Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Ballad of JP

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There was the first chill of the oncoming winter in the house tonight. I pulled the heavy door shut, turning the key in the stiff lock, another little job to add to the ever growing list for the weekend. I’m sure there is a can of WD40 somewhere in the shed. The turf fire in the old range will have the place nice and toasty by the time I get back tonight. An involuntary shiver overcomes me as I walk through the exhaust fumes towards the car, parked facing west, down the long grass centred lane.  “It’s the darkness that gets me” she had said. I could never understand what she meant, I never missed the lights, there was always the moonlight or the starlight, but then for someone born and reared in a city it might be different. I had to allow her that. “You’ll get used to it”, I had said, seeking to comfort and reinforce the idea that one day this could be home for us. I turned left down onto the main road past the solid stone piers my grandfather had built, or maybe it was his grandfather, who knows. I remembered turning on the headlights that night “There is that any better for you?” and laughing “You will, you’ll get used to it” but now I know that the eyes adjust but the rest might not follow, that was just ten months ago.

As we approached town we had met a couple of oncoming tractors, pulling cattle trailers, on the way home from the livestock mart. One driver drove a vintage Massey Ferguson. There was no cab to shelter him, the only adornment being a roll bar on the back. He was well wrapped up and a pipe dangled precariously from his mouth, his bare hands gripping the steering wheel. “God will you look at that bloke” she said, “he must be freezing, he’ll get his death”. “He might be happier than you or me!” I replied. “He’s probably after selling a couple of weanlings and had his fill in Duignans or Reynolds. It might be cold outside but he could be warm enough inside”. I looked at the temperature gauge which displayed Four degrees. He will be cold by the time he gets home alright, but I was unwilling to betray my thoughts, especially after  leaping to exalt the lone driver just seconds before. Must be a Leitrim trait I thought, to defend ones place, defend one’s own, zealously, even when the attack is slight, veiled or maybe only imagined. “Will he have far to go now?” she asked, and my mind immediately remembered the jobbers and dealers that congregated in my Uncles Pub back in the 70’s, “He could be from as far away as Corlough or Glangevlin” I replied, “Is that far?”, I thought of Big Tom McGovern with hands the size of shovels handing me a bottle of Cavan Cola with a straw. I can’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old then. “Oh it’s a good spin alright, but he’ll have half a bottle of Jemmy in him to keep him warm, and he might have one or two more stops on the way”.

I pulled up outside the Bar on the empty street. I could make out the smoky silhouettes of a few heads inside. Opening the creaking door a blast of furnace-like heat meets me, and as I scan the place my eyes are drawn to a coal fire crackling away in the corner. Three men sit at the the counter, two manning a corner each, and one in the middle, my Uncle tending to them. He has failed since I last saw him that evening four months ago. We nod at each other. ‘Good man Dan, pull up a stool there’ says Tommy Gucks, ‘and fit and well you’re looking. It’s always an honour and a privilege to meet an educated man like yourself’. ‘How’ya young Dan’ comes from down the counter, the voice of a little snipe-like creature shirking beneath a well-worn tweed cap, Hugh Dunleavy. ‘Good man Hugh, you’re keeping well’, the reply was instant ‘not too bad Dan, not too bad, considering the state the country is in. Your grandfather and father would turn in their graves if they saw the messing that’s going on’. There is a pause as if the patrons must take up new positions and their conversation must adjust because of my intrusion. The pub hasn’t changed much since I was a boy and yet it still remains a place of wonderment, a place where these characters act out their roles and my Uncle like a good stage-director, steers the conversation in whatever direction he thinks appropriate. The Uncle places a creamy pint in front of me, ‘and sure get the lads one there as well’.

‘Any sign of JP?’ I ask the Uncle as he gives me back my change. No, you mightn’t see him in tonight, he was in last night and had a tightener. ‘He sure had’ said Tommy, ‘he sure had, when you see the little dog coming over to our place of an evening you know he’s looking to see if there’s any grub to spare’. ‘Thank you Dano’ says Hugh acknowledging the drink, ‘Good health to you Dan’ says Gucks lifting his glass and tipping his head in a well-choreographed  manoeuver.

