Saturday 9 June 2012

In My Teenage Years

 In my teenage years, I read, and read, and read, I was a  voracious reader, an omnivore of all the printed word, I read things I liked, things I hated, things with which I struggled, easy books, hard books, confusing books.
Back then, I had a rule that if I started a book, I must finish it, no matter what. Oh my, that led me into some strange places. I read the King James Bible, from cover to cover. Bible, Biblos, Book. I'd be the first to admit I did not pay a lot of attention to parts of it, great lumps of it forgotten or misremembered,  well that was my friend Gareth, a committed christian, who told me that reading the bible would change my life. It didn't, noticeably, I was not 'saved', I just became a lot more suspicious of those who claimed to know god's will, based on the same things I'd read, that they seemed to interpret in vastly different ways.
But I still read. Spy stories, detectives, travel books and autobiographies, history and literary criticism, murders and botany. Over the years, fragments of what I read have come in handy. I know a little about a lot of things, and not much about anything.
Still, it's a criterion for my positive assessment of book, movie, radio programme, "Did I learn anything new?"
I like to learn at least one new thing every day. These days, I sometimes fear my head is full, and every new thing pushes an older thing out, off the edge, and to oblivion. 
I grew up in the Brave New World of the 1950s, 60s, 70s.  Following the second world war, there was a sense of the world being rebuilt, an excitement over new discoveries, new invention. I realise, even as I write, that this is nonsense. Every era in history has thought the same. 
But let's pretend it's not nonsense. Back when my grandfather was a lad, Orville and Wilbur Wright, two brothers who mended bicycles, were playing with flying machines. Now flying machines were nothing new, lots of people had built them, quite a few had flown, balloons were no longer a novelty, but a reality, powered airships existed, but heavier than air machines, so far, had all been gliders. 
Well, even that's not true, Sir Hiram Maxim had already flown a powered aircraft, attached to rails, as a proof-of-concept test.  ("Commencing work in 1889, he built a 145 feet (44 m) long craft that weighed 3.5 tons, with a 110 feet (34 m) wingspan that was powered by two compound 360 horsepower (270 kW) steam engines driving two propellers. In trials at Bexley in 1894 his machine rode on 1,800 feet (550 m) of rails and was prevented from rising by outriggers underneath and wooden safety rails overhead, somewhat in the manner of a roller coaster. His apparent goal in building this machine was not to soar freely, but to test if it would lift off the ground. During its test run all of the outriggers were engaged, showing that it had developed enough lift to take off, but in so doing it damaged the track; the "flight" was aborted in time to prevent disaster. The craft was almost certainly aerodynamically unstable and uncontrollable, which Maxim probably realized, because he subsequently abandoned work on it.)
Clement Ader, in 1897, in France, flew a steam-powered airplane. For only a short time, a small lift, and a crash.
Sir George Cayley, yorkshireman, like me, would undoubtedly have beaten the Wrights to first powered flight, if only, if only... George wrote his treatise on flight "On Aerial Navigation" in 1810, and in 1754, he built a glider that carried a man across a valley at Brompton in North Yorkshire.
He designed steam-propelled dirigibles, but what he lacked was the lightweight power source, invented some years later, the internal combustion engine, suitable for making, for instance, a powered bicycle, a 'motor-cycle'.... Which of course, is where the Wrights found it.

What the Wrights achieved, though, was the first controlled, motor-powered, heavier than air flight. Remarkable and fantastic. Two young men with no great access to money or construction facilities built the thing that lifted the first humans off the planet, heavier than air and under control. No. That's not true either. The 'control' was pretty sketchy, and the reality was that pretty much every attempt they made was a tentative lift-off followed rapidly by a crash.
They were indefatigable experimenters, and eventually learned to control their machine, and in doing so, sparked a zillion other brave, crazy, inventor/aviators.
In just a few years it went from a crazy kite to a more-or-less reliable machine of war.
Only 16 years after the string bamboo contraption clattered across the sand at Kitty Hawk, a flying machine crossed the atlantic ocean from the americas to Ireland.

By the time I was born, man had set his sights upon the planets.
We imagined, in my early years, when kids dreamed of goldfish-bowl helmets and rockets and rayguns, that the evolution of the rocketship would be as rapid as that of the aeroplane.
Every kid thought that by the time he was twenty, he could enrol in the space-force, and pilot rocket-ships to mars and venus. Oh yes, it was the age of imagination. And I was sixteen, when I watched that fuzzy, hard to figure out, live coverage, as, for the first time, men landed on the surface of the moon. " "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

So I was reading Science-Fiction. Imagineation, visionaries. One such was Ray Bradbury, who died last week.

"If only we had taller been"

The fence we walked between the years
Did balance us serene;
It was a place half in the sky where
In the green of leaf and promising of peach
We’d reach our hands to touch and almost touch that lie,
That blue that was not really blue.
If we could reach and touch, we said,
‘Twould teach us, somehow, never to be dead.
We ached, we almost touched that stuff;
Our reach was never quite enough.
So, Thomas, we are doomed to die.
O, Tom, as I have often said,
How sad we’re both so short in bed.
If only we had taller been,
And touched God’s cuff, His hem,
We would not have to sleep away and go with them
Who’ve gone before,
A billion give or take a million boys or more
Who, short as we, stood tall as they could stand
And hoped by stretching thus to keep their land,
Their home, their hearth, their flesh and soul.
But they, like us, were standing in a hole.
O, Thomas, will a Race one day stand really tall
Across the Void, across the Universe and all?
And, measured out with rocket fire,
At last put Adam’s finger forth
As on the Sistine Ceiling,
And God’s great hand come down the other way
To measure Man and find him Good,
And Gift him with Forever’s Day?
I work for that.
Short man, Large dream. I send my rockets forth between my ears,
Hoping an inch of Will is worth a pound of years.
Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal Mall:
We’ve reached Alpha Centauri!
We’re tall, O God, we’re tall!
Ray Bradbury.

Ha! In my search for Ray Bradbury quotes I found the following video, which made the rounds a few years ago... I'd forgotten it. Might be classed as nsfw, or for language in front of the kids. 
Well, it is titled "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury".