Thursday, 24 April 2014

Exploits of WW1 'Boy's Own' flying aces emerge

As an unashamed fan of the "Biggles" stories by W. E. Johns (some of them splendid snapshots of the Great War from a serving pilot's [1930s] perspective - and not just for young boys!) and with a burgeoning library of First World War-themed books leaning disproportionally towards the aerial aspect of the conflict, the thrilling tales that have come to light in these two articles perhaps come as little surprise to me but are still nonetheless as amusing and amazing as any I have read before.

Exploits of WW1 'Boy's Own' flying ace emerge 

Some of the things that went on over the skies of France and Belgium throughout the war were deeply astonishing if the accounts in the various books in my collection are anything to go by.  Johns himself was at pains to point out that aerial warfare during the Great War really was "stranger than fiction" and some of the stories he touches upon in the preface of his very first Biggles book The Camels Are Coming - not to mention some of the true-to-life adventures our hero gets caught up in - really do defy belief.  Therefore to read about the real-life experiences of Major Robert Loraine is to be reminded that they are no exaggeration and that war-flying one hundred years ago was genuinely hair-raising stuff!   

Major Robert Loraine, RFC
The fact that Robert Loraine can be credited with a number of aeronautical "firsts" also drives home the fact that these men were truly at the beginning of a new technology, learning as they went and doing things that no human being had ever done before.  Loraine himself was flying across the Irish Sea barely seven years after the Wright brothers had travelled a few hundred feet on that first ever powered flight at Kitty Hawk.  The technological advancement of the aeroplane - still only a decade old at the start of the war - during the four years of fighting is astounding to the modern observer, for whom aircraft design has changed substantially little in the last 50 years (and it's such a shame that war is a catalyst for progress!).

Loraine was ahead of the charge by all accounts, though, and it is heartening to see that his pioneering achievements all came before the war and were peaceful in nature.  We also now know who to thank for the term "joystick", although it still isn't clear how the word came to be derived (and there are still other claims for the origin of this word).  His war service, as already mentioned, was hugely heroic too and I'm glad to see he came out of it all right - and on to the London stage (& screen) of all places!

How daredevil British pilot 'buzzed' the Kaiser

The second series of recollections, committed to paper some forty years after they occurred (just weeks before the outbreak of hostilities) but unseen until now, read even more like the most humorous "Biggles" stories.  A very cheeky chappie, the wonderfully-named Eric Gordon England sounded!

Eric Gordon England in 1913
One can only wonder what the Kaiser must have thought on that day in early June 1914, upon seeing a British aeroplane diving down towards his yacht before pulling up and over a passing zeppelin!  Nothing complimentary, I should think!

The relaxed feelings of peacefulness and prosperity that so characterised the "golden summer" of 1914 in England can be readily felt through this story, I think.  Not only by the actions of Gordon England in so comprehensively teasing the Germans both in the air and on the ground but also the sheer fact that Britain was still keen to provide aircraft to what would in barely a month's time be its most hated enemy.  (I don't know if those of you in the UK managed to catch the excellent three-part drama 37 Days on B.B.C. Two earlier this year but to my mind that did a fantastic job of showing how quickly and ridiculously the whole run-up to war unfolded.)

The unearthing of these kinds of fantastic tales is one of the best aspects of the increased interest in the First World War as a result of the centenary.  They serve to remind us of the human acts of courage and good old-fashioned derring-do that took place amid the carnage and decimation of 1914-18 and it is as excellent as ever to see them rediscovered for a new generation.  Now I'm off to re-read some of my Biggles books, and maybe some more new accounts by the real airmen who inspired his creation!

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

England's pleasant pastures seen

A very Happy St. George's Day to all my readers, followers and friends - be they English or not!

Like so many bloggers, vintage or otherwise, I've become a big fan of Pinterest since being introduced to it nearly two years ago - it must be something that appeals to us creatives!  Since then my boards have ballooned in size and number; one of the biggest and most popular contains over 400 wonderful pictures of this green and pleasant land whose national day it is, so what could be better than a selection of those images to celebrate St George's Day (and Shakespeare's birthday).

