Naked in the Woods

I was 15 when all the kids in my neighbourhood snuck into Marten’s Grove to go skinny dipping. It was the first time I had ever seen so many girls my own age in the nude. I remember it still.

We were having a fantastic time when suddenly we were lit up by about 6 pairs of headlights.


We didn’t have time to get dressed and just grabbed our clothes and ran!

We must have made quite a sight — 20 naked teenagers running naked through the woods. I bet the police guys who chased us enjoyed telling the story too.

Tony, Peter, Claire, Sarah, Sian, Michelle, Kerry, Shaun!
Where are you now?

Photo: Bexley Archives

I got a thorn in my foot from running through the woods and it got infected and I had to go to the hospital to have it removed. During the surgery, while I was lying there in my underwear the most beautiful nurse I had ever seen comforted me by softly rubbing my thigh.

It definitely took my mind off the procedure but I’m not sure that was exactly what protocol required.

Life in the Falklands

Larissa MacFarquahar has a fascinating and brilliant history of the last fifty-something years of the Falkland Islands in this week’s New Yorker. MacFarquahar is like an itinerant storyteller from ancient times, weaving the threads of stories that are not her own. One of those stories could have been mine.

How Prosperity Transformed the Falklands
by Larissa MacFarquhar

When I was eleven, my mother and father were having one of those cruel yes-in-front-of-the-children arguments that I understand now, with the wisdom of age, foreshadowed the divorce creeping up to change all of our lives forever.

My father worked in a meat factory owned by Southern Ships Stores, the main importer of meat and fish from the Falkland Islands. They offered him a job in Port Stanley, the capital of the Falklands.

“Go!” said mother.

“I will!” said father, “and I’ll take Bill with me.”

When I was born, my mother and father never agreed on a name for me. To my mother, I was Kevin. To my father, I was always Bill. Dad called me Kevin for the first time in 2009, not long before he died.

My father left our lives soon after that argument on the balcony but he never made it to the Falklands. That turned out be fortune of the best kind since we would have made it there just in time for the arrival of the Argentinian invaders. In one of Fortune’s more playful tricks, I made own voyage Down South on HMS Southampton in 1984.

When Dad became a Saturday father, he took me on days out every weekend, usually up to London where he would drop me off at the Science Museum or, with my skateboard, at Greenwich Park. He’d tell me which pub to find him in when I was done.

The Natural History Museum in Kensington.
I spent many a pleasant Saturday afternoon here “with” my Dad.

Sometimes we just spent the afternoon in the Conservative Club in Sidcup or in the Cray Valley Working Man’s Club – whichever had the cheapest beer – and he’d buy me a half-pint of lager and tell me dodgy stories from his fabulated past.

Were those stories real or were they fiction? Who knows?

Perhaps dad really did apprentice with Arsenal before his dodgy knees gave out after playing for England Schoolboys vs West Berlin in 1948 and maybe the gangs of South London really did have razor blades sewn into their collars. Bricks through rival gangs’ café windows? Cook on the QE2? Maybe some of this happened.

I have a whole bookful of similar stories that I tell my own children about my adventure-filled past but mine are all true. I should write them down someday.

Southern Ships Stores went bankrupt in 1980 and my dad was out of work for a while. I had always assumed that this was part of Thatcher’s wonderful plan for the British economy but I now understand it to be another chapter in the history of the Falklands. If SSS had hung on for another few years they could have had a share of the cascades of prosperity that Larissa describes in her article. Perhaps we could have too. Alas! They died too soon.

What would life have been like for me if Ken and Bill had headed down to those desolate islands?

On my later visit to the Falklands, we called the locals ”Bennies” because of their resemblance to the character from Crossroads. Would I have been a Benny drinking my life away in Penguin Ale in a shack in Port Stanley?

Port Stanley in 1984. There were four pubs selling Penguin Ale.
I don’t remember why but I was banned from all four.

Maybe I would have been one of those sheep farmers waiting to greet the Marines when they yomped into Goose Green.

In my own Turn Left moment, would I have watched HMS Southampton sail into San Carlos Water in 1984 from the cold, barren shores?

Christmas Day 1984, San Carlos Water.

Though they did not send me to that lonely life in the South Atlantic, the timely-wimey strands of fate had other plans for me. The ripples from the splash of the divorce rocked my boat for years after the initial impact. I was in constant trouble for all of my school years and I fled my blended family at the first opportunity with just a St Christopher from my mum and twenty quid from my dad to go join the Grey Funnel Line.

What stories would I have, had I stayed?

At 2100 hours on 14 June 1982, the commander of the Argentine garrison in Stanley, General Mario Menéndez, surrendered to the Major General Jeremy Moore.

Urbs vs Suburbs

I love this line from @pippa_bailey in The New Stateman:

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I did know that I wanted it to be in zone two.”

