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APPRENTICE English Culture Motoring Nostalgia Old Friends Society Trains Transport Travel Work

A journey by bus and train

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.

Your Carriage awaits…

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.

The 291 Route – Still the same now as it was in 1975

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.

It doesn’t look much on the map, but at 0630 on a dreary winter morning it lasts forever.

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.

Tunbridge Wells Central Railway Station

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. 

Players Number Six – or Shit Sticks as we used to call them

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.

Not a valid reason to stop if you drive a bus in Reading, Berkshire

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.

STOP Working…. Look out of the window and enjoy the Journey

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.

How commuting has changed.

Welcome to the brave new world.

And yes, you are welcome to it….

.

Categories
Aircew Airport aviation English Culture Flight Lyricist Nostalgia pilots Poetry Transport Vehicles

I’ve always been a hangar rat at heart

I’ve hung around small airfields, since I was just a lad,

A hangar rat, an air cadet, just aviation mad,

Sent solo in a sailplane, when I was just sixteen,

Soaring over English fields, a  quilt of gold and green.

The miracle of flight. Too young for a motorbike, but able to fly the Kirby Cadet Mk III

Sweeping out the hangars, polishing the props,

Cleaning all  their windshields, hanging round in ops,

Topping up the tanks and tyres, mowing taxiway and strip,

Befriending all the pilots, to see if I could blag a trip.

Gissa Flight Mate…

I worked hard at my day job, slaving nine till’ five,

Then pumping gas, and cleaning, to keep the dream alive,

When I wasn’t working, I was studying my craft,

Funny how quickly, the months and years flash past

Practicing the art and skill of landing a taildragger.

As I got older, I got bigger,  and the airfields did the same,

And I was thrilled to hang around, much bigger aeroplanes,

Still in operations, briefing crews and planning flights

Working out performance, a blur of days and nights.

Bit bigger that I was used to!

Then one day, the time arrived, when I had to say goodbye,

To the mighty ships that plied their trade, so high up in the sky,

I left the airport on that final day, without once looking back,

Already thinking of my former self, and could I get him back?

So I wandered up the airstrip as the sun climbed the clear blue sky,

Pulled my little airplane out, I prepared myself to fly,

Turning round, I saw him, overalls, broom and cap,

Young, fresh-faced, teenager, My replacement Hangar Rat

So I took him flying….

Categories
APPRENTICE English Culture Humour Nostalgia Short Story Society Telecommunications Vehicles Work

The Apprentice – 70s style

A long time ago, in a work environment far, far away….

The year was 1976. It was autumn, and I was in the second year of my apprenticeship with Post Office Telecommunications – or BT as it has now become.

The beginning of that September saw me transferred from Exchange Maintenance to the Overhead and Underground unit, or Poles and Holes as we called them. Apprentices were rotated through every specialist section of BT telecommunications, so that they are exposed to all aspects of the business.

So far, I had enjoyed working with Subsciber Installations, Planning, Exchange Construction and Exchange Mintenance. I really wasn’t looking forward to working at the industrial end of the business -especially not during the onset of winter!

On my first day of training with them, I strolled into the Telephone Engineering Centre in the sleepy West Sussex town of East Grinsead,

Opening my locker, I pulled my tool kit out, and whistling tunelessly, made my way into the restroom to grab some breakfast, and meet my mentors, before we set off into my next adventure.

I barged into the brightly lit rest room, which was noisy with laughter, and hazy with cigarette smoke. Damn – I just loved the smell of Old Holborn.

I poured myself a cup of tea from the enormous aluminium tea pot, gulping some down as I waited for my two slices of toast to pop. I had to quaff it reasonably quickly as it would have stripped the enamel from my teeth otherwise.

I used the opportunity to discretely assess my new team mates and trainers.  In the far corner, sat a small and wizened man, whose leathery skin contrasted starkly with his silver-grey hair, which had been buzz cut to within 2 millimetres of his scalp.

He was chatting loudly with a man of simply enormous proportions, whose bulk leaked like decomposing blancmange into every crevice of the chair he was sitting in. 

They were known to all as Laurel and Hardy.  The smaller of the two was Jim Smith, and Mr. Blancmange was Bert Handy. I had heard through the grapevine, and from other apprentices, that they were both real characters, but Bert was also “A bit of a Perv.” Whether or not this would prove to be true remained to be seen.

I glanced again at the pair, and was rewarded to see Bert insert one large and grimy finger into his nostril, and enthusiastically start what looked like major excavation work. He didn’t even stop talking to Jim, who seemed oblivious of the fact that Bert was so avidly picking his nose. 

So it was that I started this new and somewhat uninspiring part of my training.

The Old Bedford box lorry

My days consisted of driving out to some country lane, somewhere in the wilds of Sussex, looking for faults, or renewing spans of cable.

I had developed a simple routine to avoid the discomfort of wearing my armoured wellies all the time. I left my boots in the box section of the lorry, and simply sat on the bench, placing a foot into each wellie in turn.

The box section of the van contained all that a crew needed to perform its duties, from cables, joints, s calor gas burner, a bench with a vice and a whole spectrum of tools on racks on the inner walls.

The job was frequently a messy one, as the cables were filled with a vaseline type grease to prevent water penetrating the cable. When this was cut, or we were crimping joints together, this messy stuff would get everywhere.

The company had thoughtfully provided hand cleaner, and a couple of large pans for cleaning purposes. They were large and had a long wooden handle – for all the world like a Wok on steroids.

I had been soundly berated a few days after joining the section for preparing hot water for hand washing in the red handled pan. To be fair, I hadn’t been told otherwise.

It seems that the pan with red insulating tape wound round the handle was NOT used for hand washing, but for relieving oneself when working away from public lavatories. such as residential roads, and parts of town centres that had no public conveniences.

Everytime one of the lads needed to go, they would simply discretely climb into the back of the truck, use the red handled pan, and then empty this into the gutter, sluicing it away with water from the jerry cans on board.

So, cutting a long story short…

Once Laurel and Hardy got to know me, they used to fool around and joke.

On this particular morning, they were both very quiet, and I picked up an air of supressed anticipation.

I found out about this, when I sat dowm, popped my size nines into my wellies, stood up, and then face planted myself on the floor.

The rotten sods had screwed my wellies to the floor of the truck!

Oh, how I laughed.

Now, I am not a venegful person by any means, but my nose took a bit of damage in the incident, which caused much mirth and hilarity back at the yard. However, every dog has his day, and I planned my retaliatory mission with care.

The next day, we bumped and groaned our way into the back lanes around Hartfield, eventiually parking up not far from the place where A.A. Milne wrote the Winnie The Pooh stories.

Pooh Bridge near Hartfield in East Sussex. Yes, it really exists, and you can play Pooh Sticks there.

Without delay, we set about locating the fault, and preparing the new piece of cable.

Bert straightened up, and slowly made his way back to the van, whilst Jim and I carried on crimping connectors onto the cable.

I watched as Bert climbed the steps and disappeared into the van, closing the door behind him.

I mentally counted…

“One, two three…” I reckoned it would take about six seconds. “four, five, six, seven….. ARGGGHHHH – You bastards!”

He came rocketing out of the van with the pan in his hand, slopping liquid everywhere. He bent and emptied it into the gutter, and advanced up the road in a very threatening manner.

His overalls had a horizontal wet line running across his upper thighs – in fact he appeared to be soaked in a broad stripe about two inches wide.

It’s amazing what a 1/16th drill can do if applied to a red-handled pan in a circular fashion.

Jim just looked at me. “You nutty bugger!”

Bert was still fuming by lunchtime, but I think he forgave me later, when his overalls had dried out.

There is a further episode to this ongoing battle of wits (or should I say half-wits) but that willl have to wait for another time.

Go Well….

Categories
Aircew airlines Airport aviation English Culture Flight Humour Nostalgia Old Friends pilots Security Society Transport Travel Work

That light bulb moment – a guest appearance from an old friend

The first time I met Pookie was in Summer 1991.

Blimey – that’s 29 years ago!

I was enjoying a cuppa in the baggage loaders rest room, catching my breath after working a busy departure in the gate room upstairs. I was working as a Passenger Security Agent for American AIrlines – my first airline job.

Security would’nt have been my first choice of job – I was already a qualified pilot, and had passed all of my Flight Operations and Despatch exams, but nobody gets hired into a blue chip airline in Flight Ops. The only way in is either as a Check In Agent, a Baggage Loader, or a Security Agent.

