up the gravel drive, with me clutching my small, virginal zip-up tool bag.
Knocking on the door, we stood in the porch, admiring the Elizabethan garden, resplendent in its autumnal colours. I idly wondered if they had a gardener.
At that moment the door was opened, revealing an elegant and stunningly attractive woman in her early thirties.
My eyes were immediately drawn to her magnificent breasts, snugly contained in a tight angora wool jumper.
My interest in her vaporised instantly as she spoke, haughtily, and with the arrogance that only the nouveau riche seems to have.
“I suppose you’re here to fit the phone….”
Ben glanced at me and agreed. “Maybe you can show us where you want it fitted? He asked.
She about turned, and strode off down the wood-panelled hall, nonchalantly indicating an open door on the left. “In there, on the window cill” she called without even giving us a further glance. I furtively watched her neat backside, as she sashayed off down the corridor.
We walked into the indicated room, which was bright, empty and airy, with a wood parquet floor. Ben smiled at me, and dumped his battered Gladstone bag on the floor, and tore open the cellophane packaging from the phone. Reaching into his bag, he tossed me the reel of cable and a small box of cleats.
Selecting a pin hammer from his bag, he explained to me “Secure the cable to the skirting board, using one cleat every pin hammer length. Put one cleat two inches from every corner you need to go around. Don’t nail through the cable. Got that?” I nodded. He continued “I’ll start in the hall. You do the room here. Leave me three foot of cable to hook the connector block to”
I gingerly unrolled a length of the cable, and commenced banging cleats in at the required spacing, managing to belt my thumb at least twice. I could hear the rhythmic thumping as Ben was cleating the cable to the skirting of the hall. He was moving at about three times my speed, so it wasn’t long before he appeared in the room with me.
He knelt down and started cleating as well. “Bit of a dry visit, this one” he murmured. “Snooty cow didn’t even offer us a tea” I grunted my response, and turned to see a small child, emptying the box of cleats over the floor.
Ben called through the open doorway to the boy’s mother, asking her to take him out of the room, as he was in danger of hurting himself.
She strode in, sweeping the child into her arms, and glared at us both as if it were our fault, before strutting out.
We turned back to our work, and I started hammering again. As I reached out to get another cleat, my hand struck something warm and wet. I looked around, and saw a Pekingese dog, snouting around in the cleat box.
I pushed it away, and it immediately nosed forwards and recommenced its snuffling. Ben also pushed it away, with the same result. He pushed it away – more firmly this time, but it was to no avail.
“Excuse me lady” he shouted down the corridor “Could you come and get your dog, it’s in the way”
There was no response from within the bowels of the house, so he called out again. Silence.
Heaving a sigh, he knelt back down, and once again started pushing the dog out of the way.
Each time it happened, he pushed the animal away more forcefully. I could see him beginning to lose his placid sense of humour. I smirked. It seemed that the dog wasn’t interested in me, so I knelt back down, and carried on bashing my thumb with the pin hammer.
I could hear Ben swearing at the dog, as once more it was interfering with his work. “Will you sod off!” I heard him exclaim. The dog didn’t sod off though, and it continued to push its nose just where Ben wanted to hammer.
I watched as this happened once more, and laughed as Ben finally lost control. He pushed the dog back, and as it advanced again, he tapped it smartly on the forehead, between the eyes, “for the last time, WILL YOU SOD OFF!”
The dog stopped in its tracks, froze, and rolled onto its back, quivered once, and then flopped over, immobile.
I looked at the dog. It’s chest wasn’t moving. “Christ Ben!” I exclaimed. “You’ve killed it!”
Ben looked shocked. “Nah. I probably stunned it. It’ll be ok in a minute”. I wasn’t sharing his optimism. The dog was dead. To make sure, I cocked my ear over its snout, and could detect no breathing.
“Ben……it’s definitely dead! Christ. What shall we do?”
My brain was already playing a film clip, featuring me getting the sack from an incandescently enraged manager.
“Don’t worry lad” said Ben, perking up. “I’ve got an idea”
He picked up the dead dog, slung it unceremoniously into his Gladstone bag, secured it closed, and said “follow me, and keep your mouth shut”
He yelled into the kitchen “Sorry love, we have to go back to the yard to get a tool. We will be back shortly”
A garbled response from the kitchen confirmed that she heartily disliked The GPO in general, and the Telecommunications division in particular, and bemoaning the quality of British working practices.
If only she knew.
We chucked Ben’s bag into the van, and we hurtled back to the yard in silence.
As we pulled into the yard. I asked “what tools do we need?”
Ben grinned, and said “A shovel lad”
Opening the back of his van, he passed me a large spade, and indicating the scrubby patch of woodland at the rear of the offices, he said. “Bury it”
“Bury it. Over there. Dig down two feet. Come on, hurry up. We need to get back. Consider it part of your training. Thinking on your feet!”
I miserably picked up the dog, which had already started stiffening up. I pushed my way into the bushes, and dug a hole, into which I placed it’s little corpse. I quickly shoveled the earth over it, and replaced the spade in the van.
Having completed my funereal task. We drove back to the customer’s house, and went back to wiring up the phone.
As we were finishing up, the woman came in, and cast her eye over our handiwork. “Does it work?” She asked, as if already convinced that it would be a major achievement if it did.
“Of course” replied Ben, as he nonchalantly started loading his tools back into his bag.
“Have you seen Lionel?” She asked
“Lionel?” We obviously both looked like drooling morons, as she explained to us slowly, enunciating each word slowly and precisely, as if to a six year old, that Lionel was her dog.
Ben furtively glanced at me, but we both shook our heads, as Ben innocently said “No, Madam, we haven’t seen a dog”
“Oh dear. I expected he got out when you went back to the yard. He’s probably in the woods by now”
“Without a doubt” I said, straight faced, looking at Ben. I could see he was trying very hard not to laugh.
“Yes, he likes to dig…..probably burrowing for rabbits”
“Oh yes…..I imagine He’s up to his neck in the mud” I said.
Ben had gone a strange colour, and was emitting constricted noises. I shuffled my feet, and said “Well…..cheerio then”
“Yes” she said, icily. “Goodbye”
She ushered us to the door, and with one final appreciative look at her wonderful chest, we were striding back down the drive to the van.
As we got into the van, Ben finally collapsed against the steering wheel, great guffaws of laughter filling the van.
“Oh my lord…..that was funny in an awful sort of way. Well done lad”. He wiped a tear from his cheek, and started the van, and we made our way back to the telephone exchange at Nutley for a cuppa and a bun.
And so ended my first day as an apprentice installing telephones in Sussex.
We have all seen them walking through the airport terminal as we have been departing for our own trips – a group of smartly uniformed and elegant men and women, all dragging the ubiquitous wheelie bags behind them, as they head off to check-in for their flights.
Once onboard, we take for granted the smooth and professional welcomes, and the brisk and efficient manner in which the aircraft is prepared for its trip.
The Safety demonstration is performed, choreographed beautifully to a disinterested audience, many of them studiously reading their newspapers, or playing games on their smartphones.
Once airborne, we don’t bat an eyelid as we are served drinks, meals, and hot towels, all with a smile and good grace.
We are treated to the spectacle of the swift collection of headsets, and the prompt stowage of equipment as the aircraft descends towards its destination.
Finally, we disembark, with the farewells from the cabin crew still ringing in our ears.
Leaving the airport, we will probably notice a crew outside, patiently awaiting the arrival of the crew bus to take them to their hotels.
What an easy life! Operate a thirteen-hour flight to Singapore, then enjoy three days shopping, and relaxing, and staying in a four-star hotel! And get paid for it.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Fancy it as a career?
Must be an easy job, right?
Now let’s do a quick reality check, and see what is really involved in operating as Cabin Crew.
