From Hell: Yours truly, Jack The Ripper

At the end of August 1888, the district of Whitechapel in the impoverished east end of London was plunged into terror when a series of killings were perpetrated by a man that would forever be known as Jack The Ripper.  ***Please Note that this post does not contain any photos of murder victims but does give an account of actual of distasteful events albeit very much sanitised***

Then as now London was perhaps the greatest city on earth, the centre of trade, finance and empire. Just as in every large city today there are places that aren’t exactly tourist hotspots, back in 1888 Whitechapel was the sort of place even locals wouldn’t go out at night.

The area suffered the worst poverty imaginable with dozens of people residing in each building, even in each room.  The east end of London was full of sailors and soldiers, the hustle and bustle of the empire with ships coming and going all around the world.  Its notoriety was well deserved as only the most desperately poor would live there.

Many of the women there had no husbands or family and to meet their measly rent for their doss houses and often their drug and drink addictions too, they would be forced to sell themselves to all manner of dodgy punters.  The area was amaze of no go alleyways and narrow lanes which though bustled at night were silent and shady by night.

Whitechapel like much of east London at the time was rife with petty and much more serious crime.  It was almost a lost cause and the sort of place where one would go to disappear.  Many of the population were just passing through, others were newly landed migrants from eastern europe looking for a better life as so many still do today.

Despite attempts by the Victorians to improve the welfare of the poor across the country, such moves hadn’t yet reached Whitechapel.  Some of the streets were said to be the most dangerous and murderous streets not just in London but the western world.  No wonder then that in August 1888 one of the earliest and to this day the most infamous serial killer appeared in this most crowded of cities to commit the most horrible crimes.

29 Hanbury Street

Another of Jacks victims was killed by the doorway in the yard against the fence where a neighbour ignored noises thinking it was just a domestic argument.

There are 5 canonical murder victims which are generally agreed upon as being the victims of Jack.  The viciousness of the murders though mean it is unlikely that they were his first or indeed only victims and that other killings labelled as the Whitechapel Murders were his work too, most likely Mary Tabram who was stabbed dozens of times in the dark cobbled streets of Whitechapel just a few weeks earlier.

Things really got going on August 31st when the body of Mary Ann Nichol was found at 3.40am in Bucks Row.  Her throat had been cut and there were numerous incisions on her abdomen.

Dorset Street

Dorset Street in the time of Jack. The most crime-infested and dangerous street in London

Just a week later poor Annie Chapman met her end early one morning.  She was spotted with a genteel looking though hairy dark man at 5.30am in Hanbury Street.  15 minutes later a neighbour heard a commotion and if he had bothered looking over the fence he might have seen something.  As it was Annie Chapman was discovered dead at 6am, her throat had been slit, her body slashed and internal organs removed.

Murder Most Foul

Photo taken just a few years after Jack. One of the murders took place by the archway leading off to the right.

Whitechapel fell into hysteria and understandably so.  Who was the man who could murder women so brutally, dismember them and escape the hundreds of police in just minutes.  Ironically most of the citizens kept themselves locked safely indoors once dusk fell.  It was the very women who Jack was targeting who remained out.  They may have thought they knew better by only seeing familiar clients and faces.  Each night they desperately needed to earn a few pennies to avoid being thrown on the street which would have been the end of them even  in the best of times in Whitechapel.  Police estimated there were 60 brothels and 1200 women working as prostitutes in the radius of just a few streets.

Commercial Street

How many times did Jack the Ripper walk down one of the main streets of Whitechapel

Sunday 30th September 1888 was a night that took things to new, despicable heights.  Elizabeth Stride was killed with one cut to her artery to her neck but was not mutilated. She had been seen shortly earlier with a man.  It seems the killer was interrupted as when the man who discovered the body was riding his horses into the old yard, there was a noise in the far corner and the horses became highly disturbed.  It is likely that they sensed Jack hiding in the shadows as he made his escape.

Incensed that his killing had been interrupted Jack fled through the maze of alleyways until he met with Catherine Eddowes who shortly before her death was spotted with a man.  The police patrols were widespread and intensive and a PC had patrolled Mitre Square as part of his route.  Just 14 minutes after he had walked there, he found Catherine Eddowes dead.  She had been horribly murdered and mutilated with her intestines flung over her shoulder and other organs removed. In fact she had only been released from a prison cell after collapsing drunk in the street less than an hour earlier.

Apart from the obvious shock value and unspeakable actions which elevated the crimes from mere murders, it was mused by many that Jack may be a doctor or butcher?  How else could someone commit such crimes so quickly?

The final canonical killing was that of Mary Kelly.  She was discovered at 10.45am on Friday 9th November.  She had been killed in her room.  The way she was lying in bed already naked indicated she was already with her killer.  She had been horribly mutilated and the extra time Jack had in the private room allowed him to extrapolate his frenzy.  The walls were covered in blood and it was said to be the most horrific sight imaginable, more the work of the devil than even a serial killer.  Understandably the house was demolished a few decades later.

And then the killings stopped as suddenly as they had started, or did they?  There were certainly plenty of other murders in Whitechapel over the next few years.  Opinion amongst the investigative police was divided over which were the works of Jack.  Eventually it seems likely that Jack either fled the area, went overseas, was imprisoned for unrelated crimes or put nto an insane asylum.

Even today, new discoveries and insights are being made but whether the identity of Jack The Ripper will ever be agreed upon is unlikely.  Many of the original police records were destroyed in The Blitz and decades before that records were literally thrown out on the street when storage became an issue.  Some records and testimonies do exist and there was until recently even a piece of clothing belonging to Catherine Eddowes which Jack had dropped whilst fleeing the scene and about to write a message on a wall.  The clothing was DNA tested but at the time technology was such that it was unable to identify the killer after a century of contamination by investigators.

Modern detectives believe that with just a bit better technology and a better handling of the case that Jack would have been caught.  Nevertheless the police interviewed hundreds of suspects and conducted countless door to door inquiries.  They had witnesses but not all of their testimonies matched up and there was a societal pressure that led police to believe the killer had to be clearly insane.  People of a high social standing were deemed to be above such murders and on one such instance a murder victim being escorted by a well attired gentleman with scarcely concealed bladed instrument was ignored by a police patrol.

