IN THIS CHAPTER:
- Flawed cast
- Valuable inspections
- South Benfleet
- Going International
- Northern Odyssey
- Coast to coast
- Conspiracy theories
I looked around for something more challenging and found this at KeyMed. A medical organisation that wanted me to set up its industrial division. It sold fibrescopes and rigid endoscopes to look into various parts of the human body. These looked in through the existing orifices, top (bronchoscopy…) and bottom (colonoscopy), but also through incisions in stomachs (laparoscopy), knees (arthroscopy) and so on. I was taken on to expand its potential applications in industry.
It was a wonderful ‘blank sheet of paper’ opportunity. I started by looking at applications as simple as inspecting motor cylinder blocks for faults in the casting process, to looking into airframe and aero-engines in what was known as NDT (non-destructive testing) or ‘on-condition’ monitoring – the RAF called the rigid devices ‘shufti-scopes’.
I soon got close to the RAF, the Army Air Corps and perhaps most intriguing was that I worked with the Met Police’s C7 technical support team and even the SAS on surveillance. Our scopes were used in the Spaghetti House and Balcombe Street sieges, making holes into the siege sites with an acid and then inserting a scope to see if the hostages were alive and to gain insight into the hostage-takers.
ASIDE: The pharmaceutical companies have always been smart at promoting their products and one item stands out across more than forty years. At KeyMed we shared out promo stuff and I chose a small cardboard cube calendar. It sat on a Perspex base to tilt the active side. Each side showed a two month calendar of the year. The key thing was that it was intended to sit on a doctor’s desk for a whole year. At the bottom of each side was a simple sales message that seared itself into your brain. I still remember it, ‘Bisolvon, wherever sputum is a problem’. It had no relevance for me but it’s still there forty years on. It was darned effective.
I later encountered a mailer that added to the impact. The cube mailer was flat-packed with an elastic band internally attached, so that when you pulled it out of its sleeve it popped up to form the cube. Perhaps this one in the medical application should say ‘Aspirin, whenever your heart is a problem’. Because it startled as you took it out. But I commend a cube calendar as a very effective long-lasting promo tool.
One significant demo I did for the scopes was at Midland Motor Cylinder in Smethwick. Foundries like MMC created castings using sand moulds that defined the inner dimensions of a cylinder block to carry the cooling water around the hot block and head, the sand is then purged to complete the fabrication. Occasionally the mould had flaws that allowed the metal of the block to bridge what should have been a water-filled void, then of course the heat would be radiated via this to the outer shell – not desirable!
They previously resolved this by cutting up sample blocks to see if there was any slag. More often than not, the chopped block proved perfect but the casting had been destroyed in this process, a loss to the foundry. What KeyMed scopes did was to offer a non-destructive alternative. We could look into these internal areas and provide visual reassurance that the casting was a ‘good-un’.
The MMC senior manager had an office beside the foundry and displayed proudly on his side cabinet a sand-mould that was one of the most complicated they had ever produced using multiple moulds and layers. It was perfectly natural for me to get out a scope and show him the view we could offer, albeit of the mould rather than the casting. He took a look and was stunned when he saw a big claggy lump of adhesive inside the mould that would have meant the casting would need to be scrapped. He admitted, on a subsequent appointment, this had so upset him that he had junked this flawed example of their work.
A cylinder block stood the foundry in at just tens of £s, we looked at many more expensive items. For example, I was once asked to take my kit into the Natural History Museum. One of its scientists had established that a turtle could be ‘aged’ by examining the inside of its brain cavity. He passed me a skull, I shoved one of our rigid borescopes with video camera attached through an eye socket to display the skull’s insides onto a screen. Cameras were quite bulky back then and attached to the end of the scope the whole was quite unwieldy.
I asked about the origin of the skull and was told it was 110 million years old. It had been found as a fossil deep within stone that they had etched away with acid to reveal the skull. I carefully withdrew my scope and passed it to them, though they did not seem at all concerned about the possibility of damaging this precious object.
We also hired out our knowledge and equipment. On one occasion I was called out to Gatwick at 4am. A Lockheed L-1011 TriStar of Pakistan Airlines had lost its wheels on take-off, the problem was diagnosed as an issue in its truck-beam assembly, part of the landing gear. The CAA had ordered that all Tristars needed inspection within the next ten days, to look at an internal weld for signs of cracking. I arrived with a medical arthroscope, more often used for keyhole surgery on knees and other joints. It was just 1.7mm in diameter and this one had a sheath over it with a 90-degree lens at its end to provide a side view.
My major concern during the inspection was that the plane had recently landed and the fuel in its wings was cold from being at altitude. Sheets of ice had formed on the underside of the wing and were now falling in big slabs all around us.