I chose Security Agent.

The decision was a simple one. After PanAm 103 was brought down at Lockerbie just two and a half years previously, security was uppermost in everyone’s mind. American Airlines were using the profiling system at the time, similar to that used by El-Al.

I learnt behavioural psychology, how to question, how to conduct a proper body search (NOT how Hollywood imagines that it is done) and how to use a security X-Ray machine.

I just thought at the time, that this would be more interesting than seeing a procession of faces, all demanding an upgrade, or doing my back in hefting overloaded bags.

Working in Ops is considered a plum job, as it is remote from the passengers, is conducted in the dry, and is intellectually demanding.

I found an empty space at one of the grubby tables, and sat down to enjoy my brew.

I saw a dark blue silhouette lurch to a stop outside the building, blanking the sunlight streaming through the window, plunging the restroom into a gloom that matched it’s decor.

The door slammed open, and a bearded bloke in his forties appeared. Walking over, he dropped an overstuffed clipboard onto the table, saying “Mind if I join you”

“Help Yourself” I replied, watching as he swiftly made a coffee at the small sink.

Returning to the table, he proffered his hand, saying “I’m Bev, I’m doing the Royal Mail”

I must have looked a bit blank, because he laughed, and said “Mail Sacks – You know, letters for air mail”

I shook his hand, telling him I was in security.

We spent about half an hour exchaning our histories, and it came up in the conversation that we both flew. He had a share in a De Havilland Chipmunk down at Shoreham, and I flew Piper Warriors and Cessnas at Popham.

We went our spearate ways, and it wasn’t until another three years had passed that I ran into Pookie again.

I was the new boy in Flight Operations. Having returned from eighteen months working as Special Services Manager at Stansted, I had finally obtained a position in Ops.

There, sitting at the main control desk was Bev, quietly and efficiently running the entire ground operation at London Heathrow for the 14 daily flights.

I worked with Bev closely for the next three years, and came to love his gentle humour and his ability to produce fantastic caricatures of his colleagues.

Thanks Bev… This is the only one that you wont get sued for!

Once we had got to know each other, we flew together on many occassions, and in any number of different aircraft. I have shared the sky with him in the delightful Chipmunk, pulling gentle loops, rolls and stall turns over the timeless, grassy south downs.

The DHC-1 Chipmunk at Goodwood… A six-gallon per hour Spitfire.

We pottered up and down the south coast of England enjoying summer in a PZL Wilga (A delightful Polish cross between a combine harvester and an aircraft).

PZL- Wilga. A very interesting aeroplane…

We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight in a Piper Warrior, and did a low pass at the small grass strip in Sussex appropriately named Kittyhawk.

Kittyhawk – an Appropriate place to do a low pass on the 100th Anniversary of flight, December 17th 2003

We have fooled about in the Citabria, and been school kids in the Stolp Starduster Too. And what can be better than flying in a Bücker Jungmann with a friend, whilst another friend formates on you in a Stampe?

Ahh yes, The wonderful old Bücker Jungmann, A lovely old Fräulein of the skies…

Anyhow, getting back on track…

Pookie’s sense of fun has often been unleashed on his poor, unsuspecting colleagues.

Below is his account of an episode that amused us all back in Ops whilst he was on holiday one year..

Thanks for all the laughs over the years Bev…

And as for the flying?

Well – that’s been a blast!

Good Friends, Beer, on an Airfield at Sunset… What could be better?

Over to you.

The following was written by Bev Pook, Pilot, Humourist, Motorcyclist, Bon Vivant and Good Friend.

Pookie – probably considering another practical joke, or wondering if he should bash out another quick caricature…

A Lightbulb On Vacation.

Back in the mid-nineties, I was working for American Airlines as a Flight Operations Agent, planning flights, briefing crews, and coordinating everything to ensure flights arrived and departed on time.

The flight operations room had few windows and was lit with harsh fluorescent lights, which are difficult to work with due to their flicker,  The flicker isn’t normally discernible unless you concentrate on your peripheral vision and it can then be sensed.

These lights are very good for office work as they cast little or no shadow, but if using a computer screen (which also flickers) they can cause sight problems as your iris struggles to cope with the flickering.

Enough of the technical details then.

Being heartily fed up with the eye-ache, I ferreted around for a solution, and during one very uneventful night shift, I found a battered old Angle Poise lamp which had been discarded into a dark and cluttered corner of an unused office.

What a find! My Eyeballs were finally happy!

Further investigating led me to a new bulb in a cupboard, and once wiped off with a cloth, the old lamp worked perfectly.

I placed it on the main Ops desk in and I would use it whenever I was positioned in that area. I found it particularly useful on night shifts when I worked alone and could turn off the fluorescents and enjoy a softer light emitted by an incandescent light bulb.

However, I found nobody else seemed to appreciate my light as when I returned on shift after a few days off, the lamp had been pushed back out of the way.

Just before I went on vacation the bulb blew, so I threw it away and departed for a fortnights tranquillity. No sooner had I returned from holiday, I was accosted by my work companions who accused me of taking the bulb on holiday.

Because of this, I decided that my next vacation would see me having some fun at their expense. This time I took the bulb out of the fitting and locked it away in my cabinet, leaving the office with the Angle Poise containing no light source.

After a long and boring flight, I eventually arrived in Muskogee Oklahoma and was met by my good friends, with whom I would be spending my vacation.

Over breakfast the next morning, I asked Terry if I could borrow one of their light bulbs, which was greeted by a strange look but I did get the light bulb.

I then started taking photos of the bulb and me on holiday. Each picture got more and more elaborate and set up to highlight (excuse the pun) that I had indeed this time taken the bulb with me.

Here are a few of those pictures.

I hope you enjoy my rather schoolboy humour.

light bulb 1
Me, the bulb and Elvis at the Muskogee Airshow. I caught him just as he was leaving…
light bulb 2
light bulb 3
The bulb playing a light-fingered bandit
light bulb 4
The bulb and I, about to go flying in a microlight
light bulb 6
Making light of wing walking

Sorry Bev, I would have published this as an “Illuminated” manuscript, but couldn’t find the correct keys.

Go Well…

Categories
Comedy English Culture Humour local economy Nostalgia Satire Short Story Society Technology Uncategorized Work

Thumbs up for typewriters? well, maybe not…

This is another modified extract from my forthcoming book, “A Salesman’s Story (Or Don’t Spend the Commission)

In the early 1980s, the cutting edge of office printing machines was an electric typewriter, and I sold many different models, from a simple “sit up and beg” typewriter, right up through the range to the latest electronic machines that offered a single line LED display, a 4,000 character memory and a Daisywheel printer.

Even in the early 1980s, standard electric typewriters still had a market, particularly with solicitors, as the weight of paper used for legal documents presented a problem to the electronic machines, mainly due to the hammer not striking the character hard enough against the paper to place a successful image on the underlying copies.

Now, I should explain here, that the Eagle 800 was built like a tank, and normally printed via fabric ribbons, which were bi-colour, with one half of the ribbon being impregnated with red ink, and the other half with black.

When powered up, a motor would run, which would spin a powered rubber roller. If a key were pressed, the associated type hammer (bearing a cast image of the appropriate character) would press against the spinning roller, and be flung upwards at great speed.  

A simple mechanical link would lift the ribbon carrier to coincide with the type hammer striking the platen, upon which the paper sheet was clamped. The type hammer would then fall back to its rest position.

Now, some of the keys were fitted with a repeat function. For example, the letter “X” key could be held down, and the letter x would be repeatedly typed onto the page, enabling lines of incorrect text to be obliterated from the page.

So, now you know the basics…

As salesmen, we not only had to know the basics, but also had to know every feature, advantage and benefit that each machine in the range was able to offer. To ensure that I had the necessary tools in my sales kit, I was sent to the manufacturers premises in Leicester to attend a product course.

Our instructor, a portly little chap called Richard Scratcher, was explaining the features, advantages and benefits of the Eagle 800 machine.  He was extolling its virtues as a very tough and well-built piece of equipment.

The Triumph Adler/Imperial Model 800 – A true Workhorse of the 1980s office

“Now, I’m going to show you a very powerful sales technique, guaranteed to help you get the sale”. We all gathered close as he fumbled in his trouser pockets, finally producing a penny coin. He held it aloft like some kind of Devine talisman. 

“To show how tough the mechanism is, simply hold the penny against the ribbon guide, and hold down the repeat “X” key, thusly”. So saying and with a very flamboyant flourish, he proffered the penny into the top aperture whilst holding the aforementioned key.

