My story starts with a boat delivery in the Atlantic. My eldest son, Victor, a yacht-master, had been commissioned to deliver a thirteen-metre catamaran from Southampton to Florida. He invited Robin (his younger brother), myself and two other to help him on the first leg to the Canaries. We missed the hurricane in 1987 by a whisker, but got hammered by a force ten storm off the North African coast soon afterwards.
There were moments of mind-numbing panic when each second was a lifetime and our survival seemed to be in serious doubt. The experience had a profound effect on me, and I decided to break a promise I had made to myself over four decades earlier at the age of sixteen that I would never ever return home.
My children knew nothing of my secret past, so they were in for a few surprises. Even my wife would be astonished by some of the things I later revealed and that are written about in this book.
My first experience with space flight (not outer space) was during the summer of 1936, I was 3 years old. The trajectory wasn’t worthy of historical mention, measuring only about two and a half metres in a downward spiral. I wasn’t trying to emulate Icarus with his wax winged project, a really crazy idea.
In truth, I fell out of the bedroom window. But I made a couple of important discoveries. I observed how sharp the senses become during a life threatening situation. The brain encapsulates the moment in vivid detail and stores it in the memory for all time. There were birds singing, insects buzzing, the fragrance of wild flowers and the warmth of a summer evening. I remember trying to cling onto the wireless Ariel to stop my fall. The wire stretched across the garden to the outside privy which was covered in pink rambling rose. We had no mains water we were in the bucket and chuckit era. I also discovered the brain is directly linked to the outer solar system that is why we see stars when the head hits a hard place.
Here is a picture of me recovering from my fall. Notice the white linen hat protecting my shaven head.Hmm– image seems to have fallen off the screen as well. Seventy eight years later I still recall the incident with crystal clarity.
In later years my space travel was more concerned with military conscription into the RAF.
I had my hair ruffled in a Tiger Moth, a bone shaking trip in an Oxford sitting on a converted tea chest and an uneventful trip in an Anson. I then moved to more advanced technology with jet propulsion. This changeover was closely related to the pilot wastage figures approaching 30% on our Somerset station (War department terminology). Flying became closely related to dying. My first trip in a jet aircraft was in a Meteor Mk7 one of the earliest aircraft without propellers, it didn’t have an ejector seat either. The procedure for evacuating the aircraft if in difficulty was to slide back the canopy leap out head first, count to ten and pull the rip cord of your parachute. The reality as explained to me by an instructor; my chances of survival following this procedure were on a par with jumping off Beachy Head with a bunch of bananas. To add to my concerns the airman refuelling the aircraft told me my parachute wasn’t strapped on correctly and even if I survived the amputation of legs and testacies by the tail plane I would likely land on my head with life threatening concussion. The object of the trip was to see how long the aircraft could fly with extra fuel tanks strapped to the under carriage. My involvement as an unwilling volunteer was to act as ballast. We were in prototype territory here with suck it and see solutions. My protestations that I was ground crew and dangerous experiments were not part of my contract fell on deaf ears ‘That’s an order airman’ was the only comment.
It seems incredible that we now travel thousands of miles in tea sipping armchair luxury to all parts of the world with scarcely a second thought. We are now more concerned about holding our trousers up when asked to remove belt & braces. Though Malaysian passengers have good reasons for more serious concerns.
A recent experience re-kindled the memory of my headlong fall as a three year old out of the bedroom window. After returning home from a club meeting I remembered my eldest son had borrowed the car with front door key attached. I rang the door bell several times but nobody answered. I rattled the door knocker and shouted through the letter box but still nobody answered the door. I jammed my thumb on the door bell for a whole minute, but nobody answered the door. I was getting cross, grabbing the bass broom I hammered on the letter box but the handle fell off and still nobody answered the door. Our road is deathly quite 11.30 at night and I didn’t think it possible my family couldn’t hear the racket I was making. I worried perhaps there had been burglars and they were bound and gagged and unable to move.
Dogs barked, cats meowed, and neighbours peered behind net curtains. Then I remembered the neighbour’s door bell had a much louder chime thanks to the quirky behaviour of Wi-Fi technology. When his bell was pressed it played a rousing rendition of Elgar’s Nimrod on our bell as well. At first we were annoyed with this noisy intrusion until we discovered a positive advantage. His bell would be the signal that double glazing salesman or Jehovah’s witnesses were in the vicinity and we had time to dive into the broom cupboard and pretend nobody was home.
Although sorely tempted with this idea his dysfunctional hearing coupled to the town criers strident voice articulating his disapproval decided me against this approach. Getting more desperate I remembered the ladder behind the summer house and climbing up yelled through the open bathroom fanlight window.
