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Dec. 1st, 2018

Dogfight [by the_gneech]

Chasing Her Story

This weekend is Midwest FurFest, a furry convention over in Rosemont, Illinois. Many people I know are attending; I, alas, am not, but I am there in spirit because the lovely Kyell Gold, who is one of their Guests of Honour, invited me to collaborate with him on a story for the conbook.

The convention's theme this year is Flight, which may possibly be why Kyell thought of me as a potential co-author. We batted ideas back and forth and came up with a round-the-world race between two pilots, loosely based on the true stories of Joan Merriam Smith and Sheila Scott.

We discovered that each pilot had carried a stuffed animal in the cockpit, Joan a polar bear and Sheila a rabbit, which provided their species in the furry universe.

I'm really pleased with how it turned out, and I hope convention-goers can take a few minutes out of their busy schedules to sit down with a good story.

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Nov. 19th, 2018

Monocle Husky

Playboys, Spies and Private Eyes

On Saturday I took part in A Celebration of ITC at Elstree Studios.

Lew Grade's Incorporated Television Company was responsible for a huge percentage of British televisual entertainment in the 1960s and '70s, including The Saint, The Prisoner, all the Gerry Anderson Supermarionation puppet series and my great favourite Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased).

I took the Thameslink to Elstree, where I met up with my internet friend and fellow-nerd Hannah. We retired to a pub and spent the afternoon deep in discussion of Bond, telly and, occasionally, real life before joining a queue of Obvious Geeks at the studio.

The evening took the format of a series of panel discussions, interviewing and Q&Aing two or three of the special guests at a time. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to be there sharing funny anecdotes, most of which involved Roger Moore.

The biggest name was probably Ian Ogilvy of Return of the Saint, who comes across as a really nice bloke. Annette Andre, Randall and Hopkirk's Jeannie Hopkirk, was as well-dressed and lovely-voiced as always, and it was great to see Gerry Anderson's son Jamie talking about his father's work and new project Firestorm:

I was rather smitten with stuntman Paul Weston, who's worked on pretty much every ITC show plus Bond, Indiana Jones, Star Wars and the laughably dreadful Death Train. He had plenty of hair-raising stories from pre-Health and Safety days, and now I need to rewatch the episode of Randall and Hopkirk where Marty sits on the roof of a car as it drives along the Embankment.

Here he is being shoved aside by Timothy Dalton in Gibraltar:

And here's the photo I bought. Gotta love someone who introduces his collection of stills with "This is me on fire...and this is me jumping from one cable car to another..."


My evening was made when I ran into some of the guest stars back at the station, helped them find the correct platform and took the opportunity to thank them for all the entertainment.
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Nov. 15th, 2018

Cat Air

A Weekend To Remember: Sunday 11/11 - Monday 12/11

We'd picked Thiepval for the morning of Remembrance Day. Two police officers directed us to park on the grass, and we walked in the rain (the British Legion were making a killing on poppy cagoules) to the memorial.

The service and the silence, with everyone standing under umbrellas, the flat landscape all around and a hundred years since the gunfire ceased, isn't something I'll forget, and I'm glad we made the journey. We walked away as the brass band played Abide With Me.


Afterwards we travelled to the nearby Ulster Tower, the memorial to troops from Northern Ireland. Although less than a mile down the road from Thiepval, there was almost nobody there, and we were welcomed warmly by the young Irishman serving in the shop/café. Someone had brought them a beautiful sponge cake decorated with poppies, and you could enjoy a slice in return for a 1€ donation towards blind veterans. Rude not to, eh?


In the afternoon we booked on a tour of the Wellington Tunnels, originally quarries but pressed into service in the First World War to billet troops in advance of the Battle of Arras, and then in the Second as air raid shelters.

We were given proper safety helmets made in the shape of a wartime steel helmet. As the lift descended, I looked around and saw we had been transformed into a ragtag party of miners and bantam soldiers.

The tunnels, decorated with helpful hand-written signage from both wars ('W.C.'), soldiers' drawings on the walls, and objects from the warlike to the everyday discovered during the renovations, were spookily atmospheric, especially when we came to one of the exits, dynamited before the battle for a surprise attack.


Having emerged, we explored Vauban's citadel, visited the town war memorial (which includes a Lutyens-designed monument to airmen with no known grave), then sat on the Place des Héros for a while, watching the people pass and the sun go down, before returning to the hotel.

