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Monday, June 18, 2018

Airboy in the 1940s and Beyond

The cover for a 1940s Airboy

A while ago, I shared how I had been reading a 1980s series called "Airboy" by Eclipse Comics. These issues were penned by Chuck Dixon, and illustrated by Tim Truman, Stan Woch, and other artists who today are regarded as giants of the comic field. It was, in fact, a sequel series to the original series, which was published in the 1940s. Recently, I discovered the original series online, and began reading them.

For those unaware of Airboy's origins, the young pilot creates a revolutionary plane with the help of a Catholic monk. Then he goes off to help the military defend the United States against Germany and Japan.

Interior art for 1940s Airboy

The comics shine a light into the mindset of the times. Japanese fighter pilots are called Japs (when they're not called Yellow or Japanazis). Nearly all are villains. 

The Germans are equally dastardly. Service personnel from both countries appear as treacherous and cowardly. Modern people from those countries, or who share that cultural heritage, would likely be offended by everything Airboy or the narrator calls them. 

The stories, while entertaining in their simple way, also represent propaganda from an earlier time. Remember, the U.S. base in Pearl Harbor had been attacked. In one day, the country's military had suffered a terrible blow, and thousands of people died. The United States government, now forced to enter World War II, had to recruit soldiers, build new warships, and create all the infrastructure necessary to fight a war spanning the entire globe. 


So "Airboy," and publications like it, were thought necessary to rally the troops, convince women to trade homelike for factories, and help children make sense of the new situation.

Still, I'll be the first to admit that they're a little difficult to read, and enjoy as fully as I'd like.

Dragon Dave

Monday, June 11, 2018

Tom Wolfe on America's Astronauts

Gemini capsule
Smithsonian Air And Space Museum
Washington DC

Author Tom Wolfe died recently. One of his best known books, The Right Stuff, served as a guide to my travels in Florida back in 2012. The insights he shared helped me understand the people who founded the USA's space program, and the challenges they faced. Later, his book spurred other adventures in Texas and California.

The early astronaut program drew on the men who piloted experimental aircraft. These men packed themselves into canisters that were shot into space. The pilot in Nevil Shute's book who has to spy on his own country reminds me of those early astronauts. 

Remember how the former World War I pilot had to remain in a fixed position for hours, ignoring hunger and cold, battling sleep and maintaining focus with his temperamental airplane? When I look at the tight confines of these early capsules, like the Gemini, I wonder how long I could sit cooped up in there like that, with a helmet and spacesuit on.

Then again, if I got bored, I could just open the hatch and take a spacewalk, right?

If you're interested in looking back, to follow are a few of the posts I wrote about my Tom Wolfe inspired journeys.

Honoring the Mercury Seven
The U.S. Space Walk Hall of Fame
Everybody's Comin' to Kennedy Space Center

Meet NASA's Robot Astronaut

Our Visit to Edwards Air Force Base Part 2


Dragon Dave

Monday, May 28, 2018

Norman Clegg, Sir Humphrey Appleby, and Nurse Gladys Emmanuel

Time rolls on, even those who sought to bring the Eternal Captain Striker to life in the Doctor Who story "Enlightenment." A few years ago, Nigel Hawthorne, who was approached to play Captain Striker, passed on. Last year, actor Peter Sallis departed our Temporal ranks. A few months later, Keith Barron likewise departed our shores. The three actors who would have, and ultimately did portray Captain Striker in "Enlightenment" breathed their last, and spread their wings upon the great solar winds. Now they race toward the ultimate prize. Whatever sense of Enlightenment eluded them on Earth, we can only hope they will grasp it in Eternity.

Author Roy Clarke, who created and wrote "Last of the Summer Wine," created another comedy series called "Open All Hours." Although it only lasted a few years, it was so successful, and so beloved, that it recently spawned the sequel series "Still Open All Hours." Lynda Baron (no relation to Keith Barron), played the role of Nurse Gladys Emmanuel. In the first series, she played an important role, as the love interest of Arkwright, the proprietor of the local grocery store. 

After the death of actor Ronnie Barker, who played Arkwright, there was no real dramatic reason for her to return. Yet she came back for the sequel, simply because people loved seeing her in that role. It was comforting to imagine her sitting in her house across the street from Arkwright's, and in her own way, looking out for Granville, Arkwright's nephew, who now runs the shop.