The clock above the till is at 9.30 but it’s surely after 10 by now. I realise the fading discoloured clock has actually stopped. The clock is a souvenir of the Leitrim team from 1994. ‘I think you need a battery for that yoke’ I say to the uncle, pointing towards the idle timepiece. ‘I must do that tomorrow’ he replies, Tommy nudges me, ‘Ah sure it’s  a bit like the Leitrim team today, they are at a standstill, do you know someone remarked last week that it’s harder to get off the team than on it, now isn’t that something’. The uncle looks wounded, ‘That’s a bit rich from a man that never kicked a ball out of his way, aren’t they flying the flag anyway, fair play to them’. Hugh broke into a laugh which became a cough and a series of splutters the culmination of six decades of tipless cigarettes. We all wait a few minutes for Hugh to get his breath back and to put away the dirty cloth handkerchief that has never been washed since it came into his possession. Tommy wasn’t going to take my uncles slight lying down, ‘Sure I had no time for football and me busy teaching young Colm O’Rourke how to play, didn’t I teach him everything he knew before they all headed for Meath. Sean Boylan thanked me personally for helping them win the All-Ireland’. Hugh was composed again and quipped,’ Well where ever he got the football it had little to do with you Gucks. An awful pity though he didn’t come back to us, We could’ve done with him.’ My uncle now has his back to us, fumbling with some paperwork on the shelf, his glasses hanging off the end of his nose, like Harold Lloyd hanging from a Manhattan skyscraper. ‘Didn’t you play with the brothers Phil?’ ‘Whose brothers?’ replies the Uncle placing a Players Please GAA ornament of two men in the Galway and Kerry colours I’m presuming.  ‘The O’Rourkes of course!’ Turning now and placing his huge bare forearms either side of him leaning on the shiny counter, the Uncle gathers himself, before saying slowly, ‘Indeed I did, and great lads they were too, Fergus was a giant, a gentle giant most of the time, ah but we had great teams back then, Mayo had the flying Doctor but we had the flying dentist, Leo Heslin, what a gent’ as he looked wistfully towards the fire. The moment is broken by the creaking door and in comes Jack ‘the Lad’ Shanley whistling to himself, ‘Good night to ye all, could be freezing and if it’s not its damn well near it’.

‘Is JP still kicking ball?’ I ask. ‘Apt’ says Hugh, trying to is all he’s at, sure he hardly trained the year, with hamstrings and groin strains.  ‘It’s the G-strings that is causing him more harm mind’ spurts Jack the Lad, and they chuckle in unison at some joke that will remain untold but will be left hanging, part released, in a ‘to be continued’ mode. ‘On his day he is good, I’ll grant him that’ says Gucks ‘but Jaysus he loves been told it, he does, ah he does. Do you mind the time he was in here on the Monday they bet Drumreilly and he had scored, was it 1-5 or something, any way he starts bladdering on about how he scored 1-5 yesterday and 0-9 the week before, and how he had, wait, was it 5-35 scored in the championship so far, and he was bladdering on and on”. “Now you were doing little in the way of discouraging him Gucks’ said the Uncle. ‘Well I gave him plenty of rein before I hit him the deadly, and if you don’t mind me asking JP, how much did you score on that young McDermott lad in the final last year? well it stuck him to the floor”. “F%4k you is all he said and off to the juke box, sure ya see he never got a sniff of it that day and they took him off at half-time. Well he stayed up that end for a while and then came back and sidled up to me and he says, you know well Tommy what happened me that day!’, ‘I don’t says I. What happened you at all?”. Tommy leaned into me imitating JP ‘You know fucking well I got the sh*ts after that kebab I had above in Longford the night before’. They all laughed again like it was the first time they had heard this tale, “Sure maybe he did” said I and Gucks took a sip out of his pint before giving me a half disproving look. “He’s had more good games than bad now! Or at least that’s what I hear,’ conscious that I hadn’t seen JP play since he was a minor.

