Archive for Newcastle

Three Funerals and a Cartoon

Posted in Biographical, Football, Maynooth with tags , , , on July 21, 2020 by telescoper

I was later than usual coming to the office today as I had to arrange some things to do with the house I’m buying in Maynooth. It was mid morning when I walked up towards campus. I was a little bit confused to see a large crowd of people walking along Main Street, but when I got closer I realized they were all walking behind a hearse on their way to a funeral service at St Mary’s Church. I followed the procession all the way along Main Street and up Mill Street where another large group of people was waiting outside the Church. I don’t know who had passed away but judging by the attendance they must have been popular in the community.

This is the first time I’d seen such a procession here in Ireland, though I was of course already aware that the Irish treat funerals very differently from the English. Coincidentally, though, today saw the funeral of Jack Charlton which began with a procession through the streets of Ashington, the cortege led by piper playing the Northumbrian pipes. Many hundreds turned up to show their respects.

Because of Covid-19 restrictions, only about 20 people could attend the funeral service, which was held at the West Road Crematorium in Newcastle upon Tyne. As it happens, that was where the funeral of my Mam took place about 9 months ago. There were no Covid-19 restrictions then, which makes it seem like a different age altogether.

Anyway, going back to Jack Charlton, I saw last week marvellous comic book tribute to him called The Life and Times of Jack Charlton by David Squires in the Guardian. The poignant last panel is beautifully done.

Flaming June Again

Posted in Art, Biographical, Bute Park, History with tags , , , , on June 10, 2016 by telescoper

Since we’re in the middle of a modest heatwave I thought “Flaming June” would be a good title for a blog post. Until a few years ago I always thought that “Flaming June” was some sort of folk expression or quotation from a poem, but it is instead the title of this Pre-Raphaelite painting by Frederic Leighton of a lady wearing what looks like a dress made out of old curtains. Apparently the oleander branch seen in the upper right symbolizes the fragile link between sleep and death. It looks to me like she must be attending a lecture…

But I’m rambling. This has been an exhausting week, probably because I a few days off last week and have come back to one of the busiest periods of the academic year. The examination period is over so there are scripts to mark,  examiners’ meetings, class lists and the like, all parts of the arcane business of academic life. In fact I’ll be spending the first three days of next week in Cambridge where I’m External Examiner for Physics, and I have a lot to do here before I go.

In between all the meetings I had to attend yesterday I noticed that it was the 9th of June, a date of enormous cultural significance for those of us born on Tyneside, as Geordie Ridley’s famous music hall song The Blaydon Races begins “I went to Blaydon Races, ’twas on the 9th of June… The original Blaydon Races were horse races and site of the course is long since gone, but the name has recently been resurrected as a road race involving people on foot rather than on horseback. Incidentally, the usual “Whit Week” holiday in late May or early June is still referred to on Tyneside as “Race Week”.

All this reminded me of the occasion – over twenty years ago – when I entered the Great North Run for the first time. Nowadays this race – the biggest mass participation half-marathon race in the world, with 50,000 competitors – is run in September, but in those days it was held in June. As it happened, there was also a heatwave the first time I did it. I remember lining up at 9.30 on a Sunday morning on the start grid (I was number eleven thousand and something) while the stewards went round pleading with all the participants to take plenty of water as they went around as it was going to be very hot indeed and they didn’t want people suffering from dehydration.

In those days I was quite a keen long-distance runner and was fairly fit. I wasn’t that concerned about the heat but took the advice to heart and determined to stop at all the water stations on the way from Newcastle to South Shields. When we started I also took care not to go off too fast over the first mile or so, which is basically all downhill from the Town Moor to the Tyne Bridge. Not that you could go fast anyway, as the track was so crowded with runners.

I remember the wonderful feeling as we emerged onto the Tyne Bridge and took in the splendid view of the bridges along the river. When we got to Gateshead the crowds were out in large numbers cheering everyone on and I felt completely elated. The first water station was near Gateshead athletics stadium, and I took a drink there as I did at the next, and the next. After Gateshead the route heads towards the Felling bypass at about 4-5 miles and then the runners can see a long climb in front of them. A large thermometer showed the temperature on the road to be about 45 Celsius. Fortunately the people living in houses either side of the road were out in their front gardens offering encouragement and sometimes had their hoses out to shower people as they went past. At one point there was a fire engine that had made an impromptu fountain by the side of the road too.