It being Sunday night in France, we then walked 2km along a dual carriageway for dinner at a steakhouse on a retail park.

Rain was forecast for Monday morning, and we set off as late as we could. We made a brief stop at Gavrelle, where an anchor surrounded by broken brickwork commemorates the village's destruction and the Royal Naval Division's losses in the battle around it.

I was looking forward to visiting the memorial to pilot Albert Ball, situated in the field where his SE5 crashed fatally in 1917. His father bought the field in order to set up the memorial, then gave it to the French army on condition the stone was not disturbed.

Though it's in the middle of nowhere, others had been here before us to lay a wreath. I'd brought a poppy for Ball (it's on the left), which meant I spent all weekend feeling bad about the thousands of less famous dead for whom I had nothing.


Our last stop before Calais and the ferry was Fromelles, where a diversionary attack in 1916 cost several thousand soldiers, mostly Australian, their lives.

In 2009, a mass grave containing 250 bodies from the war was excavated nearby. The work of identifying them, and contacting their families, is still going on. Nine have been identified this year.

I've visited a number of military cemeteries in France and Belgium, and the impact of seeing those lines of headstones never grows less. I'm fascinated by the inscriptions, most chosen from poems or the Bible but others more personal. I'd love to know who Nettie was, and why her friendship with 204604 Private V. Clink was so special:


Nov. 13th, 2018

Cross stitch

A Weekend To Remember: Friday 9/11 - Saturday 10/11

When Howard suggested spending the centenary of the Armistice in France, I got on board immediately. We booked a budget hotel just outside Arras and caught an early ferry from Dover to Calais on Friday morning.

Our first stop was the Dunkirk museum, commemorating the battle and evacuation of 1940 and the aftermath for the city. My favourite thing was a letter written to the captain of a British ship sunk by a torpedo, who asked his officers to describe what had happened:

"Dear sir, There was a bloody great bang."

By a stroke of luck, I spotted this beautiful memorial to French ace Georges Guynemer close by.


We took a country route through the flat but lovely landscape of Flanders to Arras, arriving at our hotel at dusk.

It's hard to believe there was an air museum in northern France I had not yet visited, but I had somehow missed the one in Albert until Saturday morning.

Situated on an industrial estate, it's the kind of delightful museum that crams the exhibits in wherever they'll fit and leaves you to explore, often by climbing a rickety ladder to peer into cockpits. There were two large hangars filled with planes and cars, several exhibits outside, and a third hangar with aviation memorabilia (Concorde pinball!) and, for some reason, antique washing-machines.

They had a Caravelle, that sweet little French airliner with the teardrop windows (as seen in A Very Secret Service), an East German MiG-21 and several examples of the Nord Noratlas twin-boom military transporter. I wandered round in a delighted daze, occasionally summoning Howard so I could explain things at him.




The museum closed for lunch at noon, and we made our way to Le Tommy in Pozières for sausage and chips. It was as crowded as you'd expect on the weekend of Remembrance Day, but we enjoyed quick, friendly service before moving on to The Tank of Flesquieres, which is, as the name suggests, a tank.

I learned that the tanks of A Battalion all had names starting with A, B Battalion with B and so on, and that one of the A tanks was called ARTFUL ALICE.

The tank on display, which took part in the Battle of Cambrai, is D Battalion's DEBORAH. Other D tanks included DON QUIXOTE and DRACULA, while the Fs boasted - wait for it - FRAY BENTOS.


The centre of Arras, rebuilt after its destruction during the war, is crazy pretty. We visited the Boves, a system of underground passages and cellars dating back to the Middle Ages, went on the big wheel and had a pizza.


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Oct. 5th, 2018

Secret Agent Dog

Off to Join the Circus

Good news! Myk and I received our assessment report from Sunday's spy-jinks, and it recommends that the Circus hire us as agents.

We succeeded in all areas of the test, were ranked sixth of the teams taking part, and were noted for our reliability.

At the debrief, we were asked if we'd noticed any Watchers observing us. We had seen nobody, and yet they saw us...

In this series of surveillance photos, I perform a handover with my usual grace and subtlety:




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Oct. 4th, 2018

This IS me (by schwitters)Default

Småland Perfectly Formed 10: Sunday 23rd September

At a positively barbaric 6.30am (5.30am European time, let me remind you) we were thrown off the ferry into a stormy Essex morning. We filled up at Morrisons and parted ways at the A12/M25 junction. I got wetter on my journey home than I had at any point during the trip, and was grateful to arrive at my flat, drop my luggage on the floor and peel off my clothes.

We weren't sure about Småland before we set off, though we wanted to satisfy our curiosity. The distances would be vast, everything would be expensive, the roads would be unchallenging. All of this was true to a certain extent. But we also found great beauty, tasty food and, above all, kind and friendly people.

Everyone was so nice to us and so delighted we had come on our motorcycles to visit their country: Per and Haider, Gunnar James Bond Schäfer, waiters, supermarket cashiers and motorway ticket booth operators.

I couldn't always stop to photograph the scenery when I wanted to, and I'm sorry I can't show you more of what it was like, but it's all there in my head.

We explored only a tiny corner of Sweden on our ten-day trip, there's plenty more to see, and we both hope to return.

Miles: 88.3
Total miles: 2413.2
Avg mpg: 71.2




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Småland Perfectly Formed 9: Saturday 22nd September

Sun and downpour alternated as we loaded up the bikes, setting the pattern for a day that would see us go west through Germany back to the Hook of Holland. We travelled quickly along the motorway system, skirting Hamburg and snatching a quick break at a service station (where the man on the coffee counter effortlessly upsold me a cake).

In the afternoon we cut a corner by going across the German countryside, which was filled with people doing mysterious but charming German countryside things, crossed the border to the Netherlands - marked proudly with the Dutch and EU flags - and made a petrol stop that ended up lasting an hour as we waited out the rain over coffee.

"Do you want a lekkere snacke?" asked Howard, reading the sign above a vending-machine. I did, and bought myself a hot cheese croquette.

We took the last few miles slowly, Howard because the growing darkness meant he wasn't always sure I was still behind him, I because my fuel was worryingly low (we were keen to hold off filling up again until we were back in the cheaper UK, and I ended up doing 35 miles on reserve).

By the time we'd rolled on to the overnight ferry I was too tired to do much more than eat, watch some Hanna-Barbera cartoons on the cabin telly, and sleep.

Miles: 424.3

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Oct. 3rd, 2018

Husky Airways

Småland Perfectly Formed 8: Friday 21st September

I had two ambitions for this trip. One was to photograph my bike with a Swedish plane, which I achieved at Kalmar Airport, and the other was to get a sticker with the famous elk warning sign to go on my top box. I'd had no luck with the latter despite trying every petrol station and tourist information centre we came across. On our last morning in Sweden, we serendipitously stopped for petrol right next to Laganland Elk Park and its Elk Shop, full of every tacky elk-themed souvenir item anyone could ever need.

On our return journey we skipped the Öresund Bridge in favour of the ferry which runs, confusingly, from Helsingborg in Sweden to Helsingør in Denmark. This was the kind of short crossing where bikes aren't strapped down and you can, if you wish, stay with your vehicle on the car deck, although we chose to stretch our legs.

Due to regulations, during the 20-minute journey you can buy tobacco in Swedish waters and alcohol in Danish territory. We pooled our last kronor for a bottle of whisky and a cuddly wolf, since named Ingrid Bergwolf.

We hammered through the Danish flatlands, lashed by wind and rain and swerving on the motorway to avoid two pallets blown from a lorry ahead of us. We crossed a high bridge followed by a long section of road with the sea on either side, which I found less pleasant than I usually do.

We still made good enough time to leave the motorways for country roads towards the end of the day. These were pretty but dreadfully exposed, with sudden sidewinds that threatened to knock us into the path of oncoming traffic.

Flensburg in Schleswig-Holstein, near the Danish border, is famous for homing the German equivalent of the DVLA, which we gave a miss, and the greeting "Moin" for "hello", which I was overjoyed to hear at a petrol station the next morning. There's a church with a spire, a big C&A, and a waterfront with proper bierkeller-style pubs.

We ate at Hansens Brauerei, "Germany's northernmost microbrewery", where the pork joint 'for two' could have fed a family of six. We somehow finished all the roast potatoes, though.

Miles: 319

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Oct. 2nd, 2018

This IS me (by schwitters)Default

Småland Perfectly Formed 7: Thursday 20th September

After a breakfast of toast and coffee, the latter made by Per who just happened to pop by with a full pot as I was preparing the filter, we set off. From here on, we'd be homeward bound.