Ah JP is some flower alright’ said the Uncle, he was telling us one night about his uncle Tom Pat ‘sure doesn’t he take after him’ muttered Eddy Joe Gray, a big bear of a man just in the door and in the process of hanging his heavy coat over the back of a chair near the now blazing fire. ‘Do you know that one Eddie Joe?’ enquires the Uncle.  ‘Which one, there are so many?’. ‘The one about the bull calf. Go on you know it, start it off there and I’ll boil the kettle’.

Eddie Joe sat in on a stool, then rubbing both his hands repeatedly on the knees of his trousers he began with a disclaimer, ‘Well gentlemen, If its lies I’m going to tell ye, then its lies that I was told, and this is what I was told, whether it be truth or lies. Tom Pat went out one morning and was doing his foddering and bits and pieces. He had this fine yearling bull calf that he was bucket feeding. Now he knew by the calf’s demeanour that he simply wasn’t himself that morning. Sure he was an ‘ould hand reared pet but a fair lump of a pet now boys, mark now a Charolais Limousin cross. Now this lad was been reared with Monaghan Day Mart in mind, do ya see now. Well the beasht wasn’t just himself, and Tom Pat couldn’t get him to ate  a bit of meal and his snout was cold. Well he was going to ring the Vet and then he reckoned the calf just had a chill.

Well he was in and out of the house and up and down the yard looking at this calf. He decided he’d bring him into the house by the fire. We’ve all seen it done now, be honest now boys, there’s no shame in it. So he brings in a bale of straw and scatters it all over the lino and he goes out and puts a halter on the calf. Now that didn’t work as sick and all as he was the calf was he’d never been led and wasn’t about to start at it now. So eventually with a bit of coaxing Tom Pat got him inside the back yard of the house. Now you know the lie of McCormacks place, you drive in on the street and then there’s a four foot wall around the house and you walk through a gate, into the yard and then into the house. Well the calf didn’t know what was happening at all but after another while didn’t Tom Pat get him into the house and he pulled the door behind him. He turned the table on its side to prevent the calf from pushing up against the door’.

‘Well the calf thought the arrangement a bit strange and he lowed a bit, but it was a weak enough low and it had Tom Pat worried. With the heat of the fire the calf began boiling up, and still its snout was cold. The calf lay down eventually in the middle of the floor and hung his head. Tom pat tried to rise him again but the calf wouldn’t move, then all of a sudden it gave one great big low, dropped its lugs and head and didn’t take another breath’. ‘You mean the calf died? In the house?’ I enquired. ‘That’s right Dan, stone dead there in the back kitchen. Tom Pat was in a tizzy and then he called the Vet, imagine calling a Vet then, sure what was he going to do, tell him his dead calf was beyond help and thank you very much, that’ll be Fifty euro. Well Flanagan, the new Vet in Arva came out and surveyed the scene, he’d never seen anything like it. He shook his head and commiserated with Tom Pat on losing such a fine animal. He told Tom Pat it was Blackleg. A bad dose, unless they get the injection early they’re finished. When he was going the Vet said to Tom Pat, ‘How are you going to get the calf out of the house? he’s swelling fast!

Tom Pat could only scratch his head and wonder. The Vet left and Tom Pat called up to Owenie Micks and wasn’t he in luck to find two fine men to counsel him in Owenie Mick and Jimmy Mullins’. ‘He was in luck alright with them pair of ludramans’ said Hugh shaking his head. ‘Well down to Tom Pats the three went. Owenie Mick produced a measuring tape from the boot of the car and proceeded to measure the height and width of the door way, he shook his head, ‘the jaumbs will have to go Tom Pat, there’s no other way’. Back out to the car went Owenie Mick, Tom Pat on his shoulder crying, and as he opened the boot to get a nailbar, he spied the con saw. Some class of a light went on in that cave of a skull of Owenies and he said, ‘begad there might just be another way’.

An hour and a half later the Calf was more or less butchered.  Owenie started with the legs and cut off all four just above the knee joint. They then laid a bit of old tarp on the ground and sawed into the stomach, blood and gore flying in an arc until it hit the back wall and spattered the ceiling. Then off came the head and and they sawed the whole way down through the backbone, leaving two heavy hund quarters, which it took all three of them to lift into the barrow. They wheeled all through the back yard and stacked it along the road. It was like an Abattoir, the straw coloured crimson , the walls and ceilings all spattered with blood, a  trail of offal from the back door to the road. 

Tom Pat had already called Nannerys, the knackers yard and they were on the way. When the lorry arrived arrived it reversed in on the street but Tom Pat told them to park on the road. As he lifted the tarpaulin the driver was shocked to see a hairy, bloody pile of of bone, meat and guts, stacked five foot high, there on the side of the road, a decapitated head sitting askew on top with a long tongue hanging out to one side. Those ISIS boys wouldn’t hold a candle to Ownenie Mick and his consaw’  

bloody-knife1I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, it was like something from a Quentin Tarantino movie, barbaric and funny. The Uncle brought out a tray with a large pot of tea, a bag of sugar and pint of milk on it and laid it before Eddie Joe. One story followed another and the performers came and went, the conversation going through ebbs and flows, intervals and actions. It was like the unscripted performance came together here under this roof, my uncles roof, the last in a long line of publicans, a man who left a good job in Boston to come home to run this bar. His father told him that he had reared ten children out of it and there was no reason why he couldn’t do the same. Now he was the last one, of that there was no doubt, he wasn’t going to marry now at eighty years of age. As his ageing customers drifted off I helped him clean up, I swept the floor, put the chairs on the tables and on the counter. It was nearly 2.00am and we sat down by the last embers of the fire, each staring into the red coals as if it were an oracle. I nursed a crested ten between my hands and then he spoke, ‘How is that girl, Denise, isn’t it? Lovely looking girl …. soft hands …. you didn’t bring her down with you?’. ‘No, I’m afraid we’ve gone our separate ways. Not compatible unfortunately, but better find out now than ….”’Ah that’s a pity……… don’t worry you’ll meet someone else, you will…… I don’t know if she’d like it around here anyway, ya know like when you come back’. I said nothing, just stared on into the grate, and thought I could see her smiling face, ‘Your right I don’t think she would.’ The Uncle lifted a poker and started fiddling with the dying embers, trying to coax the last of the warmth from them. ‘I better be off’ I said to him throwing the glass on my head and swilling the whiskey, letting it warm my mouth before swallowing it, ‘I’m going to make an early start, I’m going to try and get JP out for a shot’ He stayed looking into the embers as I began to let myself out, ‘ I’ll call in after Mass time’ ‘Grand’ he replied and I heard him murmur, ‘Hard to believe it’s the first of November already …… where has the year gone’.

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The Great Big Poppy Debate

poppiesI attended a remembrance ceremony this week. I did not wear a poppy, nor was I asked to. Near the end of the ceremony the Rector pointed out that if anyone wanted to contribute to the British Legions Poppy Appeal they could do so at the rear of the church. Of the seventy or so people present about two thirds were of the Protestant faith, they practically all wore their poppies. I didn’t see any of the others, who were mostly Catholic, wear any poppies, or any symbol for that matter.

In the days previous I read the statement of James McClean to the Chairman of Wigan FC, Dave Whelan in which he explained articulately and precisely why he couldn’t and wouldn’t wear the poppy.

James McClean       James McClean comes from Derry, a community where one of the worst atrocities of the ‘Troubles’ was carried out by a British Army Parachute Regiment on the 30th January, 1972. In 2010 when the Saville enquiry’s report was published it completely rejected a previous report carried out by Lord Widgery. The Widgery Report was shown to be in effect a ‘whitewash’ of the truth of what happened on ‘Bloody Sunday’. Whether or not this was a deliberate whitewash is not addressed, but just ask anyone from James McClean’s neighbourhood and they’ll give a very definite answer to that question. The problem for the British Government is not so much that a regiment went berserk, shooting civilians in the process, but, that the British establishment, in the form of Lord Widgery, sought to cover up what happened by attacking the character and good names of the deceased. In doing so they not only defamed the Dead, they defamed an entire City. David Cameron deserves credit for standing up in the House of Commons on the 15th June, 2010 and acknowledging, among other things, that the Paras fired the first shots, fired on fleeing, unarmed civilians, and, shot and killed a wounded man lying unarmed and helpless on the ground. The victims of that terrible day, and their loved ones, were finally vindicated, but an apology by the British Government whilst helping, can never fully heal the wound.