I used to be unable to imagine life outside zone two.

I grew up in suburbia but I got my first Red Bus Rover at age 10, and, with my 8 year old next door neighbour, toured all the famous places. Trafalgar square. Buckingham Palace. Hamleys!

Trafalgar Square, London 2 - Jun 2009.jpg
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

It was 12¾ miles by train to Charing Cross station and I must’ve made that journey a thousand times in my teenage years. St James Park. The Natural History Museum. Oxford Street. Ice skating at Queensway.

Sidcup railway station, Greater London.jpg
Sidcup Station By Nigel Thompson, CC BY-SA 2.0
(The Rolling Stones were born on Platform 1)

I finally got to live in Zone 2 after I left the navy. Whitechapel had the BEST pubs for music. The George on Commercial Street had an amateur hour on Fridays where any one of those pensioners could’ve been a star in their day. Maybe they were?

The George Tavern, Commercial Road, 1969, London – by David Granick

I swore I’d never live in suburbia again. Plymouth Hoe was next but we soon traded our view of Plymouth Sound for the shadows of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan.

25 Stunning Timelapse GIFs | New york city manhattan, New york ...
New York, New York.

Two years of that and we headed for San Francisco but we missed it by sixty miles.

We ended up surrounded by the dreary strip malls of Almaden Valley for the next 23 years with four-mile drive to the nearest pub, the Britannia Arms. Thank God they put a bar inside Wholefoods.

Photo of Blossom Hill Taproom - San Jose, CA, United States. 5/26/17- There are 2 flat screens available.
Tap Room at Whole Foods Market Blossom Hill in San Jose

My vow was dormant but not forgotten and now here we are in the thick of it again. Home at last.

There must be 100 pubs and restaurants within a mile or two. Three of my favourites are just minutes away. The Grain Barge, The Broken Dock and The Three Tuns are as much home as my actual home.

The Grain Barge in Bristol Harbour

We get asked all the time why anyone would trade California for Bristol but this is the view from outside my house and I awake every Sunday to cathedral bells.

Brunel Quay, Bristol Harbour with Mr Brunel’s ship in the background.

Contra their reputation, cities are much friendlier than the suburbs and I strike up a conversation with a stranger every single time I go to the pub. That happened maybe four times in twenty years in Silicon Valley. It helps to have a cute dog.

Dog with Wine at The Bristol Cheesemonger, Wapping Wharf.

When we came home to England we chose Bristol at random like a Womble choosing his name on Uncle Bulgaria’s map of the world.

Clifton Suspension Bridge from The Avon Gorge Hotel.

It was home all along but we never knew it until now.

When do we forget?

Mrs Clown and I attended the Remembrance Day parade in Bristol yesterday. My nan and grandad took me to my first parade in Footscray in, maybe, 1972. I was in the first rank of the Bexleyheath parade as a Sea Cadet in 1980 and marched with the grown up soldiers and sailors on Plymouth Hoe in 1982.

Aftermath (1919)

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same,—and War’s a bloody game….
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz,—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench,—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack,—
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads, those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you’ll never forget.

Siegfried Sassoon, 1886-1967

Despite what the Bristol Post says, there were very few young people at the parade yesterday, other than small children with their parents and the cadets marching in the parade. I wonder how long these parades will continue?

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When we recited the Lord’s Prayer, I was struck by the fact that everyone around me knew the words too. How long before that, too, is forgotten?

Anglicans add the line “for thine is the kingdom the power and the glory forever and ever” to the end of the Lord’s Prayer but a recent survey by British Social Attitudes says that “Only 3% of adults under 24 describe themselves as Anglican”. Maybe Christianity will last for ever, but maybe not that bit of the prayer.

Image may contain: 7 people, people standing and wedding

We sang Carols at the tree lighting ceremony in Clifton Village last Wednesday. They handed out hymn sheets but everyone already knew the words. I saw no young people though either despite the thousands of students who live in Clifton. How long before Carols are forgotten too?

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, christmas tree, night, tree, crowd, plant and outdoor

I believe it was the battles of the Somme and Verdun and Passchendaele that precipitated the long slide in religious belief in Europe. When the Church, all over Europe, gave so much support for the most atrocious war in all history, it’s hard to imagine that its moral authority could continue forever. Maybe it’s right that we should forget those terrible wars now. After all, we’ve had more than 70 years of peace now.

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The European Union has its roots in an effort to bind together the French and German economies after World War 2 so that these terrible tragedies might never happen again. Churchill, having seen a few wars first-hand himself, was a supporter. Too many people have forgotten this and now a handful of Tory opportunists have persuaded them that we don’t need this security any more. Across the Atlantic, the American president is doing his best to undermine the institutions that have kept us safe and prosperous for so long. Half the country thinks this will somehow Make America Great Again.

