All posts by angiesallsorts

Volunteer hospital radio presenter and football commentator. I enjoy the theatre, films, photography, good books and I am a general sports pundit.

Election Hustings 2019 At Keele University

On Tuesday 3rd December 2019 in the Keele University Ballroom, all five candidates for the Newcastle-Under-Lyme constituency in the General Election said their piece. Having never attended such an event, I was a little hesitant and rather out of my comfort zone. However, the potential slanging match did not materialise, and the audience were responsive and well behaved.

Each candidate had five minutes to present their mandate and say a little about themselves. Then there were five topical questions put forward by the chair, with a minute given to each party for reply. What struck me the most at the end was that if you took a little from each candidate to create a whole, you could possibly have quite a viable workable manifesto? At times the multi parties seemed on the same wavelength, but their approach to an issue was vastly different.

The candidates spoke in this order Aaron Bell (Conservative); Carl Johnson (Green); Dr Jason Cooper (Brexit); Carl Greatbatch (Labour); Nigel Jones (Liberal Democrats). Amy Holden as chair introduced them and kept strict time!

Aaron Bell emphasised his science/technology credentials in his introduction, which he indicated later was a major reason for his standing as candidate in the first place. He felt (quite rightly) that there are few in Parliament with this kind of background. Of course Brexit must happen as the people voted for it was hammered home too. Interestingly (to me) Carl Johnson implied we must stay in the EU, and really brought home how China’s expansion of influence outside its borders into Africa and South America must be done ethically and morally. Quite what we can do as a country, to control in any way, this international political giant I don’t know. But the Green ideals of global responsibility and accountability were there for all to see. Dr Jason Cooper pointed out as a democracy we voted to leave Europe and must do so. We have a great economy and wonderful employment, and don’t need EU interference with our laws. He mentioned North Korea at some point but in what context I have no idea, as I was taking notes, but it incurred an audible gasp of incredulity from my neighbour. Carl Greatbatch emphasised his core Labour background-council house, free education, NHS saved his life (all applicable to me and many others). The party mandate is to give the country what it needs, reverse Tory reduction in services and re-negotiate with the EU, with a vote to the people after. Nigel Jones talked of a credible plan with regard to environmental issues. The Lib Dem education policy was similar to Labour’s with the underpinning being overcoming inequality. Unlike many parties the Liberal Democrats say they know where the money for improving public services would come from. And of course the big difference overall is that they want to remain in the EU. Nigel pointed out with great clarity that only 0.7% of taxes raised here go toward the EU, the other 99.3% of taxes are spent through decisions made by the UK government ALONE.

The five subject areas put to the candidates for a quick reply were Brexit; Green Credentials; Transport; Homelessness & Why Are You Standing. Here is a brief summary of the responses:

Aaron Bell (Conservative): Brexit-We must leave EU people voted for it. Australian points system to attract the right people needed. Regain sovereignty. We have done so much already on Green issues! Transport needs to be integrated more, with potential to overturn Beeching rulings in places. Not a manifesto issue more long term. More affordable homes built under this Tory era than the last Labour one. He mentioned a paltry single figure number of official homeless people in the major towns (I’ve counted more sleeping bags in doorways than that), and seemed to hint that drugs a main issue for the homeless crisis.

Carl Johnson (Green): Brexit is a Tory con; we will be out of Europe yet negotiating the terms and conditions for years to come. Can’t allow return to 19th century fuel reliance, must go renewable in 21st century, China expansion must be checked in some way. Electric regeneration examples like Manchester & Leeds used for transport way forward. Homeless crisis use empty buildings, renovate them and provide own homes, with possible apprenticeships created in process. Must get activists to move the world into 21st century away from old structures & systems, that’s why he’s standing.

Dr Jason Cooper (Brexit): MPs do our will and majority voted to leave the EU. He managed to contradict himself by saying that the UK was the only country in the EU to promise zero carbon emission by 2050. By upholding the UKs green credentials he showed the UK make their own decisions (not the EU). Dr Cooper showed a far better awareness of the real causes of homelessness including broken relationships, mental health issues, and unemployment (not just drugs). Social work/police must work together. Transport must have more money put into infrastructure, gained by cancelling HS2, stop undirected foreign aid and money saved on EU. He was standing because of the catastrophic collapse of democracy.