Unfortunately, as I near the ten mile mark I started to feel a bit strange. I had never actually taken on water while I was running before this race; I never felt the need for it when on training runs. My stomach wasn’t used to the water sloshing around while I was running. I felt quite sick by the time we got to the top of the climb but when I saw the sea and felt its breath on my face I cheered up and descended the steep downward slope towards the seafront near Marsden Rock.

There’s a good mile and a half along the seafront to the finish, however, and I was definitely struggling really badly by then. I could see the finish line but it felt like it wasn’t getting any closer. I slowed to a crawl but kept going, finally reaching the grandstand where a large crowd shouted encouragement. I must have looked dreadful because I heard several people shouting out my number along with “keep going, son”  and “you’re nearly there”.

Eventually I got to the finish line but the feeder lanes were quite busy then – I was finishing at about the peak  time of about 1hr 50 – so I was forced to slow right down because of the people in front of me.

As I crossed the line, I stopped running and was immediately overcome with nausea. I bent over, hands on my knees and emptied the contents of my stomach – mainly water – all over the grass. I felt absolutely dreadful but, after a quick check from the St John Ambulance crew who were on hand, I recovered and found my folks who were nearby. After we got home and I had a shower I felt fine.

About a week later, when I had returned to my flat in London a letter arrived for me. I opened it up and found a small passport-sized photograph, with the caption “YOUR MOMENT OF TRIUMPH”. It turns out there was an automatic camera near the finishing line that snapped everyone crossing it along with a shot of the digital clock showing their finishing time. The idea is that you could order a blow-up of the picture for £25 to put on your wall.

In my case, though, the picture showed not a moment of splendid athletic achievement, but a bedraggled creature puking uncontrollably while those around him looked on in disgust. I didn’t order the blow-up of my throw-up.

Over the years I did the Great North Run a number of times – six or seven, I don’t remember exactly – and a few marathons too, but the strain of running on the roads around London gradually told on my knees and I had to stop because of recurrent pain and swelling. Eventually, a few years ago I surrendered to the inevitable and had arthroscopic surgery to sort out the damage to my knee joints. That seems to have fixed the problem, but my running days are over.

 

Newcastle Joins the Resurgence of UK Physics

Posted in Education, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on August 17, 2014 by telescoper

I’ve posted a couple of times about how Physics seems to undergoing a considerable resurgence in popularity at undergraduate level across the United Kingdom, with e.g. Lincoln University setting up a new programme. Now there’s further evidence in that Newcastle University has now decided to re-open its Physics course for 2015 entry.

The University of Newcastle had an undergraduate course in Physics until 2004 when it decided to close it down, apparently owing to lack of demand. They did carry on doing some physics research (in nanoscience, biophysics, optics and astronomy) but not within a standalone physics department. The mid-2000s were tough for UK physics,  and many departments were on the brink at that time. Reading, for example, closed its Physics department in 2006; there is talk that they might be starting again too.

The background to the Newcastle decision is that admissions to physics departments across the country are growing at a healthy rate, a fact that could not have been imagined just ten years ago. Times were tough here at Sussex until relatively recently, but now we’re expanding on the back of increased student numbers and research successes. Indeed having just been through a very busy clearing and confirmation period at Sussex University, it is notable that its the science Schools that have generally done best.  Sussex has traditionally been viewed as basically a Liberal Arts College with some science departments; over 70% of the students here at present are not studying science subjects. With Mathematics this year overtaking English as the most popular A-level choice, this may well change the complexion of Sussex University relatively rapidly.

I’ve always felt that it’s a scandal that there are only around 40 UK “universities” with physics departments Call me old-fashioned, but I think a university without a physics department is not a university at all; it’s particularly strange that a Russell Group university such as Newcastle should not offer a physics degree. I believe in the value of physics for its own sake as well as for the numerous wider benefits it offers society in terms of new technologies and skills. Although the opening of a new physics department will create more competition for the rest of us, I think it’s a very good thing for the subject and for the Higher Education sector general.

