Writing For Television – My first TV script from 1996!

Yesterday whilst looking for something else on the internet, I came across a 20 year-old website that I had created.  It’s no longer live but had been archived away somewhere and I was amazed to find my very first television manuscript on the site.  This was rather fortuitous as the original files are on computers 2 or 3 generations removed from my current machine (which says a lot considering my previous PC lasted so long).  Of course I have the original paper print-outs archived away at home somewhere but to find a digital copy in a file that I could open was a big surprise.  In fact coming across an old treasure trove of my own files nearly 20 years old on an archived website and then finding a way to open it was probably the closest I’ll get to following in the footsteps of my sic-fi heroes of the 23rd century.

This script was actually the reason I got into writing at all, it was my very first effort and it was for Star Trek Voyager.  I wrote several others and they all just about got to the final selection process which is saying something when you remember that they would receive thousands of submissions for each episode shown on TV, all the way from first timers to established television and literary writers.

At least one of mine got rejected as unknown to me at the time of writing it, someone else had submitted an almost identical story just 3 months earlier and as the production schedule takes so long, it took almost a year to find out.  I do remember though watching an episode where the crew land on a planet that is populated by rather confused children and as soon as I saw this, I screamed out to the TV, they’re old people!   Yes like myself, someone else had written about a planet where people age backwards. In the all the years of sci-fi and all the years of Star Trek, who’d have thought someone would beat me to the concept by such a short period of time.  AArrrghhhh!

They might look like kids but these are really old people on a moon where people age in reverse.

They might look like kids but these are really old people on a moon where people age in reverse.

The fact that my first effort was such a relative success despite the fact that I was a student who had never written much of anything aside from essays and papers before made me set my mind towards writing.    Before I knew it, I was writing these scripts for Star Trek, X Files and was also approached to write  a children’s TV cartoon that aired for ITV (the makers of Downton Abbey) when really I should have been doing my Masters essays and thesis.  I got to like doing them as they seemed easy to write and I could write one up from scratch in just a day or two compared to the much longer time it took to research, translate, theorise and write-up for African and Asian history.

I was fortunate that I attended a Television writers class a year or so earlier.  It was ran by 2 or 3 established writers including Brannon Braga, Lolita Fatjo who was the script co-ordinator of the modern Star Trek shows and third person possibly the most famous of them all, Ronald Moore, who not only write for various Star Trek series but also the recent and acclaimed BattleStar Galatica remake.  They were all great people and I got to know Lolita a bit more over the next 15 years or so.

Writing a television manuscript is so much different from writing any other form of fiction so it was quite bizarre for me to have written so much of it before writing more traditional story formats.  There is a specific format to be used and a terminology to.  The people who receive the scripts don’t really want to do too much work with them so you need to have it laid out correctly if you want to be taken seriously.

There is only a brief description in most TV scripts and a lot more dialogue.  This being Star Trek there were the added complications of special effects, interior and exterior scenes and costing too.  Knowing how much things costs to produce on-screen is something of a fine art especially to newcomers so it can often be wise to write it with a conservative view towards costs.  Don’t have too many extras, be careful of your locations and in a show like Trek, check your special effects or planetary locations!   There are several famous anecdotes of established sci-fi writers who wrote or attempted to write for Star Trek but couldn’t get their head around the idea that whereas in a book there are no limitations and you can have a crowd of 10,000 chasing the hero down a fantastical city street, television and television budget can’t handle 10,000, 1,000 or even 100.  Maybe you can have 10 people and not in a street but in between two warehouses.

If you really want to get on the right side of the decision makers for the show then if you can come up with a great idea that involves just using some of the main characters on pre-built sets.  In Star Trek they were called Bottle Shows and you can tell them as the show deals in depth with one or two characters, maybe trapped in a pre-existing set like a Turbolift or shuttle.  These stories are vital as they allow the money saved to be splurged on big budget episodes or similarly help recoup overspend from earlier episodes.  Often though the lack of budget would force the writers and team in general to come up with a great character show.  Two people stuck in a room together who hate each other, or in peril force the writer to delve deep into the characterisation and relationships which are rewarding for viewers and may have long lasting impact on the show in future years.   Often such shows are selected because the show-runners simply want a change of pace, the audience can only handle so many action/comedy/drama/horror episodes in each part of the TV season.

Famously the original Star Trek was run on such a strict budget that they would find ingenious ways of saving money be recycling props, uniforms, existing filmed footage and music.  Some of the most iconic moments and ideas came from them trying to live within their budget.  Transporters for example were invented because they couldn’t envision a way of the Enterprise landing on a planet in a quick and affordable way.  Happily they also proved a way to keep the stories moving at a fast pace or even becoming a plot device.

The story also has to be tight, with minimum slack moments or dead air.  Television is expensive to produce and broadcast and there can’t normally slack moments to pad the story out.  Having said that, it was often it was said of Star Trek The Next Generation that you could judge the quality of the show because there were several scenes where for several sections, nothing happened.  The characters and setting were so strong, viewers didn’t have to be actively entertained throughout.  Watch any TV show tonight and see if there is any silence involved.  It’s a safe bet that there won’t be unless it is an expense and quality show maybe such as Game of Thrones.

Familiarity with the show and characters is also important.  If Vulcans are vegetarian then you can’t have Spock just eating meat.  If Commander Chakotay has a bad history with the Borg then you have to remember that if you have them meet the Borg again though perhaps writing a story of redemption might be an idea here.   It is a fine line deciding on what level of continuity you have in a show as by the time the producers read your script, lots of things will have changed making you intricate plotting way out of date.  It was for that reason the Star Trek creators liked to receive High Concept scripts meaning the equivalent of a Sci-Fi brainwave.  What if the crew meets people who age backwards?   or whatever.

Another unique constraint to bear in mind about writing for television is that of the structure of the episode with advertising breaks.  If you’re writing a short film or indeed something for the BBC where there are no commercials then this makes it easy.  However for all American shows and almost everyone else you have to create these mini-areas of intrigue or threat, each greater than the previous to co-incide with each set of television adverts.  Depending on the country there can be anything from 3-6 of these in an hour of television plus in some places a prologue before the titles roll.  It can be difficult creating so many multiple points where the stakes are raised to keep viewers hooked while the adverts are on and in an ideal world some of these would be removed to make the story grow more organically.

I really enjoyed writing scripts and I’m pleased that this experience helped a short screenplay I wrote in November be selected for filming and even a TV broadcast later in the year.  The producers said they didn’t just like the idea and story but by using the correct layout it instantly showed them what was required to produce it and that I had some idea of how to write something they can use.

Anyway, I thought I would make this script available to everyone in case it helps any writers who want to know the formats for writing screenplays or for those who want to read a sci-fi story in about 15-20 minutes. Please note that Star Trek and Star Trek remain copyright of CBS and Paramount and the Home Sickness script is still copyright to me, Stephen Liddell.

I’ve also put a copy in my Freelance Writing page so if anyone wants to collaborate or hire me there, be my guest.  I am still working on my Star Trek book but a more urgent project has come up which has to be written first.

