Saturday, 28 December 2019

Going boldly - if not baulked by scrap metal

It's real. President Trump has signed into being the US Space Force. Previously it was part of the US Air Force, but now, from 20th December, it has its own separate identity. And to start with, as many as 16,000 persons transferred from the Air Force. In time, people in the Army and Navy will be able to join them.

Lots of detailed work has already started, to turn the Space Force into a fully-developed military asset. Inevitably it's going to resemble something out of Star Trek, or even Star Wars, if only because these are ready-made models that any American will already be familiar with. Expect a Space Academy, Star Trek uniforms, and ultimately a USS Enterprise with a mission to go boldly. And of course, young girls will be able to fall in love with a Starship Trooper, for real.

So much for the fanciful stuff. What's the down-to-earth plan? What can really be done with current technology? I imagine that a series of space stations geared to military use could be constructed, with intercept X-wings or even Milennium Falcons for constant space patrols. Equipped with lasers, naturally. Meanwhile, some other countries will be doing the same, so that the Earth will be orbited by a large number of Space Bases, all observing each other with beady eyes and ready, if necessary, to send forth spacecraft to engage each other in deadly combat. Real dog fights - all at warp speed.

Well, I'd rather they slug it out up there with lasers, than do it down here with nuclear missiles.

One thing that bothers me is the amount of 'space junk' that will be created. You know, burnt-out hulks, and all the other debris discarded by those space stations, such as coke cans. What happens to it all? Does it just spiral down towards Earth in a degrading orbit, and burn up in the upper atmosphere (with no great harm done) - or will large heavy bits (those burnt-out hulks) make it through the upper atmosphere, and crash-land on places like Mid Sussex (with lots of harm done)?

One snag for the military bods flying up there - or flying back - will be the thousands of little satellites now proposed, so that everybody on Earth, no matter where, can get High-Speed Broadband. Thousands of them will be needed. They'll be put into orbit, a dense grid in the sky, all at the same altitude. Getting through that lot without hitting one might be a nightmare. If I were good at maths, I'd love to calculate how close each satellite would be to its neighbours, and what would be the chances of bumping into one when rocketing up to a Space Base. It would surely be like flying through an asteroid belt, except that you couldn't put up your force shield and batter a way through, nor shoot them out of the way, because that would disrupt Global Broadband Coverage.

The one good thing I can see about all those orbiting Space Bases is that should a rogue meteorite head for Earth, the firepower to perturb its Earth-destroying trajectory would be ready to hand. And, surely, the various Space Nations would all cooperate and combine so that the meteorite is well and truly nudged off course? Or indeed any Death Star manned by beings from the planet Malevolor? At least one hopes.

Should Britain get into all this Space Force stuff? It'll cost. Perhaps they could scrap HS2 and establish a Starfleet Command instead with the same money? There must be a few mothballed RAF bases in Eastern England that would be perfect for this.                 

Love Actually

Believe it or not, I'd never seen this 2003 Christmas classic until last night, when ITV screened it.

I'd wanted to see Love Actually ever since September, when I heard The Glasgow Love Theme (a wistfully romantic piano and strings tune composed for the film by Craig Armstrong) on Classic fm. It had been requested by a woman who had seen the film, hadn't enjoyed it, but had nevertheless thought the music 'beautiful'.

It just so happened that this tune, which I now realised was The Glasgow Love Theme, had been tinkling away in my head for ages, but without my knowing where it came from and who had written it. Well, I now knew; and soon I had bought two mp3 versions for my phone - the original by Craig Armstrong, and another equally good by Jacques Legrand. (I marginally prefer the Legrand version, but only just)

As for watching the film, I decided that the effort must now be made, if it came up in the Christmas schedules. With music like this, surely I couldn't be disappointed? And yet the Wikipedia article on Love Actually (see wasn't over-brimming with praise. The film had some flaws. But when it came to it, I set aside all reasons not to bother, and gave it a viewing.

Why would I hesitate to watch it? Well, it was clearly about love, and what love does to people. The the results of all that pair-bonding were going to be (for the most part) uplifting - it was, after all, a Christmas film - but my own experience of love had not been so positive. I had found that love faded, love became ordinary, love took its toll and was ultimately damaging. Whatever the happiness along the way, temporary or sustained, it had all, in the end, dissolved into pain and emptiness, with everything diminished. Every relationship had gone this way, no matter how long-lasting.

Of course, love had created some wonderful memories, and the best of these endured. And love had put some treasures my way, gifts still cherished. Love had whisked me up sunny pathways, although to the exclusion of other routes. It was sometimes lively along the way: I would never have lived any kind of vivid life were it not for love.

But now, in later life, I had entirely given up on it, not wanting to invite further discord and disappointment, which seemed inevitable.

It was actually quite easy to opt out. I no longer felt desire, nor did I ever feel lonely. I did not need to share my life with anybody, nor did I want to. The ideal seemed to be a fluid life, free of entanglements and distractions, free of anything that might tie me down or imprison me. Love is incompatible with such singularity.