With a noise like a juvenile machine gun, the X type-hammer blurred against the ribbon guide, the carriage advancing at high speed with each impact, stuttering from right to left with a mechanical clatter.  

The demonstration complete, the silence was deafening. He passed the coin amongst us; I was surprised. It was deformed, and deeply embossed with a capital X. 

The theatrical impact of this would be impressive, and I determined to use this approach when I next went to demo an Eagle 800.  

I didn’t have long to wait, and it was two weeks later that I received a call from Mr Rayne of Babbage de Chelwode solicitors in Crowborough. I had met Mr Rayne before when I sold a dictation system to the practice. 

He was a curious individual, a cross between John Lennon, with his long, lank, greasy hair, and Marty Feldman, with his bulging eyes lurking behind large, round glasses. 

He also had a bad habit of suddenly stopping speaking in mid-sentence, and after a variable amount of time would suddenly recommence.  It was like his brain worked slower than his mouth, which had to stop until it had received the next packet of data. It was most disconcerting.

Anyhow, he was looking to upgrade a manual typewriter and had received my letter offering good prices on the Eagle 800.  

So here I was, sitting across the desk from him, in the wonderful old Jacobean room that served as his office.

“Now, you see, we have legal engrossment paper here, Judi………………”

I waited.   And waited.  He was still staring at me through his glasses, like a scene from a Wild West poker game. 

I leaned forwards.  “Judy?” I ventured, hoping to re-activate his speech system.

“Yes.  Judy.  You know. Judicial paper for wills and stuff. It’s thick and that’s why we need a manual typewriter as it needs to cut a carbon copy underneath”

I nodded, explaining that there was no typing job the 800 couldn’t do, said with a confidence that was belying my uncertainty.

Paper is graded on its strength in terms of the weight it will bear, expressed in grams per square metre. To assess the standard weight of paper, a square metre of it is clamped into a frame, and weight is applied to it until it bursts or tears. 

General-purpose paper is anywhere between 70gsm and 90gsm.  Luxury and specialist paper is over 100gsm, with legal paper at the top end of the spectrum at 120gsm.

Naturally, a copy would be needed, so the carbon paper would be beneath the Judicial paper and the copy paper beneath that. My guess was that the total paper weight would be almost 200gsm.

I seriously wondered whether the Eagle electric 800 would be man enough.

I really shouldn’t have worried.

I had set the machine up in his secretary’s office, which was gloriously untidy, with files everywhere, flowing as if a waterfall from her desk, over the carpet. 

Now was my moment!

I walked over to the machine and pulled a penny piece from my pocket.  I could see they were both regarding me in confused silence.

“To demonstrate the power of the 800, I would like you to watch this”

With a flourish, I placed the penny inside the machine, locating it against the ribbon guide.  Whilst looking them in the eyes, I confidently pressed the “X” key and was rewarded with the high-speed clatter of the type hammer reverberating against the coin.

I lifted my finger from the key and passed the coin across to Mr Rayne.  He took the proffered penny, and held it up, examining its distorted shape and the deep impression cut into it by the machine.

“Wow!” He exclaimed. “Take a look at that Mary”, passing it to her.

She looked at it – a bit dubiously, I thought.

“So, now let’s have a crack at your heaviest legal paper.  By the way, if it does what you want it to do, will you be in a position to place an order today?”

“Oh, I think so….we really need to……………………”

Mary and I both watched him in silent anticipation, waiting for him to finish

“……..bring ourselves up to date”

I inwardly smirked.  The 800 was superseded a couple of years ago by the golf ball typewriter, and the golfball was now being superseded by the daisy wheel.  Up to date indeed!

I watched as Mary pulled the bail bar forwards, and wound the unwieldy paper onto the carriage.  

She started pecking away at the keys, suddenly exclaiming “Oh…it’s not working”

I smiled as I reached forwards, switching the machine on “You now have the luxury of electric power. You don’t need to hammer these keys as heavily as on your previous machine”

The machine was quietly humming, and she hesitantly started typing, speeding up as she became used to the feel of the keyboard.  At the end of the line, I saw her left hand reaching for the carriage return lever, which would have been used on a manual typewriter to push the carriage back to the right-hand stop, and advance the roller by one line.

“It’s a common event” I laughed, showing her the key marked RETURN. She pressed it, and the carriage smoothly moved.  “Oh My,” she remarked.

Now she was up to speed, and we allowed her to type a few paragraphs.

She pulled the document from the carriage, and we all inspected the output. The print was crisp, dark black, and perfectly aligned.  The carbon copy was just as good.

I dramatically passed the carbon copy to Mr Rayne, and he was suitably impressed.

Twenty minutes later, I was happily sitting in my car in the car park, filling out the rest of the rental agreement. Tapping away at my calculator I worked out that a thirty-minute meeting had netted me a cool £60* commission.  Snapping my case shut, I started the car, wound down the window a crack, and stoked up a Bensons. I idly watched the tendrils of smoke being slowly and gracefully sucked out. 

Twirling the key in the ignition, I decided to head back to the office.

I swung into the office car park in what I considered to be my exuberant fashion.  The Managing Director referred to it as “You arsehole” fashion.  I know this, as he indicated his feelings by bellowing into the car park from his office like a fairground barker, calling into question both my driving ability and my parentage.  

I smiled, and waved cheerily up at him, which, judging by the further incoherent ratings, merely proved to enrage him further. I strode briskly into the office, charging up the stairwell two at a time, running into the Sales department, and plonked myself down at my desk. I bashed away at the calculator, which confirmed that so far, I was having a very good month, and would hit target without breaking a sweat.

I checked my diary for the next day and saw that I had a fairly relaxed day, starting with a local farmer, a simple drop off on the industrial estate, and then a visit to an author to sell a binding machine.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny, as I made my way to the rambling old farm in Turners Hill.

This was going to be a simple drop off, and a demonstration of how to set the machine up. I knew that he was pretty switched on, and would pick it up in no time. I was confident that this would be a mere formality prior to me raising an invoice for £400!

Setting up the Cash Register

My assessment proved to be accurate, and I was finished with him by eleven o’clock. I drove sedately down passed the fruit farms and into the industrial estate, cutting through the side roads of Three Bridges.  

Parking up at Worldwide Injection Moulding’s Goods Inwards, I hefted their new typewriter – still in its box – into the bay, and got the warehouse foreman to sign for it, and then I was off again, heading back south and cross country for the pretty village of Horsted Keynes.

The Author was an elderly American chap, called Cyrus J Whittaker. He was the archetypal hippie, with his long grey hair pulled back in a ponytail, secured with a bandana, and wearing a battered old straw hat which I think was actually an integral part of his head –  I had never seen him without it.

He was always friendly, and frequently offered me some of his homegrown pot. Today was no different, and on this occasion, I decided to accept his offer. He passed me his tobacco tin, some papers, and a plastic bag full of leaves.  I duly rolled a respectable reefer, and we both lit up.  

I ambled back to the car, and pulled out the thermal binding system, which I was to demonstrate.

Simple to use – even when you’re stoned

Once the machine was plugged into the mains, and up to temperature, I showed him how quickly he could bind a book. The folders all had pre-glued spines, and the required pages were simply laid into the spine in the correct order, and the whole book placed spine down into the mouth of the machine.

A simple timer would indicate when the process was complete, and the thermal glue had melted and stuck the pages securely to the book. 

In his chemically-induced pliant state of mind, he readily agreed to sign the paperwork, which I happily secreted away into my briefcase – just in case he had second thoughts.

It was well gone one o’clock when I walked slightly unsteadily back to my car. I drove very carefully over to the next village and parked up at the Coach and Horses.  I was a little disappointed, as none of my friends were about, so I ordered Ham Egg and Chips, and a pint of Harveys.  

Nice place for a pub lunch…

As usual, the food was excellent, but the combined effects of one large organically grown reefer, and a pint of Harvey’s Best made me very sleepy. I knew that I would have to sleep this one off, so I drove a mile or so up the road to Ghylls Lap car park on the Ashdown Forest, rolled back the seat, and took a restorative doze for a couple of hours.

I woke up refreshed and decided to finish off the promised deliveries.  I would need to get a hustle on…

I finally arrived at Babbage de Chelwode’s at a quarter to five, so it would be a quick dash. Happy Jack the town’s parking warden would be on his way back to the Town Hall to sign off duty, so unless I was very unlucky, I could park on the double yellows for the duration of my call.