That said, it won’t be an easy task to restart an undergraduate physics programme in Newcastle, especially if it is intended to have as large an intake as most successful existing departments (i.e. well over 100 each year). Students will be applying in late 2014 or early 2015 for entry in September 2015. The problem is that the new course won’t figure in any of the league tables on which most potential students based their choice of university. They won’t have an NSS score either. Also their courses  will probably need some time before it can be accredited by the Institute of Physics (as most UK physics courses are).

There’s a lot of ground to make up, and my guess is that it will take some years to built up a significant intake.The University bosses will therefore have to be patient and be prepared to invest heavily in this initiative until it can break even. The decision a decade ago to cut physics doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that they will be prepared to do this, but times have changed and so have the people at the helm so maybe that’s an unfair comment.

There are also difficulties on the research side (which is also vital for a proper undergraduate teaching programme), there are also difficulties. Grant funding is already spread very thin, and there is little sign of any improvement for the foreseeable future  in the “flat cash” situation we’re currently in. There’s also the stifling effect of theResearch Excellence Framework I’ve blogged about before. I don’t know whether Newcastle University intends to expand its staff numbers in Physics or just to rearrange existing staff into a new department, but if they do the former they will have to succeed against well-established competitors in an increasingly tight funding regime. A great deal of thought will have to go into deciding which areas of research to develop, especially as their main regional competitor, Durham University, is very strong in physics.

On the other hand, there are some positives, not least of which is that Newcastle is and has always been a very popular city for students (being of course the finest city in the whole world). These days funding follows students, so that could be a very powerful card if played wisely.

Anyway, these are all problems for other people to deal with. What I really wanted to do was to wish this new venture well and to congratulate Newcastle on rejoining the ranks of proper universities (i.e. ones with physics departments). Any others thinking of joining the club?

The Road to Edinburgh

Posted in Biographical with tags , on July 29, 2013 by telescoper

And so, after a pleasantly relaxing weekend in Newcastle after the end of last week’s conference in Durham, the latest leg of my little UK tour finds me in the fine city of Edinburgh. I originally intended to travel by train, but my folks offered to drive me here instead. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t all that great:

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It took a bit longer to get here than I’d hoped, which left me feeling a bit guilty that they had to turn right around and go back (after a spot of refreshment near the hotel) while I had a short nap in the cosy B&B kindly booked for me by the Royal Observatory. Anyway, I have quite a bit of work to do this evening and tomorrow. After that I’ll be flying back to Gatwick and thence to Brighton, where I’ve got even more to catch up on. There’s no rest for the Head of School…

Around the old home

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on December 28, 2012 by telescoper

Back from a brief Christmas visit up North I thought I’d post a few snaps I took on our traditional Boxing Day spin around Northumberland. The weather wasn’t exactly marvellous, but it did at least stop raining for a while when we reached Amble  so we got out of the car and went for a stroll around the little harbour…

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Although it was a cold and wet day it wasn’t too windy. They must be tough fishermen who go out into the North Sea in those little boats, but they’re friendly folk too – waving to us landlubbers as they came in and out of the harbour.

On the way home we stopped at Benwell, not a picturesque place but the part of Newcastle in which I was brought up. I’ve posted about the little house where my first memories live here, and there’s an old photograph of it here:

The house itself (ours was the one on the left on this picture) was built of brick but to the left hand side you can just see a stone wall. The two cottages were demolished some time ago, along with Pendower School which was behind them as viewed from the picture. The whole area has now been covered with new houses, but for some reason they left the stone wall. I hopped out of the car to take a couple of pictures, as this is all that remains of the first place I can remember living. These were both taken from Ferguson’s Lane, which is immediately behind the stone wall I mentioned earlier, i.e. to the left of the two cottages in the old photograph.

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In the second picture you can see the filled in outlines of the door which led to our backyard (on the right) and (on the left) the holes through which the coalman used to deliver the coal that was the only form of heating in the house. There was no central heating and no heating at all upstairs, incidentally, so we had very cold bedrooms in winter!

The Day the War came to Tyneside

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2010 by telescoper

We’re now approaching the 70th anniversary of August 15th 1940, the day that most historians regard as the start of the Battle of Britain. There had been a great deal of aerial combat, especially over the English Channel, in the weeks following the fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940, but August 15th was the day when the German Luftwaffe initiated a series massive daytime raids aimed at knocking out Britain’s air defences. Over the following weeks they nearly succeeded. It was only an erroneous change of tactics by the Luftwaffe, away from targetting the airfields and towards the terror bombing of cities, that gave the Royal Air Force time to recover from the punishment it had been taking. Eventually, by late September 1940, the threat of invasion, which at one point appeared imminent, had finally subsided.