Carl Greatbatch (Labour): People get to choose again after Labour re-negotiate with EU on jobs, environment and rights. Decarbonising our economy is essential. Renationalise railways, regulate buses. Homelessness the extreme end of crisis/poverty, Labour policy aims to lift people out of that scenario. Standing because Labour party wants to create a revolution in area, and was bold/honest enough to say it’s probably a two way race between him and Aaron.

Nigel Jones (Liberal Democrats): We already have economy benefits by being in the EU and are stronger within it, especially in the face of other giant political powers. If business is made to operate more greenly they become more efficient and this inevitably cuts down on pollution. Transport subsidized, fares freeze, planning rules for better infrastructure improvement. Homeless crisis help provide better emergency accommodation and repeal the vagrancy act (which I’d never heard of). His reason for standing as candidate was the most civic answer I heard, to help create a strong local government that led people with a long term view not just making short term decisions.

All the candidates were sincere in their convictions, and it was an illuminating experience. Sadly due to our first past the post voting system, there can only be one victor on polling day for each constituency. If every vote did count I’m sure there could be a vastly different outcome to the one we get. That’s some food for thought.

      Chair Amy & N-U-L Five Candidates. Image credit abmj

Baby Loss Awareness Week

Baby Loss Awareness Week (9th-15th October 2019) is an annual event to raise awareness, and commemorate the memory of babies lost during pregnancy, giving birth or soon after. It is not an issue I’ve ever had to deal with personally, but I’m acutely aware of the heartbreak and emptiness it causes through my Mammy. And in a way, that loss, I realise has indirectly affected me too.

My parents married in the late summer of 1961 and I was born in early 1970. Before my first born status arrival, there were three confirmed and a suspected fourth miscarriage. As I grew up, my Mammy would mention the other siblings I could have had in a sad quiet way. To my knowledge she NEVER spoke about the loss to anyone else. I distinctly remember her reaction when someone enquired “you’ve JUST got the ONE then”, a sharp intake of breath, pursed lips and a nod of the head. I’d wait for the tirade of swear words but they never came, just a reassuring squeeze of my hand and we would depart. My young mind would be upset that my Mammy seemed to be blamed for something, and I was angry because I was the accusation. That’s how it felt to me anyway.

Growing up I was drilled in my maternal family tree as much as possible, my paternal side being somewhat scant on information. Mammy would take me every Saturday until I was about 11.5 years old, to visit her two sisters, and my Dad’s two brothers (on a strict rota basis) who all lived locally, so I would know about my cousins. Both my parents were the youngest in large families; so many cousins were already making their way in the world themselves. But she tried hard to ensure I was aware of them all. Whilst being drilled on my Mammy’s family, I was ALWAYS corrected if I forgot I would have had an Aunty Annie (elder sister of Mum) and a cousin James from Uncle Johnston & Aunty Rosie’s family, had they not died as babies. I was a Seventies kid, Annie didn’t survive her first year in the 1920s, James his first year in the 1940s. BUT THEY WERE NOT FORGOTTEN. That’s what impacted me the most; they were still remembered and considered part of the family.

My Mammy always wanted more children and kept my pram in hope it would be used again. She sold it with reluctance when I was 11.5 and about to embark on going to high school. Four years later she had to get another pram, with the welcome arrival of my brother Paul. Her pregnancy was a late discovery, the doctor declaring the change of life, my Mammy replying “the change is going to take feet!” She was literally “blooming” with health and eating well, in total contrast to her pregnancy with me. She was convinced a little boy was on the way and was delighted. It was at this time I became acutely aware of how people who should bloody well know better, can be the most inconsiderate buggers alive. The doctor had tended my Granny and my Mammy from her younger days, including those miscarriages. Her medical records were a reminder of those losses, my Mammy testament to a healthy birth for my Granny who was 43 when her final child arrived, the same age Mammy was now. History was repeating itself, although in the mid 80s abortion was available unlike in the forties. The doctor gave my Mammy no more than 72 hours to decide if she wanted a termination, as she was nearing a final cut off point, being I think about 5-5.5 months pregnant by then. To say she was apoplectic with rage is an understatement, her face masked with fury as she left the surgery. All the way home she raged at the unbelievable attitude, the insensitivity, how hell would freeze over before she would agree to such a monstrous act. Two of her three sisters were less than supportive on hearing the news as well. Regardless of the deafening howls “to get rid of it”, with all her being she wanted this baby, and thankfully safely delivered a wee boy in the summer.

