Saturday 29 October 2016

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to the old illustrator, Martin Aitchison, who gave its 1950s and 60s children 'Luck of the Legion' and 'Peter and Jane'

Martin, who worked as an illustrator for the 'Eagle' comic from 1952 to 1963 and then one of the main illustrators for Ladybird Books from 1963 to 1990 and in the process thrilled, entertained and educated several generations of children, has died at the age of 96. Living in a world of profound deafness, Martin overcame adversity and communicated to children from his heart and through his brush.

He was born in Birmingham in Kings Norton, a southern suburb of Birmingham in 1919, the son of Ida and Leslie, who had been the Chief Metallurgist to the Air Ministry during the First World War and remained so until Martin was five, when he became the assistant to Horace Clarke the the MD of a subsidiary of the Vickers, the aircraft manufacturers. The most traumatic event in his childhood took place when, after contracting the measles, his hearing was severely impaired. For his education from the age of 11, was packed off to the boys independent boarding school, Ellesmere College in Shropshire where he recalled : "Few people enjoyed school in those days and my deafness didn't help. They started off putting me at the front of the class and when I still struggled they put me at the back."

When it came to Martin's artistic development he said : "The idea took root when I was at school really. At about the age of 13 I discovered I could get some cheap popularity with my ability to caricature the school masters." Two years later, in 1934 school was over for Martin : "I left school at the age of 15 and there hadn't been any discussion of my future career. But they did give me all the drawing prizes, some very handsome books and I think my family were delighted that I could do something well, despite my deafness."
Martin, 'becapped' and in school uniform stands on the right.

His precocious artistic talent took him first to Birmingham School of Art, where he thought he "learnt most from the other students" and then to the Slade School of Art in London, where he was a student when he exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 20 in 1939. On the outbreak the Second World War in the same year Martin was 'called up' for active service but his profound deafness, confirmed at his medical, precluded service in the Armed Forces,
Instead, he joined Vickers Aircraft at Weybridge, Surrey where his talent was initially used to illustrate operating manuals for aircraft such as the Wellington bomber. It wasn't long before his father's connection with an old pre-First World War university friend, Barnes Wallis, secured him a post on his team at Vickers. On joining he found Wallis "was friendly and aimed to make me an aircraft designer till he found out that my knowledge of mathematics was subnormal. So then he asked me to create diagrams of the effects, etc, of the bouncing bomb." The bomb in question had originated in 1942, when Wallis began experimenting with skipping marbles over water tanks in his garden, leading to his paper : 'Spherical Bomb — Surface Torpedo'. The idea was that a bomb could skip over the water surface, avoiding torpedo nets, and sink directly next to an enemy battleship or dam wall as a depth charge, with the surrounding water concentrating the force of the explosion on the target.

Wallis had been commissioned to produce the bombs for the RAF to destroy the dams in the industrial Ruhr area of Germany and it was Martin's job to create an artistic impression of how they would work as they shed layers as they skimmed off the heavily protected surfaces of Germany’s powerhouse dams. Martin later said : “I never felt under pressure from work, but everything we worked on was top secret. Occasionally the tea lady would take an interest in one of my drawings so we had to make up elaborate stories about what they were for.

The successful raid on the dams in 1943 known to Martin as "Operation Chastise', was immortalised after the War in Paul Brickhill's book, 'The Dam Busters' and, of course, the 1955 film of the same name. Wallis himself placed credit with Guy Gibson and 617 Squadron :

It was during the War that, at the age of 24, Martin married fellow Slade student, Dorothy Self, who, as he recalled was "quite a prominent student at the Slade. We got married in 1943, although she had worked he way through three other fiancées by then."

With the War over, Martin now became a freelance commercial artist for various advertising agencies, national newspapers and publications such as 'Picture Post' and 'Punch'. At the same time his father's career in academia continued to flourish, he ad been made a 'Fellow in Industrial Metallurgy' and in 1946, when Martin was 27, became the Professor of Industrial Metallurgy at Birmingham University.

