Tag Archives: Cuba

Age of Innocence – 1967, Che Guevara, Torrey Canyon and Francis Chichester

1967 was a quiet and uneventful at home and seemed to slip by almost unnoticed but elsewhere there were some important news stories.

I suppose that one of the biggest news events of the year occurred in Peru, South America, when in October a 1960s icon died at the hands of a firing squad.  Che Guevara was born in 1928 in Argentina and as a medical student in the 1940s became a committed Marxist revolutionary when he became convinced that capitalism created the poverty that he witnessed as he travelled on his motorbike on a journey through South America.

In the year that I was born, 1954, he joined Fidel Castro in Mexico as he set out to overthrow the American backed government of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, which they achieved together on New Years Eve in 1959.  For five years after that Che Guevara was effectively the number two in the country but then he suddenly tired of revolutionary tribunals and executing people and in 1965 he left Cuba to stir up more revolutionary Marxist trouble first in the African Congo and then in Bolivia back in South America.

In a bungled guerilla offensive he was captured by United States CIA backed army forces and summarily executed.  By coincidence he was caught and killed in Vallegrande which wasn’t so far away from San Vicente where nearly sixty years before the outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were also trapped and killed.

Butch and Sundance

Odd isn’t it how reputations are built?  Everything about this modern saint is a myth – his love of justice, his romantic disposition, his goodness. The truth is that he was responsible for the deaths of  hundreds of people, ruined the Cuban economy, tried to turn Cuba into a nuclear power and helped bring about many military dictatorships in Latin America in reaction to the guerrillas he inspired in the 1960s and the 1970s.  The man it seems was a menace!

After his death Che acquired an iconic stature and in the late 1960s and 70s his face was seen on tee-shirts and posters in every western university, it didn’t matter that like Robespierre or Stalin he was a thug and a bully and a murderer, he became the symbol of revolution and challenge to the establishment and his famous picture with burning eyes full of defiant intensity and steely resolve became the most famous image of the decade after that of Marilyn Monroe.

The death of Che Guevara probably didn’t register that greatly elsewhere in the world at the time and in Europe there was a coup d’etat in Greece which began a period of military dictatorship, in Spain the Spanish Government closed the border with British ruled Gibraltar and the French, or more precisely General DeGaulle, once more said no to Britain’s application to join the Common Market.  Although there was no spirit of partnership working at the diplomatic level, the United Kingdom and France did however jointly introduce the world to the ambitious aviation project, the Concorde.

At sea the first North Sea Gas was pumped onshore with a promise that Britain would be self-sufficient forever.  That turned out to be a hopelessly inaccurate prediction and forty years later it has nearly all gone and we have to buy our gas from Russia.

In the Atlantic, just off the coast of Cornwall, there was the World’s first major oil spill when the super tanker Torrey Canyon ran aground, broke up and spilled one hundred thousand tons of crude oil into the sea.  The ship was on route to Milford Haven from the Canary Islands and was allegedly being steered by the ship’s cook at the time of the accident while the skipper was trying to make sense of the ship’s hopelessly inadequate charts whilst trying to take a short cut past the Scilly Isles.

As this was the first event of its type the authorities were completely clueless about how to respond to the event and the botched clean up operation did almost as much damage as the leaking crude oil.  The tanker was bombed for two days and the RAF and the Royal Navy dropped thirty tonnes of bombs, twenty thousand litres of petrol, eleven rockets and large quantities of napalm onto the ship.

A quarter of the bombs missed the stationary target and despite some direct hits, and a towering inferno of flames and smoke as the oil slick began to burn, the tanker refused to sink.  To make matters worse, the use of seventy five thousand litres of highly toxic detergent did further huge amounts of additional damage to the marine environment.  Over twenty thousand seabirds were killed and more than a hundred kilometres of beaches were affected and not many people went to Cornwall for their summer holidays that year!

Also on the water in 1967 Francis Chichester in his boat Gipsy Moth IV became the first person to achieve a true solo circumnavigation of the world from West to East via the great capes.  He was later knighted for the achievement and for the ceremony the Queen used the very sword used by Queen Elizabeth I to knight the adventurer Sir Francis Drake who was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.  Chichester became a British hero in the same year as one was lost when Donald Campbell  was killed in January on Lake Coniston whilst trying to regain the world water speed record.

Age of Innocence – 1962, Cold War and Cold Winter

Nuclear Winter

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.  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.

oswald mosley

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 just before Christmas the cold set in and there wasn’t another frost free night until 5thMarch 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 and telephone lines 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!

Icicles

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.

frosted windows

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.  He always did this job in his maroon and white check work shirt.  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.

Age of Innocence – 1962, The Joy of Sex and Marilyn Monroe

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.  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.  At eight years old I had no idea where he had come from, I would have preferred a train set,  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 rather 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 having sex 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 satellite designed to transmit telephone and high-speed data communications around the World.

Technical stuff.  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.

Telstar The Tornados

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  desirable woman since Helen of Troy.

I unexpectedly came across Marilyn once in Haugesund  in Norway and I discovered that the reason she should surprisingly turn up here is that her father, Martin Mortensen, came from the village of Skjold, just twenty kilometres away and lived in Haugesund before emigrating to America in about 1880.  After abandoning his family after only six months of marriage, he was killed in a motorcycle crash without ever seeing his daughter – Norma Jean Mortensen.

Marilyn Monroe Haugesund Norway

Age of Innocence – 1959, Missile Mail and Fidel Castro

Since the 1930s there had been various attempts at speeding up postal services.  In 1934 for example a rocket was launched over a sixteen kilometre flight path between two Hebridean islands in Scotland with a fuselage packed with mail.  Unfortunately the rocket exploded and destroyed most of its cargo, which was a bit of a shame if you had put ten shillings in a birthday card to someone!

In 1959 the U.S. Navy submarine USS Barbero assisted the US Post Office Department in its search for faster, more efficient forms of mail transportation with the first and only successful delivery of ‘Missile Mail’. Shortly before noon on 8th June, the Barbero fired a Regulus cruise missile with its nuclear warhead having earlier been replaced by two official Post Office Department mail containers from the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Mayport, Florida and twenty-two minutes later, the missile struck its target at Jacksonville.

What an utterly absurd concept and probably only the American’s could waste hundreds of thousands of dollars on such a pointless exercise because it must have been obvious even to a five year old that this was never going to be a commercially viable proposition.

Even so the US Postmaster General declared it a great success and instantly proclaimed the event to be “of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world“, and predicted that “before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles.  We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.

This was probably one of the most wildly inaccurate predictions ever made by a Government official and nothing more was ever heard again of ‘Missile Mail’.

Bill Bryson in “The life and times of the Thunderbolt Kid” sums up exactly why:

“Perhaps it occurred to someone that incoming rockets might have an unfortunate tendency to miss their targets and crash through the roofs of factories or hospitals, or that they might blow up in flight, or take out passing aircraft, or that every launch would cost tens of thousands of dollars to deliver a payload worth a maximum of $120 at prevailing postal rates”

In the world of entertainment the big star of 1959 in the United Kingdom was the plinky plonky pianist Russ Conway who had five top ten hits this year with the first two going all the way to No 1.  One of these, Side Saddle, stayed at the top spot for four weeks, and Russ was the top-selling UK artist of the year.  On the sheet music chart, three of his compositions were at number one, in total, for over six consecutive months.  Russ was a big star and famous as a pianist for having only seven fingers having lost the tip of one of his little digits in an accident whilst serving in the navy.

In world politics Fidel Castro became President of Cuba after overthrowing the corrupt pro-American Government and after getting a frosty reception from the United States, partly because he had closed down the casinos and seized the assets of the American owners, declared his friendship for Russia and established the first communist regime in the western hemisphere.

Now we didn’t just have to worry about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and this was going to be a bit of a problem in the future and Regulus cruise missiles were being quickly refitted with their nuclear warheads!

1967 – Che Guevara, Torrey Canyon and Francis Chichester

1967 was a quiet and uneventful at home and seemed to slip by almost unnoticed but elsewhere there were some important news stories.

I suppose that one of the biggest news events of the year occurred in Peru, South America, when in October a 1960s icon died at the hands of a firing squad.  Che Guevara was born in 1928 in Argentina and as a medical student in the 1940s became a committed Marxist revolutionary when he became convinced that capitalism created the poverty that he witnessed as he travelled on his motorbike on a journey through South America.

In the year that I was born, 1954, he joined Fidel Castro in Mexico as he set out to overthrow the American backed government of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, which they achieved together on New Years Eve in 1959.  For five years after that Che Guevara was effectively the number two in the country but then he suddenly tired of revolutionary tribunals and executing people and in 1965 he left Cuba to stir up more revolutionary Marxist trouble first in the African Congo and then in Bolivia back in South America.  In a bungled guerilla offensive he was captured by United States CIA backed army forces and summarily executed.  By coincidence he was caught and killed in Vallegrande which wasn’t so far away from San Vicente where nearly sixty years before the outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were also trapped and killed.

Odd isn’t it how reputations are built?  Everything about this modern saint is a myth – his love of justice, his romantic disposition, his goodness. The truth is that he was responsible for the deaths of  hundreds of people, ruined the Cuban economy, tried to turn Cuba into a nuclear power and helped bring about many military dictatorships in Latin America in reaction to the guerrillas he inspired in the 1960s and the 1970s.  After his death Che acquired an iconic stature and in the late 1960s and 70s his face was seen on tee-shirts and posters in every western university, it didn’t matter that like Robespierre or Stalin he was a thug and a bully and a murderer, he became the symbol of revolution and challenge to the establishment and his famous picture with burning eyes full of defiant intensity and steely resolve became the most famous image of the decade after Marilyn Monroe.

The death of Che Guevara probably didn’t register that greatly elsewhere in the world at the time and in Europe there was a coup d’etat in Greece which began a period of military dictatorship, in Spain the Spanish Government closed the border with British ruled Gibraltar and the French, or more precisely General DeGaulle, once more said no to Britain’s application to join the Common Market.  Although there was no spirit of partnership working at the diplomatic level, the United Kingdom and France did however jointly introduce the world to the ambitious aviation project, the Concorde.

At sea the first North Sea Gas was pumped onshore with a promise that Britain would be self-sufficient forever.  That turned out to be a hopelessly inaccurate prediction and forty years later it has nearly all gone and we have to buy our gas from Russia.

 

In the Atlantic, just off the coast of Cornwall, there was the World’s first major oil spill when the super tanker Torrey Canyon ran aground, broke up and spilled one hundred thousand tons of crude oil into the sea.  The ship was on route to Milford Haven from the Canary Islands and was allegedly being steered by the ship’s cook at the time of the accident while the skipper was trying to make sense of the ship’s hopelessly inadequate charts whilst trying to take a short cut past the Scilly Isles.

As this was the first event of its type the authorities were completely clueless about how to respond to the event and the botched clean up operation did almost as much damage as the leaking crude oil.  The tanker was bombed for two days and the RAF and the Royal Navy dropped thirty tonnes of bombs, twenty thousand litres of petrol, eleven rockets and large quantities of napalm onto the ship.   A quarter of the bombs missed the stationary target and despite some direct hits, and a towering inferno of flames and smoke as the oil slick began to burn, the tanker refused to sink.  To make matters worse, the use of seventy five thousand litres of highly toxic detergent did further huge amounts of additional damage to the marine environment.  Over twenty thousand seabirds were killed and more than a hundred kilometres of beaches were affected and not many people went to Cornwall for their summer holidays that year!

Also on the water in 1967 Francis Chichester in his boat Gipsy Moth IV became the first person to achieve a true solo circumnavigation of the world from West to East via the great capes.  He was later knighted for the achievement and for the ceremony the Queen used the very sword used by Queen Elizabeth I to knight the adventurer Sir Francis Drake who was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe.  Chichester became a British hero in the same year as one was lost when Donald Campbell  was killed in January on Lake Coniston whilst trying to regain the world water speed record.

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.

1959 – M1 Motorway and Rocket Mail

In 1959 there were two important news items that celebrated significant events in British motoring.  First of all the southern section of the M1 motorway which started in St Albans in Hertfordshire and finished just a few miles away from Rugby at the village of Crick was opened in 1959.

I have always thought this to be a curious choice of route.  Starting in London was sensible enough but it didn’t actually go anywhere and ended abruptly in a sleepy village in Northamptonshire.  Surely it would have made more sense to build a road between London and Birmingham?

The motorway age had arrived and suddenly it was possible to drive to London on a six-lane highway in a fraction of the previous time, helped enormously by the fact that there were no speed limits on the new road.

This encouraged car designers and racing car drivers were also using the M1 to conduct speed trials and in June 1964 a man called ‘Gentleman’ Jack Sears drove an AC Cobra Coupé at 185 MPH in a test drive on the northern carriageway of the motorway, an incident that started the calls for a speed limit.  In fact there wasn’t very much about the original M1 that we would probably recognise at all, there was no central reservation, no crash barriers and no lighting.