My maternal Granda was adopted and as a result, there was a hyper-sensitivity surrounding the subject in my Mum’s family. I suspect a combination of circumstances surrounding his birth ensured his adoption, the lack of a stable home, finances, supportive family, and the authorities knowing better. Not a lot has changed in that regard, although my grandfather was born over a century ago “out of wedlock”, which condemned his mother and tarnished her child instantly in those days. It can’t be easy, feeling there is no choice, but to hand over your baby for someone else to bring up. In today’s society, it can’t be easy to decide on abortion either, making a choice which benefits the whole family (parents & other children) too. Of course many people and organisations condemn this act, and it has become a highly politicised issue as well. But those who wield the power don’t always know better, or come up with the right conclusions.

I recall a neighbour suffering a cot-death and never being quite the same person again. Another baby followed and I did hear “that will make up for the one she lost”, and I thought nothing will ever do that, and take away the memory of finding her weeks old son unresponsive in his cot.

People maybe childless or have a small family for numerous reasons, be it a conscious decision or something beyond their control. But you can never really tell what story lies behind a family picture. I have one sibling, but I definitely could have had four maybe five.

I visited Burlington House courtyard last week, where there is an Antony Gormley piece “Iron Baby 1999”, depicting a tiny sculpture of a newborn baby (based on his six-day old daughter). A descriptive plague quoted Gormley commenting “Iron (concentrated earth) the same as exists at the core of our planet. This tiny bit of matter in human form attempts to make us aware of our precarious position in relation to our planetary future”. It certainly made me think of “Mother Earth”, my far off ancestors’ tenuous hold on life, my unborn siblings never to be known, and holding my newborn baby brother watching him grow into a fine man. So tonight (15th October) at 7pm I will remember, and light candles held in angel wing vases as part of   the Global “Wave of Light”.

Iron Baby 1999 by Antony Gormley. Image credit abmj

Hear Here 2: Celebrating National Album Day

I thought for National Album Day (October 12th 2019) I’d celebrate my “first albums” on various formats, and acknowledge some special ones I personally sought out.

My own audio collection began with “Rupert Bear and the Firebird” a story on vinyl, a Christmas gift aged 3. The first contemporary music I ever owned was inherited from a work colleague of my Dad’s, the ABBA cassette “Arrival” which was released in 1976, so I must have been an old 6 year old or a young 7. Very late to the party I got my first CD aged 24 “Let’s Face the Music” a compilation of music celebrating the ice-dance routines of Torvill & Dean.

             My First Albums in 3 Formats. Image credit abmj

As I grew up, cassette or vinyl albums would appear wrapped in Christmas paper, and looking at them now (yes I still have them) there are some ABBA ones (my Mammy liked them too), Aled Jones (I like church/choir music/treble singing), several Sixties sets and stand alone albums from Dollar and The Kids from Fame. Recently I got our record player going again, and heard Dollar for the first time in decades, and STILL knew the words. The same with The Kids from Fame, though I’ve got a CD version of that now, which is more user friendly for my hospital radio show.

The special theme for this year’s event is “Don’t Skip”, an initiative to encourage people to listen to a music album all the way through. This made me think of my two “specials” which I distinctly remember seeking out, “Sandy” by John Travolta and Jean Michel Jarre in Concert “Houston/Lyon”.