The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing

The police also wilfully destroyed a graffiti message most likely left by Jack on a brick wall immediately after a murder.  It was decided that waiting for daylight for a full investigation to be made and the arrival of the new fangled science of photography would risk causing race-riots due to the anti-Semitic nature of the writing and so the whole wall was washed down and all evidence eradicated with it.  There are disagreements over its meaning but as it was found with a piece of Catherine Eddowes apron it had adds an interesting twist.  Was Jack claiming himself to be Jewish or was he trying to throw the police off his scent?  A few months earlier a Jewish suspect of a murder in a nearby street had pushed race-relations on edge so it is understandable why the police felt they had to remove the writing before uninformed rumours spread like wild-fire.

Whitechapel map

Charles Booth’s Map of London Poverty, 1889 from the Casebook website. Notice how close the murders canonical murders are and how they are in the poorest areas.

It is likely that Jack The Ripper lived in Flower and Dean street which is located right in the centre of the killings and within just 200 yards of the homes of the women and not much further from the murder locations.  The street itself was destroyed in WW2 bombing and many but not all of the surrounding slums were too or were otherwise torn down by either Victorian reformers or the later developments of the 1960s-90s.

Jack The Ripper is about the first serial killer with his own nom de plume which appeared when Jack wrote a bloody letter or possibly it was the work of an ambitious newspaper reporter.

This letter was originally thought to be a hoax but it mentions how Jack will cut off part of his next victims ear.  Soon after Catherine Eddowes was found with her ear lobe removed.

This letter was originally thought to be a hoax but it mentions how Jack will cut off part of his next victims ear. Soon after Catherine Eddowes was found with her ear lobe removed.

Dear Boss Page 2

Page 2 of the dear boss letter posted on 27th September 1888.


Dear Boss,

I keep on hearing the police have caught me but they wont fix me just yet. I have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track. That joke about Leather Apron gave me real fits. I am down on whores and I shant quit ripping them till I do get buckled. Grand work the last job was. I gave the lady no time to squeal. How can they catch me now. I love my work and want to start again. You will soon hear of me with my funny little games. I saved some of the proper red stuff in a ginger beer bottle over the last job to write with but it went thick like glue and I cant use it. Red ink is fit enough I hope ha. ha. The next job I do I shall clip the ladys ears off and send to the police officers just for jolly wouldn’t you. Keep this letter back till I do a bit more work, then give it out straight. My knife’s so nice and sharp I want to get to work right away if I get a chance. Good Luck. Yours truly
Jack the Ripper

Dont mind me giving the trade name

PS Wasnt good enough to post this before I got all the red ink off my hands curse it No luck yet. They say I’m a doctor now. ha ha

There were several other letters such as the one known as “saucy Jack” but the most famous has to be the From Hell Letter.  This was sent in a wooden box to the George Lusk, the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee.  Inside was a letter and half a human kidney.  Police thought it was a hoax but experts later tested the kidney and they determined it belonged to a 45 year old woman with health problems caused by over consumption of alcohol.  Catherine Eddowes had had her kidney removed, she was 46 and was known to suffer from a severe drinking problem.

From Hell Letter

The work of a sick and twisted mind.


From hell

Mr Lusk
Sor
I send you half the Kidne I took from one women prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer.

signed
Catch me when you Can
Mishter Lusk.

 

Despite the biggest manhunt in history and the fact that London lived in sheer terror for months if not indeed for a year or two, without any statements from victims, no photographs of the suspect and modern investigative sciences in their infancy Jack The Ripper was never caught and his identity remains a mystery.

A few more viscous murders continued carrying many if not all of his hallmarks.  Francis Cole was killed (see one of the photos below) but when found by a policeman was still able to open her eyes.  Police procedures meant the officer was duty bound to stay with a living victim and had to ignore the fleeing heavy footsteps of Jack running away as quickly as he could.

The list of possible suspects is impressive and includes locals, passing sailors, doctors, the criminally. insane and even a member of the Royal Family   One of the more likely suspects is that of the American, H.H. Holmes.  He was in London at the time of the killings and his defence lawyer believed him to be Jack before he was executed in New York a decade later on the count of 27 other murders.  One or two people have said to have confessed to be Jack whilst others have fraudulently claimed to be Jack or know his real identity.

Flower and Dean St

Modern detectives believe that Flower and Dean Street is the most likely place for Jack to have lived. It is central to the area, murderers tend to kill near to home and he clearly knew the dark maze of alleyways in Whitechapel.

Whitechapel has changed beyond all recognition in the last 135 years though parts of it would never be described as affluent.  Many of the pubs and churches remain as do even some of the buildings from the time along with some of the narrow passage ways and cobble-stoned squares that Jack and his unfortunate victims lived and died on.  Whilst it is in no way comparable to how it used to be, there are still several areas related to the Whitechapel murders that no one would want to go at night.

Chamber Street by John Bennett

Photo of Chamber Stree by John Bennett. Imagine walking down here at 1am with only oil or gas lighting… perhaps none at all knowing that Jack could be lurking in the shadows.

Swallow Gardens from Chamber Street by Rob Clack

Frances Cole met a grisly end here on 13th February 1891. I think we would all be looking over our shoulders in broad day light even in 2014.

Mitre Square

Atmospheric photo from Jonno on Casebook.org. Catherine was murdered on the pavement to the left of the flower box, under the tree.

As horrific as the 11 Whitechapel killings were they did at least help bring recognition to the terrible conditions of the poor in east London and Whitechapel in particular and provided momentum for change.  Police began to develop much more modern ways of dealing with murders, they even developed the first trainers/sneakers as it was thought their boots made too much noise on the London cobble-stones at night.  The famous British press sold millions of papers off the crimes which went some way to creating the modern “cut-throat” tabloid culture in Britain.

London Daily Post

Jack The Ripper makes headline news around the world.

Police News

Tabloid papers did much to hype up the all ready hysterical and helpless poor of London.

The Penny Illustrated News

Revolutions in printing cheap papers helped created the tabloid paper. Drawings were used to increase sales to the poor with low levels of literacy.