The church at Owlpen in the Cotswolds
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire
Marleycombe Hill, Wiltshire
Seven Sisters, Sussex
Castle Combe, Wiltshire
The Punch Bowl, Somerset
Lining Crag, Lake District, Cumbria

Friday, 18 April 2014

Easter Weekend Wishes

I've been something of a busy bee these past couple of weeks, working on mundane jobs and the odd exciting project - the latter of which I hope to have more news of soon.  In the meantime, it only remains for me to wish you all a:

Happy Easter!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Silent Betty Balfour film 'masterpiece' found in Holland

Silent Betty Balfour film 'masterpiece' found in Holland

As something of a silent film aficionado it is always a great delight for me to see the recognition that these products of the early years of cinema deserve and the general renaissance they have undergone in recent years (precipitated, it could be argued, by 2011's Oscar-winning The Artist).  This is only tempered by the sad knowledge that time is not kind to old 35mm film stock, which was invariably nitrate and not only flammable but also subject to decay over time, leading to many a silent film being missing presumed lost.

So it is an even greater joy when a previously "lost" silent film is discovered, usually after languishing for years in a private collection (and/or a mislabelled tin).  Such has been the case with Love, Life and Laughter, a British comedy-drama film from 1923 that starred silent actress Betty Balfour.  (I must admit despite being a fan of the silents that I was ignorant of Betty Balfour, who was a huge star of British cinema in the Twenties - "the British Mary Pickford", as she was known at the time.  I had vaguely heard of her most famous film series, Squibs - from 1921, its sequel the following year and the 1935 remake, from which the accompanying song is taken.  Sadly the advent of talkies marked a downturn in her career; she made sporadic appearances throughout the 1930s and her last performance was in 1945.  She passed away in Weybridge, Surrey, in 1977 aged 74.)

For decades no extant copy was known of Love, Life and Laughter, with only half-a-dozen stills and a couple of publicity documents surviving to attest to its existence.  That is until two weeks ago, when a complete copy was identified in The Netherlands by the Dutch film museum EYE.  Apparently it had lain undisturbed in a small, old cinema in the Dutch town of Hattem until 2012.  When the building underwent redevelopment its contents were sent to EYE for cataloguing, with the identity of this film having only just been established earlier this month.

Despite lacking its original English inter-titles it sounds as though this copy is in good condition, with its new custodians the British Film Institute - whose list of "75 Most Wanted Films" included Love, Life and Laughter - promising a public screening later this year.  Something to look forward to!

Something also to give us hope that more "missing" films from the silent era of cinema may still be in existence, just waiting to be found.  Although the march of time makes such discoveries increasingly unlikely, this most recent and classic example reminds us that it is still eminently possible.  Unlabelled cannisters, private copies on hardier 16mm or 75mm film - they may well still be out there waiting to be found.  It's interesting to note that this discovery was made in the Netherlands, for it seems that that country is an inordinate source of lost film footage.  As a Laurel & Hardy fan I know that I great deal of previously-lost film related to their work has come via Holland and its seems that Betty Balfour's popularity there has also played no small part in this film's survival - dank u, Nederland!

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Ohio museum volunteers constructing vintage B-17

Ohio museum volunteers constructing vintage B-17

As volunteers and enthusiasts at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre here in Britain continue to work towards getting a third Avro Lancaster bomber restored to airworthy condition, so their counterparts at the Champaign Aviation Museum in Urbana, Ohio U.S.A., are undertaking an even more mammoth task - to rebuild an example of the United States' primary Second World War heavy bomber, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.

Of the forty-six surviving B-17 airframes known to exist around the world, thirteen are currently in airworthy condition - including Sally B, the only flying example in Britain, based at the Imperial War Museum Duxford.  The majority are of course located in museums across America and in a few years' time, if all goes well, they will be joined by this fourteenth - Champaign Lady.

The volunteers at the Champaign Aviation Museum - many of them U.S. Air Force veterans themselves - must be commended for taking on this project, for it is so much more than a simple restoration.  With no more complete or intact airframes forthcoming, these enthusiasts have taken to scavenging parts piecemeal and - where they no longer exist - making them themselves from Boeing's own original blueprints.  In effect, then, this is more a completely new-build aircraft than a restoration, with the promise of a machine better than a Boeing production model from the 1940s at the end of it.