Hurrah! My wife came onto the scene,
‘what are you doing on the roof?’ she said.
‘I’m not cleaning windows ! could you possibly blankety blank the frigging door’ I pleaded.
As I started to descend, the ladder lurched sideways. The same intensity of the senses returned as I had experienced as a 3 year old. I remember groaning um ooer-um ooer which if repeated quickly sounds like ’manure manure’ which adequately described my predicament at the time. I grabbed the plastic guttering to stop my fall but it gave way and I was clutching fresh air.
I thought ‘oh-no! I’m not going to be around for breakfast. ‘
When 16 stone lands on a hard place all future planning goes out of the window, in a manner of speaking. I recall hitting the deck with a thud and noted the stars were bigger, brighter and more of them than I remembered from my infant experience.
‘Oh dear! Are you alright Gordon?’ said a familiar voice as the Patio flooded with light. At that point I couldn’t speak and hoped I wouldn’t spend the remainder of my life trussed up like a Haggis with plastic tubes sprouting from every orifice. Death would be more preferable.
I wriggled each limb in turn and discovered, apart from cuts, abrasions and whiplash I seemed to be ok. She repeated her enquiry with a touch more urgency.
‘I’m just gathering a few mushrooms’ I wanted to say but humour didn’t seem appropriate in the circumstances. I stumbled to my feet smiled weakly and with rounded shoulders and twitching eyebrows explained to her how I really felt about things in general.
’ Jesus! I’m lucky to be alive.’
We were 2 days into our luxury cruise to the Caribbean. The Captain in his breakfast broadcast told us the stablelizers were now in use and conditions would be much better. This understatement became less believable when I head butted the mirror and cut myself shaving.
Mild mutterings of discontent were also coming from my wife who doesn’t do discomfort in any shape or form. Our luxury liner started to look like a hospital ship as a convoy of mobility scooters, crutches and Zimmer frames lurched towards the distant dining area. I didn’t feel out of place with my over size sticking plaster on my face. The average age of the passengers was 78 years old.
As we approached the restaurant a dark skinned waiter with flashing white teeth wished us good morning and squirted some germ killing solution onto our outstretched palms. They sprayed this stuff everywhere as a precaution to avoid the Norovirus-the bane of the cruising industry.
The restaurant catered for 500 diners at each sitting and it was like the London Marathon a buzz of activity with waiters dashing back and forth advertising toothpaste. I was impressed with the way food suddenly appeared as if plucked out of a magician’s hat. It was a slick operation, there were no unpleasant cooking smells and I wondered if the chefs were beavering away on Baby Bellings in the bilges.
Another waiter with arms waving frantically beckoned us to follow him to the prepared table for six. Unlike the evening dinner where dress was more formal and you dined with the same people throughout the holiday. Breakfast was more casual with different faces each day.
I was looking forward to the luxury of smoked haddock for breakfast. Time was when you could buy a crate of Haddock for about three and a tanner in old money. At to-days prices… I’d probably have to sell the wife’s car.
The waiter arrived did his usual half pirouette and deftly spread the serviette onto my lap whilst placing the haddock onto the table.
I stared at it with open-mouthed dismay; it was what you might call the amputated rudder section.
This would have been useful to the fish from a navigational point of view, also an essential part of his survival kit for escaping danger. It obviously failed on this point. Furthermore it also failed to meet my expectations in size, presentation and calorie count. It wasn’t even smoked; next doors cat would hardly have given it a second glance. In short my Haddock was a total flop and the minuscule offering didn’t sit comfortably with my $3000 dollar price tag.
I pointed to the plate with raised eyebrows and voiced my indignation. ‘It is a very small portion of Haddock I grumbled’.
He shrugged his shoulders and with outstretched arms tut-tutted an apology.
‘We ave ad a beeg problem wid der fishing –It has been vera difficult because of dee weather it has been really really bad.’
‘So what bait you been using’ jested another passenger
the obligatory £7.00 a day tip deducted from my Barclaycard at the end of the trip seemed totally inadequate if the poor devil had to catch my breakfast as well.
The jester well experienced in cruising protocol advised me how to avoid small portions. You indicate with your fingers and ask for 2 please. The next day tongue in cheek I followed his advice and raised 2 fingers. I finished up with 2 orange squash—2 shredded wheat –forty two slices of toast and two flipping Haddock tails delivered with a toothpasty two finger salute.
Even so—we Hadd-ock a fantastic time.