Though there have been a few British serial killers who have killed more, most were not so gruesome and they were all identified in the end.  Jack The Ripper remains a mystery who kept London on edge over a century ago and whose presence along with that of his poor victims can still raise the hairs on the back of your neck in certain parts of Whitechapel.  Whoever he is, he thoroughly deserves the much voted title of the worst Briton of all time.

I will shortly start offering day-time walking tours on Jack The Ripper through my Ye Olde England Tours company.  Join me, if you dare!

 

 

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The Very Inspiring Blogger Award

Before I get started, I really must thank James for nominating my blog for the Inspiring Blogger Award.  I’ve only just met James on-line recently and it is always a genuine pleasure when anyone likes, comments and follows my blog.  Being nominated for an award is most appreciated.  James works on the fabulous ‘Weave My Tale‘ website which is dedicated to helping not just authors who are just starting but also those who are a bit further down the writing road.  I wish had found him years ago, I can tell you.

Here are the guidelines for the award:

  • Thank and link the amazing person who nominated you.https://hannamar.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/image6.jpg?w=255&h=167
    List the rules and display the award.
    Share seven facts about yourself.
    Nominate 15 other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated.
    Optional: Proudly display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you.

So here are seven facts about this blog:

1. I started writing whilst still at Uni, I attended a creative writers class at a Star Trek convention led by Ron Moore of TNG, DS9 and Battlestar Galatica fame and Brannon Braga who did Voyager and Enterprise.  Within weeks I won my first creative writers competition!  Just as importantly, I found a way to get invited to the various Star Trek and other hit movie premiers in London.  Good times!

2. I wanted to write a blog for many years but didn’t think I had much to say that would interest anyone.  I’m not saying that I do now but I did think it would help my writing skills and assist me in authoring more books and maybe do some freelance writing.

3. Despite some posts being linked to by professional news and features websites, I’ve never been Freshly Pressed.  Do I care? No way!  Really?  Of course not, both know I would be screen-grabbing that big moment as if my life depended on it!

4. It was always my goal to write a mix of subjects on my blog.  I know most people favour writing a blog revolving around one speciality but I always found that too limiting.  How can I write just about one thing when there is a whole world out there.  Besides which I think writing about anything and everything makes for a better writer.  The problem is finding a good mix and having something worth reading.   My blog majors in history, travel and culture and minors in opinion and ‘stuff”.   Despite all that I do get days when I wonder what to write and have a little voice in my head that say “You see, I told you that you should have dedicated your blog to 1001 Mongol torture techniques.  You’d either have no followers or millions of them but at least you wouldn’t be stuck with what to write”.   Someone once said to me that my blog was like Wikipedia except more accurate and a lot funnier.  That’s really what I am going for.  Here are my top posts ever (except for the Home Page).

My top Top Posts ever

My Top Posts Ever. Most of these are from the last year or so. Either no-one liked my first year or I got more followers in the second. Maybe both!

5. Through writing this blog I have made 2 or 3 really excellent friends and lots of other friends and interesting people.  I’ve been contacted to write for publications, sold books and even changed my career into something I enjoy i.e. writing and tours.  I always wonder who is reading my blog so everyone do feel perfectly free to just drop me a line and say ‘hi’.    I’m always amazed at how many people come from around the world.  What do I write that is of interest to people in Lesotho in southern Africa or French Guiana in South America? I love France and Germany but am still surprised so many readers come from there.

Blog views around the world

Thanks to everyone who either follows me or just pops by.

From the map above it looks like I have readers from all but about 10 countries in the world and several of these are dictatorships.  Central Africa looks like a hard to crack area for me.  If no one visits me from there soon don’t be surprised if I do a big feature on best restaurants in the Central African republic.  Maybe another on the leader of North Korea.  Aside from creating an international incident, it would do wonders for the hit count.  Does anyone else remember the WWF wrestler Mr. Perfect?  Sadly he is no longer with us but in the 1990’s he used to do all these little video vignettes where he was the perfect footballer or the perfect basket baller.  I reckon doing something like that for The Supreme leader has potential and I’m sure he would just love it too.

6. I spent days reading the hundreds of comments about the four posts I wrote when my mother unexpectedly died.  It remains one of the most incredible moments of my life knowing that people I never met took time out to write to me.  Thank-you to everyone whether you are still reading me or not.

7. I compare my time blogging rather like the film Ghostbusters.  The receptionist would sit bored with no calls and then after a while, all hell would break loose.  For a long time I waited for any likes at all, then there were a few and after a while my second hand iPod Touch (now iPad Wahoo) would never stop beeping at me.  These days it seems the like Mr Stay Puff is just rampaging over my life and I’m liking that.

Stay-puft-marshmallow-man

The Marshmallow man has taken over my life

Now I have to nominate 15 other blogs for the award.  This is very hard to do as though I don’t comment on many I do follow a lot.  Here are my 15 nominations:

1. Echoes of The Past   This is a lovely little blog about old buildings, usually churches in rural parts of Britain.

2. Gnome Lover   Jenni runs this often hilarious blog about the trials of life whilst producing excellent recipes and lots of other things.  She also loves sci-fi.  If you ever meet Jenni, do tell her how much I want that painting of the peacock on her wall.

3.Amy Reese Writes  Amy writes a blog that is a mix for mine and Jenni’s  Always interesting and fun to read.  One of my first blogging buddies.

4. Ekaterina Botziou  It’s easy to imagine that Ekaterina lives out her life in some kind of My Big Fat Greek Wedding mixed with a touch of Groundhog Day.  A really talented writer, very amusing and the nicest person you can imagine.  I won’t mention that she has been in Downton Abbey and John Carter of Mars.  She is going places and nominating her is my little way of holding on to her coat tails!

5. Stretching Into Infinity – The first blog I ever followed and one that I still enjoy.  If looking at amazing street photography from around the world is your thing then you should check this one out.

6. Save The Royal Navy – Everyone knows I like my history and all things military.  This blog is great for anyone who is interested in the current Royal Navy and its name comes from the fact that our government keeps cutting back its military budget whilst forever sending it out to do its work whilst giving extra money to things like bankers or even £120 Billion (£4,500 for each family) on waste.

7. A. H. Gray – Author and historian who specialises in my family region in North East England.  If you like Vikings and really old Anglo-Saxon stories then it’s well worth a read.

8.Oh the Things We Shall See     Skye works on several blogs, this one is a photographic blog that mixes great imagery with inspiring verses.

