The moon and back

On 20 July 1969 I was just seven years old and was sitting in front of a black and white television in a house by the woods in Hampshire in the UK with my parents and my sister.  It was 9.17 pm British Summer Time, and way past my bedtime, but I was not at all tired. I had been glued to the screen for the past three hours. Even my mother, who was a keen homemaker and always focussed on the here and now of domestic arrangements, had paused the washing up to watch events unfold 238,855 miles away.  Two American astronauts had just landed on the Moon.  For me this was the stuff of dreams.  And we were watching it from our sitting room in England.  Buzz Aldrin announced, “The Eagle has landed.” amongst the regular beeps of the carrier signal.  Wow, I thought, they’ve made it.  

“Beat the bloody Russians to it,” my father said.  He had hurdled for the UK combined services team in his youth and was competitive by default.  “And all achieved in miles, feet and inches:  none of that metric rubbish.”

 I wanted to know whether the astronauts could live on the moon and not come home.  “No dear,” my mother said. “They would want to come home to their families.”

My sister was four years old, so probably does not remember any of this now.  She would later, as a teenager, be very interested in “Steve Austin, the world’s first bionic man” but I think mainly from a romantic point of view rather than a scientific one, Lee Majors who played Austin being an American heart throb. She also liked dinosaurs.

My father was in the Royal Engineers, a corps in the British Army, and was keen on maths and making things –  practical things.  So we watched the moon landing and marvelled that the lunar module was so small, that the signals from the moon took so long to get back to earth, that it must be so difficult to control the landing craft’s rockets so that it touched down softly on the lunar surface.  That the moon’s gravity was less than on earth so they bounced around when they walked, and there was no atmosphere.  

I don’t remember us talking much about what is for me now the most remarkable thing about that mission:  the bravery of the astronauts, the risks they were taking, and even that they had no idea if they could actually carry off this amazing feat.  They prepared for years.  They practised with unmanned rockets and landings.  They crashed craft into the moon’s surface.  But they did not know if they would be able to land men on the moon AND get them back again.  And they went for it anyway.  The crew was confident that they could do it, and believed in themselves and the whole team at NASA.  But they didn’t know for certain.  And they went for it anyway.

I was a clumsy child.  It was difficult for me to catch a ball, and I spent many frustrating hours learning to do this with my father.  I fell off my bicycle nearly every day, but I did get back on it again and never gave up trying to get it right.  I tripped over on the pavement, and I was no good at running, coming last in most of the races at the school sports day.  I made Airfix models of planes, boats, and rockets with my father, but he would do most of the delicate handiwork because it never worked out for me.  There would be glue over my fingers, my clothes, the table, the floor.  This drove my mother crazy of course.  

So the story was:  Rupert is clumsy, Rupert is not going to be good at sports, Rupert is slapdash, a thinker not a doer. 

I could read, though.  I came home from school every day of the week and read to my mother from my latest school book, at the kitchen table as she prepared tea or dinner for us.  We had stories before bed and I would read Winnie the Pooh along with my father, doing the voices, him chortling at things too adult for me to understand.  So the story then was:  Rupert might be clumsy, but he is very clever – we mustn’t let him get big-headed about it, though.  “Everyone likes ass, but no-one likes a smart ass” my father would say, which I would not understand until my teens.

Given this narrative, it may seem odd that I decided at the age of about 16 that it would be a good idea to find out about becoming an Army officer.  Odd, because I was thin, not physically fit, sporty or athletic in any way (I could swim very well, but team sports were really not my forte).  Odd because I was painfully shy as an adolescent, and officers were never shy.  They were out in front, the centre of attention, and in charge.  I just was not the go-getter, larger than life type who most of my parents’ Army friends were. But I did want to be. I did not know whether I could bring this off or not, but I resolved to give it a try.

Officer training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst was one of the most challenging experiences of my life.  One December night I was  standing in a trench on Salisbury Plain, snow falling around me, cold, wet, hungry, exhausted watching the sun rise. My toothpaste was frozen in its tube.  My face was numb with cold as I shaved.  I could not feel the soles of my feet.  I was miserable,  and wondering why I was there, and what was the point of it all.  

I had got a good degree in Civil Engineering, so I could have been working anywhere in the world, constructing bridges or important public buildings, but no.  I kept going, passed the course and became an officer.  

During the rest of my eight years in the Army I discovered one thing above all about myself, and about other people too:  we can all do much, much more than we ever imagine we can.  

And that includes going to the moon.

Sticks in the mind

“We are all going as a family to the swimming pool today, Alex, you will love it,” said Michael, his German friend.

So there he was, 15 years old, naked, in a public sauna in Germany, with Michael and Michael’s mother, father and older sister, also all naked.  Nude.  Undressed.  He didn’t know where to look.

