Saturday, 23 July 2011


Mutually Assured Destruction. It is ironic yet fitting that the initial letters of this phrase used by the nuclear missile arm of the military spell out the word MAD.

I was born in 1963, two years after the Berlin Wall was erected and during what is referred to as the Cold War, a political and military stand-off between communist Russia and the democratic west. It came to a long overdue end on 9 November 1989 when the Berlin Wall was torn down.

The Cold War had many facets to it, but on a basic level it was all about the fear that Russia may try to take over the west and bring us all under communism. It seems laughable now looking back. Once it was all over it came to light that Russia was not in any economic position to do very much at all, at home as well as abroad.

It was all based on fear.

Our level of fear is constantly fuelled, mostly by the media, to a level that sells newspapers and wins viewing polls for the news channels. Much of this fear is exaggerated . . . I fear.

Mutually Assured Destruction refers to the ridiculous numbers of nuclear missiles that the west had pointed at Russia and vice versa. The theory goes that if you hit us we will do exactly the same to you and in order to achieve this each side amassed hundreds of missiles, therefore it was hoped that neither side would ever use them.

In 1986 a treaty was agreed upon to reduce the number of nuclear missiles and one such area to see that reduction take place was in North Dakota, centred around Cooperstown. 150 missile silos , each just 3 miles apart, and control centres, were deactivated then destroyed.

On 21 July I visited two such deactivated sites, now preserved for history. The first site, code named November 33, was one of the actual silos that once contained a gigantic Minuteman missile. All that remains is the enormous two-foot-thick blast door that covered the silo, which would blow back as an ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missile) launched on its 6,000 mile-capable journey, over the north pole into Russia somewhere.

Each of these missiles were 500 times more powerful than Hiroshima. The sites simple design, with its raked gravel area and neatly mowed lawn with this silent concrete cap just waiting to fly open like some lethal jack-in-the-box, evoked a real sense of fear in me.

So in 1986 they took away 150, however, 450 remain in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, meaning Mutually Assured Destruction still remains, though goodness knows who against now.

The missiles are located in these states due to their proximity to the north pole, giving each as much range as possible, and farthest from each seaboard away from the reach of nuclear sub missiles. These are areas of low population density as well, but what they seem to haver forgotten is that if this lot goes up we can all kiss our ass goodbye.

The next area I visited was one of the decommissioned control centres, Oscar Zero, 50 feet underground within four-foot-thick walls and behind two-foot-thick blast doors. This is where they would launch all of these weapons of death.

To me the fact that even one of these things remains bothers me, let alone the 450, but I suppose given the nature of organised political and religious shit-heads that remain in power in certain countries today, who themselves are trying to manufacture nuclear weapons and have few moral scruples, then I guess we need to maintain at least some. I can't help think though that the 150 reduction was merely peace meal and has made little difference, except maybe to defence budgets.

I hope that I never live to see the day any of these leave the ground.

It truly is a MAD world.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Bygone era

One of the things that strikes me about America is the attempt to hold onto something nostalgic from the past.

The history of America is relatively young in comparison to it's neighbours in Europe. Take the apartment I live in back home in Scotland. It's around 160 years old. Here in the US that would be an ancient monument. I marvel at the attention lavished on buildings from the late 1800s in the US, in the same way Europeans would a thousand year-old French Chateau.

Just the other day here in Fargo I happened upon a fabulous art deco picture palace built in 1937 and within it's walls I discovered a perfectly restored and working Wurlitzer organ, one of very few left in the world I imagine. The love and attention given to this piece of nostalgia knows no bounds and it regularly plays before the evening performance every day, just as it would have done in the 30s and 40s.

I'm not a car lover. I understand the absolute need for them in America, but then I'm managing just fine on pedal power, but back in Detroit I witnessed a classic car rally of vehicles from the 30's, almost works of art themselves, perfectly preserved from a romantic past.

So what is this love affair with a bygone era I wonder. Maybe the desire to recreate the past and therefore preserve our youth is to remind us of how simple life was then.These days we busy ourselves with the constant drive to move forward, to have more, in the belief that will make us happy, believing it to be our manifest destiny, just as the early settlers did, pushing west and seizing lands from the native American.

Certainly I long for some things from my own past, that to me seemed better when I was younger. Take service for one. America reminds me of what it used to be like and what we have lost back in the UK and it goes without saying that I love the service standards in the US. Everything now seems so much more stressful and complicated.

Well, does it have to be so complicated? Haven't we just made it that way and created this perpetual engine of more is better, which in our minds equals happier.

I got off the merry-go-round a few months ago to cycle across North America, just me, my bike, tent and best friend and I get by with very few possessions. It could be said that by simplifying my life I have, in fact, become happier.