At the Remembrance ceremonies in France, Macron and Merkel held hands in a symbolic rejection of past enmities. The American president, famously, chose not attend the remembrance of America’s contribution to the end of World War I.

Image may contain: 2 people, people standing and outdoor

As these awful conflicts fade out of memory, it becomes easier to think that they’ll never happen again, even as we dismantle the institutions that made them stop.

“So now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reliving their dreams and past glory,
I see the old men all tired, stiff and sore
Those forgotten heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question.
But the band plays Waltzing Matilda,
And the old men still answer the call,
But year after year, the numbers get fewer
Someday, no one will march there at all.”
—Eric Bogle

Photo Credits:


Memories. Of the past, mostly.

Every blog comes to an end eventually and all too many end the same way: with a boring, uninspiring post that lingers at the top of the blogger’s home page for evermore like a turd that refuses to be flushed away. A blog is only as good as its latest post and that forlorn, ill-conceived post clogs up the blogosphere for eternity. To save Ragged Clown from that crappy fate, I hit upon the brilliant idea to put my blog in “archive mode”.

I just made that term up but what it means, more or less, is that my home page no longer shows posts in reverse chronological order like every other blog in existence. Instead I picked out a handful of posts that I enjoyed writing way back when I was young and creative and stuck them on the home page instead. If you want to read my latest posts, you’ll have to rummage a little but—don’t bother! They are not very good.

Header photo (CC) by Manfred Majer on Flickr

“I used to live in this room before I was a soldier”

tiffieI’m reading All Quiet on the Western Front and just got to the bit where Paul arrives home after a long time away at the front and suddenly, in my reverie, I was Paul, coming home from my first few months in the Royal Navy.

Paul’s journey home to Germany from the front in Flanders took several days
. When he arrived he felt foreign, like everything had changed though he knew that, deep down, everything else was the same and that it was he who had changed. His relationship with his family and his friends was different and would be so for ever more.

To be clear, I never went to the front. I was never in great danger during my six years in the navy. I did not watch my friends die. I was a sailor and not a soldier but, for a brief moment, I felt a bond across the 100 years and the cruel, ugly line that divides me from that German private soldier. A bond that connects everyone who has worn the uniform, even for brief time.

I came home after 10 weeks in the Navy for midterm weekend. It happened to be Speech Day at my school and I was going to be awarded a prize. I had been traveling all day to get home from my base in Cornwall and I knew I was slicing the time rather fine. No cell phones in those days but my mum was waiting for me as my train pulled into Sidcup Station and we raced down to the school, running into the assembly hall in time to see the last prize-winners crossing the stage. The Headmaster was already preparing to make his final remarks as rushed into the hall. After a 300 mile dash across the country, I had missed my brief moment in the spotlight.

Csgs_badgeLuckily Mr Hahn saw me striding down the aisle and was quick on his feet. In truth, it was hard to miss me as I was the only one in a navy blue uniform among a sea of purple. Mr Hahn recognized me, quickly grabbed the microphone and ad-libbedbut me.

“And the prize for mathematics goes to Kevin Lawrence.”

The Headmaster looked flustered and wondered why a sailor was walking across his stage until someone thrust a certificate into his hand to make him understand. “Congratulations, Lawrence” he murmured and shook my hand. As I made my way to the other side of the stage, I caught Mr Hahn’s eye and he smiled and nodded.

Coming home that weekend, I knew that everything was different now. My friends were still school kids but I was in the navy and no one understood what that meant but me.

30mm BMARC

The Terrible Mr Gooden

The line between a terrific teacher and a terrible teacher is a fine line indeed. So many of the very best teachers dance along the line with fancy steps on either side, changing the lives of students fortunate to be touched by their magic or cursed by their conceit.

Mr Gooden was terrifying and a tyrant. He altered the course of my life more than any other teacher.

JK Rowling’s Severus Snape is the modern archetype of the terrific/terrible/terrifying teacher and Potter doesn’t know until the very end where Snape’s loyalties lie. But the tyrannical teacher par excellence is Miss Jean Brodie.


Jean Brodie: “Little girls! I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”

Maggie Smith’s terrifying teacher, long before Professors Snape and McGonegall and long, long before The Dowager Countess, was a fascist and an admirer of fascists. Miss Jean Brodie was inspired by Mussolini and Franco and inspired her girls to great heights; moulding and shaping their lives but ultimately dooming them to tragedy, sending them off to war and worse. Miss Brodie wielded charisma and conviction and certitude as weapons to inflict scorn and shame on her students. Snape too. But Mr Gooden had them both beat with charisma and conviction in abundance and he directed scorn and shame like guided missiles against a Palestinian hospital.

pink_floyd_3_wallpaperMr Gooden was an evangelical Christian and ran our school’s Good News Club, a welcome refuge from a rainy winter’s lunch break. To those who didn’t know him well, he had a reputation as a ferocious disciplinarian. To those lucky enough to have him for chemistry, he was a magical storyteller, bringing his subject to life and instilling a love of science that has lasted a lifetime. Mr Gooden, the chemistry teacher would be a shoe-in for Teacher of the Year. Mr Gooden the form teacher would merit a different award entirely.