I hope you like the insight into script writing and the constraints of television.  Maybe you will like the story.  Bear in mind it was my first creative story and first TV script and it was written way back in 1996 and I had only ever watched one or two episodes of Voyager (as I recall) before I wrote it.

So without further a do, somewhere in the 24th Century in a distant part of the Galaxy known as the Delta Quadrant, the crew of a Federation Starship are trapped 70,000 light years from home in Home Sickness.  (Please click on the link to the left to download and read the script)

Star Trek Voyager

Star Trek Voyager

 

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A weekend in Ghent

I spent the last 3 days in the Belgium city of Ghent having secured a bargain return trip on the Eurostar from London and taken advantage of near empty hotels almost giving their rooms away.

I always love going on the Eurostar and not just because I hate flying.  It’s just such fun to go on a train from London and disappear in a tunnel under the sea and arrive just a few hours later in a foreign capital.  We’d seen the beautiful spires of Ghent on a similar weekend away we made to Brugge a few years earlier but we hadn’t quite expected just what an amazing city Ghent is or how we could be there just over 4 hours from leaving our house.  I’ve had plenty of times when I haven’t got across London in the car in that time!

Gravestone, whether it is Flemish for 'a castle' or the this castle in particular.... I don't know!

Gravestone, whether it is Flemish for ‘a castle’ or the this castle in particular…. I don’t know!

Belgium is a very small country but with very friendly people who all seem to be able to speak almost perfect English.  Like other neighbouring cities, Ghent has a long history of trade with both England and Scotland, especially in the wool trade which secured its wealth and great status and led to the building of its many fine abbeys, cathedrals and churches.  Thankfully it escaped major damage during occupation in the world wars and its off-peak season combined with sub-zero temperatures meant that we pretty much had the city to ourselves.

Ghent House

A typical Ghent building overlooking a public square full of a Flower Market.

We stayed in the Riverside Hotel and got the luck of the draw with our room backing onto a river across from which sat a number of chilled looking jazz lounges.  We made a promise that we would check out these smooth bars out on saturday night.

We had really come for Ghent for the city streets, rivers and canals and the fantastic looking churches.  Ghent also has trams and a magnificent castle as well as many bustling shopping areas and several markets.  Though we were out for several hours on Friday, it was mostly just to explore and get our bearings as well as checking out some of the local delicacies.  Like many other areas of life, Belgian supermarkets stock a curious mixture of British, French and German goodies and we bought enough of the non-familiar foods to sustain us on our trip.

Typical Ghent Square

Typical Ghent Square

Ghent is full of beautiful squares, some very small and intimate and others vast and inspiring to look at.  Our hotel was near one of the largest, Vridgagmarkt Square which was bordered by antique shops, bars and restaurants and two incredible looking old Socialist buildings in one corner, the like of which I have rarely seen anyway else.  In the middle of the square is a statue of Jacob van Artevelde and for the last 500 years or so his arm has been stretching out to England where during the 100 year war between England and France, he sided with the English not least because of lucrative wool trade between East Anglia and what is now Belgium.   His decision brought wealth and prosperity to Ghent but also led to his death in a series of popular uprisings against his rather dictatorial  rule.

Gent Volkshuis

With the magnificent Socialist Workers building in the background and the statue of Jacob van Artevelde in the fore.

Wherever you are in Ghent, you’re not far from a magnificent church of some kind.  We came across St James Church on our way to the hotel and we visited it each day of our stay.  Some of the church dates to the Romanesque period but much of it has been added to through the ages and the interior is full of dark marble and granite decorated with ornate little chapels and magnificent works of art, so typical of Catholic Flemish churches across the region.  As I do these days on every holiday, I lit a candle for my mother and was glad to see it there 2 days later albeit all burnt out.

There was so much to see and experience that we didn’t go inside the magnificent Gravensteen Castle but it did look a good castle from the public areas we went to.  Nearby in another small square there were some traditional sweets known as the Red Noses of Ghent.  Apparently the residents of the city used to be quite found of their beer, something still apparent in the number of pubs, bars and Belgian beer shops on ever street corner.  The excess alcohol would make the skin on their faces and particularly noses turn red.  We bought a freshly made batch and took them home with us!

Conical in shape, hard on the outside with a soft filling inside.

Conical in shape, hard on the outside with a soft filling inside.

In between visiting various shops selling local specialities of chocolate, lace and tapestries, we also visited just a few more of their magnificent churches.  I believe there are 24 Roman Catholic and just 2 Anglican churches in the historic city centre, a disparity no doubt caused by the Spanish occupation just a few centuries ago.  In one church we were lucky enough to witness the church organist practicing so we sat with a dozen other people and enjoyed a free concert for a good half hour if not more.

Inside St James Church, Ghent.

Inside St James Church, Ghent.

Ghent also has its famous Book Tower which looks rather like a church steeple but filled with millions of books.  We didn’t get to see that except from a distance but there were so many fine buildings that we didn’t feel it was a particular loss.   We must have walked for around 8 hours on Saturday, occasionally basking in the bright sunshine despite the sub-zero temperature in a way that only those of us from cold countries can appreciate.  There was often a cold wind along the rivers and canals and blasting round the squares and the fact that it snowed a little each night meant we had to watch our footing on the miles of cobble-stone streets.

Ghent

Some of the churches, abbeys and cathedrals of Ghent.

After returning to our hotel for an hour or so, we then headed out to see Ghent at night.  At the end of January, Ghent hosts an annual light festival where its magnificent buildings are all lit up with lasers, coloured lights and holograms.  I can imagine just how amazing it must look as it looked out of this world even in the normal night lighting.  We were out for another good 2 hours exploring narrow lanes and big squares, peering in at all the traditional shops and very plush looking brassieres before at last we found ourselves at the little jazz lounge opposite from our hotel window where we spent the evening listening to music and sampling some Belgian Blonde beers.

Gent at Night

Gent at Night

Gent by Night

On our freezing but beautiful evening walk in Ghent.

The next day it was time to pack our bags which took all of about 30 seconds.  We had several hours before our train back to Brussels and then on to London so we did some more exploring.  We came across a flea market outside St James Church so were happily diverted for an hour so.  There were many things we would have bought if our house were more suited for antiques.  A number of fantastic bronze statues that looked like they would be at home on Titanic, some old Flemish paintings and chez long that we could barely lift let alone carry on the train!  There was also a fine number of WW1 memorabilia including some pointy German helmets and a number of swords and rifles.

Yummy!

Yummy!

Less tasteful to my eyes were the large number of Nazi era daggers, emblems, clothing and the like.  With their distinctive style and ominous history, it wouldn’t be anything I would be interested in owning.  But then what can I say, the first time I went to Berlin I bought myself a Communist Russian tank commanders hat which is actually still probably the warmest piece of clothing I have ever had and would have been perfect for the weekend in Ghent.

Instead I came away with an antique Barometer which gives the temperature, humidity and air pressure on three different dials.  I’ve always wanted one but a new one in the U.K. can easily cost £200. 8 Euros for this one seemed like a real bargain even if it didn’t work… happily I can confirm that it does work perfectly and most of the spending money we took with us is now all ready for our next trip.