Martin's first work for children was for 'Girl' Magazine which had been launched by Hulton Press in 1951 as a sister paper to the 'Eagle.' He drew, filling in for Ray Bailey on 'Kitty Hawke and her All-Girl Air Crew' and illustrating 'Flick and the Vanishing New Girl' in the first Girl annual.

In 1952, at the age of 33, he got a job illustrating at the 'Eagle' which was "meant to last for 12 weeks, but it ended up lasting for 11 years" ten of which involved drawing the French Foreign Legion strip, 'Luck of the Legion', written by Geoffrey Bond which he recalled as : "It was great fun doing these stories but I had to work very hard, turning out a whole edition every week" and "I used to show them to my son Nick when he was six but I think he was a bit young for them — he looked terrified."

The series followed the exploits of the French Foreign Legion in North Africa, then largely French-colonised or controlled and focused mainly on the chisel-jawed British hero Sergeant "Tough" Luck and his faithful companions, Belgian Corporal Trenet and Italian Legionnaire Bimberg who was the comic relief, short and fat and perpetually dishevelled, with a battered kepi. The strip was set in a vaguely pre - First World War period of colourful uniforms and unquestioned imperial values.

Martin was forced to use a deal of poetic licence : "For me the desert spelt Lawrence of Arabia and romance. So I liked the subject matter and I like the freedom I was given. Working from imagination pleased me most, but the lack of references caused me headaches too. Hulton Picture Library could find only four reference photos of the Foreign Legion. I watched an American film about the Legion and that was about it." This explains why Martin's illustrations usually took Luck and his companions and by implication, the Eagle's boy readers to isolated forts located in the Sahara where their adversaries were generally tribesmen whose dress was inexplicably Saudi Arabian rather than Algerian or Moroccan.

For the Eagle, Martin also illustrated the spy series 'Danger Unlimited', which was an attempt to update Eagle with a James Bond type story line and adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Lost World' and C. S. Forrester's 'Horatio Hornblower' stories and 'Arty and Crafty', written by Geoffrey Bond, for Eagle's junior companion paper, 'Swift'. 

Martin recalled that in 1963 at the age of 44 : “After 10 years illustrating the Luck of the Legion strip for Eagle comic, the Eagle went bust so I was suddenly out of work” but once again his well-connected family came to the rescue : “My father met Douglas Keen at art classes in Stratford where they both lived and he mentioned me to Douglas.” Douglas was the new and radical editor of Ladybird Books who, with his socialist beliefs, believed in education for all children and set about transforming the company by investigating themes of both breadth and depth, finding writers and educationists and commissioning artists. Martin himself confessed that : "I really hadn't come across Ladybird books before then and I wasn't that inspired by the quality of illustration initially."

It wasn't plain sailing for Martin. His first drawing for Douglas was rejected before he submitted another, which was accepted and included in 'A First Book Of Saints.' Together with Harry Wingfield, Martin went on to illustrate the majority of the 'Ladybird Key Word Reading Scheme' , sometimes known as the 'Peter and Jane' books, which appeared between 1964 and '67 and were used to teach hundreds of thousands of British children to read and went on to sell over 80 million copies worldwide.

Each book took Martin about 3 months to complete. His preferred method was to work from photos and his wife Dorothy, who was herself a teacher at the Kingston School of Art was his model for the teacher in Book 6a and provided the script for a number of his illustrated fairy tales including 'Snow White and Dwarfs.' 

Martin said, with perfect self-effacement and his hallmark humour : “I just illustrated the script, set in everyday life around me – North London suburbia in my case. If the sky was always blue, it was probably because we waited for a fine day to take reference photos. After years of illustrating the French Foreign Legion going into battle, drawing children eating ice-cream took a little getting used to!” 

His talent as an illustrator with his consistency, naturalistic style and attention to detail meant that he was a valued member of the Ladybird team and his work has been admired for its understanding of human character and his vivid delineation of so many expression of the emotions which was unparalleled in any other Ladybird artist.

Martin worked for Ladybird Books for over 20 years, illustrating nearly 100 titles. At the start he was paid £21 per picture which had risen to £60 for a single page and £120 for a double in 1975. He confessed that the work which gave him the greatest satisfaction was the double page spreads for the 'Hornblower Series' for the Eagle around 1962 and his illustration of 'Gulliver' stealing the Big-Endian fleet for Ladybird. It is surprising that he didn't mention his 'The Story of Metals' with its text provided by his 'Professor of Metallugy' father, Leslie, who had published his doubled volume, academic, 'History of Metals' in 1962.