It was during mid February a very long time ago
with cold wintry showers and flurries of snow
I lay peacefully at slumber in the land of nod
when in my ribs I felt a sharp painful prod
I awoke to a startled ooo-aahing cry
my waters have burst! Our baby is nigh
the ambulance arrived and took her away
I was glued to the phone for rest of the day
Is it a boy or is it a Girl? We had no idea
3.oclock in the morning nothing is that clear
I had some vague idea of calling you Rex
but rather awkwardly you chose the fairer sex
mild disagreement followed concerning your name
but Caroline-I decided-so I’m really to blame
You lay in your cot with deeply furrowed brow
wide eyes asking the question ‘So what happens now?’
the world has much changed since that eventful day
with men on the moon-computers and minimum pay
so clever at school and amazingly fleet of foot
you gathered cups and trophies on your winning route
your’e not without fault if the truth we must tell
showing grim lipped defiance and stubborn as hell
You’ve proved yourself as a feisty tenacious lass
with grit-grace and humour- not afraid to kick ass
romance and roses arrived from the Emerald Isle
with church bells & a wedding in your inimitable style
A wonderful service & a memorable reception too
followed by some crazy safari in a wild African Zoo
and whilst I’m banging on your proverbial drum
I’d really like to add you are a fantastic mum
running a business & raising 4 kids in the Pyrenees
speaking no French with nappies up to your knees
there must be a gong for achievments like that
to your success and amazing tenacity I doff my hat
It’s 20 years since you joined with your other half
making the traditional journey along this ancient path
Like your brothers no worries and good as gold
we proud parents have witnessed your lives unfold
it’s now time to take stock and avoid the daily drama
get your slippers & embrace a new life with Saga
There is a footnote to this verse
I read it to my daughter after a firery bowl of beef stew which nearly melted my dentures.I waited for the accolade of applause but she said ‘Dad I ought to kick your ass
I won’t be fifty till next year.’
I was about nineteen years old when I decided to go to London to make my fortune. I’m still working on that.
Bomb site car dealers or spivs were a prominent feature in London during the 1950’s. Their sites were awash with daisy chains of fluttering tinsel and brash day-glo posters offering unrepeatable bargains. They were not renowned for their ethics.
In a moment of madness I bought a car from one of them. All the red lights were flashing in my head, and small voices pleading. ‘Don’t do it Gordon! Don’t do it lad, you’ll regret it.’ But as you will know the ears of youth are not receptive. Mine aren’t too good either.
The dealer was a short, fast talking, character with Burberry coat and big cigar; he assured me it was the bargain of a lifetime. I paid the deposit signed the contract and drove off. Ten minutes later I discovered a serious problem. The near side suspension was damaged and stopped the car from turning left.
I was hopping mad! I raced back to the bombsite in a rage. ‘This car is crap, I yelled. The steering is kaput.’ He showed little interest and waved his cigar in a dismissive manner. ‘Yee muster dunnit yerself it was- no- like that when it left heer.’
I was apoplectic.
‘Give me my money back –or else.’ I demanded. He was only about 5’4” and I reckoned the odds were stacked in my favour. He looked over his shoulder and yelled ‘Char–lie.’ Two rubber faced hoodlums burst out of a shed and lumbered towards me ‘Look buddy!’ Says one, prodding me in the chest, ‘Your upsetting the govner and if you’re looking for bovver, we can help you with that’, In that right Charlie? ‘Yeah! Growled his colleague, on yer bike.’
Well I’m not really the confrontational type, I don’t approve of violence, and I apologized unreservedly for the misunderstanding and swiftly made my departure. ‘Live to fight another day that’s what I say.’
The local garage couldn’t do anything for two weeks and the estimate removed any urgency. It was a real pain; I had to plan my journeys with meticulous care to avoid any left turns. The only solution was to continue to the next roundabout and come back to make it a right hand turn. They should introduce this task into The Duke of Edinburgh award.
My girl friend came up from Somerset to see me on the Bank holiday Monday. Geraldine was a feisty red head with a sharp tongue and strong lefty views; we argued often. ‘You’re mad! She snapped; fancy getting rid of that lovely Rover, for this rust bucket, it’s a right come-down. Anyway, where we going?’ She demanded, sliding into the passenger seat.
‘Well, I thought we’d have a picnic at Teddington down by the river, then there’s a dance at the YMCA, that’s quite a big do. Then err…back to my place?’
With the bank holiday traffic and my convoluted journey plan Geraldine started to get fidgety. ‘How much further?’ she complained.
‘We’re nearly there’ … ‘it’s just…, oh— no! There’s a policeman up front making everyone turn left at the T junction, this car doesn’t turn left, I’m going to turn around.’
‘What d’yer mean doesn’t turn left?’