I certainly have numerous possessions back home and I enjoy, in fact embrace, modern technology. But it does not rule my life. It certainly has made my career as a film maker more accessible, due to the advent of High Definition video cameras, but I hanker after film, fast becoming a bygone medium itself and at it's height in the golden era of Hollywood when the Fargo picture palace was built.

Maybe we should let bygones be bygones, as the saying goes. But I don't know. I think life would be a little less colourful and romantic without the nostalgia.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Busmans holiday

I think this may be a British term, so for all my readers from other climes, a busmans holiday is where you do the same thing on holiday as you do at work.

It could be said that my entire North American cycle has been a busmans holiday, due to the fact that every day I am filming with a video camera and at least once a week going the whole hog and wiring up some willing participant for an interview on camera.

However, just a few days ago it was my turn to be the willing interviewee.

On the 4th July myself and Pauline had journeyed to the small town of Afton to watch a traditional 4th July parade, which was a wonderful spectacle and quite emotional at times. Before the parade I interviewed a number of people on camera and one such person was Brian Dellis, a TV producer/director out of Minneapolis, producing a series of programmes under the banner "Life To The Max". Like minds got chatting and before you know it we had arranged to do a shoot with him in Stillwater four days hence.

The programme uses this as it's description: "Life to the Max is a show that highlights stories of perseverance, tenacity and winning attitudes. It is more than just a sports show; it's a program about those who look at the glass half full". We certainly had a lot to live up to!

Apart from the interview the crew also shot a fair amount of B-roll, or GV's (general views) as we tend to call them back home. At one point Brian was hanging out of the back of his van with the tailgate up filming us. Try doing that in the UK through the city streets. Gorilla film making at it's purest.

The film shoot is certainly good for publicity for the website and film Sleepless 'til Seattle but the programme doesn't air until October, when I'll be home in Scotland and Pauline will be in New Zealand. However, as our shoot day drew to a close a local news station affiliated to CBS turned up and shot a piece on us for the ten o'clock news and hopefully they'll be doing a follow up in Fargo in a few days.

Both Pauline and I had great fun and for me it was a big change to be in front of the camera instead of behind. I'm not sure which I prefer to be honest but behind the camera is certainly less nerve racking. There is also the fact that my friends are of the opinion that I have a face for radio.

Who needs enemies!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Contrasting cultures

As I continue my pedal-powered journey across North America with only my own wandering thoughts in my head, I often make comparisons to back home in Scotland.

If you were to ask me sum up America in a few words I would say it is a can-do country. As just one example, a few days ago we rolled into the small town of Spencer in mid Wisconsin, exhausted and overheated. We had just completed 45 miles in a temperature of 95ºF and a humidity of 90% and had nowhere to camp for the night. Without any persuasion at all a local councillor called Gerry allowed us to set up camp on the village square. If this was not generous enough the local policeman Keith then allowed us to use the police station shower. My point is I am hard pushed to believe that this would have been so easy and so welcoming back in Scotland.

Today I was running around in 80º heat filming a Fourth of July parade. I asked one of the organisers for permission and without any questions was given free reign to go anywhere and film anything. I wandered all over the roads, in amongst the floats and interviewed families. From a professional viewpoint I know for certain that I could never have done this so easily in the UK.

The extremes of weather is a concern though. The most recent thunderstorm hit us late at night for just 15 minutes but the violent winds flattened tents and lightning flashed every second with mighty thunderclaps. Thankfully Scotland’s weather, though wet a lot of the time, never reaches this extreme.

I love the service here too. Back home people will talk of it not being genuine but I have not found this to be the case. In Scotland I seek out good service and frequent the places that do well at it, such as Browns in George Street. But here in the US I cannot think of a single place where the service has not been genuinely helpful, be it a gas station or restaurant.

Politeness is very striking as well. Everyone, from young to old, will address me as sir and if someone should bump into you then there is an immediate apology and smile. Everyone we meet is also very interested in what we are doing and they get right into the spirit of the thing. In Scotland people tend not to be so interested in anything anyone else is doing.

Above all else I am constantly being surprised by the generosity of the people. I arrived in Eau Claire on the 3 July with two broken spokes and a buckled wheel. I made an appointment for after the 4th July holiday to take the bike into a repair shop at 9am on the Tuesday. However, while we were out enjoying the parade the bike shop came to me. I returned to find my wheel fixed and a little note from Terry of Eau Claire Bike & Sport wishing us well on our journey. And no charge.

All of this restores ones faith in human nature.

You may be thinking I don't like Scotland, but that is so far from the truth. I love Scotland. I really do. It is an astonishingly beautiful country. But I will be taking back valuable lessons from my time in the US. Above all it is so easy to be kind to each other. It is so easy to lend a hand to someone in need. So easy to smile and brighten someones day.

So easy to love our fellow man.