LifeboatIt is nearly a year now since my dad died.

This morning I spoke to my mum, who is currently languishing in hospital recovering from the symptoms of a minor stroke and sporting a broken arm and a fractured cheek. It’s strange, but I really can’t remember when they lost their super powers and became mere mortals. A couple of years ago they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary and seemed unstoppable. Now one is gone and the other seems to have been badly beaten with a sock full of Kryptonite!

Few of us probably fully appreciate our parents until they are no longer there. Two years ago my parents had, between them, a combined life span of some 170 years. They had survived the Blitz as children on the streets of inner city Birmingham, struggled through the austerity years of postwar Britain and my dad had served in Palestine during the first ever Arab-Israeli conflict. I had never really considered them particularly remarkable though. To me they were just my parents and much about their lives before I emerged into the world was a mystery to me.

Pablo Picasso once said, “It takes a long time to become young”. I never really understood that until I sat down and really talked with my parents a couple of years ago. Only then did I realise that I had spent my entire life living with two virtual strangers. My dad had spent much of his life as a painter and decorator. What was he doing racing around Palestine being shot at by Arabs and Israelis and running a gauntlet of fire to deliver the barrack laundry in a 30-ton fire truck? And my mother…riding around in the blackout on the back of a motorbike…with a man who wasn’t my father! It was the most animated I had seen them both in years. My mum told me about sleeping in the Anderson shelters during the air raids and watching dog fights above the streets of Birmingham. I heard about their old dog, who could sense a German bomber from about two miles away and the night that a bomb broke the cuckoo clock. I even found out about their exciting honeymoon, spent getting their ration books changed!

We had never been a particularly close family. Both my grandfathers died when I was young, my mum’s two sisters emigrated to Australia as ‘Ten Pound Poms’ back in the 1960s and me and my brother never got on. Growing up, I never really felt any sort of affinity towards kin and kinship. I knew my grandparents owned a chip shop, but I never knew that my maternal grandfather was an ARP warden during the war. I always knew my mum’s older brother as ‘Uncle Stan’, but the image of him racing through bombed out rubble on his bike, chasing down crashed German fighters was a complete revelation to me.

One particularly engaging tale related to my mum’s grandmother, Granny Sutton, a lady that my mum obviously remembered with a great deal of affection. She lived in the small village of Shenstone, just outside Lichfield and was, by all accounts, a truly remarkable woman. Tiny in stature and dressed entirely in black, she lived with her disabled daughter in a little cottage next to the old village church. Almost blind, she nonetheless raised her daughter alone and kept the cottage and its surrounding garden immaculate. The old iron grate was always blackened, the red tiles practically shone and there wasn’t a weed to be found anywhere. All this in itself, whilst admirable, isn’t what made this little slice of family history so extraordinary though…

…What made Granny Sutton stand out was the fact that an entire U.S. Army base adopted her as their own!

At the proud instigation of my young mother and her brother, an American soldier turned up at her cottage one afternoon to pay a visit, to be greeted with the immortal words…”Ooo, got any gum chum?”. In spite of a serious deficit of teeth (by then she was in possession of a single, solitary tooth), my late, maternal great grandmother it seems had a penchant for chewing gum and was not backwards in coming forwards to ask for it. The soldier went on his way, suitably charmed, soon to be followed by others…along with a regular supply of gum, chocolate and anything else the old lady required. The Americans it seemed adored her. On the day that they left, a photo appeared in the local newspaper showing Granny Sutton standing next to a tank, bidding a fond farewell to her benefactors…and doubtless asking for a last stick of gum for old times sake.

Eventually she went completely blind, but that didn’t stop her visiting the local pub for her regular tot of whiskey and on the day she died she was just six weeks short of her 103 birthday.

