Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The X 15 A vision of the future and still the fastest plane ever flown.


A few months ago an article on the BBC New website caught my attention. It featured a computer generated image of a futuristic looking aircraft, all sleek lines against a deep blue sky and it made me think of pictures from the aircraft books I read as a child, the ones that were in the chapter, enticingly labelled  ‘The future’. Even the wording had a familiar ring to it:

‘Work has begun on a Hypersonic passenger aircraft that could go further and faster than Concorde, flying from Europe to Australia in four hours at speeds of up to 4500 mph.’

I read on but was quickly disappointed. The aircraft, designated A2, was not expected to fly until 2040 and the technology required to produce its hydrogen fuel in sufficient quantities doesn’t even exist yet. What’s more it won’t be flying to the US, because the distance isn’t great enough for it reach full speed.

Its hardly a giant leap for mankind, and seems about as likely to be a part of my future as the Hover Car, the Rocket Pack and the Ray Gun. Its not even going to be the first aircraft of its kind.

Over 50 years ago, in a very different era of aviation an organisation called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) built a rocket plane which could reach speeds of 4500mph and could climb to an altitude of 50 miles – recognised as the edge of space.

NACA would soon to be known as NASA and the plane was the X15, a harpoon shaped aircraft that was launched like a missile from a B52 bomber. Painted black with just slits for windows and made of the most exotic materials it had the first throttle-controlled rocket engine and even today it is still the fastest aircraft ever flown. It was piloted by men who would soon form the cream of NASA’s Astronaut Corps. Among them, was a fresh faced young test pilot called Neil Armstrong.

There were plans to launch the X15 as an orbital spacecraft. The programme ultimately lost out in the race for the moon but if it had continued NASA would have had a sophisticated, reusable aircraft that could fly into space and back - or one that could hop from London to Sydney on a regular basis.The A2, if it ever flies, will simply be a bigger version of the X15 that can fly further.

Then, a few days ago a similar article entitled ‘WaveRider hypersonic jet targets Mach 6’ caught my eye.

I started reading but despite its cool name this is not an aircraft in the traditional sense. Instead it’s a twenty five foot pilotless drone, that, just like the X 15 is launched from the wing of a B-52 bomber. However, unlike its manned hypersonic predecessor, it is designed to break up and fall into the Pacific Ocean at the end of its six minute flight .

According to the US Airforce the data that it collects is going to,
‘pave the way to future hypersonic weapons, hypersonic intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and future access to space.’

Its hard to get too get too excited though because in terms of the actual flying its all been done before only with real men at the controls.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Anti-social behaviour; a one step plan for a better life.

Early morning on the east shore of Loch Lomond. A deserted tent stands at the water’s edge and inside it two sleeping bags lie  peeled open. On the beach two deck chairs gaze out onto the water. Between them the disposable barbecue is still warming two blackened burgers. Buttered rolls are ready on a paper plate and beside each chair, a pile of firmly pinched beer cans.

‘I just don’t understand it,’ says my friend Kenny, a 20 year veteran of the National Parks Ranger service and at first glance it does look a bit strange, it’s as if the occupants of the tent have simply evaporated with the morning mist. But this is not the start of a mystery, the scene of an abduction, or the end of a suicide pact, which leaves only one explanation: whoever spent the night here bought all this gear very cheaply then just left it behind because they couldn’t be bothered to take it home.

Adam is still shaking his head sadly, but not me, all I can feel is a rising sense of envy and admiration for whoever did this. In fact I’m beginning to realise that its more than just  an act of antisocial behaviour, its a metaphor for a whole new way of life, an easier simpler one where I can dump my old wheelbarrow into the hedge with the same level of guilt that goes with tossing an apple core out of the car window. A life where I can let my dog foul the footpath with no more a backward glance than I’d spare for the supper dishes I’ve just left in the sink until morning.

