Hooray! Casemate (UK), my publisher, has decided that the hardback version of On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service has sold well enough for it to be worth a punt at a paperback version. The good news was that this required no effort by me.
I heard a cow mooing in the field below my cottage. It seemed rather more of an agonised moan than a moo, as if the animal had a sore throat. As it kept giving these agonised moos every so often, I went to investigate and spotted a cow lying on its side close by my fence. As it seemed to be bloated, I thought it was dead but then saw a back leg move a little in the air, as if blowing in the wind. I phoned the farmer, who is only renting the field. He turned up about twenty minutes later in his pick up truck.
As I don't know him peraonally, I went down to say that I was the guy who phoned him. He was on his own and clearly under stress. He replied by asking me to get into his pick up truck and drive it slowly forward to pull the calf out! The cow had been in labour but seemed to have fallen into a hollow in the field and could not get up.
The calf was already dead and half out of the cow. The farmer had put a rope round it and tied that round the towing ball on his pick up truck. Now he wanted me, a complete stranger, to drive the truck and pull the dead calf out of the cow. What a terrifying prospect. I feared that my foot might slip on the clutch and I would rip out the poor cow's innards. In fact, I did very well, literally inching the truck forward and after about a foot, the farmer called, 'Stop'. The calf was out.
It was all very sad. There was a perfectly well formed calf which should have been up on its legs looking for milk but was lying dead in a huge pool of after birth, and the cow was still unable to get up. While all this was happeniong, the rest of the herd came up from the far end of the field and literally started poking their noses around me, the dead calf and the stricken cow.
I won't attempt to describe how the farmer got the cow back on its feet but it was both brutal and impressive. The poor animal was trembling with shock and fear but once up on its feet, it made a remarkable recovery and wandered off with the rest of the herd. A partially happy ending.
Living in my cottage is like living in a nature hide. When I replenish the bird feeders, it becomes like a Heathrow for birds. No idea who's doing the air traffic control. I've noted over 70 different varieties in my thirty years here.
Over recent days, I've noticed that a young Blackbird has become exceptionally bold and flies down close beside me when I'm putting out fresh seed as the Robins do. I even find it sitting on the bird table waiting for me in the mornings (see photo). It gets tucked in as soon as I've put seeds on the bird table and is unfazed by my moving about close by. Is this the precociousness of youth, bird-style? I've now started repeating a signature whistle when I go out, in the hope that it will recognise it and come when I call. (Not sure yet whether it is a young male or female; they change plumage in their second year).
I love communicating with the animals. There is a resident family of Buzzards near here. I just love to hear their whistle overhead - to me it's an 'all's well' sound. For years, I've been mimicking it when I see them with minor success. On several occasions, I've persuaded a buzzard to come from a fair distance to hover about one hundred feet above my head but that's as close as they come. I've put up an old telegraph pole in front of the kitchen window in the hope that they will come and perch on it, as they do down the farm track, but so far no luck. However, all the other birds love it, especially the Woodpeckers.
When I was doing blue water sailing, I used to play my harmonica to dolphins which were only a few feet below me. I'm convinved they enjoyed the recitals. After all, my Alsatian dogs used to throw their heads back and howl when I played it, and dolphins are mammals just like us and have the same airborne hearing systems.
Ever thought that British birds lacked colour and that exotic birds can be found only in the tropics? How about these. Photographed from my kitchen window.
L - R Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Jay, Great Tit (young), Robin, Woodpecker, Redpoll, Siskin but even the all-black crow is a handsome bird
With experience of real lock down in submarines, lock down at home for Covid 19 caused me no stress. In fact, it has been brilliant. I hate going shopping and would never think of going down to a pub for company. I have treated lock down as if I were going on a two month patrol and set myself a list of tasks to complete before it ended. One was to put a roof extension on the logstore. I did. The following evening I walked into it.
It is surprising how much we do from mental models* rather than by visual reaction. Ever found yourself feeling for the phantom gear stick in a new car or tripping over something in the dark that didn't used to be there?
Bats live by sound, not sight. In one experiment a bat was put in a divided chamber with one third of the partition opened up only at meal times to let it through into the other half for food. When first introduced, the bat went round pinging like mad until it had built up a picture it in its memory. Thereafter, it pinged very little. It was familiar with its surroundings. Then the researcher moved the opening in the partition to the other side and the bat flew into the closed side of the partition.
I was that bat. Who the hell put a roof extension on the old logstore?
* By 'mental model', I mean a memorised picture, not a mad manequin.
2nd April, 2020
Love is joyful.
Love is kind.
Love is precious.
Love is blind.
But let me tell you this,
It’s always painful
In the end.