We seem to spend so much of our lives these days looking beyond our immediate surroundings for inspiration, that sometimes I think we fail to value what is right there in front of us. In our attempts to constantly strive for more, we seem to have lost the true meaning of what it is to be human…

…just ordinary people, living some extraordinary lives.

img663After 14 long, painful and contentious years, the last voyage of the Solway Harvester is finally coming to an end. The boat’s sinking, in storm force winds off the Isle of Man on the late afternoon of the 11 January 2000, still remains the worst maritime disaster to ever occur in Manx waters. All seven crew were lost including two brothers and two 17 year old friends. The effect of the tragedy on the small Scottish community of Whithorn was profound, but what set this incident apart was what happened next.

Over the days and weeks that followed, the Isle of Man government went to extraordinary lengths to recover the boat and her crew. In the face of stiff opposition from the British government, the Manx Parliament set in motion a series of events that were to have emotive and far reaching consequences on both sides of the water. For weeks the island lay at the centre of a huge media circus, as a growing army of salvage crews, divers and support craft lay siege to the waters off the coast. Huge lifting cranes were brought in, the Royal Air Force conspired with the Manx government to help bring the families across in secret and a plan of almost military precision was undertaken to implement the job of raising the boat and recovering the crew.

Four years ago, photographer Phil Kneen and myself set out to document in words and pictures the circumstances behind the Solway Harvester’s tragic sinking. Our intention was to pay tribute to the extraordinary efforts that had been made to return the crew to their families and to highlight the human story behind the tragedy. To that end we attempted to tell it from the perspective of those most deeply affected. To let the people who had lived through those few emotive weeks tell the story in their own words.

That was how we found ourselves sat in a pub in Whithorn, on a crisp winter’s day in the late December of 2009. We had come to meet up with some of the families of the lost crew and, frankly, I think it was just sinking in what we had taken on. How do you ask someone about their dead son, or introduce yourself to a woman who was heavily pregnant when her husband drowned, and then look into the face of the nine year old boy who had never even met his father? Our first meeting was with the parents of Davy Lyons, a 17 year old lad who, at the time of his death, hadn’t even been big enough to join the army!

Over the course of that weekend we were to meet up with other families with similar tragic tales to tell. Two of the boys had been just 17, inseparable friends, who had a lifetime of experiences ahead of them. Another had been 22. A combined age of 56, all gone in a matter of minutes. From the time of the last known communication from the boat, to the time that the Solway Harvester’s emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) had been activated, just 18 minutes had passed. Most of the crew hadn’t even had time to get on deck.

It was in the early hours of the 10 January 2000 that the scallop dredger Solway Harvester slipped her moorings and pointed her bow south, heading towards the rich fishing grounds lying off the Isle of Man. Over the next 24 hours the weather in the Irish Sea began to deteriorate, as the water around the boat turned from a dark foreboding mass into a screaming cauldron that threatened to engulf them. With the storm growing worse, the decision was made to haul in the gear and make for the shelter of Ramsey Bay. It was the last journey they would ever make. At 17.47 on 11 January 2000, a polar orbiting satellite picked up the signal from the EPIRB, indicating that the boat had lost its battle with the growing storm and battering waves.

The winds by now had increased to severe gale force 9, gusting to storm force 10, and the search for the missing boat pitted man and machine against the unrelenting fury of the Irish Sea.

The conditions and the heavy rain made it increasingly difficult for the lifeboats, with visibility down to nothing and the heavy seas making life uncomfortable for the crews manning the searchlights. Over the next few hours Mother Nature’s unbridled power held sway, in spite of the best efforts of the Coastguard, the RNLI, the RAF and the Royal Navy. The boat and her seven man crew failed to materialise though and the rescue effort was finally abandoned at dusk on the evening of the 12 January, after the discovery of two unopened life-rafts had shattered any last vestiges of hope that the crew would be found alive.

It took three more days to locate the Solway Harvester and a further three weeks to recover her crew. The bodies were finally brought up on the 4 February 2000 and escorted into Douglas Bay to the haunting lament of a solitary piper. The families were waiting on the quayside that night and, as the bodies were placed on Victoria Pier, the final chords of Ellan Vannin drifted out across the harbour. It took another five months before the Solway Harvester finally made it into Ramsey. There were no pipers that day, just an eerie silence from the thousands who lined the harbour as the shattered wreck entered the bay.