Bloody Sunday will remain a permanent scar for the families of the victims and their community. Time will help heal but what is done cannot be undone. James McClean was born and bred in that scarred community. His talent as a footballer was recognised at an early age. He represented Northern Ireland at underage level but held out for a call up to the Republic of Ireland squad. In this he was successful and he now represents the Republic, a move, one of many, which has caused consternation in the Northern Irish Football Association in Belfast. The move also had some Northern Ireland politicians in a twist. The Deputy Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Nigel Dodds urged the British and Irish governments to work together to stop the injustice of the ‘haemorrhaging’ of Northern Irish footballers to the Republic. Mr. Dodds must realise that the problem is more rooted in the attitudes of the IFA than the FAI, as the former organisation has not been serious about ridding Northern Irish football of its rabid sectarianism, the type that caused it to lose players such as Neil Lennon and Anton Rogan, Catholics who received death threats from their ‘own’ supporters. The lack of action on behalf of the IFA is hardly the type of reassurance young footballers from the Nationalist Community need in order to commit to themselves to representing the IFA.

Despite McClean’s reasonable and articulate letter last week he still received some boos from the terraces in Bolton. Is it any wonder? The growth of the poppy as a symbol of all British military campaigns to include Iraq and Afghanistan has, unbeknownst to most British people, also given a certain legitimacy to the actions of some British soldiers in the troubles in Northern Ireland. As McClean has said

‘I have complete respect for those who fought and died in both World Wars – many I know were Irish-born. I have been told that your own Grandfather Paddy Whelan, from Tipperary, was one of those. I mourn their deaths like every other decent person and if the Poppy was a symbol only for the lost souls of World War I and II I would wear one’.

Unfortunately the modern poppy is not just representative of the deaths of World Wars One and Two, and therein lies the rub.

‘For people from the North of Ireland such as myself ….the poppy has come to mean something very different’.

Every year over the last decade or so November sees more and more poppies on show, particularly on our TV screens. There is no room for dissent but there will always be dissent. The journalist and broadcaster Jon Snow refuses to wear a poppy on screen and every year he inevitably receives the cat calls of ‘traitor’ and is decried for his unpatriotic stance. What I find most refreshing is that Jon Snow has said on numerous occasions that he does in fact wear the poppy, only he does so in private. Mr. Snow is a making a fine point that  goes completely over the heads of the mob, and that is that not wearing a poppy is not the same thing as not remembering the war dead. Unfortunately in modern Britain there has been created an atmosphere whereby people are forced to publicise their remembrance of the fallen, what the author Guy Walters has described as ‘grief fascism’. What Snow represents is the view that it is not  the act of poppy-wearing that causes offence it is the compulsion to wear one.

Jon snow

That is in essence a ‘very English’ debate and whilst similar, is also very much distinct from the ‘Irish question’ as alluded to in McClean’s statement. It may be that the poppy would be alright if it just remembered the fallen of 1914-18 and 1939-45, but it no longer does. The poppy as a symbol has evolved and whilst wearers of the poppy celebrate the freedoms for which the fallen fought and gave the ultimate sacrifice for, they should also remember that these hard won freedoms also include the freedom to opt out of this very public display of remembrance. No inference should ever be drawn that those of us who remain Poppy-less remember the fallen any lesser than those that do wear the emblem and vice-versa.

Last Sunday I remembered a family member of my own who after surviving the Somme, died in the cauldron of the Ypres salient. His brother was also in my thoughts; he served in South-West Africa and Tanganyika where he was badly wounded. His wounds contributed to his demise in Johannesburg in 1921 from complications. We remember so that we never forget and in exercising my act of remembrance I didn’t wear a poppy, nor was I asked too. For that I am grateful.

