Wednesday, 18 January 2017



Mention the name Lembit Öpik these days, and this ex- Liberal Democrat  MP for Montgomeryshire usually conjures up an erogenous image of his dalliance with Rumanian pop tarts  the Cheeky Girls.
But hang on. Lembit’s granddad was into celestial bodies of a different nature, and he’s a link, albeit a tenuous  one, in the more humorous annals of ufology. (Yes, honest, they do exist).
Lembit’s grandfather was none other than astronomer Ernst Öpik, who left Estonia in WW2 to settle in Ireland.
Ernst Opik
He was based at Armagh Observatory, where he worked with none other than the Sky at Night’s monocled, high-trousered space oddity, Patrick Moore.  In 1922, long before space probes, Ernst predicted correctly the frequency of Martian craters. Ten years later he came up with a ground-breaking postulation that comets originated in a cloud orbiting far beyond the orbit of Pluto. Today this cloud is called the Öpik-Oort Cloud in his honour, and the asteroid 2099 Öpik is named after him. The crater Öpik on the Martian moon Phobos bears his name.

    As well as his interest in good time Rumanian girls, grandson Lembit is well known for his enthusiasm for searching for asteroids that may collide with the Earth. However, his grandfather holds another distinction. He seems to be the inspiration for a fictitious stargazer by the name of Dr. Egon Spünraas, created by Ernst’s Armagh colleague, Patrick Moore. Let the fun begin.

    In a Maida Vale bedsit one tranquil night in 1954, the 35 year old tenant was washing his dishes[1]. What happened next was enough to crack a cup and saucer, as a disembodied voice told him

     "Prepare yourself! You are to become the voice of the Interplanetary Parliament." A week later, with the bedsit’s doors locked and presumably with the pots all washed, an uninvited stranger materialised in the room. He was without a name, but known to be a ‘world famous’ swami, and he was the harbinger of a new life beyond the tea towel for the new interplanetary spokesman. Four decades later, a long way from Maida Vale, with no need of Fairy liquid, this ‘chosen one’ would be known as Sir George King, O.S.P., Ph.D., Th.D., D.D., Metropolitan Archbishop of the Aetherius Churches, Prince Grand Master of the Mystical Order of St. Peter, and HRH Prince De George King De Santori.
Impressive nomenclature for a former taxi driver whose early oratorical prowess was gained by sermonizing  his passengers in the back of his cab on their lack of spirituality .

    Fortunately, George King (1919–1997) had a head start to equip him for his inter-galactic role. He’d immersed himself in orthodox Christianity, explored spiritual healing, yoga and psychic phenomena. Apparently, the voice he’d heard that night was that of a 3,500-year-old Venusian known as ‘the Master Aetherius’.  King’s assigned mission was to tell the world to pull its socks up, make love, not war, and take better care of planet Earth. Soon, after a series of  successful speeches at London’s Caxton Hall, he had a growing army of followers. The Aetherius Society gradually became a global religion, with offices from London to Los Angeles, with its own journal, The Cosmic Voice. King would speak to his disciples whilst being ‘channelled’ by extra-terrestrial beings, known as Mars Sector 6, Jupiter Sector 92, Saint Goo-ling, and even Jesus Christ himself.  Scientific progress and the negative feedback on the inhabitable conditions on Venus, Mars and Jupiter from US and Russian  space missions could not dent Aetherian belief that these barren worlds were populated by superior advanced beings of high intelligence and supreme power.

    Yet if you can’t puncture irrational faith with practical science, you can always try humour. Laugh, and the world laughs with you, as the saying goes, unless, perhaps, that world is Mars or Venus. Before long, tongues firmly in cheeks, bona fide astronomers were on King’s case, with some hilarious results. Pre-Brians May and Cox, they included Britain’s most popular TV stargazer. Enter Patrick Moore, the man with a comical plan.

    The mid 1950s were Ufology’s heyday. Translated into 12 languages, Flying Saucers Have Landed, by George Adamski and Desmond Leslie was a massive best seller.
But it had the advantage of silvery saucers landing in a California desert, where the wise and likeable fantasist Adamski met with a blonde, jump-suited Abba-esque Venusian who communicated telepathically, and, oddly enough, with his footprints, casts of which George duly took. After all, one
 should never go into a desert without a bag of plaster of Paris. What Britain needed was its own Adamski, and proof that the long-haired blonde aliens didn’t mind a touch of good old British fog and drizzle. So, as George King was dealing with his new role as dictated from Venus and Mars, in London the publishers Frederick Muller got on the Adamski space wagon with an exciting scoop, Flying Saucer from Mars by Cedric Allingham.