Over the coming days the final chapter of this tragedy will be played out, as the last remnants of the Solway Harvester’s rusting hull is cut up and scrapped. The journey has been a long and painful one, due primarily to a drawn out and bitter legal dispute. Fourteen years ago the Isle of Man went against every previous maritime precedent, overcame countless bureaucratic obstacles and even faced down the British government to raise the Solway Harvester and recover her crew. It is a decision that not everyone agreed with at the time, but for the people of Whithorn and Garlieston it meant they could bury their sons and move on. And for that they will be externally grateful.

John Jolly was the father of Wesley, the youngest member of the Solway Harvester’s crew. I shall let him have the final say…

“If it hadn’t been for Donald Gelling and the Isle of Man we would have been facing a long fight. The British Government wasn’t interested; it wasn’t in their agenda. The Scottish Government as well. They think that’s where a fisherman should lie. In my mind there was only one fisherman on the boat that night and that was Craig, the rest were just there to try and make some money…My son wasn’t a fisherman.”

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To the memory of the crew of the Solway Harvester…Rest in Peace…

Photographs copyright Phil Kneen

2051 dementia_adventure_Final:2051 dementia_adventure_Final

On the 11 December the UK hosted a G8 Summit aimed at coordinating a global initiative on dementia. Words such as “ticking time bomb”, “tsunami” and “looming epidemic” have been banded around by politicians, reporters and medical experts alike, and probably with good reason. Today there are some 44 million people worldwide living with dementia in one form or another. Nearly a million of those live in the UK, a figure which equates in a cost to the country of some £23 billion a year. By 2050 the numbers worldwide are set to treble and there is a very real fear that some countries will simply be unable to cope. In a nutshell, dementia is gearing up to become the biggest health and care issue of a generation.

Dementia is a term that encompasses some 100 different diseases, of which Alzheimer’s is probably the most well recognised. Simply put, it describes the decline of the mental abilities, causing anyone living with it to lose the ability to function in ways that most of us take for granted – language, mental agility, memory, judgement etc. Sadly it is also incurable. It can however be controlled and recent evidence suggests that those struggling to cope with dementia can benefit greatly from a little outdoor activity and contact with nature. Two years ago I knew very little about dementia, its causes or its effects. That was until a friend approached me about putting together a trip on the Isle of Man for a dementia group. She and her husband had set up a community enterprise called Dementia Adventure, which was working to provide training, research and a refreshingly innovative approach to dementia care. Starting with short walks around the countryside of South East England, they had progressed on to sailing weekends and were now spreading their wings even farther with a trip across the Irish Sea…which was where I came in.

The brief was very specific – not too much walking, not too much intensive culture and just enough interest to keep it fresh. Now, for someone who up to that point had never even met anyone with dementia, this was to prove quite a challenge. In the end we went with boat trips and steam trains, coastal views, castles and award-winning ice cream. The trip proved to be a resounding success, in spite of driving rain, howling gales and a royal visit! What I found incredible though was the remarkable change that the week brought about in the group. Research has shown that regular contact with nature may be the strongest and most easily accessible therapy available in the treatment of dementia. Apparently it can enable individuals living with dementia to experience a ‘dampening down’ or even an absence of their dementia related symptoms. From what I saw during that short week, and judging by the smiles that were breaking out across previously confused faces, I could only concur.

David Cameron has described dementia as a disease that: “…steals lives, wrecks families and breaks hearts.” It is one of modern life’s cruellest diseases, failing to discriminate between sex, class or creed. But people with dementia don’t need to be locked away. They are not a danger. They are parents and grandparents, husbands and wives. They are no different from you and me, they just need a little more patience and a little more consideration. And if current projections are to be believed, then my timely introduction to the disease is going to be repeated amongst many more of us in the years ahead.

Two years on and Dementia Adventure are a multi award winning enterprise, with a growing international reputation and a continuing message of hope for the future. For more information check out their website at www.dementiaadventure.co.uk, or give Lucy or Neil a ring on 01245 230661.