Firstly, we have to appreciate why the cabin crew are there in the first place. Contrary to popular understanding, their primary function is not serving food and drink and making duty free sales.
Their primary function is that of safety.
Strangely enough, their principal concern isn’t bringing you some warm nuts and a gin and tonic, but ensuring that the required safety standards are being maintained, and for increasing your chances of survival in the event that something goes wrong.
All of these safety requirements are laid down by the relevant regulatory authorities; EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) in Europe, the FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) in America, and are legally binding upon airline operators.
So, your average cabin crew member is actually a highly-trained individual who is capable of many things that the travelling public are not aware of. They are certainly not stereotypical “fluffy” airheads.
In an effort to discover what it takes to become aircrew, I enrolled on a new entrant cabin crew course with a major British airline. This course would take at least four weeks, which I admit, did surprise me, as I didn’t think it could have that much content.
How wrong I was!
My course was to be conducted in West London, at the main training centre for the airline, and I arrived with plenty of time to spare. I met with my fellow students, who, it seemed, came from all walks of life, and some from other areas of the airline.
We were all still milling about when a harried-looking instructor arrived and requested that those of us on course number 041 follow him immediately to classroom 6.
We all shuffled into the classroom and a minor hubbub ensued as we found somewhere to sit and stow our bags.
Our instructor introduced himself as John, and without further fuss, he launched straight into a briefing, giving us all an overview of what was to come in the forthcoming weeks.
He concluded by telling us that punctuality was vital to an airline operation, and that should we arrive late, we would be awarded a demerit point for each minute. Collect 6 points, and be washed off the course.
I realised then that this course would be no picnic. I did feel that this draconian system was primarily aimed at the younger members of the intake, young lads and lasses fresh out of school, who may have had a much more laissez-faire attitude to time keeping.
For an experienced man, punctuality was ingrained in my soul, indelibly stamped there by my parents, both of whom passsed on their work ethics to me whilst I was still a small child.
Our course was to start with a weeks worth of medical training, known in the flying business as Avmed.
We were all herded into our classroom, which was filled with medical equipment, including portable defibrillators, oxygen cylinders and resuscitation trainers. It all looked a little intimidating.
Our instructor, Louise, was an ex-nurse, and experienced crew, so she immediately commanded the respect of the class. The first thing we had to learn was our basic responsibilities – what we could, or couldn’t legally do.
Cabin Crew are trained to be able to handle lower level medical issues, and are more than capable of dealing with cuts, sprains, burns, and the like.
But normal workplace first aid just doesn’t hack it when the workplace is a pressurised aluminium tube flying at 38,000 feet – miles from any hospitals or medical centres.
Cabin crew may be expected to identify – and treat, diabetics with uncontrolled sugar levels. They may have to adminster therapeutic oxygen to a semi conscious passenger.
Possibly deal with epilepsy, cardiac problems, panic attacks, air sickness and in extreme cases, childbirth and even death on board.
Yes folks – not so glamourous now…
In order for crew to be able to perform these functions, every aircraft is required to carry a minimum level of medical equipment.
This normally consists of a number of small first aid kits distributed around the passenger cabin and one large suitcase-sized medical kit containing a much more comprehensive array of equipment.
We had to commit to memory the contents of each type of kit, its location on the aircraft and the procedure for issuing medication and equipment.
It is important to realise that cabin crew are not trained medical practitioners, and as such are not legally entitled to prescribe medication, so a large proportion of the aircraft medical kit is prohibited for use by cabin crew.
That is why, in serious cases, cabin crew may make an announcement for any trained medical professionals to identify themselves and assist with the treatment of a sick fellow passenger.
There is also an unseen level of back-up available to help.
Many airlines subscribe to a service called MedLink, a specialist medical unit that is experienced in airline procedures and protocols, and whose staff are familiar with the type of medical intervention that maybe needed mid atlantic!