We got the view and sure enough there was indeed a crack. The engineer, unfamiliar with my device, asked me what size it was. I scanned their drawings and knowing the magnification of the device came up with a calculation suggesting it was 8-to-10 thou. He promptly asked me to sign off against this, which I just as promptly refused because the aircraft would take off shortly with hundreds of passengers aboard, there was no way it was going to do so on my ‘back-of-a-fag-packet’ calculation and signature.
On another occasion we were called to Rolls Royce Derby to see if we could provide a view of the first-stage turbine of an RB211 engine. By this time engines were being developed with ports built-in to allow views of key areas with a set of rigid scopes. There was one RR employee who during development phases would insert wooden cones representing the required view from where the port was to be located. But a late modification to this engine had moved one port. It was only slightly, but this meant it did not provide a view of the end of the leading edge of the first-stage turbine, and their first problem hit right there.
The last row of cooling holes in that blade were developing a crack that was not visible with rigid scopes through the port. They could see the trailing edge but by the time the crack had broken through, it was dangerous. RR was faced with issuing an instruction for more frequent inspections of that trailing edge, and this would be economically damaging.
We were asked to see if we could provide the needed view on a brand-new engine ready for shipping from Derby. I put a flexible scope in through the port but found that we needed the scope to enter the rotor space to get the clarity of view required. The production guy had a helper called Fred standing by and he called out ‘Fred, in a moment we will need to turn the inching drive’. Fred was a tad hasty and engaged the drive which flicked the rotor. My scope was suddenly delivering no image because the rotor had neatly chopped off the tip, severing the fibre-bundle. Worse, when I withdrew the scope it was evident its tip had been left somewhere inside this expensive new engine ready for despatch. These stainless-steel clad Olympus fibrescopes cost around £6,000 each. I used a medical scope to find and remove the tip and to look for any damage to the engine, thankfully there wasn’t, but it was clear we could not expect a maintenance team in the field to run a similar risk.
After many trips from Southend to Derby our bench team, mostly ex-watchmakers, came up with a guide tube that was inserted into the port and sat the scope safely outside of the rotor path. It had a timing lug that located into a sheath attached to the scope to give it the right orientation. A spring then allowed the user to push the scope forward into the rotor path once assured that everything was static. Letting go promptly sprung the scope back to the safety of the guide tube. Sadly, we could only bill them tens of £s for each device, sad because we had saved them many millions, and probably saved the future of the engine.
I spent a good deal of time visiting RAF stations, in particular their centre for NDT at RAF Swanton Morley. At this base was its Central Servicing Development Establishment (CSDE) and the Maintenance Analysis and Computing Establishment (MACE). Other regular visits were to the Army Air Corps at Middle Wallop and the Fleet Air Arm. I was checked into these places, had signed the Official Secrets Act, yet was rather surprised by the amount of unsupervised access I had to these front-line aircraft. I could just wander around in the hangars and on the aprons with no-one ever challenging my right to be there.
Of course, turbine generators were used as electrical power plants on North Sea oil rigs and in remote and developing areas and so the techniques we developed for aero engines had further applications. We also provided inspections of gun barrels, the fuses of shells and the interiors of missiles – it was pretty-much endless.
We inspected nuclear power stations and submarines. We found that the radiation quickly destroyed the fibre bundles so that scope life-expectancy was short. As was ours, because pretty quickly the whole team had exceeded the permitted exposure levels which meant we were not allowed to enter these facilities again.
ASIDE: Your exposure limit back then was defined by your age, minus 18, times a factor. But if you were born and brought up in Aberdeen, ‘Granite City’, you had a natural dosage that was twice the permitted level. We saw our ban from nuclear facilities as a badge of honour, hoped we might shine at night, something like the children featured in Scott’s Porage Oats adverts – though not really a joking matter.
SOUTH BENFLEET – 1976
We were living in Byfleet Surrey and I was working in Southend-On-Sea, not the kindest of journeys around the South Circular with nightmare roads either end of my trip, the A3 and A127. Today everyone whinges about the M25 but this was worse!
In Benfleet we bought an upside-down house, living upstairs, sleeping down. Its name was ‘Platform 1’ with a railway platform sign outside; it was apparently salvaged from a redevelopment of the adjacent station. We only had one delivery problem, that went to the station itself.
Jane and I, being from Bristol, had grown up with a trip to Weston-Super-Mare as a routine childhood day-trip. As a result we’ve always loved an occasional trip to the traditional English seaside resort with its prom, pier, arcades, donkey rides and the usual candy floss, toffee apples… We saw the proximity of Southend as a real bonus.