To learn a little more about the health benefits associated with a more hands on approach towards dementia and the natural environment, take a look at their latest research on the subject, produced in conjunction with Natural England and the Woodland Trust: www.naturalengland.org.uk/ourwork/enjoying/linkingpeople/outdoorsforall/g8-dementia-summit-feature.aspx

Pere-NoelBefore you get too carried away with the mince pies and brandy, you may want to reconsider the idea of letting some corpulent old pensioner down your chimney this Christmas. Don’t be fooled by the fluffy beard and jolly demeanour, Santa, it would seem, has been spending his downtime with some seriously dubious characters…

Growing up on the mean streets of Birmingham, I was always led to believe that the worst that was likely to befall an errant child over Christmas was a possible substitution of coal for that shiny wrapped present under the tree. To the best of my knowledge though, cannibalism, kidnapping and the harassment of livestock was never mentioned! Little wonder Santa spends his time holed up in some remote and frozen corner of literature…the man is a magnet for the dregs of medieval folklore!

Take the Krampus for example, a bloodthirsty and slightly unhinged member of the entourage who, if you were lucky, would dish out medieval beatings with a birch rod. This was when he wasn’t  kidnapping children in a burlap sack and throwing them in the river. This less than festive behaviour proved too much even for the Catholic church (the people who brought you the Spanish Inquisition) and the Krampus was outlawed in the 1800s. Undeterred Santa turned to Belsnickel, who accompanied him across Europe and the Dutch communities of Pennsylvania, ‘coercing’ naughty children into being good. This was a man covered in furs and sporting a mask with a long tongue…I mean, how much coercing does it take! Not to be outdone, Santa’s French franchise turned up with his very own Gallic enforcer, La Pere Fouettard (The Whipping Father), a suitably gastronomic bully whose impressive resume included the kidnapping, murder and eventual cooking of three young men…into a stew. Then there is Black Peter, servant, slave or demon, take your pick. Arriving by steamboat from Spain with Sinterklass, he is sent down Dutch chimneys to leave presents and, in some cases, kidnap bad children and take them back to Spain for punishment. Given the racist overtones of Peter’s origins and duties, in recent years he has been transformed into a chimney sweep in modern versions of the legend. He does however still kidnap children!

My personal favourites though are the Yulemen from Iceland. Numbering thirteen in total, these mischievous creatures are relative newcomers to Santa’s malevolent horde. They first arrived on the scene back in the 1930s and over the intervening decades have been portrayed as loveable rogues, annoying miscreants and child-eating demons. For the most part though they merely leave gifts in children’s shoes, look into windows to see what is worth stealing and have a proclivity for hassling sheep! Oh, and they have a tendency to hang around with the Yuletide Cat…which eats bad children…so that’s OK then.

So, still want to leave Santa that mince pie? Personally I would be more inclined towards laying a few man traps around the house. And kids, when Santa asks whether you’ve been naughty or nice, you might want to give serious consideration to your answer…

screen-shot-2013-10-23-at-19-11-59This time last year I had just returned from a road trip across Northern Canada. There had been bears and Ice Pilots, seedy bars and Northern Lights. It had been a proper road trip, just ask my liver…it is still up there! I had gone up there with my good friend and sometime arch nemesis, photographer, Phil Kneen. Many never expected us to return…or at least not both of us. However we managed three weeks in close proximity with hardly a cross word between us and the trip turned out to be an amazing experience.

But that was a year ago and new adventures await. Which is why Phil and myself are now planning another foray, this time in the other direction. We plan to drive from the Isle of Man to the Crimea…And that is about as far as our planning has got so far. We have a van and a road map, and I have a compass. What could possibly go wrong?!…

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…To be continued…

goldentrianglethailand2It had begun, as most adventures do, in a bar…To be specific, in a bar in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.

My drinking partner had been an American, a lost soul who had arrived here in the service of Uncle Sam and somehow found himself left behind, trapped in a downward spiral of drugs, drink and self inflicted debauchery. I have rarely met a man so paranoid. He spoke in conspiratorial whispers of the CIA and drug running, loudly berated his three ex wives (all prostitutes) and tried to elicit my help in aiding his escape out of Thailand – at the time I met him he had outstayed his visa to the tune of $10,000 and seemed very reluctant to approach the American Embassy to arrange repatriation back to the States!

