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John Walford

Copyright © John Walford 2016

All rights reserved

The right of John Walford to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First Published in Great Britain in 2016 by Quantum Dot Press

An imprint of Utility Fog Press

53 Rydal Road

Harrogate HG1 4SD

A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library

Cover image “Time Travel”

by Edwin H. Rydberg, www.lightspeeddreams.net



I am immensely indebted to Edwin Rydberg for putting together this book, in fact for doing everything but writing the script.  Without him, it would never have got off the ground.


Following the runaway success of my first collection of life stories entitled Running With Butterflies, sales of which almost ran into three figures, here is a second volume of observations and reflections. Apart from the four pieces indicated as fiction, I assure readers that all other events happened exactly as described.

John Walford

June 2016

Fear of Flying

People take air travel for granted these days. Thirty five years ago, I had visited both France and Germany a couple of times but I had never flown. Travel in those days was by train and ferry.

My brother-in-law, Trevor, owned a small aeroplane. It was a four-seater and had one engine that drove a propeller. He kept it at a tiny airfield near Paull, to the east of Hull. One Sunday, he invited me over to the airfield to see it. As we drove there, he said it was probably too windy to fly but we could have a look round then have a drink in the clubhouse.

The ‘runway’ at Paull Airfield is simply a grass field and when we arrived, we found that the ever strengthening wind was blowing exactly at right angles to the strip, ruling out any possibility of take off.

We inspected the aircraft, obviously Trevor’s pride and joy, and I made duly admiring comments; although how you can judge an aircraft from its appearance, I don’t know. We then went over to the clubhouse and procured a couple of pints. There were few other people present but then a friend of Trevor’s turned up and they got chatting over a second round. Trevor remarked that he had been hoping to fly but the strong cross wind obviously made that impossible.

“Well, use the cross runway then”, said his friend.

“What cross runway?” replied Trevor.

We went outside. It appeared that the landing strip was slightly wider in the middle than at either end—and that was deemed to be the ‘cross runway’.

“Do you think it’s long enough to get up?” asked Trevor.

“Yeah... probably... Well, if you can’t get up in this wind, you never will, and we’ll be light enough, just the two of us.”

“Ah, well, there’s my brother-in-law as well,” said Trevor, turning to me.

I was doing my best to make myself invisible. I wanted nothing to do with this. What did they mean, “We’ll probably get up?” Flying—okay. Not flying—okay. It was this grey area in between that I was worried about. Plus there was the small matter that Trevor had now sunk a couple of pints and was hardly in a fit state to be taking charge of an aircraft.

But of course I couldn’t back out—Trevor having taken me over there specially and now presented with this unexpected opportunity to take me flying. The three of us squeezed into the tiny cabin and all other available personnel were drafted in to manoeuvre the plane into position, all eager to witness this unexpected attempt by a foolhardy adventurer to defy the odds and try to get airborne in such adverse conditions.

They literally pushed our plane back into a hedge to give us a little more length to play with. Trevor started the engine and revved up. With the engine at full revs, and the whole craft vibrating, we moved forward. Now it’s all right saying that the field is wide enough at that point to achieve take off, but if it’s a grass field, and you are taking off north to south when everyone else takes off east to west, it means you’re going crossways over all the ruts that everyone else has made. So we literally bounced along until the force seven gale that we were heading into did its job and whisked us up into the air.

The first thing I noticed was the sea. I was so surprised because it’s a good fifteen miles beyond Paull but our ascent was so rapid that it could be clearly seen on the horizon after only a few seconds. Once up in the air, despite the noise and the vibration, and the plane bouncing around in the air currents, the magic of flying for the first time displaced all other thoughts. We cruised over Hull, over the street where I lived, over the chimney at Reckitt’s where I worked, a city where I had lived all my life; all the places which were so familiar, all visible in one shot. It was like looking back at the Earth from Lunar orbit.

The landing, an hour later, was as abrupt as the take off; swooping down and alighting like an insect—more like a helicopter landing than an aeroplane.

~ ~ ~

It was not long after that when I finally did take a commercial flight in a jet airliner. I had seen films of air travel, people relaxing and being waited on by stewardesses. Having experienced flying of the most basic kind, I was looking forward to travelling in comfort. I approached the aircraft with the swagger of an ex Battle of Britain pilot.