                Specially Sought Albums. Image credit abmj

Since my John Travolta tape is dated 1978, it is little surprise that the film “Grease” had some influence on this choice. It features two songs from the film “Sandy” and “Greased Lightning” but has many other beauties as well, which I’m still word perfect on. I discovered Jean Michel Jarre as a teenager, when his Rendezvous Concert from Houston was broadcast on the BBC. I’d never heard of him, but was captivated by both the sound and spectacle of the occasion. Jarre used the Houston skyline as a canvas for a wondrous laser show which accompanied his music, a soundscape that was hauntingly beautiful, electrifying and soul inspiring all at once. I will never forget catching my breath and the shiver down my spine, as I watched Jarre playing his laser harp.  A little while later I found the “Houston/Lyon” tape and listening to side 2, took me right back to that TV experience. Many of Jarre’s albums are conceptual ideas, and each tune seamlessly blends into the next. Although you can listen to the pieces individually, to get the full experience, the style almost demands a full listen.

So many memories wrapped up in these childhood music gifts. I will make an effort over the weekend to indulge myself in some audio nostalgia.

Music in an Instant

Music from the Sixties has a particular resonance with me, probably because of having access to my Mammy’s 45rpm record collection. There is innocence at times in the lyrics (particularly the early part of the decade), an evocative feel to the era and a quality of sound that is very distinctive. Back then it seems that the music industry took the time to let projects develop, whereas these days it looks like a song appears in an instant, only to be gone just as quickly.

Think about it, the Beatles Sgt Pepper album and the Beach Boys Pet Sounds album both took months, if not years to craft.  The many hours in the studio taken to express this creativity, meant music fans had to wait for the next big release. Today, with streaming heavily influencing the music industry, artists seem to bring their work out more frequently. Apparently it’s because “you can’t slow down creativity”. Perhaps, but will the majority of any of this be remembered with any fondness in ten years time, let alone over 50 years? Somehow I doubt it.

The BeatlesAbbey Road Anniversary Edition” album became a record breaker last week, when it returned to the number one spot in the UK album chart, after a period of 49 years and 252 days. The group previously held the record with a re-release of “Sgt Pepper” in 2017 which had a mere gap of 49 years 125 days between number one spots. I guess these re-releases have given the original fans the opportunity to re-live their music memories all over again (with added bonus material), whilst younger fans have had the chance to feel the emotion of a “classic album” big release event. But I wonder if many of today’s big recording artists will have the same allure on future generations as John, Paul, George and Ringo?

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2019

I attended this exhibition through a Radio Times private viewing event, and enjoyed a glass of wine and an informative talk, before taking in the artwork. It was through the Radio Times I experienced my first foray into this historic event, my other two attendances being facilitated by the Royal Society of Chemistry Summer Party. Having indulged in “private viewing only” nights, I can’t face the idea of mixing with the general public now.

On entering the Wohl Central Hall it was clear the displays were hung a little differently, and during the talk we were told this year’s pieces were hung in a more traditional way, reflecting the early days of the Summer Exhibition so “skying” was very evident, with many smaller pictures being placed high up in clusters. Quite a bit of standing back and craning the neck was required as a result, but I still managed to locate some beauties I’d noted. My overall favourite was displayed in this way, 103 Feline Focus a stunning acrylic painting of a lynx (I think), by Susan McWhinnie.

103 Feline Focus-   Screenshot

Two years ago I discovered (after the event) that the exhibition pieces could be viewed online. So for 2018 & 2019 I did my homework and reviewed the artwork beforehand, and this helped enormously in enjoying the experience. I had an idea what to expect, knew where to find some favourites, and generally felt a lot less overwhelmed by the whole thing. But the highlight of the evening had little to do with the art on display; it was meeting and having a chat with Alison Graham the Radio Times TV editor.