On a recent visit to an iron age village in Kenmore we saw how, with a deal of effort, lovingly crafted and foraged materials can be brought together to create that greatest of all our discoveries – fire. I left just itching to try it, it would certainly be fun for family camping trips.

But now I realise there is no substitute for a disposable lighter, disposable barbecue and disposable food because with practically zero effort these easily acquired, cheap materials can be brought together to create something even better: ready to eat burgers in their buns. What’s more it can be done in less time than it would take to take to get the fire lit in the first place. But best of all, when they’re finished everything that remains can simply be left right here on the beach, then all I have to do is get the kids into the car and we can leave. Easy peasy.

But this lifestyle, the one which I now aspire to, is not just about leaving a mess for someone else to clear up – that’s just one facet of it. Its  about mastering the appropriate level of ambivalence that allows double parking, queue jumping, verbal abuse and putting recyclable materials in the black bin instead of the blue one. For those who can master it the savings in time and effort alone are going to be life changing.

Iron age firelighting? I can just see myself feverishly sawing away with the firebow like a demented cellist , the midges  crawling all over my face and the kids complaining  about being hungry. ‘Any minute now lads and we’ll have the fire roaring,’ comes my tight lipped voice. What the hell was I thinking about?

Looking at this neat little tableau of deck chairs tent and beercans makes me think of Andy Dufrain cruising the coast road in his red Pontiac at the end of The Shawshank Redemption. It's the same feeling of unencumbered freedom and self empowerment. Its time to get antisocial.

Friday, 30 March 2012


WHAT MAKES A HERO ? Workshop delivered at Lommond Writer's Gathering 27/03/12

You probably already know this story know  but as writers I hope you’ll bear with me while I share it with you.
On the afternoon of January the 15th 2009 at 3.25, flight 1549 was leaving la Guardia New York bound for Charlotte North Carolina. At the controls was Captain Chelsey Sullenberger. He had been flying with US Airways for thirty years and in the next six minutes he would become a hero.

Three minutes into the flight, just south of the George Washington Bridge, the plane encountered a flock of Canada Geese.  Loud bangs were heard and there was an immediate and complete loss of thrust from both engines.

While his co-pilot initiated the engine start up procedure Sullenburger radioed La Guardia requesting permission for an emergency landing. Runways were cleared but moments later, Sullenberger, assessing the unpowered aircraft’s rate of descent and airspeed, realised this was now impossible and briefly requested an alternative landing at New Jersey but he quickly realised that this too was now beyond reach and radioed his intention to bring the plane down in the Hudson River.

There were 150 passengers on board and the plane, which was fully fuelled, was gliding without power over one of the most populated cities in the world.

Sullenberger gave instructions to ‘Brace for impact’ and the Airbus, which was travelling  at 150 mph, touched down on the water.  The force of the impact was sufficient to rip open cargo doors at the rear of the plane causing it to take on water rapidly. While river craft came to the rescue the cabin crew supervised the disembarkation of the passengers into life rafts and onto the wings. After the last of them were evacuated Sullenberger twice walked the length of the sinking plane to check that no one remained on board. He was the last to leave.

Not only did he demonstrate breathtaking technical skill in piloting the plane, he remained outwardly calm throughout. Furthermore he risked his life to ensure that everyone had got off safely and finally when he was interviewed he said this:

“Circumstance determined that it was this experienced crew that was scheduled to fly that particular flight on that particular day,” he said.

“And I know I can speak for the entire crew when I tell you we were simply doing the jobs we were trained to do.”

But he wasn’t made of stone. He  acknowledged that he had suffered from  sleeplessness and flashbacks in the weeks following the crash and in a CBS 60 Minutes interview, he was quoted as saying that the moments before the crash were "the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling" that he had ever experienced.

For me Sullenberger is what heroes are made of.

Acts of heroism performed by so called ‘ordinary people’ are often  brief, isolated incidents representing  a ‘blip’ in the life of that person rather than its defining characteristic. By contrast  fictional heroes can depend on a random collision of unrelated events being the precursor to a continuing series of related ones in which they then become embroiled.