I hope I get to visit Belgium very soon, having visited the country 4 or 5 times, it is a wonderful place to visit and often overlooked.  Whether you go to Brussels, Ghent, Brugge, Ypres or one of the smaller towns, it would make for a great trip.

My £5 barometer!

My £5 barometer!

Toilet Humour

This sign made me laugh in a Ghent department store. We’ve all been there, If you have to go then you go!

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We’re all going on a summer holiday

It’s that time of year where many of us are bombarded with advertisements urging us to make bookings for our summer holidays.  For us it is the same routine most years with November to February mapping out great big ambitious trips where money and time is of little consequence before settling back for something a bit more dreary.

We also do much the same looking for our next house move but apparently surveys indicate that the majority of British check on the internet for their next house-move very regularly so obviously it was just me who wanted to dream of a move away from an awful workplace.

We’re lucky that neither of us could particularly care less for beach holidays.  We like to see new places, experience history and culture and meet new people in their local environs.  This can be a blessing and a curse.  A blessing because we could holiday a life-time in the UK and not see everything there is to see and as we close in on the ten-year marriage mark we can say that despite hundreds of day trips, dozens of weekends away and many week-long holidays, we have probably seen only really seen about 6% or 7% of what we’d like to see.

Trip Advisor says I have stayed at 11% of the world.  So much more to see!

Trip Advisor says I have stayed at 11% of the world. So much more to see!

It’s a curse because if we just liked beach holidays then we wouldn’t have so much to see.  There is also the fact that I despise flying or at least the imagined crashing part.  It doesn’t help that often where I have flown, there has been a huge fatal crash at the destination just a week or two before where I have gone and my relatively small number of flights have probably had beyond their share of aborted landings in fog and serious electrical failures.  Still I take it in good humour and happily joke how we are all going to die and every take-off has the “go with throttle-up” moment in my head, these being the last words of the ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger.  So far through unbelievable good luck, I’ve made it through each one more or less unscathed.

We have both realised that it is time that we started to make more of our travel opportunities and though it is fair to say we have seen much of Europe and I’ve been around north Africa and the Middle East quite a bit, there are still vast swathes of the world that we haven’t got to see.

Some of them we have got in hand.  There are vague plans on our 10th Wedding Anniversary to spend a month or more driving across the USA and Canada.  Who knows, having come so far we might try and squash in Mexico too.

We also have a thoroughly planned and costed trip on the Trans-Siberian Express.  For someone who doesn’t like flying how exciting it would be to go by train from London to Moscow and then onwards to Beijing or Hong Kong.  Did you know that about 1o or 11 days from leaving London we could be in Japan without ever stepping on a plane.  So though hating flying is another curse, actively loving travelling on the ground is a definite blessing and having travelled by train as far as Eastern Europe, I’ve probably covered enough ground to know that for me, overland travel is not a second best option…. it’s actually the entire purpose of the trip.

To cover every eventuality the Trans-Siberian spreadsheet actually has various options, one that branches off to Japan, another that heads down through S.E Asia all the way to Singapore and a third that doubles back through the rather wild but very rarely visited Central Asia.    If you are happy eating, sleeping and travelling with local people, life on the road can be much cheaper than even staying at home.

There are other journeys too that are less well mapped out, Machu Picchu is as firmly on the list as it was 25 years ago and we would both like to travel through the expanses of Patagonia in Argentina.  There is also much of Africa that I haven’t yet got to in Ethiopia, Sudan and South Africa that are particularly high-ranking places.

Then there is Australia?  Just how the hell do you get to Australia from the UK without flying?  Well obviously I can tell you that with various options… don’t think I haven’t looked into it many times.  Not so long ago there was at least one bus company that would take you there in 92 days!  Infant every time I drive to France on a Ferry or the Eurostar, a bit of me gets excited that from here I can drive to anywhere from Cape Town to Mumbai to Singapore, probably even New York or Argentina if the sea-ice freezes up ok between Russia and Alaska.

Of course the easiest and most comfortable way to see all of these places is on a World Cruise.  Yes it is expensive but like everything else we do, we travel cheaply and lightly.  I was amazed how much some people spend on a simple beach holiday, an amount that would have me over by the Great Wall of China or sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge.  Visiting Sydney, Hong Kong, Cape Town and New York by sea would definitely be the preferred choice.

Where I've been

It would be wrong to put airport transfer in on this map wouldn’t it? I thought so otherwise I could knock off Rome and Milan too.

It probably helps that we both enjoy budget travel and don’t need home comforts… I wonder whether we actually have many at home!  I read in a newspaper that the majority of people these days, wouldn’t visit Paris if they couldn’t eat out every night or that if they had to skip a night then it would ruin their holiday.  For us, we were happy just being in Paris and experiencing everything in that amazing city.  We ate out just once in a week and it was a treat.  We certainly didn’t feel like we were missing out as we explored the city and hung out with the locals. We’d buy our own food in the markets and make our own meals.  The money saved probably paid for another holiday or two.

We’ve just come back from 4 days in the beautiful city of Ghent in Belgium and with judicial planning, the travel, meals, hotels, tourist sights and spending money came to £220 and we fit everything we needed in one small shoulder bag!  Life and travel can be as simple and inexpensive as what you make it and if having a holiday in January sounds a bit luxurious, we think exactly the same of people who spend nearly the same amount on their weekly groceries or iPhone rental.

This year my wife has been looking at Antartica and I have been looking at Oman.  The more realistic option would be visiting Croatia, Montenegro or Greece.  What will likely happen is that we’ll probably settle for something much closer to home like Yorkshire.  It won’t stop us planning though.

Where are you likely to holiday this summer and where would you prefer to go?  Do you prefer to holiday in style and have a big trip once a year or two or travel frugally with multiple trips in mind?

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The Death of the music scene in London

I’ve written before on the various building and engineering projects that are transforming many cities in Britain and London in particularly.  In the grand scheme of things, many of these obviously offer huge improvements bringing 20th and often 19th century infrastructure into the new millennia.  However increasingly it is becoming obvious that all is not well.  While big cities have always had areas that become less well-off economically before becoming a bohemian quarter and then finally becoming gentrified, in London it is getting well out of hand.

There are many facets to the problem.  The wealth of the world is drawn to London meaning that the poorest locals have often got to compete with wealthy Chinese, Saudi or Russian business people who buy up property and land to develop it only for the select few who can afford and often not even for anyone to live there but simply to hold as an investment.   Such is the rocketing demand of property prices that we aren’t too far off where only millionaires can live anywhere near the centre of the city and in some areas, millionaires would have the same non-existent hope of living there as you or I.

Of course there are too many people in London too and governments both national and local are always guilty of chasing money rather than putting the welfare of their own people first.  It can all end up a bit of a disaster not just for individuals but for companies and utilities that can find no-one local to work for them as they can’t afford the housing but also because the land has become so valuable that lease owners can’t wait to level a building to build yet another luxury development of homes, the size of a postage stamp for £2million.