I’m sure there will be many commemorations of the Battle of Britain over the next week or so, in which tributes will be paid to the few of The Few that survive to this day and, of course, those that gave their lives in the momentous struggle which happened all those years ago. There will be much talk of famous places such as Kenley, Northolt and Biggin Hill,  key sector airfields for 11 Group, responsible for defending London and the South East, which were under massive attack on August 15th and over the following days and weeks.

But it wasn’t just the South-East that was attacked on August 15th 1940. An enormous incoming raid from the North of France was met by Spitfires and Hurricanes of 10 Group and a terrifying dogfight involving about 200 aircraft brewed up over Portland. Further North, 12 Group’s defences were probed by bombers flying from Denmark intent on destroying airfields in Yorkshire.

And then there was 13 Group, which was charged with the task of defending Scotland and the North-East of England. The map below (courtesy of the RAF website) shows the location of their principal airfields and radar installations in 1940. The Operations HQ for 13 Group, RAF Newcastle,  was in Kenton, not far from the location of what is now Newcastle Airport. In fact I cycled past the place countless times when I used to work at Cramlington without knowing what it was. Then it was opened to the public for a time and all the maps, charts and telephones were still there. I felt a distinct shudder when I saw it.

I’ve always been fascinated by history. I read a lot of books about it and in Britain you’re never very far from the site of some historical event, perhaps a castle or the site of a bloody battle. Whenever I travel I also try to visit places of historical interest. Reading is fine, but there’s no subsitute for being there and seeing it for yourself.

It’s quite a different matter when history comes after you rather than you going to find it. The idea that such a familiar place (to me) as Kenton could have been so central to the epic struggle that was the Battle of Britain brings it home that the things we take for granted haven’t always been so secure. When I was a kid growing up in Newcastle, Biggin Hill seemed to me as distant as Dunkirk or El Alamein, but the idea of German planes flying over such places as the Farne Islands and Tynemouth is something that still gives me the shivers. I’m sure the people of Iraq felt the same way about the American and British planes that bombed their country during the two Gulf Wars…

I’ve therefore decided to post the following short account of some of what happened on August 15th 1940 in my own neck of the woods, partly because of what I said in the previous paragraph and partly because the numerical facts are are pretty representative of the situation all around the country on that day seventy years ago. I got the details from a book called The Narrow Margin by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster, and you can find a more complete report here where there is a full account of every day’s action during the Battle of Britain.

For a start it appears that the Luftwaffe thought that most of Britain’s fighter defences were committed to the South. They were probably aware of the effectiveness of the long-range Radio Direction Finding (RDF, now known as radar) network known as Chain Home, but disregarded it because they thought there would not be many planes around to intercept them even if they were detected. The raid over Tyneside was despatched from Stavanger in Norway and flew in a roughly south-westerly direction across the North Sea.

At 12.08, RDF trackers began to plot the path of a formation of “twenty plus” incoming aircraft opposite the Firth of Forth at a range of over 90 miles. As the raid drew closer, the estimated number was revised up to thirty, in three sections, approaching from the North-East and heading SW towards Tynemouth.

The radar operators of 13 Group hadn’t had as much practice as their colleagues further south in 11 Group, which probably accounts for the difficulty they had in estimating the number of incoming planes. Nevertheless, with a full hour’s warning, the controller was able to put squadrons in excellent positions to attack, with 72 Squadron Spitfires in the path of the enemy off the Farne Islands and 605 Squadron over Tyneside. Nos 79 and 607 were also put up, but while the latter was in the path of the raid, No. 79 was initially too far north.

No. 72 Squadron from Acklington was the first to make contact, seaward of the Farne Islands. Closing rapidly with the incoming aircraft, it came as a distinct shock when the “thirty” materialised as sixty-five Heinkel 111s and thirty-four Messerschmidt-110s (or ME110s for short), i.e. almost a hundred aircraft. The RAF squadron facing them comprised a mere 11 Spitfires.