Herein lies the problem for the writer of fiction; while an incident like flight 1549 can inspire millions its brief nature and the continuing story of its ordinary central character won’t  necessarily become an international bestseller.  Even though Chelsey Sullenberger became an international hero for saving flight 1549 his own book, on Amazon, currently ranks at 200 422.

While the media helped make the legend of chelsey Sullenberger it could also have destroyed him if he’d made mistakes. This too can be a problem for the ordinary hero because the litigation culture we live in today combined with social media means that a single act can define that person for the rest of their life. It can also have consequences  for people’s willingness to intervene in general.

The Big Man and the fare dodger incident took place on a train filled with commuters travelling between Edinbergh and Perth. Film captured by another of the passengers on his mobile phone shows Alan Pollock forcibly ejecting Sam Main from the carriage after he refused to pay for a ticket. The incident sparked great controversy and both Pollock  and Main faced prosecution although all charges were later dropped. The youtube clip was watched an astonishing two million times even though the train was not out of control, there was no bomb ticking in a mysterious suitcase and all the bridges it would cross were intact. Its anybody’s guess how many times the story was actually read.

It was not strictly speaking an act of heroism but it was most certainly an example of someone demonstrating a willingness to act in difficult circumstances.


This dilemma of intervention  is central to the work of eminent Stanford Psychologist Philip Zimbardo. He believes we focus too much in our hero worship on extraordinary people and not enough on ordinary people taking extraordinary action even though the latter is much more typical of heroes than the former.

Zimbardo claims that the cultivation of what he calls ‘Heroic Imagination’ is crucial. This involves not only being constantly vigilant for circumstances requiring intervention but also imaging how we would react under those circumstances. In effect, this means mentally rehersing in order to develop the personal hardiness necessary to intervene and not to fear interpersonal conflict.

For Zimardo its about resisting the urge to rationalize inaction and to avoid developing justifications that recast evil deeds as acceptable. He notes that there may be only one situation in your life for your heroic imagination to take hold of you and if it doesn’t you may regret it for the rest of your life.

The fictional hero must have a suitable situation for repeating their heroism which is why there are so many detectives, soldiers, rescuers, secret agents and private investigators.

The fictional hero can wait for adventure to find them; the abandoned car with a brief case full of money, the body in the cupboard, or the murderer who leaves calling cards, which is why readers of fiction can take the hero’s intervention for granted.  However, writers of fiction, when describing the events which launch their hero into action, might want to ask themselves what goes through the mind of an ordinary person in the moments before they perform an act of heroism.

We are used to both real and fictional heroes down playing their involvement by claiming that ‘Anyone would have done the same.’ Or that they were ‘Only doing what anyone else would have done.’ Yet turning a deaf ear to the pleas of a young woman being attacked on the underground at night, or stepping over a prone human being in the street, are the stories we are more likely to accept as 'human nature'. We even condemn people who ignore the urgent needs of others when we are by no means sure we would have the courage to act ourselves.

Zimbardo says the hero needs a Heroic Imagination but the writer needs it too if they are going to describe heroic acts plausibly. In a market where, thanks to the self publishing revolution, there are a thousand new hero’s every week we have to try and understand what makes a real hero in order to better create a more compelling fictional one.  

QUESTION Whatever their motivation, when ordinary people perform acts of heroism they can inspire millions so why is it that all too often their books do not?

QUESTION If being a hero, whether fictional or real requires a willingness to act, is that willingness more important than the action they take?
QUESTION Would the ‘Big Man’ have done it again knowing that he would become the focus of so much controversy?

QUESTION To what extent does coverage of incidents like these influence people’s readiness to get involved?

QUESTION If Zimbardo’s theory of the heroic Imagination is valid was Walter Mitty potentially the greatest hero of American literature?