     Mr. Allingham opened with a run-down of what UFO literature existed at the time, then launched into his captivating story of his close encounter of the third kind. He’d been ambling peacefully along in a remote corner of Scotland when a flying saucer landed close by. Out stepped the pilot, and Allingham engaged him in conversation, using sign language. It transpired that the Highland-hopping space jockey was a Martian. As with Adamski and Leslie’s offering, Flying Saucer from Mars had a collection of photographs, which, unfortunately, weren’t up to Californian standards. The pictures, bearing similarities to Adamski’s, were out of focus, and one blurry shot showed the ufonaut walking away, with his craft out of the frame. The saucer had the characteristic dome, but this had what looked like a radio aerial vertically poking from it, (or, as some sceptics suggested, a wire to suspend it from). Never the less, we had a UK close encounter, and whereas Allingham’s writing style lacked some of Desmond Leslie’s florid flow, the writing was good enough and the story drew the attention of the press.

   However, Cedric Allingham seemed to be a bit of a mystery man. The science correspondent for the Sunday Express, Robert Chapman, was keen to interview the author, yet no one was able to track him down. Yet he did make one public appearance. It took place at a UFO club in Tunbridge Wells. The chairman of the club was none other than one of ufology’s favourite pillars of authenticity, a true believer, Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding. Dowding was at Allingham’s one and only talk, and sitting alongside him was the man who had tutored the air chief’s stepson; astronomer Patrick Moore. Anyone present at that talk was privileged, because Allingham vanished into history when it was reported that he had died from tuberculosis in a Swiss sanatorium.

   Robert Chapman did not believe this. He thought there was something fishy about the project, saying:

      “In my view, there is a strong likelihood that ‘Cedric Allingham’ is alive, in excellent health and far from repentant at having pulled a fast one on thousands of credulous saucerers.” But who was Cedric Allingham?

 In his book[2] A Directory of Discarded Ideas, John Grant wrote:

     “I have good reason to believe that Allingham’s Flying Saucer From Mars was in fact written by a well-known astronomer . . . but have been sworn to secrecy.”  Years later, in 1985, Steuart Campbell and Christopher Allan, a pair of UFO sceptics, had similar thoughts and decided to do some digging. They concluded that ‘Allingham’ at least knew his astronomy, appearing familiar with the works of astronomers like H. Percy Wilkins and Patrick Moore.  He had obviously read the Journals of both the British Astronomical Association and the British Interplanetary Society, neither of which graced the shelves of W. H. Smith. So they checked the membership lists of the BIS and the BAA.  No Allingham.

   Oddly enough, Allingham’s name did crop up several times in various works by Patrick Moore.
Considering Moore’s disdain for anything connected with UFOs, this seemed odd. A further revelation emerged.  A journalist from Oxted in Surrey, Peter Davies, had been engaged to add a little semantic polish to one of Patrick Moore’s early books. Moore was living not far away in East Grinstead. The photographs in Flying Saucer from Mars include one of ‘Allingham’ standing by a telescope in a leafy garden. The garden - in East Grinstead  - and the telescope, were Patrick Moore’s, and the man posing as Allingham is, in fact, Peter Davies, wearing the same disguise he used at the Tunbridge Wells UFO club; a false moustache, horn rimmed glasses - and a false nose. The mercurial Moore never owned up to what seems to have most certainly been a literary hoax, and whatever secret he had he took it with him to the grave. He did issue a warning to anyone accusing him of writing Flying Saucer from Mars that he would sue. Yet he never did. But although Britain’s favourite TV astronomer may have been laughing up his sleeve at Adamski and Leslie with this stunt, his irrepressible pursuit of a jokey hoax was far from quelled. Which will eventually lead us back to Dr. George King, but not before we enjoy a reminder of how Adamski and Leslie were themselves hoaxed in their own blockbuster UFO book. As a softening-up process, a tasty entree to prepare the reader for George Adamski’s main course, Leslie’s quasi-academic style was fairly compelling, although had he been more scientifically rigorous in his research he might well have saved some embarrassment. A good example of his scatter-gun approach was his inclusion of what had become a favourite “ancient UFO” story among the growing celestial crockery brigade. This was the Ampleforth Abbey sighting, said to have occurred way back in 1290. Leslie aims at authenticity by quoting the “original” text from the old monks in Latin, then gives a translation in English. He gives credit for the supply of this edifying nugget to a man with a name one might only expect to see in a black-and-white 1940s British public information film – Mr A. X. Chumley. It tells the story of two Ampleforth monks, Wilfred and John, and their abbot, Henry. They are roasting sheep when the crucial line of the Ampleforth Latin appears, with the sudden announcement: “res grandis, circumcularis argenta, disco quodum had dissimilis” (“Lo! A large round silver thing like a disk flew slowly over them”).

