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MY PETS LESS ORDINARY

During my youth in Guyana, I became acquainted with some unusual wildlife. This is their story.

Everywhere in Guyana were creatures great and small; it was quite common to have small frogs torpedoing out of the water taps, not to mention lizards crawling up the walls, bats appearing at the windows and cockroaches scuttling across the floor. Once we even had a large snake curl up in a washing basket in the middle of our basement floor.

At night, bathing under the light of the driveway, would sit a vast collective of bloated, repulsive toads – called ‘Crapo‘ in the Creole tongue – that would puff up to twice their size; looking twice as ugly as I approached them. I would often get stung by Marabunta wasps (that bloody hurt like hell), attacked by troops of red ants, and bitten by mosquitoes on a white meat diet.

To my unpleasant surprise, even the caterpillars stung me when I accidentally trod on them. At least the birds liked me and would sing my name; the bird-song of the Kiskadee sounded like they were saying ‘Christopher’, so that’s what we called them – Christophers.

I was six years old and would earn eggs, milk, and meat for us by mucking out at the farm next door; herding and milking the cows and goats, along with feeding the chickens and ducks. At the farm I was considered a moving target for a bullish bull and a source of great amusement for a particularly sadistic turkey that would chase me up the nearest tree.

We acquired an unusual collection of pets of our own during our lives in Guyana: from a nameless tortoise that managed to escape, a temperamental macaw with a spoon fetish named Miguel – that also briefly escaped – an adopted sibling in the form of a howler monkey named Floyd, and an injured fox – that also escaped and ate next door’s chickens – and even – though not quite pets in the literal sense, a baby alligator and two manatees. Let’s get the latter two cleared up first:

The adult manatee had strayed from the sea and found its way far up the Abari River where she gave birth to a calf. My father – a student in zoology and marine biology – and his team were alerted by some local fishermen who had built an enclosure for them, providing protection from the piranhas and alligators.

The mother had a large scar on her back from where she had been attacked by something hungry, or cut by an out-board engine propeller – how the manatee got this far up the river was an incredible feat in itself. I was fortunate enough to paddle with the manatees and have since developed a great affection for this enigmatic and docile endangered species. The manatees were given a safe home at the Guyana Zoo in the capital city of Georgetown where we would visit them from time to time.

The new-born alligator was my father’s office pet and lived in a large water tank next to his desk. I’ll never forget the day that he turned up with it at the Dutch club; carrying the creature in his arms, its jaw taped up and my father looking sheepishly at my mother as if about to say “Can we keep him, pleeeese?”

Equally memorable is the sharp and assertive ‘NO!’ that thundered from my mother, shooting him down with her trademark stare. “But it’ll only be for a few weeks.” My mother’s reply was not fit for a young lad, a sheepish husband, or the infant ears of an unwanted alligator – and definitely not suitable for reading today. Only two alligators ever entered our house: one was a stuffed one, the other was ran over by a neighbor and cooked in a curry.

I thought that the fox was a dog at first (Well, it is in a way but you know what I mean). I remember being at a house across the road with two locals who had just cut the head off a duck (as you do); the beak of its detached head was still yapping on the ground while the mallard was running around the yard like a headless, erm, chicken, until it ran out of blood. In the distance I could see some natives approaching the front veranda of our house, presenting what looked like a small dog.

“Cool, we’ve got a dog!” I thought, and sprinted over to greet our new pet. What I came face to face with was not a cute dog with a waggly tail, more like a snarling beast. And my… what big teeth it had. My mother still tells of the way in which I approached the back door and, as cool as a cucumber, said, “I thought I’d come in the back way because there’s and angry looking fox lying in the way of the front door, what’s for tea?.”

The fox had been caught in a trap and had an injured paw; it had also been tied in a barbed wire collar that was still sunk deeply into its neck. The natives who found the battered fox had heard stories that my father was some sort of Doctor Doolittle and they left the fox for him to nurse back to health. It lived in a cage in the basement for several weeks until it escaped – eating my chicks and ducklings as a parting gift, also taking most of next door’s chickens while en route to god knows where. That’s gratitude for you.