QUESTION What went through the mind of the Tank Man of Tianaman Square when he made the decision to step off the curb with his shopping bags and confront a convoy of tanks.

QUESTION How do you write something that can capture people’s attention the way ordinary heroes do?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

My Great Grandfather and the last cavalry charge

Hanging in the hall of my parents home is an old sepia photograph of my Great grandfather, Guy Gold, and his family. He is smiling proudly across at his youngest son Alistair and it’s an image that fits entirely with my dad’s recollection of a kindly, gentle old fellow who always had plenty of time for children.

Recently, when my brother took it out of its frame to scan it he found that written on the back was:

Shalford 18 June 1917. Guy Gold’s 40th birthday when home wounded at Battle of Arras.

I always knew he had fought in WW1 and that like many of the men who did, he was not a ‘career soldier’ but beyond this I’d never looked into the details of his military service. When I did I discovered that there was a very different side to this smiling family man. For a start the war he was home on leave from was not his first.

He had already fought in South Africa, 1899 -1902 where his territorial regiment the Essex Yeomanry Cavalry were employed to hunt down and engage mounted Boer Kommandos. This photo (left) shows him on his return in 1902. He was aged twenty five at the time.

From what I can tell he settled quietly back into civilian life, married Maude and started raising a family but when World War I broke out the Essex Yeomanry was mobilized and embarked for France to join the 3rd Cavalry Division.

In May 1915 they saw action at Frezenberg Ridge, where the regiment made a gallant bayonet charge and succeeded in driving the Germans from trenches which threatened the flank of the 27th Infantry Division. Five officers and sixty-five men were killed in the attack.

The Essex Yeomanry flag, or Guidon, has an impessive number of battle honours including those of Ypres, The Somme, Amiens and Loos but owing to the static nature of the Western Front the EY cavalry fought mainly in a dismounted Infantry role. It was not what they had trained for.

That all changed on the morning of 11th April 1917 when they played their part in the battle of Arras. They were tasked with securing the village of Monchy le Preux, a vital piece of high ground which was at this time held by German infantry. To do it they would have to ride across over two miles of exposed farmland laced with barbed wire and enemy trenches whilst under constant fire. This was what they had trained for.

An artillery officer described what he saw that morning in a letter home to his wife:

The most wonderful sight. It was a thing one could hardly believe to be real. It was a splendid clear open ground over a slight rise where I was standing at 9 a.m. I had passed them (Essex Yeomanry) on my way up and suddenly they passed me at the trot and as they got level they broke into the charge. They thundered past me with their swords and lances all in line. How they got through the fire I don’t know, gaps appeared in their lines and riderless horses were everywhere, but on they went and crashed into the village which they took and held.

Monchy le Preux does not have the name and notoriety of other battles but it was the last cavalry charge on the Western Front and Guy Gold, at the head of his squadron, came through it unscathed.

But, by the time the EY were relieved two days later 135 of the 600 men who had taken part in the charge were dead, many more were wounded and almost all the regiment’s horses, corralled in the town square, had been killed where they stood by a heavy artillery bombardment during which Guy was himself injured.

Major JD Parker in 1992 recalled the relief of Monchy le Preux:

The order rang out ‘Cavalrymen! Line up on the road.’ And the Yeomen sadly trudged to the rear past the place where the bodies of their horses lay – an image which stayed in the minds of those who took part long after the war had ended.

My Great Grandfather  was sent home on convalescent leave where the picture, that started this story for me, was taken. But this was not the end of his story. He returned to France the same year and fought at Cambrai and Villiers-Bretonneux, the EY’s last engagement before they were disbanded and broken up among several other cavalry units. After Germany’s surrender he once more returned home to Shalford, and his family.

When war broke out again in 1939 Guy Gold immediately presented himself for active duty but this time, despite his protests, he was politely told that his fighting days were over. He was 62.