In his assessment for the Condon Report on UFOs for the University of Colorado, Samuel Rosenberg goes into some detail with his incisive dissection of ancient UFO sightings. For example, the Ampleforth Abbey “sighting” morphs bizarrely into the “Byland Abbey Sighting” as subsequent, post-Adamski authors clamber on to the gravy train. Whoever Mr A. X. Chumley was, he certainly had a sense of humour, for as the archivist at Ampleforth would have told Leslie (had he bothered to check the story), the “large round silver thing like a disk” and the rest of the “monks roasting a sheep” yarn turns out to be a joke perpetrated in a letter to The Times on 9 February 1953 – in a scurrilous communication sent in by two Ampleforth schoolboys. They made it all up[3]. Talking of cod Latin inscriptions, Patrick Moore often mentioned a Roman urn on display in a museum, the location of which he never revealed, but he liked to tell us it bore the inscription

Iti sapis potitis andantino ne.
see final footnote

To get a handle on Moore’s impish sense of fun, just try moving the letters around and you’ll soon realise what a wag he was.

   So, UK saucers duly ridiculed, it was time to boldly go where no hoaxer had yet gone, into the peace-loving corral of the Aetherius Society. Once George had his organisation up and running, the Society's journal, Cosmic Voice became essential reading for adepts. In 1957, a series of articles appeared in the journal, all submitted by eminent scientists and physicists from various countries and institutions.  It seemed to readers, and King himself, that the interplanetary communications were being taken seriously. The lofty proclamations channelled through him from Master Aetherius, Mars Sector 6 and Saint Goo-ling (not forgetting Jesus) were having some positive effect, because these academic contributors were taking notice. Mainly foreigners, they had unusual names. They included the eminent astronomy lecturer Dr. Walter Wumpe, PhD., D.Sc., F.R.A.P.C., reporting on the Geophysical Year Programme. Other top academic names lining up to add kudos to Cosmic Voice were Dr. Dominic Fidler, Professor Huttle-Glank[4],  other pillars of scientific academia including N. Ormuss, L Pullar, R. T. Fischall, E. Ratic, Dr. Hotère, Dr. Lupi, and Dr. Waathervan. Completing this list was a certain Egon Spünraas (remember him?) and two Dutch physicists, Drs. Houla and Huiezenass.

     Step forward the cool voice of spirituality, the cult-watching newspaper Psychic Weekly. The paper’s sense of humour was not as overcooked as that of the Master Aetherius - it was still medium rare enough to spot a cosmic joke in all its glory. John Grant’s Directory relates that “when it was rather publicly pointed out to King, in the newspaper Psychic Weekly, that he was perhaps the victim of an L. Pullar, he furiously cracked down on such spurious contributions to knowledge - accusing the British astronomer Patrick Moore, among others, of being the perpetrator of the hoax”.[5]  No doubt Patrick, sides splitting, was polishing his monocle in glee.

   Eventually plain old George King, Interplanetary Parliament Spokesman, needed to sound a little grander, so a Doctorate might do the trick. According to David Barrett, in A Brief Guide to Secret Religions[6], King’s Doctorate came from "the International Theological Seminary of California, a degree mill with no accreditation." The Knighthood came later, (but not, it seems from Buckingham Palace). The Knighthood  was eventually bestowed on him by a certain Prince Robert M.N.G. Bassaraba de Brancovan-Khimchiachvili-Dadiani. The ‘Prince’, according to William Brynk of the New York Sun, “ran a bogus Order of St. John of Jerusalem, Knights of Malta from his faux-marble apartment (filled with equally genuine Louis XV furniture) at 116 Central Park South. If you had a passage fee, he had a gong for you, and hundreds of men and women with more money than sense each paid him up to $30,000 for his phony knighthoods. Prince Robert styled himself an "Imperial and Royal Highness." This is not bad: A Roman Catholic cardinal is merely an eminence. In a program for one of his ceremonies, held at Manhattan's Christ Church, he described himself as "Grand Master, Grand Chancellor, Grand Bailiff, and Grand Prior of the Knights of Malta." This was a few years before the prince vanished after his 2001 indictment for wire fraud.”[7]

     One would assume that Dr. (Sir) George King would have claimed all these expenses from the Interplanetary Parliament’s Bursary.

   Hoaxing the UFO[8], paranormal and psychic community can be fun, yet as this writer can testify, it is dangerous ground. The borderline between an obsession or cult and religion is to say the least hazy. Tread on a true disciple’s toes and you’re in trouble. However forteans, even with our sense of humour intact, want to believe. The question is, however, what exactly is it we want to believe? One has to remember that in the UK, spiritualism is a bona fide religion. Yet ever since the days of Houdini, the hoax and the fraud remain as the sceptic’s weapons, and they are frequently wielded.

   A report by Matt Roper in the Daily Mirror, on 28 October 2005 exposed a few unwelcome revelations concerning the most over-the-top, melodramatic current medium of them all, Liverpool’s Derek Acorah. Dr. Ciaran O’Keeffe, lecturer in the paranormal at Liverpool’s Hope University, was drafted on to Acorah’s TV show Most Haunted as resident parapsychologist. Dr. O’Keeffe, in speaking out, was in danger of committing media suicide, but he believed viewers should be enlightened as to the real nature of Most Haunted. In an attempt to establish whether or not Acorah was acting deceitfully, Dr. O’Keeffe came up with a ruse which he prepared whilst the team were filming at Bodmin Jail (alternatively Bodmin Gaol), an old prison on the edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. This historic building dates from 1779 and was closed in 1927. He invented a long-dead South African jailer called Kreed Kafer – an anagram of Derek Faker.

   “I wrote the name down and asked another member of the crew to mention it to Derek before filming. I honestly didn’t think Derek would take the bait. But during the filming he actually got possessed by my fictional character!”

O’Keeffe made up another non-existent character for the shoot at Prideaux Place, Cornwall. This time, it was the highwayman Rik Eedles – an anagram of Derek Lies. It didn’t take long for psychic Derek to begin talking to the fictional outlaw. These are just a couple of the hoaxes Acorah fell for. Dr O’Keeffe’s summing up was pretty devastating: “In my professional opinion we’re not dealing with a genuine medium … all we are seeing is showmanship and dramatics.”

   Doug and Dave’s bogus corn circles, YouTube awash with fake UFO footage, phoney ghosts, cold-reading mediums, all these are simply aggravating speed bumps on the fortean highway that takes us over the hill to give us a glimpse of those genuine unexplained mysteries which add zest to our lives.  Yet as the wily old Patrick Moore has demonstrated, there’s nothing wrong with pulling into a lay-by now and again for a good laugh.
is this Cedric Allingham or Peter Davies - and does that look like a false nose?


[1] This version according to the late Dr. Christopher Evans, Cults of Unreason, Harrap, London 1973.
[2] Grant, John, A Directory of Discarded Ideas  Ashgrove Press 1981, Corgi Edition 1983
[3] For more on this comical prank, Anselm Cramer OSB, Archivist, Ampleforth Abbey, gives a good overview at  
[4] Dr. Christopher Evans, in Cults of Unreason, Harrap, London 1973 tells us that Dr. Dominic Fidler’s article entitled Mescaline and Flying Saucers ‘was challenged for scientific inaccuracies by a Professor Huttle-Glank.’
[5] Grant, John, A Directory of Discarded Ideas  Ashgrove Press 1981, Corgi Edition 1983
[6] Barrett, David V. A Brief Guide to Secret Religions: A Complete Guide to Hermetic, Pagan and Esoteric Beliefs
Robinson, London 2011.
[7] WILLIAM BRYK New York Sun Men Who Would Be Kings (Or Knights, or Counts) June 15, 2005
[8] For a classic case of UFO hoaxing, the Warminster Photographs, go to  Experimental UFO Hoaxing. David Simpson

'It is a pis pot, it is, and a tin one.'


Sunday, 15 January 2017

Ants and Elephants


I am 73, typing this with one hand as my broken left arm is hanging limp and useless in its brace at my side. As an elderly Briton, like many of my ilk, I could sometimes be accused of taking healthcare for granted. The idiotic way I ended up in my current state of disability fills me with shame. It involved everything a sensible mature person should have avoided, and the timing was a disgrace. New Year’s Eve, too many beers, some wine, an over-confident ascension of the stairs, slipped footing, a somersault, punished by lying prostrate on the hallway floor in agony, my bloodied face smashed against the wall, unable to move my body. At 2 am on January 1st, as on other days throughout the festive season, I always raise a glass to those dedicated and underpaid operatives in all those industries which cannot simply close down because of Santa Claus or Auld Lang Syne; the police, utility workers, firemen, the forces and especially the thousands who work selflessly as ambulance drivers, paramedics, nurses and doctors. To inflict an extra burden on these due to my own profligate carelessness is something I am not proud of. Thus, whilst more deserving and innocent patients, the genuinely sick  elderly, accident victims and those suffering cardiac arrest filled the NHS work rota on this notable night, I have added to it all by being a thoughtless drunk.

And yet the blue lights and the sirens came, and the kind, patient and compassionate paramedics avoided calling me a stupid old drunk; they gave me dignity and morphine, they carried me with gentle sympathy to hospital, where empathy and benevolence through pain-relieving doctors and nurses continued into the New Year dawn. These often overlooked workers who we only come into contact with via our surgeries or some health problem, are in my opinion representative of the finest vocation anyone can aspire to; the care and comfort of fellow human beings. And they are not by any measure rewarded  adequately for their labours. Compared to the disgusting ‘rewards’ given to bankers, CEOs, (perversely, often for failure) advertising executives and city speculators, they have all the financial kudos and visibility of ants in a herd of elephants.

The media onslaught against our National Health Service is currently at full tilt, presenting us every day with yet more stories of crisis, long  waits in A&E, potential deaths from waiting on trolleys for a bed … it goes on. Yes; the situation is bad. Could it be fixed? Of course it could. A few pence on income tax or National Insurance could do wonders, and if sold properly and sympathetically to the public, it wouldn’t lose any votes. The real reasons for the heroic struggle NHS staff are shouldering today are hidden behind a smokescreen of lies and falsehoods.

Since 2010 the Conservative government has laboured under the long-desired notion that eventually, due to their mandate, they can fulfil their dystopian dream; the dismantling of the NHS, the sell-off of all its assets to Downing Street’s favourite private ‘service suppliers’ such as BUPA, G4S, Capita, ATOS, Serco, Virgin Health etc. and the rapacious insurance industry. Like the Royal Mail, our railways, transport, telecoms, gas and electricity, all of which were once owned by us, the people, Tory MPs (and others) may well secretly regard their privileged parliamentary status as something approaching that of robber barons. The hijacking of public services for conversion into profit centres to be parcelled out to party donors and well-heeled supporters is a disgrace and an insult to morality. Yet it goes on, a covert movement of bean counters and iniquitous lobbyists who will spend more on lunches and soirees in a month than a registered nurse on 12 hour shifts will earn in a year.

Sadly, those of us who see the reality of this avaricious landscape for what it is, the burgeoning kingdom of greed, are a diminishing tribe. We are demeaned as scroungers, lovers of the ‘Nanny State’ and even worse - as socialists.  Only when the benefit of this stubborn human desire to serve our fellows with dedicated care has vanished into the City of London’s financial cyberspace will the nostalgic question be asked;  Whatever happened to our final freedom - to be ill, free of charge?”

Until then, whilst my NHS screams its swansong, I salute it and all those who labour as I sleep to keep it alive.

Sunday, 8 January 2017


How odd the way the stars align and spark events without warning. Yet if that sounds more than a little airy-fairy, it probably is. The way my New Year commenced was little to do with stars or fate; more down to geriatric stupidity. I discarded the 2016 Hogmanay reality of my age - 73 - and swapped it for 23. I drank copious amounts of ale, and at midnight consumed half a bottle of champagne.

At around 1.30 am I tried to stagger upstairs to bed; five steps up I slipped, fell backwards, did a somersault, my head hitting the hallway skirting board, landing flat on my back . It took a few desperate hours for the ambulance to arrive, but when it did the combined anaesthetic of 7 bottles of beer and the champagne  had worn off. The only cure for the agony of my useless broken left arm was morphine. The saintly NHS Paramedics  delivered the painkiller, stopped me from shaking like a leaf, cleaned my bloody head wound and finally transported me to Kings Mill Hospital, where I was X-rayed and fitted with a wrist-to-shoulder cast.

Now I’m feeling very sorry for myself and very worried; there is no neurovascular connection between elbow and wrist. My left arm is useless; only the fingers of the hand work, but I’m typing this one-handed with my right index finger. What now? Will I eventually be able to drive again?  If not then alcohol will have deprived me of the freedom of independent travel. Its early days as yet; suffice it to say this has been one festive season I shall not forget in a hurry … and I can’t play guitar any more. Watching TV is no substitute for creativity. I’ll simply have to become the fastest one-finger typist in history.

I did this to myself, therefore the words of Marcus Aurelius  now apply: The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.

Monday, 26 December 2016


2016 has been, beyond any stretch of the imagination, a year of death and despair. The horrors of Syria, the continuing, inexplicable evil hatred of terrorism against the innocent, the avoidable, badly conceived stupidity of Brexit, leaving us teetering on the edge of an abyss, the resurgence of a familiar, Nazi-style populism and the election of Donald Trump; all these factors combine to obliterate any hope humanity has for a peaceful, progressive future. As one commentator quipped, comparing the rise of ‘The Donald’ with the exit of Obama, “We’ve gone from hope to grope in 8 years…”

The sadness of what’s happened in popular culture fades into comparable insignificance, yet in our still relatively ‘safe’ little world,  it looks as if all the goodness and pleasure  has been drained away. That grinning proto-fascist Nigel Farage shared a statement with the Trumpers when referring to the new movement of anti-establishment politics as ‘draining the swamp’.  The trouble is, when you drain a swamp you kill all the good organisms too. Perhaps, if you’re of a religious persuasion, you might liken 2016 to God carrying out a bit of ‘Spring Cleaning’. If that’s the case, as ever, he’s proving to be as bombastically cruel and insensitive as ever. There are countless politicians, bankers, CEOs and fraudsters who the Grim Reaper seems to have by-passed. He only seems to want rid of the positive people. So, Bible readers, answer this; has God finally handed over management to Satan? It certainly looks like it.

George Michael, aged just 53, died peacefully at home over Christmas in bed from heart failure. I never bought any of his records yet he seemed a nice bloke and possessed an admirable talent. He is the latest among dozens of celebrities to have died in the past 12 months, including transformative figures such as David Bowie, Muhammad Ali and Prince.

The news of Bowie's death from cancer at the age of 69 on January 10 was met with shock and grief around the world, alongside a celebration of his extraordinary career. A similar reaction followed the death of superstar singer Prince, who was 57, on April 21.

Presidents and prime ministers from around the world paid tribute to boxing champion Ali, who died aged 74 on June 3. Thousands of mourners gathered at his funeral to celebrate his extraordinary life.