I switched the hazard lights on, and trotted up the steps, and into the cool reception area.

I was swiftly shown in, and Mr Rayne stood to greet me. I walked forward, extending my hand to shake hands, but he recoiled away. I soon saw why.  He held his hand aloft, the thumb was thickly bandaged.

“Ohh – that looks nasty” I exclaimed “What did you do?”

He looked at me very sheepishly. “Well, I had a colleague from Bennisters here yesterday……”

He stopped.  I waited. He was still looking at me, and I nudged him “Yes….”

“Well, I decided to show him how tough my typewriter was, so I tried your trick with the penny”

“Yes…” I said, encouragingly.

“Well, it must have slipped, and I engraved a letter X through my thumbnail, and about a third of my way through my thumb”

I visualized this, and immediately had to suppress the desire to laugh out loud.

“Oh dear” I sympathised “That must be really painful”  

He grunted his agreement, and I carried on “Does he want a machine as well?

“He didn’t say – as I had to go to the Village Hospital to get the bleeding to stop”.

Flipping my notebook open, I swiftly jotted down that Bennsiters could be in the market for a new machine.

“So” I said, snapping my notebook shut, “I’ll be getting on then. I hope that the machine continues to perform well. I will get the engineers to pop over sometime within the next week or two just to check the adjustments.”

He continued to gaze at me through his glasses, not saying anything, so I picked up my case, and quietly left him alone, contemplating his butchered thumb.

£259.00 in 2020*

Categories
biographic accounts combat Flight Movie Stars Movies Nostalgia pilots Society Uncategorized Veterans war

What does a giant rabbit called harvey have in common with a world war two b24 liberator bomber?

What do a giant Rabbit called Harvey, and a World War Two B24 Liberator  Bomber have in common?  Some of you may have guessed the answer, but for those of you that are still trying to make the leap in associations, let me save you some head scratching – the answer is Jimmy Stewart, the famous actor.

This year we celebrate the one hundred and twelth anniversary of the birth of James Maitland Stewart, who achieved fame as both an actor and a pilot. I believe that he was a man deserving of great respect, and that his story should be told.

James M Stewart, Officer, Architect, Actor – and most of all a total Gentleman

James Stewart was born of Scottish/Irish stock on May 20th 1908, in the small town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his Father ran the local hardware store. As a young man, Jimmy never took an acting lesson, preferring instead to serve with the Boy Scouting movement.

Within four years of joining his local Scout pack, Stewart had achieved the rank of Scout second class, and had appeared in a series of commercials promoting the scouting movement – probably his very first movie appearances! He also served as a volunteer with the Orange County and Los Angeles Scout Councils, and received the Silver Beaver award, the highest award for adults in the Boy Scout movement.

Always an intelligent and thoughtful man, Jimmy studied at Princeton University, and graduated in 1932 with a degree in architecture.

Young Jimmy Stewart was also a very keen actor, and had previously attended acting camps with many other embryonic stars, including the late Henry Fonda.

A quiet adventurer, he had already learned to fly by 1935, and had quickly bought his first aeroplane . Frequently flying from the Los Angeles area to see his parents in Pennsylvania, he regularly used the most basic of navigational aids – following roads, railways and rivers to make the trip both there and back.  In 1938, after much effort, he was awarded his commercial pilot licence.

By February 1941, World War Two was up and running, and the thirty-three year old Stewart was called up under draft number 310. He had already decided that he wanted to fly for the military.

Surprisingly, at the time of his attempted enlistment at Draft Board No. 245, the six foot three inch (1.90m) Jimmy weighed only 138 pounds (62.5kg) – a BMI of just 17! He was uniquely refused service on the grounds of being underweight!

Desperately keen to fly, he returned home, and commenced a weight gain programme that had one basic instruction – eat everything! This was made all the more important, as by May of that year, he would have been too old to muster as aircrew.

As soon as he felt able, he re-presented himself for the selection board, and was passed as fit for aircrew duties.

To this day, there are still muttered and whispered allegations that he was underweight at the time of his second medical assessment and that he used his acting abilities to persuade the medicos to be “flexible” in their assessments!

The newly-minted Private James Stewart initially reported to Fort McArthur near San Pedro, California, and was then assigned for aircrew training to the Army Air Corps at Moffett Field a large airbase located just north west of San Jose in Northern California.

Originally commissioned for the US Navy to accommodate airships, this huge base was given to the US Army Air Force during WWII, but is now the home of the NASA Ames Research Laboratories.

Needing an extra one hundred hours of flying time in order to qualify as a military pilot, Jimmy bought them from a local flying club at his personal expense, and soon had the necessary experience to progress further.

By January 1942, 2nd Lieutenant Stewart passed out through the gates of Moffet Field, and was posted to Mather Field Sacramento, California, where he was to become a multi-engine airplane instructor, primarily teaching students to fly on the B17 (Flying Fortress) and the B25 (Mitchell) bombers.

USAF B25 Mitchell Bomber

Whilst this was worthy work, Lieutenant Stewart pestered his superiors to be posted overseas to a war theatre, and was finally successful in late 1943. Conceding defeat, his CO finally promoted Jimmy to the rank of Captain, and sent him to join the 703rd Squadron of the 445th Bombardment Group of the 8th Air Force.

So it was, that in November 1943, Jimmy Stewart, arrived in the gloomy, damp fens of Norfolk, specifically to Tibenham airfield, (now the home of the Norfolk Gliding Club). His new post was that of Operations Officer. At the time the squadron was equipped with B24 Liberator bombers.

A Liberator Bomber, similar to that flown by Captain Jimmy Stewart.

Only staying a short time with the 445th, Stewart was transferred to the 453rd Bombardment Group, as Group Operations Officer, joining them at the nearby Old Buckenham Aerodrome on the 30th March 1944 as a newly promoted Major.

Advancement within an active service Bomber Group in wartime England was rapid due to high casualties and the need for experienced men to lead – and by early July 1944, James Stewart was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, and moved to Wing Headquarters, where he continued to serve until the end of the war.

It is interesting to see that Jimmy Stewart achieved the highest military rank of any actor in modern history; during the second world war he rose to the rank of full colonel, and post-war he remained in the US Air Force Reserve, rising to the rank of Brigadier-General.

Only two other celebrities outranked him – President Ronald Reagan – and therefore Commander-in-Chief of all US Forces (Captain US Army Air Force 1937 – 1945), and John Ford the movie director (Commander, US Navy, and retired as Rear Admiral US Navy Reserve).

This delightfully unassuming man was also a highly decorated officer, being awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross (with Oak Leaf Cluster) Air Medal (Three Oak Leaf Clusters) The Army Commendation Medal, The French Croix de Guerre, American Defence Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It is typical of James Stewart that he rarely spoke of his part in the war, and was deeply affected by the deaths of his friends in service, and found the aerial bombing campaigns traumatic. This is somewhat reflected in the nature of the rôles he took after the war. He is also reputed to have had a dislike for Hollywood war films, on the grounds of their lack of accuracy.

This probably accounts for the fact that he only ever starred in two combat films after the war, “Strategic Air Command” and “The Mountain Road”. 

He remained, however totally committed to aviation, and keenly pursued the studios to portray Charles Lindbergh in the film “Spirit of St. Louis” despite the producers feeling that he was a bit too old to play the part. His enthusiasm for the part was simply because he greatly admired Lindbergh.

The 1965 film The Flight of the Phoenix, saw Jimmy playing yet another pilot – this time as Captain Frank Towns, the commander of a Fairchild C-82 airplane which crashes in a remote part of the Sahara desert.

The twin engine aircraft is built with  twin booms to support the tailplane, and a central fuselage containing the flight deck, cabin, and cargo hold.

Fairchild C-82 Packet cargo aircraft

When the crash occurs, the aircraft is severely damaged on landing, but with the help of a passenger who is an aircraft designer, they create a composite aeroplane out of the remains of one engine and tail boom, and sections of the wing, with which to build a single engine aeroplane to fly out of the desert.

In reality, a company called Tallmantz Aviation purpose-built the Phoenix P-1, designed by Otto Timm. Measuring 45 feet long, and with a wingspan of 42 feet, it was quite a large aircraft. The power was provided by a virtually new Pratt and Whitney R-1340 nine-cylinder radial engine,  which was removed from a T6 Texan military trainer, as were some of the undercarriage components, and other associated parts. The wings were taken from a Beechcraft 18, and the rest of the airframe was made of plywood panels over a wooden frame.

