Age of Innocence, 1962

In February of 1962 along came my little brother Richard to complete the Petcher family.  This came as a bit of a surprise because this was in the days when women disguised their pregnancy under an expansive flowing smock for fear that anyone noticed and realised that they had had sex.  It certainly wasn’t discussed in the house and the first I knew of this was when a midwife greeted me home from school, announced the news and introduced me to my new brother.  I had no idea where he had come from but it looked like from now on I would have to be sharing my bedroom.

Parents who had grown up in the 1930s and 1940s were a bit prim and shy about sex and this certainly went for my mum and dad neither of whom ever provided me with any useful sex education lessons, except for dad carelessly leaving ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ lying about that is.  We had to find out about this for ourselves through playground talk with better informed school pals, watching the girls in their navy blue knickers in P.E. lessons and putting two and two together for ourselves after looking up the dirty words in a dictionary.  There were some hard lessons to be learned and I can remember one friend fell out with us all because he refused to believe that his parents could ever have conceived him through the sex act and thinking about his mum now I can fully understand the difficulty he must have had in coming to terms with this piece of information.

In 1962 world news broadcasting took a giant step forward with the launch of Telstar, which was the first active communications satellite designed to transmit telephone and high-speed data communications around the World.  It was launched by NASA from Cape Canaveral on 10th July and was the first privately sponsored space launch.  Telstar was a medium altitude satellite and was placed in an elliptical orbit that was completed once every two hours and thirty-seven minutes, revolving at a forty-five degree angle above the equator.  The first trans-Atlantic television signal was ground breaking space age stuff but because of its orbit there were enormous operating restrictions and transmission availability for transatlantic signals was only about twenty minutes in each orbit.

Telstar inspired the composition of a number one hit for the instrumental pop group, The Tornados, which was the first United States number one by a British group. Up to that point there had only been three British solo artists that topped the US chart:  ‘Stranger on the Shore’ by Acker Bilk; ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands’ by Laurie London and ‘Auf Wiedersein Sweetheart’, the first, by Vera Lynn in 1952.  I liked The Tornados but they split up soon after this and my favourites then became the Shadows and the very first long playing record that I owned was ‘The Shadows Greatest Hits’, and I’ve still got it in what is now my redundant vinyl collection.

The biggest tragedy of 1962 was probably the death of the film star Marilyn Monroe who died prematurely when she committed suicide at her Beverly Hills Mansion.  Or perhaps she was murdered by the United States secret service because of embarrassing rumours that she was having an affair with President Kennedy?  This story is a bit like the ongoing speculation into the death of Princess Diana and in both cases it is doubtful that we will ever be absolutely sure.  One thing that is certain however is that her death launched her as an iconic image of the 1960s and an enduring representation of perhaps the World’s most sexy and desirable woman since Helen of Troy.

International relations took a down turn when following the Bay of Pigs incident in the previous year Nikita Khrushchev gave the go-ahead in the summer of 1962 for Russian nuclear missiles to be installed on Cuba to protect it from any future United States led invasion and also to counterbalance its superiority in long and medium range nuclear weapons based in Europe.  After a United States Air Force spy plane spotted the missile bases, the news was announced by President Kennedy and for a week the world hovered on the brink of all out nuclear war while everyone waited to see what the hawkish President would do.  This time it was the Soviets who eventually backed down after Khrushchev accepted a Kennedy promise not to invade Cuba and to decommission nuclear missiles based in Turkey.  Kennedy publicly agreed to the first request and secretly agreed to the second.  The United States ended its blockade in November, the Soviets removed their nuclear weapons by the end of the year and the missiles in Turkey were withdrawn in 1963.  One good thing however was that a hot line between the USA and USSR was set up to prevent such a crisis happening again.

1962 brought a welcome end to political extremism in Britain when the former fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley was assaulted at a rally in London’s East End when he and members of his anti-Semitic Blackshirt group were punched to the ground when he tried to address a meeting.  A crowd of several thousand had gathered in the area, where Sir Oswald, leader of the Union Movement formerly known as the British Union of Fascists, planned to speak from the back of a lorry but his speech was drowned out by continuous boos and a chorus of ‘down with the fascists’ which perhaps confirmed that Britons really had never had it so good and there was no appetite for political rabble rousers.  Sir Oswald was a former Labour Member of Parliament and junior minister who became leader of the British Union of Fascists in 1932.  During the war, he and his wife were interned for being a threat to national security and then in 1948 he formed the Union Party but failed to ever make a breakthrough in post-war British politics.  No more was heard of Sir Oswald after 1962 and he retired into exile in France.

Just before Christmas 1962 the winter in Britain began abruptly.  The weather in the first three weeks of December was changeable and sometimes stormy but from the 22nd the cold set in and there wasn’t another frost free night until 5th March 1963.  On the 29th to 30th December a blizzard roared across the southwest of England and Wales, snow drifted to over six metres deep in places and this caused road blockages and cut railway lines.  The snow left villagers stranded and power lines were brought down.  Telephone wires too were brought down, stocks of food ran low and farmers couldn’t reach their livestock.  As a result thousands of sheep, ponies and cattle starved to death.   The continuous freezing temperatures meant that the snow cover lasted for over two months and the winter of 1962/63 was the coldest over England and Wales since 1740, colder even than 1947, with mean maximum temperatures for January and February 1963 more than 5 °c below the average.

All of this exceptionally cold weather came from the east with a weather band stretching all the way from the Baltic, so if the evil Russians didn’t get us with their nuclear missiles they certainly got us with a vicious attack of frost!  This would have been quite an ordeal I’m certain because like most people in 1962 we lived in a house without central heating and this was in the days long before double glazing and thermal insulation.  I don’t think we even had a fitted carpet!  The house had an open fire in the lounge and a coke boiler in the kitchen to heat the water and that was it.  Sitting around the fire was quite cosy of course but when it came to bed time this was a real ordeal.

The bedrooms weren’t heated in any way and the sheets were freezing cold and we certainly didn’t go to bed without a hot water bottle and thick flannelette pyjamas and without modern duvets, as it got colder, we had to rely on increasing numbers of blankets piled so high that you could barely move because of the weight.  When the house ran out of spare blankets overcoats were used instead.  During the night the temperature inside the house would drop to only a degree or two higher than outside and in the morning there was frost and ice on the inside of the windows that had to be chipped off with a knife before you could see outside.

I can remember the mornings well, first I’d hear dad get up and I would hear him making up the fire and raking the coke boiler ready for ignition.  After fifteen to twenty minutes or so it would be time to leave the comfort of the warm bed and go and see what sort of a job he was making of it.

On a good day the fire would be well established and roaring away and the temperature in the house would be limping up towards freezing but on a bad day he would be fighting to get it going and would be struggling with a newspaper stretched across the grate trying to ‘draw’ the fire into life and the house would still be at the temperature of the average arctic igloo.  The house would still be cold by the time we had had our porridge and gone to school or to work and then it would be mum’s job to keep it going all day so that by tea time when we all came home it was nice and warm again.

Once outside the snow was glorious good fun and on the way to school we constructed lethal slides along the pavements and on the verges and transformed the route to school into a Cresta Run of excitement without giving too much thought to the people that this might inconvenience such as the elderly and the infirm who as far as we were concerned would just have to simply take their chance along with everyone else.  We worked for days to polish an especially perilous bit of pavement into a down hill slalom course and then Mrs Wright from across the road destroyed it with a tub of Saxa salt and we all hated her forever after that.

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