I had read a couple of critic reviews online that were polar opposites in opinion, one loved it, and one loathed it. But both agreed there was a general theme going on, one that reflected today’s society with its environmental concerns and political issues. Frankly, as I said to Alison Graham, we are beaten over the head enough about this when you read the paper, switch on the TV or radio, I don’t need it hammered home in art installations as well! I admit though, that if the Summer Exhibition is ever meant to reflect the era it was created in, several pieces certainly lived up to that expectation. Many obviously said something about the state of British policy today, some examples being:

39 KEEP OU with a rat hammering a padlocked shutter with the T by Banksy created from a customs arch salvaged from Heathrow Airport

522 We Are All Immigrant Scum by Jeremy Deller a textile banner that says so much

36 Blinkered a white horse with a union flag face, walking alone through a seemingly darkened forest, I guessed had a Brexit affiliation.

979 Rule Britannia Etc… a pencil drawing by Liam Walker was haunting as it depicted a destitute woman on her knees, above her a distinct woman’s leg with stiletto heel about to stamp down hard. It wasn’t hard to fathom whose leg it might be, though the heel was too long!

But the most disturbing piece of all was a crow installation 938 Parliament (The Voices In your Head) by Tim Shaw, which was accompanied by the Donald Rumsfeld known/unknown dialogue. The combination was quite terrifying; I dodged past the artwork as quickly as I could and refused to listen to the sound bite. Environmental issues were themed, in my opinion, through animals pictured in their death throes, several skeletons (extinction) and emaciated looking polar bears (endangered species), which I found upsetting.

A few pieces reminded me of the styles of Edward Hopper and Roy Lichtenstein and I really enjoyed seeing them. Hopper has an evocative feel to his work and frequently shows people  clearly in a world of their own, lonely gas stations and buildings-733 Overly Excited About Oil by Tim Goffe. Lichtenstein with his pop art displays clean lines and great colour giving a poster type quality just like an advert-448 Graffiti Standard With Socket by Jason Barron.

Give me some whimsy, beauty or nostalgia any day, something that makes you appreciate living in this multi-faceted world and brings you joy. So I clung to wonderful depictions of animals, fantastic scenic views, art with great pops of colour, tactile looking sculpture, and pieces that either made me think of something in particular, or garnered a sigh of utter contentment. For fun, I like to pick out pieces I’m particularly attracted to, and create a hypothetical arty shopping list. Having viewed around half the exhibition over the couple of hours I was there, and despite the “agenda” pieces I ruefully passed by, I managed to find 46 pieces that would cost around a minimum of £297, 013. Two items were not for sale and two piece were “poa-price on application” so far too expensive anyway. But compared to my 2017 blog tally, I had 11 more items and saved almost half a million pounds.  I’ve noted some of my hit list here:

18 Freddie (bullfinch) & 19 Bob (robin) were small but intricately beautiful needlepoint and stumpwork pieces by Stella Knight. (£795 each)

124 The Owl Is Wisest… Because The More It Sees The Less It Talks oil on linen painting by Jane Eva Cooper. The best owl spotted (I adore these birds); the others seen were hideous/disconcerting. (£700)

132 Easy Tiger-Mach Brothers a resin and foil sculpture of a very lifelike looking tiger, although his stripes were created using red & silver Tea Cake wrappers (non Tunnocks ones but M&S!). Pure nostalgia and the sculpture was brilliantly done too. (£57,600)

213 Young Hokusai Meets Old Hokusai In Middle Age a fun beautiful watercolour by Chris Orr. I have a real soft spot for Hokusai, so this was special to see. (£8,500)

227 Glasgow Subway by Paul Crook acrylic painting that made me think of Lichtenstein and my home city. (£3,800)

270 My Birthday Flowers by David Tindle a simple understated yet lovely acrylic painting of flowers on a window ledge that made me smile and sigh contentedly. (£10,000)

753 That Severe Frontier, Meta Incognita Peninsula, Baffin Landscape by Nicholas Jones a simple, beautiful landscape acrylic painting. Sigh. (£11,000)

856 Eye Test by Sir Michael Craig-Martin a great fun pictorial test that is more one of memory to name the items. Pure whimsy that really got me thinking “what’s that again” (£10,300)

868 Mallaig stunning piece showing a huge moon hanging above the tiny dimly lit town by Jock McFadyen. I’m instantly attracted to moon pictures and find them incredibly evocative (£1,275). Digital pint was  much cheaper than its big brother (350) at a whopping £55,000.

