Monday, 13 August 2007

Memorable news events

Kennedy's Assassination 1963

US President John F Kennedy addressing a crowd in Fort Worth, Texas, only hours before he was shot in Dallas on 22 November 1963. By the time I went to bed that night he was dead and Lyndon Johnson was effectively President.

We are all supposed to remember where we were when we heard that President Kennedy had been shot and I'm pretty sure I do. I'm not aware of being able to remember any news event before that, but can distinctly remember sitting on the floor, in front of a coal fire, watching TV whilst dressed in pyjamas ready to go to bed. As bed time approached I used to feign deep interest in whatever was on the box, as a way of delaying the time when I'd be taken upstairs, and on the night in question I can remember the programme ("Take Your Pick", "Emergency Ward Ten", "Peyton Place" or whatever it was) being interrupted by a "Newsflash". On Border TV a "Newsflash" was read out while someone held a piece of card in front of a camera with the word "Newsflash" written on it. Or so it seemed! My memory of this event was confirmed as reliable relatively recently by the timing - Kennedy was shot at around 1pm in Dallas which would be 7pm in England; more or less my bed-time by the time the news reached ITV.

I also have the feeling that I knew who President Kennedy was although, at the age of six, that would seem unlikely. I do recall with rather more certainty following the subsequent events and learning the names of the people involved - Jacqui Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson of course as well as Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby who was always referred to as "Dallas night club owner, Jack Ruby". It was all exciting stuff watching grainy TV pictures of huge american cars swishing by, policemen brandishing shotguns and Oswald being shot in front of the cameras.

Churchill's death 1965

The next big news event was also the death of an iconic politician. Unlike most, my memory of Churchill's death isn't of the funeral - I don't remember seeing that at all - but of my mother telling me about him and, rather strangely, of the fact that his full name was "Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill". Quite why that has stuck in my mind I don't know!

The adults in my family had almost all been in their twenties or even thirties during the war and so I was already familiar with wartime stories, and anything connected to it could easily capture my imagination. My mother had worked in stately home turned refugee centre near Barrow in Furness during the early part of the war and had tales of watching the shipyards being bombed and receiving families who had fled the town. Later she had been in a munitions factory in Lancashire and had a fund of stories including how her factory and been threatened by name in a broadcast by Lord Haw Haw and of serious absenteeism when a rumour spread that Clark Gable had been posted to an airbase afew miles away! My Dad, being a farmer, had not been called up to the forces (although two of my uncles had) but still told of seeing German bombers pass by on their way to Glasgow, working long hours to meet government targets, coping with petrol rationing and befriending a german prisoner of war who'd been sent to work on my Great Uncle's farm a few miles away.

Churchill would be someone I'd heard of before he died and I'm sure I had a pretty good idea of who he was and what he'd done, and just what a revered figure he was. Looking back now and realising that it was only twenty years after the end of the war, the memory would still be very fresh in people's minds and it's surely not surprising that there was so much talk about it and that it was such a reference point for the timing of other events; phrases like "before the war", "during the war" and "since the war" I recall as being part of everyday speech.

The World Cup 1966

Memories of the world cup are a bit sketchy - for much of the tournament we were on a seaside holiday in a caravan at Braystones on the West cumberland coast (close to where the Sellafield waste pipe enters the sea!) and had no access to a TV. I did have a football with "World Cup" written on it and we played matches on the beach - one side was always England of course and the other usually Brazil, a team made up entirely of eight year old Peles! I'm sure we would be home for the final but really can't remember whether I watched it or not - I've seen so much about it since then that it's difficult to decide what I remember from 1966 and what I've merely learned afterwards.

Bobby Charlton, Nobby Stiles and Pele relax after tense match during the parallel World Cup competition held on the cumbrian coast in 1966.
Pele's dad, who also thought he was Pele, joined us for the photocall. Note that Charlton (me) has been playing in wellington boots!