In the film, the structure is given dummy “bracing” wires, and to give the desired “home-made” effect, washing line and linen was used with the specific intention to make the whole airframe look flimsy.

The Flight of the Phoenix 1965

As the aircraft was truly intended to get airborne, it was considered too dangerous to allow Jimmy to fly, so Paul Mantz a famous stunt pilot, was commissioned to pilot it for the film.

It was considered by the director and crew to do repeated take offs, so it was decided that a low pass would be made for filming, and the aircraft would touch down, perform a longer landing roll, and then take off again. This would enable both the take-off and landing sequences to be made from one shoot.

Sadly, on the second take, the aircraft crashed, tragically killing Paul Mantz.

In 1966, Jimmy was given permission to fly one last military operation –  he flew as a non-duty observer on a B-52 strategic bomber during a combat mission over North Vietnam. Two years later, he retired from the US Air Force, to spend time with his wife. 

Jimmy never truly recovered from the shock of his wife’s death in 1997, and made no further public appearances after her funeral.

James Stewart, Pilot, War Hero Architect, and Actor, died of cardiac arrest on the morning of 2nd July 1997, at the age of 89.

And that giant rabbit called Harvey? Well, Jimmy made a film in 1950, where his character, the eccentric Elmer P Dowd meets a 6 foot three white rabbit that only he can see, and who accompanies him wherever he goes.  Now you know.

Go Well…

Categories
Comedy English Culture Humour Nostalgia Satire Short Story Society Uncategorized Work

Photocopiers – A Salesman’s Nemesis

This is a modified extract from a chapter of my forthcoming book – A Salesman’s Story (or Don’t Spend the Commission)

It was a rainy day in mid-April. The year was 1980, and I was approaching my 21st Birthday. Despite the overcast day, I was feeling happy, contended and confident. I was sitting in a queue of traffic, which, as was normal for the small West Sussex market town of East Grinstead, was at a standstill. Light drizzle was spattering the windscreen, distorting the outline of the cars ahead.

I idly flicked the wipers, and they stammered their way across the window in a reluctant arc, redistributing the greasy water around the glass. Out of boredom, I turned on the radio. Martha and the Muffins were extolling the virtues of Echo Beach. I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel, and checked out my image, which was faintly reflected in the window of Baldwin’s, the local Hardware store.

I congratulated myself on my obviously cool look. Despite the gloom and the rain, red framed mirror-finished sunglasses, and a snappy beige three-piece suit can’t fail to impress. You can’t be too under dressed working as an Office Equipment Field Sales Executive can you?

My first appointment was to see the Chief Purchasing Officer of the local Borough Council, who was interested in buying a small photocopier for the planning office.

I do not trust copiers, they are fickle and I am sure they are fitted at the time of manufacture with a malevolent force.

In the early 1980s, the choice for copiers at the low volume end of the market were limited. For very low users, 3M manufactured a small machine that used specially treated paper and a thermal imaging system, and copies were performed individually.

For medium users, there were compact copiers from a variety of manufacturers, but whilst they all operated on a photographic process, some required liquid toner to produce the image, rather than the dry black powder toner used today.

An early Liquid Toner Photocopier, circa 1979

Arriving at the Town Hall, I informed the receptionist that I was there to see Mr Maskell, the Town Clerk to demonstrate a copier.

A few minutes later Mr Maskell arrived, looking a little like a flustered Secretary Bird.  He showed me to a large open plan office, which had been freshly decorated, and still smelled of adhesives and paint.

The floor had been laid in black and white carpet tiles, and I felt as if I were a pawn in a forthcoming chess match.

Brand new black and white carpet tiles – what could possibly go wrong?

I realised that all was not well when Mr Maskell started getting an odd look in his eyes. He was desperate to interrupt, but I was in full flow, and he was a courteous man, so the first inkling that I had that there was a problem, was when toner fluid suddenly gushed from the machine, vomiting out in a greenish stream, soaking my hand, trouser leg, and flooding onto the carpet tiles below.

“Oh God!” he shrieked, “It’s a brand new carpet –tell me it won’t damage or stain the carpet!”

I decided to play it cool and unflappable.  “Of course it won’t Sir” I replied, hoping fervently that I was right. “It’s completely inert, and won’t hurt the carpet.”

He calmed down visibly, and remaining in position, I completed my demonstration.  Having seen the quality of the copies, he seemed impressed, so I moved in for the kill.

“Will you be purchasing or leasing the copier?” I asked. 

“Oh, outright purchase” he replied airily “We never rent anything at the Council”

“Come this way, and I’ll see that Doreen raises the requisition and the necessary paperwork” He strode off towards the stairwell, and I moved to follow him – and almost fell over.

With sickening realisation, and a sense of impending doom, I looked down, and realised with horror, that I appeared to have a black carpet tile stuck to my left shoe, and a white tile struck to my right.

I furtively tugged at it, but it seemed that the fluid was in fact a solvent, which had bonded the plastic sole of my shoe to the acrylic surface of the tile. Looking round anxiously, I slipped out of my shoes, and attempted to rip them free, but all I succeeded in doing was pulling both tiles from the floor.

At that moment, Mr Maskell reappeared, concerned that I wasn’t following him.

He immediately assessed the situation and was evidently not happy to see a red-faced suited bloke apparently wrenching his floor up. He escorted me to his office, where Doreen kindly cut round the shoes with scissors, leaving each one with a new sole, one white, one black.

With profuse apologies, I withdrew from the Town Hall, embarrassed and sweating, assuring Mr Maskell that the company would pay for the damage.

He did eventually forgive me, and ultimately I did get the order but lost most of the commission in repair bills.

My second brush with copiers came about two weeks later when Geoff Brown asked me to help him demonstrate a Mita Copystar DC-161 copier to a firm of solicitors in Horsham.

I was always keen to help my colleagues, as I learned a lot at these sessions.

“The Mita DC-161 is a beast” I looked at Geoff and wondered quite what he meant.

“It’s VERY heavy, and you need to keep a straight back to lift it. You must lift with your knees. It’s very definitely a two man lift, and it’s not very maneuverable, particularly up and down stairs, so we always take the lift”

I eyed the pink and white monster with a degree of trepidation. It was large, measuring about 4 feet long, by 2 feet tall, and about 3 feet deep. It had a state of the art control panel on the right hand side, and a large plastic cover over the copying bed. It also cost a whopping £3000, so would attract commission in the region of £600.00!

The mighty Mita DC-161 copier – a beast at 117kg (258 pounds) – a definite two man lift!

Geoff continued, explaining that in order to carry it, we would need to use his car, a Ford Cortina Mk III Estate, and use the Demtruck, which was a small trolley that could be swiftly dismantled to enable the copier to be slid in and out of the vehicle without breaking the backs of the staff.

So, having loaded the beast, we cruised over to Horsham, and parked up outside the solicitor’s office. It was an old building, so there would be no lift to assist us, and worse still it was a three-storey building.

We wheeled the trolley into reception, and were instructed to carry the machine up to the third floor.

Geoff motioned me to one end of the machine, and I pulled the carry handles from their concealed recesses within the copiers body, and keeping a straight back, and a rigid posture, we hobbled our way to the foot of the stairwell.

Geoff then manoeuvred me so that I would have to ascend the steep flight of stairs in reverse – and, to my chagrin, I realised that he had also slyly ensured that I had the heavy end of the machine containing the bonding rollers.

I began to dot and carry myself up the stairs, puffing with the exertion. Each step was an act of faith, in that my foot would land squarely onto the stair tread. I couldn’t see down, as the copier impeded my view; I couldn’t look behind me, as I was rigid, and my arms were locked straight down

“Am I at the top yet Geoff?” I grunted.

“Couple more mate” He panted

I shuffled a further two agonising steps, and asked again “Am I there yet Geoff?”

“Yep!” came his wheezing response.

Instead of then lifting my foot, I moved it straight back, and immediately discovered that Geoff had lied to me…

There was another step.

At this moment the twin laws of gravity and impetus conspired against me, and I gracefully and inevitably toppled backwards, still holding the copier, which now slowly settled upon my chest.

I was now trapped, lying flat on my back, pinned to the flight of stairs by what felt like half a ton of copier.

“Gerrritoffme!” I shouted to Geoff. 

 “I can’t mate, he replied, I can’t let go of this end, or the whole sodding lot lands on you or carts us both off down the stairs.!”