One of the main things that has always attracted people to visit and to live in London is its thriving cultural scene.  There can’t be many places on Earth with such a high number and wide variety of restaurants, pubs, clubs and markets.  Sometimes though, such establishments though profitable, don’t maximise the earnings that a more mundane business or housing block could create.  Cultured quarters are what bring people to cities to meet, eat and enjoy life but sometimes they can get run down or attract less desirable people than their well-heeled neighbours would appreciate.  Councils and lease holders often can’t wait to find an excuse to close somewhere down just so they can build something bigger and better but in doing so they forget that if London was just one big corporate and housing city then no one would ever want to live or visit the place.

The current government doesn’t have the best record of supporting the Arts, it’s predecessor having imposed entry charges on museums and within weeks of returning to power, scrapped the highly successful body that oversaw British film funding and enterprise projects.  More recently it has become evident that in a number of cases, highly controversial developments have been allowed to unscrupulous developers from places such as China with formerly public areas quietly re-designated as being private.

Britain is well known for having a leading role in television, film, the arts and video-gaming industries as well as music.  However in many ways the state of music in London is in crisis. Governments, big corporations and TV channels are no longer interested in music or art for their own sake.  They just want quick fixes and money with no thought or consideration given to the long hours of practice needed by any artists whether they be sports, theatre or music.  I have a number of friends involved in the music scene and without exception, they all say the same thing.    It’s time for people to decide whether they want to live in the lively and rich city that they are used to or if they are happy to live in a stale, boring city.  However if money is all that people are interested in then surely everyone would holiday and visit Moscow, Beijing or Dubai but for some reason, they don’t seem to be that popular.  Maybe there is more to life than money?

Rather than have myself write an article on an area I am less than qualified, I have contacted Bally Studios (a musical establishment I have no connections with) and Jimmy Mulvihill has given permission to reprint his thoughts in full.

London Tube map re-imagined in a musical form.

London Tube map re-imagined in a musical form.

Usually we use our Facebook page to spread funny pictures or to draw people’s attention to local matters, but today we wanted to make a much more serious point that we think is very important – that based on the feedback that we hear from well over 50-80 bands, other studios, promoters and a lot of other people we come into contact with, as well as our own personal experiences, the London music scene is well on the way to dying a slow death – London is fast becoming an awful place to be in a band.

We, the team at Bally rehearsal studios in Tottenham, make our living from the music industry, and before working here we were in bands, sessions musicians, live promoters and studio engineers, so for us music is not only a passion but also a way for us to put a roof over our heads. We have 5 studios, and 99% of the sessions that we have are between the hours of 11am – 11pm. That’s 84 hours a week to cram in as many sessions as we can to meet the various costs that we have. Back in 2005 our costs were £1,700 a month, and today they are £3,200 a month, yet in the same time the disposable income of the bands that use us has risen by a fraction of the amount. While the amount of studios we have grown and our customer base has expanded, the task of meeting bills and paying rent has grown more difficult as time goes on, and it would be a lie to say that there are not many times that such concerns worry us. There have also been many times that we have felt like writing a blog post on this matter, yet with the time constraints of “London living” we never really found the time to do so.

Over the Christmas period, with extra time on our hands, we finally had the chance to catch our breath, and in doing so we gained a fresh perspective on things when we noticed a lot of press attention about different parts of the music industry that suggest there is an incredible disconnect between the people who are actually within the grass-roots of the industry, and the public and media’s perception of it. We also think that such a disconnect could have a massive impact on the music industry in the future, and so we wanted to offer our perspective. As it is a matter close to our hearts, we have gone into a lot more detail than usual and split them over into 2 blog posts, each of them about 8 minutes of reading, to let the bands that come to our studios, and the ones that don’t, about our experience of working in the London music industry. If anyone has any thoughts, please comment below :-)

THE DEATH OF THE LONDON MUSIC SCENE: PART 1

The music industry is one of the most competitive industries imaginable, and London is its epicentre. For hundreds of years many acts from all over the world have traveled here to use the capital as a launchpad for their careers, and there are also numerous bands fortunate enough to have been brought up here. Like a goldfish that grows to its bowl, their ambitions grow to the size of their potential market, and considering their market is more than 10 million people, this means that we deal with a lot of bands who have grand ambitions and a focus to match, and this genuinely makes working in a rehearsal studios one of the more enjoyable jobs that we could imagine.

Musical heritage map of London boroughs

Musical heritage map of London boroughs

 

Yet progress is not always easy, and the vast majority of bands that come to rehearse will talk to us about how the band is progressing for them. We are also thankful that many bands feel that they can be honest with us, with many of these conversations being focused on the immense challenges that they face as a band – like how they only managed to pull 18 or 19 people to their last gig, just under the amount needed to get paid, but how they are hopeful that their next gig will be more successful, or how the promoter of the show had failed to even try to match bands with their stylistic counterparts. We see bands working hard getting flyers printed, with money being saved for new recordings, new songs being worked on, and demos being placed on the desk for other bands to take, and this entire process is based around one simple idea – progress: writing songs that are better, getting more people to come to concerts, getting better recordings made, getting more press coverage, etc.

Although the bands work hard and there is a genuine abundance of talent amongst them, it would be a lie to say that the rewards that the average band gets for their efforts is anywhere near what they hoped, or that is it even approaching what they deserve. In the majority of cases their progress is stunted and they fall short of their potential due to factors other than their musical ability or dedication to their craft. Based on what we see, the biggest stumbling block bands have is not based around their talent, work ethic or focus to their music. Instead, it is everything else apart from the actual music that they find the most challenging – things like getting people to come to their gigs, getting radio play, making enough money from gigs to cover their costs, and finding the time in their busy schedule to rehearse. There are some bands that have come to us that have gone on to be very successful, while other bands that were equally as talented never made the same progress as they were simply unable to get the same breaks . When people hear their music the reaction is positive, it just so happens that not enough people hear it in the first place.

Amongst all of this hard work and struggle there is genuine hope and optimism, bursts of progress here and there and a mix of successful and not so successful gigs, but thankfully, in the case of the vast majority of bands, they also tell us how much joy being in a band brings them and how they are happy despite their lack of commercial success and critical acclaim. It’s great to hear from bands who have this attitude, not only because it shows that they are in a band for the right reasons, but also as it means that the entire fate of the band does not rely on factors that are out of their own control. Yet it is still very frustrating to see so many bands not get the commercial success that they deserve, and the worst part of it is that in most cases it is down to reasons other than the quality of their music.

If a band made poor music and never became successful that would be fair, but when you see bands make great music yet end up being held back because they do not have enough money left over after paying for their rent, transport and bills to invest in the band, or how their fan-base cannot afford to come to gigs despite really wanting to as they have increased tuition fees, or they cannot afford the transport to the gig, it becomes incredibly depressing. Sadly the only conclusion that we can come to is that as London becomes more populated, more expensive and more gentrified, it is also slowly becoming an awful location for a band to be based in.

For whom the bell tolls

Like millions of others, I’ve been to Earls Court countless times but its land is now too valuable for mere concerts, culture shows and sporting events.