Gasped Geraldine, A convoy of hooting cars came hurtling towards me. I couldn’t do a three point turn either so I crept back into line wondering what to do next.
The policeman’s arm waving became more frantic as we headed towards him. Geraldine poked her head out of the window and smiling sweetly—‘is it ok if we turn right? This car doesn’t turn left!’
The policeman open mouthed with disbelief said ‘Is that right! This car doesn’t turn left?’
‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘Park on the grass verge and wait,’ he said. We waited and waited, the sun got hotter and hotter and Geraldine became increasingly argumentative.
Trying to soothe her I suggested she might like to have a sandwich while we were waiting, there was no point in getting all wound up. ‘Well, it’s ridiculous! Having a car that can’t turn left,’
then she let out a shriek ‘You call these sandwiches! I’d need a fork lift truck, and I hate corned beef. We’re finished’ she slammed the door and flounced off.
Soon afterwards the policeman came over and climbed into the passenger seat. ‘So!’ He said tugging the steering wheel…. I’d just taken a hefty bite out of my corned beef sandwich and I pointed to my bulging mouth to indicate I couldn’t speak with my mouth full. He nodded and watched disapprovingly as I slowly munched away. I was always taught to chew my food thoroughly. He’d kept me waiting so I was in no hurry.
He then continued ‘So this is the strange car that can’t turn left, is that right?’
‘Yeah that’s right, it won’t turn left.’ I said.
‘Where you from? ’
‘Brixton. ’ I replied.
‘So, you’ve managed to get all the way from Brixton to Teddington, without turning left. Is that right?’ I realized this was a tricky question that could cultivate a lot of problems.
‘No,no— that’s not right, all the other left turns were alright, it was just this one, it wouldn’t turn left ’
‘Hmm…well, you can’t drive it in that condition you better get it fixed. I suppose this has really messed up your bank holiday’ he said, grinning from ear to ear, ‘so what happened to the lady, has she left? ‘
‘Yeah, she didn’t like my corned beef sandwiches; she took a really sharp left.
This picture shows me with five younger boys in the dining room at the Foundling Hospital School Berkhamsted during the 1940’s. I felt a tad indignant about the photo, hence my following email.
Re: John Birds article Sat May12th 2012-05-16 (No love, no control. They were open for abuse.)
Underneath this heading you show a picture of me with six younger boys in the dining room at Berkhamstead. Whilst I wouldn’t argue about the content in his article, I think the picture is inappropriate.
We were not sexually abused and the Foundling Hospital School (Later called The Thomas Coram) did an excellent job in looking after our welfare.
The Times responded with this letter of explanation.
Dear Mr. Aspey,
Thank you for your email that has been passed on to me by the Letters Department. I’m terribly sorry to read that you feel the use of the photo from the Foundling Hospital was inappropriate.
I wonder, though, whether a bit of background will help you understand why we ran the picture you appear in. We were keen to get a picture of a care home from the 1950s — John Bird was in care for three years in that decade — and while there was no date on the picture we guessed by the years the Foundling Hospital was open in Berkhamsted that there was a reasonable chance that it was taken in the early 1950s or late 1940s. The picture also happens to be very powerful too. So it fitted the bill on that score.
We try to be sensitive when we use photos of private citizens whose names and stories we don’t know. I had a conversation with the sub-editor about the use of the photo and because we were mindful of not wishing to imply that the boys in the picture had either a hard or good time at the Foundling Hospital — we have no way of checking — we agreed on a neutral question and description in the caption.
Obviously, the context in which the photo appears matters too. John Bird’s piece wasn’t solely about sexual abuse: its starting point is how can children in care be so vulnerable to abuse? But using his own experiences (he makes it clear he wasn’t sexually abused either at the orphanage or on the streets) he broadens out to make some interesting points about vulnerability, “emotional poverty”, about the changes in homes since his days in ones, and about how they can be improved. I’d be disappointed if a reader came away thinking the article was narrowly focused on sexual abuse, rather than the necessity of rethinking how we best protect and care for children. And that’s why I’m confident that no reasonable reader would think that we were insinuating, implying or assuming that the Foundling Hospital boys had been sexually abused.
Perhaps, you won’t find that explanation reassuring. If so, I can only repeat that I’m sorry that you feel the use of the photo was inappropriate.
Hmm! Thanks err– Mr.Lord Levisohn.
Ironically, I didn’t know it was me in the picture until another boy looking around the museum said ‘that’s you there mate!’ After close examination my gaze focussed on the fountain pen clipped in the upper jacket pocket and the memories came flooding back. The pen was a Conway Stewart and it cost me three half crowns (a small fortune in those days.)