Other highly influential figures to pass away in 2016 included author Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, the former First Lady of the United States Nancy Reagan, and Beatles producer Sir George Martin.

Britain also said goodbye to much-loved stars of stage and screen including Sir Terry Wogan, Paul Daniels, Ronnie Corbett and Victoria Wood.

Here is a list of celebrities we lost in 2016:

1) Singer David Bowie died aged 69 on January 10.

2) Actor Alan Rickman died aged 69 on January 14.

3) Eagles frontman Glenn Frey died aged 67 on January 18.

4) Broadcaster Sir Terry Wogan died on January 31 aged 77.

5) Author Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, died aged 89 on February 19.

6) Actor Frank Kelly, who played Father Jack in the comedy series Father Ted, died aged 77 on February 28.

7) Coronation Street creator Tony Warren died aged 79 on March 1.

8) Nancy Reagan, actress and former first lady of the United States, died aged 94 on March 6.

9) Beatles producer Sir George Martin died aged 90 on March 8.

10) Magician Paul Daniels died aged 77 on March 17.

11) Comedian Ronnie Corbett died aged 85 on March 31.

12) This Morning agony aunt Denise Robertson died aged 83 on March 31.

13) Sherlock Holmes actor Douglas Wilmer died aged 96 on March 31.

14) Drugs campaigner Howard Marks, known as Mr Nice, died aged 70 on April 10.

15) Reality TV star and music producer David Gest died aged 62 on April 12.

16) British playwright Sir Arnold Wesker died aged 83 on April 12.

17) Comedian Victoria Wood died aged 62 on April 20.

18) Superstar singer Prince died aged 57 on April 21.

19) Television writer Carla Lane, known for The Liver Birds and Bless This House, died aged 87 on May 31.

20) Boxing champion Muhammad Ali died aged 74 on June 3.

21) Singer Dave Swarbrick of folk band Fairport Convention died aged 75 on June 3.

22) Anton Yelchin, actor in Star Trek, died aged 27 on June 19.

23) Comedian, Royle Family actress and writer Caroline Aherne died aged 52 on July 2.

24) Ken Barrie, the voice of Postman Pat, died aged 83 on July 29.

25) Kenny Baker, who played droid R2D2 in the Star Wars films, died aged 81 on August 13.

26) Gene Wilder, who played Willy Wonka and other memorable roles, died aged 83 on August 28.

27) Former Israeli president Shimon Peres died aged 93 on September 28.

28) Former Coronation Street actress Jean Alexander, who played Hilda Ogden, died aged 90 on October 14.

29) Raine Spencer, the stepmother of Diana, Princess of Wales, died aged 87 on October 21.

30) London-born fashion designer Richard Nicoll died aged 39 on October 21.

31) Jimmy Perry, screenwriter known for shows including Dad's Army and It Ain't Half Hot Mum, died aged 93 on October 23.

32) Singer, songwriter and television personality Pete Burns, who founded pop band Dead or Alive, died aged 57 on October 23.

33) Sir Jimmy Young, who hosted BBC radio programmes for half a century, died aged 95 on November 7.

34) The death at 82 of Canadian singer, songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, who penned the classic song Hallelujah, was announced on November 11.

35) The Man From U.N.C.L.E star Robert Vaughn died aged 83 on November 11.

36) Musician Craig Gill, drummer of Madchester band Inspiral Carpets, died aged 44 on November 22.

37) The death of West End star Keo Woolford, 49, who starred in The King And I opposite Elaine Paige and in the television remake of Hawaii Five-O, was announced on November 30.

38) The death of comic actor Andrew Sachs, 86, best-known for playing Spanish waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers, was announced on December 1.

39) Peter Vaughan, who starred in Game Of Thrones and Porridge, died aged 93 on December 6.

40) Musician Greg Lake died aged 69 on December 8.

41) Sunday Times journalist AA Gill died aged 62 on December 10.

42) Hollywood actress and socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor died aged 99 on December 18.

43) Status Quo guitarist Rick Parfitt died aged 68 on December 24.

44) The death of George Michael, 53, was announced on December 25.

As I write this, there’s still five days of 2016 left to run. Let’s hope the Reaper’s tired out and relaxing with a turkey leg and a mince pie. And let’s further hope that in 2017 he takes a much needed sabbatical. We’ll have enough to worry about over the coming months without another fat catalogue of tragic death.

Sunday, 18 December 2016



Christmas Quackers:

a true story for Yuletide.

By December 1958 I had reached the mature ripeness of 14, and on Christmas Eve, although I didn’t yet know it, I was about to stand on the first steps at the portal of manhood.

     “We can’t have another Christmas dinner like some we’ve had!” said Mam, shaking her head. Dad poked some more timber into the stove and puffed on his roll-up.

     “And we won’t, because I’ve got something sorted,” he said.

