Tag Archives: Life

Age of Innocence – 1959, Britain’s First Motorway and First Cars

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.

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 a bit 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 673J.

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.

The Cambridge had been introduced in 1954 and was kept in production for two years.  It had a straight-4 pushrod B-Series engine with a maximum power output of 42 brake horse power and at 4,250 revs per minute an alleged top speed of 71 miles per hour.  Power was transmitted to the back wheels by means of a four speed gear box controlled with a column mounted lever.

It was a big heavy thing, hard to handle, I imagine, and by modern standards hopelessly inefficient, it only managed a disappointing thirty miles to the gallon or so but with a gallon of leaded petrol costing only five shillings (twenty-five new pence) this really didn’t matter too much.  I can remember dad pulling into a garage where an attendant put four gallons in the tank and dad handed over a crisp green one pound note!  I wish I could do that!  Dad always insisted on buying Shell petrol because he thought it possessed some sort of magic ingredient but at one point we successfully nagged him to buy Esso so that we could get the gold and black striped tail to hang around the filler cap to show other motorists that the car had a tiger in the tank!

Esso Tiger

On the outside it had a voluptuous body shape, lumpy and bulbous, chrome bumpers and grill, round bug-eye lights with chrome surrounds, the Austin badge in the middle of the bonnet and the flying A symbol on the nose at the front.  It was a curious shade of white, a bit off-white really but not quite cream with ominous flecks of rust beginning to show through on the wing panels and the sills.

I would like to be able to take a drive in it now to fully appreciate how bad it must have been and with narrow cross ply tyres it must have been difficult to handle.  Dad obviously had some problems in this department because he had two minor accidents in it.

On the first occasion he misjudged his distances when overtaking a parked car and clipped a Midland Red bus coming the other way, he was upset about that especially when he got a bill to pay for the damage to the bus.  The second occasion was a bit more dangerous when a car pulled out on him from a side street somewhere in London and, with no ABS in those days, dad couldn’t stop the car in time and did a lot of damage to the front off side wing.  Fortunately this wasn’t his fault and someone else had to pay for the repairs this time.

SWD 774

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!

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Age of Innocence, 1956 – The Eurovision Song Contest

Four years earlier the Great Smog of 1952 darkened the streets of London and killed approximately four thousand people in the short time of four days and a further eight thousand died from its effects in the following weeks and months.  In 1956 the Clean Air Act introduced smokeless zones in the capital.

Consequently, reduced sulphur dioxide levels made the intense and persistent London smog a thing of the past. It was after this the great clean-up of London began and buildings recovered their original stone façades which, during two centuries, had gradually blackened.

By all accounts the summer of 1956 was truly abysmal: rain, hail, lightning, floods, gales and miserable cold. It was the wettest July in London since records began, and August was one of the coldest and wettest on record across Britain, as barrages of depressions swept the country.  But there was a silver lining to this cloud and September was such an improvement it was warmer than August, a very rare occurrence, and the rest of autumn turned into a glorious Indian summer.

In the 1950s, as Europe recovered after the Second-World-War, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) based in Switzerland set up a committee to examine ways of bringing together the countries of the EBU around a ‘light entertainment programme’.

European Union Flags

What was needed was something to cheer everyone up.  At a committee meeting held in Monaco in January 1955, director general of Swiss television and committee chairman Marcel Bezençon conceived the idea of an international song contest where countries would participate in one television programme to be transmitted simultaneously to all countries of the union. The competition was based upon the existing Sanremo Music Festival held in Italy, and was also seen as a technological experiment in live television as in those days it was a very ambitious project to join many countries together in a wide-area international network.

The concept, then known as “Eurovision Grand Prix”, was approved by the EBU General Assembly in at a meeting held in Rome on 19th October 1955 and it was decided that the first contest would take place in spring 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland.

It was held on 24th May 1956. Seven countries participated, each submitting two songs, for a total of fourteen. This was the only Contest in which more than one song per country was performed as since 1957 all Contests have allowed one entry per country. The 1956 Contest was won by the host nation with a song called ‘Refrain’ sung by Lys Assia.

The United Kingdom first participated at the Eurovision Song Contest in the following year. The BBC had wanted to take part in the first contest but, rather like trying to get into the Common Market, had submitted their entry to the after the deadline had passed. It hasn’t made the same mistake again and the UK has entered every year since apart from 1958, and has won the Contest a total of five times. Its first victory came in 1967 with “Puppet on a String” by Sandie Shaw.

Eurovision Greece and Spain

There have been fifty-seven contests, with one winner each year except the tied 1969 contest, which had four.  Twenty-five different countries have won the contest.    The country with the highest number of wins is Ireland, with seven.  Portugal is the country with the longest history in the Contest without a win – it made its forty-fourth appearance at the 2010 Contest.  The only person to have won more than once as performer is Ireland’s Johnny Logan, who performed “What’s Another Year” in 1980 and “Hold Me Now” in 1987.

Norway is the country which holds the unfortunate distinction of having scored the most ‘nul points’ in Eurovision Song Contest history – four times in all, and that is what I call humiliating. They have also been placed last ten times, which is also a record!

For many years the annual Eurovision Song Contest was a big event in out house usually with a party where everyone would pick their favourite and would dress appropriately to support their chosen nation.  In later years no one ever picked the United Kingdom because the only thing that is certain about the competition is that being the unpopular man of Europe we are unlikely to ever win again and every year there is a ritual humiliation with a predictable low scoring result.

The Devil’s Footprints, Supernatural Tales and other Tall Stories

On the night of the 8th of February 1855 heavy snow fell on the countryside of south west England and small villages in the remote county of Devon. The last is thought to have fallen around midnight, and between this time and around six o’clock the following morning, something (or some things) left a trail of tracks in the snow, stretching for a hundred miles or more, from the River Exe, to Totnes on the River Dart.

The mysterious footprints have never been adequately explained.  According to contemporary reports, they went through solid walls and haystacks, appearing on the other side as though there was no barrier. The extent of the footprints may have been exaggerated at the time, or they may have been the result of freak atmospheric conditions but in truth the ‘footprints’, if that is what they were, still remain a complete mystery.

Some clergymen suggested that the prints belonged to the Devil, who was roaming the countryside in search of sinners (a great advertising stunt to fill the churches I imagine), while others rejected the idea as reckless superstition.  It is true that a feeling of unease had spread through some of the population, who watched carefully to see if the strange footprints would return.  They didn’t and after a couple of days the news spread out of Devon and made the national press and sparked correspondence in some of the leading papers including the Times.

I mention this piece of nonsense because just over forty years ago when I was about fifteen I was bought a fascinating book called ‘The Reader’s Digest Book of Strange Stories and Amazing Facts’ and the story of the Devil’s Footprints was included and quickly became one of my favourite articles.

The book was an almanac of random stories with tales of the supernatural, mythical beasts, feats of improbable strength, a glimpse into the future and was divided into chapters such as “Strange customs and superstitions”, “Hoaxes, frauds and forgeries” and “Eccentrics and prophecies.”  There were photographs of the Loch Ness Monster, Sri Lankan fire walkers and “O-Kee-Pa, the Torture Test,” where young men of the Mandan tribe of Indians endured a brutal and horrific rite of passage that culminated in chopping off their own little fingers.

I learned that people sometimes spontaneously combust, and that an Italian monk named Padre Pio suffered Christlike wounds in his hands called stigmata that never healed.  There were weird facts such as pigs being flogged in medieval France for breaking the law, and that the entire crew of the Mary Celeste disappeared one day, leaving the ship to float empty around the Atlantic. I became acquainted with Anastasia, the supposed Romanov survivor; and Spring-Heeled Jack, a demon who leapt about London in the nineteenth century, spitting blue fames in the faces of young women.

I acquired this book during my Ouija board occult dabbling days and the chapter on the supernatural I read over and over again. I was interested in the paranormal and here now was a book bearing evidence that ghosts were real and to prove it there were photographs of writings they’d scrawled on walls.  You can’t dispute evidence like that.  There was an article on the most haunted house in England and in another a photograph even showed how some ghosts could actually present their reflection on tiled kitchen floors

I used to love this book, much to the despair of my dad who considered it to be a collection of useless false drivel that was distracting me from studying for my ‘o’ levels and he was right I should have been concentrating on Shakespeare and Chaucer but for some reason Henry V and the Canterbury Tales were just not as interesting as ‘The night the Devil walked through Devon’!

Read here about the Devil’s Bridge in Wales

Winston Churchill – The Greatest Briton

The 24th January 2015 is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Sir Winston Churchill.

I have mentioned before that, in his memory box, dad kept the front pages of three newspapers: 7th February 1958, the Munich air disaster, 23rd November 1963, the Kennedy assassination and finally the Daily Mail of 25th January 1965 which reported the death of Sir Winston Churchill.

I think that few would argue that Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was probably the greatest Briton of all time.  I know that I can say this with some confidence because in 2002 the BBC conducted a nationwide poll to identify who the public thought this was.  The competition was virtually pointless and the result was a foregone conclusion and Churchill topped the poll with 28% of the votes.

He died 50 years ago this month at the ripe age of 90. A miracle, considering he had drunk an estimated forty-two thousand bottles of Pol Roger champagne through his life; he thought nothing of starting the morning with cold game and a glass of hock and ending it in the late afternoon  with the best part of a bottle of cognac.

After losing the 1945 election, he went on holiday to stay at Lake Como, with Sarah, his daughter, and Lord Moran, his doctor. It must have been one hell of a holiday but I doubt they would remember very much about it.  Between them they polished off nearly one hundred bottles of champagne in a fortnight; Churchill also drank six or seven whisky and sodas a day, as well as three daily brandies.  Earlier this year I was chastised by my doctor for drinking half a bottle of red wine a day!

The BBC project first identified the top one hundred candidates and the final vote was between the top ten.  Second in the poll was the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel who received nearly 25% of the votes.  These two I fully agreed with but in third place, and goodness knows what the public must have been thinking, was Princess Diana!  Mind you, to put that into some sort of perspective in 2005 there was a similar poll in the United States and Ronald Regan was voted the greatest American of all time.  Ronald Regan – Ronald McDonald would have been a more worthy winner, at least in Britain we only put Margaret Thatcher in sixteenth place.

At this time lots of other countries ran similar polls, some of the results were equally predictable, South Africa voted for Nelson Mandella, Spain for King Juan Carlos, Greece choose Alexander the Great and, ignoring politics, Italy went for Leonardo Da Vinci.  Some results were less obvious, in France there was surely someone more famous than Charles de Gaulle (Napoleon perhaps) and Germany overlooked Otto Von Bismarck and Martin Luther and choose Konrad Adenaur. My favourite is Canada, where, despite being the second largest country in the World, there are so few famous people to choose from that the long list was restricted to fifty and the top ten included three Scots, the public voted for a man called Tommy Douglas!  In Australia the newspaper ‘The Australian’ selected Andrew ‘Banjo’ Patterson who pushed the World’s greatest ever cricketer, Don Bradman, into second place.

Winston Churchill was so great that he was awarded a State Funeral and that doesn’t happen very often because this requires a motion or vote in Parliament and the personal approval of the Monarch.  A State Funeral consists of a military procession using a gun carriage from a private resting chapel to Westminster Hall, where the body usually lies in state for three days.  The honour of a State Funeral is usually reserved for the Sovereign as Head of State and the current or past Queen Consort.

Churchill Funeral Message from the Queen

Churchill Funeral TV Coverage

Churchill State Funeral The Route of The Procession

Very few other people have had them:  Sir Philip Sydney in 1586, Horatio Nelson in 1806, the 1st Duke of Wellington, 1852, Viscount Palmerston in 1865, William Gladstone, 1898, the 1st Earl Roberts of Kandahar, 1914, Baron Carson in 1935 and Sir Winston Churchill.   So this is a very small list indeed although it might have included one more but Benjamin Disraeli, the Queen’s favourite Prime Minister, who was offered the honour of a State Funeral refused it in his will.  We might have to wait a very long time for the next one.

Scrap book Project – Houses, Tyndale Street, Leicester

16 Tyndale Street Leicester

My parents were married in 1953 and around the same time dad was appointed to a job as a clerk with Leicestershire County Council.  They moved from living in Catford in South London with my mother’s family to a house in Una Avenue in Leicester where they lived with my dad’s grandmother, Lillian.  Shortly after that my mother was pregnant and I was on the way.  I was born the following year and lived my first few months in that house.

As I understand it the domestic arrangements were less than perfect so Lillian’s sister, Aunty Mabel, stepped in with a loan for a deposit that allowed my parents to buy their first house.  It wasn’t a great deal of money, I don’t know exactly how much, possibly around £100.  My scrapbook records of dad’s employment reveal that his annual salary at that time was £240 a year just £4.60 a week!  The house that they bought would sell now for about £110,000 so in 1954 it probably cost somewhere between £300-400.

They chose a house in Tyndale Street, quite close to the Leicester City Centre.  Tyndale Street is in an area of the city called West End because it was outside of the western Braunstone Gate and on a previously marshy area west of the River Soar.  It was developed around about the 1900s when affordable housing was required to provide accommodation for the workers in the booming footwear and hosiery industries.  The land was acquired from a wealthy protestant landowner who had some residual say in the naming of the streets – Luther, Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer and Tyndale, all sixteenth century Protestant martyrs.

They lived there for two years.  It was a two bedroom terraced house with a front door that opened directly onto the street and with a small garden and back yard at the rear and typical of any Midlands artisan house of that period.

The house today is now well over a hundred years old but still has some of the original decorative features over the doors and windows, but the doors and windows are plastic and there is a refuse bin outside the front door.

Naturally I have no real memories of living in this house and we had gone by the time that I was two years old.  Dad had been promoted at work, he was working in the Education Department, he had an increase in salary and they aspired to move up a notch or two on the property ladder.

Whilst living there I did have my very first bike…

Tyndale Street Back Yard

Scrap Book Project – Twenty Years of the UK National Lottery

19th November 1994 was the day of the first UK National Lottery draw and a £1 ticket gave a one-in-14-million chance of striking lucky and guessing correctly the winning six out of 49 numbers.

I remember that everyone was talking about the National Lottery and I bought my ticket a few days in advance of the Saturday night draw.  This was in the days before ‘Lucky Dip’ so I had to choose my numbers and like a lot of people I selected meaningful dates like my birthday, my house number, my age and so on.

In 1994 I was working for Cory Environmental at Southend-on-Sea in Essex and I used to drive there everyday from Rugby, a journey which took just a little under two hours (it was a company car so I didn’t mind putting excess miles on the clock, running up a massive fuel bill or making a major contribution to global warming with my diesel emissions) and on that Saturday morning I was on weekend duty and as I drove along the M25 my head was full of plans for spending the winnings that I was absolutely confident of picking up later.  I mean, how difficult could it be to pick 6 numbers out of 49?

After a day at work the return journey was the same, would I move to France or Spain? Would I have a Ferrari or a Lamborghini? How would I tell my boss to shove his job and how far and how much would I miss my friends and family? I was totally confident of a life-changing moment in just a couple of hours or so.

Well, it wasn’t to be of course, I don’t think I even got one number, eight people shared the jackpot that night and I wasn’t one of them and I never have been of course and except for the occasional £10 win I have suffered from twenty years of LDS – Lottery Disappointment Syndrome!  I live in Grimsby, I have a Volkswagen Golf, three years ago my boss told me to shove off and made me redundant but on the upside I still have my friends and family and that includes three grandchildren who are worth several times more than any multi-million pound lottery win!

Children

 

Scrap Book Project – School Reports

From 1960 to 1965 I went to the Hillmorton County Junior and Infant School in the village where I lived and three times a year at the end of each term I had the traumatic experience of taking home to my parents a sealed brown envelope which contained the dreaded  ‘school report’.

This was never a happy experience for me because generally speaking my academic progress from one term to the next could only be described as ponderous and disappointing as I plodded my way through junior school towards an inevitable failure in the eleven plus exam.

At Hillmorton County Junior School the Headmaster was Mr (George Edward) Hicks who was a decent sort of chap but he never seemed to take to me and in days when favouritism in the classroom was acceptable I found him to be quite unsupportive and he wrote me off at an early stage as being a bit of a no-hoper and advised my parents to buy me a pair of clogs and prepare me for a long dull working life in a factory, as he was certain that I was destined to be one of life’s academic failures.

For slow learners there was no such thing as special educational needs or additional support mechanisms and the class was set out in a Victorianly strict hierarchy with the fast learning favourites at the front getting all of the attention and the dimwits at the back making table mats out of raffia.  I suppose I would have found myself about two thirds back from the blackboard.

School Days Beamish Museum

The reports were handed out by the form teacher and there were strict instructions to take them home without opening them.  I must admit that I was tempted now and again but never had the courage to tear open the envelope that was marked ‘private and confidential’. My friend David Newman used to open his and on one occasion it was so bad that he posted it down a drain at the side of the road.  This wasn’t something he could hope to get away with of course because at the bottom of the report was a perforated line and a tear off slip that parents had to sign and had to be returned to school just so teachers knew that the report had been delivered as instructed.

I would dutifully take mine home and hand it over to mum who would put it somewhere safe ready for dad to open when he got home from work.  There then followed a nervous hour or so waiting for him to come through the door, get changed, sit down and open the envelope.

I knew it was going to be bad, it always was, and a sort of tide of disappointment spread over his face like red wine spilled over a white tablecloth as he read down the single page of comments that confirmed that very little progress had been made again this term.  He never lost his temper or got cross but when he had digested the full horror of this term’s sorry effort I’d be subjected to a lecture on how I needed to work harder (blah, blah, blah), how I had to make more effort (blah, blah, blah), how I needed to think about the eleven plus exam (blah, blah, blah) and how this all was if I didn’t want to work in a factory all my life (blah, blah, blah).

I have often thought that in the interests of fairness that parents should have to bring home a work report for the benefit of their children’s amusement – imagine Prime Minister David Cameron’s…

Arithmetic – Excellent, David’s expenses claims are brilliantly prepared

English – Good grasp of English but tends to be bombastic and rude

Economics – Very weak with little grasp of basic economic principles

Geography – Weak, doesn’t seem to understand the concept of Europe

History – Poor, needs to understand that Britain no longer has an Empire

Science – Obsessive interest in nuclear power

Religious Instruction – Needs to stop picking on religious minorities

Gym – Very poor, needs to get himself in shape

Summary – David needs to pay attention to what other people are saying and to take other people’s views into consideration.  He has a tendency to be confrontational, argumentative and rude.  He can be very stubborn and dismissive of other people.  He needs to address these issues or he may not get re-elected in 2015.

School Lessons

On Friday 20th December 1963 I took home possibly my worst school report ever and I had sunk to my lowest possible pitiful academic level.  In the overall assessment I scored a dismal 10 out of a possible 100 which put me firmly amongst the dunces.  Dad wasn’t too pleased that day I can tell you as he read down a succession of comments that was nothing to be proud of:

English – ‘Andrew is not working hard enough – I expect a more serious effort in January’

Arithmetic – ‘Weak – Very disappointing’

Religious Instruction – ‘Not good enough’

Science – ‘Average’

Geography – ‘Not good enough’

Practical Work – ‘Quite good when he gets down to it’

Music – ‘Little interest shown’

The form teacher’s general report said – The above remarks tell their own story, Andrew has got to work harder’

Hillmorton County School

Luckily I  think he may have read my sister Lindsay’s report first which was always far worse than mine but nevertheless I had some explaining to do that night that’s for sure and I expect going out to play was out of the question that weekend but although it was an awful report there was surely some room for optimism that dad had either missed or overlooked:

Handwriting – ‘Excellent’, so, it wasn’t all bad because although I was a confirmed dunce in all subjects at least I could write quite nicely and this presumably helped the teachers understand just how hopeless I was! I probably wasn’t doing myself any favours there.