Time for a quick sidebar to explain some features of English schools for American readers. JK Rowling captured a great many features of the British Grammar School with surprising fidelity. The sorting of First Years into houses to foster competition and team spirit is spot on (give or take a Sorting Hat) and, while we didn’t have Quidditch, we did have regular inter-house rugby, cricket and track/field tournaments (Lester forever!). Ordinary and Advanced Wizarding Levels are essentially O levels and A levels—the exams you take at age 16 and 18 that determine your success or failure in life. One big difference between an English school day and my American kid’s day is that we all travelled from class to class in a herd, only occasionally breaking ranks to split up for Latin or German. Our herd travelled everywhere together including, in our case, ice skating every Sunday and the occasional trip to Margate on the train. American kids (mine at least) miss out on that camaraderie and have to work harder for their friendships. That’s one thing that my school got right. The “Form” system made it so easier to build friendships and many of my friendships from that period have lasted a lifetime.

The official name for our herd was a ‘form’. Each form had a Form Room and a Form Teacher who started and ended each day with a roll call and was responsible for the discipline and life lessons that didn’t fall under the rubric of the curriculum proper. Our Form Teacher was a prominent part of our lives (like Professor McGonegall was for Harry, Ron and Hermione) and could make those lives great or awful according to their tastes. Mr Gooden was our Form Teacher for my second and third year of grammar school (7th & 8th grade for ‘mercans).

My first day in Form 2P was filled with trepidation. Mr Gooden’s reputation as a tyrant loomed but, like many a dictator, Mr Gooden up close was quite personable; charismatic even. Our days began with laughter and inspiration and I was soon grateful for a teacher that took an active interest in our lives. We were lucky to have Mr Gooden for chemistry too and he was a born showman in the chemistry lab. How well I remember the zinc and sulphur explosion! What better introduction to molecules than the oil drop experiment?

Mr Gooden’s active interest in the form room extended to encouraging us all to donate to his special charity collection every Tuesday morning. Mr Gooden’s class was consistently the most generous in the school and he made sure that we all gave until it hurt, publicly shaming anyone who fell short. He also made sure we “volunteered” for any extra-curricular project that required work. Character-building stuff, I am sure and, considered in isolation, something to be commended. But eventually the constant pressure to “volunteer” for good deeds and give money for good causes became oppressive. But it was on disciplinary issues where Mr Gooden really crossed the line.

I’ll confess right now that I was not the most well-behaved child at Chis and Sid. I had more than the average number of detentions. The average number was close to zero but, when the headmaster announced the detentions in assembly every Tuesday and Thursday, a handful of offenders were named over and over. It was rare that the list of miscreants did not include some combination of Monroe, Harding, Winch or Lawrence. Detention began with a certificate signed by the offended teacher and counter-signed by the offender’s parents.

Other schools had a punishment called detention but it was a pale imitation of the elaborate ritual of shame that Chis and Sid inflicted on its naughtier students. Mr Gooden rarely gave out the official sanctioned punishment though. Mr Gooden’s justice was more personal; more primal. It began with a barrage of scorn for anyone who did not live up to his lofty expectations. He had a way of focussing his ray of humiliation on a single student while making every other student feel that they too had let him down. Class punishments were common but it was the private discipline that provoked the most fear.


My first private chastening came after that episode in Ms Furey’s French class. I’ll confess again that I was often the naughtiest boy in her class. I spent much of third year French in the corridor outside Ms Furey’s classroom, reflecting on my sins, and far too many of my lunch breaks writing “Le silence aide le travail” 100, 200 or sometimes 500 times for some transgression or other.

I wasn’t the only naughty boy in the class though and, on that particular day, I was far from the naughtiest. As I recall, on that terrible day, Martin and David were the instigators and at the peak of the mayhem most everyone in the class contributed to poor Ms Furey’s breakdown. I was, at worst, a part of the chorus, embarrassed by her tears.