     Christmas Eve at our wooden shack, Elm Bank, in 1958 seemed to possess an air of promise. Dad was back in work. I continued to enjoy my weekly delight – the New Musical Express. Rock and Roll had arrived, and I thanked the Good Lord that here, we still had electricity, and we’d kept our radio and television set, and we had a Calor gas stove for cooking, although it was still the weekly tin bath. So, if our Yuletide feast wasn’t to be Irish stew or even the luxury of chicken; I suspected rabbit pie; but perhaps I was wrong. What did Dad’s cryptic proclamation mean? There was no such thing as turkey among the lumpen proletariat back then. Chicken was the ultimate luxury, and we even had a chicken coup, yet we’d killed so many of the poor devils for food that year that only three egg-laying hens and an indomitable, evil cockerel survived. Chicken was obviously off and no-one, even Dad, dare threaten Adolf the cockerel – he was a nasty piece of work and still the best alarm clock we had.

 Image result for IMAGES cockerels

    As the sharp, bitter darkness fell over the trees that Christmas Eve, spreading its icy fingers of hoarfrost across the surrounding scrubland, the bright moon arrived and the

frozen, leaf-like filigree of frost crept across the window panes. My two younger brothers had been sent to bed, excited by thoughts of Father Christmas’s imminent nocturnal visit. Yet for some reason, I was allowed to stay up. Was it because I was now some kind of ‘second man’ in the house? Did 14 now separate me from my receding childhood? I finished my Musical Express and watched some lame variety show on the TV. Then it happened. Dad switched the set off and, leaning in towards me in a conspiratorial fashion, filled me with a sense of horror as he outlined a mission he had obviously been planning for some time.

    “Right, son. Christmas Eve. I’ve just been outside and lowered the saddle on my bike. I’ve checked the dynamo and the lights are working.” He produced a piece of paper which bore an address scrawled in thick joiner’s pencil.

    “I want you to bike to Uncle Sid’s on the Longhill Estate. That’s the address. He’s got something for us for our Christmas dinner.” He handed me two pound notes.

    “Give him this money, and tell him Stan wishes him a merry Christmas. Ride straight there and straight back, and don’t stop for anybody. Right – now tell me what you’ve got to do?” I repeated the instructions. He looked at the clock.

    “It’ll take you about three quarters of an hour to get there, and the same to get back. It’s quarter past nine now, so you ought to get back here by half past eleven.”

    “And don’t forget to put your scarf on,” said Mam, “and your gloves, and your balaclava.” I hated that balaclava, but it was an arctic night, and ninety minutes of cycling lay ahead of me, a quite unexpected and highly dubious pleasure.

    It seemed odd, pedalling for all I was worth along the long, straight run of the road between the village of Hedon and the twinkling lights of the oil refinery at Saltend. Odd because I was actually enjoying this. Dad, as an ex- Army sergeant, with 20 years in India and Europe under his belt, had shown his trust by giving me this important mission. That filled me

with pride. What lay at the core of it was still a mystery, but as I slipped along through the crisp, cutting Christmas moonlight a new sense of purpose pushed my aching, cold  knees into a blur.

    It took me ten minutes of pedalling along past windows filled with shimmering Christmas trees on the Longhill Estate to find Uncle Sid’s council house. I couldn’t help wondering what it must be like in those solid brick homes; proper houses with proper rooms, tiled roofs, ceilings, fireplaces, boilers with immersion heaters – perhaps they even had baths. What must Christmas be like in these places? Maybe it was luxurious. We’d almost had it all, but now it was gone, yet again. I put it from my mind. I parked the bike and with wobbly legs ambled to the back door and knocked. Sid, a docker, was a wiry little man. Clad in a grubby vest and a pair of shiny gabardine trousers held up with string, he puffed on his briar pipe and eyed me up and down.

    “Aha! It’s lil’Roy, Stan’s lad, eh?”

I nodded.

    “Has he given you the money?”

I handed him the two pounds. I was very cold and I had hoped he might invite me in for a quick warm, but he simply instructed me to stand there by the door as he disappeared into the brick outhouse at the side of the tiny garden. I then heard a strange noise. A furious quacking sound, a fluttering, followed by a gargled squawk. This was repeated twice. Then, through the moonlight Sid appeared holding two fine and very dead ducks by their broken necks. He tied them together with a piece of string, walked over to the bike and slung them over the handlebars.

    “Dad said Merry Christmas,” I said.

    “Tell him the same to him,” replied Sid, “now get on that bike and ride like buggery all the way home. Tell your Mam about two and a half hours at gas mark 6. She’ll love them birds.”

    This was all going remarkably well. Within half an hour

the lights of the refinery came into view again. The road was now a sheet of ice and every few yards I could feel the bike slipping slightly, yet I kept my balance and ploughed on. Soon, the village of Hedon appeared, its frosted roofs a blue-white in the moonlight, a living Christmas card. I leaned forward and felt the ducks. They were now frozen solid, the cold of their dead flesh penetrating through my gloves. I passed the closed off-licence, past the ladies’ hairdresser’s shop and the silent motor garage. The road was empty. No traffic. No cars. No pedestrians. Just a freezing, moonlit boy on an over-sized bicycle.