MedLink doctors and specialists may be contacted by using the aircraft’s satellite phone, the cockpit High Frequency radio patch or a specialist system called ACARS.
ACARS stands for Aircraft Communcations Addressing and Reporting System.
This system is normally used routinely for the transmission and acceptance of flight clearances from Air Traffic Control, company operational messages, such as flight plans, fuel plans, aircraft performance calculations and load and balance plans.
In our case, as cabin crew, any developing medical emergency in the cabin may be swiftly escalated via the flight deck to involve a fantastic level of support and guidance for the treatment of a sick passenger.
We were given practical instruction in how to provide therapeutic oxygen, and the use of an automatic external defibrillator. We also had to demonstrate that we could make an accurate patient assessment, deliver CPR, and place an individual into the recovery position.
This training was all delivered in a cabin simulator, with airline seats, and a standard sized aisle. We all had to show that we could get someone out of their seat, place them on the floor in the aisle, use the defibs, administer CPR and then place them into the recovery position.
I have been a qualified First Aider for years, but I still needed to make a huge amount of effort to remember the procedural and legal aspects of delivering healthcare in an aircraft cabin environment, so I was extremely pleased (and relieved) to have passed my first weeks training in Aviation Medicine.
I now had a complete weekend off in which to study that manuals related to operating the rest of the aircraft, including operating doors, firefighting, operating the emergency slides, ditching drills, and wet drills and security training.
No beers for me then!
Stay tuned for the next chapter in this thrilling account…
I woke up on the 1st of January with mixed feelings. It was the start of a brand new flying year, and I could look forward to lots of aerial fun with the Super Cub, always assuming that the lousy weather would improve.
However, there was a cloud of a different type on my personal horizon; the dreaded CAA biannual medical that assures the residents of Aviation House at Gatwick that I won’t suddenly collapse at the controls, incapacitated and crash land, demolishing a primary school or even a whole suburb.
I, like many of you, do not enjoy undergoing medicals. I’m not a screaming hypochondriac, neither am I so decrepit that I would automatically fail. It’s just that – well, I don’t like medicals.
I also suffer from White Coat Syndrome and this has a tendency to elevate my blood pressure to stratospheric levels. In an effort to control my incipient hypertension, I gave up caffeine and reduced my salt intake years ago.
But, as my long-suffering partner frequently points out (her being an ex-nurse and all), it is a complete waste of effort if I continue to eat the wrong things, and dare I say it – drink beer.
So, there I lay on New Years morning, considering that ominous red ring on the calendar, the date three months away, upon which I would have to say “Ah” and cough whilst staring skywards.
I had been making some half-hearted attempts at weight control since October when I first accepted that 95kg (209 pounds) was a little too much weight to be carrying around.
So, I came to the conclusion that drastic action was needed. Damn it, I needed to exercise. Back in the day, I had swum competitively. played rugby, and did a lot of cycling. However, these days, my exercise routine seemed to have slipped, and my work out was to play chess by an open window and glug beer.
This wasn’t a particularly constructive programme, so I had to do something more constructive. I decided to pull my old bicycle out of the garage.
It wasn’t looking very well. It, like me, needed some serious attention.
I put it up into the bike stand, and inspected it. It needed new brake pads, a new chain, a new chainring, and a new cassette on the rear wheel.
The next day, all the parts arrived from Amazon, and I spent a happy morning removing the worn components and fitting and adjusting the new ones.
Now I was ready to rock!
My initial effort included a fairly regular cycle ride into work, a distance of some eight miles, coupled with eating salad at lunchtime. So it was that I coasted into the month of January and for the first week was able to stick to my plan.
However, the festive season brings forth its temptations, and I had “enjoyed” a few Christmas binges with various corporate departments, friends and eaten shed-loads of inappropriate foods. That, coupled with gorging on one of my Mother’s gargantuan Christmas lunches, a lot of work was needed if I was to get my weight down to the sub 90Kg mark!