Aberfan 1966

It was during the half term holiday in October 1966 in Newcastle that I pointed out to my mum that a flag flying in the city centre had slipped down the flagpole. I was told that it had done no such thing and that it was flying at half mast out of respect for the 116 children who had been killed in the Aberfan disaster which happened when heavy rain caused a pit spoil heap to collapse and engulf the village school. I think I knew of the disaster before then because I recall being made to stand for two minutes' silence at school. Many of the victims were the same age as me and I remember trying to imagine what it must have been like to be in that school, a school which on TV looked so like ours. West Cumberland had been a big mining area and, although only a handful of pits were still working by the mid 1960's, pit banks, as we called them, were still a common site. Perhaps because of this, and the similarities with the school and the children, that awful disater in the welsh valleys made a big impact on me at the time.

The schoool at Aberfan in south Wales after being destroyed by pit waste in October 1966. almost 150 people died including 116 school children.

The "six day" war 1967

In each of the news stories I remember, there seems to be some simple memory, some associated fact or connected piece of knowledge that has helped it stick in my mind. The dramatic interruption of a TV programme, Churchill's middle name, the half mast flag. The singular memory I have of the 1967 war between Israel and the surrounding Arab countries is of watching TV News (News at Ten I think) while staying on the farm with my aunt and Uncles, presumably during the spring half term holiday at the beginning of June. We had a family friend at the time whose surname was "Allonby" and a story about refugees crossing the Allenby Bridge over the river Jordan had the adults jokingly telling me it was named after him! (despite the spelling difference).

Refugees fleeing across the Allenby bridge in June 1967. I assume they were Palestinians leaving the recently occupied West Bank - an occupation still causing controversy in the middle east forty years later.

This was my first knowledge of the middle east troubles and, like most of us, I've followed the seemingly endless cycle of fighting ever since. There were the airline hi-jackings in 1970, fighting in Amman, Jordan a year or two later and the Yom Kippur war in 1973. I was always good at remembering the names of people involved - Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, King Hussein and Yasser Arafat. Sometimes less well known names stuck in my memory too, for example a woman called Leila Khaled who, I think, was a palestinian connected to one of the airline hi-jackings.

I remember watching live coverage in the late 1970's of the "historic" peace deal signed between Israel and Egypt and a smiling President Sadat of Egypt shaking hands with Menachim Begin, the Israeli prime minister. I also remember talking to a work colleague one lunchtime in 1981 who told me he'd just seen poor old Sadat being assassinated on TV. Since then there seems to have been a whole series of hopeful signs followed by terrible setbacks for the region and any hope of lasting peace looks further away than ever.

Vietnam 1965 - 1975

Another long running news story was of course the Vietnam war which covered virtually all of my childhood. I don't recall being aware of it before about 1965 or 1966 but I do have a vague memory of seeing President Johnson on TV making some announcement or other when I was quite young. Having seen so many TV programmes and heard so many stories about the second world war I was fascinated by seeing pictures of a war as it was happening although my understanding of what it was all about was a bit sketchy - my Dad said they were fighting the communists and that seemed an adequate explanation to me!! Rather than the political rights and wrongs, it was the place names that stuck in my mind; Hanoi, Saigon, Da Nang, Quang Tre and the DMZ and the puzzle of why I couldn't find Vietnam on the globe that stood on a table in the corner of our classroom at school. I found a country that looked the right shape and was in the far east but it wasn't called Vietnam - I now know that the globe was hopelessly out of date (it included Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Bechuanaland and Palestine, among others whose names had long been changed) and that I should have looked for French Indo China.

One day in the mid 1960's, at a cottage near our farm, an orange mini van with Michigan licence plates arrived containing two long haired young americans who had come to stay with the old lady who lived there. They were apparently touring europe after a stint in Vietnam and the old lady was aunt or great aunt to one of them. This episode interested me on several levels - the connection with the war, the americans' accents, their hippy appearance and the fact that the brightly coloured morris mini van had its steering wheel on the left!!

Having met someone who'd actually been to Vietnam increased my interest in it and I would frequently watch programmes like Panorama which often seemed to be reporting the war over the next eight or ten years. As I grew older and protest against it grew stronger I suppose I became more aware of the issues involved and have memories of protestors clashing with police in America and particularly outside the US embassy in London which I recall seeing on the TV the day they happened. (I can't remember what year but remember it being a Saturday for some reason).