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Ahead stood the lofty façade of Saint Augustine’s Church. Its tall, stained glass windows emitted pale golden light and as I drew closer, my breath shrouding my freezing face with a pale white cloud of bitter vapour, I could hear the choir singing. Of course, I thought – this must be for the Midnight Mass. It all seemed to fit together – this new sense of positivity, the ducks, my mission, and, as a bonus, those silvery voices were singing my mother’s favourite carol. Then it happened.

    Image result for Retro British policemen with lampsThe figure of the policeman seemed to come from nowhere. Like some sinister phantom from a Victorian penny dreadful, he stepped into the road a few yards ahead. He was wearing a heavy cape, and the beam from his lamp hit me in the eyes, temporarily dazzling me. I could see him only in silhouette as I drew closer. His hand was held up, open palm signalling me to stop. I gripped the brakes and drew to a skidding halt in the icy gutter. The sound of his hob-nailed boots, a comfort to those in the darkened, sleeping homes around us, was ominous to me. Yet that crunch along the tarmac was punctuated by the faint, angelic rise and fall of the Saint Augustine’s choir.

     ‘Silent Night, Holy Night….’

   “Now then,” the voice was a deep, gravelly and confident tenor, “and where d’you think you’re off to my lad at this hour?”

    ‘All is calm, all is bright…’

 My heart was pounding.

     “Er…I…I’m going home. I live up there – on the Bond’s Estate.”

     “Mmm. Bond’s Estate, eh? All the ruffians live there. Are you a ruffian?” I wasn’t quite sure what a ‘ruffian’ was, but I didn’t think I fitted the bill.

     “No. I go to school.”

He shone the torch on the ducks.

     Round yon Virgin Mother and Child

     Holy Infant so tender and mild’

     “And where did you get these beauties from then, son?”

I shivered.

     “My Uncle Sid.”

    “And what does he do for a living?”

    ‘Sleep in heavenly peace’

    “He’s…he’s…he’s a butcher. These ducks are for me Mam. For Christmas.”

He lowered the beam of the torch. His vaporised breath mingled with mine and was sliced through by the moonlight as he leaned towards me. He had a big, round face with sharp, dark eyes, and sported a thick, well-groomed moustache. Our eyes seemed locked in an inseparable gaze; his one of inquisition, mine one of terror.

    ‘Sleep in heavenly peace’

He fingered the ducks, weighed them in his huge hands, all the while staring at me. The choir seemed to grow louder, and I thought even then, in the presence of this strong arm of the law, that no matter what may happen, there was still something sadly beautiful in this sorry little tableau, something tragically Dickensian; a young boy, a policeman, a bicycle, two frozen ducks, an almost midnight, empty street and a church choir. A whole verse rang through the chill air as he stood there, pondering.

     ‘Silent night, holy night!

     Shepherds quake at the sight

     Glories stream from heaven afar

     Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!’

    I then saw something remarkable. His stern, inquiring visage appeared to melt into something more human. The eyes seemed softer. Then I realised that, like me, he too was listening to the music. He breathed in deeply, and to my utter amazement, a tear rolled down his cheek and vanished into the thick undergrowth of his moustache. One of those strong hands reached towards me and patted me on the shoulder.

    “Aye….well. Alright son. You get yourself home and get warm. Off you go. Oh, and before I forget…”

I was about to pedal off.


    “Have a Merry Christmas.”

As I rode away with all the speed I could muster, the faint tones of the choir subsided into the silvery night behind me.

     ‘Christ, the Saviour is born

     Christ, the Saviour is born’

    My arrival in the warmth of Elm Bank’s living room was a triumph, although Dad was concerned.

     “Where the bloody hell have y’been, lad?”

I told him about the policeman.

    “Christ. Y’didn’t give him your address, did you?”

    “No. But he wished me merry Christmas.”

Dad produced a bottle of that favourite of all Hull’s trawlermen, Red Duster Rum. He poured two small glasses. I was staggered when placed one into my cold hand and said

    ‘”Knock it back, lad – you’ve earned it!”

As the searing liquid spread its warm fingers through my chest, it seemed as if my childhood had begun to slip away.

    We sat around the spluttering stove plucking the ducks, ankle deep in feathers until the clock struck one. On some American Forces radio station they were playing Good King Wenceslas. I shall always remember that line….

     “Though the frost was cruel…” Who was he? Police Constable Wenceslas? Did he really exist at all, or had I simply experienced some adolescent Dickensian epiphany? I’ll never know.
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    As I got ready for bed in the ice-bound bedroom, Dad’s silhouette appeared in the doorway.

     “Er…good job done, lad. Just do us a favour, though. When you go to East Park next time with your mates, stay away from the pond. There’ll be a few ducks short this year….”

  This is an extract from
Crazy Horse & The Coalman: A Memoir.