Martin left Ladybird in 1987 at the age of 68 and officially 'retired' with the exception of illustrating a new comic strip, 'Justin Tyme - ye Hapless Highwayman', written by Geoffrey Bond and later his son Jim, for the fanzine 'Eagle Times' from 1998 to 2004.

In 2012, at the age of 93 he featured in a BBC TV programme in the 'See Hear' series and recalled an incident at Ladybird where he got into trouble with an illustration about rock climbing where he "put the boy abseiling and it was completely wrong and if anybody had tried to do that he would have spun off and gone down and the mountain rescue people in Keswick complained about it and we had to rearrange the ropes and republish the book. That's the worst thing I ever did" :

Martin once said :
"I sometimes look back a bit wistfully on my original intention to be to be a painter and wonder how it would have fared."

Sunday 23 October 2016

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Goodbye" its much loved, old TV comedy sketch writer, Jimmy Perry

Jimmy, most famous for devising and co-writing the BBC sitcom, 'Dad's Army' with David Croft, which ran for 80 episodes from 1968 to 1977, has died at the age of 93.

He was born in Barnes, London in 1923 and became fascinated with the variety theatre at an early age, where is heroes were Arthur Askey, Ted Ray and the 'Crazy Gang'. When his father asked him : "what do you want to do when you leave school ?", Jimmy told him that he was determined "to be a famous comedian" to which his father replied : "You stupid boy!"

Jimmy joined the 'Watford Home Guard' at the start of The Second World War at the age of 16 in 1939 and later based the 'Dad's Army' character, mummy's boy 'Private Pike', on himself and has said of his Mother that : "She didn't go so far as making me wear a scarf, but she came pretty near".

Jimmy had drafted into the Army to fight in the Second World War at the age of 18 in 1941 and sent to Burma, where he joined the Royal Artillery Concert Party which entertained the troops and his experiences informed 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' :

After the War, he trained as an actor at RADA, spending his holidays working as a Redcoat in Butlin's Holiday Camps which inspired him to create 'Hi-de-Hi'

In 1954 at the age of 31 and for the next 11 years he ran the Palace Theatre, Watford, a repertory company which produced a different play or show every week and whilst working for Joan Littlewood at the 'Theatre Workshop' in Stratford East, had the idea for a show based on the Home Guard he called 'The Fighting Tigers' which became 
'Dad's Amy' and recalled his favourite episode where Private Godfey played by Arthur Ridley, who in reality had been badly injured in the Battle of the Somme in the First World War, announced that he was a conscientious objector :

His co-writer, David Crofts, who died in 2012 recalled his favourite episode as the one entitled 'Mum's Army' :

Jimmy wrote the theme tune for 'Dad's Army', "Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler?" and won the Ivor Novello Award in 1971 for 'Best TV Signature Tune' : :
and achieved comedy immortality with his "Don't tell him Pike" episode :

At the end of the 1970s, he became involved as presenter in a BBC series called 'Turns', dedicated to films of nearly forgotten music hall acts of the 1930's and 1940's and took time to deal with his hero Bud Flangan :

Jimmy published his autobiography,'A Stupid Boy' at the age of 79 in 2002.

Saturday 22 October 2016

Britain says "Farewell" to an old soldier called Stan Hilton, the last of its sons who upheld its name fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War

Stan, who has died at the age of 98 was the last surviving Briton who fought in the legendary International Brigades in the 1930s, during the Spanish Civil War, was born in Newhaven, Sussex, during the First World War on on 31 December 1917.

As a teenager he joined the Merchant Navy and was nineteen when he jumped from his ship, the S.S. Pilson in Alicante in November 1937, after hitting an officer who’d been pushing him around. On his own admission Stan said : "I liked mucking about. I didn’t like being ordered around."

