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NOT Corona Virus….

Back in the day we had no radios, just ‘police pillars’, special emergency phone boxes with orange flashing lights on top. When they flashed, the beat police officer (usually on foot or on a bicycle) answered them. Some forces had police boxes (like Dr Who, but without the spacious interior and abilty to travel through time). Officers lucky enough to have these Dr Who boxes (now turned into tiny coffee dispensing stations in cities like Edinburgh) could unlock them and step inside for a warm or a sit-down. We had pillars, like those in the photos. No sitting down for us. In bad weather we simply froze. Or got soaked.

But I am deviating from Corona.  Corona, back then, wasn’t Mexican beer or a virus, it was a fizzy drink, delivered in glass bottles by lorry (in a similar way to delivered milk) by the Corona man.

The day the Corona lorry exploded – yes, that’s what this is about – I answered one of these police pillars. I was on the beat, riding one of our station’s many upright, gearless push-bikes (the one with gears was reserved solely for use by the duty inspector, who never rode bicycles anyway, because he had the Inspector’s Car, an unmarked, black Morris Minor). The message passed to me via the pillar was that ‘something had happened to a lorry’, outside a row of shops I knew well. 

The message was wrong. Something hadn’t happened to the lorry, it was still happening. I arrived after pedalling fast, expecting a road accident but encountering one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen. An orange Corona lorry, loaded with thousands of bottles of drink in hundreds of orange coloured crates (unlike the one in the photo, which looks almost empty) was blasting away like bangers on bonfire night, fizzy lemonade foaming across the road and running down drains. Every few seconds another lemonade bottle burst, triggering machine-gun-like bursts of bottles as flying glass from one bottle burst others close by. Then silence. Then another ripple of bangs as more bottles exploded.

I have neglected to say that it was a very, very hot day. I stood with the Corona man, a safe distance away from the carnage. ‘Never had this happen before,’ he said. Probably the understatement of the year. It took a while for things to calm down and for the crowd that had gathered to drift slowly away. We borrowed brooms from one of the shops (one whose window blew out in an explosion a few months later, but that is another story) and we swept the broken glass into a large pile.  

It was, I now realise, the nearest thing I got to a chain reaction until I had a trip around the nuclear power station at Oldbury on Severn, ten years later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Motorbikes – my Triumphs!

For the few motorbike fans that I have (and I do understand if you are not one of them) here is the bike that I used to ride out to that weird accident, my 1960 triumph T100A, photographed back in the day when I still lived with my parents.

 

 

 

 

 

The other bike, the red one, is the police bike I usually rode. Ten years ago, in a moment of madness, I found it and bought it, stripped it right down to its parts and rebuilt it, bit by bit. Having done all that, I am thinking of selling it. I just don’t have the room for it. Sad but true!

 

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True Tale – BACK FROM THE DEAD?

‘He’s dead! There’s no way he could still be alive under there!’

It was only three miles away but it was an emergency, a road accident at roadworks on a remote country road on the outskirts of the city – and believed to be fatal. Against a strong headwind it would take at least thirty minutes to cycle there. The police station’s motorbike, an unwieldy ten-year old monster fitted with a heavy radio on its rear, was not available. Nor could we persuade the force traffic department to send out a patrol car. The only transport available at the police station were police bicycles – big black heavy-duty things with no gears.

I kitted up in motorcycle gear and wheeled out my own bike. Five minutes later I rounded a blind bend on a narrow, winding road flanked by high hedges and encountered the road accident (encountered is probably the best way to describe my emergency braking to avoid the back end of a huge, stationary truck).

I soon realised that this accident was very different from the usual two-car smash. Firstly, had the truck not been there, I would have plunged into a metre-deep trench dug in the road. Secondly, there were no cars to be seen.

An ambulance arrived from the opposite direction and pulled up at the far end of the roadworks. The trench I would have ridden into was short, and completely covered by the stationary truck that straddled it. Workmen ran to me. That’s when I heard the He’s dead bit. I did the usual things, got the workman with the red and green STOP/GO sign to stand around the bend to stop anyone coming around it and then facing what I had faced. Then the true-to-life version of the  “Hello, hello, what’s going on here then…” so beloved of comedians of the time. “What happened?” usually does it.

The only casualty I could see was the truck driver, not physically injured but obviously distressed. He had seen the road works signs, he said. He had braked hard, come around the bend, and then seen the trench with a workman standing in it. Unable to stop, he’d driven right over the man.

Because the trench was covered by the truck there was no way to get into it. One of the men had tried to squeeze underneath but had failed, saying he had seen his colleague lying dead in the trench. The driver didn’t want to back the truck off the trench because that would be disturbing the scene. I made him reverse it.

There was indeed a man lying in the bottom of the trench, with a pickaxe and shovel beside him. He didn’t lie there for much longer though, because when he heard the roar of the truck’s engine he stood up, nursing his head.