9. Boyer Writes  Nancy really writes a great blog, kind of like mine on a good day when all the pigs are flying and fingers are crossed and I have a vague idea of what I’m writing.  Except that Nancy is like that day in and day out.  Great subjects and very professionally written.

10.A Map Of Time – Jenga keeps A Map of Time all ship-state and Bristol fashion as this beautiful blog primarily covers maritime history in North America but also other places too.  I’ve spent many a time nosing around here and always learn lots of new things.

11. Look Left - This is a political blog which I have long followed and occasionally contributed to.  Written by Jack, a very talented writer with a left-leaning persuasion in UK Politics.

11.View From Saris world This is a bit of a literary and history geek sort of blog which I always enjoy reading as the posts are always well written.  My favourite recently was about “Saying Goodbye to books”, something I’m sure all us bookworms can relate to.

12.The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife –  I like this blog a lot, its written with quite a lot of tongue in cheek humour and yet you get the feeling it is all based on fact.  I’ve been dabbling with the idea of buying a totally ramshackle old farm house in Sicily which is how I found this great blog.  Plus it reminds me of the funny characters I enjoy meeting on the Sicilian TV show, Inspector Montalbano.  Don’t end up like Caterella, pull up a chair and enjoy. Avanti!

14.History Kicks Ass – Let Nadine take you through some wonderful bite size moments of history.

15. Docommawrite Alex or Alexandra as I no doubt infuriatingly insisted on calling her for over a year has a wonderful little blog.  Each time you visit it’s like opening a present of untold delights.  She does great writing, is very inspirational and recently started her own Yoga company in and around Boston.  If you want to laugh or just feel happy then go see what she does. She is my little blogging sis!

 

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Red sauce, brown sauce or no sauce at all? 15 minutes of fame on the Danny Baker Show

I thought a while on what to title this post.  I settled on 15 minutes of fame for reasons that will become clear but it might as easily be ascribed the title “How I ended up sitting on the throne of the King of Jordan”.

Every Saturday morning when I am either out walking or more likely preparing my Saturday blog, I listen to the Danny Baker show on BBC Radio 5Live.  I have done for as many years as I can remember.  The show is nominally about football but everyone who listens knows that it is just an excuse to listen to a rare genius on the radio who can happily talk away about anything.  The show revolves around its listeners who phone in and discuss with Danny some of the most unlikely and outlandish events one could ever hope to hear.  They are always funny and Danny along with his wonderful colleague, Lynsey Hipgrave, never try to impose themselves on the show, all callers are made to feel like a star for the few minutes they are on air and the whole thing is very much like having one of those great conversations with friends except of course in this case, with 2 friends that we have never met.

Often the highlight of the show is the legendary sausage sandwich game in which questions are asked on a sporting or other celebrity in the studio.  The questions are always unusual such as “how many shopping bags does X carry from their car in one go”, “How many light switches are in their hallway” or “when was the last time they got a parking/speeding ticket” and terminates with a question on whether that person likes to have their sausage sandwiches with red sauce, brown sauce or no sauce at all.

Each show also has a number of suggested topics for people to phone up such as good reasons to be under a bed or Family Heirlooms that you’ve ruined.  They often produce comedy gems such as the person who got blocked in a cupboard by their vibrating washing machine that jammed against the door.  One subject that caught my attention was “What you’ve sat on”.

Danny Baker Show

Phone-in topics for Saturday 23rd August 2014 Danny Baker Show

I’d wanted to call Danny on this before as it forms one of my classic “It could only happen to Stephen” stories some of which include the scorpion in the desert story, the live WW1 hand grenade and mine-field story and how I came to find myself in the back of a limo with supermodel Claudia Schiffer.

The reason I haven’t called before is that to be honest, I don’t like using a phone, I prefer emails if possible (see my Introverts post here).  I don’t ever call anyone, let alone go on the national radio to speak to a quick-witted Danny Baker and his millions of listeners.  For some reason though on Saturday that is just what I did.

My story is more fully told in Planes Trains and Sinking Boats but briefly I had just travelled across the Sinai in Egypt then the Red Sea before a very unusual night in Wadi Rum, Jordan  when I arrived at my hotel in Amman, the capital of Jordan.  It was early evening and I wanted to get out to have a look around before it got dark.

King Abdullah Mosque

Front entrance to the King Abdullah I Mosque in Amman, Jordan. Photo by Berthold Werner

Almost opposite the hotel was the King Abdullah I mosque, a new mosque and something approaching the size of St. Paul’s cathedral in terms of stature and magnificence.  I went over and asked the guard if I could have a look in using my best broken Arabic.  He explained it was closing down for the moment but after some mutterings he let me in.

The whole mosque was magnificent as I wondered in whilst by another exit, soldiers were literally shooing people out of the door.  Hmm, soldiers in a mosque, that is a bit strange.  Perhaps, especially back in the peaceful year 2000 but unknown to myself, having crossed a number of courtyards and corridors I now found myself in the Jordanian parliament building.  It was very lavish and richly carpeted and decorated albeit in a modern style.  The chamber was in a circular fashion like the American Senate.

Should I be here?  Definitely not.  Would I get in trouble?  Well the soldier seemed friendly enough.  I wondered if he was just letting me get so far into the complex that he would be made to look a hero for catching a spy in a top-secret establishment.

The guard seemed even more nervous than I did and when he asked me to stay here for a moment while he left the room, I did wonder what might happen.  However soon afterwards, he hurried in and beckoned me to follow him which I did.  Apparently he had to switch off the CCTV cameras or else we would be in big trouble.  No kidding!

We went through a few rooms and up a narrow staircase which emerged into a small room with a number of doors leaving off it.  I was ushered into a room and there against the wall were a number of thrones.  I found myself in the King of Jordan’s private reception area and this room in particular was where he would meet foreign dignitaries.

I couldn’t really believe my eyes but as I had come so far I asked the soldier if he would take a photo of me sat in the throne.  I actually sat in all 3 thrones just to make sure I got the right one.

Once the deed was done, the soldier and I excitedly looked at the photo and scurried off down stairs making our way to the exit as quickly as possible.  The guard was very reticent and made me promise that I not tell anyone what had happened, where I had been or what I had seen.  There was no need to fear, I would be as good as my word at least until now, about 15 years later.