When I received my summons, I knew that evidence was not going to help my case. At roll call the next day, Mr Gooden said those dread words “Oh, and Kevin, I want to see you outside the Staff Changing Room at 12:15.” As anyone who has been on the receiving end of Mr Gooden’s wrath knows, the Staff Changing Room is where Mr Gooden kept his Size 14 Dunlop Green Flash plimsolls. The routine became depressingly more familiar with each punishment but the first time was special in its banality. First of all, the penitent (me) had to perform a series of stupid little tasks while Mr Gooden changed out of his track suit. Fetch me this. Bring me that. Deliver this thing. Next, you had to stare into those limpid pools of justice while he lectured you on the responsibilities and virtues required of a student at Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School. Finally, you had to take off your purple blazer, hang it on a coat hook and bend over to touch your toes while you waited for the Dunlop Green Flash to deliver the justice of the righteous Mr Gooden. The first whack was almost hard enough to knock me off my feet. The second and third came with increasing force as Mr Gooden got comfortable with his swing. Just three swings this time.

I forget the occasion for my second visit to the Staff Changing Room but it obviously was not sufficient because, on my third visit, the Green Flash plimsolls had been replaced by a cane and not one of those swishy canes like they used in old movies either. This was the kind of cane that the rule of thumb was apocryphally named for and each swing resulted in a thud rather than a swish leaving a welt of pink on my stinging backside. At least I was allowed to keep my trousers on.


As far as I know, Mr Gooden’s extra-curricular punishments were entirely off the record and neither the school administrators nor our parents were ever aware of them. I certainly never told my parents and would not have received any sympathy if I had. Mum had too many stories of corporal punishment of her own to be impressed by mine. I often wonder if Mr Gooden would have got in trouble if anyone in authority had known what he was up to. The closest I came to telling anyone about it was when Paul Winch and I got to enjoy some double discipline.

I forget the exact crime this time around but Paul and I were kept back after class. I was sent to wait on the landing outside room 51 while Paul went in for the opening bout of punishment. I don’t know who started shouting first but their verbal missiles were soon joined by wooden ones as they began to curse and throw chairs at each other. First Paul would scream some obscenity and throw a chair or two then Mr Gooden would shout something back and throw more chairs. This continued for an eternity while I listened in terror, knowing that I was next. Mr Berry—Head of Chemistry and Mr Gooden’s boss— walked by just at that moment and asked me why I was still in school so late and why I was crying. I told him I was about to be caned but said nothing of the roar of Bedlam that continued above our heads. Mr Berry said something vaguely soothing, grabbed his coat and headed for home. I waited for my turn in the chamber of horrors.

Eventually the ruckus died down and Mr Gooden came down the stairs to tell me to wait by his car. Paul told me later that he had broken Mr Gooden’s cane. He must not have replaced it because I never felt its bite again and Mr Gooden switched to more psychological torments. Mr Gooden drove me home that day and made me wait in the car while he spoke with my mother. I’ve no idea what he said but, when I got inside, I told my mother “I don’t want to stay at Chis & Sid”. “I know”, she replied.

Not long after the chair-throwing episode, Paul went away to some kind of prison for young offenders.. By then I was totally disengaged from school and had vowed to leave at the earliest opportunity. I never did another lick of homework or took a another book home from school. In most classes, I did no work at all. No official work anyway. I read Homer under the desk in my Latin class and I coded in Basic in French class. Still I came first in my class every year. I need to explain that.

In American schools, most of one’s grade comes from the opinion of one’s teacher. In England of that era, one’s grade came entirely from how one performed in the end of year exams. End-of-year exams took three weeks and bore little resemblance to the pathetic little multiple choice tests that they do on this side of the pond. For each subject, there were two exams of three hours each. There was no “teaching to the test”, the bête-noir of American teachers. It was teach-teach-teach for most of the year then now-let’s-see-what-you-understand-you-little-fuckers.

I came first in my class at the end of the third year. I won a prize for the most improved student (last-in-class to first-in-class is hard to beat) and Mr Gooden was furious.

One of my teachers, Ms McDonnell was new to teaching and, frankly, not very good at it. She taught physics (my favorite subject) and she taught it very badly. I paid close to zero attention to her awful lessons and did less than zero of the work assigned. When the exam results were published, only two students in her class passed. I got 70% and John Burford got 57%. No one else got more than 34%. Mr Gooden made me stay in class for every break and lunch break until the end of term while I completed all the work that I had missed.

The last two years of Chis & Sid couldn’t pass fast enough.


I had nothing more to do with Mr Gooden but by then I had a deep seated contempt for all teachers, even the good ones like Mr Lewis. We had a Mr “Chemistry” Lewis and Mr ‘Biology” Lewis (AKA “Basher” Lewis). Chemistry Lewis was a genius. I’ll always remember the day that he sat in as a substitute for biology when Basher was out sick. He asked us “So what topic are you supposed to be learning today?” “Cell-division” we replied. Mr Chemistry Lewis proceeded to give the lesson on meiosis and mitosis far better than Mr Biology Lewis ever could. I really felt that I had let him down when he reviewed my chemistry exercise book and I had done only two pages of work in two years.

When ‘O’ levels came around I came equal first with three other students all of whom went to Oxford and Cambridge. But I was already out of there, headed for life in a different colour blue. In my 16 year old head, I thought that the Navy would be more of a challenge than two more years of school and ‘A’ levels.