The previous householder part-owned a promotional agency that had supplied the inflatable pig used at Pink Floyd concerts. They had ‘wall-papered’ much of the house with calico and there were several other quirky features. But the USP was the view from the dining room and balcony that looked out over Canvey Island. The house below us on the steep Station Road, conveniently blocked our view of the industry on the island and left us a remarkable view of the rural elements of the island, of ships on the Thames estuary, boats on Benfleet creek, which, with the trains and cars, provided 24-7 entertainment.
Just around the corner was a famous pie ‘n’ mash stall where you could buy jellied eels and pie, mash and liquor, a real East-End tradition. While we lived there someone was shot from a passing car, while queueing for an order. However, this was exceptional; the area was otherwise pleasantly suburban.
KeyMed helped the Palace Theatre in Westcliff-on-Sea by paying for a new sound system and as a result we got tickets to every production. This meant we went to see many things that would not normally have attracted us, finding them almost universally to have merit and interest, including a night with Hinge & Bracket which I would not have chosen to see.
This led to us developing a long-term interest in attending West-End plays and musicals. Fortunately, friends we’d made back in Byfleet produced theatre curtains and soft furnishings for many new shows and they got us invitations to several first-nights.
I had one traumatic speedy journey from Benfleet. I learned from Mum that Dad had a stroke (his first), subsequently something of a family habit, and she was fearful for his survival. I drove the 175 miles from Southend to Bristol like a lunatic, flashing my lights, using my horn, I had rationalised that if the police stopped me, they would understand my need to get there. This was pre-M25 though my experience of that road suggests it would not have helped. I went straight through London and made it, during a business day, in just under four hours. No-one batted an eyelid along the route, but then cameras were not yet on every junction and traffic light. Thankfully my father pulled through, but this proved to be the first of four or five strokes that weakened and eventually took him.
ASIDE: Working with Keymed, I had a very strange experience in a small ivy-clad country hotel in rural Derbyshire, while visiting an RAF station. I had checked in, eaten and was reading in bed. I turned out the light and immediately there was a scratching at my window. Spooked I switched the light back on and it promptly stopped. I went to the window, drew the curtains to see ivy all around the window but no sign of what was doing the scratching.
I tried a number of times and the effect was the same. I called down to the night porter explaining my problem and asked him to go out to the front of the hotel and look up to my room when I switched off. He reported seeing nothing and came to the room where we tried again, we were both a bit spooked by now. Eventually all was revealed. In the window recess was a lamp and the lightshade was made of some two-layer plastic material. It was this material cooling when the light went out that was producing the noise. I found it settled down after ten minutes.
Having resolved the range of applications for these scopes, I promptly applied for a BOTB (British Overseas Trade Board) EMRS (Export Market Research Scheme) arrangement. The government awarded me a grant that would refund 50% of all my travel, accommodation and subsistence costs in researching overseas markets, provided I filed a report and claim. I travelled Europe and the Middle East and later extended the deal to include North America. It meant I could go twice as often or for twice as long as our budget might have permitted.
Perhaps my most interesting foray was around the Middle East betraying my complete lack of knowledge of how to operate there. I had completed good desk research on potential clients and was assisted by Rolls Royce Industrial & Marine Division who effected many local introductions. My trip started in Saudi Arabia (Jeddah, Riyadh and Dhahran), Bahrain, UAE, Kuwait and finished up in Egypt. Old Middle East hands I met suggested I had not given myself enough time to achieve anything, but it turned out to be a high-earning trip.
Arrival at Jeddah was testing because it was during the Haj, so there was chaos at the airport. From the second that the door of the plane opened I was hit by the intense humidity, and the airport had no aircon. All passports had been collected and placed at a health desk. My Jumbo Jet flight had been perhaps 90% Arab and fewer that 10% of other origins. The health desk opened the passports and called out the holder’s name, who was given two large Tetracycline tablets to take. There was one small wooden dish (small soup bowl sized) and a tap to assist. They called out all the Arab names first, and so we ‘others’ watched as almost 300 rather disreputable-looking Haj pilgrims used that bowl. Then it was our turn. The dubious origin of the water and the previous users led to the only time I have ever managed to dry-swallow tablets. An American ‘other’ advised me to carry a screw-top Schweppes-sized bottle of water for the future. He suggested you could sell it on to the next ‘other’ in the queue for many dollars.
I held all the correct documentation for the scopes and camera bodies. I carried them in a smart cut-out display briefcase. The Customs guys were clearly unhappy and were expecting backsheesh to let me through. But I had no idea if offering this would get me into deeper trouble. Fortunately, the queues were swelled by two more Jumbos arriving and they finally waved me through untaxed.