My father returned home from the jungle with a surprise pet one day, in the form of a blue and gold macaw that he and some conservationists had rescued from poachers. We named him Miguel; he would eventually return back to Wales with us. The reason for the tropical rainforest being in such dire straits is down to the amount of perches Miguel went through.

Every day there would be a dissatisfied squawk and Miguel would be found clinging on to the side of the cage, feathers sticking up in protest. He was a little ‘temperamental’; the only way to get near him was by wearing my Sootyglove-puppet that he had grown quite an attachment to – more so than humans. Miguel’s few pleasures in life were bananas, sugar cane, my flesh, and being stroked on the head with a teaspoon – but only by the hand of Sooty, of course.

Miguel managed to get himself stuck up a tree one day (seriously!). His wings had been clipped but, as we found out, he was still able to make a break for it; he glided over to the nearest tree across the road. There he remained – standing out like a giraffe on a glacier, and probably feeling a little silly – as my father – probably feeling equally silly because he was wearing a Sooty glove-puppet and holding a spoon.

He climbed the tree – assisted by Paul the farmer – and got Miguel down safely before he glided away into the waiting mouth of something big. A little more wing clipping would make certain that Miguel would remain within the confines of the house.

Our reason for me and my parents being in Guyana in the first place was because my father was studying a Masters Degree in Zoology and Marine Biology; in the 80’s work experience was real work experience. My father would often venture deep into the jungle – sometimes I would go with him – as part of a team of local conservationists.

On one particular outing the team had heard gunshots nearby. Some poachers had fired upon, and hit a female howler monkey; she was left for dead and her new-born baby exposed and alone. The new-born was adopted by my father – who named him Floyd – and would become a valuable member of the King family.

Floyd was amazingly childlike and would play, sunbathe, and throw tantrums that upstaged even me. He would sit on my mother’s shoulder while she was out and about at the Sunday food markets; during the evenings he would sit on my father’s shoulder when he was playing dominoes, his long prehensile tail cuddling his neck.

He liked Pringles, peach juice, sugar cane and Edam cheese – and the little git was always running off with my Star Wars figures. When he needed feeding, attention, or comforting he would latch on to my mother, and when he got told off by my mother he approached my father; when he fancied amusement he would piss and shit in my bed. Miguel the macaw didn’t like Floyd and would make him dance every time he climbed on top of the bird cage.

Howler monkeys are the only South American monkey not to be kept as pets, due to their surly disposition. We would eventually have had to part with Floyd as he grew into a one meter tall adult. Sadly, he didn’t get the chance to grow into adulthood at all.

I was at a lesson with my private tutor when my father appeared in the doorway; his shoulders were slouched and he didn’t speak. He stood there for several minutes, just gazing into space before walking away. I wouldn’t find out until I got home from tuition that Floyd had broken free of his leash and had chased my father down the driveway.

My father always slipped through the back door before Floyd would notice he had gone, but Floyd had wised up to that. While giving chase to the Land Rover Floyd he latched on to the wheel and was crushed to death it as it rolled over him. He would be the last family pet that we would adopt in Guyana.

My only pet was a tortoise. I can’t recollect its name but I do recall that it was old, scratched and only had one eye. I would carry it everywhere I went; when it wasn’t under my arm it would follow me on foot. One day it mysteriously disappeared (yes, my tortoise ran away) and I especially recall the day that I got reunited with it – I will never forget that.

It was the very last day of my life in Guyana. I was saying goodbye to friends when something caught my eye; something walking down the driveway very slowly – it was old, scratched, and only had one eye. I swear to this day  that it was my old pet tortoise who had come to say farewell.

Whenever I tell this story I can’t help laughing to myself at how absurd it all sounds. It doesn’t surprise me when people think that I’m taking the piss and are inclined to ask “How much of that was true?” – I know that I would if someone was telling me something equally far-fetched.