Hastily scribbling the figures, I worked out my BMI, and was aghast to realise that it was sitting at 31.5!
Running the calculation in reverse, I would have to be a shade over six feet to put my weight back into proportion with my height.
It appeared that my target weight would ultimately be 79kg. I wasn’t sure about this. Being so lean may make me look ill, so I decided that I would make 81 kg my target weight.
I mulled this over. There was no way that I could lose almost two stones in three months. As I considered it, I could almost feel my blood pressure ratchet up another notch or two. I decided that I would have to do this in stages.
I would continue with an expanded “self-help” programme before going to see my GP. I know he is a very busy man… and I am also a craven coward, so I embarked upon a tough regime based on a simple formula.
I would have to eat and drink less, and exercise more. This is an anathema to me, as I love food, and hate most forms of exercise. I exclude playing chess in front of an open window, as this has the benefit of a complete mental workout in the fresh air!
So, on January 2nd I started my revised plan.
I decided that as I liked cycling, I would continue to use my mountain bike for the commute to work – but now on a more regular basis. The first few rides had been quite difficult – an eight-mile slog to be in work for 0630 in winter conditions are less than fully motivating.
I stuck with it though, and I am now able to complete the ride in just over 40 minutes.
Having mastered the psychological barriers to doing anything that actually involves a modicum of physical effort, I decided that I would go one step further – literally. I decided that I would try commuting to work by foot.
This was definitely not one of my better ideas.
The first day I did this was a beautiful, crisp January morning. It was still dark when I left the house at 0515, but with a yellowing moon sneaking along just above the horizon, it was quite pleasant. I cracked along at a reasonable pace and managed to cover the 8 miles in just over two hours, ready for a 0730 start. I felt quite exhilarated as I walked into the office, still damp from the shower, still puffing from the effort.
Exhilarated wasn’t quite how I would summarise my feelings when I left the office at 1530, for the walk home. It took forever, (well, two hours and twenty-five minutes to be exact!) and by the time I got home, my left foot was on fire, and my lower back felt like it had been run over by a 747 freighter.
The blisters took about a week to heal, during which time I cycled very gently back and forth.
The scales testified to the efficiency of this programme, and I had got my weight down to about 88kg
However, I came to realise that my faithful Marin Alpine Trail full suspension mountain bike was not the ideal machine to cycle to work on – knobbly tyres, and lower gearing made it better suited to the wilds of the South Downs National Park, not the A30 Great South West Road.
I decided to buy a newer bike on the Government’s Cycle to Work Scheme, so I ended up with a flagship state of the art hybrid, with built in lighting, and better wheels and tyres. It was also considerably lighter, and shaved about seven minutes off my commute.
I had now completed stages one and two; my New Year resolution was to moderate my alcohol consumption by two thirds, until my birthday in May. I now enjoy a couple of pints a day at the weekend.
Stage three would be to bring my blood pressure down, which was currently averaging at about 159/100, against the ideal of 140/90.
By mid January, I decided that I had now lost enough weight to show the doctor that I was doing my best to manage my health, so I made an appointment, and sat down in his surgery.
I explained that I was worried about my blood pressure, and told him of my forthcoming medical at Gatwick. I also advised him of my white coat hypertension. I also showed him my blood pressure diary, and after studying it for a few minutes, he scurried to the other side of the office, then advanced rapidly towards me with a tape measure in his hand.
I shrank back in alarm – had my doctor suddenly been overwhelmed with the urge to do a quick bit of DIY whilst I was sitting in the consulting room? Was he about to measure me up for my coffin?
My fears were misguided, and he proceeded to measure the circumference of my upper arm. He squinted at the measure, and pronounced that I was a 34cm – so needed a large cuff.
He went on to explain that most home blood pressure monitors (or sphygmonometers) come with a standard sized cuff, and that I was on the borderline of needing the next size up. He expanded on this, saying that using a cuff that was too small could result in erroneously high readings.