By now my clothes were soaked in sweat. A little local lad stepped up calling out ‘Taxi’ and, before I had realised, grabbed my case and sprinted off. I panted along behind him as he wended his way through a car park to a dark forbidding corner of it. There were two adults standing there arguing in Arabic and pointing at me, one with a rifle as I summoned up the energy to be sure to take one of them with me, I wasn’t going lightly. Finally, I was invited into a taxi and I tipped the lad. The taxi drove me perhaps 300 metres to my hotel and then demanded the equivalent of £20 – welcome to Saudi Arabia!
The next day I met up with the British Military Attaché who was brilliant, he drove me onto military bases and introduced me to the people who mattered. He also had a series of great stories of his time there. For example, he explained that the embassy smuggled in booze for their functions by sea, the manifest describing the package as a piano. They received a call from their contact at the docks to come quickly because the crate was leaking and attracting attention. The attaché’s predecessor in full uniform went to the port, marched up to the large group of officials gathered around the package. He looked at the manifest, handed it back and said, ‘Send it back, British pianos DO NOT leak!’, and calmly marched off.
One day I walked into Jeddah airport to find the Saudia Airlines engineering base, it helped to be completely oblivious of the high security nature of the facility. I entered a room with a guy leaning back in his chair with his feet up on his desk. He sported a pair of worn cowboy boots, his Stetson was hanging on the wall and a nameplate indicated this was Woody Pridgen, self-evidently a Texan even if I had missed the Lone Star flag. He looked at me speechlessly, as if I was a mirage in my suit, collar and tie and carrying a smart briefcase.
I filled the silence by opening the case to reveal my scopes and camera bodies and explaining why I was there. He still looked dumbfounded, reminding me of Slim Pickens in Dr Strangelove. He picked up a phone and asked someone ‘Has that order gone yet?’ and was told ‘No’, he said ‘Don’t process it’. He then explained he had just been about to order scopes and cameras for twelve Saudia bases around the kingdom from ‘Fort’ my French competitor. However, for my cojones in turning up at his office, he would give me the deal. What absolutely confirmed the order was that I could also include the supply of colour video cameras and screens – although these were mooted for use with the scopes, I got the distinct impression they would be for personal use. I left with an order for close to £80,000 worth of kit. But the leaving was not simple, I should not have been on the site, so Woody hid me under a tarp on the back of a pick-up truck and drove me out.
On another occasion I met a rather subdued British guy at my hotel who had been awarded a poisoned chalice. He worked for the power generator CEGB at home and they had agreed to manage Jeddah’s power supply, promising no power outs through the coming summer. I later learned more of his impossible task, when Woody had to order a large number of light bulbs from me for our light sources. They were rated to operate for 200 hours but were lasting him only 20. A great deal of the local power supply was by gas turbine generator (essentially ground-tethered aero-engines) and these had a characteristic problem. When the sun rose, locals switched on their aircons and these turbines took a finite period to get up to speed, in the evening when they switched off the AC, the turbines took a long time to slow down. As a result, Woody recorded the actual power supply, rated at 120v, was in fact oscillating between 40v and 180v, it was this that burned out our bulbs. The CEGB guy had been there only a short while when I met him, he already had a haunted look in his eyes.
During the trip he dragooned me via my RR contact to visit a remote generating site to do an inspection. The route to it proved very circuitous because it was close to Makkah (Mecca) and as non-Islamics we were not permitted into the holy city. Thankfully our vehicle had tinted windows. A few miles closer, I could have claimed Hajji – if I had converted!
I moved on to Riyadh which had one immediately disturbing feature. There were small planes flying over the suburbs almost constantly and when I asked, I was told they were spraying DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) to keep down pests and to control disease. DDT’s connection to breast and other cancers, miscarriages, development delays, male infertility, nervous system and liver damage was already well-documented. Its use was outlawed in Britain in 1986 and banned worldwide in 2001 with a few exceptional cases.
My Riyadh hotel waiters had an annoying habit too, when you arrived back to the hotel to get out of the 40+C heat, they would smile pleasantly and ask if you wanted a beer. But, of course, what they brought you was a Swiss non-alcoholic apple concoction that really did not hit the spot ‘as advertised’.
Riyadh was also a nightmare for travel arrangements. There was an ‘Arabian Express’ system for reconfirming flights that had you back and forth to the airport. The taxis you needed to use were another frustration, the drivers threw a headdress over their meter and had no interest in what it might display. You had to negotiate a round-trip with them, including any waiting time arrangement, before setting off – without knowing how far it was, or how long it might take! These taxis were also notable for having their own biosphere, they were full of travelling mosquitoes.
ASIDE: I am familiar with the sciences, but one thing that has often worried me is why flies and mosquitoes do not get crushed at the rear of a plane, or taxi. A plane travels at say 400 knots, so is the fly achieving 405 knots as it flies up through the cabin? Another issue is Einstein’s theory of relativity which includes a time-dilution feature that says an air traveller’s lapsed time means he/she ages more slowly than those left on the ground. I’ve flown a great deal but have yet to note any anti-ageing effects. Perhaps pondering why flies aren’t smeared on the back of the cabin is prematurely ageing me and that cancels it out?
So, let’s get back to the Arabian Express. This meant I had to go to Riyadh airport two days before my outward flight to reconfirm my booking. This involved joining a large queue of largely Yemeni, Iranian and Pakistani labourers and wait my turn. They exhibited a complete lack of understanding of the concept of personal space – or of personal daintiness. I stupidly slipped sideways from the crush as I neared the desk. The Saudi official decided I had pushed in and sent me to the back of the queue. When I was finally served, I was reconfirmed, then told I had to do the same thing the next day for seat allocation. Which I duly did, yet many fellow travellers advised me that if a local prince decided to take the flight then they often dumped off any non-Arab, and I would have to start all over again.
I was transiting through Dhahran to Bahrain and my internal flight appeared to circle for fifteen minutes or more before landing, making my connection time even tighter. When my bag arrived, I threw it onto a trolley and started my jog from the internal terminal to the external. An old local grabbed the handle, wanting to push my trolley for me. I confess I lost it somewhat and shouted at him because he was holding me up.
This prompted a first for me (first of three to date!), a guy in uniform suddenly appeared and drew a pistol, putting it to my head – it certainly got my attention and calmed me! He asked in good English what the problem was, and I explained my hurry and the old boy was holding me up. He politely said the old man had a living to make and lowered the pistol, I said please tell him we need to run. When we got to the other terminal the old boy made an outrageous demand for cash for the hundred-metre dash and I refused, giving him a lesser sum. I passed into a waiting area for my flight and was the only non-Arab in there as the old boy, leaning around the entrance harangued me in Arabic. My flight was delayed, and he had a good forty minutes to berate me. As you might imagine I was quite glad to leave.
Bahrain proved to be much more relaxing, I bought some electronics at the souk and even had a day on the Sheikh’s beach, where he was known often to host a barbecue. I managed several good meetings too.
From there I went to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, neither of them anything like the modern cities of today. Perhaps my lasting memory of both was their taxis. There were no road signs and no road numbers so if you were to attend an appointment you needed to take copious notes. Your client would direct you to him via a series of tall buildings, for example ‘head for a three-floor greenish building, then look to the south’ for another landmark, and so on. They’re little better today, particularly if you take a taxi from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, the driver has no knowledge of the other city and vice versa. Visiting my son at his current Dubai villa today, using an Emirates-supplied car from Dubai, we are still reduced to doing much the same, go to this road, this mall and then ourselves point out the final location.
Next stop was Kuwait, where I learned the ruling family ran the supply of booze and it was therefore a little more relaxed and again quite fruitful for sales.
When I got to my final stop, Cairo, I found it provided much broader scope, it was then the case that most of the Middle East was run by Egyptian engineers and Lebanese financiers. Egypt was emerging from close cooperation with the Soviet Union under Nasser. President Sadat was re-establishing links with the West, but many factories still bore the Soviet stamp and look, I visited for example the ex-333 Factory. This was an aerospace operation originally led in the 1950s by their group of German scientists, it was attacked by the Israelis in the 1960s and had more recently been expanded by the Soviets. While I was there it was negotiating deals with Rolls Royce Engines and Westland Helicopters.
I had to wait my turn in a majlis (a place of sitting or council), where I had to sit patiently until called forward. This was odd because I could listen to the other business conversations, which included Westland, as they went into details with the factory’s top people. They served a really bad coffee, which I stupidly drained quickly at first, but realised that they kept topping it up, so slowed my consumption.
Perhaps my hardest trip for KeyMed was for us to participate in the ‘Offshore Europe’ show in Aberdeen. I tried to get an exhibition stand there but it was sold out, all they could offer me was an outside exhibit. At our Southend offices I had noticed an old long caravan parked up and asked what it was, I received the OK to refurbish and use it. We built a special display cabinet that had various things concealed inside for potential customers to use our instruments and get those internal views. We bought an ex-WD Land Rover to tow it and booked an outside exhibit space for our revamped caravan.