This is actually my life that I’m writing about. The life of a valleys boy who was lifted from the snow covered hills of South Wales to the lush, green tropics of Guyana. For a six year old boy, it was a magical life far from ordinary. For a thirty year old adult, it is a privileged past that grows ever more distant, surreal, and unbelievable.

Here is a short clip from Guyana 1987, featuring me, my mother, Floyd the Howler Monkey, and Miguel the Macaw:

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CAPTAIN CAMERA

A short, out of the box promotional video. All character voices performed by me.

‘CCTV Control Room – Captain Camera’ is a short, out of the box promotional video highlighting the tireless and selfless actions of an elite CCTV Operator at Blaenau Gwent. All character voices were performed by me. I think you’ll agree, the resemblance between the hero and I is uncanny.

[Edited December 2016]

Sadly, Blaenau Gwent CCTV was closed down in 2014. The cameras are now monitored by Newport City Council – where I continue to operate. I will always praise the professionalism and gold award-winning standard of Blaenau Gwent CCTV. We were a bloody good team, and I’m immensely proud of the opportunity given to me; serving my community; helping in the detection and prevention of crime and disorder. It’s a shame our achievements were overlooked, and money had to come first. I stll miss it deeply.

This video is posted with the kind permission of Anytime Films and Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council.  All power to their elbows.

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MEMORIES UNDER THE METEOR SHOWER

...I grabbed a fold-up chair, made a cup of tea, and headed out to watch the meteor shower.

I arrived home from work in the early hours. The sky was cloud-free, so I grabbed a fold-up chair, made a cup of tea, and headed out to watch the meteor shower.

Sat immersed in the sound-scapes of Brian Eno’s ‘‘Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks’‘ album I waited for the cosmic ballet to befall. Evanescing streaks of light traversed the glittering canvas while puffs of ghost-ship clouds sailed majestically by. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted two faint dots in the blackness; one suddenly made a sharp left turn. A few minutes later I saw another faint light dance and fade into the night.

I was transported back to my childhood in Guyana, cradled in my hammock on a tall veranda beneath a immeasurable blanket of stars; made all the more magisterial by the equally boundless Guyanese planes. The lethargic moon would attempt to cast a lackluster glow over proceedings, but no shadow or silhouette seemed courageous enough to bestow itself to the vast, baron landscape.

There was no street lighting in Guyana; only the crickets, sounding their residency among the sugar cane fields, provided any hints that life hadn’t up-and-left when no one was looking. The distant lantern glows of huts were effortlessly assimilated by the brilliance of the interstellar garden above.

To a child’s imagination it was like being alone on another world. The wonder and insignificance that I felt was augmented by dialing the long wave frequencies of my battery powered radio to the Morse code-like chirp and chatter of unknown origins. For hours I would stare at the stars and dream of one day living among them.

Twenty five years later and three thousand miles across the ocean – and the acceptance that I am too spaced out to be a spaceman – I sat, awed once more by the astral showers and the intensity and immediacy of their endings. Objects that have roamed the universe for billions of years, hurtling towards our own fragile earth, spectacularly reduced to dust in a blink of time’s eye.

‘Apollo’ faded out and an early morning silence fell – making no sound as it did; a curious scent teased the cool night air. There’s nothing like a dose of perspective in an increasingly materialistic and self-serving world; marred with wars and poisoned waters, floods and fierce fires; of clashing classes, cluttered culture, and cruel Con-Dem Nation. We couldn’t be fucking things up any more than we are.

I sometimes like to sit under the stars; to recharge and refocus my thoughts following a long and lonesome week at the shift workers’ grindstone. My happy place is any place under the stars, where I can be the ‘Valleys Tarzan’ again; without a single care in the world; basking in the Cimmerian ambiance of magnificent desolation.

Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983) is available on Spotify

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LIVING THE ASTRAL DREAM (FOR ALL MANKIND)

For All Mankind is an 80-minute movie compiled entirely of NASA footage documenting the 12 American astronauts’ endeavors to the moon.