The situation got worse, as I suddenly saw the funny side of my predicament, and I started laughing which was a bad move as the copier now lovingly wriggled and pressed harder into my chest.

“HELP!” bellowed Geoff, “Help”

After a couple of minutes, the partners appeared at the top of the stairs. My heart sank, as all of them, appeared to be somewhere between eighty and death – how could they help?

With much huffing and puffing, and the help from an amply bosomed matronly secretary, we got the copier into the office where Geoff proceeded to demonstrate its capabilities. 

An hour later, and we were happily wandering back to the car.

“So what finally persuaded them to take it?” I asked. Shooting me a big grin, he replied “I told them that if they didn’t order it, then they would have to help me carry it back down the stairs to the car!”

A few days later, I received a call from Neville Fuller, who asked me to supply him with a copier. Having discussed the various models and price options with him, we decided that a re-conditioned Sharp machine would do the trick, and I made an appointment to see him that Tuesday.

Now, I should explain here, that Neville Fuller was a courtly “Old School” gentleman, a retired accountant who now ran a small consultancy from his home. His wife was a very elegant, house-proud woman, somewhat reminiscent of Miss Marple – even down to her fondness for wearing tweed two-piece outfits and pearls.  They lived in a beautiful custom-built bungalow at the end of a very quiet cul-de-sac on the outskirts of East Grinstead.

Before going further, I should tell a little about my company car. I was given a 1978 blue Vauxhall Chevette estate car. It was, to put it bluntly, an amazingly, stupendously awful car. It was a true bitch to start, especially in the wet, handled like a trifle, and leaked water. Its only redeeming feature was a radio-cassette player, and even that was highly temperamental. Unreliable, despite the best efforts of Whites in Redhill, it broke down regularly, and was referred to as the Vauxhall Shove-it.

The latest fault to afflict this self-propelled scrap heap was that the parking brake could not be fully applied, despite the handbrake lever being applied so much that the handle pointed vertically at the roof. I was therefore quite cautious as to where I parked.

The truly appalling Vauxhall Chevette – Spent more time in the workshop than on the road.

On the day of the appointment, I swung the car into the cul de sac, and executed a precision three-point turn, smoothly reversing down the drive.  I stabbed the radio switch, rendering Sad Cafe silent.

I threw open the door, and grabbed my jacket from the hanger behind the driver’s seat.  Patting my hair down, I strode to the front door, and pressed the doorbell.

Neville Fuller opened the door, and I proffered my business card, and introduced myself, whilst stifling a degree of incredulity. 

For a second I was totally nonplussed – he was wearing what I can only describe as a Victorian Gentleman’s smoking gown, complete with a cravat in a lurid paisley design. Regaining my composure, I put my briefcase down, and stood patiently in the small porch.

Neville took my card, and peered at it, “Ahhh, the copier man. You’d better come in” he said, standing aside and indicating the chintzy hall beyond.

At that moment a loud, dull, echoing, thud interrupted the birdsong.

As if in slow motion, we both turned to see what had caused the noise, and I was astounded to see that my car had decided to make its way down the remaining 6 feet of the drive, and had now come to rest with its rear bumper lovingly contained in the warped embrace of the once pristine up and over door.

“Ohmigod I’m sorry Mr. Fuller” I blurted, I will move it….”  

I jumped into the car, started it up, and gently eased forwards, amidst the sound of rending plastic and distorting mild steel.

Resetting the hand brake, I took the precaution of engaging first gear, to prevent my car further raping my customer’s garage.

Neville was busy inspecting his door, so I joined him to review the damage.

“Is it bad?” I enquired.

“No – don’t worry, its popped back into shape, and the paint is just a bit scuffed, but it needed re-painting anyway”

This was very generous of him, as the glossy almost mirror finish clearly indicated that the door was virtually brand new.

“Would you like a coffee?” he asked as we walked into his smart bungalow.

“If that’s not too much trouble, that would be good. White with two please”

“I say Daphne, bring a coffee, white with two” he bellowed into the inner sanctum of his home.

He ushered me into his office, which was quite compact, and quite dwarfed by a huge desk, literally strewn with papers

“Where would you like me to demonstrate the copier?” I asked.

“Oh, just on the desk there will be fine” he said, swiftly gathering up stacks of paper, thus clearing a space on the desk.

Luckily the model of copier that I was about to demonstrate was a refurbished Sharp machine, one that used a black carbon powder to create the copies. It also had a bed that moved left and right upon which the original document was placed.

Being a fairly current model, it was light enough to be carried by a single person, and it had a reasonably low profile, but as a result, it was also quite wide – certainly not wide enough to be carried in a flat level upright manner through a standard UK internal doorway.

I discovered this as I was attempting to carry the machine into the office. 

Approaching the doorway, I found that the copier was too wide by about 6 inches, taking my arms into account. I smoothly turned my body through ninety degrees, and tilted the copier towards my chest, thus giving ample room for me to shuffle in sideways through the door.

And that is where the plan came unstuck.  Tilting the copier so far from its normal horizontal caused the black carbon toner to spill from the machine.

I heard a loud dull thud as about a kilo of toner hit the pristine white carpet at my feet, and I was temporarily enveloped in a cloud of cloying black dust. Mr. Fuller made a small squeaking sound, and through the stygian haze, I could see that his eyes were bulging, and he had a stricken look on his face.

I was frozen to the spot, not wanting to move, for fear of further contaminating the snowy white floor.

“Darling!” he croaked, “Would you please fetch the vacuum cleaner – quickly please”

I was impressed with his sang-froid. I had just obliterated about two square metres of luxury Persian carpet with fine black dust – carpet-bombing in its purest form. 

I gingerly placed the sooty copier on the desk, and looked at the devastation.

Mrs. Fuller arrived with the vacuum cleaner, and took in the scene with one glance. “Ohh! She exclaimed – I’ll go and get the Shake and Vac!”

“No!” I yelped. You mustn’t rub it or it will bond to the fibres of the carpet”

I plugged the vacuum in, and gingerly sucked up the vast majority of the toner,  leaving only a small patch of carpet with dark black staining, – the original point of impact.

Completing my task, I looked up to see Mr. Fuller looking at me in a bemused way over the top of his half-moon glasses.

“Err…. I don’t suppose you will still want to see the copier after this” I said, gesturing to the mess on the floor.

“Well – you’re here now” he said, “So you might as well show it to me”

Generous gesture, that.

So, I plugged in the machine, and eventually had it producing crystal clear copies of ledgers, letters and forms.

I plucked up the courage to ask if I could “fill in the paperwork”, and to my amazement, he happily filled in the Rental Agreement, thus committing himself to a three year contract, and earning me just over eighty pounds in commission.

I left a darn sight happier than his insurance company would be, having to shell out for a repair to a garage door, and the cleaning of most of the downstairs fitted carpets – all of which had been contaminated to a lesser extent, despite our care in not walking in the insidious powder.

And this is how I know that copiers are most definitely the work of the devil…

Go Well…

Categories
Airport combat Nostalgia Old Friends pilots Society Transport Travel Uncategorized Veterans war

Escaping to Colditz

The three of us had last flown together as a crew was when we decided to fly to Ostend in Chris’s Piper Warrior Light Aircraft. 

Piper Warrior 180 four seat light aircraft

The purpose of that trip was a simple one. We all shared an interest in military history, and all of us had relatives who’d served in Passchendaele and Ypres during the First World War.

That trip is the subject of another article, but suffice to say, on the way home (feeling quite subdued and humbled by our experiences) our conversation turned to other potential trips.

We all decided that the Normandy Beaches were fairly high on the agenda, as was a suggestion to fly into some of the French airfields that the Luftwaffe operated from during either or both of the two world wars.

I happened to mention that I’d heard somewhere that Colditz Castle had been re-opened to members of the Public.

Now, for those that don’t know, Colditz was used as a maximum-security Prisoner of War camp, predominantly housing repeat escapers.  This generated quite a bit of interest, as we had all grown up reading about the exploits of the escapees, and we all revered these men as heroes during our respective youths.

Colditz was also a very successful BBC TV series, and I remember avidly watching every episode, so I was greatly interested in going.

Nothing more was said, but then one afternoon in early March, I received an email from Chris – he had been doing some research into making the proposed Colditz trip a reality. The big question was – how could we schedule it? Chris is a 777 Captain, I work shifts in the Flight Crew Training Centre as an instructor, and Barrie is a “Gentleman of Leisure”.