Today is the fifteenth anniversary of losing my beloved wife, Kate, to breast cancer. Hard to believe. It was so difficult back then to comprehend that the woman to whom I had been bonded for forty years, no longer existed. Life without her had been beyond the bounds of my imagination. But there is life after death, or at least after bereavement. It has been a tumultuous and very happy fifteen years. As always, I count my blessings.
This year, 2020, sees the 75th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War in which some 80 million people died. That means that only citizens over the age of eighty have any real memory of Britain being under attack. This lengthy peace has not happened by accident or luck. We have been living under a nuclear umbrella known as Strategic Nuclear Deterrence, formerly known as Mutually Assured Destruction. Initially, our deterrent posture was maintained by the V-Bombers of the Royal Air Force but in 1968, with the advent of intercontinental-ballistic-missile-firing, nuclear-powered submarines (SSBNs), the Royal Navy inherited the role. These submarines have now maintained continuous deterrent patrolling for over fifty years - there's one on patrol right now - but does anyone ever stop to think of the human beings involved?
PEACE BE WITH THEM
In the bowels of a beast with a heart of steel,
in Neptune’s black abyss,
stand sixteen silent sentinels
on watch o'er Britain's peace.
And through the black abyssal deep, each day of every year,
the Reaper ploughs the ocean,
and sows the seeds of fear.
In the bowels of the beast with the heart of steel
where the nuclear cauldron boils,
a hundred brave submariners
attend their awesome toils.
Whilst snug in quilted feather beds, full fifty million sleep,
and spare no thought for those at sea
nor pray their souls will keep.
This poem, first published in my book On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service, was broadcast on United States radio by Donna Seebo, a book reviewer. (See under 'On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service').
I have the good fortune to live in the country and my cottage is like a hide for observing my fellow creatures. I have now observed some sixty species of bird as well as the usual crop of mice, squirrels, hedgehogs, plus the odd fox or deer. However, my life has just been enriched by a new neighbour, Mr Hare. He arrived one afternoon in front of my kitchen window and, completely unaware that he was being watched, began a thorough grooming before settling down for his afternoon zizz. He was completely relaxed and utterly free. Wonderful, a real feel-good experience. Why would anyonewant to kill him?
PS One year later. Just spotted a young hare in my garden. Mr Hare must have started a family.
On Saturday 30th March, I appeared at Glasgow's 'Aye Write' Book Festival in the iconic Mitchell Library, one of Europe's largest public libraries, and it did feel good to be 'on stage' for something I had written. Even better, I had a full-house audience of about sixty in my venue. That may not seem a lot but the organisers were thrilled as a very well-known TV sports personality, flown up from London specially, had achieved an audience of only eight.
A particularly pleasing aspect of the event were that a young university graduate (Nottingham, I think) who had applied to join the Navy and had read my book, turned up to meet me. How wonderful to think that an old git like me can still connect with a very much younger generation. (The young man has since been accepted into the Royal Navy and is currently undergoing officer training at Dartmouth). After my presentation, I was asked to autograph books sold - all very humbling. (Waterstones were selling the books).
PS At his invitation, he invited me to be his guest at his Passing Out Parade at Dartmouth where I meet his family. Wonderful!
As I am accustomed to public speaking, facing an audience held no terrors for me. My only anxiety was whether or not my Powerpoint audio/visual slide show would run on cue on the Library's system. It did. Phew! I have nightmares about technical hitches in the middle of carefully constructed presentations. (I'm trying to find out how to put this slideshow into my website; watch this space).
Sometimes phone calls bring good news. In early November, I received a call from the Secretary of the Maritime Trust, an organisation which spans all aspects of maritime activity ranging from fishing, commercial shipping, cruise liners, research vessels, yachting, lifeboats, harbours, wreck hunting, ship design, marine nature reserves and marine conservation through to the activities of the Royal Navy. In short, everything to do with the sea. My book, On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service, had just been shortlisted to the last four out of thirty-eight entries for the Mountbatten Best Book Award 2108. 'Could I attend the Awards Dinner in Drapers' Hall in London. Of course I could!
This was truly a grand event with lords and ladies, MPs, industry VIPs and no less than three First Sea Lords in attendance, one being Admiral of the Fleet the Lord Boyce who joined the Navy with me and provided the Foreword to my book, though that was pure coincidence. In the event I was runner-up to a brilliant book called 'The Wreck Hunter', and had to take the stage to receive a Certificate of Merit from the current First Sea Lord. I have to thank my old submarine colleague Commander Rupert Best for having nominated the book.
(See section on 'On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service')
In June, I was invited to be Chieftain of the Helensburgh Pipe Band Competition, which involved fifteen bands, four of which were school bands. My duties involved leading the parade at the start, presenting prizes and taking the salute at the end as the massed bands marched off. I have often been thrilled by watching the massed pipes and drums at the Edinburgh Tattoo from high in the stands but this time I was at eye level as the bands marched straight up to me and about turned within touching distance. It made the hairs on my neck stand up.