It took a while to work out what had happened. These were the days before compulsory hard hats. The very second before the truck came to a stop over him he’d ducked down to shovel dirt. When he stood up straight to see why the world had gone dark, he hit his head on the truck’s engine and knocked himself out.

The ambulance crew treated the workman for concussion – he had a lump on the back of his head the size of half an egg. They wanted to take him away to be looked at but he refused, saying he would lose a day’s pay.

 

 

 

 

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True Tale – INVISIBLE WIRE

‘Possible housebreaking, top end of Long Cross. CID on the way but delayed. Can you attend?’

I noted the details, replaced the radio handset and kick-started my motorbike. The house wasn’t that far away, I could be there in less than five minutes. A quiet approach was needed, no point letting an intruder know you are on your way (not that we had blue lights or nee-naw horns on our bikes back then. The road traffic department superintendent believed that his officers’ riding and driving skills should be so good that they didn’t need such things). I approached the house, switched off the engine, coasted down the hill and put the bike on its stand.

It doesn’t take detective training to know that on busy streets like this one, burglars tend to break into the backs of houses rather than the fronts. This house was semi-detached, so instead of going to the front door I walked down the path at the side. All windows, and the front and back doors, were closed. There was no sign of a break-in. By the time I’d returned to the front of the house, the lady who’d phoned us was there, standing in the doorway. “More things have gone missing,” she said. “It’s just like last time.”

The more questions I asked, the more I realised that there was no evidence of anyone else having been in the house. The lady lived on her own and had mislaid things. Unable to find them, her only explanation was that someone had broken in and stolen them. I checked with neighbours. They confirmed that though she was generally a level-headed person, she was very forgetful.

I did my best to console her but she remained unconvinced. Then CID arrived, an experienced officer twice my age. He had been there before, he said, several times. Like me, he was convinced there was no break-in. When the losses mounted up she phoned-in, convinced she’d been burgled.

“Help me,” he said. “We’ll wire the place up…”

The only way to describe what happened next is to say that we mimed unreeling rolls of wire and tucking it behind the sitting room picture rails – that room and the kitchen only, because these were the rooms where things tended to go missing. My colleague convinced her that we were trying out a new device that would call the police if a stranger entered her house. It was invisible so the intruder wouldn’t see it. When we had finished wiring the rooms she insisted that we also did her downstairs windows and doors. I felt bad about it. I didn’t like deceiving people.

It was around a year later when the duty inspector called me into his office. He looked puzzled. It was in the days before computer records and he’d been looking through old journals. ‘Last November,’ he said. ‘You attended a break-in at Long Cross. Would you care to tell me about it?’ Being able to read text from all angles is an asset that I probably learned during my time with the police. I could see that this particular bit of writing, an entry in a daybook, had my name against it. He also had a handwritten letter, addressed to the force’s Chief Constable. He read part of it out to me. It went something like this.

“… the man has not been back to the house since your officer came. I am sure there will be no more burglaries so I no longer need your invisible wire. Please will you send the officer to take it down so it can be used again somewhere else.”

“Invisible wire?” he said. “Care to explain?” I explained as best as I could, wondering if there would be disciplinary action of some kind. There wasn’t. “Better get on with it then,” he said.

“Sir? Get on with it?”

“You heard what she wrote. She wants you to take it down so it can be used again.”

I did what I was told. On my own this time, with the woman watching, I mimed going around the rooms, reaching up, coiling invisible wire over my arm as if coiling rope. Then I did the windows and doors. It felt like some kind of punishment and I still feel guilty about it. I suppose I shouldn’t. Because it worked.

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GROUND RULES – Cover Release!

 

Here is the final cover for my latest novel GROUND RULES.

An alternative, black & white version was described as ‘rather scary’ and ‘not colourful enough’, so I decided on this one. I hope to get a proof copy of GROUND RULES back to me by the end of January, so hopefully a paperback will be in print (and also a Kindle version) during February.

A big thanks to all those reviewers that said they liked forensic geologist Jessica (Jez) Spargo. Because of you she has a whole novel to herself!

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The Man Who Played Trains

I am relaunching THE MAN WHO PLAYED TRAINS

Why have I done this? Because my latest novel, shortly to be available on Amazon, is GROUND RULES, featuring Jez Spargo, the feisty forensic geologist from The Man Who Played Trains.

Feisty, because that’s what one reveiwer called her – I loved Jez, the author has created such a strong, intelligent and feisty character in her. Even her father is lost without her! Their bond is strong and it is the backbone of this gripping thriller – I could easily picture them in real life.”

This one comment led me to write GROUND RULES.