Six months earlier Alex’s German teacher had announced that this year’s exchange programme was going ahead as usual, and consisted of two weeks in Germany with a host family during the Easter holiday, followed by two weeks in the summer in England when your exchange partner would stay with your family.  There would be 20 places on the exchange, first come first served.  There was a minimum charge for travel expenses and day trips, and some spending money would be needed, but that was it.

The other thing was that there would be 20 girls from another school nearby on the exchange too.  His best friends at school were up for it.  He was up for it, and he managed to talk his parents into it pretty easily:  they were committed Europeans and keen for him to speak languages and be international.  This was going to be one hell of an adventure.

Alex was a clever, but very shy teenager, a bit of a loner.  This exchange was a daunting prospect but also exciting.  His German would get better, he would get a trip abroad, he would be with his friends.  Perfect.  What he had not realised was that this experience would change his life in so many ways.

The time in Germany was great, but he did feel homesick a few times, particularly when there was no group trip arranged for a particular day or evening.  He stayed with the family of Michael, a German boy of his own age, whose parents were older than his own.  Michael’s father had been a prisoner of war in Wales, and could say nothing bad about the Brits.  They had a big house in Koblenz and Alex spent a lot of time in the guest room which was in the attic.  They would meet up with Michael’s friends from school, but he had trouble keeping up with the German when they spoke so fast.  But he loved the group trips.  They went down the Rhine on a boat, they visited Koln and its famous cathedral and a huge record shop called Saturn where he bought his first album ever (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours), they saw vineyards, and the capital Bonn.  Friendships grew with his British chums, and some started with the girls too.

After the exchange, back in Kent, the British students stayed together as a large group, girls and boys, and his social life went from zero to a whirl in no time.  His shyness, especially around girls, was a thing of the past.  He was happy, for the first time as a teenager.  Looking back he would realise that this was the biggest impact of that exchange programme.

At the time of course, the sauna experience was the only thing he could think or talk about for months.

Dialogue with James Joyce

“Hi Jimmy, can I call you that?”

“Sure you can Rupert, how are you today?”

“Not bad thanks. I wondered if you could explain to me why you spent so much time writing books which are so hard to understand?”

“Well, that is a good question. Sure, the world is hard to understand, and so is the human race. If you are going to write about important things, it’s going to be difficult to write and difficult to understand, isn’t it?”

“Is that the tootle of the flute?”

“No it’s the blaring of the bum trumpet first thing in the morning begorragh.”

“Thanks for putting me straight there Jimmy.”

“Think nothing of it. But of course I could not think nothing of anything. I thought much about everything. That’s why it took so fekking long to write about it.”

“How did you keep your energy going all that time?”

” Well I think it was about enjoying the process of the writing, and chortling to myself over the little jokes and word plays that I managed to get in there. Norah used to get very chippy about that in bed at night when I chortled. It was the chortle of the portal ha ha.”

“Portal to what Jimmy?”

“Oh I don’t know, the portal to my mind I suppose.”

“So laughing kept you going… what else?”

“It certainly wasn’t the prospect of recognition. The Wake was not well received I can tell you. People were very damning about it, but I thought, you know, just read it, and if you don’t like it, just read it again ha ha.”

“I confess that I have not read Ulysses or the Wake yet, but I have dipped my toe into both. And I loved Dubliners I must say. It felt like I was admitted to a party, even though some of it is quite dark.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yes they were fun to write. Norah liked them as well, which was nice. And of course the lady in Paris.”

“So why leave Dublin?”

“I had to leave in order to see it clearly. But my mind never left Dublin, even though it also went to Europe. Paris, Zurich, Trieste anyway. They were good places to be. And you could meet so many more people than you could in Dublin. But sure, you sometimes want to be on your own. But I love a chat. That’s the blarney there I think. Now listen, I must be off, I have a bit of gibberish to get down on paper before it flies away ha ha. Seeya Rupert, and great to meet you.”

“Thanks Jimmy, I will keep at it.”


The calendar Summer ends,

But not in my mind.

The sun burns bright in my breast still.

I won’t say goodbye for another year

Stay here, stay now, near,

My friend, my source, my light,

Burn bright.

The Summer sun refuelling,

Taking on energy to live the rest of the year,

A light bath of renewal.

I leap into Autumn, too soon, too soon,

But I know I can make it to June.

Life advice from the pugs

Meet Olli and Delli, the pugs.

They wrinkle their faces and shrug:

“Unleash yourself from the past, 

It drags you backwards fast.

Fear the future no more,

Nobody knows what’s in store.

Just get the most of now!

Run in puddles, roll in poo, hump that chow.

It works for us anyhow…

…by the way, where are those sausages you mentioned earlier?”