With the famous Memphis Belle currently undergoing restoration at the nearby National Museum of the U.S.A.F. and destined never to fly again following designation as a national treasure, it is more important than ever that airworthy examples of this aircraft continue flying in the future.  The prospect of one built to modern tolerances with largely new parts is an exciting one, as it will no doubt ensure that at least one B-17 Flying Fortress will be flying and thrilling new generations for decades to come.  Good luck to them, say I, and I can't wait to see it!

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Dustman saves 5,000 rare First World War photos from rubbish dumps


Dustman saves 5,000 rare First World War photos from rubbish dumps

As if to prove the point in my previous post regarding the treatment historical documents are sometimes subjected to, the way they are often rediscovered and saved from the brink of destruction, this post features the story of over 5,000 photographs of the First World War that were rescued over the course of 30 years by a Sussex dustman.

Bob Smethurst's wonderful attitude towards these incredible records of a past conflict is only tempered somewhat by the thought of how little they must have been valued by others and how many more fascinating documents were not saved from the incinerator in all those years.  It's desperately sad to think of a family cold-bloodily disposing of an individual's life history, not stopping to think that it in fact contributes to the history of our whole society.

Thankfully these days more and more people are thinking like Mr Smethurst, as his comment about the increased value of the photos suggests!  Whether that is merely due to the centenary of the First World War, or other factors as well, I wouldn't like to guess (although I certainly hope it's more than that).  I do get the feeling that people are becoming more suitably reverential about our past - but of course it has always been so for us nostalgists!

Former dustman's salvaged WW1 archive

Even so there is still far too much evidence of a disregard for historical items and records such as photographs or letters, not just in Britain but elsewhere.  How many times have we seen and commented on stories such as this, of treasure troves being found in skips and the like?  I would hope that things will be better for Second World War veterans and not, as Mr Smethurst thinks, the same again but the evidence is sadly still there.  In my own [fairly recent] experience it was seeing the little bungalow - unchanged for 60 years and complete with 1950s MG saloon still parked outside - the home of an elderly local lady, who had either died or moved into care, stripped of its contents (piled up in the front garden) and eventually demolished to make way for 4 houses.  I've said before that I'm all for progress, but not at the expense of our history.

In this happy case however a huge number of important photographs and records of the First World War have been saved for future generations.  I would like to think that any museum would give their eye teeth to have them in their collection, especially in this centenary year, but either way their future safety seems assured.  I hope that whatever Mr Smethurst decides to do with them they will continue to be highly valued and once again it begs the question "what else is still out there?"

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Vintage Chicago film found at estate sale shows 1940s-era city

Vintage Chicago Film Found at Estate Sale Shows 1940s-era City

The subject of this post sounds like something my aunt and uncle would find during their numerous trawls of estate sales, or a treasure we could only dream of unearthing in the far rarer house clearances that occur with much less frequency in Britain.

It's a constant source of amazement to me that films such as this can turn up in the most unlikeliest of places decades after they were shot, capturing the attention of people - social historians, nostalgists, you, me - that the makers (and those who appeared on the screen) could never have even imagined.  But they do, as this latest example so amply demonstrates, and I for one am continually grateful for the fact.  How many historical gems have lain - and continue to lay - forgotten and undiscovered in the corner of a dusty archive, or nearly been thrown away (or worse, actually thrown away), all because of a vague/wrong label?

This could have been the case here (and likely would have been, had it occurred in this country) had the canister containing the film not been snapped up by a curious Chicagoan.  It is perhaps not surprising that the new owner showed such an interest in it since, in one of those serendipitous incidents that sometimes occur, the chap is a young film & video technician.  I'll bet even he never expected to uncover an amazing portal to Chicago 70 years ago, though, and neither did anybody else judging by the negligible amount of money he ended up paying for it!

The contents have proved to be of far greater historical value, however, containing as they do over thirty minutes' footage of mid-Forties Chicago - everywhere from the usual tourist haunts to the less-visited working districts.  It is a wonderful time capsule of what still remains "a city of beauty, strength and power" and a glorious glimpse of a time past; so unusual that even the Chicago Film Archives and the Chicago Board of Education (for whom the original film was made) are having trouble finding a record of it.

Regardless of whether the reasons become known as to why this film was shot and how it stayed undiscovered for so, it is splendid to see it again in all its glory and to know that it will be appreciated as a snapshot of history.  Once again, it makes you wonder just what else is out there waiting to be found!

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