We said our excited and nervous good-byes and I disappeared into darkness with the biggest grin on my face.  Calm down Stephen.  I wondered if there was a special look on my face that might give the receptionist a clue “Oh that guy has that ‘I’ve sneaked into parliament and sat on King Abdullah’s throne’ sort of look”.

Sat on the throne of the King of Jordan

Myself sat on the royal throne of Jordan or Posh and Becks wedding chairs as Lynsey put it. Strapped to the electric chair as Danny put it.

I was with a friend on that trip and he hadn’t wanted to come out that evening preferring to rest in his room.  You snooze, you loose had never been so true.

And so I kept it quiet for the rest of my trip and no-one came close to finding it out.  At the airport as I prepared to fly out, I was detained by security as a security risk as apparently I had too much photography equipment and might be a spy.

“Not again” I thought as at different points in the trip one of my friends had been apprehended by Egyptian passport control as he was and indeed still is black and the Egyptians seemingly thought that made him African rather than British.  Another was snatched at ‘Aqaba port as he shared a name which was only slightly similar to but not really like that of an Iraqi terrorist.

Being thought a spy was one thing but at the time I vaguely worked in a sensitive industry and to make matters much worse, they only had to flick through my photos to see I had infiltrated their parliament and sat on the Kings throne..’So tell me again how you’re not a spy and yet sneaked through parliament and sat on the Kings throne’ I imagined they might ask?  Fair question to which I would have no answer except for feigning a Basil Fawlty style nervous breakdown.

It was always possible to divert Egyptian officials with disposable biro pens but Jordan wasn’t like that and so I tried to impress upon them that I was just the tourist I was and to look at my photos if you want to and by the way, I really need to get my flight back to London in a few minutes.

Well they checked my camcorder movies briefly and then flicked through a handful of the several hundred photos I had with me and for once good luck saw me on my way and with my photos.

And so 15 years later, last saturday I emailed the BBC and quickly had a reply back saying they would love to use my story but it would be even better if I could go on the show and talk about “What you’ve sat on”.

After a brief period of indecision I said yes and their researcher rang me up and we went through a few things and 20 minutes later I was put on air.  It was a slightly surreal but very exciting moment and there was no need to have worried as Danny and Lynsey started chatting away as if we had known each other for years which in a way we had.

Typical of my luck, just when I got going the phone line went dead.  Stupid mobile phones!  No problem, they called me right back and after a few minutes I was on air and able to regale the nation with my tale.

I do hope that I kept quiet for long enough for the Jordanian soldier, 15 years isn’t too bad considering he just said to wait until I got home.

For the next 4 days you can listen to the official podcast of the show here or you can listen to my own recording by downloading the small file here: Stephen on the Danny Baker Show

Have you ever sneaked into something you shouldn’t have?  Let me know!

For more tales of backpacking woe why not mosey on down to Amazon and have a look at my travelogue.

Planes, Trains & Sinking Boats

Cover for Amazon Kindle and Ebooks from Apples iStore and Lulu.

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Is the ALS Bucket Challenge a waste of time?

It’s been hard to move on the internet or television the last few weeks without stumbling over a video of the great and the good or at least the self-publicist celebrities volunteering to have themselves splashed with ice and cold water in the name of a good cause.  Motor-Neurone disease or ALS as it is called in places is a terrible affliction and one that should be near the top of diseases which science is fighting to find a cure for.

However is the current craze actually doing any good?  It’s true that over $21 million or £12 million has been raised from the challenge which is fantastically good news.  However, it must surely be a big disappointment given the large number of celebrities involved.  Now I am the first to admit that I don’t really know and less still care about many of the people eagerly subjecting themselves to being iced on camera but a quick search in Wikipedia reveals there to be several hundred.

George Bush

George Bush taking the Ice Bucket Challenge

Whether it is former President George Bush Jnr, Gordon Ramsay, William Shatner or Jessica Alba, the chances are that several people who you’re vaguely a fan of have drenched themselves all in a good cause.  Most of these people have millions if not tens or even hundreds of millions of followers and yet despite all the effort and non-stop publicity only £12 million or so has been raised.

Though many of these figures have donated money as well as getting splashed, many have been filmed getting iced without any mention of why it is happening.  Some people have refused to be dunked, heaven forbid that the President of the United States hasn’t actually got something better to do.  He is most likely able to save or take more lives with a quick signature than any amount of freezing cold ice could achieve.

Compared to other charitable events such as Live Aid or charity music releases or even the BBC’s annual Children In Need, the amount raised has been a pittance despite a lot of creative energy going in to it.

It follows on a trend of trying to make charity or fund-raising fun and trendy.  Backpacking trips along the Andes where people can get themselves a free holiday which might cost themselves £3000 to organise themselves, so long as they can raise £4000 in donations.   Cancer charities in the UK even had a campaign a few months ago to arrange tea-parties where they would send out cake mix and recipes and then people would make cakes and invite their friends round to make money.  Aside from the fact that it involves a lot of time and effort to make very little money, cakes are generally considered bad for you and contain fats and sugars which are one of the major causes of cancer and heart disease.

Unicef-Likes dont save lives

Giving to charity involves giving. Not watching or sharing or liking.

I could decide to have a Pizza for charity.  I won’t give any money but I can eat a delicious pizza and post photos on the internet and invite others to donate to charity and end famine in Africa.  People might like seeing me enjoy my pizza, they might copy my toppings or even go so far as to eat a pizza themselves.  We can all get ourselves pizza’d-out and stuff ourselves silly but the starving in Africa who won’t benefit at all by this might just ask why can’t they give £5 to charity instead of gorging themselves on food that we like doing anyway.

Why can’t people just admit that all we are doing are watching people getting soaked and not giving any money.  Seriously, if everyone who voted for President Bush all gave $5 towards Motor-Neurone Disease / ALS the world would be a lot better place.  Some things aren’t meant to be fun, saving lives is too serious a matter.