By the time the war ended in 1975 I was in the sixth form at school and it was fashionable to have strong political opinions (usually left-wing ones!) and to be very anti american about the whole thing. By then we'd all seen the brutality of war on our TV's, heard of the Mi Lai massacre and seen that awful picture of the young girl running from a napalm attack and it seemed undoubtedly to be good thing that the war was over - even if the communists had won.

Politics and Elections 1970 - 2005

I have few memories of domestic political events in the 1960's - although I was aware of Harold Wilson being prime minister, George Brown being a colourful character and Ted Heath having a big grin and a terribly posh accent! My first memories of a general election were of 1970 when, broadly speaking, my Mum and her family thought Wilson should be re-elected because he was Labour and represented "ordinary" people like us, and my Dad and his family thought Wilson should be thrown out of office because he was Labour, was allowing the Unions to ruin the country and cared nothing about the likes of us!

Through the resulting discussions at home I was interested enough in what was going on to take notice of the leaflets being pushed through the letter box and the loudspeaker announcements urging us to vote one way or the other. The contest in our constituency was between our family doctor representing the Conservatives and a young Dr Jack Cunningham who was hot favourite to replace the previous Labour MP who had retired. There was presumably also a Liberal candidate who had even less chance than the Conservative. In order to bolster support for Dr Jack, as he became known, a cabinet minister (Fred Peart, MP for neighbouring Workington and Minister of Agriculture) appeared at a gathering in the square opposite our house in Frizington and I and some of my mates joined the crowd. I've no idea what was said in the speeches given by either of them but I do recall the large red rosettes and the generally supportive crowd of onlookers.

Although Jack Cunningham was elected and remained our MP until 2001, Labour of course lost the election and Ted Heath became Prime Minister. In the years that followed I grew more interested in the issues and remember well how the news seemed to be dominated by clashes between the government and the Unions and how there always seemed to be strikes or the threat of strikes and how these could cause real disruption. Not surprisingly I supported wholeheartedly the teachers strike in 1969 or 1970 (despite the hardship of being unable to go to school for a week or so!) but wasn't so keen on the miners strike in 1974 which led to the three-day week, powercuts, and TV channels closing down at 10.30 each night. There was also the threat of petrol rationing and I remember going to the Post Office with my Dad to collect our coupons. I don't remember what impact the powercuts had on us at school though I expect they must have had some disruptive effect, but I do remember the day a powercut struck at milking time on the farm and having to sit by candlelight at home in the evening listening to the radio. TV was much more important to us in those days and being without it on a winter evening was a major disaster!

Throughout the seventies and into the first few years of Mrs Thatcher's government Trade Union leaders were regularly in the news and again it's their names I remember more than the individual disputes themselves - Joe Gormley, Hugh Scanlon, Jack Jones, "Red Robbo", Vic Feather, Len Murray, Ray Buckton, Clive Jenkins - all were household names and were the first to be interviewed about any new government initiative or the latest budget. It must say something about the way things have changed that I would struggle now to come up with the names of more than two or three Union leaders! (and I haven't stopped reading newsapapers or watching current affairs programmes on TV).

There were two general elections in 1974 - in February and October - and by the time of the second one I had started my 'A' level Economics course at school and thought I understood all the arguments about inflation, prices and incomes policy etc. These were discussed by our entertaining teacher and strong opinions voiced for and against the government, the unions and the Conservative oppostion. One thing I do remember from that time is that it was the first occasion on which I'd seen a video recorder. Our economics group transferred to a lecture theatre where we were shown a recording of the previous night's Panorama programme which included a panel of opposing politicians (including Michael Foot and Jim Prior) arguing about just how high inflation had risen since the election in February. Michael Foot said it was only 8%, Ted Heath had been claiming it was much higher. (only an accountant could remember such tedious detail for 33 years!!) The video recorder, by the way, had two huge spools of tape, not a cassette, and the picture was black and white and frequently broke up.

Labour were re-elected in the October 1974 election and, after Harold Wilson's resignation in 1975, we had Jim Callaghan for Prime Minister. It was during his time in power that I became eligible to vote and later started work and became a taxpayer. At work I encountered the tax system and the fact that, on your top slice of income, it was possible to be paying 98% income tax! Although that was obviously for the seriously well off it seemed quite ludicrous and obviously didn't provide the government with the revenue it needed as throughout the mid and late seventies we lurched from one financial crisis to another. I remember Dennis Healy, the Chancellor, having to obtain loans from the IMF to pay public sector wages and the constant threat of strikes from Unions worried about the effect high rates of inflation were having on thier members' pay packets. It hardly seems credible now that at one point (? 1975) inflation hit 27% and, if I remember correctly, the government actually cut total public expenditure in absolute terms as opposed to simply reducing planned increases which was the case in the 1980's.