1213 Early Light a linoleum relief print by Joseph Winkelman, gorgeous moonlit trees. Sigh (£350)

1257 Cameras (linocut) by Hannah Forward as I love photography this couldn’t fail to please me, pure nostalgia. (£750)

1353 PC From Venice San Trovaso (acrylic on canvas on wood relief) by Joe Tilson shows a postcard poking out of an airmail envelope. This made me fondly remember writing abroad to relatives and pen pals in my younger years. And I recalled a piece of art work I did in first year English for something related to the book we were studying, and the teacher thought it was good enough for the headmaster to see it. I never got it back, it was a once only hand drawn effort, but I remember EXACTLY what I did, and in some ways my idea wasn’t too dissimilar to this piece. As I chortled, I wondered if my effort made on a larger scale could earn me £45,000 today!

For posterity I’m going to list all my 46 hit list pieces by number, for although the exhibition has finished now, you can still see them online using the Royal Academy Explorer.

18; 19; 30; 31; 43; 54; 103; 124; 132; 136; 213; 215; 227; 241; 244; 270; 274; 277; 281; 337; 362; 448; 458; 733; 736; 753; 797; 821; 856; 868; 873; 890; 911; 1037; 1091; 1133; 1153; 1182; 1209; 1213; 1222; 1257; 1353; 1377; 1445; 1573

When Rob and I left the venue we were both given a rather nice goodie bag which contained a Radio Times magazine, tea-towel, postcard and marker pens, a small high-brand bar of chocolate & discount voucher, flower seeds and a Sherlock Holmes book. It put the finishing touch on a very pleasant evening.

32 Easy Tiger-Mach Brothers- Image credit abmj


The Moon Landing-Fact or Fiction!

Neil Armstrong made “one small step for man” fifty years ago, and during the anniversary celebrations for the Apollo 11 mission, I couldn’t help but notice on social media the large number of people who believe this achievement never happened, and that the story was fabricated. This hit home even more whilst viewing the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in early August, where I spotted a beautiful moon picture 729 (acrylic on paper map) by Ray Verrall called COVER UP. Although the title may have simply been an indication of how the artist created his piece, I interpreted the meaning as being similar to Fake News, and this deeply angered me. I have always believed the moon landing did happen, and here are my reasons why.

When the space race began in the late 50s there were much fewer areas of opportunity where an individual, company or government could invest time, energy and money. The Apollo era of the 60s and early 70s seemed a time of optimism and idealism, where the US government willingly supported investment into technology and science companies to MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN. The investment was in a common cause to beat the Russians at their own game, and win the ultimate prize in the space race.  Cynicism followed, engulfing the mid 70s and much of the 80s where hardnosed business and mass commercialisation began to rule the world. The late 90s crash brought us all back down to earth! An introspective time began, which also coincided with an era where the options for investment were far greater, and so resulted in a more diluted effect encompassing projects. It’s for this reason I believe man hasn’t returned to the moon again. The appetite isn’t there, governments are too busy fighting within themselves, rather than pursuing a common goal to beat the opposition.

Commercial big money and the accumulation of it, such as property, banking, stocks and shares drive the economy today. Not so much the investment in speculative projects, which requires the spending of massive amounts of cash. The global financial crash sent shock waves around the world. In the Noughties a tendency for introspection and wariness began, but the damage was already done. It still seems that speculation to accumulate wealth gets approval, but speculation to invest is looked upon with suspicion.

These days we see a far greater number of individual multi-millionaires than in the 50s/60s. It is those people who are more likely to be entrepreneurial enough to be inclined, or enticed, to invest in “high risk” projects like the space program. The US government of the 60s in particular, seized the opportunity to invest in an ideal. Today, governments are not likely to be so heavily involved or motivated in this type of endeavour, being fuelled more by big egos verging at times in despotism.