When I first read the numbers involved I could hardly believe them. Imagine being outnumbered almost ten to one, but knowing that you had no choice but to attack. Reading through the RAF daily reports makes it clear that these odds were by no means unusual. Time and time again during August 1940, a squadron or half a squadron would be scrambled to meet inbound formations of 100-plus aircraft. Although the RAF pilots were both brave and skillful, facing such an overwhelming weight of numbers against them it was inevitable that the attrition rate would be high. It was the steady loss of pilots, rather than planes shot down, that almost brought the RAF to its knees.

The only chance of an effective defence a small group of fighters could offer was to scatter the massed formation by attacking from the front, trying to disrupt them so much that they would not find their targets inland. That was the plan anyway; it didn’t always work. In the absence of a Squadron-Leader, 72 Squadron was led by Flight-Lieutenant Edward Graham, who, as it turned out that day, led one of the most spectacularly successful air combats of the War.

Thirty miles off the coast, the squadron sighted the enemy.  As the RDF stations had predicted, the Germans were flying in three formations – the bombers ahead and the fighters in two waves stepped up to the rear. Misled by the supplementary fuel tanks slung below their wings, which looked like bombs, Graham and his pilots took the closer wave for Junkers 88 bombers whereas they were in fact (twin-engined) ME110s of the fighter escort.

The incoming formation was so vast in comparison with Graham’s small force that he hesitated for a moment, uncertain at what point and from what direction to attack.  Apparently unable to bear the suspense, one of his pilots asked him whether he had seen the enemy aircraft. With a stutter which was habitual, but which deteriorated in times of stress, he replied

Of course I’ve seen the b-b-b-bastards, I’m trying to w-w-w-work out what to do.

The reply was to became famous throughout Fighter Command. I don’t blame him for stuttering. If it had been me I would have been filling my pants.

But he didn’t hesitate for long. The Spitfires had had plenty of time to gain height during their long flight from the coast, and were about three thousand feet above the enemy’s mean height.  Making the most of his advantage, he decided to lead the squadron in a deliberate frontal attack, diving out of the Sun to achieve maximum surprise. Each pilot was free to choose his own target.  Two-thirds attacked bombers or supposed bombers, the remaining third the second wave of fighters, correctly identified as ME110s.

The attack was startlingly effective and caused widespread panic among the German planes whose pilots had been told not to expect that much opposition.  Jettisoning their external tanks, some of the ME110s formed a defensive circle, while others dived almost to sea level and were last seen heading East.  The bombers, less an indeterminate number destroyed by Graham’s squadron, then split into two formations, each accompanied by some of the remaining fighters. One formation headed for Tyneside, apparently with the intention of bombing the sector station at Usworth; the rest turned South-East towards two aerodromes at Linton on Ouse and Dishforth which they had been ordered to attack. Some of them jettisoned their bombs and headed back to Norway, leaving several of their number in the sea.

The separate parts of the remaining formation finally reached the coast, one near Acklington and the other south of Sunderland. The first formation, engaged successively by the remaining (No. 79) squadron from Acklington, the triple-A batteries defending the Tyne area, and some Hurricanes of 605 Squadron which had come south from Scotland, dropped most of their bombs in the sea. The second, engaged by a squadron of Spitfires from Catterick, a Hurricane squadron from Usworth and the anti-aircraft artillery from the Tees batteries, dropped theirs almost as ineffectively near Sunderland and Seaham Harbour.

Overall, backed by the guns of the 7th Anti-Aircraft Division under Major-General R.B. Pargiter, 13 Group’s aircraft destroyed at least eight Heinkels and seven 110s without suffering a single casualty themselves, although several civilians were killed by bombs and there was considerable damage on the ground, including a few airfields. It is known that, in addition to the enemy losses reported during this period, many German aircraft struggled back to their bases with battle damage and some were written off after crash-landings.

This was one of the most successful actions fought during the entire Battle of Britain and its effect was that that 13 Group met no further daylight raids for the duration. However, it was just one episode in a struggle that became increasingly desperate as the summer of 1940 dragged on. As I said at the start, the defences of 11 Group came particularly close to breaking point, but eventually recovered and the expected invasion never materialised.