 

Every now and then you also get glimpses of huge optimism of what London can offer bands who, until recently, were also just starting to make their way in the music scene. During the Christmas period we read this article about Bombay Bicycle Club playing a sold out gig at Earl’s Court, with Dave Gilmour coming out on stage to play two songs with them, one of them being Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” It’s something that most bands could only dream about, and it’s great to read these success stories to balance the stories of less successful gigs. To see a band that first started rehearsing at Bally as teenagers, who were talented, hardworking, lovely people getting such success fills us with hope that other bands can also hope for the same, and that somehow all of the effort that bands put in will be rewarded. One minute they were washing their own cups in our 99p plastic washing up bowel, the next minute they are playing to 10,000+ people. It helps to encourage bands that such success is still possible, and that there is some kind of correlation in the efforts that bands put in, and the results that they get for this effort.

It would have been great if that is what the article had been about, but sadly it was not a congratulatory pat on the back for them. Instead it was about how it was the last ever gig at Earls Court, a music venue that has stood since 1887 but is now being demolished to make way for a property development, with flats that will be sold from £595,000 in the first phase. It would seem that as housing is worth more than music venues, the music venues have to go, and it further brings home just what a challenge bands have, particularly in London. Of course more housing is desperately needed here, but to lose so many historic music venues to do it shows what scant regard there is for the music scene in the capital. The people who are making the decisions as to what direction London goes in seem to have given no concern at all to it’s musical heritage. None at all. Bands are entering and investing lots of their own personal money into an industry that is deemed expendable and irrelevant by the powers that be, despite it bringing in £3.8 billion into the UK economy in 2013-2014 and being such an integral part of the UK’s culture and identity.

New bands based here have so many challenges: both the smaller and larger venues are being closed down, rehearsal studios are being bulldozed, noise regulation rules are cutting the opportunity to set up their own studios, while the rise in the cost of living makes it harder for them to find the time to create such great music, and harder still to sell it to their fan base who have less disposable income to spend. Their fanbase are working longer hours and so have less chance to see bands live, and musicians can barely find the time to build up a buzz about their band. The odds are stacked against them, and when you work in a rehearsal studios you get to see many more of those challenges when you chat to bands. We have seen numerous bands give up, loving the process of making and playing music but growing tired of having so many other challenges to overcome. Speaking honestly, there are so many bands that we talk to that share in the same frustrations that it is clear to see that this train of thought is becoming more and more common.

What does the media and government have to say?

Madame Jojo's

Madame Jojo’s – Another death to the cultural scene in Soho.

Over the Christmas period the media was giving blanket coverage about how “only 8.4Million people watched the X-Factor final, the lowest ratings since 2004“. 10,000 people turned up to Wembley Arena to watch it live, and the media were calling it a “disappointing decline.” All the while, the winner of the show was getting lots of publicity, and the lure of the show was growing. The single released by the shows winner claimed the Christmas #1 slot, with earnings of £4Million in the first year being predicted, so it’s decline can’t have been that bad, yet still the media seemed to feel the need to draw all of our attention to it. By contrast in the week before the X Factor final, the 12 Bar Club announced that they were closing. Another London venue lost, in a building that has been standing since 1635, in addition to (off the top of my head) The Bull & Gate, Infinity, Powers Bar, The Luminaire, The Walthamstow Standard, The Peel, The Flowerpot, The Astoria, Madame Jojo’s, The Buffalo Bar, The Joiners Arms and numerous other venues have all closed down in London in recent years. The 100 Club nearly closed after “it’s rent increased from £11,000 to £166,000, in the 25 years since 1985,” but thankfully that was saved. It was a rare source of optimism.

Instead of the media concentrating on the demise of the real music scene, an industry that has added a genuine wealth of cultural, economic and creative wealth to the country for over 60 years, as well as the challenges that many bands today encounter that puts the future of this industry at risk, they instead choose to focus on how a TV show has a small drop in viewing figures, forgetting to mention the £6Million in revenues that it generated from the advertising breaks in the final alone or the further millions that came in from the premium rate phone lines. The viewing figures were a few percent down, and (apparently) that’s a real shame. Meanwhile, a music venue that has stood for 380 years that will be demolished to make way for a more profitable and more generic business gets little attention, and the media couldn’t care less. They couldn’t give less of a shit if they tried.

Within all of this there is an irony: the most successful star that the X-Factor has produced is Leona Lewis, and her most popular single was a cover of Snow Patrol’s “Run”, a band that spent 9 years on the underground circuit before their 3rd album propelled them to the mainstream. They were only able to build their success by coming up on the same circuit that is now being disassembled in the fight for quick profits, and they got little help from the media. When Lewis covered their song, the media gave her all of the attention she needed, despite the fact that she had been exposed to over 10 million a week, every week, for 3 months in a row, and had a fanbase in the millions.

The 1% of musicians get 99% of the coverage

All of the attention in the music industry seems to be going to the people who need it least, with none of it going to the grass-roots and it is causing irreparable damage. In 2008, the government declared that Glastonbury Festival had generated more than £73 Million for the UK economy, and since then both the attendance and the money spent at the festival has risen despite the economic challenges that the country has faced. The average small business in Glastonbury earned an extra £3,000 due to the festival, an incredible economic impact, but without the infrastructure needed to support such bands we will lose the next generation of great talent that could play at the festival that this country should be proud to be supporting, and with it the economic and cultural benefits that they bring with them. Again, the media and the government seems to not care. Not one bit.

2 years after £8.9 Billion was spent on the London Olympics “to create the sporting success that the UK can be proud of,” little concern seems to being shown to protecting the musical legacy of the UK. If there is one industry that the UK has consistently punched above it’s weight at in the last 60 years it is the music industry, and when you consider the size of the UK, with less than 1% of the world’s population, the fact that (according to the official charts) 6 of the biggest 14 biggest selling bands of all time come from the UK, more than any other country in the world, the UK should be doing what they can to preserve the tradition of such great success. If only 0.1% of the amount of money spent on the 2012 Olympics could be spent on the grass-roots of the music industry, that would still be £8.9Million and the results could be incredible. Employment could be generated, exports of British products could rise, our culture could develop, VAT revenues could be increased, kids could be given a focus and great music could be created.

More than £1Trillion is made available to bail out the banks based on their integral place within the UK economy, with $850 Billion actually being spent, yet despite the music industry only needing infrastructural investments of a fraction of the amount, literally 0.0001% to 0.001% of that total, it does not appear to be forthcoming. As a result the slide of the unsigned music industry in London continues, with venues and rehearsal studios being closed down to generate more short-term profits, and more and more bands moving elsewhere to find more lucrative music scenes. It would cost too much to build around the Astoria, with it being cheaper to demolish it. Flats above a music venue bring in more quick taxes in stamp duty, so they are given preference. Despite short-term thinking and the chase for quick profits over long-term stability being behind the economic crash, this practice is being continued by a government that risks killing the careers of bands that could go on to sell 100 million records, with each record generating VAT revenues of £1.66, simply to generate more quick profits in the housing market.