‘What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties… in apprehension how like a God!’

Tonight I had ‘a moment’; a moment that took me away from a material world encumbered in scandal, conspiracy, greed and indifference; to an awe inspiring era where astral aspirations became the living dreams of inspirational heroes.

For All Mankind is an 80-minute movie compiled entirely of NASA footage documenting the 12 American astronauts’ endeavors to the moon; from Apollo 11’s first historic landing on 20th July 1969 to the final moon mission of Apollo 17 on 11 December 1972. Between them, these men spent 170 hours on the moon covering over 60 miles, planting six flags, and bringing home 880 pounds of soil and rock, and over 30,000 photographs.

This seminal footage features thoughtful and reflective quotes from the astronauts who undertook these adventures. The soundtrack is Brian Eno’s ‘Apollo’ album. An Ending (Ascent) is one of the most ethereal pieces of ambient music I have ever heard; haunting and majestic. This dreamy combination of sound and vision is so clear and vivid that I could easily believe that I was there. During my moment, I was there.

‘You get sweaty palms and your heart starts pounding. It was like the big game was about to start’, says a voice, as a trio of astronauts are being secured in their space suits and composing themselves for the big show. There is trepidation and tension in the air. In the background is a large poster with a smiley face; ‘have a nice day’. One of the crew is lying down with a towel covering his visor; blanking-out his surroundings.

They receive the call to proceed to the spacecraft and make their way up the slow, endless elevator to the top gantry. A breathtaking view awaits; the low sun is casting an imposing shadow of the space craft across the desert; the crew are merely small black dots next to this behemoth spacecraft. ‘I just stood around and waited until they strapped in. There was a kind of a strange quiet. You look out and you can see the large part of the state, and ocean, and this… this thing… out here. You have the feeling that it’s alive’.

Countdown commences, ‘It won’t fail because of me…’ The rocket blasts off, travelling at seven miles per second. ‘It feels just like it sounds… There’s a moment, a spring release, a complete release of tensions. To feel all that power being precisely directed… At last, I’m leaving the earth; I’m destined for the moon’.

Soon Apollo is in earth orbit. The crew unbuckle their straps and experience the zero G, ‘I was getting the impression that this was such an amazing thing, that I’m going to forget these things. I’m going to lose this image and it’s going to be quickly replaced by another’.

We see images of the earth below. ‘In Africa there are a lot of Nomads out in the desert. You see the fires from all of these… you realise the broad areas that you’re looking at. Each of those little dots represents people – other humans out there in the environment that I would consider stranger that the environment they might think about, here’.

One of the crew members prepares to go EVA. ‘There are no boundaries to what you’re seeing. It’s like having a gold fish bowl over your head, which gives you unlimited visibility… It’s as if you’re out there without anything on’. He is floating over the earth; it looks so peaceful and majestic. ‘There’s a total and complete silence in that beautiful view; and the realization, of course, that you’re going 25,000 miles an hour… You are a representative of humanity at that point in history; having that experience, in a sense, for the rest of mankind’.

He receives instruction for mission control to return to the craft. Preparation begins for the three-day journey to the moon. They will reach speeds of 6000 feet per second; faster than any human being has traveled before. There is nothing else to do but sit back and enjoy the interstellar ride.

The crew have a portable cassette player. ‘Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars…’ Ground control appears to be caught up in the moment too. There is a playful atmosphere as the crew perform to the camera; filming zero-G antics and mealtime preparation. ‘ You’ve got to stick it somewhere so it doesn’t float away’.

What goes in must come out, eventually; ‘For the feces was a bag. You put this bag in the right position and you go, but the only thing is that nothing goes to the bottom of the bag… Everything floats!’.

Television pictures begin beaming across the globe, showing the people on earth a unique view of their home from space. ‘What I keep imagining is that I’m some lonely traveler from another planet. Would I land on the blue or the brown part of the earth?’