The rest, as they say, is history…

Death in Rothbury

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on July 10, 2010 by telescoper

After a restless, uncomfortable night I woke up this morning as usual to the 7am BBC News on Radio 3. The lead item was the death  of Raoul Moat by his own hand in the small Northumberland town of Rothbury. Moat was released from Durham prison last week, and proceeded to Birtley where he shot his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, killing him and wounding her. He then made his way north to Newcastle where he shot an unarmed police officer, carried on to Seaton Delaval on the coast where he held up a chip shop, and eventually wound up in Rothbury early this week. The small town and its environs were flooded with armed police but they didn’t find Moat until last night. After a long standoff, Moat eventually shot himself apparently with a sawn-off shotgun.

I don’t mind admitting that this story has unsettled me on several levels, which is why I’m writing about it here. I’ve found doing this blog quite cathartic on some past occasions and hope it will do the same job again now.

I suppose the first thing to explain is that I was born in Newcastle. Although I haven’t lived in the North-East for a long time, I know many the places that feature in the Raoul Moat Saga pretty well. For example, Moat’s attack on the police officer in the Denton area of Newcastle was just a matter of yards from where I used to get the bus to school when I was a kid, although the location has changed quite a lot since then; the incident happened at the junction of the A69 and the A1 western bypass (which hadn’t been built when I lived there). That spot is only a half a mile or so from where my mother lives now. I never imagined  such a familiar and friendly  place would appear on the BBC News as the scene of a shooting!

Rothbury too is a place I remember well. When I was very little we never travelled far for our holidays – we couldn’t afford to – but the upside of that was that I got to know some of the beautiful places on our doorstop. Few people know how beautiful Northumberland really is, in fact, even those that live there. Rothbury is a place that features in some of my earliest memories as a child, especially  the River Coquet with its stepping-stones. That’s exactly where the last acts of this tragedy were played out in the early hours of this morning.

The thing is that as I’ve got older I’ve, for some reason, started to regard such childhood memories as especially precious. I often think of certain places in Northumberland  – such as Bamburgh, Warkworth, and Seahouses  – because they remind me of a much simpler time, before the world got complicated. Rothbury used to be among them. Now I realise I’ll never be able to think of paddling in the river there without also thinking of Raoul Moat. The place has changed forever. The Rothbury of my mind is now dead.

When I got home from the pub last night, at about 8 o’clock, I happened to glance at the News and it was obvious something serious was happening and the police had almost certainly found their man. I sat glued to the TV screen as the press went into overdrive. The coverage varied from intrusive to comical to downright ghoulish as they made  a minimum of real news go a very long way diluted with speculation and innuendo. I had a look at Twitter too, but there the feeding frenzy was even worse and the pondlife that contributed to it even more loathsome. Things like this bring out the worst in some people, and the worst of the worst is often to be found on the internet.

I felt guilty watching the live TV coverage of the standoff, as I found much of it distasteful but, all the same, I couldn’t stop. Why? I don’t know. All I can say I was gripped in much the same way as I was on 9/11. I watched the footage of the Twin Towers burning and collapsing over and over again, mesmerised, appalled, unable to comprehend what was happening. But also, I have to admit, somehow excited by it. Does everyone have such a dark side to their fascinations?

I went to bed around 1am, with the standoff continuing but didn’t sleep very well because I was a bit rattled by the events of the evening and conflicting emotions about what I’d been watching. I had little doubt that it would end sometime during the night. Indeed, from the moment Raoul Moat started his trail of violence last week only one outcome seemed likely: that he would eventually take his own life. So it turned out. Of course I hoped that he might surrender himself – so, I’m sure, did the Police – but that always seemed very improbable. I don’t think he was capable of listening to reason. The only question was whether he would kill anyone else before turning his gun on himself.

 There won’t be much sympathy for Moat. I’ve already heard the opinion expressed that his suicide has saved the taxpayer from having to keep him in jail for the rest of his life.  The Police will be happy that Moat was stopped without committing further acts of violence. There will be questions asked, though,  about how he managed to live in such close proximity to so many police officers yet evade detection for such a long time, despite leaving numerous clues (such as his mobile phones and camping gear). It appears that Moat broke into at least one house in Rothbury while he was at large and may even have walked down the main street on Thursday night. Still, Moat had specifically threatened to kill police officers, so I can certainly understand the extreme caution with which they carried out their investigation. In the end, no members of the public or police officers were injured.