Bands that come to us say that the promoters are demanding more and more tickets need to be sold to secure shows, and the promoters we talk to say this is due to their costs rising too, with some saying that they need to bring in over £400 in ticket sales to break even. As a result, it is getting harder and harder for new bands to make progress, and the London music scene is taking a hit because of it. Promoters are unwilling to take a chance on a band that is less established which stops new acts coming through, and the music industry starts to get stale from promoters concentrating on bands who have an established fan base, re-booking them again and again. Whatever way you look at it that’s incredibly sad, and if the media had any kind of perspective on the matter, THIS would be a better place to focus their attentions on rather than X Factor.

It is great to see this article about the closure of Earl’s Court, as it brings attention to an important matter – that London seems to see music based businesses and establishments as an unwanted inconvenience that need to be sidestepped instead of an integral part of the capital. It is just such a shame that attention needs to be brought to such a matter in the first place, and a shame that both the government and the music media seem to care so little about it happening to even address the problem.

Back in the 1950’s Detroit was built upon the motor industry, and as a result the vast majority of household’s had a band new car on their drive. Come a Saturday morning the bonnet would be buffed, the wing mirrors shined and family photos would be taken next to it. As a result of the families income being earned from the motor industry, there was a massive sense of pride to be associated with it, and it was held in high esteem. Kids dreamed of following their fathers into the car factories, and people spent 20,30 or 40 years in the same jobs, creating incredible economic stability. In the 1970s and 1980s the US government decided that it would be better to export these jobs to cheaper labour markets in an effort to “economise,” to save more money in the short-term, and as a result the factories declined, jobs in the factories became more scarce, less consistent and less prestigious, and the city’s fortunes took a nosedive that matched the output of it’s car factories.

The city hit a crossroads: is the motor industry worth investing in? They decided that it was not, and with it a whole generation of workforce was wiped out. Within years unemployment was rife, crime rocketed and the city’s soul was ripped out. In 2014 the decision was taken that whatever money was spent on the city should be spent on ripping down buildings to prevent the risk of squatting. At exactly the time it needed rebuilding the most, the bulldozers moved in. Detroit, for years known as the “Motor City” had abandoned the very thing that the city had been built upon, the auto-mobile, and as usually happens when the foundations are ripped out, the city fell down.

Many people have used London as the bedrock of their development, but naturally London does not have the same dependence on music that Detroit had on the motor industry. However, it would be naïve to disregard the massive contribution that the music industry has made to London’s coffers as chump-change. Areas such as Brixton, Notting Hill and Hoxton have been able to attribute at least a part of their development to their vibrant music scenes, and there is no doubt in the part that music plays in the UK’s economic growth, and yet this is being eroded at a staggering rate. With the amount of venues that are being closed down, the rising cost of living, and the concentration of the population of London ever-increasing, it seems that the future of London and the future of the music industry just do not mix.

When bands get huge London is happy to reap the rewards for that success, but it is not willing to help bands reach that stage. It is happy to take the hundreds of millions of pounds of economic boost that the gigs in Hyde Park bring with them, yet they put restrictions in place that means that power to the sound board is cut while Paul McCartney and Brice Springsteen are having a jam in front of 60,000 people – in case some neighbours are disturbed. It is an act that is as symbolic as it is inflammatory, and it shows how the council and authorities do not even attempt to hide the contempt that they holds the music industry in. They simply take the benefits without giving anything back, much like a parasite. As a result, the capital will be financially richer, but an infinitely poorer place to live.

Every day we see bands working hard, trying to do what they can to make great music, and hopefully create the next generation of a successful music industry. It is just a shame that the local authorities in London are not putting in the same effort, and that the mainstream music media is not doing their part to make sure that the issue is addressed to the extent that it should be.

Astoria_theatre_london_oct_2008

London has hundreds of theatres and music halls but sadly the Astoria is no more.

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Not Now Bernard

In the 2.5 years that we have opened our house up on Airbnb, we have had the opportunity to meet a wide range of interesting people that we would never have the chance of meeting in everyday life.  From actors to heart surgeons and engineers to spiritualists and people as far away from London as South Africa, New Zealand, California, Japan and the Philippines.

Sometimes Airbnb gives us the opportunity it experience something new, both for good and for bad and back in November we had one of those opportunities when we were contacted by a class of film and media students at the local university who wanted to use our house for filming a 5 minute short movie.

Quiet on the set

Quiet on the set, lights, camera and. action!

My wife and I both jumped at the opportunity and when the team did a preliminary scout to our home, our immediate fears that our home might be trashed were pretty much evaporated.  It would give us the chance to see film-making at work and also we would be able to see our home on the big-screen, well on our big-screen TV but hopefully later in the year at a film festival as well.

The story that the film crew had decided to work on was the famous story by David McKee  entitled ‘Not Now Bernard’. Pretty much anyone who grew up in the UK will be have grown up with one of his TV shows whether it be King Rolo, or my favourite Mr Benn (as if my magic, a shopkeeper appeared) or latterly filming the Spot the dog childrens show.  As an side my old neighbour used to be the spitting image of Mr Benn.

 

Mr Benn and Mr Prisk MP

On the left, unassuming hero to children, Mr Benn who was an ordinary man in an ordinary house. On the right our old neighbour, Mark Prisk MP. An ordinary and rather unfriendly fellow so my friends on our street thought 20 years ago and with darker hair looked just like Mr Benn. Just imagine if he were wearing a bowler hat! He is currently a Conservative Minister. I encountered him again a few years ago and nothing had changed.. I could make up a joke here but lets just say I much preferred Mr Benn!

 

Anyway, back to Not Now Bernard. It briefly comprises a tale of a young boy who knows that there is a monster nearby and yet no matter how much he begs his parents to listen to him, they are simply too busy or just too lazy to indulge their little boy and so Bernard goes to investigate for himself with incredible results and yet despite everything that goes on, his parents don’t notice a thing.

We're trapped upstairs.

Just part of the baggage that moved around the house to clear the way for the actual filming.

The filming took place over one weekend, by bad luck by far the wettest weekend of the winter and after months of fine weather too.  So it made things more difficult for everyone .  The amount of equipment and baggage that was required for the filming had to be seen to be believed and of course all of this had to be moved around the house as the story of Bernard does not include camera tripods, microphones and 20 pairs of shoes, coats and lunches.

The students approached the entire project just like a movie with designated personnel assigned to everything from script writing to hospitality for the actors, lighting, cameras, direction, production and special effects!

It was a very fascinating weekend although both of us left the house for several hours a day to give the team the opportunity to do what they want without us hovering in the background and also for us to get a bit of fresh air.

Language Timothy

Language Timothy

Despite various unforeseen difficulties, the shoot went if anything, ahead of schedule and we eagerly waited a month or so until the film could be all put together. Last week the wait was over and we received an email with a link to the completed movie.  I’m sure you’ll agree that everyone involved did a tremendous job and for us we gained an insight into movie making and another unique Airbnb experience as well as a unique momento of our home when we eventually move somewhere else.

It's a wrap! The behind the scenes crew of Not Now Bernard!

It’s a wrap! The behind the scenes crew of Not Now Bernard!