What bigger motivation do people need to give to charity?  Science is on the edge of making major strides towards curing many major killer diseases.  Barely a week goes by without some major breakthrough appearing on the news.  Rather than take part in ineffective and self-publicising campaigns we should just pay up.  It’s likely that in the next 30-50 years that many if not most forms of cancer, heart disease, Leukemia, Aids and other diseases will be outright cured.  People in 60 years time won’t have to worry about them at least only as much as we have to worry about Polio if we have been vaccinated or the Plague if we haven’t.  It is us who are alive now that can bring forward the dates of the cures.  Giving to charity might just save your parents, friends, partners, children or even your own life a few decades down the line.  Surely that is all we need to know and if this was given as much publicity as the bucket challenge, if those getting dunked and all the fans sharing the videos just paid to charity then it would make a difference.

The Ice Bucket Challenge isn’t real charity or even activism, it’s slacktivism.  As Unicef recently put it on their recent posters“Like us on Facebook and we will vaccinate zero children against polio

In fact charities themselves know this sort of thing doesn’t really work.  Curing these diseases is an important though long-term goal, however when there is an urgent disaster such as an earthquake or tsunami, famine or war-zone they simply want cash donations and they blatantly ask for them.  Building fake houses out of toy lego bricks won’t help any of the homeless in your country or in a war zone like Syria or Gaza but money will.

So yes, it is great that the ice bucket challenge is getting some donations to charity for a disease that struggles to get attention amongst more infamous conditions but it isn’t really working.  No-one I personally know has given money to the challenge and to be honest I have avoided all the videos because it just seems a bit stupid to me.  I did see one that came on exactly when I switched on the TV but that was it.

Rather than just watch other people do easy or fun things, partly for charity and partly just to look good why not just pay some money.  It doesn’t have to be a lot, I spoke to a friend about this yesterday who whole-heartedly agreed and we both just paid £3 / £5 just because.

Cancer Donation

In the UK text BEAT to 70099 to donate £3 to Cancer UK as I did or give to ANY other charity.

It can be best summarised by a paragraph in the Independent newspaper this week:

There’s no shortage of suffering in the world, and a lot of good causes out there, far more than we have the appetite or the spare cash for. Generosity is a finite resource, and whatever tiny part of it is used up by watching Ronaldo sat in his pants and name-checking his famous mates — but not the actual cause — is a waste of everyone’s goodwill.

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Forever and Until – Book 3 of the Timeless Trilogy

Today is a happy day as it sees the release of Forever and Until, the final book in my Timeless Trilogy.  For those of you who have been reading the first two books, please forgive me in giving a little re-cap to those who haven’t.

In book 1, The Promise, Ben Milburn is a man from the 21st Century who died and has been put on a lifelong trial which he must survive and win if he has any chance of getting his old life back.  After being picked up as a slave by the Tuareg in the Sahara, living with nomads in Mongolia and living a life on the run in the Middle-East, Ben finally thinks he has settled down when he meets Mandana and the couple settle down for a life of domestic bliss on the farm until it is violently shattered at the end of book 2, The Messenger.

The cover of Forever and Until, the final book of the Timeless Trilogy

The cover of Forever and Until, the final book of the Timeless Trilogy

In many ways the third book is my favourite.  Though the characterisation and plot events of book 2, The Messenger, are perhaps the most substantial and dare I say it meaty. Forever and Until takes things to another level and brings a new dimension to the story with intricate plotting and black humour. All good trilogies need a very strong final entry whether it be a book or a movie series and this is what Forever and Until does.

It also brings about a satisfying conclusion to all off the plots and characters raised in the trilogy so far.  One of the things I like is how with it being an epic life-story as well as a historical romance is that events have repercussions and both good deeds and bad deeds from times past can come back with surprising results when least expected.

The story picks-up with Ben in the hands of the tax-collector, the very man whose life he spared all those years ago but there is absolutely no thanks shown and its understandable when we find out what happened to the tax collector whose life was spared but treasure stolen.

Ben finds himself thrown into the army and to make things worse, his hated commander turns out to be the very fugitive who burnt his farm down and killed someone very special to him.  Whilst in the past Ben found his lack of contemporary skills to be a great hindrance, now he is fully at ease with the time and through all manner of adventures ends up to be one of the top generals in the Shahs army.

Like the preceding books, Forever and Until skilfully ties in actual events with this fictional story.  Experience life in a 16th army, visit the home of the Ismaili or Assassins and their Castle of Death, see what live was like in one of the pivotal battles of history and visit the most famed city of the age when Ben fulfils his rags to riches story and meets the Shahanshah or King of Kings.

Of course to Ben, this is all the means to an end or rather two ends.  He needs to get back to his family and farm but also back to the 21st Century and Samantha and he won’t do either if he gets himself killed… again.  As the story has a strong theme of faith it seems only natural that at his lowest ebb just hours before his apparent execution Ben gets to meet and be tempted by the Devil himself with all the power and treasures that he so often offers for the use of a soul which in Ben’s case, stuck in a dungeon, hungry, thirsty, exhausted and having lived a life-span away from the 21st century just happens to be a Pepperoni Pizza.

Forever and Until looks like it is going to tie up the story nicely and takes us back to the beginning of book 1 until a man from Bens past re-appears, Guyuk, the Uzbek warlord who has plagued him almost a life-time.  Will he let sleeping dogs lie and get his old life back or despite being so close to the end, risk everything for justice.

Of course the story doesn’t just centre on Ben and we are treated to more time with Ben’s magical though slightly bumbling Guardian Angel, Harry and we find out what happened to Sam and what exactly Ben wrote to her in that letter that spanned the centuries all the way back in The Promise.

We also get introduced to some touching new characters whose parts may be small in the amount of page-time they receive but which are undeniably kind and gracious and a reminder of all the good in the world, especially in Ben’s world which is so often far from a smooth ride.

If the Forever and Until keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering how it is going to conclude that is because I myself didn’t decide on whether it would be a happy or sad ending until the night before I wrote the final pages.  The Timeless Trilogy might be a historical romance but it is full of the ups and downs of life and in this epic tale it isn’t only the bad that die.

The cover for Forever and Until is a photo which I took myself on one of my regular country walks.  It  shows a field of cereals blowing in the wind but are they blowing carefree in a breeze or moodily under an increasingly ominous sky?  Like in the story a large Oak tree grows on the horizon, a symbol of strength and longevity standing bravely alone.  Yet look closely and you’ll see the oak isn’t perfect and is in fact damaged. I think it ties in well with the trilogy as a whole and Forever and Until in particular.