“When ye go home tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrow we gave our today”

The day they lynched the Elephant

Hanging with the Elephanthanging elephant

Search Engines have the habit of waylaying me (in the best possible way) and this evening was no different. I was looking up the wonderful Michael Harding’s latest work, ‘Hanging with the Elephant – or how not to meditate’ and simply entered the words ‘Hanging’, ‘Elephant’ and ‘Harding’ and found my target. It was only when I clicked on images in search of the book cover that I came across a strange and macabre sight. It was an adult Elephant seemingly hanging from a crane? Curiosity got the better of me and so I simply had to explore further and this is the harrowing tale that I now share.

The Elephants name was Mary and she was a five ton Asian female. She was part of Charlie Sparks’ revelling circus which was travelling throughout the near west in the summer of 1916. The Circus had just arrived in the town of Kingsport, Tennessee, USA in the month of September.  The circus staff prepared for the usual parade down the Main St., a spectacle that was sure to be the best form of advertisement for their upcoming show. An inexperienced handler called Red Eldridge was put in charge of Mary. Eldridge was a Hotel Worker who had just been hired the evening before the parade.

The parade was going normally when the elephant stopped to nibble on a piece of discarded watermelon. She slowed down and as one can imagine the whole parade had to stop when Mary stopped. Eldridge jabbed the elephant to get her moving and inadvertently hit an abscessed spot just behind her ear. The elephant’s reaction was deadly. The elephant grabbed her new handler with her trunk, lifted him in the air dashed him against a drink stand and as he lay dying on the road, issued the coup de grace by trampled on his head. Mercifully Eldridge was killed instantly. While the terrified spectators screamed and fled, a local blacksmith unloaded five rounds of ammunition into the elephant with little effect.

As Mary recovered her composure the townsfolk encircled her and someone shouted to the Circus people that the killer elephant must be put down.  Before long the crowd had started chanting “Kill the elephant, kill the elephant.” Mary was eventually subdued and brought back to the circus grounds. The only talk amongst the citizens was the murderous Elephant in their midst. Newspaper accounts did nothing but flan the flames of the public’s frenzy. A contemporary newspaper account said that Mary “collided its trunk vice-like about [Eldridge’s] body, lifted him 10 feet in the air, then dashed him with fury to the ground… and with the full force of her beastly fury is said to have sunk her giant tusks entirely through his body. The animal then trampled the dying form of Eldridge as if seeking a murderous triumph, then with a sudden… swing of her massive foot hurled his body into the crowd.” It should be kept in mind that female Asian elephants don’t have any tusks!

Leaders from nearby towns threatened that the Circus would not be allowed visit their communities. Worried that the circus dates would be cancelled if he did not accommodate the crowds call for vengeance the circus owner Charlie Sparks reluctantly decided to acquiesce to the mobs demands. The condemned animal was loaded on a railway car and brought to the nearby town of Erwin. A huge crowd had assembled in the Clinchfield Railroad Yard.

The unfortunate elephant was hanged from a railcar-mounted industrial crane. The first attempt ended in failure when the chain used snapped. Mary broke her hip in the ensuing fall. The second attempt was successful and Mary was buried beside the tracks. A vet who carried out a post mortem on Mary was able to show that she had a severely infected tooth in the precise spot where Red Eldridge had prodded her.

A study by the University of Missouri noted that “Nearly 3,500 African Americans and 1,300 whites were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968, mostly from 1882 to 1920.” Mary however was the only Elephant known to have suffered a similar fate at the hands of a vigilante Mob. Sadly there was no Atticus Finch on hand to save her life.

Atticus Finch

Incidentally the word ‘lynching’ comes from Galway. James Lynch Fitzstephen was the Mayor of Galway when he hanged his own son from the balcony of his house after convicting him of the murder of a Spanish visitor in 1493.

Finally, I purchased Michael Harding’s book and am looking forward to tucking into it; the critics say it is ‘A compelling memoir. Absorbing and graced with a deceptive lightness of touch, [Hanging with the Elephant ] is clever and brilliantly pieced together. Harding writes like an angel’

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‘To boldly go’ – Space Tourism and the melting wax conundrum.

imageMAN has a long held obsession with flight but one man more than any other has an obsession with space flight. Richard Branson has poured millions of pounds into his dream of commercial space flight. As news filtered through that one of his proto-type “Spaceships” had crashed onto the floor of the Mojave Desert, one felt that Branson’s dream had taken a severe battering. In the last few days Branson has faced a lot of personal criticism much of it unjustified, over the loss of the Virgin Prototype that killed a test pilot. It may transpire that the loss of Spaceship Two was due to pilot error and for that you simply cannot lay the blame at the feet of Sir Richard.