As I was not a clan chieftain and not entitled to wear eagle feathers in my hat, I decided to wear my submarine beret with my Submariners' Association cap badge. That seemed appropriate as the Submarine Service is in effect the local regiment in Helensburgh.
By coincidence, a few weeks later, I happened to be visiting Aubigny-sur-Nere, near Orleans in France. This is where the Stewart kings lived in exile and the town is more Scottish than most Scottish towns. It was the weekend of their annual Fete Franco-Ecossais and the town was throbbing with people in all manner of kilts, including traditional plaid versions, but none of them were Scottish. This was the French end of the Auld Alliance. There was also a parade of seven pipe bands, none of which were Scottish. There were four Scottish-style bands from Paris, Geneva, Britanny and Aubigny as well as two traditional Breton bands and one from Asturias in Spain, the latter winning my prize for elegence as the ladies wore long skirts and seemed to float up the main street rather than marching. I was please to note that one traditional Breton band had pipes that were clearly 'Made in Scotland'.
Circa 1950, my father, grandfather and I climbed Goatfell on the Isle of Arran in the Clyde estuary. This year, I climbed it as the grandfather with three of my four grandchildren, having climbed it in the interim with both my sons and my eldest grandson. (I've also climbed it with my sister and both daughters-in-law).
As my grandfather was born in the nineteenth century; I was born in the twentieth century and my grandchildren were all born in the twenty-first century, this family experience spans three centuries - and I am the link. I was so keen to complete 'the set' and most grateful to Isobel, Morven and Alfie for agreeing to climb it with me. (Alfie, aged seven, didn't actually agree. As a boy, he was given no option!)
Goatfell is just under 3,000 feet and therefore is not a Munro - but so what? One climbs every single foot of it from sea level whereas in some Munros the climb begins at a much higher altitude (1,400 feet in the case of Bienn na Lap). Goatfell also offers one of the most spectacular views in Scotland, which is not obvious from the main road. I love it. It is my holy mountain.
I find this age thing quite disorientating. My elder son will be fifty next year but doesn't seem that old. When I was fifty, his late mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The President of France is still in his thirties and his wife is in her sixties.
In old age, one sees life retrospectively as if through a lens backwards; time is compressed. My thirty-seven years in the Navy seem to have the same storage space in my brain as six years at Coatbridge HIgh School. Thirty-eight years of married bliss seems like a brilliant one-night-stand - not that I would know anything about that. A twenty-five year old lad now seems like a teenager yet I was charge engineer of a submarine at that age - and the Battle of Britain pilots were younger..
The good news is that, as President Macron has so ably demonstrated, a sixty-year-old woman seems like a twenty-something but with much greater depth. I have now reached the age when I can fancy a great-grandmother.
So, why the hell do people regard their fortieth birthday as a doomsday; it's only half-time. You may go on to extra time and penalties. Sixty is the new forty.
An aged Scottish spinster cousin (who dressed like the Giles' cartoon of grandma) once said to me: 'You know, Eric, there is an old Japanese proverb which says: 'When your garden's complete, it's time to die.' That hit me hard at the time as my late wife, a keen gardener, had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
When I had calmed down, I grasped it's profundity. One should never stop pursuing an aim. When one has no further aims in life, it really is time to die.
In similar vein, when I was a teenage paperboy delivering the morning papers, I read the headline in the Daily Mirror: SLEEP WITH BRENDA. It was the winning entry in a reader's challenge to identify what one would do if one was given the Four Minute Warning of nuclear armageddon from the newly opened Fylingdales Early Warning System. (In the nineteen-fifties, one really did worry about nuclear incineration). Ever since, I have made a habit of asking myself what I would do if I knew that I had only four minutes left to live but a good fairy would grant me a final wish.
The point is: if you know what you would wish to do in your last four minutes of life, why not do it now while there's plenty of time?
Whilst at St Denis, now a suburb of Paris but once a town in its own right, I had a private tour of the magnificent Stade de France, built to host the FIFA World Cup in 1998. (France beat Brazil 3-0 in the final). It is a thing of beauty. The separtely supported roof weighs more than the Eiffel tower.
Things I never knew:-
1. When the French won the World Cup, the team's communal bath was filled with champagne.
2. There is a prison within the stadium for holding rowdy fans.
3. Beyonce required both team dressing rooms for her wardrobe during a concert.
4. Madonna refused to perform unless all the blue, bleu as the French say, carpets and paintwork were changed to pink. (They were).
5. President Sarkozy got stuck in the lift beacuse he was too small to reach the emergency button (an apocryphal tale, I suspect).
