Even as a youngster my attention was sometimes caught by the bigger world. At first by newspapers at home or even as a newspaper delivery boy. We also had the radio which was not designed as a musical device but as a medium for delivering information. There was occasionally some music on the BBC light program that we kids would appreciate however to get the top of the pops music you would have to try to pick up radio Luxembourg. Atmospherics meant in practice, it was probably not
available till after 19:00 and it was not practical to try on my parents radios.
My elder brother obtained a cat’s whisker and a crystal, to make homemade radio. It consisted of a battery, a crystal and a tuning coil, together with a set of headphones. On a Sunday Night we would hide up in our bedroom and “tune in” to the magical world of the Top Ten. As lads we knew that there had just been a world war. Our dads had been in it.
We played games where we were soldiers shooting the evil Nazis. Our comics and story books depicted Germany’s defeat. We knew that Britain had won the war and had the best military in the world. The Royal Navy ruled the waves and our army was the best. I was seven years old when Israel invaded Egypt and Britain and France rushed in.
The Egyptian President Nasser had taken over control of the Suez Canal earlier that year, and the French and our leaders were not at all happy about it. They landed troops and took over the Suez Canal area, supposedly to protect it from the fighting. I avidly followed the conflict in the papers and on the TV news. It seemed that the Allies were thrashing the Egyptians and the normal world order would soon be restored.
But then, because the USA was not on board with what was happening, our forces were ordered to withdraw and we did. Somehow the Egyptians had won. President Nasser had ordered the sinking of every ship that was in the canal at the time so there were 40 wrecks blocking it. The canal was shut. Within months our PM, Anthony Eden was gone and we had a new leader “Supermac”.
Now in the late 50’s I learned that there were two superpowers The USA who were our friends and we had helped them make the Atom bomb, and they had helped us beat the Nasties. Then there were the others, the USSR, who had stolen the secret of the Atom bomb so they could make everyone into “Commies”.
I also learnt that they were having a race in space to see who was the best. Then unbelievably, as a nine year old I heard the Beep Beeb Beep as “The Sputnik” tracked across the skies. Well the actual noise came out of our radios. Then Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth. All through the end of the fifties and into the new decade, the Russians were leading “the Space Race”.
I was 11 and in my first year in secondary school when afternoon lessons were suspended and a radio broadcast was channelled into each class room as we listened with bated breath as Alan Shepard was launched into space. Then the next year John Glenn orbited the world three times in Friendship 7.
The Americans had caught up and were on their way to the moon. I would like to claim we were the first in our road to get a TV but we weren’t, my best friend, David got one before us but if we had been good we were allowed to visit him to see programmes like “Watch with Mother” which included such classics as “Andy Pandy” and “Rag Tag and Bobtail”, and who can ever forget “Bill and Ben the Flower Pot Men”.
Soon however our own set arrived. It was an Echo, Black and white with 9” screen. It had 2 control knobs the On/Off and volume and a fine tuner which you had to constantly fiddled with to keep the set tuned in. It was so modern you didn’t have to get out of your chair to change channels. Mainly because there was only one. But now we had real time access to news from around the world. Then in 1962 we watched awe struck as the first transatlantic program was broadcast live via the Telstar satellite and Goonhilly Down Satellite Earth Station. By today’s standards it was a fuzzy, streaky mess of a picture in black and white but for us at the time it was cutting edge innovation.
When I was born in 1949, the British Empire was still a thing, India had been independent for just 2 years and many countries were still ruled from London. The struggles for independence were a constant backdrop to my early view of the world. (I still have a school text book published in the 1920’s which talks of the benevolent white man bringing peace and knowledge to the world).
In the papers the “Mau Mau” rebellion was intermittently reported, with the insurgents being depicted as blood thirsty monsters being chased down by the heroic British forces. Sometimes we would have photographs of RAF Vampire jets attacking rebel strongholds in the jungle. Six of their leaders, including future president, Jomo Kenyatta, were imprisoned after a show trial. Kenya
became independent in 1963.
Britain was also fighting a communist rebellion in Malaya at the same time. This ran from 1948 to 1960. This was bloody jungle warfare and involved young National Service Men. National Service had replaced wartime conscription and all young men from the ages of 18 to 30 were liable to be called up. My brother who had been born in 1947 was getting old enough to realise that his turn to be called into action was on the horizon. But luckily by 1963 when he was 16 National Service was halted.
In January 1960 Macmillan was in South Africa, where he gave his “Wind of Change” speech to a stony faced audience of South African Politicians indicating a new British acceptance of decolonization. These white South Africans had no intention of handing over power and by the end of the decade I was able to see for myself exactly what that entailed. Reality really caught up with us, in the autumn of 1962, News was breaking that the Russian and American presidents, Khrushchev and Kennedy were going head to head over Russian missiles in Cuba.
Each morning I raced to get the latest news from the papers. Then in the early evening there would be the BBC news on the TV. Neither side was backing down. The newspapers preached doom and gloom, we learned all about the 4 minute warning. If Russia launched its missiles, Macmillan would have just 4 minutes to get our “V” bombers up into the air and on their way to retaliate. The
Yanks were OK they had a whole 20 minutes to do it.
There was newspaper advice on what to do if a nuclear strike was imminent. I seem to remember it involved huddling together under the kitchen table. Later one of the TV comedians put it more succinctly. He said “Sit on the floor, put your head between your knees and kiss your arse goodbye”.
For weeks, this went on and, hard as it might be to believe today, back then, we really thought we were all going to die. For a youngster who up till now thought he was invulnerable and immortal this was a really nasty shock.
The next instalment of Roger’s nostalgia trip will be up on the blog next week!