All of this of course culminated in the "Winter of Discontent" when a series of public sector strikes brought many public services to a standstill and gave us pictures of rubbish in the streets and bodies not being buried. (well, we didn't actually get pictures of the bodies, but you know what I mean!). The following spring, while I was studying for the first of my Professional exams, therewas an election and Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minister. As you might expect, my Dad thought it was a good thing and my Mum wasn't too sure - I think she liked the idea of a woman in number 10 but not necessarily that woman!

I followed events over the next years quite closely - the problems of unemployment, the resistance to de-nationalisation, the strikes and particularly the miners strike in 1984/1985 and of course the Falklands war in 1982. I'm sure I wasn't alone in being surprised that we did actually go to war over the Falklands - we'd all grown accustomed to politicians making whatever compromises were necessary to resolve things without too much confrontation, however right the cause, and presumably the Argentinians had thought we would do so again. Not Mrs Thatcher!

I don't recall that any of the events of the 1980's or 1990's had a direct effect on me at all - I had a fairly secure job, no-one I knew had to go to the Falklands war or the gulf war, the miners strike had very little effect on West Cumbria and our local economy was doing relatively well out of the construction works at Sellafield as the huge "Thorp" (thermal oxide reprocessing plant) was being built. I don't remember much detail about the elections in 1983, 1987 or 1992 - other than going to a public meeting in Whitehaven in 1987 to hear Peter Walker (I think he was energy secretary maybe) speak in support of the doomed conservative candidate. In 1997, when Tony Blair won I took the Friday off work (because I knew I'd sit up into the small hours watching the results) and, after a late breakfast, drove to Wasdale and climbed Scafell Pike! It was a very warm spring day I seem to remember.

By 2001 my natural conservative inclination had waned a bit and I was almost ready to vote for Tony Blair. After all, the world hadn't come to an end when he was elected, the economy hadn't collapsed and it seemed only fair to give him a chance to continue the reforms he had started. The old see-saw politics of the 1970's where a new government simply reversed what the previous one had done and refused to admit the old one had done anything right at all, seemed to have gone and here was a man who was prepared to acknowledge that many of the reforms of the 1980's had been necessary and beneficial. Then something happened which did affect us here in Cumbria - Foot and Mouth disease.

One of the early outbreaks was on a farm just outside Newcastle and it appeared that sheep from nearby had been sent to Longtown market in the north of Cumbria from where the disease quickly spread. I can't remember the exact sequence of events but I do remember Farmers, Vets and local councils requesting military help to dispose of slaughtered animals quickly for quite some time before it was given. I remember the minister of Agriculture looking like a fish out of water and wearing green wellies insisting that everything was under control when clearly it wasn't and I remember that very quickly much of the county was effectively out of bounds. Roads over open fell were closed, footpaths were closed, all roads had regular disinfectant mats for you to drive over and you felt a little guilty travelling at all into the worst affected areas of the county in case you helped spread the disease. West Cumbria had only a few isolated cases but north and east Cumbria saw thousands of animals slaughtered, hundreds of farmers losing herds built up over decades and the tourist industry brought to a standstill. At one point it was thought the Herdwick sheep (uniqiue to the Lake District) might become extinct. In one village schoolchildren had to stay at home because they couldn't get to school without walking past a heap of dead cows that waited two or three days for collection - I doubt if that would have been tolerated in central London! Tony Blair did eventually show up, after some pressure, but was pictured enjoying a ride on a steamer on Ullswater which did nothing for his image nor to dispel the feeling (which may not have been entirely fair) that he didn't really care much about farming families or other people in rural areas. Needless to say, he didn't get my vote!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Were there any Palestinians in l967? The West Bank of the Jordan (Judea and Samaria) was Jordanian territory until Jordan unsuccessfully attacked Israel and consequently lost it.