Eventually we decided to fly out on the 3rd April, Easter Saturday, and come home on Easter Sunday.

It was a grey and overcast day as the Ryanair 737-800 touched down at 1030 local time at Altenberg Airport.  Altenberg, like Colditz is stuck in the middle of nowhere, which is probably why Ryanair chose to operate there. Leipzig is about 54 miles south, and Colditz is about 40 miles in the other direction.

Not exactly a busy airport, but well equipped and only a 40 minute journey by road

Looking out of the window as we taxied to the terminal, we could see the hardened concrete aircraft shelters that twenty-one years ago would have housed MiG 21 fighters of the East German Air Force. Today they are dismal looking and overgrown with weeds, a sad casualty of the outbreak of peace.

Disembarking from the aeroplane, we joined the meandering crocodile of passengers casually wandering towards the low concrete building of the terminal.

This was a stark difference from the way things are done in the UK. At home, the passengers would have been bullied and shepherded by airline staff all in high visibility jackets; however, to be fair, the Ryanair flight appeared to be the only aircraft on the windy and damp tarmac that morning.

We had arranged to be met at the Airport by Peter Werner Taxis, and the forty-minute ride would cost about 45 Euros each way to take us to Colditz Castle. The driver of the cab spoke no English, but we managed to communicate by virtue of some schoolboy German that Chris and I had learnt some 40 years ago.

We all bundled into the people carrier, and sat back and enjoyed the scenery – Small well-kept villages, pretty towns, and thick greenwoods. The road, whilst obviously a minor rural thoroughfare was extremely well-maintained, with absolutely no potholes. Maybe we could send some of our local council bureaucrats here to be trained in civic amenity management.

Eventually, we arrived in the outskirts of Colditz, where the taxi driver generously agreed to let us drop off our bags at the small hotel we were staying in.  Once we had dropped the bags off, the taxi drove us the short distance to the castle itself.

Looking up at the castle which sits broodingly crouched atop a rocky crag, it was easy to imagine the feelings of those Prisoners of War who were marched up the steep incline to the castle entrance.

Colditz – silently holding it’s nine hundred years of secrets

Colditz Castle has been associated with incarceration of one type or another for many years.  Building was started in 1158 AD, and by 1694 it had expanded to become a 700-room castle, and was the home of regional royalty and nobility.

During the early 1800s it was destined to become a workhouse for the poor, the ill and local criminals, and became quite run down.

From 1829 until 1924, it was a sanatorium for the rich, and was home to some notable residents, including Ludwig Schumann, the son of Robert Schumann the composer, and Ernst Baumgarten, one of the inventors of the airship.

In 1933, the Nazi Party came to power, and they swiftly saw the potential of Colditz as a prison for Communists, Jews and other dissenters, and by 1939 it had become a Prisoner of War Camp for Allied prisoners.

Due to its remote location the Wehrmacht decided that they would use Colditz as a holding camp for troublesome prisoners, and those that made repeated escape attempts. It became known as Oflag IVC (Offizierslager –Officers Camp), and housed Douglas Bader, Pat Reid, Airey Neave and Desmond Llwelyn, (better known as “Q” in the James Bond films) to name but a few.

The camp Kommandant and his guards appeared to be relatively humane, accepting that the prisoners would attempt to escape, and operated fully under the terms of the Geneva Convention.

The prisoners, however, were also under a sworn duty to escape, and used the long empty hours of captivity to dream up ever-more sophisticated ways in which to make their way out.

These included tunneling out, walking out disguised as German officers, and exit by subterfuge.  In order to facilitate these attempts, a sophisticated support network was created. Counterfeit papers were produced, fake uniforms and civilian clothes manufactured, and diversion tactics employed.

We were all looking forwards to wandering round, and seeing for real the places that we had read so much about.

The castle is accessed through a pair of doors into a steeply sloping cobbled courtyard. A small door leads into the official entrance, and we entered the cool interior. Climbing the stairs to the first floor, we arrived in a well-lit room housing a small gift shop and ticket desk, which led onwards into a bright area containing museum exhibits.

Stout wooden doors – and a stout English visitor!

Glass cases displayed a great selection of artefacts ingeniously fashioned by the prisoners; digging implements, printing equipment, and even a wooden typewriter for creating work permits and travel documents!

The size of the museum is quite small and occupies only a tiny percentage of the castle itself.  The only way that access can be gained to other parts of the building is by engaging the services of an official guide.

Chris had thoughtfully organised a guide for us, and at just 45 Euros for 2 hours, Lottie was great value. She was extremely knowledgeable, and had a great sense of humour, the result of spending three years living as a student in London no doubt.

Under Lottie’s guidance, we were led out into the courtyard and were shown the impossibly tiny coal hole that Airey Neave hid in during one of his breakout attempts.

The restored coal hole from which Airey Neave MP made his escape.

From Lottie’s explanations, it seems that after the war, and the Soviets took over the administration of the region; the history of Colditz was totally ignored, and local children like Lottie grew up accepting that the Castle was nothing more than a mental asylum.

The Soviet government chose to do nothing with the castle, which became more and more decrepit and derelict as the decades marched on.

The worst casualty of this willful neglect is the Chapel, which was virtually derelict at the time we visited back in 2012, but it may well have been restored by now. As guests of a tour guide, we were actually allowed in, and could see that prior to the war, it would have been a beautiful building, but for the neglect.

Escape tunnel deep under the Colditz castle

Having come back into the bright light of the courtyard, I asked Lottie if we could see the loft where the glider was made.  She sighed theatrically, and told me that due to Health and Safety we couldn’t see that part of the castle as it was being renovated.

I then asked if it would be possible for us to visit the theatre where the prisoners put on plays as part of the diversion strategy to keep the guards occupied as they conducted escape activities.

She smiled at that, remarking that we were the first group of visitors who even knew of the theatre.  This surprised me, as I would have thought that many of the visitors to the castle would either be ex-military or as interested in military history as we were.

Anyway, suffice to say that she led us up the stairs and along some gloomy corridors that were still decorated with the original flock wallpaper, and with an all-pervading smell of mustiness and damp.

Once into the theatre, we chatted amongst ourselves, discussing the scene in the Colditz film where prisoners put on a show to disguise the noise of tunneling and excavation whilst an escape attempt was in progress.

The inventive escapees staged a play, and invited the German Officers and senior NCOs to watch the performance and whilst they were on stage, some of their brother officers were making good their escape.

“Is there any chance that we could stand on the stage” Chris asked.  “Ja, of course you can” grinned Lottie. “Would you like that I take your picture?”

We gleefully mounted the stage, and adopted a group theatrical pose, and She snapped away.

Having exhausted the inside of the Schloss, we were led outside into the grounds, to the places where the prisoners played football. Lottie pointed out where Michael Sinclair was shot trying to escape.

He was the only prisoner to ever be shot escaping from Colditz. This in itself was a sad accident, and was apparently unintentional.

According to Lottie, he attempted to run during a football match. The guards ordered him to stop, but he continued sprinting away. The guards opened fire, apparently aiming to hit his legs, but a bullet hit him in the elbow, and then ricocheted into his heart, killing him instantly.

Eventually, Lottie bought us back to the courtyard where the tour ended.

We thanked her profusely, and gave her a handsome tip – she had done a splendid job, and we left the castle in far better spirits than some of those men from 70 years ago.

We strolled down to the town, and wandered back to our hotel, where we enjoyed some excellent German cuisine – and a few steins of strong lager in the deserted restaurant.

By now, we were all quite tired, and so after a couple more beers in the bar, we said our goodnights, and retired to our rooms.

Next morning our taxi arrived promptly, and we meandered our way back to Altenberg, catching the Ryanair flight back to Stansted.

Our weekend was both historically rewarding and great value for money. Our flights were £135.00, accommodation was £35.00, Entrance fees and tour guides £35.00, £30.00 taxi fares, and £35.00 food. A total of £270.00[1] for an incredibly interesting and moving weekend.

So, having scratched that particular itch, we will now have to plan our next journey into history.

Go Well.


[1] At March 2012 prices.

Categories
CHINESE FOOD Elderly English Culture Nostalgia Old Friends Reunions Society Uncategorized

THE CHINESE CONNECTION

As a sixty-year-old, I am very privileged to live in an age where I have been able to maintain contact with old schoolfriends, college buddies and university alumni, in a way that my parents could never do.

