Saturday, 11 October 2014

Ground Control to Major Tom.....

On 12th April 1961 I was 4 1/2 years old. My Dad woke me up to tell me that a man had gone into space and had gone around the Earth. I must confess that I don't remember this but I have no doubt that it happened, for several reasons. Firstly, my Dad told me, years later. Secondly, it was exactly the kind of thing he would do. Although I was the second of four sons, my room had a globe, stars on the ceiling and a model of a rocket on the shelf. I think my Dad had tried to get all of us interested in his passion but I was the only one that had responded (the youngest of us, Martin, was not even 1 year old at the time, and became as passionate about space-flight and aeronautics as Dad, later in life.)
      Three years later, Dad went away for six weeks. To Australia. It was years later that he revealed tiny bits of information about his trip. He had signed the Official Secrets Act and would uphold his vow until he died. What he could tell us was that he had gone to a place called Woomera, in the Southern Outback of Australia, to help with a test on a rocket. The rocket was called Blue Streak. It had been a failed attempt at a missile programme, post-war, by the British Government, who had then signed the hardware over to a European Launcher programme. Dad's area of expertise was radar. He had got his degree at Queen's, Belfast and had joined the Navy to further his knowledge of this new, emerging technology. During the 1950's he became immersed in radar, guidance systems and Defence work. To realise now that he was important enough to go out to this highly secret test, on the other side of the world, just boggles my mind. He was just Dad, surely? When he came back, he had bought me a remote control car, a Red Thunderbird. Remote control was such a new concept in 1964 that no one had thought to remove the cable that joined the car to the tiny steering wheel in my hand. I adored it. Over the years, Dad just kept stoking me up with information and passion about space-flight. We had no favourites and followed the progress of the Russians as closely as the Americans, when the information was available. As the Apollo programme developed towards 1969 I became obsessed with it. As Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon I was sat in my pyjamas, next to Dad, at 4am, as the rest of the house slept.

   Nowadays, years after Dad died, I have rekindled my passion for space and, more importantly, for the men who have flown (and those who still fly) into space. I have had the chance to meet a man who walked on the Moon and another who flew to the Moon. In 2 weeks time I will meet Fred Haise, one of the crew of Apollo 13. I have said in the past that getting those 3 men back to Earth was one of the most brilliant feats of engineering, daring and sheer hard work that human beings have ever completed. To meet one of those 3 men will choke me up, I know. And all through these meetings, I think of my Dad. How he would have loved to be with me. How he would have loved to talk to these adventurers. And how proud he would be that I still hold his passion so dear.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

A special day.

Today is a special day. My late Mum and Dad were married in 1953. The Broadway production of West Side Story came to the West End in 1958. Mum and Dad saw it half a dozen times. Think about that. That meant queuing at the box-office, for the hottest ticket in town, six times. They adored it. The cast had come over from Broadway, most of them then made it into the film. I always think of my young Mum, in her early 20's, not thirty feet from George Chakiris.
When the film came out, in 1961, they already had 4 kids but managed to see it more than a dozen times. It was 'their film'. Today, Jan and I are at the Royal Albert Hall for a screening of the film with the music track removed. In front of us, an orchestra will play Leonard Bernstein's glorious music, live, to the original signing voices. We came to see it a couple of years ago, for the 50th anniversary of the film. The show has some big songs; America, Somewhere, Tonight, Maria and Something's Coming, to name but five. My Mum told me that One Hand, One Heart was her favourite song. I have watched the film countless times and have never got through this song without dissolving into a pool of tears. This afternoon will be no different. Peter & Betty Brannigan were two people emerging from the war, young, scared and in love. Even though the setting of the film was so alien to them, 'like another world,' my Mum said, they identified so much with the young couple, falling in love and not being able to do a thing about it. This afternoon I will honour their memory. And cry buckets.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

A Humble Hero.

On Friday night I met another Spaceman. I met Alan Bean last year. This time it was Ken Mattingly. I won't list his NASA history because you'll have a great time looking it up. What I will tell you is that he should have flown Apollo 13. Just 3 days before launch NASA pulled him out of the mission because they feared he had been exposed to chicken pox. A few days later, when the explosion happened in the Command Module, it was Ken who worked for hours in the test-labs, trying everything he could to try and help bring his friends home. When they did finally make it back to Earth (still one of the most incredible achievements of modern science and engineering) the three astronauts were quick to state that they owed their lives to the people of NASA, and especially Ken Mattingly. So, in a lovely Yorkshire hotel, I got to meet this hero. And yet Ken would dispute that word, 'hero.' We heard him say that he could not understand why 130 people had paid good money just to have dinner with him and hear him say a few words. I cannot speak for the other 129, but I can speak for this one. My late Dad worked on the guidance systems of the Blue Streak rocket, in the early 1960's. I remember him being away for 6 weeks when he went out to Woomera, Australia, for the tests on the rocket. When he completed 25 years service with EMI Electronics, his only employer, once he had come out of the Navy, they gave him a beautiful model of the Blue Streak. He did not talk about that this side of his work because, what started out as a life devoted to radar, soon became a life of Defense contracts, work at secret locations and the Official Secrets Act. The project that began as a missile, became a launcher and then failed completely, was shelved. Dad loved engineering and would marvel at the sheer audacity of men going into Space. He would talk about guidance systems and computers way before the words became common language. He would watch the BBC broadcasts of the Moon landings avidly, encouraging me to sit with him. At 13 years of age, I would ask question after question and he would patiently explain. So the names of those brave pioneers are almost part of my DNA. Ken Mattingly is one of those names. It was an honour to meet this small, humble man. It was a pleasure to listen to him speak. It was amazing to sit in a hushed bar, after dinner, just a few of us, and listen to him marvel at why people would come, would want to meet him. He had said earlier "If anyone wants to come and ask me about space travel, I'll keep you up all night." Ken Mattingly is a hero to me. He makes me remember happy times with my Dad. Meeting him and Alan Bean has made me determined to meet more of these adventurers. These humble, quiet men. These heroes. Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos

Saturday, 22 February 2014


The warm evening had been one of those perfect, early Summer evenings. The Thames River cruiser had picked us up from The Compleat Angler Hotel, Marlow and was heading towards Henley-On-Thames, before returning to Marlow. On board, the DJ was working his way through my playlist, the bar was doing a roaring trade and the food had been wonderful. At the back of the boat was the place to be. My brothers, my mates, my old band-mates were all gathered, swapping stories from the old days and laughing. Just laughing. I could see my Mum, dancing with my oldest friend. She looked so happy. As I was laughing with my brother at another old gig-story, my ear picked out the intro to "A Love Of Your Own" by The Average White Band. Which meant I had 5 minutes. Five minutes. I drained my pint and put my arm around Marty's neck, pulling him towards me and kissing him on the cheek. He looked at me and winked. I went inside, snaking my way across the dance-floor between the 2 or 3 couples dancing closely to Hamish Stuart's voice. I reached the bar, at the far end of the deck, and tapped a girl on the shoulder. She was talking to her sister. She turned and beamed at me. "It's time." I said. She smiled even wider. I held out my hand and she gripped it, tightly. We walked back towards the dance-floor as the DJ started to talk over the final chords of the AWB. "Ladies and gentlemen. Please welcome your bride & groom." There was a roar, a few whoops, and applause. I could see my brothers and my mates crowd through from the back of the boat. Benny Benjamin was from Mobile, Alabama. His family were poor but he found his way to Detroit where his skills as a drummer were perfect for Berry Gordy and his fledgling Motown label. In 1965, Benny was at work, rehearsing a new song, written by his friend, Smokey. It was a slow ballad and Benny's signature intro was too much for the song. He tried several combinations but couldn't find an intro he liked. They broke for a cigarette. Benny went outside, onto the street. He finished his cigarette, twisting his shoe on the butt, and went back up the steps. "Let's go for a take." said Smokey. James Jamerson settled onto his chair, beside Benny, his bass guitar on his legs. Smokey mouthed the count, 1, 2, 3....... And Benny played the best three strokes of his life. As the third stroke gloriously greeted the fourth, I stepped onto the dance-floor, held my new wife close, and began to dance. Thirty five years had passed since Benny had just followd Smokey's count. A few hours had passed since we had said "I do." Fourteen years later, I can still remember those three drum-strokes, the pounding of my heart in my ear, and the gleaming, beaming smile of the beautiful woman in front of me. I am truly blessed.

Friday, 10 January 2014

A Boy In A Man's Body.

Photobucket Pictures, Images and Photos Danny Kirwan joined Fleetwood Mac in 1968, shortly after his 18th birthday. Peter Green's band were so hot that they outsold The Beatles and The Stones in 1969. Then Greeny left. Then Jeremy Spencer walked out of an American hotel, never to be seen again (until he popped up, a few years ago, on a documentary about Greeny), leaving Danny to run the ship. He was a kid. The 2 albums his band recorded before firing him are amongst my favourite albums of all time. They are the bridge between Peter Green's blues band, led by the best blues player these isles have ever produced, and the band of globe-striding Rumours fame. Lyrical, melodic, rocky and packed with great playing. Danny was one of the most unique guitarists I have ever heard. One minute sounding like he wished he was auditioning for the Shadows and the next channeling his former boss and mentor, Peter Green. His songs are wistful and sad, but also joyous. His voice is clear and perfect for the harmonies with Christine McVie. The band fired him when his drinking made him so unreliable that he was missing sessions. A short solo career fizzled into obscurity. He ended up living on the streets. Mick Fleetwood tells a sad story in his book about the band being at some posh London hotel, at the height of their Rumours period, and Danny appearing at Mick's elbow, at breakfast. Mick fed him and persuaded him to come to the show that night, at Wembley. When it was time for the bus to leave for the gig, Danny didn't show up. His mental health deteriorated and the homeless period of his life lasted more than 20 years. Nothing has been heard from him for many years, though his family say he is healthy and content. Danny Kirwan will never feature on any list of great British guitarists, except mine. I adore his playing, can pick him out a mile away and still play those albums, 40+ years on. I love a guitarist whose solos I can 'sing'. No flash, technique-laden showing off, here. Just bluesy, melodic, memorable playing that has made me smile for more than 2/3 of my life. Danny was a baby, a kid, when he joined Fleetwood Mac, one of the biggest bands on the planet. Life can be cruel.