The first inclination I had that all might not go smoothly was when the man in front of me dropped dead as we boarded the plane. As he lay on the floor of the ramp, with air crew trying in vain to revive him, I took my jacket off and placed it under his head. All the other passengers passed by us on either side and ground staff eventually took over the responsibility for the incident, but I couldn’t board the plane until someone brought a pillow for the man and I could retrieve my jacket.

Inside the plane, things were chaotic. Every seat seemed to be taken until the cabin crew finally found one spare place for me a couple of rows back from my wife, the seat no doubt originally allocated to the man whose body was now being taken away in the ambulance. All of us had only fitted on because one of us had died in the attempt.

Inside the plane it was noisy, hot, stuffy and extremely cramped. I was wedged into a seat with people and their luggage on either side with no possibility of moving for the next three hours. It was like being in a submarine but one that suddenly started lurching around as we took to the air.

Trevor’s plane had been fun, like the exhilaration of being on a motor bike but in three dimensions. This was a nightmare. I couldn’t see out of the windows. All the announcements were in an incomprehensible foreign language. This was the most claustrophobic experience I have ever had.

There are many people who are scared of air travel because of the risk. If an airliner fails, it tends to fail spectacularly, and this is what sticks in people’s minds, but in fact air travel is very safe compared with any other method of transport. When going abroad, you are far more likely to be killed on the motorway driving to the airport than you are on board the plane.

Nevertheless, the unpleasantness of my first experience in an airliner made me very apprehensive on subsequent occasions, although these days, I’ve learned to accept it. Now, when a plane takes off, I celebrate the fact that I’ve made it to the right airport, on the right day, and got on the right plane.

But I have never flown in a small plane again. I enjoyed it at the time but flying in a single engine propeller plane, unlike a jet airliner, does carry a greater risk and I’ve no urgent desire to repeat the experience.

For the record, Trevor sold the plane a few years later and the people who bought it did crash it.


Growing Up

We were the first people in our street to get a telly. On special occasions we used to invite neighbours in to watch. This could have been generosity by my parents or one-upmanship; possibly a bit of both. There was quite a gathering to watch the Coronation, but nothing like the crowd that saw the 1953 Cup Final. I remember, as a six year old, sitting cross-legged on the floor, inches away from the small black and white screen and looking back over my shoulder at a sea of faces like the crowded terraces of a football ground. The attendance that day in our front room would have done credit to a decent third division side. I don’t think we actually charged admission but my Dad’s status in the neighbourhood would have risen considerably.

But much of the rest of the schedule in those days was fairly primitive and programmes for children were particularly dire. Many involved puppets where you could often see the strings that worked them. When Captain Pugwash hit the screens in 1957 with its jiggling cardboard cut-outs, this was seen as innovation.

Over the years, there were considerable advances in technique and by the time my own children were viewers, they were being entertained by such classics as Postman Pat, Bagpuss and The Wombles.

But I still remembered with affection those tales of Captain Pugwash and his crew getting into all sorts of scrapes against his enemy Cut Throat Jake and having to be rescued by the ingenuity of Tom the Cabin Boy. I was therefore very interested when I was told that the Pugwash stories were interwoven with subtle references to homo eroticism! Characters such as ‘Master Bates’ and ‘Seaman Stains’ could take on interesting meanings.

Now I have no inclinations towards homosexuality myself, but I can always sympathise with an oppressed minority and viewed with admiration their attempts to fight back with cunning subversion.

Homosexual acts were still illegal in the fifties and the gay community has a long history of communicating both among themselves and to the outside world using subtlety and code. For them, the biggest breakthrough in broadcasting was actually the mid sixties radio series Round the Horne which featured two camp characters, Jules and Sandy, played by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick. Williams is widely recognised as a comic genius but he was brilliantly supported by Paddick who I often think never got the credit that he deserved. In no sense of the word could Hugh Paddick ever be described as ‘the straight man’! Their quick fire double entendres frequently drew objections from prudes such as Mary Whitehouse but the show was so popular that these were overridden. The programme pushed back the boundaries of taste and set new standards for what was acceptable.