The old fashioned dip and scratch pen nibs were a real pain. Even the slightest pause with the loaded pen would ensure a neat blob of ink on the page. Mathematics encouraged a lot of pauses. Mr. Wall our maths master delivered regular wraps across the knuckles with a wooden ruler for blotted exercise books. Sore knuckles were a regular feature with Mr. Wall until the Conway Stewart arrived on the scene. What a joy that fountain pen was–.I still use one today
but it can’t compete with this keyboard.
I have a mild affliction of (trouser slip) it started many years ago when wearing braces became unfashionable. The trousers gradually edge in a downward path towards the knee-caps. The problem becomes more noticeable when getting involved with strenuous physical activity. Naturally I try to avoid this as much as possible. The accepted solution involves a sharp upward jerk of the trousers or a tightening of the belt.
This most irksome problem came to the fore about six weeks ago when replacing the fence at the side of my house. I’m not a curmudgeonly sort of person but the builders estimate gave me positive encouragement to do the work myself.
I shed buckets of sweat mixing the concrete and installing the fencing post, punctuated with regular upward jerks of my trousers. I thought the worst was over, but whilst shuffling around the front of the house with a ten foot aris rail, hammer and a bag of clout nails gripped between my teeth my trousers slumped to the ground.
I was wearing my never worn before union jack underpants, purchased five years ago during a Rioja fueled holiday in Tenerife. I never imagined I would ever wear them; they weren’t even a good fit.
There were two witnesses to the incident. A wide-eyed neighbor pruning roses and her over-weight poodle who eyed me with disdain as he arched his hind leg over my peonies. Heaven only knows what the pooch owner is telling the neighbors, she has a reputation for hot gossip. ’He’s awful, that chap over there, he’s a flasher you know! And a fascist!’ My reputation will be in tatters.
In my youth most people wore braces which gave good all-round support and freedom of movement without slipping trousers or any discomfort. They have been replaced by the belt which isn’t fit for purpose. I now discover the real problem is my fat gene KLF14. This gene is responsible for obesity and virtually dictates a person’s BMI.
Although parents pass on both sets of genes to their offspring, the active KLF14 is only passed on by the mother. Hmm…Thanks for that mum!
So, we might legitimately claim women are wholly responsible for the obesity. ‘Cherchez La Femme’ and all that.’ It is estimated that within the next twenty years half of the population will be obese and the cost to the NHS will rise to £6.3 billion as early as 2015.
Trouser slip is more damaging than tongue slip in the upper regions of the establishment. Witness the woes of President Clinton, Tiger Woods, Berlusconi, the boss of the IMF and many many more. The graveyards are full of them. There appears to be a correlation between successful economies and a lack of trouser slip, like Germany, Austria and Switzerland, where braces are still popular. In the hotter climes like China and India they dress more sensibly with long robes giving maximum freedom and movement. The Saudis also avoid trouser slip with their dress and are able to hide the fat gene and even accommodate an exocet missile if required.
Ironically the belt is less of a problem for women as it adapts more comfortably to their wine-glass figure.
I haven’t given much thought to how many times in a day I have to hike up my trousers but would imagine an average of twenty upward jerks from breakfast to going to bed would be feasible. A creative accountant who does treasury estimates could translate the figures into a useful loss of production.
He could claim the downturn in our economy was more due to trouser slip than Chancellor Osborne and his mate’s bonuses. The savings garnered in the UK by wearing braces would pay for the NHS – defense budget and leave enough cash to bail out Greece and give pensioners another £10 winter fuel payment. He might also add with a world population approaching 8billion we need to act now and brace ourselves for this ballooning epidemic of trouser slip.
I really wanted my book launch to go smoothly. We Aspey’s have a reputation for pearshaped special occasions. With this thought in mind I decided to finalise all the arrangements right down to the tiniest detail.
September 26th 2010 was one of the hottest days of the year and not the ideal conditions to be huddled up in a Land Rover with crates of warm champagne and smoking salmon. But our son told us he had everything under control we could sit back and relax. ‘No problem Dad,’ he said,the GPS will drop us right outside the museum.
We arrived half an hour late. I was hot , sweaty and very stressed out. The guest were twiddling their thumbs and studying the fine Rococo ceiling. I then discovered many of the invitations had not been sent out. Book signing posters and other promotional material had not been displayed and one of the speakers failed to turn up. Thanks to an old school mate phoning arround we managed a modest crowd and once the champagne started to flow we settled down to enjoy the proceedings. I was so engrossed in signing books I clean forgot about the toast.
I suppose you could say we were ‘All at sea’
.It was a very successful do and everybody enjoyed themselves. The proceeds went to the museum which is a charity so they were well pleased.