History has a habit of following a cyclical yet chronological path. Empires rise, prosper, decline and fall. Truth is but for the Cold War we wouldn’t have had a Space Race. Only for the emergence of Hitler we mightn’t have had a Second World War and only for the harsh Treaty of Versailles we wouldn’t have had the catastrophic social and economic conditions that gave rise to the scourge of National Socialism. Ironic then that the shifting sands of European politics and catastrophic bloodletting of two world wars would lead to arguably man’s greatest achievement; leaving behind the world that bore him and standing on another celestial body. That such an achievement was borne from the development of inter-continental ballistic missiles, technology developed by Nazi scientists, is proof that we can be at our most productive when we are actually seeking to be destructive, an extreme version of the common phrase ‘every cloud has a silver lining’

Space Travel From the time of the Wright brothers first manned flight in Kitty Hawk, to man stepping on the moon took a mere sixty six years. In the intervening forty five years Space Travel hasn’t progressed much. Constellation, a Bush Administration program for a return to the Moon by 2020 was judged inadequately funded and unrealistic by an expert review panel reporting in 2009. The fact that at this very moment we cannot repeat a feat achieved in 1969 speaks volumes. It would be like if Hillary and Tenzing were still the only people to stand atop Everest.

That is not to say there hasn’t been considerable scientific achievement in that time, because there has been: in particular the deep space probes such as Voyager and Cassini, the various Mars probes etc. Yet none of these expeditions have captured the imagination of the mass public like in the golden days of Sputnik and Apollo. It is clear that the majority of people on our planet are more excited by space travel than space exploration. Yet Branson’s project is a different animal. It is the preserve of the uber rich and privileged. Many of the potential clientele will not even be household names. Many may have wealth but not fame. Even if they do end up on a Virgin galactic Craft bound for Space they will never be household names like Neil Armstrong, John Glenn or Yuri Gagarin. Maybe that’s the way they like to live, enjoying the trappings of wealth without the erosion of their privacy.

Richard Branson may yet resurrect his commercial space flight operation. He has invested too much to give up now and this accident, whilst tragic, is merely a setback.

Last year people in the US spent twice as much on plastic surgery than their Government spent on space travel. In an era where the budgets for space programs are been cut, the space shuttle grounded, the international space station running on a shoestring,  there is clearly a vacuum for private promoters like Richard Branson has made a niche for his Virgin Brand. Space Tourism is an innovation and all innovations bring risk. If this accident was under the auspices of NASA there would likely be no personal blame attached to any individual, at least not in the way that Branson is currently being pilloried. The problem for Branson is that he is the quintessential capitalist and his dream of space tourism is as much about profit as it is about vision.

Just a few days before the Virgin crash another private rocket launch ended in disaster when an Antares rocket blew up just seconds after lift-off. Accidents do happen particularly when one is testing new technology. In a media interview since the ‘Space Ship Two’ crash Branson has said that he will not be accepting customers until the spacecraft has been flown safely by himself and family members. The retort sums up Branson, one part showman, one part businessman, on the front foot promoting his project. At the end of the day criticism is misplaced. Whilst Branson deliberately courts publicity, this is still essentially a private business venture, for private customers, with the objective of making money for the Virgin Group. The crash is only a temporary setback even though federal investigators are estimating that it may take up to a year before their report is complete.

Virgin will be hoping the story will not have a parallel with the tale of the Great Eastern steamship. The ship was the largest steamship of its time yet despite the genius and proven record of Brunel it was still a financial disaster, plagued by accidents, mishaps and bad luck. Branson will be keen not to emulate this Victorian calamity, nor suffer the fate of Icarus in the ancient fable when the wax securing his wings melted because he flew to close to the Sun. Despite the ire directed at Branson, humankind needs people like him to push the boundaries, to dream, to innovate, and most of all, to boldly go.