He checked my pressure with the larger cuff, and the result was much lower than I was expecting – a mere 132/110!
After a discussion about my weight loss programme, and other factors, we agreed on a further course of action – I would be fitted with an Ambulatory Blood Pressure Monitor for a 24 hour period.
Having been told this, I rang my Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) or Flight Surgeon and explained the situation to him in full. He seemed quite relaxed about it, and told me not to worry, and come and see him for the dreaded class two medical in three weeks time.
So, I duly drove down to Gatwick, leaving myself plenty of time for my imbecilic-driver induced hypertension to reduce to less stratospheric levels, and went in for the medical.
I have known Dr Maddison for several years, and after conducting my medical, together with the mandated 12 lead Electro-Cardio Gram (ECG) he issued me my class two but requested a copy of the results of my Ambulatory 24-hour monitoring test. He seemed quite satisfied that I was taking control, and that the meds that I had been prescribed wouldn’t cause me to auger into a shopping mall or nuclear power station, so I was good to go.
To supplement my new exercise regime, I substituted breakfast every day for a nice, healthy smoothie.
My favourite, if it can be called that, is made with cherries, chocolate protein powder, almond milk, almond paste, peaches and seeds. Once whizzed up in the Nutri-Bullet, it looks like pond sludge but tastes quite reasonable.
It does bulk me out, so I can last easily until lunch time before I need feeding..
Now, people imagine that being a flight instructor is a somewhat sedentary occupation, like an office worker. Let me put you straight folks.
The simulator in which I conduct my training is the furthest from the offices and is a 500-metre walk to the far end of the hangar building. I normally conduct two simulator sessions per day – two kilometres walking! The journey also involves climbing and descending four flight of stairs.
The other aspect of my free workout at work, is that of coffee.
Whilst there are vending machines near my work area they are of the ingredients-in-a-cup design, and quite frankly a pair of old socks stewed in used bathwater would probably taste better.
So, when the need for caffeine hits, I walk to the nest building, 200 metres away, to use the staff canteen.
The exercise benefit here, is that it sits on the ninth floor. Rather than take one of the three lifts servicing this building, I use the emergency stairs, and climb 9 stories. I unwind the spring by walking back down.
I make this trip three times a day; first coffee a standard filter coffee in a thermos jug at about 0700. Then, elevenses. Normally the excuse that Brits wheel out whenever they fancy a cuppa and either a biscuit or a slice of cake. As soon as eleven o’clock approaches, desks empty, phone calls terminated and a mini exodus heads for the canteen.
I usually opt for a “posh coffee” – either a speciality coffee from the bean-to-cup machine, or if I am feeling particularly profligate, I have a medium white Americano from the Starbucks implant in the canteen.
Lastly, I normally come here again at lunch time to be sociable – another 8 flights climbed!
24 flights climbed a day.
So, here we are, with enforced inactivity as a result of COVID 19. The results of the new laws on self-isolation and social distancing make it very difficult to remain fit.
I am legally entitled to take exercise once a day out of the house, but I am not allowed to drive to a venue to exercise. So, I walk a mile or so or cycle around the military ranges not far from my home.
I do have activities that stop me from becoming too bored – a multitude of Honey-dos. So far, I have managed to clear my woodshed so that I can start chain-sawing wood for next winter; I have pressure cleaned the terrace, and swapped the winter tyres on the car for the standard summer ones.
I have just been furloughed, so I now have some extra time to get ahead of the chores curve and maintain physical activity.
So in the next couple of days, I will finish pressure cleaning the paths in the garden, mow the grass, and tackle the small jungle that I have called a compost heap. I must get the strimmer (Weed-Whacker/Brush Cutter) out of retirement.
I will also dig over my vegetable plots. Maybe lay out a small nature reserve, and plant it with wild flowers, and old logs as a habitat for insects and hedgehogs.
