Through 1961 the Cold War continued to worsen with the USSR exploding some very large and nasty bombs during testing and then commencing the building of the Berlin Wall to separate East from West Berlin.
The Wall was over a hundred and fifty five kilometers long and in June 1962 work started on a second parallel fence up to ninety meters further into East German territory, with houses in between the fences torn down and people displaced and forcibly relocated. A no man’s land was created between the two barriers, which became widely known as the ‘death strip’. It was paved with raked gravel, making it easy to spot footprints, offered no cover and was booby-trapped with tripwires and, most importantly, it offered a clear field of fire to the watching guards. Between 1961 and 1989 over five thousand people escaped from East Germany over or under the wall and according to official sources one hundred and twenty five were killed trying to do so although the actual figure may be much higher but we will never know.
A number of walls were built over the years, each becoming more escape proof and sophisticated than the last. The fourth and final wall was completed in 1980 and was constructed from forty-five thousand separate sections of reinforced concrete, each three and a half meters high and over a metre wide. The top of the wall was lined with a smooth pipe, intended to make it more difficult to scale. It was reinforced by mesh fencing, signal fencing, anti-vehicle trenches, barbed wire, over one hundred and sixteen watchtowers, and twenty bunkers. These are the lengths some people will go to simply to subjugate others.
By the late 1980s however the Iron Curtain across Europe was being thrown open and border restrictions between east and west were rapidly disappearing. Thousands of East Germans were escaping to the west through Hungary and Czechoslovakia anyway and the wall became obsolete. Finally in 1989 East Germany gave permission for people to leave into West Berlin and the wall was quickly demolished by ecstatic Berliners and normality restored to a great European city.
Also in 1961, to make matters worse, the new American President, Kennedy, financed an anti-Castro Cuban invasion at the Bay of Pigs which was an unmitigated fiasco ending in a humiliating climb-down and withdrawal by the Americans to avert the threat of another major world conflict.
1961 was not a good year for the Americans at all because also this year the Soviet Union beat the United States in the race to get the first man into space when in April Yuri Gagarin was fired beyond the atmosphere and orbited the Earth for a hundred and eight minutes travelling at more than twenty seven thousand kilometres an hour before landing safely back on earth. It was a blow to the Americans who had hoped to be the first to launch a man into space and they could only follow a month later in May when astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American to do so. Later in the same year the disgruntled United States announced the beginning of the Apollo Space Programme with the objective of a manned lunar landing. Some say that this was achieved in 1969 when two men landed on the moon but there is speculation by many that this was an elaborate con filmed entirely in an empty aircraft hanger in Nevada simply to achieve the Kennedy boast that man would land on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
My favourite story about the space race is that because a standard ballpoint pen would not work in zero gravity, NASA spent millions of dollars developing the zero-g Space Pen, while the pragmatic Russians came up with the alternative of using a simple pencil. It’s a good story but sadly there is no truth in it at all. The pen was actually developed by a man called Paul Fisher and he did not receive any government funding at all for its development. Fisher invested millions of his own money and invented it independently, and then asked NASA to try it. They liked it and bought four hundred at $2.95 each! After the introduction of the Space Pen, both the American and Soviet space agencies adopted it. An amusing footnote to the story is that apparently it turns out that a standard biro will work in space after all.
There were two changes to British currency in 1961 when the old black and white £5 note was discontinued because it was too easy to forge and the farthing ceased to become legal tender. The farthing was one quarter of the old pre-decimal penny and due to inflation had simply outlived its usefulness and minting ceased as early as 1956 even though the farthing’s buying power then would be almost two pence in today’s values. It is also interesting that but for an infinitesimal difference, the current penny coin, which was introduced when decimalisation of British coinage took effect in 1971, is the same size as the last minted farthings. The farthing ceased to be legal tender after 31st December 1960 and the fact that the farthing had recently ceased to be legal tender is referred to in the first episode of Z Cars, which was broadcast in January 1962.
The most important television event of the year in the UK just has to be the very first episode of Coronation Street. The show had been tried out on regional television in 1960 to see what the reaction would be and in 1961 the show went nationwide for the first time. It went out twice a week, with Friday’s episode being shown live and the following Monday’s edition shot straight afterwards. Despite some scepticism by the Television bigwigs the nation took Ena Sharples, Ken Barlow and Elsie Tanner to their hearts, and tuned in their thousands. By the end of the year it was the highest rated show in the country and is now the longest running soap opera in the world.
In the US Dr. Kildare was a medical drama television series starring Richard Chamberlain which ran from 1961 to 1966, with a total of one hundred and ninety episodes. This sounds like a lot but is easily eclipsed by the British hospital drama Casualty which has been running since 1986 and has had over eight hundred episodes.
These might have been important TV shows but the most significant event for me was that 1961 saw the beginning of The Avengers when Patrick McNee strode onto the small screen as John Steed complete with bowler hat and umbrella and every inch the English pre-Bond secret agent gentleman. In the early days Cathy Gale who was played by Honor Blackman in a sexy black leather cat suit assisted him but she left the show and went on to be Pussy Galore in Goldfinger and that introduced the delectable Emma Peel played by Diana Rigg.
Emma Peel was my first fantasy pin-up and I used to scour the television magazines and newspapers for pictures of her that I cut out assembled into a scrap book of cuttings that I carried with me at all times. Once (about 1966, I guess) some school pals happened to mention this to the English teacher, Mr Howe, who demanded sight of the book and immediately confiscated it for a couple of days. I thought that this was some sort of punishment but I have subsequently reached the conclusion that he must surely have shared my fantasy and probably spent a couple of enjoyable evenings with the book.
In sport there was bad news for dad, when Leicester City reached the FA cup final for the second time and were beaten 2-0 by Tottenham Hotspurs who did the league and cup double that year. Leicester reached the cup final again in 1963 and lost to Manchester United and again in 1969 and lost to Manchester City. They had been there before in 1949 and lost to Wolverhampton Wanderers and this means that they have the unenviable record of being the only team to reach four FA cup finals and lose them all.