So I was most intrigued when I realised that all this could have been predated by several years by dear old Pugwash.

Just a few years ago, Captain Pugwash reappeared on television but it was screened in the early hours of the morning. I could guess why! This had now become cult viewing. I stayed up late and tuned in eagerly to try and spot the hidden references but after three of these sessions, I began to think I was missing something. Had the offending material been cut? or had it just been in other episodes that I had still to see?

I read soon afterwards that the whole story had been a myth—one of those things that people repeat without checking up on and that grows with the telling. Upon researching further, I found that there was in fact a court case in 1991, where the creators of the Pugwash series successfully sued newspapers for repeating the story of the programme’s supposed perverse content.

But myths are enduring and I still heard someone telling the tale to enthusiastic listeners only a few weeks ago; and with yet more embellishments. For instance, it was now; ‘Roger the Cabin Boy’.

It is hard letting go of cherished myths. Andy Pandy and Teddy are really worked by strings, Sooty is a glove puppet and Captain Pugwash is, sadly, just another kids’ programme.


The Trentino Hills in northern Italy are only called ‘hills’ because they are next to the Alps. Rising to 2,000 metres, in most other places they would be termed mountains in their own right.

One of their prominent peaks is Monte Pasubio which is a popular destination for walkers because the path to the top must surely be unique as it incorporates no less than fifty two tunnels. They were built by the Italian Army during the First World War to transport guns up the mountain to fire on the Austrian troops on the opposite slopes.

In the First World War, Italy was on the same side as Britain. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had invaded them and the Italians were defending their territory. Had the Italians not stopped the invaders where they did, their country could well have been completely overrun; but the defenders held firm and pushed the Austrians back into the Tyrol before the Armistice took effect in 1918. Italy still holds the territory gained in those two years. What we call the Austrian Tyrol, the Austrians call the ‘North Tyrol’ referring to the Italian Alps ruefully as the ‘South Tyrol’ which they still regard as their land under foreign occupation. Well the moral of that is if you want to hang on to your territory then don’t start wars!

Even if you had access to contemporary records, it would still be difficult to get a feel for what conditions were like for the troops engaged on the Alpine Front in 1917. What one man considers hell, another might consider an adventure. But what we do know, is that more soldiers were killed in that campaign by avalanches than by military action, so fighting there was certainly no picnic. It has been estimated that on 16 December 1916, subsequently known as ‘White Friday’, avalanches accounted for ten thousand deaths among the troops of the two sides on that one day alone.

The following year, the fortifications of Monte Pasubio were completed in just eleven months. The Italian Army at that time had extensive use of explosives to do the basic work of blasting out a path up the near vertical side of the mountain, but the work must still have involved enormous manual labour to clear the resulting rubble. Working through the rain and snow of the winter months must have been wretched, and would inevitably have involved many injuries and deaths.

The path to the top, tunnels included, took me two and a half hours of steady climbing. The first tunnel has a formal concrete entrance but after that they are all rough hewn and purely functional. They have also been left unlit which retains an authentic atmosphere.

The path is a fairly consistent two metres wide, not enough for a vehicle but wide enough for mules to have hauled up the field guns and carts of supplies. In some places, the path is the classic mountain track, with a vertical cliff on one side and a vertical drop on the other, a scene often depicted in cartoons but rarely encountered in reality.

The mountainside may be steep, but it is anything but a smooth cliff and incorporates buttresses, indentations and pinnacles. A path following the contours of the mountain would be impossibly convoluted so it was easier to carve tunnels through the outcrops. Some are just a few metres long, cut through a shoulder of rock, others several hundred. Some of them are curved and one even does a complete spiral so it can emerge at a point more advantageous to the path’s progress. The views are phenomenal. You see vistas that are usually only enjoyed by mountaineers.

When I walked up in 2009, there were flowers on the open sections but the weather became mistier as we ascended so what butterflies had been around at the start soon disappeared. It was perhaps as well. I am used to observing butterflies in difficult terrain but to do so on vertical cliffs might well have resulted in me joining the ranks of the fallen as well.

At the end of the path, the large rifugio building sits in a sheltered hollow so that the last two tunnels actually slope down to it. Descending through these two, I found it much more difficult to keep my feet, so it was as well that we returned by a different route, avoiding going back down through all the other fifty.

In the years since the construction of the Monte Pasubio fortifications, Italy has had a chequered history, turning to fascism and fighting alongside the Nazis. In the Second World War, the Italians were often branded as cowards by the British. I have always thought this was grossly unfair. Italians troops often did surrender easily, but I would rather interpret this as not only sensible but a humane desire not to kill anyone pointlessly.

Supposing Oswald Mosley’s Fascists had taken over in Britain and then we had been liberated by American forces. I’m sure many Britons would have been happy to surrender in such circumstances. Many Italians did not support fascism and surrendering to the Allied forces seems to me a very reasonable course of action.

The circumstances in 1917 however were quite different and the tunnels, apart from providing a spectacular and enjoyable walk, are a fitting memorial to the efforts and sacrifices made by the Italians in the successful defence of their country. I find I can relate to them far more than I can to the mass graves that are found on other battlefields of the two world wars. The path I walked along was actually made by the men who fought and died here (Monte Pasubio tunnel videos - opens internet browser).

The Law of Averages

A few years after I had left school, a friend of mine called Tez joined the darts team of a local pub. So once a fortnight, when they had a home match, I used to meet up with him there for a couple of pints and his dad would often join us. In those days, the generations did not mix much but Tez’s dad was a pleasant chap; one of the few who didn’t talk down to people younger.

One of the rituals of the evening was playing the gaming machine—the ‘fruit machine’ or ‘one armed bandit’ as it was known. Both Tez and his dad would put a few coins in at the start of the evening—something I adamantly refused to do.

“You cannot win on a bandit”, I said, “that’s why it’s called a bandit. It’s sole purpose is to relieve you of your money.”

“Well it’s just a bit of a laugh”, they said. Couldn’t see the joke, myself.

Very occasionally, the darts team were one player short and in desperation I would be called upon to make up the numbers. Now I can no more play darts than I can perform brain surgery, so I just used to aim for the middle of the board with every throw, thus ensuring that each dart at least registered something. This tended to give me an average score of thirty odd as that is what three random shots at a dartboard, in the long run, tends to produce. This was far more useful to the team than trying to go for big scores and missing altogether. Once, I even hit the bull and my score shot up.

One evening, I don’t know why, I did put a coin in the bandit and amazingly, I won: only a few pence but I now actually had more money than I started with. I sat down quickly. I was, at that moment, the only person in the world who had made a profit from playing the bandit. But like a fool, I did the same thing the following week and of course I lost. I have never played a bandit since then. I have still probably lost less than anyone who has ever played but if I had only stopped earlier, I could have boasted about my status for the rest of my life.

I am tempted to play just once more; because if I did happen to turn a small profit, I could regain my position and then closely guard it till the day I die. But it won’t happen. I can’t do it—but not for any reasons of principle. Bandits have evolved so much in the intervening years, with their holds, nudges, bonuses and whatever else... I would never be able to fathom out how to operate one.

A Brief History of Timing

I have never been particularly keen on recorded music, I prefer to hear my music live. Yet I possess a copy of what I consider to be the most precious recording ever made.

Almost three hundred years ago, J S Bach worked out the exact frequencies of the musical scale which made the assembly of musical instruments far easier. Exploring the newly accessible possibilities of melody and harmony resulted in a flourish of creativity that lasted a full two centuries, but as for rhythm—well, that was just taken for granted. European music is rhythmical, otherwise it would be meaningless, but the rhythms are very primitive, simple sub divisions of a basic beat.

African music however not only has a rich sense of harmony but has also developed rhythm to a much greater degree. Not content with merely sub dividing a steady beat, they realise that you can skip some beats or even advance or retard them.

European music makes patterns in space. African music makes patterns in time. Put them together—and you get the greatest explosion the world has ever heard!