Acting on a tip from Per, we rode to Forsvik, a pretty little town on the Göta Canal. It was almost deserted, with an air of end-of-season melancholy, and we moved on to his other recommendation, Hjo.

This was a bigger place, with a harbour and waterfront cafés. We stopped for lunch at what looked like a forbiddingly expensive restaurant, but turned out to be a fixed-price canteen where the cost of your lunch included a drink, salad, coffee and biscuits. We were there for a while.

We entered the Tiveden National Park, where narrow, well-made roads curved and climbed through wooded countryside. Near the start we were alarmed to be flagged down by an army motorcyclist with a khaki BMW and a ferocious moustache, but he just wanted to tell us to take it slowly because there might be cows in the road. We did.

On an exposed stretch of road with railway tracks off to the right, the threat of rain became a reality. We ignored a closure sign only to come upon a ten-metre unmade section of soft sand, which Howard rode over then helped me push my bike across because I am a coward. At least this gave me the opportunity to stop and put my waterproof overtrousers on, and afterwards I could enjoy deliberately riding through puddles.

Then we were back on urban roads and heading towards Lagan, our stop for the night. Once we'd found the correct building after accidentally wandering into a block of flats, and I'd forced Howard to expel a large spider from our room, we were pretty comfortable.

Miles: 157.7

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Oct. 1st, 2018

Dogfight [by the_gneech]

Småland Perfectly Formed 6: Wednesday 19th September

My other Big Treat of the holiday was a trip to the Flygvapenmuseum, the Swedish Air Force Museum, in Linköping (pronounced 'Lin-chirping').

Before arriving, we sought out the point on the motorway where I knew Saab Draken and Viggen fighters were to be found on poles at the side of the road. There wasn't a convenient layby so we stopped on the hard shoulder, where Howard pretended to have broken down while I snapped a quick photo.

I'm very geeky about Swedish military aviation, and a whole museum full of it was almost too exciting to bear. It's also FREE, as I discovered when I marched up to the desk with my carefully-prepared 'two adults please'.

The basement floor is given over to the wreckage and the strange, sad story of the Swedish DC-3 carrying surveillance equipment which was shot down over the Baltic by a Soviet MiG-15 in 1952.

Both sides hushed up what had happened, leaving families and friends in limbo, and it was only in the early 2000s that a private firm located the wreck and raised it from the seabed. Four bodies were recovered, identified and buried, with the rest of the crew of eight still unaccounted for.

Upstairs, the first half of the main exhibition took us through Swedish aviation of the 20th century, in the wider context of international events. It was strange to see familiar aircraft like the Spitfire, Mustang and Fieseler Storch in Swedish markings.

There was also an Animals In War exhibit with an interactive 'which heroic animal are you?' quiz. It will surprise nobody to learn that I am Laika.

Then the Cold War exhibition, which I loved. After the Second World War, Sweden was determined to design and build its own aircraft so they wouldn't be let down by suppliers, and they came up with some weird and wonderful creations: the long-nosed Lansen, the Tunnan 'Flying Barrel', the double-delta Draken and my favourite, the Viggen.

For each decade, there was a display of aircraft and a mockup of a typical Swedish home, showing how the occupants were affected by the current state of the East/West conflict.

I was very restrained in the gift shop, all things considered. A kind member of staff found me a tube for my Saab Past And Present poster so it wouldn't get damaged on the bike, and it arrived home in perfect nick.

From here we would be riding around Sweden's second-largest lake, Lake Vättern, before heading homeward. It was a relatively short ride to our stop for the night, because we'd known we might spend a lot of the day in the museum, but a pretty one as always. After riding across a bridge with a view to the left of wooded islands scattered across the lake, we reached our destination and were greeted warmly by the owner of the hostel, who introduced himself as Per.

This was a hostel in the more traditional sense, in a large and lovely building a short walk from the beach. We had a twin room with lighting and wallpaper that made it look rather like one of the Cold War Swedish homes in the museum.

After we'd unpacked, Per found us in the cavernous dining-room/lounge, its wood-panelled walls hung with equipment for winter sports, having a meal of lingonberry bread and tinned goulash by candlelight.

"Oh," he said, "I came to see if you were OK but I see you are all set!"

Miles: 117.7




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