Wash the windows. Thats a pane…
The list goes on…
However, a few minutes ago, a good friend of mine WhatsApp’ed me to invite me for a virtual beer, and it would be rude to refuse.
So, I am relaxing before the call – watching two pigeons attempting to eat from a bird feeder designed to support finches and tits. It a bit like watching a C-130J Hercules attempting to land on a strip designed for Tiger Moths.
In between trying to stuff their avian faces, they are also both harassing a female pigeon (at least – I hope it is female!) for favours. She appears to be totally underwhelmed by their advances, so when they are not eating they are waddling round the garden after her.
It seems so sickeningly familiar…
So – I am hoping that I may continue to carry on being active in spite of the strictures of COVID 19.
A few years ago, I had a bit of a weird experience.
It started in the deep midwinter pre-dawn. Trudging to the bus stop along a dark, bleak country lane. In the gleam of my torch, I could see that the landscape wore a cloak of crisp white hoar frost – frost that crunched satisfyingly under my highly polished boots.
Standing at the bus stop, I was suddenly struck by a great feeling of déjà vu. I was approaching my sixties, and yet I was instantly transported back about four decades.
Back then, I was a teenager, embarking on my career as a trainee technician apprentice for Post Office Telecommunications, now known simply as BT
The winter dawns when I started my commute to work were as cold and dark as this particular morning. I used to make the ten-minute walk to the sleepy East Grinstead railway station, my breath smoking around me as I strode along.
The 291 London Country Bus would normally be sitting at the bus stop, pumping huge clouds of greasy grey diesel smoke into the pre-dawn air. The bus was always numbingly cold. I often thought it was warmer outside than in, but I would be wrapped up in my thick coat, wearing a hat, and woolen gloves that my Mother had knitted me.
At around about 0630, the scheduled departure time, the driver would, if he felt so inclined, pull off rapidly, causing the tired suspension to creak and rattle loudly over the rutted and potholed rural roads.
Lurching alarmingly through quiet country lanes, the bus would stop in hamlets and villages, picking up weary sleep-drugged passengers, reluctantly pacing like automatons into their working days.
Stopping in the village of Ashurst Wood, my friend Katrina would board the bus. Wearing her ubiquitous duffle coat, she would wriggle her ampleness next to me on the seat, her figure disguised under the acres of blanket-like material. I would press against her, feeling her form against my arm, the tantalising press of her prominent bosom sending hormones scurrying around my brain like sex starved mice.
She would openly flirt with me, as the bus wheezed its asthmatic way up Wall Hill, and then we would grip the seat handles as the driver, whom I assumed to be having a psychotic episode, would plummet crazily down the steep hill towards the country town of Forest Row.
Next, we would pick up Darlene, the frizzy haired Aussie who brightened my mornings with her sunny disposition and shortly after, Stuart and Will.
Stuart and Will were as unalike as could be possible. Stuart was tall, and impossibly thin, with long, lank hair, and a quiet disposition.
Will was his alter ego – shorter, mop headed and rumbustious – he was the life and soul of any party.
Pulling into Colemans Hatch we would pick up Gary, who was urbane, dapper and a total eccentric by the age of seventeen, who would converse loudly in a wonderful upper-class drawl.
The bus would then wend its way through Hartfield, where we would collect Lisa and Penny, both of whom were taking a course in Nannying and Nursing at West Kent College.
Into Withyham, and on into Groombridge, for yet another snails crawl grind up Groombridge Hill, the driver disguising our position with the clever use of diesel exhaust smoke.
Langton Green next and then the slow crawl through the western outskirts of Tunbridge Wells.
By this time the bus was happily filled with a cacophony of voices, all competing for priority with the barely subdued roar of the ancient diesel rattling away at the back of the elderly dilapidated contraption.
As soon as the bus came to a stop at Tunbridge Wells Central, it would be an utter, mad, maniacal dash to cross the road, and get down the steps and onto the railway station platform in order to catch the 0840 train to Tonbridge.