However, the very real threat of invasion was already prompting urgent  calls for the formation of some sort of home defence force and amid much confusion the Local Defence Volunteers were raised. They were a regionalised force primarily comprised of men deemed too old for the regular army. Guy Gold was quickly appointed to command his local Brigade.

Unfortunately the Government was being very slow to equip the LDV meaning that in the early months they were forced to make do with whatever weapons they could scrounge or improvise, including  shotguns, Molotov cocktails and rifles appropriated from museums.

Their  tactics would have included observing from hedgerows, ringing the church bells to warn of invasion and making barricades of broken farm machinery and furniture.

At this time the same German Army, which  had already crushed France and Belgium in a matter of days was just the other side of the English Channel , a bare twenty five miles from Britain’s South Coast.I like to think of my Great Grandfather as being able to inspire calmness and resolve in those around him at this difficult time but even he had never faced such appalling odds. He must have known that if this army were to cross the Channel then the Shalford Local Defence Volunteers with their makeshift weapons and ramshackle barricades would have to face the full force of the Nazi Blitzkreig; elite paratroopers, devastating air power and fast moving armour.
The invasion never came but as its threat slowly receded my Great Grandfather’s worries did not. By 1942 three of his sons were serving overseas in a war that was far from over and in 1944 came the news that Rodney, my Grandfather, had been killed at the battle of Anzio.

Local historian John Hervey records:

I will never forget Armistice Sunday 1944. As the names of the men on the War Memorial in the church were read out and for the first time, that of Rodney, his son, I could not help looking across to him as he stood supported by his walking stick. His facial expression never moved, but for the first time, he did not go the George Inn for a post service drink with the British Legion members, going straight home instead.

He belonged to a generation that kept a stiff upper lip and didn’t talk about personal problems but it’s still hard to reconcile the image of the smiling man in the picture I know so well with that of the elite cavalryman whose skill with lance, sabre and small arms must have made him a terrifying enemy.

Then there’s the image of the aging veteran with his medals who, even after all the horrific things he’d seen and the comrades he’d lost, stood up to be counted one more time.

Most impressive of all was the man who could apparently resume his life in between these events. There’s still a lot I don’t know about him but I’m working on it and one day I hope that myself and my two boys, who are four and five, will visit Monchy le Preux.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Amazon Will Destroy You - apparantly.

I’ve just read Joe Konrath’s blog entitled ‘Amazon Will Destroy You’. It’s written to the Traditional Publishing industry in general and is a summary of the mistakes they have made in both underestimating, and failing to engage with the digital market. It has drawn a good deal of comment, not least of all for its tone.

I’m an admirer of Konrath and even if he hangs up his laptop tomorrow he will most certainly be remembered as one of the pioneers of digital self publishing. And while his tone is certainly fiery and uncompromising it’s no different from the one he uses to give encouragement to aspiring writers.

What does bother me is his failure, in this instance, to apply any of his usual ‘dry your eyes and quit being a baby’ philosophy to himself because if this is how he feels with fame and fortune firmly in his grasp one can only imagine the scene when his former publishers actually gave him the bullet two years back.

That said, the conversation he had last week with Amazon’s 'Key People' must have been pretty interesting too because by the time he sat down to write his blog the following Monday he’d convinced himself that not only were traditional publishers non-essential but that their entire industry was doomed.

He makes this last assertion in such cataclysmic terms that I was surprised it ended without reference to a time of great suffering and darkness or mention of a foul pestilence stalking the land.

Konrath is a stickler for precision, as evidenced by his frequent and detailed breakdowns of sales and revenue but he makes no attempt back his claims up here which is a shame because we all know there is truth in much of what he says.

For Amazon though, he is full of praise: ‘They're all about challenging themselves to do better, to focus on the future, to learn from the past. They're all about pleasing the customer.’

But again, this is stuff most of us know and Konrath should be careful that he does not go from being Self Publishing’s poster boy to simply being Amazon’s boy.