A year before this, the Spanish Civil War had started in July 1936 when General Francisco Franco and other army officers launched a fascist-backed coup against the democratically elected Spanish Republic. Franco’s rebels received overwhelming help from Hitler's Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Fascist Italy in the form of troops, aircraft and armaments. 

It was now that Stan made up his mind to join the War fighting on the side of the Government against the Fascists. He later said : "The Spanish people needed help. It was the right thing to do."  Unfortunately Stan's Government in Britain didn't see it like that and with the other Western democracies enforced an arms embargo on the Spanish Republic, effectively condemning it to defeat :

We know from documents held in London and Moscow that he made his way to Albacete and enlisted with the 'British Battalion' of the 15th International Brigade and, after a period of training, saw action that winter around Teruel. Stan recalled : ‘It was freezing. I was always bloody cold.’  In fact it was the worst Spanish winter in twenty years and the battle was one of the bloodier actions of the War, with the city changing hands several times, first falling to the Republicans and then retaken by the Fascists after heavy artillery and aerial bombardment. With Franco's use of his superiority in men and materials it was to prove be the decisive battle of the War, The writer, Laurie Lee, who also served in the International Brigade said :

'The gift of Teruel at Christmas had become for the Republicans no more than a poisoned toy. It was meant to be victory that would change the War; it was indeed the seal of defeat.'

It is little wonder that, in the spring of 1938, Stan's Battalion was routed as Franco’s forces, aided by troops sent by Mussolini and Hitler’s Condor Legion, swept through Aragón and Catalonia.

With the Republican army in disarray and communications having broken down, Stan was caught up in the chaotic retreat and ended up swimming across the River Ebro to evade being captured by Franco’s soldiers. Stan later reflected that : ‘It was every man for himself.’  David Leach recorded the experiences of other British volunteers at the river for his 2001 film, 'Voices from a Mountain' :

Stan reached Barcelona and in March 1938, with the British Captain’s permission, he boarded the SS Lake Lugano at Barcelona and sailed for home. He was still only 20 years old. At the time of his death he was the last of some 2,500 volunteers from the Britain who joined the International Brigades in a War in which 526 of them, that's 20%, had died before Franco's victory in 1939.

In 1956 at the age of 39 Stan left Britain and emigrated with his family to Australia, where he worked mostly as a tiler in the building trade. He died in a nursing home in Ocean Grove, near Melbourne. 

Announcing the news of Stan's death, the London-based 'International Brigade Memorial Trust' said it marked the end of an era and its Secretary, Jim Jump said that Stan had helped write a "proud chapter in British 20th century history" and added : ‘While their own government looked the other way and refused to go to the aid of a fellow democracy, the men and women from Britain who joined the International Brigades did something to salvage their country’s honour and reputation. Stan and the other volunteers will go down in history as the first British soldiers to confront Hitler and Mussolini on the battlefield. In doing so they also set an unequalled example of international solidarity and anti-fascism.’

Friday 21 October 2016

Britain is no country for an old gay man called George Montague still looking for an apology before he dies

The Government has announced that gay and bisexual men who are dead and were convicted of the repealed 'Sexual Offences in England and Wales Act' are to receive posthumous pardons. In addition, the 15,000 of old gay men who are still alive of the 65,000 convicted under old sex offence law are also eligible for a pardon.

The Liberal Democrat  peer Lord Sharkey, who proposed the Amendment to the 'Policing and Crimes Bill,' said : "a pardon is probably the best way of acknowledging the real harm done by the unjust and cruel homophobic laws, which thankfully we've now repealed. And I do hope that a lot of people will feel exactly the same way".

Ninety-three year old George Monatague does not feel the same way. He has said unequivocally that : "I want an apology ... to accept a pardon means you accept that you were guilty."

George, who was convicted in 1974 of  'gross indecency' with a man has said  : "I have lived my life with a conviction for gross indecency hanging over me. I see now they are giving pardons. I don’t want a pardon. I want my conviction to be squashed, struck off. I was entrapped by police at the time and pleaded guilty to avoid publicity. I just want to end the final days of my life having no criminal conviction and to see the majority of people in the country become gay-friendly.”