The train was always packed, and I don’t think I ever got a seat on it. Back then, the entire carriage was full of commuters, the majority smoking and reading their newspapers in silence.
This was a complete contrast to my recent journeys on the train, where the carriage was still full of commuters, but hardly a paper in sight. Everyone was either texting on their phones, listening to music players or tapping away on a lap top or iPad. And not a cigarette or e-cigarette in sight.
Once at Tonbridge, I would join the meandering human crocodile of students heading for the Brook Street Campus.
By that time, I would be on my 5th or 6th cigarette. Players No 6, or Guards – or if I was feeling delicate, Consulate Menthol King Size.
I can’t believe how much I used to smoke in those days. I must have reduced my life expectancy by a huge amount. I have been clean now for thirty odd years, and I’m probably saving not only my life, but about £4,650 per year!
And now, here I was, standing at a bus stop in the same weather, and at the same time of day. The point of origin is different, as is the destination. The bus is now a modern single decker, with a fuel-efficient engine, and is relatively quiet. My fellow commuters look the same though, tired, cold, and longing for their warm beds, from which they were rudely prised by an insistent alarm clock scant minutes earlier.
It does appear, however, that across recent contemporary history, all bus drivers have been selected because of their underlying psychiatric tendencies. It must be a recruitment requirement. This driver was either colour blind, or had problems with authority, as we jumped at least two red traffic lights en-route to Reading Station.
This time, I was in no mad rush – I had left myself plenty of time to get to Central London. The concourse of the station was already thronged with travellers, muffled up against the chill.
I attempted to issue my ticket at the self-ticketing machine, but to no avail. I then realised that I was trying to obtain a South West Railways ticket from a First Great Western machine. Oh, the joys of technology and rail franchising.
Having queued for a ticket, I made my way to platform 8, and awaited the arrival of the First Great Western 0758 “service” to Paddington.
The train was bang on time, and I boarded, to find that my reserved seat already had a corpulent, sallow woman sitting in it. As there were a number of other vacant seats, I dropped into the nearest available and re-read my presentation notes.
Ah yes…. My presentation. I had been wrestling with the finer points of my presentation, and had worked late into the previous night getting the order right, and fine tuning the PowerPoint slides.
“You are required to give a fifteen-minute presentation on what you perceive as being the biggest challenges faced by the faculty of Engineering and Mathematics in relation to delivering course content that combines high quality technical content whilst acknowledging and embracing cultural diversity and inclusion”
I was applying for the Senior Lecturer vacancy at one of the large London universities but my obviously simplistic interpretation on reading the advert, was that I would be passing on my extensive knowledge and understanding to students within my specialisation of Heavy Commercial Aircraft Operations and Performance – but it seems that I would also need to be much more…sensitive.
Sighing, I closed the lid on my lap top, and reviewed my fellow passengers. Most were hard at work on open lap tops, and a few were mumbling intensely into mobile phones. Only a very tiny minority were conducting leisure activities such as reading a book, or a newspaper.
This would appear to be the modern work ethos. Travel to work whilst working. Then put in a ten or twelve hour day, and then work some more on the commute home. Fourteen hours a day, and get paid for eight.
I think my Father’s generation were the last to enjoy their commute; my dear old Dad became a very well-read man after commuting for two hours a day by train for sixteen years, and he would read just about anything from autobiographies to science fiction. I used to benefit from his addiction as he would frequently wander in to my room and toss a book to me, saying “Read that, I think you’ll like it”.
I always did like his recommendations…
As a young lad attending college, and travelling by train, I used to spend the journey gazing out of the window, watching the English country landscape whizz by in a blur. Or engaging in fantasies involving some of the elegant ladies on board. I used to often enjoy reading the discarded newspapers left by fellow commuters, and would avidly soak up the latest news.
It seems that now, the young are disconnected from reality whilst connected to their phones, and commuting is now part of the working day, rather than a brief respite for those that work for a living.