Considering that there was no budget so to speak and the constraints they had to work under I think they did a fantastic job, right down to the music and credits.  I believe the actors volunteered their time but they did great performances and came over very natural. I can imagine on BBC1 or Channel 4 on Christmas morning just after The Gruffalo or The Snowman.

So without further ado, I hereby present Not Now Bernard.  You can just about make out towards the end of the film that the Dad is reading my ‘In The Footsteps of Heroes’ book… nice choice if I do say so myself.

 

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The Fox News Guide To Britain

Following the sad events in Paris last week, an alleged terrorist expert by the name of Steven Emerson appeared on Fox News over the weekend and proclaimed that there were areas of London that had Muslim gangs patrolling the streets to enforce an Islamic dress-code as well as incredibly writing off entire cities such as Birmingham as being entirely Muslim.

Mr Emerson is a regular contributor to Fox News and was appearing on Judge Pirro, a show hosted by the failed Republican politician Jeanine Pirro. 

Ms Pirro responded to her guest’s claim that the British government doesn’t “exercise any sovereignty” in Birmingham by saying: “You know what it sounds like to me, Steve? It sounds like a caliphate within a particular country.”

The Prime Minister called Steven an idiot and everyone else thought much worse him whilst British television channels interviewed large numbers of  generally white and non-Muslim people who seem mystified by the whole thing.  Only 21% of the 1 million plus Brummies are Muslim but maybe the locals just haven’t got access to the Fox News intelligence sources.

British Prime Minister calls Fox News expert Steve Emerson a "Complete Idiot"

British Prime Minister calls Fox News expert Steve Emerson a “Complete Idiot”

Soon Steven Emerson came on the BBC to apologise to the beautiful city of Birmingham which caused Popular Muslim comedian Adil Ray who hails from Birmingham to suggest he was clearly talking nonsense as Birmingham is not a beautiful city.  Like most other people over here, he was surprised how any such nonsense can be broadcast on a news network and said that maybe it was due to the city of Birmingham gaining its name from Muslims who burn ham and other pork products.  In this spirit, I am going to lower the tone of my blog to Fox News levels and today present you the Fox News Guide To Great Britain.

Liverpool – These days we have carpools but due to a genetic mutilation, the people of this great city are frequently born with missing Livers.  In order to function, the people of the city pooled together their Livers to enable people to go about their business.  It was a big communist success and was the inspiration of the NHS.

Norfolk – This beautiful rural county has an ancient law that forbids eating with cutlery.  Residents have to eat with their hands as they have no knifes, spoons nor forks.

Suffolk – The county of Suffolk is actually the precursor to Southfork in Dallas.  Unbelievable as it may seem, Miss Ellie took her name from the nearby city of Ely.

Manchester – This now thriving city wasn’t always as sophisticated as it was now.  In historic times in order to differentiate between the women and men of this city, men would run around the streets with their shirt buttons opened revealing their chests.  They often did so when they travelled around the country too which immediately made it obvious that they were a Manchester.

Leeds – Leeds actually invented dog leads and was the city where the very first crime was solved after police stumbled across their first lead.

Alloa – The small Scottish town doesn’t get all the fame due to it as it is thought that the very first Polynesian people originated from here and they made it all the way to Hawaii.  They are still proud of their origins though and their Aloha greeting can be heard throughout the islands.

Cornwall – The beautiful unique county gets its name from the giant pre-historic wall of corn that stretches along its eastern boundary.  Despite numerous attempts, the people of neighbouring Devon failed to break through the wall until alas fire was discovered.  Cornwall was conquered and its treasures of ice-cream, pasties, surfing and old peoples homes were spread throughout the world.

Newcastle – The city I called home goes to great length to stick to its name.  Despite indications that the newcastle was built by the Romans, it was actually constructed in 2014 with great effort made to make it look very old.

Nottingham – The founding city of the Boy Scouts and Navy.  Infact other things such as bag straps and shoe laces were all created by the residents of this city who have an ancient obsession with knots.

Hampshire – The word Hamp is actually old English for running round the village totally naked whilst stuffing as many cream cakes and teas as they can on mid-summers day.  By 500AD it became clear that one part of the country above all were naturally keen and talented at this and in their honour, the county of Hampshire came into being.

Angles – Talking of the old English, which has its origins with the Angles people.  The Angles were skilled mathematicians and are credited with inventing trigonometry.  Evidence of this can be seen across the country by the many fantastic Norman castles and cathedrals with all  their precise angles.  The Normans actually came to conquer the country as William The Conqueror was always failing his maths tests and he knew that in order to be a successful King that he had to obtain the secret mathematical knowledge across the seas.

Derby – Home of horse-racing! It’s other sports teams are forbidden from playing any other team outside a 5 mile radius as all sports here must be local derbies.  Not too far away is the town of Rugby, where many people think the sport of Rugby was invented.  Fox News viewers though will attest that it was invented in the nearby city of Soccer.

Leicester – The people from this city are entirely untrustworthy, they can never ever tell the truth, hence the name of the city.

Bournemouth – Not many people, not even in Britain are aware that Neanderthals didn’t completely die out.  In fact a few remain here where people are given birth through the mouth of their mother.  Obviously this is very difficult which is no doubt why Neanderthals died out elsewhere.

Hull – This industrial city was where much of the nations ship building took place before boats moved along the coast to Mast where the sails and rigging were installed. Being very hardworking and once tried to build the biggest ship in the world but it was too big to float.  The ship’s hull sank in the river and its 250 foot high remains there to this day.

Isle of Man – This large island is entirely single-sex.  It is thought that the very first all-boys school originated here.

Isle of Wight – Many Fox News presenters actually have their ancestors originating from here.  If you’re black, brown or any other colour then you’re not getting in.  Neither am I or many other British though as due to selective breeding over thousands of years, the naturally white population has become mutated and now the island is entirely populated by albinos who look down on “white” people too.  They even changed their island name from ‘white’ to ‘wight’ as they want nothing more to do with us.

Essex – I’m not going to bring the tone of this post down any more by making jokes about sex, villages called piddle or arse or anything else.  Essex is much derided but actually home to a talking tree which is obviously the foundation for the talking and walking trees in Lord of the Rings.  In olden times people would visit this tree and ask questions of it as it was known for its wisdom much like the Greek Oracle.  If you doubt me, go to google maps and type in Braintree.  I rest my case!

Porthmadog – The Welsh are just as crazy as the English and that goes for their pets too.  None more so than the story of Crazy David Jones who would sail his fishing boat from port to port shoving leeks up his nose and challenging the locals to shove other vegetables in other orifices of their bodies.  Eventually the people of coastal Wales got fed up of this and a beautiful celtic witch came down from the mountains and turned Crazy David Jones into a dog.  Even as an animal David Jones was a crazy old thing but he was no longer able to steer his boat and was reduced to barking abuse and biting anyone who came near his harbour.    We know this place today as Porthmadog.  Not too far away is the Welsh town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch which in Welsh is shortened form of the Welsh word for rain.