How stupid I was.


I did four more years of schooling in the Navy and the exams were just appallingly, trivially easy. I even did ‘A’ level maths in my spare time just to make sure my brain had not completely rotted (it took me six weeks and I got an A). I often wonder what path my life might’ve taken if I’d gone to Cambridge instead.

Thanks Mr Gooden. You changed my life.

My life in 100 words or less

Footscray. Council estate. Fancy grammar school. Parents divorce. First in class. Run away to sea. Engineering apprenticeship. Girlfriend. Falklands patrol. Girlfriend. Sonar engineer. Polaris submarine in Scotland.  Patrol North Atlantic. Midshipman. BRNC Dartmouth. Quit. Backpack (California, Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine, Raitaia, hitchhike Sydney->Cairns->Darwin, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Komodo, Singapore, Malasia, Thailand). East End. Poor. Girlfriend. Read The C Programming Language. City of London. Girlfriend dies. Malta. Girlfriend. Marry in Jamaica. Malta (again). Plymouth Hoe. Manhattan. Child. Wall Street. Silicon Valley. Startup (failed). Child. Startup (failed). Startup (failed). Portland (and back). Startup. Dog. Now.

Future. Success. Riches. South of France. Happy ever after. The end.

Fire! Fire! Fire!

Hearing the reports and interviews about the San Francisco plane crash brought back a long lost memory.

I had just turned 21 when I joined the nuclear submarine HMS Revenge.

I was one of two petty officers responsible for all the sonar systems on board. The other dude, Mark, was a year or two older than me. As you can probably imagine, sonar systems are pretty important to a submarine so it was a big responsibility. But no one on a sub has just one job. I had four. My main watch-keeping position was OPSO.

If you have ever seen a movie of a submarine in action – wait!…. here’s one!… – you may have noticed that there are five key roles in the control room of a sub and one more further back in the engine room.

This is a recruitment film deviously crafted to tempt disaffected but smart young men to run away from home and become engineers in the Royal Navy [they got me! – ed]. Skip to 17:10 to see a submarine that may very well be HMS Revenge. Fun fact: The sub on the inside is different from the one on the outside!

The officer of the watch (OOW) is in charge of the whole boat, looks through the periscope and makes all the tactical decisions. The other four folks report to the OOW.

The after-planesman steers the boat — “Come right, steer one-seven-four, sir!” — and keeps depth, a responsibility he shares with The Panel  watch-keeper — “open main vents, sir!” — who continually monitors the submarine’s trim, opening and closing valves to keep the boat level. Back aft, the stokers take care of the main engines and generators and, of course, the nuclear reactor. Last, and very definitely not least, there is OPSO. Me.

When a sub is underwater — which is most of the time — it is almost completely blind. That thing you hear in movies with the Ping! Blip! of the sonar every 10 seconds does not actually happen. Soviet submarines used active sonar but NATO boats didn’t so if you hear a sonar ping in the middle of the North Atlantic, it’s probably from a Russian boat or a surface ship. The only way to know what was out there was to listen very carefully.

HMS Revenge at dawn
HMS Revenge at dawn

Most of the listening was done by 16 year old boys with headphones and they would report everything they heard: carpenter fish, snapping shrimp, and underwater pigs mostly. If there was another ship, they’d guess at their speed from the sound of its propellers “Large merch. Bearing zero-eight-five. Speed 4 knots.”. We had no range information at all. We could guess the distance of a ship based on how much its bearing changed but even that was of no use if the ship was coming straight at us. If a ship had cut its engines, we wouldn’t even know it was there.

OPSO’s job (my job) was to keep track of all the targets reported by the sonar department — including all the whales and dolphins and fishing boats that would start their engines, motor for ten minutes then cut their engines — and recommend a safe course to the OOW. Oh! And — this was at the height of the cold war remember – report possible enemy submarines. On a bad day, there might be dozens of fishing boats, several large merchant vessels and a Russian Spy Ship to keep track of.

While OPSO was my Job #2 and took up most of my working hours, Job #3 was the most glamorous.

Polaris Missile Launched from HMS Revenge
Polaris Missile Launched from HMS Revenge

When a ballistic missile submarine is called upon to fire its weapons of armageddon, the missile launch makes a lot of noise, instantly announcing the submarine’s presence to every enemy submarine for hundreds of miles. Its role changes instantly from dealer of destruction to recipient of it and the boat needs to defend itself to survive. My Job #3 was to kill those other submarines with torpedoes before they killed us. Lots of video game practice helped hone my torpedo-guiding skills.