I’m very proud of this book and the way it ties up the entire trilogy so neatly and yet brings in new elements and twists right up until the end.   I must thank Tonja Bliss of KTF Press for her help and assistance in publishing the entire trilogy, her enthusiasm and professionalism knows no limits.

As with the preceding books, Forever and Until is available in all the usual formats from all good online and retail outlets.  Two of the most popular sites where it can be found in paperback and Kindle format include Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk   Does Ben make it back to Sam?  You have to read it to find out!  If you are looking for an epic trilogy with an intimate and realistic story in a historical setting then look no further.

If you’ve missed out on The Promise and The Messenger, then check them out!  You can read about my other books from the top menu ‘My Books’ section too.  That’s it for my publishing in 2014 but I have a part completed Star Trek title I will return to after the summer as well as a WW2 history book and another novel too.

Thank-you to everyone who have purchased any of my books and I will be sending out some more paperbacks of Lest We Forget in the next few days.  If you’d like a signed copy of any book, just let me know :-)

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A field of dreams and memories

Yesterday on my way to collect a customer for a half day tour to Woburn Abbey, I found myself with 15 minutes to spare so I took the opportunity to visit my old childhood park, somewhere I had only visited once in the last ten years and that being seven years ago.

It is only a very small park, not much more than a field with some strong sturdy oaks at one end and a small play-ground with swings, a roundabout and a see-saw.  Very basic stuff.

View from the playground path

Looking down the park to the weeping willow tree down the hill

I used to visit this park every day, some days several times a day.  It didn’t matter what the season was.  A gloriously sunny summer would see countless games of football, Frisbee throwing and sometimes less than successful attempts to fly a kite.  Not that I’m not a great kite maker and flyer but that there was usually insufficient space and wind to fly a kite there.

If I had visited today or indeed almost any day in the last 4 months then I would have seen the park in full-on summer mode but as it happened at 8.45am yesterday morning, it was damp and overcast. Almost an October half-term feeling but with none of the excitement of Halloween and Bonfire night to look forward to.

The park was a 15 minute walk from home but in the hot summers of the 80’s it was always a bit of a trek, especially if we went back up the hill to avoid the rather lonely lane through the allotments.

Until I was a teenager I would come here with my grandparents sometimes for a walk out and a bit of fun.  At other times I’d come with my mother and brother for some football and a run-around.

A great spot for frisbee and games.  That little hill was a lot bigger for 8 year olds in the summer sun.

A great spot for frisbee and games. That little hill was a lot bigger for 8 year olds in the summer sun.

To be honest, my mother was a lot of things but bless her, sporty was never one of them so her playing football involved a rather feeble kick that might move the ball a few feet rather than half a park that we were looking for.  She was a lot better with Frisbee but again her decision to move more than a footstep meant that more often than not the games were always a stop-start affair.

When I was older I would visit the park with my friends.  We were perhaps the last generation able to find fun away from the computer screen (though we did plenty of that) and just invent games with balls, sticks and some imagination.

The park was a great place to ride our bikes.  As well as general riding and running we would play variations of polo and also a game best described as ramming where in a self contained area you weren’t allowed to put your foot down or go outside the boundary.  Sometimes the only way to win would be to literally ram your opponent and like how a police car has to have a certain amount of skill to bring a car chase to a halt, it was much the same on bikes.  Sometimes with a fine sense of balance you could stay upright on your bike longer than your attacker who would wobble and be forced to put their foot on the ground or just as often fall over.

Another game we played was British Bulldog, a game that was always competitive and increasingly violent as we got bigger but that was part of the fun.  It is sad these days to see the parks all empty of children unless in prescribed activities playing tennis or cricket or crazy golf.  Our crazy golf was a stick and a pebble.

Cricket was also an option but not one we did often.  Partially because not everyone knew the rules and those that did had little luck enforcing them on those who thought they were simply cheating.  Mostly though because I think few could be bothered to run al around the field in the heat when they were fielders whilst the batsman just stood still and made everyone else suffer.

The area behind the playground now has some expensive and exclusive homes but until my teenage years it was common woodland.  A great place for tree-climbing, exploring, hide and seek and also general war-games with our imitation guns and robin hood.  A small cabal of us, inspired by the Robin of Sherwood TV series.  We became experts at stripping down branches to make swords, smaller sticks would be throw-able daggers and making our own wooden bows and arrows.  We all had great fun and our potentially very violent games were always in good-spirit.  The thought of actually stabbing someone for real never entered our minds, so unlike some similar aged children today.  No-one ever bothered about our guns either.  The only people we were looking for was WW2 era Nazi’s who sometimes just happened to take on the form of joggers, walkers and eerily the Luftwaffe used to disguise themselves as flying birds.  That’s imagination for you.

Most of all was football.  This park was made for football.  We used two sturdy oaks as goal posts which was excellent especially when balls bounced in or out off the post.  Sometimes the ball would get stuck in the branches but we always got it down.

Natural goal post

Some of the finest sporting moments took place here.

If there was enough, we would have a full-on football match.  By enough people, that meant 2 or 3 people per side.  If that were the case we would throw down our coats or jumpers for goalposts and play our match.  This was proper football.  No rolling around on the ground, no teams based on ages.  Barely any fouls and the inevitable arguments of whether a goal was scored if the ball went over the jumpers.  It really decided how much the ball went over the jumper, how fast and high it was, whether the game was a close result and the popularity of the scorer and goal-keeper involved.

If there were only two or three of us then we would play 3 and in which meant the first player to score three goals would take a turn in goal.  Sometimes some less skilled people would rarely get in goal and find themselves tired out.  There were two tactics, either to use skill or brawn to get past your opponent and shoot at goal or for the skinny athletic kids to run round the whole park tiring their opponent out leaving a clear run at goal.   I was never one for running the whole pitch, partly because I was on the big side so if someone ran down the pitch I would just wait for them to come back but I was also in the school football team so I’d like to think I had a modicum of skill too.

We’d often walk Ben the beagle in the park and in the dark autumn nights it could be quite invigorating with the darkness, the strong winds knocking the acorns off the oaks and flying branches.  Like many other places, several of the oaks blew over in the Great Storm of ’87 and for 20 years afterwards, trees and tree stumps slowly rotted away.

