How Neil Armstrong kicked off my writing career
Movie critic recalls the day when he crashed astronaut’s lecture in Scotland
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. 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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