After the Second World War, George was still living in Hitcham where he had lived as a boy and now ran an engineering business employing 40 people. In his own words : 'I was a scout commissioner and a pillar of the community.' He had also served King and country in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, and fathered three children to Vera, who he married and shared with the secret of his sexuality.

His life changed when in 1974, when he was 50 and travelled to Slough for the day because there was no one else of his 'persuasion' in Hitcham and he went looking for company. In the absence of either a gay scene or bars, he gravitated to 'cottages', public toilets.

The one he chose was empty, apart from one man in a cubicle, George went into the adjoining cubicle and locked the door. He found a hole in the wall between him and the man which indicated to him that it was : 'a sure sign it was a gay haunt'. He looked through the hole and on finding the man was much older than him, he 'blocked up the hole and waited for him to go, but instead he pushed the paper out and attempted to put his penis through. At that moment there was a scuffling outside and a police officer craned over the top of the door. I was doing nothing; I hadn’t invited any contact from the other man, but the timing was awful. We were both arrested and taken to the police station.'

Under police questioning, a 'queer list' was produced with George's name on it. He believed that the police had 'made it their business to find out the name of anyone locally who was gay. They’d do it by arresting a young gay boy and threatening him until he gave them as many names as possible.' He was charged with 'Gross indecency' and was sent for trial. He employed a solicitor and counsel, which cost a lot of money and pleaded 'not guilty'. George was, however, found guilty of the offence and given the statutory fine. He thus gained a 'criminal record' which has remained with him for the last 42 years even though, in 2004 the 'Sexual Offences Act' repealed the offence of 'Gross Indecency' from statute book.

He found that there was no story in the press about him, despite me being found guilty. He had a few contacts on the local paper because of his community work and they were kind. However, he found that : 'There was suspicion in the scout movement, which made me angry and upset. I know the word “paedophile” was used, and that was humiliating. I resigned, which hurt a great deal.'

George was fearful it would come out and although his wife knew he was gay when she married him and 'was a wonderfully supportive woman',  no one else knew ; 'not friends, not my children. I took it in my stride. I came to terms with it.'

George went on to have several gay relationships subsequently and today lives with his long-term partner of 20 years. He does, however, remain :  "very angry" about what happened to him : "I served my country during the Second World War. I don’t want a pardon because I’m not guilty. I’m angry with the Government and the entire establishment throughout the 20th century. They need to apologise to the gay community on behalf of their predecessors and the police need to apologise for the way they enforced the law. There are many men out there with this stigma hanging around their neck."

He has said : "If I get an apology, I will not need a pardon" and there "never should have been an offence of gross indecency. It didn't apply to heterosexuals. Heterosexuals could do what they liked, in the doorways, in passageways, the back of their car. It only applied to gay men. That's not right, surely?"

George's anger has not stood in his way of acting as a positive force in the Gay Community and his current passion is to see a top of the range care home for older gay people opened and he is presently working on a self financing proposal for gay men with money to commit to the project.

George is still inspired by the lessons he learned as a poor boy living with his family in a tied cottage without either bathroom or toilet on a large estate with a big house owned by Colonel Handbury in Buckinghamshire in the 1920s and where his ex-policeman father was a gardener and his mother, the laundress. It was here that he dug up weeds with the other children to earn some pocket money and : 
'It made our fingers sore, but I think it taught me a lesson that would be with me all of my life : if something needs to be done, then best get on and do it.'


Monday 17 October 2016

Britain is still a country for and says "Happy Birthday" to an old writer from Cheshire called Alan Garner who gave it 'The Weirdstone of Bisingamen'

Alan Garner, author of children's fantasy novels and reteller of traditional British folk tales, whose work is rooted in the landscape, history and folklore of his native county of Cheshire in the North West of England is 82 years old today.

He was born in 1934 into a working-class family in the front room of his grandmother's house in Congleton and grew up around the
nearby town of Alderley Edge and spent much of his youth in the wooded area known locally as 'The Edge' and gained an early interest in the folklore of the region from his grandfather, Joseph.

The Garner family had been connected to 'The Edge' since the 1500's with a lineage back to the death of William Garner in 1598 and one with an oral tradition which taught him folk tales about the area which included a description of a king and his army of knights who slept under it, guarded by a wizard and and said the story became "deeply embedded in my psyche" and heavily influenced his later novels.