‘When you’re out there in this little command module you see the risk you’re taking because you realise that if the glass breaks or the computer stops working you’re not going to get back. You have time to contemplate this, you have time to think about it and you have time to run it through your mind different times.’

The lunar bound crew play the music from Arthur C. Clarke’s2001: A Space Odyssey. All of a sudden the music and pictures abruptly cut out and alarms start sounding. ‘OK Huston, we got a problem here… We had everything drop out’. An oxygen pump is venting vital supplies into space. Huston and the crew frantically collaborate to fix the issue in a chaotic and frightening period that must have felt like forever.

A solution is found and normality is restored; the mission resumes. This was a bitter taste of how quickly things can go wrong; how fragile they are in space. It is hard to believe that the complex on-board computers of the Apollo craft are no more powerful than the mobile phones from the 1990’s.

‘One of the things about a lunar trip is that you don’t pass anything on the way… That lack of way points has the effect of making it magical and mystical…’ Apollo is approaching the moon, bound for the dark side; it looms, foreboding and hostile. Appearing below the large prominent moonscape is the small, insignificant looking earth.

‘It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.’

Two of the three men prepare for the decent to the surface in the lunar module. One of the crew will remain in the command module. The countdown to separation commences, ‘I wanna go with them so bad I could taste it’. The lunar module departs. ‘You’ll never know how big this thing gets when there’s nobody in here but one guy’. The lunar module drifts away leaving the sole crew mate to contemplate; ‘I wish the damn thing could hold three people!’

The big moment arrives. This is what the mission is about – the culmination of billions of dollars to cover millions of miles. There is an initial sinking feeling of not recognising any of the landscape; a feeling of being lost. As the craft gets closer to the surface, its shadow is visible in the distance, growing as the module closes. They soon touch down. ‘The eagle has landed’.

I watched the images that I have seen countless times; Armstrong climbing down the ladder to take those first steps. Buzz Aldrin, who had bet five hundred dollars that no one would remember the words of the second man to touch down on the moon, says, ‘That may have been a small step for Neil but it was a long one for me’.

‘The moon is essentially grey; no colour. It looks like plaster of Paris; like dirty beach sand with lots of footprints in it – bland in colour, but majestically beautiful’. Caught in a moment if their own, hopping, skipping and jumping on the lunar tundra, the two astronauts engage in a sing-song ‘I was strolling on the moon one day, in the merry, merry month of May…’ They were human after all. ‘We were the only two there… we felt an unseen love… we were not alone’.

If I were religious, I would be thinking I was witnessing all of Gods creation; the carrying out of God’s work. I am fortunate not to have such a sterilised perspective. Caught in the moment, I am feeling what it is like to be a mortal man away from his natural element. I feel the fear, anxiety, excitement, awe and disbelief.

I feel alive on a dead, lifeless landscape; an eerie charcoal expanse where grains of dust have remained untouched for billions of years. Above me is the cold, endless skyline of space. Visible on the horizon is the living, breathing pale blue dot; mother earth.

I feel an impossible longing to witness the pure beauty and tranquillity of moon for myself; to see the earth through my own eyes; to put into perspective our place in the universe – how small and insignificant we really are. One thing is certain, humankind is far from being the centre of this intimidating universe.

‘Tranquillity base… you are cleared for take-off’. In my moment, I experience the feeling of leaving behind the lunar peace and tranquillity; bound for disorder and chaos ‘That’s our home. That’s where we lived; explored the mountains and the valleys… You leave it with the same feeling and awe that you left the earth with’.

In appearance, the moon is grey and baron. On the surface, however, the moon has an indescribable emotional presence. ‘Man did not reach out and touch the moon by the grace of God, but by harnessing the vision and integrity that has driven our species for millions of years, and will continue to drive us to the stars and beyond’.

‘We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won. And they must be won, and used for the progress of all mankind’

For All Mankind Trailer from Cinefamily on Vimeo.