In "Enlightenment", actress Lynda Baron played the role of Captain Wrack, an Eternal who sought to win the race through the solar system by sabotaging the ships of her competitors. I find it ironic how director Fiona Cumming sought out Peter Sallis, Nigel Hawthorne, and Lynda Baron, such noted comedy actors, to fill these dramatic roles. After all, the Eternals are supposed to be detached, used up creatures. In grasping eternal life, the Eternals seem to have lost their souls. Their only interest in life is derived from feeding on the emotions and thoughts of lesser, Temporal beings. 

This begs two questions. If the Eternals exist solely by constantly seeking diversions, who better to play such roles, than the people who divert us mere Temporals through their comedic performances? And if Eternals are beings who exist solely by constantly seeking diversions, could Foggy Dewhurst, Compo Simmonite, and Norman Clegg really be Eternals in disguise? 

Given the first choice of director Fiona Cumming for the casting of Captain Striker, it's ironic that the creator of "Enlightenment," the first woman to ever write for "Doctor Who," was veteran TV actor and writer Barbara Clegg. I wonder if she would have approved of well-known comedy actor Peter Sallis as Captain Striker. Or would she have seen his inclusion as one Clegg too many in her otherwise fine story...

Dragon Dave

Monday, May 21, 2018

Norman Clegg and Margot Kidder

One morning last week, I read a post on Facebook by Holmfirth artist Ashley Jackson. He spoke about how the wildness of the Yorkshire Moors had always called to him, even in his youth. It wasn't in town, or at school, or sitting in front of a TV that he felt truly comfortable and inspired. Instead, it was outside, surrounded by nature.

That afternoon, I read a newspaper article about Margot Kidder's life. The movie star, best known for playing Lois Lane to Christopher Reeve's Superman, lived her life in the big city. While acting in films and TV shows, she struggled with violent mood swings. Eventually she went off the rails, and was later found and rescued from a homeless existence. It was only then that she was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder. 

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Coincidentally, I visited Holmfirth, the home of the TV series "Last of the Summer Wine," six years ago in May. I must admit, for a long time after that visit, whenever I felt low or depressed, I would turn to my computer, and review my trip to Holmfirth. Like Ashley Jackson, looking at all that pastoral beauty raised my spirits, and kept me going.

It may be a stretch to suggest that the wildness of nature calls to everyone. Perhaps some people need the confines of the urban environment to stretch themselves. Roy Clarke, the creator and writer of "The Last of the Summer Wine," suggests one reason for a Battle of the Sexes is that women and men need different things. In the series, the women like Ivy and Nora cling to the regimen of their daily routine. The men, as typified by Norman Clegg and friends, constantly yearn for adventure. While the women value schedules and cleanliness, the men value creativity, improvisation, and "getting their hands dirty."

Thankfully, after her homeless incident, Margot Kidder got the help she needed. She may have battled mood swings for the rest of her life, but she didn't go off the rails again. I wonder if she would have waged those battles with her emotions had she lived in an English country town like Holmfirth.

The women in "Last of the Summer Wine" usually view their husbands as imbalanced, and the other men as downright crazy. Norman Clegg's enduring popularity suggests that many of us yearn to be like him. Perhaps for us, he represents a person perfectly balanced. Norman Clegg: the sanest person in the world? 

Dragon Dave

Monday, May 14, 2018

Norman Clegg At The Crossroads

Norman Clegg and Foggy Dewhurst
played by Peter Sallis and Brian Wilde

In "Last of the Summer Wine," Norman Clegg is hardly a leader. Foggy Dewhurst fits that role instead. He's a former military man, a take-charge person, who is always enlisting his friends Norman Clegg and Compo Simmonite to partake in the adventures he plans. Although Norman would be content to peaceably fritter away his remaining years, he responds to Foggy's enthusiasm, and proves the ideal compatriot and friend.

Norman Clegg and Compo Simmonite
played by actors Peter Sallis and Bill Owen

Compo Simmonite is hardly a man Foggy Dewhurst would respect. By and large, the last thing Compo would readily do is hang out every day with Foggy. Norman Clegg serves as the glue that hold the three together. Norman's reluctant support of Foggy's hare-brained schemes prompts Compo to agree with them, even if he is the one of the three who usually suffers the most from them.