Dumfries – This little but pretty Scottish town has an embarrassing secret.  For 18 out of 20 years between the 2 world wars the restaurants here came bottom of the UK National Fish and Chips IQ competition.  They might taste really good but even the mayor of the place was forced to concede that all around him were dumb fries.

For those of us who don’t watch or can’t watch Fox News, I hope this helps you get the idea of real Britain.  Perhaps Fox News or Steven Emerson might want to use this as a reference document in future.

 

 

 

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I Salute You – The History of Saluting

Saluting is primarily but not exclusively a military sign of respect with a very long history.  This week it hit the news that some senior officers have become upset as recruits are not showing them the respect they are due and recently none other than President Obama have been criticised for taking saluting seriously and respectfully enough but why do we salute in the first place?

The origin of the military salute goes back to the time of knights when especially British but also French and Germans would lift their hand up to push up the visor on their helmet and so revealing their true identity and implying that they are proud of their position and are not intending to hurt anyone.

Armoured Knight

A not so medieval knight opens his visor to reveal his identity and peaceful intentions.

Over the centuries as armour gave way to uniforms, British soldiers would salute by lifting their hats to superior officers, a habit that spread around much of the world including to the American colonies.  However as headwear became heavier and more ornate this began to be impractical and also tended to cause too much wear and tear to hats and caps if men were saluting officers many times each day and so as early as 1745, a British order book stated that: “The men are ordered not to pull off their hats when they pass an officer, or to speak to them, but only to clap up their hands to their hats and bow as they pass.” Over time, it became conventionalised into something resembling our modern hand salute.

It’s interesting to note too that the Royal Navy salute is different to the salutes of the other armed forces in that they salute with their palms facing downwards, this is because their hands were often dirty from pulling ropes and tarring decks and it was thought to be insulting to officers to see dirty hands when being saluted to!   The American military adopted this type of salute whereas Commonwealth Nations adopted the Army salute and as an avid cinema goer, not many things get me out of the experience of Hollywood movie by having all the allies saluting the wrong way (that and use of terms no-one here has ever heard of)!

Types of salute

Here you can see the difference between a British salute on the right and an American salute on the left.

Of course saluting can also be done with weapons.  Officers with swords can ride a salute by lifting the sword to their face with the blade directly infant of their nose.  This tradition goes back to the time of the crusaders when if knights could not kiss their crucifix then they would kiss the hilt of their sword which formed a cross when attached to a sword blade.   A similar process takes place with modern rifles when soldiers are ordered to ‘Present Arms’.

Many military funerals include a three-volley salute where three soldiers fire a volley of blank cartridges into the air in respect of the fallen and this salute like many others goes back to times past in Europe when armies would temporarily call a truce to recover and bury the dead and hostilities would recommence on the firing of three shots.

HMS_Campbeltown_makes_historic_final_voyage_to_St_Nazaire_2

Men of HMS Campbeltown fire a special salute at a war cemetery.

There practice of cannon salutes really go back to the Royal Navy.  At first salutes consisted of 7 cannons but as ships became ever bigger, the number eventually increased to 21 cannons.   The whole concept of the naval salute is based on the idea that when a ship fires its cannons, it temporarily becomes defenceless.  Royal Navy ships would arrive in both domestic and foreign ports and fire away from the shore to indicate their peaceful intentions.  An odd number of cannons was chosen as an equal number was reserved for deaths, it was also a possible way to save on gunpowder.

41 Gun Salute for Her Majesty's Birthday

Pictured: The guns from the KTRHA finish firing the 41 gun salute to Her Majesty in Green Park.

Even now, heads of state receive 21 gun salutes whereas other senior governmental and military figures receive between 11 and 19 gun salutes.  The only exception to this are royalty and particular the British Royal Family where gun salutes in the parks of London and at various palaces and castles can number up to 124 cannons!

Even the airforce has its own methods of saluting.  The RAF has its Red Arrows that perform at events such as Trooping of The Colour and the USA, France and others have similar aerial display teams.  Other methods of aerial salute include tipping the wings of the plane, particularly common in the world wars or flying in a formation with a plane obviously missing.

Acrobatic fly-past.

Red Arrows Acrobatic fly-past.

Throughout the world there are a few oddities in the military.  In Israel it is not common practice for soldiers to salute their superiors on the day-to-day duties.  In the United States, soldiers are not to salute whilst indoors except when formally reporting to a superior officer or as part of a ceremony.

In Britain a salute can only be given if the soldier is wearing his headwear (though there is the odd exception), if a salute can not be given then they must stand to attention.  The junior party must initiate the salute and continue the position until it has been returned.    All officers hold the commission of the Queen and so when saluting an officer, in a way you are acknowledging the Queen herself.  Though not in the military code, it is common practice that for those brave 1357 who have been awarded the Victoria Cross (the highest award for valour and gallantry) in the last 160 years, one of the honours they are bestowed is that even the Chiefs of Staff will salute them.

Saluting is not just for the military.  In the U.K. and most Commonwealth countries, we civilians don’t salute our flag, Queen or politicians and the idea of doing so seems a bit strange to us.  We might in period dramas and in places where we wear hats, tip our hats or even lift them from our heads as a sign of respect when meeting each other as can often be seen in some of the finer hotels.  Poorer civilians or indeed some sailors who didn’t have hats or at least not impressive ones would touch the hair above their forehead to show deference to their betters, something which is still on the go here and there and where the phrase “tug your forelock” comes from.

Curtsey

Even a future Queen must curtsey to the present one. Apparently curtseying is coming back into fashion even in the USA where it was discouraged in the 1960’s.

There is also the old-fashioned symbol of respect of a man bowing and taking the hand of a lady to kiss it though it must be said that foreign tourists shouldn’t just do this with anyone they meet in the U.K.!  Ladies themselves might curtsey but usually only to someone very senior or a royal family member.

However some in European nations such as Italy or Germany are much more into saluting the symbols of their nations with civilians hold their hands up over their chest when they hear their national anthems at sporting events.    It is thought by many that the original salute came from the Romans which involved stretching out an arm with their palm facing the ground, a form of greeting that is now understandably illegal in some nations.

Neil Armstrong salutes the flag.

Neil Armstrong salutes the flag.

In the United States, things are taken a step further by civilians saluting the flag or standing to attention during the playing of the national anthem.  It is also here that the Black Power Clenched Fist salute originated with its more aggressive posture compared to that of the clenched fist salute which is common throughout much of Africa.

In the Arab world the most common greeting is Salaam which literally means ‘Peace’ and people will exchange greetings or salutes by touching their heart before and after shaking hands.  Relatedly India has the Namaste and Sat Sri Akal salutes where the palms are placed together next to the heart with the head bowed.  Not entirely different traditions exist in South East Asia.

Aishwarya Rai

Aishwarya Rai in the traditional Namaste greeting.

So whether you are a boy scout, bollywood star or future Queen of England you can the knights of old and Romans for all of this.  If you’ve just signed up for the British Armed forced and you are in doubt of who to salute then perhaps this helpful guide below will be of assistance!

British Military Pecking Order

Sometimes you’re the statue, sometimes you’re the bird.

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