How Neil Arm­strong kicked off my writ­ing ca­reer

Movie critic re­calls the day when he crashed as­tro­naut’s lec­ture in Scot­land

StarMetro Edmonton - - DAILY LIFE - Peter How­ell BUZZ ALDRIN/NASA

As a kid, I al­ways used to won­der why my dad, John Peter How­ell, was so fas­ci­nated with movies about the Sec­ond World War.

He’d served in the war as a flight me­chanic in the Royal Air Force, al­most per­ish­ing in 1943 when a troop trans­port ship he was on was tor­pe­doed and sank in the Mediter­ranean Sea. I couldn’t un­der­stand why he’d want to re­visit a har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ence by watch­ing and re­watch­ing such films as The Bat­tle of Bri­tain, The Great Es­cape and Tora! Tora! Tora!

Dad’s in­ter­est in the war burned bright right un­til his death this year at the age of 92 — he man­aged to see Dunkirk and Dark­est Hour in the weeks be­fore his Fe­bru­ary pass­ing.

Now that I’m older, I to­tally get it. Peo­ple watch movies about sig­nif­i­cant events they’ve lived through not just out of a sense of nos­tal­gia — al­though there is that as­pect — but also from an in­nate de­sire to bet­ter un­der­stand what hap­pened. Films have the mag­i­cal abil­ity to not just show us things, but also to open our minds to as­pects of the uni­verse and our­selves that per­haps we hadn’t fully con­sid­ered.

I had these thoughts in mind while view­ing First Man, Damien Chazelle’s new dra­matic chron­i­cle of Neil Arm­strong’s his­toric moon walk as part of the Apollo 11 mis­sion, and the many ground­break­ing events lead­ing up to it. How would it mea­sure up to my mind’s eye?

My geek­ish fas­ci­na­tion with all things to do with space and Apollo 11 is al­most a life­long ob­ses­sion.

The Apollo 11 moon land­ing in July 1969, the sum­mer I was 13, wasn’t just the most ex­cit­ing event of my young life. It was also the first spark of my in­ter­est in jour­nal­ism. I kept a scrap­book of news­pa­per re­ports of the mis­sion that I’d clipped from the Toronto Tele­gram (RIP) and the Star. But since the moon land­ing hap­pened on Sun­day, July 20, and Toronto news­pa­pers didn’t have Sun­day edi­tions back then, I wrote up my own re­port, based on in­for­ma­tion I scrib­bled down from watch­ing TV cov­er­age.

The writ­ing bug had bit­ten me. It con­tin­ued when my fam­ily moved to Glas­gow, Scot­land, in 1971, where my dad was launch­ing a new cen­tral heat­ing busi­ness. I felt Movie critic Peter How­ell — who’s had a life­long fas­ci­na­tion with all things outer space — at­tended a speech by Neil Arm­strong, above, in 1972.


mis­er­ably out of place. So I started writ­ing my own news­pa­per, wherein I penned sar­cas­tic com­men­tary about life in a strange new land.

My big­gest “scoop” came in

March of 1972, and it had an Apollo 11 con­nec­tion: Neil Arm­strong was com­ing to Scot­land to de­liver that year’s Mount­bat­ten Lec­ture at the Univer­sity of Ed­in­burgh, an

an­nual event hon­our­ing sig­nif­i­cant hu­man achieve­ments. I was de­ter­mined to be there, one way or an­other.

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