When I was at university I would walk Ben at around 6am every morning before starting on my essays or revision and then go again late in the morning.  The lesson here is if you can start your work at 6am, you can get a whole days work done by lunch time and still enjoy the day.

The playground at the park was of course fun when we were younger.  Going on the see-saw and roundabout until we got dizzy and having a play on the swings, sometimes my mother would have a go too.  It was always sad to leave the playground, after all, who does ever want to stop playing and having fun?

The playground was also the sight of one the most scary incidents of my life when I saw a ghost.  It was early one summer morning and I took a path through the park as a short-cut on my bike after finishing the morning paper-round.  There I saw a man pushing a swing but the swing had no child in it.  He was just pushing an empty swing which was weird enough.  Then when I was parallel to him he noticed I was there and looked up and his face was totally white with no features or hair.  It looked rather like a very white shop mannequin head.   Obviously I rode away as fast as I could down the lonely lane and even let out a scream when I thought he got me but it was just the rubber bag I kept my papers in that had slid round in my haste and started rubbing against my bike tyres.

Playground

Happy memories of playing with my mother. Scary memories of the ghost!

Despite not really believing me, none of my friends were quick to return there on their own and though I went again the next day during day-time, it was the next summer before I took that same early morning short-cut.  I never saw that ghost again and I haven’t changed my opinion at all in the intervening 25 years.

Sadly they are now building lots of houses on the lonely lane opposite the allotments and so though the lane will never be (lonely as a kid / tranquil as an adult), it will be overlooked by houses which I think is rather a shame.

There were no ghosts in the park yesterday or if they were they were only in my memories.  No dog walkers, no joggers, no football matches or ramming, no Mama.  Just me, the damp early morning dew on the grass, the park and me.  And lots of memories of course.

The Allotments

Bordering the park, the allotments have barely changed except for the old WW2 bunker having finally disappeared.

 

 

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Robin Williams – Laughing on the outside, crying on the inside

The sad news of Robin Williams untimely death this week has brought forth the expected tide of tributes to this man who made millions laugh around the world and rightfully so.

He wasn’t ever my favourite comedian, far from it, though I did like Mrs Doubtfire and much of Good Morning Vietnam which sadly I am still quoting nearly 20 years later.  I didn’t watch any of his later and more serious roles as they looked too saccharine to me.  However there is no denying that Robin Williams was immensely talented and brought happiness to so many lives which is why his death is all the more tragic.

Yet almost as predictably are the snide comments about his suicide.  Any suicide that makes the news seems to be condemned as ‘selfish’.  Selfish to yourself, selfish because they hurt family and friends or just selfish because that person apparently had so much going for them and the rest of us don’t have and yet they still committed suicide.

Robin Williams giving one of his famous monologues in Bahrain

Robin Williams giving one of his famous monologues in Bahrain

However, all of these snide and unsympathetic comments are all entirely wrong because clinical depression is a serious condition that all the more unfortunately for its sufferers shares the name that much of society uses incorrectly.  People express that their depressed about the weather, their sports team losing, their workplace or their friends and family.   We all get depressed sometimes we are told except of course that we don’t. These things are not real depression, just passing phases of sadness.

Comparing sadness and real depression is like saying that you have stubbed your toe to someone with one or both of their legs missing and that you are okay and got over it so why are they making a fuss.

It’s often said that mental illnesses don’t receive the same media attention or social acceptance as physical diseases and whilst it is easy for those of us who have all our limbs to sympathise with those aren’t so fortunate, it seems that it is much harder for many who have never had depression to offer any understanding at all to those with a serious mental illness.

Even mad King George III suffered from mental illness and it is not unreasonable to suppose that he was possibly the most powerful person in the entire world at that time.  If it could happen to him then it could happen to any of us, even a wealthy and talented Hollywood comedian.

Though some people with a difficult life may be predisposed to suffer from depression more than others, the condition doesn’t pick and choose carefully which people it is going to afflict.  Smoking and eating junk food may increase the chances of suffering from cancer or heart attacks but it is entirely possible to refrain from both of these bad habits and many more but still fall prey to the diseases, I know from family experience.

Besides which even if some critics of Robin William’s suicide have valid points about his wealth and opportunity that he had that we the living still don’t have doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel sorry for him.  My compassion makes no judgement between the suffering of a famous comedian or a bombed out child in Gaza and really if you think about it, it would be horrendous if it did.

Those who badmouth suicide victims seem to be under the impression that such people are in a normal rational state of mind and that they draw up a list of pros and cons and that despite having money, a house and a young child that is enough for the person to pick the obvious choice of life.

Someone with serious depression is likely to see things entirely different, they might even think their suicide is a help to their family and friends or at the very least the only option they have; the only control left over their life is to end it.  If this all sounds like illogical madness it is only because this is a sign of how it can be like to suffer from a mental disease.  This is how ill a person must be to contemplate such drastic actions.

It’s often said that suicide is the easy way out.  How can anyone say that if they don’t know how that person’s mind is thinking.  It’s most likely that they agonised over it for weeks, months or even years.  They may have thought about it day and night for much of their life before a moment of weakness or additional problem forced them over the edge. Just as no-one would think bad of someone with both their legs broken to not go for a long walk, why would anyone condemn someone with a disease that effects their entire outlook on life for deciding that life is no longer for them?

Some of the most brilliant people in their professions have suffered from depression, in fact simply just some of the most brilliant people.  Stephen Fry, the actor, comedian and all round good-bloke is famous for suffering from terrible bouts of depression (his biography and tv documentary on it are amazing) and yet he is clearly one of the most intelligent people on television or film today, in fact he has almost made a career out of his intelligence.

I don’t know any of these brilliant people personally but I do know at least one or two people who have tried to commit suicide and I can testify that they were and are some of the loveliest creatures of creation.

With debates now raging about introducing a right to die for British patients suffering from painful and terminal illnesses and it being a debate that more and more of the population are supporting, surely it is time to at least offer sympathy to those whose hidden illness mean that they don’t get to reach old age.

Robin Williams made the world laugh while inside he was crying.  If his death helps change the perception of mental illness and suicide then perhaps it will be his career defining role.

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