If Job #3 was most glamorous, Job #4 was the most terrifying as I was in the attack squad of the firefighting team. Fires happen surprisingly often on ships and submarines and they are quite dangerous, what with all the hydraulics and the fuel and the explosives everywhere. We’d be called out to fight a fire at least once a week. Maybe once a month it’d be a proper, big, scary fire.

One big difference between a surface ship and a submarine is that, on a ship, when there is a fire, only the designated fire-fighting team reacts to it. Everyone else just carries on eating their dinner or cleaning the bathrooms or whatever. On a submarine, fires are a much bigger deal and the whole crew joins in the fun of fighting the fire.

There are two main teams in the larger fire-fighting team. One team dresses up in fearnought suits — big woolly suits that keep you toasty warm even when you are not walking into a fire — ready to do the main work of fighting the fire with the main hose and a waterwall. The attack team just grabs a flimsy little mask and a fire extinguisher and runs into the blaze while the main team is suiting up.

I remember my first big, super-scary fire in an auxiliary machinery room (AMR) filled with diesel generators. We had already had several smaller fires since I joined the boat, but they were little affairs and extinguished quickly. After the excitement of the  “Fire! Fire! Fire!” on the Tannoy and the scrambling to grab a mask and get to the fire first, there was always a kind of anti-climax when the first dude on the scene was able to put out the fire straight away. This one was different though and it was clearly going to be a big deal.

At the Fire! Fire! Fire! alarm, I ran as usual to grab my mask from the pile but, as I reached for the very last mask and steeled myself for the battle ahead, a burly stoker PO named Mitch, 15 years my senior, put his hand on the same mask. He looked me in the eye and said “I think you’d better let me have that, son”. I didn’t argue and he ran into the burning AMR leaving me mask-less and safely away from the flames.

No one died that day and the fire was extinguished without too much drama but, ever since then, I have had a healthy respect for people who run into burning buildings for a living. That memory came back to me this morning when I read the interviews of the first responders to the plane crash at San Francisco Airport over the weekend.

From KQED,

Firefighters said they encountered smoke, leaking jet fuel and passengers coming down on chutes when they arrived. Lt. Christine Emmons said Monday at the news conference that she and her partner ran up a chute into the plane and found four passengers trapped in the back. The conditions in the plane were changing rapidly, with the fire coming down on rescuers and the smoke thickening as the trapped passengers were pulled out to safety, she said.

Lt. Christine Emmons
Lt. Christine Emmons


Lt. Dave Monteverdi, who had also run up the chute, said someone had to be extricated after one of the bulkheads fell on top of him. When the firefighters entered the plane, they were surprised to find San Francisco police Officer Jim Cunningham already there, not wearing any protective equipment. Several of the public safety officers who spoke gave him a special shout-out for heroism. Police Lt. Gaetano Caltagirone also entered the plane, following Cunningham. “I couldn’t let him go inside the plane and just be there by himself,” he said.

People who fight fires for a living are amazing but I have a special regard for whose who, like flight attendants Lee Yoon-hye and Kim Ji-yeon have firefighting as job #4 – after handing out ginger ale, picking up your trash and getting unruly passengers to please turn off their electronic equipment now.

From Yahoo News

One flight attendant, Kim Ji-yeon, 30, put a scared and injured elementary schoolboy on her back and slid down a slide, said Lee, in the first comments by a crew member since the crash of the Boeing 777. A pilot helped another injured flight attendant off the plane after the passengers escaped.

Jiyeon Kim
Jiyeon Kim

Lee herself worked to put out fires and usher passengers to safety despite a broken tailbone that kept her standing throughout a news briefing with mostly South Korean reporters at a San Francisco hotel. She said she didn’t know how badly she was hurt until a doctor at a San Francisco hospital later treated her. When Lee saw that the plane was burning after the crash, she was calm. “I was only thinking that I should put it out quickly. I didn’t have time to feel that this fire was going to hurt me,” she said. Lee said she was the last person off the plane and that she tried to approach the back of the aircraft before she left to double-check that no one was left inside. But when she moved to the back of the plane, a cloud of black, toxic smoke made it impossible. “It looked like the ceiling had fallen down,” she said.

Brave people, firefighters. Especially when they are flight attendants too.

Burning Plane at SFO
Burning Plane at SFO

A Fresh Look

It’s hard to miss Terry Gross if you are a commuter in Silicon Valley. As much as I intend to leave the office in time to hear the endlessly entertaining Kai Ryssdal, by the time I have shut down the computer each evening and made it to the car, seven o’clock has crept up on me and it’s time for the far less entertaining Terry Gross with FRESH Air. Just the way she says it annoys me.

Songs for Young LoversRoger Ebert died this week and one of the best things about famous people dying is that Terry Gross always has an interview with them from 1987 when the famous person was at the pinnacle of their abilities and Terry Gross sucked a little bit less at interviewing. Of course, Terry had several interviews with Roger and even one with Siskel and Ebert together that was quite delightful.