In closing, I can understand why some people believe in conspiracy theories, especially when they involve events from an era less digitised (no social media, 24/7 news or internet). With today’s modern technology you can access, analyse and dissect information, in a way that wasn’t conceivable a few decades ago. However, I fully believe that the Apollo missions did take man successfully to the moon and back. Astronaut Michael Collins who remained in the command module said “we are like the periscope on a submarine; you see us but underneath are thousands who keep us in position”. The Apollo project was geographically diverse, enjoyed astronomical expenditure, and involved thousands of personnel from government, military and civilian organisations. Keeping such a massive collection of people and company data effectively gagged for half a century, I find highly unlikely. But to question the integrity of the Apollo astronauts, I find both distasteful and unforgiveable. The Apollo 11 crew all left the space program, and Buzz Aldrin’s subsequent battle with depression and alcoholism, suggests little thought was given to aftercare. When you look at the space program as a whole, and consider the horrific deaths of the Apollo 1 crew, Aldrin’s personal difficulties, and the high casualty rate on astronaut marriages, it’s too much of a sacrifice, just to enable the perpetuation of a facade.

50 Year Old History Lesson-Man on the Moon

On July 16th 1969 Apollo X1 launched 3 astronauts on a historic mission into space: the goal, to put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth. These last few days I’ve enjoyed learning more about Apollo 11’s story and seeing it through fresh eyes, thanks to three fabulous pieces of film. I’d like to share some thoughts about them here.

By chance, I discovered the “Apollo11 Movie” was showing in selected cinemas for a limited period, none of them local to where I live. Luckily I was on a whistle stop visit to Glasgow and managed to see it at the Film Theatre. Shortly after, at the local VUE cinema I attended a “one night only” Q&A viewing of the documentary film “Armstrong”. Then a few days ago, I watched a docu-drama on BBC2 called “Eight Days: to the Moon and Back”.  For “Armstrong” Neil’s family provided interviews and access to private home movies, whilst former work colleagues’ and friends, shared their memories of the man who made history. It greatly helped in understanding Neil a little bit more. The other two films used previously unseen footage mixed with recognisable archive material, and declassified audio files giving access to crew dialogue never heard before, which allowed a fresh perspective on events.

Sitting watching the “Apollo11 Movie” the sheer magnitude of the operation was overwhelming. I always knew the rocket was big, BUT the sight of workmen walking in front/alongside the platform taking Apollo XI to the launch pad, was stunning. The enormous platform tracks moving so slowly, giving the sense of barely perceptible movement emphasised just how huge the platform and its rocket load were. How tiny those men seemed in the vastness of it all, rather like the photo showing the lunar module on the moon surface, with a tiny Earth hanging above them in the blackness of space. Similarly the lunar module appeared miniscule against the moon backdrop on its return to the command module. The sheer size and weight of the rocket was unwittingly summed up by Neil’s eldest son in the “Armstrong” documentary. He couldn’t see the actual rocket on the launch pad after ignition, because it was engulfed in clouds of billowing smoke and initially rose very slowly. In every film the noise created by the fireball of burning rocket fuel was tremendous. The background music in the “Apollo 11 Movie” was powerfully atmospheric, complimented the spoken audio and beautifully enhanced the pictures seen. I wasn’t aware that as the astronauts were climbing into the capsule ready for lift-off, engineers were still at work fixing a critical valve that was showing a malfunction! I knew there was little fuel left in the lunar module as it approached the moon surface, but was shocked to read 16 seconds worth in the film. During the Q&A segment after “Armstrong” I heard it was 18 seconds, but both films agreed that less than 5% capacity was left in the tank.

The documentary regarding Neil Armstrong was informative, evocative and heartbreaking at times. The footage of Neil and Janet with their first two children Eric and Karen was particularly poignant, as Karen developed a brain tumour and died aged three on her parents wedding anniversary. Everyone was devastated, and clearly Neil threw himself into his work even more as a way of coping, or perhaps avoiding the emotional fallout. His wife Janet, the glue of the family kept things going, and had another son Mark shortly after Karen’s passing. Throughout the interviews it was obvious Neil’s long absences for work and his reluctance to talk about much of anything, hugely impacted on Janet.