To say the man was a mess would have been an understatement.

However, during one of his rare lucid moments he told me a tale that piqued my interest, of a man he had heard of who lived up by the Burmese border. This character had a reputation as something of a dealer in rare WWII motorcycles. I say dealer, but less enlightened souls might be more inclined to use the term, smuggler. However you looked at it though, he sounded interesting and, to be honest, I had grown tired of hanging around Chiang Mai getting drunk with paranoid ex special forces rejects.

So, the next morning, armed with little more than the name of a town on the Thai/Burmese border, I headed out of Chiang Mai on an old Yamaha dirt bike, towards the forested highlands and fertile river valleys of the infamous Golden Triangle. Negotiating my way through an incongruous collection of mopeds, handcarts and ruminating cattle I headed west, towards the steep mountain trail that wound its way up to Doi Tung. Until a few years ago you could still see the vast fields of poppies over the border in neighbouring Burma from here, before a shift in government policy saw them moved out of sight. You may not be able to see them anymore, but the opium is still there and it is still jealously guarded. It pays not to pay too much interest in proceedings across the border and, with that thought in mind I hurried on, towards the town of Mai Sai on the Thai/Burmese border.

Following the course of the Sai River I happened upon a sprawling collection of wood and bamboo that clung precariously to the side of a hill. A sign announced it as the rather lavishly titled Mai Sai Plaza Guesthouse, a somewhat grandiose name for little more than a bed, a few cobwebs and a tatty poster of a Harley Davidson. It did however have somewhere to park the bike and a balcony that looked over the river into Burma. So, dumping my bike and my bag, I headed out to explore. This was where my paranoid drinking buddy had told me that the ‘dealer’ lived and, whilst I had little real expectations of finding him, it looked an interesting place to while away a few hours before dinner.

Mai Sai GuesthouseOn the outskirts of town I came across a temple, not exactly a rare occurrence in Thailand and the large reclining Buddha did tend to be a bit of a giveaway. The strange collection of grotesque animals next to it though, now they weren’t exactly something you see everyday. I mean, how often do you expect to come face to face with a six-foot rabbit, a huge hooded cobra and a vicious looking monkey with enormous genitalia? This is the sort of thing you would have got if Brueghel had gone in for designing theme parks…This was deeply disturbing! I moved on, but only as far as a haphazard array of rickety bamboo scaffolding that was covering the front of the temple. Scurrying across it, like a collection of saffron robed ants, were an industrious bunch of monks and nuns, robes flowing and heads shining as they laboured away in the late afternoon sun. I was captivated. It was a Buddhist building site, with chanting and singing instead of cat calls and expletives. I wanted to go home immediately and start a construction company called ‘Saffron Scaffolding’, or ‘Mantra Masonry’!

By this point I was seriously beginning to wonder if the close proximity to mind-bending drugs was having an untoward affect on me. I needed food, so heading back into town I found my way to a likely looking spot overlooking the river. That’s where I got talking to Ben. I don’t think his name was really Ben, but who was I to argue. We sat and shared a bowl of rice soup, during which I asked him, just on the off-chance, if he knew of this mysterious dealer in dodgy motorbikes. Seems that he did! In fact, he was the dodgy dealer! It transpired that he had a contact in Burma who smuggled old British bikes across the river, which he then sold on for a profit. My search was over before it had even started and Mai Sai had suddenly turned into the Twilight Zone!

Two days later I found myself sat beside the waters of the Mekong, watching the foreboding and squat form of a patrol boat churning the brown, viscous waters into a foamy scum. In the distance, shimmering in the late afternoon heat, an almost impenetrable wall of jungle rose up from the water’s edge. I was heading back to Chiang Mai; back towards civilisation and the paranoid ramblings of Lieutenant Dan.

The sun was beginning its relentless dip towards the distant horizon as I climbed back on the bike and took a last look at the river. It was time to go…

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