There was the little matter of getting there – a distance of 575 miles! We decided that two of us (Chris and I) would set off after business hours on Friday night and take it in turns to drive through the night. We were waved off at about 6pm and joined the A13 to get up to London. The long caravan had just two rather small wheels and the Landy had a narrow-wheelbase too. We stopped to move the load several times to try to get it to ride more comfortably but pretty soon had to conclude that 30 to 35 mph was our effective maximum speed before the pitching and yawing became extremely disturbing. We realised this extended our trip to nearer twenty hours than the expected ten.
Worse, we found that we were consuming our two petrol tanks roughly every motorway services, these enforced regular stops did nothing to assist with our ETA.
ASIDE: The services to the South of Birmingham was one where the catering facilities closed northbound and we had to use a bridge to cross the carriageways to the south-side café. Chris went on ahead and I realised half-way across that I had grabbed up my man-bag, not just my wallet. I was being approached by a group of five noisy guys coming the other way. At this time it was still early for this sort of accessory, you could get away with a man-bag overseas, but late-evening in Birmingham? Thankfully they didn’t appear to notice.
Soon, we were well into our routine, one napping while the other drove, and starting to make something of an impression on the journey. I was at the wheel when I realised something was wrong and pulled over to the hard shoulder. This woke Chris who looked back down the caravan just in time to see the caravan wheel fall off.
It was about 5am, we were just south of Carlisle, it was raining, and a swift examination showed we were in trouble. The wheel studs had been sheared from the hub. We jacked up the caravan, unhitched the Landy and drove in it on to the next services.
It was early Saturday morning, our travel clothes had got wet through. We killed some time eating and drinking coffee then took over two callboxes (pre-mobiles!) and went through the yellow pages calling anyone who might be able to help. We finally found a garage in Carlisle sixty miles north from where we were and came up with a solution. We drove back to the caravan, removed the hub, and took this the sixty miles north to this workshop – it did not escape our notice that this would later be a two-hour journey in the caravan. We were by now dressed in our exhibition suits, also a tad wet. The guy drilled out the studs and supplied new bolts, of approximately the right dimensions.
We drove back to the caravan and fitted the new arrangement. This jury-rigged set-up carried us only ten miles north before it too broke. It was now mid-morning Saturday and we called the transport manager In Southend, who agreed to come and help but we knew he would be many hours. We went back to calling people for a long low-loader and finally found a guy in Kendal who said he had to offload bales of hay first but would come and get us, because his sister lived in Aberdeen so he would get us there, then visit her.
ASIDE: Some forty years later I would be driving around Kendal, Carlisle and Hadrian’s Wall successfully finding early traces of the Denton family (below). But, at this earlier time, I was none too impressed by the area, the incessant rain running down a slope to look more like a stream, a mist that made the surroundings dreary.
Just as we had almost given up on him, early afternoon, the farmer arrived. By now we had attracted a motorway police vehicle who closed the M6 for us to drag the caravan around 180-degrees on its hub and address it toward the rear of the low-loader. The guy had removed the rear wheels and axle of his trailer and used a winch to drag it onto the flat bed.
But, our caravan proved to be just too long to get the rear wheels back on, so we used our jack and the guy’s jack to hoist up the caravan’s front-end (now to the rear of the low-loader) enough to allow us to slide the wheels back into place.
As we completed this, now late afternoon on Saturday, our guy from Southend arrived to see us shake the low-loader guy by the hand and arrange to see him Sunday afternoon at the show. We were too tired to show gratitude and, given his fortuitous timing, even jokingly accused him of waiting over the rise until we had done all the work. We did apologise for ruining his weekend, but we now had it under control, so he turned around and wended his way back home without comment.
We were now able to maintain 60-70mph in the Landy without the caravan, so set off with renewed enthusiasm, until an hour later, sixty miles further up the road, the Landy got a puncture! We both realised that our jack was on the low-loader! But we retained some residual luck, we forlornly looked among the stuff we had received, when so recently taking delivery of the Landy, and found a rudimentary jack that we had not realised we had. The rest of our drive proved uneventful, and we met the low-loader guy at the showground.
Because we had arrived so late, we found other outside stands had been built and there was no route for us to move the caravan to our rented site! However, one of our customers was the forklift manufacturer Lansing Bagnall and they were exhibiting at the show. They had great fun using two of their pieces of plant to lift our caravan high over others’ exhibits, though we had to dismount and reinstall three flagstaffs. They plonked our caravan in place resting on several bricks where the offending wheel was still missing.
Our soggy fixtures and exhibits were all down one end of the caravan, from its having been jacked up on the low-loader, but we had time to remedy that. The low-loader guy was contracted to pick the caravan up again and transport it back to Southend.
Coast to coast
Another lengthy journey was taken when I extended my BOTB grant to include North America and took my first trip to New York. I met up with Olympus America, who sold the same fiberscopes over there. It became a very long day.