I was chatting with my Mum the other day, who was wistfully talking about growing up in the 1930s, the disruptive and irretrievable loss of her youth to the war and the education that she subsequently lost.

She sadly referred to good friends – friends that she had when she left school at just fourteen, to go to work. Friends that she lost contact with over the years, and has never been able to find.

I recall sitting down with the old dear with my Facebook account (When I still had one!) searching, as she went through a litany of names. As would be expected I was unable to find any of her peers. Many were girlfriends, so probably would have married and changed names.

My Mum is reasonably fit and healthy, and is approaching ninety. She is highly unusual as she has a laptop computer, and happily uses email to stay in touch with her grandchildren. She shops on line, and is pretty savvy for a lady of her years.

I couldn’t say the same for many of her contemporaries, so even if they were still alive and kicking, there is no assumption that they would have an on-line presence.

I connected with one of my old friends some years back.

Some of you may remember Friends Reunited, which closed down in 2016 after sixteen years of operation.

Screenshot 2020-01-19 at 10.20.04I was sitting in my back room in about 2003, typing the names of old friends into the search bar, when I finally got a hit. I immediately emailed the lad whom I had last seen in about 1986 when we all went to see Queen supported by the mighty Status Quo at Wembley.

After about six weeks without hearing anything, I accepted, a little down-heartedly, that times move on, and maybe he no longer wanted to catch up with a life that was seventeen years previously.

I was somewhat surprised when some eight months later I received an email out of the blue from my old mate. Yes, he was keen to meet up, and was still in contact with the rest of the blokes.

It seems it was me that fell through the cracks, moved away and followed a different path.

Happily, we all met up at a pub in East Grinstead, and we picked up conversations as if it were yesterday, rather than almost two decades.

Subsequently, we have remained firm friends, and meet regularly every couple of months. We chat on WhatsApp or Messenger, or just plain text messaging.

So it was last Friday. We all met up in East Grinstead – initially in a little independent brew-house called the Engine Room,

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THE ENGINE ROOM, EAST GRINSTEAD

from where we all trooped down through the town centre to the Wing Wah Chinese restaurant.

Every member of our group of 8 has a fond memory of this particular restaurant. For me, it was the place that I took my very first girlfriend to on a date, way back in 1977.

The crazy thing is, that the waiter at the time, a young Chinese chap called Alan is now the owner of the restaurant.

F2704D9C-BA3A-45D4-AB49-54A6CB3D43E6

 

So – how the wheel turns!

Forty-three years later and I am being served in the same restaurant, in the same building, by the same man and sitting with the same bunch of blokes, discussing motorcycles, politics, and music and putting the world to rights.

 

 

Life’s Good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Civil liberties Elderly Electric Transport English Culture Motoring Nostalgia Politics Science Society Transport Travel Uncategorized

Elderly Drivers – Good or Bad – I Hope To End Up As One! (Or – Are They Safe?)

I parked the car, nonchalantly locking it with the keyfob, as I do every evening when I return from work.

It was a blustery, rainy late afternoon, and my journey home a relative nightmare. All of the major routes west of Heathrow Airport were in chaos. It seems that the average Brit is breathtakingly incompetent in wet conditions, despite bemoaning that its always raining here.

Either driving lunatically fast, or crawling along far too slowly, the result is multiple accidents, and long holdups. The delays were only made marginally tolerable by listening to the radio.

I decided that the solution to my grumpy mood was to pull my bicycle out of the. garage, and cycle the mile and a half to my alternate refuge, the Passfield Club.

It was only five past five when I arrived, and the place was almost deserted.

I ordered a pint of Fossil Fuel, and went at sat at a table at the far end of the room.

I was thinking about driving. Despite my journey, I knew that I was fortunate to be in a position to drive.

I have held a full licence since February 1977, almost 43 years. The car and motorcycle have become an intrinsic part of my life, and as a relatively fit man, I rarely think of the time when I too will have to hang up my car keys for the final time.

Before that time, I may have to downgrade my vehicle from the small SUV that I drive to a smaller vehicle. Maybe electric?  Who knows.

I recall hearing somewhere that many older people bought an automatic car after maybe decades of driving a manual gearbox car, and subsequently had an accident as a result of confusion over the foot pedals and their location.

 

Also, that older drivers were as dangerous as the young due to their worsening driving abilities.

I wondered if this really was an issue, so I decided to do some research, and here is what I discovered.

According to AXA Insurance’s Technical Director David Williams[1] drivers may face rises in insurance premiums as a result higher compensation claims being awarded following vehicle collisions and accidents.

The two age groups that will be affected most by this will be younger drivers in the 17-24 age group, and those over 75.

That surprised me a little.

Further digging revealed that there are an estimated 2.7 million drivers under the age of 25. Of that figure, 1.3 million are under 22. Combined, these groups make up about 7% of all UK drivers.

Drivers aged 17 -19 represent 1.5% of the driver population, yet they are involved in 9% of all fatal accidents in which they are the driver! Altogether, the under 25 age group are responsible for 85% of all serious injury accidents.

So where does this leave the older driver.

Bizarrely, a quick check of the stats[2] instantly confirms that drivers in the 17-24 category have a very high accident rate comparatively speaking, with 1,912 collisions per billion vehicle miles (CPBVM) travelled. The accident rate then progressively reduces as age increases, reaching its lowest point between the ages of 66 – 70 dropping to just 367 accidents CPBVM.

So, I am, in theory, becoming statistically less likely to have an accident, due to my relentless march into decrepitude.

The accident rate rises slightly thereafter, but peaks to its highest for the 81 – 85 age group – at a massive 2,168 CPBVM.

So, in overall terms, from age 60 to 70, not a bad record.

Some of the reduction may well be inked to the fact that older drivers travel less than other adults, with about half the average mileage covered.

 

Demographically, the older population is forecast to expand and the number of people aged over 65 in the EU is predicted to double between 2010 and 2050.

Now a quick look at the science.

Aging brings with it several inescapable changes, including sensory, psychomotor and cognitive reductions – failing eyesight and hearing, slowing reactions, and slower and impaired judgement.

The higher reported fatality rate for older drivers is due to increasing frailty leading to death in a collision that would have potentially only injured a much younger driver.

Current UK legislation requires that driving licences are renewed when an individual reaches 70, and are valid for three years before requiring to be renewed again. This is a sensible approach.

When combined with requirements placed on medical practitioners to advise the UK Driver Vehicle Licencing Agency of any medical condition which would require the revocation of a driver’s licence.

But us oldies are fighting back!

It would appear from several studies that there is an almost compensatory mechanism at work, and older drivers are good at making sensible adjustments to their driving, and adapt their driving to reduce their exposure to higher risk driving conditions.

Many will stop driving at night, or will adjust the times of day or the days of week on which they travel.

Now – back to my original thoughts.

As an individual with no formalised forensic vehicle accident training, I accepted at face value the statement that elderly drivers should not drive cars with an automatic gearbox.

road-safety-character-elderly-driver

Surprisingly, my research seems to indicate the opposite, and a number of reports actually suggest that older drivers should use an automatic car.

In fact, a Dutch study was conducted by the University of Groningen using a professional driving simulator. The research placed young and older drivers in both an automatic transmission car and a car with a manual gearbox. The subjects were then required to drive several routes, including rural roads, rural roads with random varied intersections and finally a route that necessitated joining a busy motorway, overtaking vehicles and then exiting safely at a junction.

The results were interesting, in that the older drivers performed better in an automatic gearbox car than a manual.

This is possibly because the time lag induced by the age-diminished psycho-motor skills to both brake and shift down the gearbox simultaneously impaired driver performance. This was discussed as far back as 2002[3], where research suggested that older drivers should, in fact switch to driving an automatic car.

Interestingly, even the younger drivers in the sample also performed better when driving an automatic.

I accept that there needs to be a safe transition period, so maybe when drivers get to 65, when they are statistically at their safest, they should change to an automatic car, so that they have a few years to adapt to the differences, so that they may benefit from the additional levels of safety that a car with an automatic gearbox provides.

Manual-Transmissions  0009e2bb5fd7-3095-4bef-8

So, in six years, I will get my electric car, which will not only be cleaner in terms of emissions, but may even help me to stay alive a bit longer!

Mark Charlwood© January 2020

[1] Article Click4Reg April 2017

[2] Older Car Drivers Road Safety Factsheet (2016 data) Published May 2018

 

[3] Warshawsky-Livine & Shinar (2002)