I appreciate Terry Gross’s interview recycling because I’ve long had a theory that we have an obligation to remember great people before they got old even, or especially, when we only ever knew them as old or infirm. Inside every old person is a young person who doesn’t really understand that he’s old now. We should all make a better effort to get to know the young person.

My favourite example is Frank Sinatra. People of my generation think of Frank Sinatra as an old man who sang romantic songs in an old man’s voice. Close your eyes and conjure up Ol’ Blue Eyes singing My Funny Valentine. Did you picture someone like who looked like this?

Old Frank
Old Frank

Sorry, you got the wrong guy. Songs for Young Lovers was recorded in 1953 . When Frank was in the prime of his superstardom in the 40s, he looked like this.

Young Frank
Young Frank

And… he had the same voice as that old guy!

The next time you play some romantic Frankie tunes, don’t make the mistake of imagining that old dude whose voice your grandmother was partial to. That’ll snuff out your spark of romance in no time.

Imagine this guy instead.

Young Frank
Young Frank with Hot Young Grandmother

You can play this game with a whole geriatric ward of interesting old folks. That dude who sang Heartbreak Hotel? He wasn’t an overweight lounge lizard in a sequined white jumpsuit.

It was this guy.

Elvis, Heartbreaker.
Elvis, Heartbreaker.

The Man in Black – another guy who sounded ancient?

The Man in Black
Walking the Line in 1956

Who else sounds ancient? Oh yes, the inspiration for a thousand blog titles, Mr Bob Dylan. The guy who sang Blowing in the Wind looked like this.

Bob Dylan
How many roads, Bob?

Roger Ebert’s very best writing flowed when the tributaries of underground memories trickled into his stream of thought as in this meandering tale wandering through the London of his youth and his later battle with infirmity.

On my imaginary walk I could have turned right at the end of Jermyn and walked up St. James to Piccadilly, and down to Park Lane, and up toward Notting Hill, and I could have passed the Mason’s Arms on my way to Pembridge Square and nodded while passing the Hyde Park West Hotel, where I had a tiny room with a window that opened to allow me to stand on a wide roof overlooking London. I could have had lunch at Costa’s, behind the Gate at Notting Hill, the famous movie theater. Or headed on west to Lord Leighton’s House. Or I could have simply walked out the far end of Pembridge Square and stopped for lunch at the Sun in Splendor– the Evening Standard Pub of the Year in 1968. Why do I know that?

I realize this could get boring. It probably already has. I’ll try to get to my point. Sometimes when I write, you understand, it’s like when I walk around London. When I set out I have a general destination in mind, but as I poke around this way and that, I find places I didn’t know about and things that hadn’t occurred to me, maybe glimpse something intriguing at the end of a street, which is how I found Chiswick House, which I had no idea existed.

We should all do Roger a favour and banish the old chubby with the missing jaw from our imagination. Remember, instead, the young chubby who always wanted to be a great writer and be thankful that he achieved his dream.

A young, aspiring writer
A young, aspiring writer

During the Fresh Air interview mash-up, one interviewee said that the secret to Ebert’s movie reviewing was that he didn’t much care how good a movie was; he cared how much he enjoyed it. His writing was like that too. I’ve been following Ebert’s blog for several years and he always gives the impression that he is writing to delight himself and his delight is infectious. I adore the way he wanders off topic into his own memories and shares them with such simple clarity that they become mixed in with your own.

Reading an Ebert story inevitably makes me want to write one of my own but, as I have a rather busy weekend of me, I’ll have to settle, Terry Gross-style, for replaying a favourite story or two that I stumbled across this morning when I happened to click this link.

The first is about the damage that hidden shame can wreak. Ebert takes a passage from his review of The Reader and turns it into a recollection about a shameful passage in his own history.

Roger Ebert has written a powerful, meandering essay about shame. The essay takes many twists and turns and each one of them is fascinating journey in its own right.

It starts out as a review of the movie The Reader

I was watching Tony Scott on the Charlie Rose program, and he said, in connection with “The Reader,” that he was getting tired of so many movies about the Holocaust. I didn’t agree or disagree. What I thought was, “The Reader” isn’t about the Holocaust. It’s about not speaking when you know you should.

My Deepest Shame

The second is about the limits of empathy and the terrible thinks that happen when your empathy is too limited.

That brings me back around to the story of the school mural. I began up above by imagining I was a student in Prescott, Arizona, with my face being painted over. That was easy for me. What I cannot imagine is what it would be like to be one of those people driving past in their cars day after day and screaming hateful things out of the window. How do you get to that place in your life?

A Beautiful Mind

In every Ebert story, there is always a whispered shout-out to some character from the past who had an influence on his life. Roger, you are in my past now but, muse be willing, the influence of your stories will live on in mine.