So why did I watch it? Well, I might not want love for myself, but I would never deny it for others. I was hoping to see the right couples find each other, and enjoy their beautiful discovery. I wobbled when I saw one of the male characters (played by Alan Rickman) sliding into adultery, and deceiving his wife - that awoke bad betrayal memories for me, when I had been let down in that way. It was too painful to watch. I had to turn the TV off for a while. But I switched it on again in time to see Hugh Grant and Colin Firth win their girls through honest and rather heroic effort. I felt very cheered by that, and clapped with delight. Christmas had delivered!

As you might guess, this was the couple whose story chimed most with me. I wonder whether Colin Firth's long-distance journey to get to the woman he loved is ever attempted in real life? I bet it is. Indeed, I always used to hold myself in readiness for an epic dash in the name of love, and that was one very good reason for keeping my cars dashworthy, regardless of expense. I'd drop everything and just go. Love (and hope) trumped all else. Unfortunately, I've never yet had to drive off on such an adventure.

It was still good, next morning - this morning - to ponder on how love in its various forms had served the characters in the film. Where would their new relationships take them, and how long would it all last before turning dull or sour? Would the damage done by love, in that one deceitful instance that I couldn't bear to watch, break the marriage?

As in real life, people must take their chance, for better or worse. Is it always the best policy to team up with somebody? I don't know, I can't tell. I know plenty of people who will swear that a couple sharing one life together is a far more meaningful thing than two individuals going their own ways. I can only say that in my own experience, in my own history, that has not proved to be true.

Am I sad about that? No, I'm not. For a long time I have seen myself as a naturally solitary person, who does best on her own, and can thrive only when not bound to someone else. It follows that I have a clear duty not to ignite and feed anyone's emotional hopes and expectations. The pity is that I didn't recognise that requirement forty-five years ago, when in my early twenties. It would have saved several people, as well as myself, stress and pain. But at least I can do what's necessary now.

What about calling my next car Aurelia? Beautiful Aurelia? Hmm...

Friday, 27 December 2019

Gavin and Stacey's Barry

I watched the Gavin and Stacey Christmas Special on BBC1 on Christmas Day night while at my friend Alice's house. I didn't really want to; I'd never sat through any of the episodes that made this South Wales/Essex sitcom a national classic. I had caught snatches of it, and had not been impressed.

There were two reasons for my disdain.

Reason One: I was actually brought up in Barry, where the South Wales part of the show is located. It seemed to me that G&S had given the town a cult status it didn't deserve. Welcome of course, if it brought tourists flocking to the town. But a false image. People had heard of Barry because of G&S, and thought it looked like that. And full of Staceys and Nessas and Uncle Bryns. That's what 'Barry' and 'Barry Island' meant to them. But although the show used genuine locations, the producers had made it seem more glamorous than it really was. The gritty, dirty Barry with coal staithes and banana boats and shunting trains in dingy goods yards has vanished, but the ghosts remain. There used to be kids with dirty knees and sticky hands. Lorries delivering coal. Rag and bone men with their carts. Gypsies with posies for sale, wrapped in silver paper, who knocked on your front door. Or drunks on crutches. Stern policemen with huge authority, who would frighten you. None of this on G&S, which shows only a modern, cheerful, cleaned-up Barry, sanitised for a snowflake generation.

No, 'my' Barry has always been a much scruffier place, and I wasn't simply relying on childhood memories up to age eleven (in 1963) when we moved to Southampton in Hampshire. I've made repeated return visits to Barry ever since 1966, and in fact I was walking around the Barry Docks part of the town only last September. I know some bits of Barry very intimately. I've seen the place evolve (or stand still) over every decade since the 1950s. I have lots of photographs.

My point is: it's not really like it seems on TV. It's poorer and tattier.

Does it nevertheless have warmth, personality and a heart of gold? Just as you see on the screen? Well, as much as any bog-standard B-list coastal place does. In Sussex there are ordinary and not-very-inspiring coastal equivalents to Barry - places like Littlehampton, Lancing, Newhaven and Seaford. I dare say that they too have warmth, personality, and a heart of gold. Once you really get to know them. It's the saving grace of any downmarket town.

Tatty or not, Barry lures me back every couple of years, and I wallow in nostalgia and many memories, good and not so good. There's an unknown and unrecorded part of my childhood hidden there - something lost, or something I never had - a precious thing that I want to find and understand. So I keep going back. I wouldn't want to live in Barry in preference to my Sussex village, but if I had to move home for any reason, and if it had to be South Wales, then I'd certainly see what Barry could offer in its nicer parts. It is, after all, a sunny place, and it's on the coast. And I do know it well. It's 'home' in a deep sense that no place I've lived in for the last sixty-odd years has ever been.

Reason Two: G&S is all about relationships, and the situations you get with family life, when there are parents and children around. Aunts and uncles too. But I don't have parents, aunts and uncles any more, nor any children. So the show can't really speak to me. It depicts the kind of people I never knew well enough to matter, in situations that I can barely relate to now.

Nevertheless, there I was, captive at Alice's for the duration of the hour-long Christmas Special, and I had to watch. And I did gradually get interested in the storyline. I thought the script and the acting were very good. I was also, obviously, keen to see which locations they used.