In 1865, when the Civil War ended in the USA, the black slaves of the Southern States were liberated but a generation later they were still living in abject poverty. To earn a living, many young black men joined the army, where some learned to play in military bands. After their discharge, a few formed bands of their own, playing the hymns and marches they knew—white music, but played with their own African rhythms. An unlikely, tenuous thread, but from those bands around New Orleans a hundred years ago sprang all the music of the twentieth century; Blues, Jazz, Pop and Rock.

While Europe was tearing itself to pieces in the First World War, the USA was prospering. The northern cities of the mid west, Chicago in particular, were industrialising at a furious pace and the poor southern blacks flooded up the Mississippi to fill the demand for labour. And they brought their music with them.

The story then takes a curious twist. In 1920, with the best of intentions, but more in haste than good judgement, America decided to prohibit alcohol. Despite the spectacular failure of the aims of this policy, it was a full thirteen years before this law was repealed.

In Chicago alone, the Prohibition Era gave rise to thousands of clubs where bootleg liquor could be obtained, but they generally needed a legitimate front, so they were ostensibly entertainment clubs where music was provided. A five or six piece Dixieland Jazz Band fitted the bill perfectly.

From the outset, jazz was eagerly taken up by white musicians and throughout the 1920’s black and white jazz bands existed in parallel. In those days, even in the north, America was deeply divided racially. There is no record of prejudice among the musicians who fed off and elaborated on each other’s styles but it was socially unacceptable for black and white musicians to play together in public and would remain so for many years.

1920’s Chicago produced many great musicians but two easily stand out above the others. Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans in 1901 and eventually became world famous. The other is not so well known but in some people’s opinion, including that of Armstrong himself, was the finest ever interpreter of early jazz. When Armstrong arrived in Chicago in 1922, a young middle class white boy called Leon Beiderbecke, usually known as Bix, was only nineteen but was already sacrificing his studies in the legal profession to play cornet in jazz clubs. By 1924 he had his own band and had gathered some of the best musicians of the day around him who were taking the New Orleans jazz style to sublime levels of artistry.

Playing the clubs was for Bix Beiderbecke an exciting occupation but it was insecure and low paid. So after three years he decided to further his career by joining a top class outfit, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. They were what we might call a Dance Band but they were the most highly rated in the US at that time, being chosen, for example, for the debut performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in New York in 1924. But generally they did not play the cool, crazy, new jazz that Bix loved.

Just at that time, there was a very important breakthrough in sound recording. Up to then, recordings were made acoustically, using a giant horn to transmit sound vibrations directly on to the needle cutting the disc. In 1926, a system of electronic recording was invented using a microphone which enormously improved the quality of the sound. Bix had made recordings before, but throughout 1927 he made visits back to the studios with a few of his old friends to re-record the jazz numbers that he so loved.

Bix had become friends with Louis Armstrong and used to invite him to his flat to play music together but sadly the conventions of the time prevented them from any professional collaboration.

Even as a teenager, Bix had been fond of alcohol and playing all night stands in speakeasies made the stuff far too available. By the time he joined Paul Whiteman in 1926 he was already well down the road of alcoholism. This would have raised doubts about his long term future in any era, but at that particular time, the liquor was mostly illegally brewed rot-gut, often contaminated by methyl alcohol and other poisons. (Louis Armstrong, incidentally, was a lifelong marijuana smoker and thus avoided such problems). After only three years with Whiteman, Beiderbecke was too ill to continue playing and he died in 1931 at the ridiculously early age of twenty eight.

The fact that his jazz recordings of 1927 exist at all is a result of almost miraculous coincidence: the new recording technology just starting up, the fact that he even bothered to go back and do them because they were not financially lucrative, and the fact that it was the final year that his playing was still top quality before his physical deterioration seriously impaired his technique.

It was all a question of timing (Information for this article was based on: 'Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend' by Jean Pierre Lion.).

The Jazz Age

The most defining thing about being a teenager in the 1960’s was that we had our own music. We had other things as well that set us apart from other age groups, but it was the music that gave us our identity. Unfortunately this tended to make us prejudiced against any other types of music. Classical?—old blokes in penguin suits! Rock and Roll?—went out with the Nineteen Fifties! So it wasn’t until my twenties that I began to acknowledge that there were other forms of music that deserved serious attention.

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