I flew out and they suggested there was little point in going to my hotel, so we went to their offices first and had a long series of meetings. They then suggested that there was little point in going to my hotel, we should go straight out to dinner at the Algonquin. The net result was that by the time they did take me to my hotel I had been on-the-go for much more than twenty hours and sleep was nowhere in my vocabulary.
I went to the dingy hotel bar for a drink to send me to sleep. I ordered a whisky and American Dry – not a hope of them understanding that – I learned a Doo-ers (dewars) on-the-rocks was my way forward. There was an older guy with a tartily-dressed younger woman next to me at the bar and he caught my accent. He was well-juiced and suggested to the girl that I was from MI5 (Bond was popular at the time). I had an early red LED watch, the sort you had to push a button to see the time. So, I pressed the button and said, ‘My cover is blown, I’m coming home.’ The barman rushed around the counter and grabbed me and threw me out of the bar. When I questioned this, he said he had just saved my life. Still confused he said the guy was an off-duty cop, that I had smart-mouthed him in front of his girlfriend, didn’t I know that most homicides in NY were committed by off-duty policemen?
Suddenly feeling really tired I went back to my room and played TV roulette for a while, channel-hopping as their lengthy commercial breaks halt momentum in their shows. When I finally tried to sleep, this dreadful howling started up in the alley outside my room. I called the lobby to ask what it was. Apparently, a dog had been hit by a cab and crawled into the alley where it took an age to either go quiet or expire. Welcome to New York!
ASIDE: One later trip saw me fly on a Sunday to Boston, meetings in West Lynn on Monday then flew to Washington DC for Tuesday meetings. Flew Tuesday night to Cincinnati for meetings Wednesday. Flew to Philadelphia Wednesday night for meetings on Thursday, then back home Thursday night. I just slept-walked my way through this journey – over 1,500m of internal flights.
But on take-off at Washington the plane was struck by lightning several times. By then I knew enough about aircraft to know that it was designed to take this. Further storms brought us down for an unscheduled landing in Columbus. I waited three hours for it to continue on to Cincinnati, and was surprised to find that I was the only passenger who got on the Jumbo. The crew explained that the flight would be only fifteen minutes. Worse, it overflew Cincinnati into Kentucky and I had to cab it back across the city to my hotel which I could have reached in under twenty minutes from Columbus. No one had told me this, I was just following my itinerary without studying maps.
I had success a little south on Chesapeake Bay at the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River, and managed to get two of our scopes defined for the US AAH, Advanced Attack Helicopter. It was designed for field maintenance to be performed with a handful of tools and two scopes. Subsequent trips to Boston and Cincinatti also had us specced for GE engines.
I was even better received on subsequent trips to the West Coast. I got on the plane and quietly set about asserting my rights to the arm-rest between me and some other guy. He was also a Brit and later explained that he was the brother of Michael of Michaeljohn. I had never heard of the Knightsbridge hairdressers and assumed it was John Michael a rag-trade chain I had dealt with way back when, while at Senelco.
The brother explained they were opening a new place in Rodeo Drive and there was to be a big launch party the next night, he wrote on his business card to admit me. He said Farrah Fawcett would be there, and she was very much vogue at that moment. So, the next night I had my Kookie moment. Edd Byrnes had portrayed Kookie, pretty much an early prototype for Fonzie of Happy Days and Danny Zuko in Grease, he was a parking-lot attendant in 77 Sunset Strip and stole much of the cool limelight from the actors who played the two detectives. I drove my rental car up to the venue on Rodeo and confidently let the parking-lot attendant (not looking at all like Kookie) drive it off, with little appreciation of how I would later get it back.
There were Hollywood rubber-neckers across the street trying to see who was attending this sparkly event – well, right then, it was me! I soon found myself in conversation with Susan George and other individuals who I should perhaps have known. My conversation with Susan finished abruptly when I blurted out that I had enjoyed her in Straw Dogs, only belatedly recalling that she had been raped in the movie. [As I write this a 67-year-old less-interesting Susan George is appearing in the TV show The Real Marigold Hotel]. But I soon realised the attention I was getting was from the men, it was only then I fully appreciated that this Michaeljohn was a hairdressers. I saw another guy looking just as overdressed as me (both in suits, collar and tie) and just as uncomfortable with the male attention. He had sold them real estate insurance, we hunkered down and enjoyed the sights, safe in each other’s company.
ASIDE: Being interested in the emerging home computer business on this trip I visited computer stores on the West Coast and even saw an early Apple I being demmed by Steve Jobs. I later made several personal entries into the field. I subsequently bought a single-board computer kit that taught me I was not so interested in the hardware, and much more enthusiastic about software and applications rather than building blocks.