Here is Felice Therese, Online Content Manager for a Traditional Publishers on how she promotes ebooks.
Here’s Philip Jones, Editor of Futurebook on why the Traditional Publishers are far from finished.
And finally, here is the man himself, Joe Konrath.


If, like me, you believe that the Heart of a Nation is its people then you may be disappointed to discover this is less a tale from India’s heart and more a voyage of self discovery in which its people appear mostly as chai wallahs, shopkeepers and grinning flunkeys.

The Westerners Reece meets come off a bit better but rarely get described in greater detail than their name nationality and approximate age - even Jan, the Czech man she travels with for the last quarter of the book has only a minor supporting role, we never get to know him.

However for the first half of the book the absence of characters, likable or otherwise, is an advantage because Bindi Girl is a superb companion for anyone wishing to get to grips with India’s spiritual side, a subject on which Reece clearly has not just a sound working knowledge but a deep respect as well.

She steers us through the labyrinthine world of Hindu deities, the intricacies of meditation, yoga, Buddhism the vagaries of Rainbow gatherings and India’s curious enclaves of long stay Westerners.

Her spiritual outlook also allows her to be philosophical not only about the many of the downsides to foreign travel, insects, heat, disease but also the unpleasant situations in which solo female travellers sometimes find themselves and where most of us would become infuriated Reese simply checks in with her mental state and uses these incidents, to spring back into action like a form of spiritual judo.

As a writer she has considerable descriptive powers and her chirpy, personable style and uncluttered solo perspective work very well initially but as Bindi Girl unfolds and Reese’s plans, and purpose become less and less clear more pages are devoted to her dreams and thoughts, her relief at finding accommodation with decent facilities and staying in huts on beautiful beaches.  

As her frequent descriptions of paradise blur into each other the latter part of the book starts to read less like an exploration of India’s heart and more like a round robin holiday email from someone with too much time on their hands. We also get very little feel for India as a country despite that fact that she regularly traverses great swathes of it by bus and train.

At the very end of the book she gives us a brief snapshot of some of the poverty and squalor that lies much closer to India’s heart than its beaches and temples but its not enough to make Bindi Girl live up to its title ambitious title and by the end we feel as relieved as she does that the journey is finally over.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Swimming with sharks and why some books should never go 'e'.

I thought I was a bona fide ebook convert, in fact I was actually starting to enjoy using phrases like ‘redundant format ’ and ‘digital revolution’.
Then on Tuesday an old friend gave me a copy of To Unplumbed Depths written by early scuba pioneer Hans Hass.

It was published in 1972 and is packed with hundreds of beautiful colour pictures from 35 years of diving in exotic locations all over the world. It’s a fascinating insight not only into the birth of scuba diving but also into the way our oceans used to be not so long ago.
I’d convinced myself that printed text, whether it be on the screen of my kindle, or bound in calf skin is still just a barcode that doesn’t become a story until its processed by my brain but this second hand book has made me reconsider.
Even though I know that an ipad can faithfully reproduce all the information in Unplumbed Depths, I cant help feeling that in this case the additional functionality and portability is less not more.
Here, beside me, is the original version that Hass himself approved and as he stares out boldly from the dust jacket, fists on hips, I’m reminded that although he revolutionised the way people dive he probably didn’t think the same needed to be done for the way they read.
Letting the pages flutter past my thumb I have to agree. They have a sweet, slightly musty smell and the numerous photos are printed on paper that feels  as smooth as water. The pictures themselves have a rich colour and grainy quality I remember from my dad’s old National Geographic magazines.
It compliments the subject matter beautifully; stunning seascapes and marine wildlife juxtaposed with gleaming, mid 20th century technology and a cast of characters who look as if they’ve stepped straight off the set of an early Bond movie. Then there are Hass’s descriptions, vivid yet at times dispassionate:
‘We accompanied whale hunters and succeeded in filming sperm whales under water including the final struggle and death throes of a harpooned specimen. On that occasion we heard the shriek of the sperm whale: it is reminiscent of the creak of an old barn door.’
Cumulatively, the experience is of an artefact from a bygone era, lovingly crafted by a man who swam with sharks wearing trunks, fins and an oval mask and who believed that the best way to discourage them from eating him was to shout underwater in his guttural Austrian accent.
If I ever read the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo it will be on my Kindle because I’m confident that Larson’s work will survive the translation to digital format but if I’m going to get the most out of Unplumbed Depths it will be by reading it the way Hans Hass intended me to.