My verdict? Well, if there is a new series, I'll give it a go. And if any repeats are available, I might have a look. It wouldn't be a priority, but I wouldn't dismiss it out of prejudice.

I've just looked at my collection of Barry and Barry Island photos. I've actually got a photo of the hill - Trinity Street - that Stacey lives on. Here it is, in a shot I took in October 2015:

Stacey would be living on that top section in the distance, in a red-brick, slate-roofed terraced house with white detailing, as in this picture of Hilda Street nearby, which I also took in 2015:

Or indeed in a street like Miskin Street, where we lived at number 4. Here it is in 1973, 2014 and 2018 - no real changes, except for the cars parked. Fiona is in the 2014 and 2018 shots.

Red-brick houses with slate roofs are standard for a lot of older Barry. In 2005 a local historian was able to take a series of photos from a church tower, which he published on the Internet. Here are a few, and you can see (a) what a hilly place it is; (b) how the long rows of terraced houses make patterns; and appreciate that (c) many streets in Barry have a sea view, or a docks view, or (as we did) a view of Barry Island.

That's Romilly Junior School (as I knew it from 1957 to 1959) in the centre of that photo - red-brick like the other buildings.

That's the Baptist Church opposite the Anglican church tower that the historian was on. My younger brother Wayne and I had to attend that Baptist Church for two or three years - rather unwillingly in my case - after a neighbour suggested to Mum and Dad that it would be a good way to get us both out of the house for a morning. Neither was religious, so I suspect an Ulterior Motive not explained to us children.

That road led to Miskin Street. The sandy bay at the top of the shot is the Old Harbour. Off to the left, and out of shot, is Barry Island.   

And in this westward direction (just above) is a row of large houses, once the homes of the best-off in Barry, and now mostly apartments. The road leads to newer developments on Westward Rise and the lovely Porthkerry Country Park. Western Barry, overlooking The Knap (below, in 2018 - back now to my own photos) was and remains the nicest part of the town. I don't think it figures much in G&S, though.

Still largely unaltered from the early 1950s, when Mum and Dad would push me along the promenade here in my pram. 

Where would Stacey nip out to, if wanting a local shop just around the corner? Barry High Street. Here it is in reality - more 2015 shots.

I'd been here, on this High Street, in August 1986, twenty-nine years before: 

Amazing. The general appearance of the street, and its atmosphere, had not changed between 1986 and 2015. Mind you, not much ever does change in Barry. I doubt if the High Street is any different now, in 2019. And I could swear that it looked much the same in 1960, when I'd come here with Mum. Gosh, look at that yellow sign for Double Diamond beer - it Works Wonders, you know!

For the 'big shops' like the Dan Evans department store there was Holton Road, further east, in the area around the Town Hall. That's where you would go for fancier stuff than the High Street could provide. In its heyday around 1900 it looked like this (the next two shots aren't my own).

In 1955 it still looked very traditional. A red Western Welsh bus, methinks.

By 1986, there was some modernisation, as seen in this shot of mine just below. Dan Evans was still thriving, though.

But in 2019 - last September - I saw that despite more new building and tarted-up street furniture, things had gone downhill a bit. Cheap shops for vaping and suchlike abounded. Holton Road was still busyish, but a shadow of its former self. Another dying town-centre shopping street.

No Dan Evans now, nor anything to compare with it. Sad.

The Town Hall was still imposing, and had been extensively modernised within, but the piazza outside was dull. I couldn't tell whether this mattered to any of the local people. 

Finally, Barry Island. All rather nicely lit up at night on G&S. The daytime reality is scruffier. I took a lot of shots in 2014, only five years ago - long after the three main G&S series had been produced and aired. The sands at Whitmore Bay are really good, and remain so; the promenade has some new constructions; but the once-flowery gardens are much plainer now; and the buildings and amusement arcades are tackier than ever. 

It was 18th June 2014 - a Wednesday in early summer - the fairground was shut, and not much was open. No crowds, no noise, no atmosphere. To be really fair to the Island, I need to return on a busy Bank Holiday and get some pictures then. Maybe they have improved Barry Island in recent years. made it smarter, the weedy remains of Butlins finally redeveloped, the now-humdrum funfair restored to its former frenetic glory. You can revive a once-iconic seaside spot - at Whitley Bay, for instance. Barry Island (as I found it in 2014) looked tired and needed a revamp. I hope it has now become cool and attractive, fit for the new decade. But it won't have become tasteful and genteel. 

Finally, that word 'lush' - extensively used in G&S as part of the local Barry vernacular. Well, I can confirm that back in the 1950s it was a word used in both the Barry schools I went to. It meant 'gorgeous' or 'incredibly good'. But it was strictly a kid's word then. No adult would have said 'lush'. So this is one thing that has changed - if the G&S scripts are to be believed. I have never heard 'lush' said by anybody within my earshot on my various visits over the years. 

For reference, here's a map of Barry. The red flag marks Trinity Street, where Stacey lives. The green flag marks where we lived, in Miskin Street. The blue flags mark where I went to school. The yellow flags mark the shopping streets. The purple flag marks the church tower from which that local historian took his photographs.