I managed to acquire on loan a Commodore Pet which proved a lot more my sort of thing, with its on-board cassette and screen I could make it do things. I recall one of my earliest tasks was to exploit its character set, which include the four card-suit symbols, to type out my Bridge convention card.
I have always felt guilty that I later went out and bought an Apple II, when perhaps my family circumstances could not really support that investment decision.
I confess early on I played mostly games, but I was soon seduced by the Apple killer-app, VisiCalc. As we will see later, Nolan Bushnell fully appreciated this need to go hands-on to learn anything about the technology and its potential. But then he didn’t help my cause, because my second ‘silly’ purchase was Nolan’s Atari 2600 VCS. The VCS did, at least, engage the whole family with its range of games.
The West Coast was more fruitful for business as I managed to get to see key players at Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop and others to get my scopes listed in their maintenance kits.
At Northrop’s plant I spent rather a long time waiting and spoke with the gate security guard at length, He regaled me with his theories about the ills of the world being the responsibility of the Illuminati, this was my first encounter of them. But he intrigued me enough that I read some of the material that was, back then, relatively scarce, not the case today with its presence all over the Net. A 2013 poll by the US Public Policy organisation suggested that 28% of Americans believed in the Illuminati – only 28%? They are real!
Of course, this theory may be to some extent assisted by the ‘Eye of Providence’ or ‘all-seeing eye’, being on every dollar bill. It is also a feature of the Great Seal of the United States used to suggest guidance by a divine providence.
The symbol places ‘mystery’ at the centre of American iconology, it is associated both with the Illuminati and Freemasonry. A number of the Founding Fathers of the USA were Freemasons and used the symbol to represent the ‘Great Architect of the Universe’.
The real Illuminati does have roots around the time of the formation of the USA, but in Bavaria. It was an Enlightenment secret society founded on 1May1776 and was in fact formed to oppose superstition and obscurantism, the abuses of state power and religious influences over public life. That latter goal is intriguing because my Northrop guy linked the Illuminati with the Opus Dei, suggesting some threatening interactions. But Opus Dei is a more modern institution of the Roman Catholic church, founded in Spain in 1928 and meaning the ‘Work of God’. It believes that each one of its members (it had c.95,000 members in 2016) should strive to become a saint, and its focus is professionalism and work. It appears to be quite prominent in several European Catholic publishing houses. Labour MP and Minister, Ruth Kelly, was identified as a member in the Noughties, her brother a supernumerary of that organisation.
The conspiracy theory goes on. In 2005 Paul Hellyer, a former Canadian minister of defence, blamed the Illuminati for suppressing technology brought to Earth by aliens that could eliminate the burning of scarce fuels within a generation, and halt our reliance on fossil fuels. Having been intrigued by the organisation I read articles and books on the subject but took this nowhere at the time. However, pursuing the security aspects of KeyMed equipment I met some interesting people who changed all of that.
There was a guy we knew as ‘Rent-a-thug’ who was recently ex-SAS and had been involved in the sieges where our kit was used. I got to know him well enough to have a few drinking sessions with him. Several of these at the Special Services Club located behind Harrods. I have met other members who on learning I had ‘worked’ with Steve Callan afforded me additional respect, he is much admired. Pete Scholey devoted a whole chapter of his SAS Heroes to Steve. He died young, at just forty-two, and appears on the SAS Roll of Honour.
Imagine how surprised I was when he, albeit somewhat in his cups, mentioned that he had been in charge of security of a meeting when the Illuminati invited Sheik Yamani, then a high-profile Saudi government minister (of Oil) and OPEC minister, to meet with them and learn of their aims and ambitions.
But Steve dismissed the Illuminati as harmless. He suggested that I should instead be much more worried about the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) who were amassing genealogical records in a dubious manner. For example, they had offered at no charge to microfilm the raw data of UK censuses (not then available to we Brits), if it could retain a copy on their Salt Lake City database.
He then mentioned heading a team that had been despatched to South America by the British government to reach a cave before the Mormons. He hinted broadly that he had a shoot-to-kill authorisation if they got in his way, but that may have been the drink talking. That was weird enough but when I pressed for more details he explained that this was the cave that Erich von Däniken had referenced in his Chariots of the Gods? Images that resembled an astronaut in a capsule were his interest, but there were also genealogical records that the Mormons would transcribe and destroy, so theirs would be the only record.
Von Däniken’s book and related cave art But why was the British government interested in what I had thought was a dubious ‘Ancient Alien’ conspiracy theory presented by a rather truculent attention-seeking author? I concluded that I was much too busy to delve any further and realised that I really preferred not to know.