The stadium is certainly worth a visit.
Photos top to bottom: The stadium; players' communal bath; police cell in stadium prison; me taking the field
Whilst visiting the Stade de France, I also visited the magnificent Basilique de St Denis, the patron saint of Paris, on the outskirts of the city. St Denis is now a downmarket suburb but was once a town in its own right with huge historical significance for it is here that all but two of the French kings are entombed. Of the two missing kings, one died in Spain and the other, Philip 1, is buried in the Benedictine abbey of St Benoit-sur-Loire.
Amongst the multiple tombs in the basilica are the humble sarcophogus of 'Queen Berthe Big Foot'; the majestic marble tomb of Henry 4 and Catherine de Medici, the latter being immortalised in what appears to be an erotic pose; and the superlative but sobering marble statues of Louis 16 and Marie-Antoinette who were guillotined by the French revolutionaries.
Philip 1 chose not to be entombed in St Denis alongside the other kings because he had repudiated his queen, another Berthe, and taken up with another man's wife, for which misdemeanours he was excommunicated by the Pope. Philip therefore considered himself unworthy of being entombed beside his fellow kings and asked to be entombed beside Saint Benedict (Benoit) as he knew that the good saint would forgive him his sins.
There is a lesson here for HRH Prince Charles who has also divorced his queen-to-be, Princess Diana, and taken up with another man's wife, Camilla. As Charles is not a Catholic, the Pope cannot excommunicate him for this but when his time comes, there may be a question to answer over his entombment. He may have to be sent to Coventry - the Cathedral of course.
In terms of tourist value, the Basilique de St Denis is virtually off the radar but it should be up there with Notre Dame, Versaille and the Eiffel Tower as a top four must-visit attraction. Apart from the tombs, the stained glass windows are breathtaking - and there are no queues.
Photos top down: Rose window; tombs of French kings (some of); tomb of Louis 16th and Marie Antoinette; tomb of Philip 1 in the abbey of St Benoit-sur-Loire (on the right)
Here I am in France, sitting under a parasol quoiffing a Martini and Perrier when in comes a most distressing e-mail from Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron. He has resigned; nothing abnormal in that except for his reason. Tim is a devout, orthodox Christian who during the recent election campaign was hounded by the media to admit that he considered homosexual sex to be a sin. That is what the Bible and the Quoran teach, as I understand them. At least, it is what the Christian and Muslim faiths have traditionally taught. For him to adhere to such a belief whilst leader of a modern, mainstream, political party would have been, he thought, political suicide and so he has resigned. He simply cannot reconcile political correctness with his faith. What nonsense. Had he been a devout Muslim, the media woud not have dared to hound him over his faith beliefs.
Tim and I are Liberal Democrats. He is a Christian; I am an atheist. We share a belief in liberal democracy, tolerance and co-operation with those who do not share our views. He has never attempted to impose his religious principles on Party policy. In mainly Catholic France, religion has long since been separated from the State. All Tim needed to do was include in his public biography, Wikipedia or such like, that he was a practising Christian - end of.
So what were the motives of the media in hounding him? I suggest that either they sniffed some lurid copy on homosexual sex or wished to undermine him as a political opponent or else gay activists were at work. Whatever the reason, it was immoral, illiberal and anti-democratic.
For my own part, I don't give a monkey's over what another's faith or sexual practises are - as long as they don't impact on me. Tolerance is the key word.
For some years now, SNP has portrayed itself as the voice of Scotland. The recent Council elections and Theresa May's snap General Election have thoroughly demolished that notion. SNP have won more seats in both elections than any other party and congratulations to them for that, but they have not won the popular vote. Indyref2 would be suicidal for Nicola Sturgeon and she knows that. She would lose again. SNP speak only for SNP.
I was listening to a feminist debate on the radio last night. What a load of piffle! Apparently the female leaders of our political parties - Tories, Scottish Tories, Scottish Labour, Scottish Nationalists, the Democratic Unionist Party (Ulster) and the Green Party - are doing badly because their female leaders are trying to emulate male role models. Eh?
Margaret Thatcher should be remembered as the ultimate icon of female success in a male dominated world but feminists have never identified with her nor she with them. Theresa May on the other hand, has worn a T-shirt with the motto, 'This is what a feminist looks like' - and they don't identify with her either. Today, we have Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany, the most powerful person in Europe; Christine Lagarde as Head of the IMF and Cressida Dick as Chief Constable of the Met etc etc. The glass ceiling is well and truly broken.
Women of ability succeed; women without, winge. Actually, ladies, exactly the same is true for men but men who don't succeed can't wave the shroud of feminism. As a man, I fear it is young men who need to be worried. Women seem to be taking over.