But it’s the townsfolk of Rothbury that I have the most sympathy for. It must have been terrible to have this Bogeyman lurking about the town, to see armed police invading the place, and to have the press poking their noses in during a time of obvious fear and distress. No doubt it won’t be long before a macabre tourist trade develops. I hope the town can return to peaceful normality soon, but I don’t think it will be that easy.

I mentioned before that I went to the pub yesterday evening. A Friday trip to The Poet’s Corner is a fairly regular fixture in my limited social calendar. The subject of Raoul Moat came up, jokily, during the conversation. We didn’t know at the time what was about to happen in Rothbury. An American visitor expressed astonishment that the press were making such a fuss about a lone gunman, who’d only committed one murder anyway, and incredulity when he was told that most British police don’t carry firearms. 

Those comments reveal a positive side of Raoul Moat story. The hysterical media reaction only occurred because such episodes are thankfully still very rare in Britain, due at least in part to severe legal restrictions on the availability of firearms. The very fact that people did get so gripped by this tragedy means that we’re not as desensitized to gun-related violence as many across the Pond.

As a postscript let me add this picture of a prominent yet macabre local landmark near Rothbury, Winter’s Gibbet, which serves as a reminder of a time when dubious executions were much more commonplace than they are now. To make it even more bizarre, we often had picnics underneath the Gibbet when I was a kid. Don’t ask me why.

The Little Waster

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on April 12, 2010 by telescoper

Since Britain seems set for a return to the 1970s, I thought I’d wallow in nostalgia for the bygone days of Margaret Thatcher and my adolescence in the North East with this clip of the legendary comedian Bobby Thompson in his role as The Little Waster. He never achieved popularity outside the region, probably owing to his accent and the kind of material he liked to perform. He was, however, a permanent fixture in many working men’s clubs across the North East, most of which looked just like the one in North Shields this was filmed in.  

Bobby Thompson’s accent and upbringing were Wearside, rather than Tyneside, so he wasn’t strictly speaking a Geordie.  I find it quite easy to locate the accent myself, as closer to Sunderland than Newcastle, but I think people born outside the North East probably  find it difficult to grasp the difference. Unfortunately there are no subtitles on this clip so the jokes will probably go right over the head of most of you! He did have a very special status in the North East, however, right up until his death in 1988, because of the affinity he shared with his audience, many of whom had been brought up in real hardship and knew exactly what he was talking about. He always laughed with them, not at them.

I saw him only once, and I’ll never forget the effect he had on the crowd. Some people were laughing so much I thought they were going to die. His act was in two parts, the first being The Little Waster (as in the clip) and the second, which I thought much funnier, in which, dressed as a scruffy soldier he recounted obviously made-up stories about his wartime experiences. Another thing I remember is his trademark Woodbine, from a packet he bought in 1944…

My favourite joke of his dates to the night of the 1951 election when the victorious Conservative Party was rumoured to be planning to abolish the National Health Service:

It came t’ last orders and the barman shouted ‘Come on, let’s see yer glasses off’, and I said ‘Well, them Tories haven’t wasted any time, have the!’

Flaming June

Posted in Biographical, Bute Park with tags , , , , on June 1, 2009 by telescoper

Since we’re in the middle of a heatwave I thought “Flaming June” would be a good title. I only just discovered, however, that it’s not as I thought some sort of folk expression or quotation from a poem, but the title of this Pre-Raphaelite painting by Frederic Leighton of a lady wearing what looks like a dress made out of old curtains. Apparently the oleander branch seen in the upper right symbolizes the fragile link between sleep and death. Or, in this weather, the fragile link between sleep and sunstroke.

Anyway, the year rolls on. The examination period is almost over, marking season is upon us and it will soon be time for  examiners’ meetings, class lists and all the arcane business of academic life.

Yesterday I sat in the garden marking a third-year paper or, actually, only half a paper as I give the course jointly with another member of staff. After I’d finished I decided to go for a ride on my bicycle up the Taff Trail and around Bute Park. It was nice, but should have been nicer. Unfortunately, Cardiff City Council’s insane policy of organizing “events” all over the park, involving heavy vehicle movements and temporary buildings, has led to the wholesale destruction of the grass in many places. If the hot summer continues then this will get worse. The site of last year’s National Eisteddfod on Pontcanna Fields still hasn’t recovered; fifteen local sports fields have been completely ruined as you can see from this little video taken a couple of months ago.