Here's Julie Bosman of the New York Times talking about the difference a well made hardback can have in a crowded market.

Here's Philip Jones, editor of Futurebooks on why self pubbing poster girl, Amanda Hocking still wants still wants traditional bricks and morter retailers for her books

Finally, here's a great piece by Nick Duerden of the Independant on why designers and graphic artists are helping to keep traditionally published books at the forefront of the industry.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Review: The Penal Colony

This is the story of Anthony Routledge, a former surveyor wrongly accused of murder and condemned to spend the rest of his days on the on the bleak island of Serte, where Britain’s worst convicted criminals have been abandoned to fend for themselves.
Following his initiation he is accepted into ‘The Village’, a semi fortified peninsula within the boundries of which a group of prisoners have formed a society based on rigid protocol and hierarchy. Beyond its boundries  the ‘Outsiders’ exist in a state of perpetual tribal war.
Routledge learns to fulfill his duties and to insulate himself from the bluff formality of his companions with an icy indifference but as war with the Outsiders looms he discovers that doing what it takes to survive in the Village will also involve putting his life on the line to defend it in a bloody war to the knife.
Herley’s rich prose places us firmly in Serte’s rugged, windswept landscape. It puts us on uncomfortably intimate terms with the moral degeneracy of the Outsiders and it allows us into the secretive almost monastic life of the Village.
We are also privy to Routledge's ruthless self examination as he makes the painful journey from despair through, isolation and loneliness and finally to acceptance and inclusion in a plan to escape the island.
Bringing together the darkness of Orwell’s 1984 and the savagery of Benchley’s The Island, the Penal Colony is more than a chilling read, it is an unsettling examination of our own base instincts for survival.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Why I go to Frankie and Bennys

In 1924, at the age of 10, Frankie left Sicily with his parents and moved to “Little Italy” in New York. Within a year of moving, the family had opened a restaurant, which is now co-managed by Frankie's long-time friend Benny. The business was taken over by Frankie and Benny in 1953, and combines popular American food with traditional Italian dishes. Or so the story goes.

In reality it was not started by Frankie and Benny and it cannot trace its lineage back to New York in the 1920’s either. Even my four year old son Nicholas knows this isn’t a real Italian restaurant.

The  last time we went the food wasn’t that bad though, they do a pretty decent cup of coffee too and if going there doesn’t exactly make me feel as if I’m walking to onto the set of Goodfellas, well, Brewers Fair (which is just across the car park) doesn’t exactly make me feel like Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie either, afterall, this is Strathkelvin Retail Park.

I ordered Spaghetti Bolognaise cooked to ‘Cousin Mario's Italian recipe’ but I know he doesn’t work there just like I know that the smiling men in aprons whose photos line the walls have absolutely no connection with the place either.

That said, you've got to wonder what they'd make of sister Rosaria’s Lamb Shank or what they’d have actually done to Cousin Mario if he’d served up his so called ‘Italian recipe’ back in the old neighbourhood.

But since authenticity isn’t what I’m looking for, I don’t have to waste any time soaking up atmosphere when I could be getting home for the start of Burn Notice or making sure we’re away before the Saturday football traffic on the M9.

Frankie and Bennys is convenient, no doubt about that, but it always gives me a curious sense of  déjà vu, and not because I’m wondering when I was last here. Instead I’m wondering what I’m doing here now, a dilemma best reflected in the unspoken understanding between me and the guy who shows us to our table.