— OOO —

Two of the many 5- and 4-star reviews of The Man Who Played Trains:

‘GROUND RULES’ by Richard Whittle will be available on Amazon in Spring 2020

 

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Summer of Rockets

Summer of Rockets? How’s that for the title of a BBC drama series? I have to admit that I was expecting some rockets in Stephen Poliakoff’s BBC production, but there was none. Nevertheless, I soon realised the connections, having lived through the 1950s myself. I’m not sure the Cold War fear and paranoia was quite as manifest in the UK amongst the general population as it appeared in the series, but despite that, Poliakoff’s story was excellent, I enjoyed every minute. The main characters – and the actors – were superb. What other writer would have thought of casting a Russian-born Jewish manufacturer of hearing aids as the main protagonist? His family was fleshed out – like backstory – by material that I would usually have considered to be unnecessary padding. Padding it was not. It added depth to the lives of the characters, as did the story of the missing son (if you don’t know what I mean, then watch the series on iPlayer, it is worth searching for).

Stephen Poliacoff implies in the online version of the Radio Times that the Summer of Rockets is based on events and memories from his childhood. He has taken them, modified them, twisted and turned them to produce a gripping and unusual story.

s://youtu.be/3YzgncRy3F8

NOTE: For those interested in such things, the rocket in the photo is a Bloodhound missile, introduced in 1958, around the time ‘Summer of Rockets’ is set. I photographed this missile at the Museum of Edinburgh’s National Museum of Flight at East Fortune. Far more interesting than this missile is the video I took during my visit, of my granddaughter (then aged 12) landing an airship. She did a far better job of it than I did. Check out my blog post of 2012: http://tiny.cc/2uad9y

 

 

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Les Miserables – Edinburgh

 

Les Miserables? Have I read Victor Hugo’s novel? Rather like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the answer is no. Have I seen the stage play? I didn’t think so, but my wife says we saw it together, many years ago (and though I am sure that particular perfomance was great, it clearly was not that memorable. For me, anyway).

I saw Les Miserables again last night, at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre*, courtesy of my daughter-in-law who bought (very expensive) tickets. Would I have gone otherwise? Probably not.

I have run out of superlatives to describe last night’s performance. I have commited the crime of having used the word “stunning” so many times in the last few years that there seems to be nothing left. My Thesaurus suggest ‘breathtaking”, or “splendid” (now there’s a word I haven’t heard for millenia). No, not splendid. “Outstanding”, is probably more appropriate.

This was a Cameron Mackintosh production, billed as a musical. I am not a fan of musicals, having been brought up having to listen repeatedly to my parent’s LPs (long playing records, for those of more tender years) of The King and I, Carousel, and South Pacific. At the risk of alienating some of my readers I have to admit that I hated them. But Les Miserables? For me, this version is not really a musical, it is an opera, a popular opera. Don’t be put off. I’m not a great fan of opera either. Madame Butterfly is okay, but more than that…

Superlatives have failed me again and I have to say that what I saw last night was stunning. Outstanding. Though I have seen some superb acting in the past, I have not seen scene changes and scenery like I saw last night (not that I am saying that the acting wasn’t just as stunning and outstanding, because it was).

Standing ovations for all of them. I am not easily impressed. I was very impressed last night (but I’m guessing you know that by now).

 

*Image: Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. Please forgive me for ripping it off from my programme.

 

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Moped Crime – the misnomer

We have all surely heard of “Moped Crime”. To me, an ex-copper, a moped has a motor and pedals (So… no brownie points for guessing how mopeds got their name). If you are as old in the tooth as I am then you will remember what mopeds looked like. THIS is a moped –

I know this because I bought, and rebuilt, one of these for a girlfriend (and reluctantly admit that it went better before I rebuilt it than it did afterwards). The bikes being stolen, and ridden, for bagsnatching crime etcetera are lightweight motorcycles and motor scooters. They are not mopeds.

So who got it so wrong, the police or the media? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. It certainly doesn’t if you are Humpty Dumpty*: ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.

*Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll, 1872.

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Headlights to Auto. Phasers to Stun*.

 

Automatic headlights are great, right? Sensors detect dusk or dullness and switch on your dipped beams. In darkness they switch to main beams, then dip again for oncoming traffic or whenever you follow red rear lights. So far so good. So why did that taxi driver glare at me? It took a while to work out. So here goes…

Dull day. Dipped beams come on automatically. Oncoming taxi indicates to turn right, across my path. It stops, waiting for me to pass. As I approach it cuts across me. We almost collide. I quietly (ha ha) curse every taxi driver in the world.
But I flashed him, didn’t I? I let him know I was happy for him to turn across my path. Well no, I didn’t. My car did.

I had passed under a low bridge. Car detected darkness. Main beams came on, then immediately off again. My car flashed the taxi driver, telling him I was happy for him to turn in front of me.
Years ago I was taught never to flash my lights at other drivers, because it is their job to decide what is safe for them to do. My car needs to be told that.

Just the very thought of driverless cars scares me silly. They do not know how to behave.

* I am no trekkie. One definition = Saying “set phasers to stun” is like modern police or military saying “check the safety on your weapon.”  (That’s what it says on Google so it must be true)

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