From his first 20 cent toy aeroplane Armstrong was obsessed with flight, gaining his pilot’s licence before his driver’s one. He got a navy scholarship to university, served in Korea and returned afterwards to complete his studies. From there he went on to fly F-15s before joining the space program. NASA  protocol would have had Buzz Aldrin as first man, but Neil’s more measured quiet and introspective nature seems to have been considered more appropriate, considering the magnitude and significance of the moment. And so Buzz was relegated. I wonder if it was him who saluted the US flag after President Nixon’s phone call. I hadn’t fully appreciated the flag salute, until I recalled that Armstrong was termed a civilian astronaut. I thought they were either all military or civilian, having left the services to enter the space program. Another thing that surprised me, was the fact there had been great debate about whether the US or UN flag should be unfurled on the moon. Neil apparently said that “others cleverer and better educated than him made the decision”. Dumb debate I thought, American mission, money, vision and astronauts, so a no brainer for me. A beautiful song played as the credits rolled for “Armstrong”, and during the Q&A I discovered it was a poem written by Neil Armstrong’s son Mark and sung by Mark’s daughter. It was a fitting tribute.

“Eight Days: to the Moon & Back” was an intriguing mix of new and archive material with added dramatic enactment. The first fascinating insight was the number of hours in space each astronaut had accumulated before Apollo XI: Aldrin over 90, Collins over 70 and Armstrong barely over 13 hours. This may have been partly due to Neil’s uncomfortable ride on Gemini VIII which spun uncontrollably after docking with a target vehicle, resulting in the mission being curtailed. Talked about in the “Armstrong” film, Neil showed great presence of mind to save the situation. His eldest son recalled how NASA had installed a squawk box at home, so mission control transmissions could be heard. When things turned sour with possible fatal consequences, the squawk box went silent because NASA  didn’t want to broadcast bad news. Janet Armstrong went to mission control to find out what was going on, and was denied access or any news. Eric mused that he wouldn’t have liked to be the one facing his mother’s wrath that day.

I was reminded of a book called “The Astronaut Wives Club” that told the space program story, from the wives point of view. What was clear to me was the seemingly complete dereliction of duty NASA displayed toward the families. Effectively space program astronauts and their wives were launched into a celebrity kind of existence, without any media training, psychological, medical or pastoral care for the wives and families. The Armstrong squawk box saga was a prime example of this blasé attitude. The insatiable lust for any kind of news during the Apollo XI mission required the crew to make frequent TV broadcasts from space. And when they returned to Earth, a worldwide tour engulfed them and put them into a situation they were neither prepared nor trained for. It’s something of a miracle that Neil Armstrong with his few but pinpoint accurate words, had a way of summing up things beautifully. The sentiment “how vulnerable the Earth looked, how it must be protected not from natural disaster, or technology but from man himself” I found incredibly meaningful.

Two surprising nuggets of information came to light regarding Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin on this historic mission. More than once it was acknowledged that Aldrin helped enable the lunar module to launch from the moon surface. A vital switch was broken and Aldrin fixed it with his felt tip pen. One report mentioned that Buzz found a piece of plastic on the lunar surface, which may have come off the module control panel due to a knock from a space suit. He picked it up and replaced it with the help of his pen. The second point I found extremely moving, and was reported in the “Eight Days: to the Moon and Back” program. Aldrin took a piece of communion bread from his church to the moon, so he could give thanks with his Sunday meal taken on the lunar surface. The audio accompaniment to this had Aldrin requesting “that the people of the world take a moment to give thanks in any way they feel appropriate”.  A dramatised segment depicted Aldrin taking his communion bread, before we saw real footage of Walter Cronkite the US news anchor covering the moon landing, bowing his head in silent prayer. I was deeply moved at this point, much the same as Cronkite himself had been when the lunar module safely landed. The great news man admitted to being lost for words and was seen to brush away a tear. The enormity of the whole thing still gets to me as well, and I shed tears too. Who wouldn’t be emotional witnessing humankind’s greatest technical achievement?