The new motorway was designed to take a mere thirteen thousand vehicles a day which is in contrast to today’s figure of nearly one hundred thousand vehicles a day.  When it first opened this was the equivalent of a country road and it certainly wasn’t unheard of for families to pull up at the side for a picnic!  This first section was seventy-two miles long and was built in just nineteen months by a labour force of five thousand men that is about one mile every eight days.

M1 Motorway

In 1959 cars were still rather old fashioned and basic design hadn’t changed much since the 1940s but the new motorway age needed a new breed of car and in August 1959 the world saw the introduction of the Austin Seven, Morris Mini-Minor and Morris Mini-Minor DL 2-door saloons, all with transversely mounted 848cc engine and four speed gearbox and known collectively as the MINI!

The car was designed by Sir Alec Issigonis who had previously designed the Morris Minor and was intended as a small economic family car.  The Mk 1 Mini was immediately popular and sold nearly two million units and by the time production ceased in 2000 a total of 5,387,862 cars had been manufactured.  Nearly everyone has owned a Mini at some time, I did, it was a blue 1969 model, registration BUE 635J.

Mini BUE 635J

Not that all of this mattered a great deal to us however because like lots of families in 1959 we didn’t have a car and dad didn’t even learn to drive until the early 1960s and mum not until ten years after that. 

His first car was an old fashioned white Austin A40 Cambridge, SWD 774, which was a car with few refinements and even lacking modern day basics such as seat belts, a radio, door mirrors or satellite navigation!  There were no carpets and the seats were made of cheap plastic that were freezing cold in winter and if you weren’t especially careful burnt your arse in the summer. 

After that he had a white Ford Anglia, 1870 NX, which I always thought was a bit chic and stylish with that raking back window and after that he had a couple of blue Ford Cortinas before he moved on to red Escorts before finally downsizing to Fiestas, and back to blue again.  My first car was a flame red Hillman Avenger, registration WRW 366J, in which I did hundreds of pounds worth of damage to other peoples vehicles because it had an inconveniently high back window which made reversing a bit of a challenge for a short person.

I remember car registration numbers because this was something we used to do as children.  Car number plate spotting was a curiously boring pastime and on some days it would be possible to sit for a whole morning at the side of the road outside of the house and still only fill one page of an exercise book.  These days you would need a laptop and a million gigabytes of memory.  Ah happy days!

Since the 1930s there had been various attempts at speeding up postal services and in 1934 for example a rocket was launched over a sixteen thousand metre flight path between two Hebridean islands in Scotland with a fuselage packed with mail.  Unfortunately the rocket exploded and destroyed most of its cargo but in 1959 the U.S. Navy submarine USS Barbero assisted the US Post Office Department in its search for faster, more efficient forms of mail transportation with the first and only successful delivery of ‘Missile Mail’. Shortly before noon on 8th June, the Barbero fired a Regulus cruise missile with its nuclear warhead having earlier been replaced by two official Post Office Department mail containers from the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Mayport, Florida and twenty-two minutes later, the missile struck its target at Jacksonville.

Only the American’s could waste thousands of dollars on such a pointless exercise because it must have been obvious even to a five year old that this was never going to be a commercially viable proposition.  Even so the US Postmaster General declared it a great success and instantly proclaimed the event to be “of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world“, and predicted that “before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles.  We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”  This was probably one of the most inaccurate predictions ever made by a Government official and nothing more was ever heard of’ ‘Missile Mail’.  Bill Bryson in “The life and times of the Thunderbolt Kid” sums up exactly why:

“Perhaps it occurred to someone that incoming rockets might have an unfortunate tendency to miss their targets and crash through the roofs of factories or hospitals, or that they might blow up in flight, or take out passing aircraft, or that every launch would cost tens of thousands of dollars to deliver a payload worth a maximum of $120 at prevailing postal rates”

In the world of entertainment the big star of 1959 was the plinky plonky pianist Russ Conway who had five top ten hits this year with the first two going all the way to No 1.  One of these, Side Saddle, stayed at the top spot for four weeks, and Russ was the top-selling UK artist of the year.  On the sheet music chart, three of his compositions were at number one, in total, for over six consecutive months.  Russ was a big star and famous as a pianist for having only seven fingers having lost the tip of one of his little digits in an accident whilst serving in the navy.

In world politics Fidel Castro became President of Cuba after overthrowing the corrupt pro-American Government and after getting a frosty reception from the United States, partly because he had closed down the casinos and seized the assets of the American owners, declared his friendship for Russia and established the first communist regime in the western hemisphere.  This was going to be a bit of a problem in the future.