Despite ongoing protests, the Council seems determined to press ahead with its plans to make Bute Park unfit as a place of quiet recreation by building a road so that more lorries can enter it.

Anyway, hordes of people were still about in the park yesterday, sunbathing, playing cricket, having barbecues, swimming in the Taff (illegally) and a few brave souls were jogging  around, leaving trails of sweat on the footpaths.

This took me back to the occasion – the best part of twenty years ago – when I entered the Great North Run for the first time. Nowadays this race – the biggest mass participation half-marathon race in the world, with 50,000 competitors – is run in September, but in those days it was held in June. As it happened, there was also a heatwave the first time I did it. I remember lining up at 9.30 on a Sunday morning on the start grid (I was number eleven thousand and something) while the stewards went round pleading with all the participants to take plenty of water as they went around as it was going to be very hot indeed and they didn’t want people suffering from dehydration.

In those days I was quite a keen long-distance runner and was fairly fit. I wasn’t that concerned about the heat but took the advice to heart and determined to stop at all the water stations on the way from Newcastle to South Shields. When we started I also took care not to go off too fast over the first mile or so, which is basically all downhill from the Town Moor to the Tyne Bridge. Not that you could go fast anyway, as the track was so crowded with runners.

I remember the wonderful feeling as we emerged onto the Tyne Bridge and took in the splendid view of the bridges along the river. When we got to Gateshead the crowds were out in large numbers cheering everyone on and I felt completely elated. The first water station was near Gateshead athletics stadium, and I took a drink there as I did at the next, and the next. After Gateshead the route heads towards the Felling bypass at about 4-5 miles and then the runners can see a long climb in front of them. A large thermometer showed the temperature on the road to be about 45 Celsius. Fortunately the people living in houses either side of the road were out in their front gardens offering encouragement and sometimes had their hoses out to shower people as they went past. At one point there was a fire engine that had made an impromptu fountain by the side of the road too.

Unfortunately, as I near the ten mile mark I started to feel a bit strange. I had never actually taken on water while I was running before this race; I never felt the need for it when on training runs. My stomach wasn’t used to the water sloshing around while I was running. I felt quite sick by the time we got to the top of the climb but when I saw the sea and felt its breath on my face I cheered up and descended the steep downward slope towards the seafront near Marsden Rock.

There’s a good mile and a half along the seafront to the finish, however, and I was definitely struggling really badly by then. I could see the finish line but it felt like it wasn’t getting any closer. I slowed to a crawl but kept going, finally reaching the grandstand where a large crowd shouted encouragement. I must have looked dreadful because I heard several people shouting out my number along with “keep going, son”  and “you’re nearly there”.

Eventually I got to the finish line but the feeder lanes were quite busy then – I was finishing at about the peak  time of about 1hr 50 – so I was forced to slow right down because of the people in front of me.

As I crossed the line, I stopped running and was immediately overcome with nausea. I bent over, hands on my knees and emptied the contents of my stomach – mainly water – all over the grass. I felt absolutely dreadful but, after a quick check from the St John Ambulance crew who were on hand, I recovered and found my folks who were nearby. After we got home and I had a shower I felt fine.

About a week later, when I had returned to my flat in London a letter arrived for me. I opened it up and found a small passport-sized photograph, with the caption “YOUR MOMENT OF TRIUMPH”. It turns out there was an automatic camera near the finishing line that snapped everyone crossing it along with a shot of the digital clock showing their finishing time. The idea is that you could order a blow-up of the picture for £25 to put on your wall.

In my case, though, the picture showed not a moment of splendid athletic achievement, but a bedraggled creature puking uncontrollably while those around him looked on in disgust. I didn’t order the blow-up of my throw-up.

Over the years I did the Great North Run a number of times – six or seven, I don’t remember exactly – and a few marathons too, but the strain of running on the roads around London gradually told on my knees and I had to stop because of recurrent pain and swelling. Eventually, a few years ago I surrendered to the inevitable and had arthroscopic surgery to sort out the damage to my knee joints. That seems to have fixed the problem, but my running days are over.