He’ll ask me if I’m enjoying my ‘Uncle Luigi’s meatballs’ and I’ll say ‘Yes, just great thanks.’ Because even though we both know they are rubbery and served in a tasteless sauce we also both know that if I complain and insist on something else I’ll be stuck here another hour while my kids go buck and then we’ll end up missing the start of the movie as well.

As he swipes my card I promise myself this is the last time I’ll come here but we both know that isn’t true either, because there’s nowhere else I can park this close and be in and out inside an hour. Which, incidentally is also why we both know that I can forget trying the little place just off Argyll St. that does really good Italian food.

Finally of course, we both know that Frankie and Bennys is not real Italian food but any complaint based on this observation would be like going to Disneyland and demanding to see the real Mickey Mouse, because that way lies maddness.

Further reading:

Alessia Horwich is a freelance food and travel journalist who is always on the lookout for somewhere new, check out her take on chain restaurants here 

Sid in his Liverpool Food Blog gives his reasons for avoiding them but says don't knock them either.

Lastly here's Jamie Oliver getting yet another bashing, this time over his chain of Italian restaurant's 'Jamie's Italian.'

Monday, 9 January 2012

Spirit of 79

Power cuts make me nostalgic because I can remember the so called ‘Winter of Discontent’ when widespread industrial action resulted in regular blackouts  up and down the country.
When this happened my father would always shout ‘Bloody Hell!’ before making his way to the kitchen where we kept a torch, candles, matches and a battery powered transistor radio in a box on top of the fridge.
My dad would tell us that because there was not enough electricity for everyone it was just the turn of our village to go without, an explanation which always made me think of one of those huge Dr Frankenstein style switches, with the name of our village stencilled underneath, being pulled into the down position by an anonymous hand.
When the power went off the other night I was completely wrong footed especially when I discovered that my old friend the Challenge 1100 rechargeable worklamp  (water-resistant and shockproof) had long since been bumped from its socket in favour of the breadmaker and was completely useless.
Eventually, by the light of my mobile phone, I  made my way out to the garage where I felt certain there had to be at least a couple of torches amongst packing cases, as yet unopened from our move in the summer.
Sure enough, there was a box containing the boys old toys which proved to be a treasure trove and, after groping my way back to the house I laid out my finds on the kitchen worktop. There was the Fireman Sam torch, the Spiderman torch and the Toy Story Lantern plus the Fisher Price keyboard, Bob the Builder ‘activity driver’ and Tonka Helicopter.
Like a soldier doing a weapons assembly test by candlelight I stripped the keyboard, activity driver and helicopter of their batteries then reloaded them into the torches. I was very pleased, they all worked albeit with uncertain endurance.
Shona had lit candles in the front room and later that night, as we sat down to baked beans and bread by candlelight I felt as if we were coping, coming up the other side, the old Dunkirk spirit kicking in. Just the same old torch candles and tinned beans we had in the Winter of Discontent all those years ago. It goes to show you can still do it with these simple household items.
But it makes me shudder  to think that as a child, my family and millions just like us were advised to keep them in the event of an even darker set of circumstances, one we knew collectively as ‘The Bomb’.
Even the procedure we were supposed to follow was pretty much the same, it simply involved sitting in the darkness and waiting for it all to be over.
It was a relief when the power came back on, it made me realise how dependant we are on it. We live in the Trossochs National Park, only a few miles from the home of Rob Roy McGregor a man who endured hardships I cannot imagine in winters far colder than this, not only that, he also faced the almost constant prospect of capture and imprisonment.
But he never had to face the prospect of nuclear Armageddon armed only with a transistor radio and cheap white candles. Given the choice I’d have taken my chances in the heather.

I'm going to try and add a few alternative slants to my posts so here is one from Vicky who is an artist, firefighter and blogger.