Alan learnt that in the mid 1800's, his great-great grandfather, Robert, a stonemason : had carved the face of a bearded wizard onto the rock of a cliff next to a well that was known in local folklore as the 'Wizard's Well' :

As a child growing up in the 1930s he faced three life-threatening illnesses : diphtheria, meningitis and pneumonia which he later believed were crucial to him becoming a writer :  and in addition, attending the local village school, he found that, despite being praised for his intelligence, he was punished for speaking in his native Cheshire dialect.

Having passed the 11+ exam he studied at Manchester Grammar School and after National Service in the Armed Forces, enrolled as an undergraduate studying 'classics' at Magdalen College, Oxford. As the first member of the Garner family to receive anything more than a basic education he became removed from his background and something of a schism opened up with other members of the family. He said that they "could not cope with me, and I could not cope with them".

In 1957 he moved to the village of Blackden, near Alderley Edge, where he bought for £500 and slowly renovated the late medieval 'Toad Hall' : and three years later at the age of 26, had his first novel published,
'The Weirdstone of Bisingamen' was a children's fantasy novel set in the Edge which revolved around two children, sent to live in the area with their mother's old nursemaid, Bess and her husband, Gowther Mossock, who discover a race of malevolent creatures, the 'svart alfar', who seem intent on capturing them. They are rescued by the wizard
Cadellin' who reveals that the forces of darkness are amassing at the Edge in search of the titular 'Weirdstone of Brisingamen'.

Alan was interviewed at the Edge 50 years later ; h

Before publication he had sent his book to the publishing company, Collins, where it was picked up by the company's head, Sir William Collins, on the look out for new fantasy novels following the recent commercial and critical success of J.R.R. Tolkien's, 'The Lord of the Rings' and as Alan later said that "Billy Collins saw a title with funny-looking words in it on the stockpile, and he decided to publish it."

After the critical and commercial success of his first book, he produced a sequel, 'The Moon of Gomrath' in 1963, also revolving around the adventures of the two children, Colin and Susan, with the latter being possessed by a malevolent creature called the 'Brollachan' who, with the help of the wizard Cadellin, is exorcised. Her soul, however, also leaves her body, being sent to another dimension, leaving Colin to find a way to bring it back.

Alan wrote a string of further fantasy novels starting with 'Elidor', which he set in contemporary Manchester with four children who enter into a broken down Victorian church, only to find a portal to the magical realm of Elidor and later said in preparation : "I had to read extensively textbooks on physics, Celtic symbolism, unicorns, medieval watermarks, megalithic archaeology; study the writings of Jung; brush up my Plato; visit Avebury, Silbury and Coventry Cathedral; spend a lot of time with demolition gangs on slum clearance sites; and listen to the whole of Britten's 'War Requiem' nearly every day."

He set 'The Owl Service' set in Wales and based on a medieval Welsh epic, 'The Mabinogion' and saw it televised in episodes in 1969 :,&t=0m34s

He published 'Red Shift' in 1973, before turning away from fantasy genre to produce 'The Stone Book Quartet' in 1979, a series of four short novellas detailing a day in the life of four generations of his family and a series of British folk tales rewritten in 'Alan Garner's Fairy Tales of Gold' in 1979 and 'A Bag of Moonshine' ten years later.

His collection of essays and public talks, 'The Voice That Thunders', contains much autobiographical material, including an account of his life with bipolar disorder, as well as critical reflection upon folklore and language, literature and education, the nature of myth and time.

After the further novels of  'Strandloper' and 'Thursbitch', he finally published his third book in the Weirdstone trilogy, 'Boneland', 52 years after the first.

In 2010, at the age of 78, he delivered a brilliant account of the Legend of Alderley at the Oxford Literary Festival :

Mindful of his craftsman ancestors he said in 2010 :
" I had to get aback to familial ways of doing things, by using skills that had been denied to my ancestors : but I had nothing that they would have called 'worthwhile'. My ability was in language and languages. I had to use that, somehow, and writing was a manual craft, but what did I know that I could write about ? I knew the land".