Norman Clegg's fear of Yorkshire women is well-known. He shrinks at raised voices, and is likely to run and hide when Ivy or Norma Batty yell at him. Actors, particularly at the BBC in the 1970s and 1980s, were chosen by directors, rather than casting agents. The directors cast people whom they've worked with before, usually because they played a similar role in another production. So actors often played the same role again and again in movies and TV shows. Or at least until a brave director ventured to try them in a new type of role.

Having never seen "The Pallisers," in which Fiona Cumming had worked with actor Peter Sallis before, I don't know the range beyond Norman Clegg the director saw in Sallis. Her casting choices for "Enlightenment" include some well known comedy names, such as Peter Sallis and Nigel Hawthorne. Also, she wanted Sallis to bring a quirkiness to the role, which suggests that she worried the production would be too serious, and wanted him to bring a touch of humor to the production.

I can only wonder what the "Doctor Who" production missed out on. I can only ponder the air of authority Peter Sallis would have assumed when ordering around First Officer Mariner, or when exchanging veiled pleasantries with the villainous Captain Wrack. I can only imagine how the actor would have transformed before my eyes, from the genial Norman Clegg, into the detached Eternal Captain Striker, and how he would have stood toe-to-toe with Peter Davison as the capable, the incomparable, Doctor Who. 

Would Captain Striker have proved a breakout role for Peter Sallis? Would he have started playing more serious and authority figures as a result? And what about "Enlightenment," which has gone on to be a fan favorite. Would the story have garnered more widespread acclaim, and won prestigious awards, had Sallis' portrayal of Captain Striker proven a success?

If nothing else, fans of "Last of the Summer Wine" can be glad Peter Sallis was never tempted away from his role of Norman Clegg to play more serious, authoritative figures. Certainly Ivy and Norma Batty had to be glad Norman Clegg never gained more confidence. What if Norman Clegg had become the leader of his little troupe of fun-loving guys? Foggy was never a serious threat to either Yorkshire woman. But an empowered Norman Clegg? Wow, that bears some thinking about!

Dragon Dave

Monday, May 7, 2018

Captain Norman Clegg

Due to an ongoing series of strikes that hit British industry during the late 1970s and early 1980s, production of the Doctor Who story "Enlightenment" shut down in November 1982. By this time, scripts had been finalized, cast and crew hired, and props and costumes made. All the model shots for the spectacular space race had been completed, along with one session of cast rehearsals. So producer John Nathan Turner worked hard at the BBC to ensure that, when labor union difficulties were resolved, production of "Enlightenment" could resume.

Actor Peter Sallis, who director Fiona Cumming cast for the role of Captain Striker, had regaled and impressed the cast with humor and wit during the rehearsal period he attended. Peter Davison, who played the Fifth Doctor, recalls rehearsing with Peter Sallis fondly. Sadly, by February 1983, when production on "Enlightenment" resumed, Sallis was no longer available, due to preexisting acting commitments. Either he was busy filming studio scenes for "Last of the Summer Wine", or some other film, TV series or play. 

Fiona Cumming scrambled to fill the role of Striker, the Eternal who acts as Captain of The Shadow, the ship which the fifth Doctor and his companions unwittingly board, when the TARDIS materializes in the hold. The director offered the principle guest role to three notable English actors, including Nigel Hawthorne, who at that time was another household name in Britain, thanks to his role as Sir Humphrey Appleby in the BBC comedy "Yes Minister." Sadly, he too was unavailable, or for whatever reason, had to decline the part. 

Eventually, actor Keith Barron won the role of Captain StrikerHe played his commanding, assured Eternal in a convincing, straightforward way. Compared with the villainous Captain Wrack, his was a mostly good Eternal, who treated his crew of lesser, Temporal beings comparatively well. Yet, as fans of "Last of the Summer Wine" know, another actor could never bring Sallis' unique brand of subtle quirkiness to the role. 

