Majestic Vulcan

August 23, 2009

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While attending the 40th Wedding Celebrations of Mrs Fleet’s Uncle and Aunt today we were treated to the magnificent sight of Vulcan XH558 on its way back to Brize after displaying and flying past at various locations in the South of England.

The last time I was conscious of seeing one of these stunning delta-winged nuclear bombers airborne would have been at Abingdon Airshow as a small boy – probably thirty years ago now. It was wonderful to see the last flying Vulcan in action again.

Sadly I didn’t have my telephoto lens on the camera so the image is very poor, but what a glorious sight nonetheless.

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The Rock

August 12, 2009

While in San Francisco I took the opportunity to visit Alcatraz – something I haven’t done before. The Alcatraz Night Tour was highly recommended to me, as it is longer and more detailed than the tours that are run during the day (and also suited my schedule as I was in SF for work and consequently not free during the day). Suffice to say I’d highly recommend it as well. It was bitterly cold (as San Francisco can be during the summer) and the Bay microclimate and it’s trademark fog were much in evidence, but the boat trip out was great fun and the tour both informative and highly entertaining.

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Fog City lives up to it’s name

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The Island of Pelicans

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The Lighthouse and the remains of the Warden’s house

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Water Tower

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Alcatraz Island looking towards the Bay Bridge

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The Rock

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Alcatraz Cell

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The entrance to the Administration Building

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Lighthouse, with the cellblock behind

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Watchtower at Dusk

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Leaving the Island

The photography isn’t up to my usual standard as I used my little Ricoh compact rather than the Olympus DSLR, but the chilly greyness and forbidding aspect of the island comes across quite effectively I think. I hadn’t been aware that many of the staff of the Federal Prison lived on the island. It must have felt very isolated as the last boat of the day pulled away each night, although by many accounts the guards had happy family lives while some of the most infamous prisoners in US history lurked but a few metres away.

I’d highly recommend anyone visiting San Francisco taking the night tour of Alcatraz… a very informative and enjoyable 3 hours.


My Hero

June 6, 2009

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Troops of the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division arrive on Gold Beach

65 years ago as I type this my Grandfather was pushing inland towards Bayeux from Gold Beach with his artillery unit, attached to 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division of Lieutenant-General Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army. Grandad’s unit went ashore very early – he was among the first troops ashore on D-Day. Later he would fight through Europe, participating in Operation Market Garden, before ending his war on the Baltic (and narrowly avoiding being sent to Palestine after the war). In my experience veterans of the Second World War have dealt with their experiences by either burying them and not talking about what they saw, heard or did, or by being very open about their experiences. My Grandfather is among the latter, and so we know quite a lot about his wartime adventures.

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The badge of the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division

My Grandfather was a successful businessman, and I don’t think he would mind me saying he was not a natural soldier. He doesn’t glory in his exploits, and as the years have gone by it seems to me that the weight of the past, and in particular the memory of his friends and colleagues who didn’t survive to live into their late 80s as he has, has weighed more heavily on him. It is because of citizen soldiers like him, and others from the US, Canada and a multitude of other countries, that people in Europe enjoy the freedoms they do. HIs generation are passing from the stage now. Journalist Tom Brokaw described the soldiers of the US military in the Second World War as The Greatest Generation. I think his description applies equally well to the British of that era. Decent, honourable, slightly austere people for whom the term stiff upper lip meant something. Would today’s generation be capable of doing what they did should the call come? Perhaps. But no more than perhaps.

Update – For those that are interested in such things, I have recalled that my Grandad’s unit was the 102nd Anti Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery (The Northumberland Hussars) Grandad moved with them to 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division, and went the Baltic with them where his war ended.


Requiescat in Pace – Milvina Dean

May 31, 2009

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Today has brought the sad news that the last survivor of the sinking of RMS Titanic, Milvina Dean, has died at the age of 97. Ms Dean was 2 months old at the time of the sinking and so had no memory of the events of April 15th 1912. Ms Dean, her mother and brother escaped in Lifeboat No. 10 (and were thus among the first steerage class passengers to escape) but her father was lost. With her death the last human link to the loss of the great ship is gone.

Today is also the 98th Anniversary of the launch of Titanic.

RIP Milvina Dean, 2nd February 2012 – 31st May 2009.

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Fleet Review: Pompeii – The Life of a Roman Town

January 26, 2009

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I’ve had a longstanding interest in ancient civilisations since I was at school, where I studied Latin and subsequently took a GCSE in Classical Civilisations. I still enjoy reading about the lives of the ancients (the work of Robin Lane Fox being particularly good). I’ve just finished Mary Beard’s Pompeii – the Life of a Roman Town. I’d highly recommend it. Beard paints a compelling portrait of the reality of life in Pompeii. She tells us what we know about how the Romans lived, but is also very good at telling us what we don’t know.

It’s all too easy to think of the Roman civilisation as being essentially “us, with togas”. The reality is that the society of the Romans would be utterly alien to us, with lives which were often, to borrow a quote from elsewhere, nasty, brutish and short. She also reminds us that much of what we think we know about Pompeii itself is either simply untrue or highly misleading. At it’s most basic, for example, we cannot think of Pompeii, as tourists are wont to, as a Roman town captured in aspic in the midst of an ordinary day. The truth was that Vesuvius had been grumbling for weeks before it erupted, and in all probability a large majority of Pompeii’s people had fled long before 25th August 79CE. What was captured under the ashes was a Roman city in the middle of a crisis, at the end of it’s hurried evacuation. As another example, she addresses the infamous brothels, highlighting that we simply don’t know whether there were scores of them or just one, and that to say anything else is merely the work of the imaginations (often, where the sex lives of the Romans are concerned, rather fevered) of scholars.

Overall, Beard does a great job of framing for us what the live of a Roman provincial city in the 1st Century of the Christian Era might well have been like. I’d encourage you to read it.

As an aside, she also touches on what, for me, is one of the great what-ifs of history. The Romans were on the brink of the invention of the steam engine. Their hydraulic engineering was quite extraordinary in it’s sophistication and complexity. Yet they made remarkably little progress in the development of technology generally. It seems probable that this was because of their reliance on slaves. Why would one bother to invent labour saving devices when there was a ready supply of living machines to do the work for you. Had the Romans approached this aspect of their world differently, who knows what levels of technological accomplishment humanity might have reached by today.