In a documentary on the making of "Enlightenment," Keith Barron said that his role of Captain Striker came at a time when he played many similar authority figures. Fans of "Yes Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" know that Sir Humphrey Appleby, as Permanent Secretary for the Department for Administrative Affairs, always had the upper hand in his dealings with Minister Jim Hacker. So, as with Keith Barron, casting Nigel Hawthorne for the role of the detached Captain Striker doesn't seem much of a stretch for the actor. Peter Sallis, so well known as the never-take-charge Norman Clegg, remains an unknown, at least to me.

As much as I would have liked to see Peter Sallis take on the role, I have to wonder how effectively Peter Sallis would have performed as Captain Striker. As I mainly know him from his starring role of Norman Clegg, it's hard to see him in another light. Could he have managed his crew, and maintained his authority of the Doctor as effectively as Keith Barron or Nigel Hawthorne? Sadly, we shall never know.

Dragon Dave

Monday, April 30, 2018

Norman Clegg in Outer Space

In the four-part Doctor Who story "Enlightenment", the TARDIS dematerializes aboard an old wooden sailing vessel. The fifth Doctor and his companions spend some time belowdecks, getting to know the crew, and learn that the officers are competing in a race. Then they visit the bridge, or the wheelhouse, and see on the view screen that they are actually racing through space.

The officers are Eternals, people who cannot die, but who exist throughout eternity. They draw their crew from the Temporals, people like you and me with a finite lifespan. The Eternals have no real society or interests of their own. So they seek diversion through competitions such as this one, where the Eternals use ships and peoples from different times and cultures in Earth history to race on the solar winds. The prize? One lucky group of Eternals hopes to win is enlightenment: to know where one stands in relation to everything else.

For the part of Captain Striker, who commands the antique wooden sailing vessel on which the TARDIS lands, director Fiona Cumming set her sights on veteran actor Peter Sallis.  Cumming had previously worked with Sallis on the 1974 BBC drama "The Pallisers." She decided that, of all the actors she had ever worked with, Sallis best fit the role of the detached, commanding Captain Striker. 

Unfortunately, industrial action derailed the production of many BBC shows in late 1982. When the labor union disagreements halted rehearsals and studio recording, producer John Nathan Turner worked behind the scenes to ensure "Enlightenment" did not suffer the same fate as "Shada", the fourth Doctor story written by "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" author Douglas Adams, which was never finished. As scheduled filming dates passed, contracts with cast and production crew expired. The only hope for the story then was this: would the BBC ever agree to pay all the associated story costs to remount the production, in order to see "Enlightenment" become a reality?

Producer John Nathan Turner worked with Fiona Cumming and Peter Sallis on 1974 drama "The Pallisers." He had seen how Sallis elevated that production with his presence. Also he was always keen to cast well known actors on "Doctor Who", and by this time Sallis had risen to stardom as Norman Clegg on the BBC comedy "Last of the Summer Wine". No wonder he wished to cast the veteran character actor for the principle guest spot in the production. We can only imagine how much he and Cumming yearned to see Peter Sallis assume the bridge of a rickety nineteenth century sailing vessel, and race his fellow Eternals among the stars. 

Dragon Dave

Monday, April 23, 2018

Emma Orczy and the Goddess of Reason Part 2

Christianity was founded on strongly held beliefs. The theological divides between Christian denominations can be huge. As in centuries past, people still regularly wage theological wars not just between denominations, but within their own to suppress a given practice, or impose a new belief. New churches spring up every day, and if they are successful, and give birth to others, eventually form new denominations. Yet the townspeople of Loddon, England have chosen to put all those differences aside, so they could worship together. They enjoy a richer, and more united religious community as a result.

A burial marker in the aisle of Holy Trinity, Loddon

Henry VIII is often seen as a villain. As an American, it would be inappropriate for me to either criticize him or to sing his praises. But after robbing the Catholic Church of the power it wielded over all aspects of English life, he didn't try to create his own religion. While he made significant changes to religious practice and belief, he still allowed his subjects to worship in a way they recognized as Christian. 

Three hundred years later, in their zeal to empower the common people, French reformers like Robespierre did not follow Henry VIII's example. After bringing down the religious authority of the Catholic Church, they went on to rob the country of the entire basis of its secular government. Then they set up an entirely new calendar, and established not one, but two new state religions. The people embraced neither the calendar nor the new religions. Eventually, they returned to the Catholic Church. As they had eradicated the aristocracy, France today lacks the rich history and cultural diversity England enjoys as a modern republic which also has a monarch.

As bloody and as terrible as Henry VIII's reign was, one wonders what might have occurred had the English king not broken with the Catholic Church. Might the number of the common people who hungered for change have grown, until centuries later, they rose up and brought down the entire secular and the religious leadership of Britain? What might the United Kingdom look like today had that happened? Would it have an American style President and Congress? Would all its churches be barren rooms, without a trace of ornamentation or memorials, their painted rood screens destroyed, plaster board covering aging frescos on old stone walls, and their historic stain glass windows replaced with triple insulated glass? Or would Catholicism have returned, stronger than before, like it did in France?

In merging their separate communities, the townspeople of Loddon may have lost some of the beliefs and practices particular to their respective denominations. But unlike the people of France during their revolution, as popularized by Baroness Emma Orczy in her novel The Elusive Pimpernel, they are not beheading anyone, either by a republican guillotine, or a royal executioner. They may not worship a goddess of their own design, but they employ reason in sharing a true community spirit, and generosity of spirit in merging their differences in belief and opinion. 

Imagine that.

Dragon Dave

Monday, April 16, 2018

Emma Orczy and the Goddess of Reason Part 1

An altar in Holy Trinity, Loddon

In Baroness Emma Orczy's novel The Elusive Pimpernel, Chauvelin, the former French Ambassador to England, tricks Sir Percy Blakeney and his wife Marguerite into traveling to Boulogne, a small coastal town in northern France. When Chauvelin captures Marguerite, he forces Sir Percy to write a letter explaining that all his brave exploits in rescuing the French aristocracy from the guillotine were really only done for money. Yet, when Chauvelin writes to his superiors in Paris, telling them of his triumph, Robespierre and his fellow reformers grow annoyed with Chauvelin. They wonder if he has fully embraced their Republican ideals, as he has dated his letter as (I believe, September), instead of Fructidor, a month in the newly imposed French Republican Calendar.

In order to celebrate his triumph, Chauvelin then organizes a celebration in Boulogne. As a condition of Sir Percy finishing the letter on this day, Chauvelin agrees to ring the church bells as part of an evening service. So while the townspeople rejoice with forced gaiety, and herald an actress attired as the newly created French goddess of Reason, Sir Percy manages another stunning escape. In the process, he takes with him the incriminating letter and his wife Marguerite. He leaves Chauvelin tied up in the prison, where the former ambassador hears the old church bells ring.

A painted wooden screen in Holy Trinity

Like any Church of England, Holy Trinity Church in Loddon is steeped in centuries of history. Yet the townspeople only worship there from May to November. For the rest of the year, they worship in St. John's Methodist Church.

After visiting Holy Trinity Church (and enjoying their fine book sale), my wife and I visited St. John's in Loddon. Unlike many Methodist churches we have visited in the United States, which could easily rival an ornate Lutheran or Episcopal church, the sanctuary of St. John in Loddon was barren. No ornamentation, no carvings, no burial or memorial markers. Just a hall with a modern interior of bare walls, windows, and a platform. 

Most Protestants in the United States are used to worshipping in such sparse surroundings. But I was intrigued why a Church of English congregation would trade a sanctuary so rich in history and beautiful for one so barren for six months of the year. I asked a man working in the St. John Methodist church office why the two churches had decided to share everything, from their worship service location to (presumably) the style of the services themselves. He explained that, as it was a small town, they had merged the congregations for two reasons: 1) to enhance the worship experience by increasing the size of the congregation, and 2) so the Holy Trinity members could save money. Apparently, it much more to heat the immense stone Holy Trinity building in the winter than it did the smaller, better insulated St. John. 

The Methodists broke away from the Church of England in earlier centuries for profound religious reasons. When worshippers have a choice of congregations, they usually chose the one which best conforms to their religious beliefs. Yet the people of Loddon have chosen to say, "Our beliefs don't matter so much as the fact that we worship and fellowship together." 

A community where the people's faith unites them, rather than divides them? Imagine that.

Dragon Dave

Monday, April 9, 2018

Nevil Shute on Changing Currency

When I read an old book, I'm always curious about how much things cost, and how much money would be worth in today's terms. For example, when Sherlock Holmes pays his child Irregulars a few shillings or pounds to scour the streets of London in search of a person or a vital clue to a mystery, I'm curious how much he's paying all the children in today's money. Of course, there are different ways of evaluating the value of money, and a given sum will always be worth more to a poor person than to a rich one. Nevertheless, understanding how much things cost in a society gives an insight in the culture of the times. 

I'm also curious as to how much my old paperback of Nevil Shute's novel So Disdained originally cost. It believe it was a UK edition. The inside says it was printed in Bungay, Suffolk, England by Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press), Ltd. On the front, someone applied a sticker (at some time in the past) for 3'6. The back of the 1966 paperback edition shows 60c Australia 6'- as a price. 

(My apologies for the blurry photo)

So how do I translate all these different prices?

These days, a book printed in England, but sent to the United States, would list a dollar symbol next to price and the letter U.S. It would probably give the price in Canadian dollars, and maybe even the Australian price. No U.S. price is listed here. But then, the novel was printed and sold with a different title in the United States, so that would be a completely different edition..

My first question is about the 60c symbol. The pre-decimilisation currency in England in 1966 had twenty shillings and two hundred-and-forty pence in a pound. The symbol for shillings was "s", and the symbol for pence was "d." Australia followed Britain's example with their currency, with their pounds, shillings, and pence.

Canada, as best I can tell, adopted the United States' model in the mid 19th Century, and uses their own quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. So a guess on my part would be that the "c" symbol is for Canadian cents. The thing is, I believe Canada followed the U.S. convention, with the "cents" symbol as a small c with a vertical line struck through it. 

According to Wikipedia, the "c" symbol (without a vertical line struck through it) can refer to cents in former English Empire countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. But pre-decimalisation Australia would have followed England's model, with shillings "s" and pence "d". 

Perhaps the 6' on the back refers both to Australia and England. That would mean the price in both countries was six shillings, or 72 pence (again, with 240 pence in the pound). But it seems odd that the same price would be charged in two different countries, doesn't it?

Or maybe UK editions didn't have prices marked on the books, and booksellers had to apply stickers? 

As to that sticker on the front, I pealed it back carefully, and there's no UK price printed underneath. If the 6' refers to the original Australian price, the 3'6 sticker would mean the original UK price was three shillings and six pence. If 6' was the original UK sale price, the sticker would be a pre-1971 sale, which would represent nearly fifty percent discount off the book's original cost.

Isn't deciphering old currency symbols fun? I almost feel like Indiana Jones. Only he knew much more about the world than I did. Oh, and he wasn't afraid to have a monomaniac dictator like Adolf Hitler sign his book for him. Me, that's one book signing I wouldn't attend.

Holy Trinity Church
Loddon, Suffolk, UK

During our tour of the English county of Suffolk last year, we visited a charming town called Loddon. It located in the Broads, with boats parked along the river. It charming architecture, interesting World War II history, and several charity shops that offered inexpensive books. Their beautiful Holy Trinity Church also had tables laden with books for sale. I found some real treasures there, including a Lovejoy mystery (a series that takes place largely in Suffolk, and neighboring Norfolk and Essex counties), as well as the Nevil Shute novel. I paid fifty pence in last year's UK currency for the paperback at a church sale. That's 50p for my friends in the United States, not fifty cents. 

Book shopping in Holy Trinity Church
If I ever return to Loddon, I may have to visit Bungay too. According to Google, the town is just ten miles away from Loddon. It looks to be another charming town along the Broads, with a historic market and the ruins of an old castle. I could talk to the locals, and see if anyone remembers the company Richard Clay Limited. I wonder if anyone might recall the name The Chaucer Press on any buildings. Maybe someone could give me a hint as to the book's original cost, as well as how affordable a purchase it would have been for the average person fifty years ago.

In any case, given the current exchange rate, I estimate the equivalent cost for my copy of So Disdained at seven-five to eighty cents in U.S. currency. You can find paperbacks for less in this country, but usually they cost more. When you consider that I've wanted to read a Nevil Shute novel for some time, but most of his work is out-of-print in this country, I'd declare myself happy with my purchase. When I add that it gave me hours of enjoyment, and I found the novel a really crackin' read (as they say in England), I'd say I found a real bargain. 

Dragon Dave