Some further tales that were edited out of my over-written first crack at Deadlines will gradually be added here. Other relevant snippets arising from day to day news will also slide in. Any further news on Wellington Z1110 and its six crew, and other stories relating to World War 2, will be posted under the relevant WW2 headings. Meanwhile……
Platinum Jubilee (Meeting the Queen in 2002)
The Master of the Household was commanded by Her Majesty the Queen to invite Mr Mike Curtis to Windsor Castle in April 2002. One of the events to mark the Queen`s Golden Jubilee was a reception for Her Majesty`s Media. Shoes polished and remaining hair trimmed, I duly presented myself at the Castle gates, joining a long line of newspaper, television, radio and magazine glitterati. There were a lot of people I recognised and a few BBC people I knew.
We did not get the little booklet listing all the attendees until we left. Like the Sony Awards judges list, I found myself alongside an awesome roll call of public figures. I never saw Jenny Bond, Alastair Campbell, Michael Gove, Max Hastings, Ian Hislop, Boris Johnson, Marie Colvin, Piers Morgan, Mathew Parris, Janet Street Porter and Nicholas Witchell but, according to the little white book, they were there too. I hesitated to introduce myself to Libby Purves, who had left Radio Oxford for the Today programme a short time before I arrived. I shared a rail carriage back to Waterloo with Simon Hoggart of The Guardian but he never knew.
I did fall into conversation with a convivial commercial radio journalist from Belfast. A few drinks in, he suddenly pointed and said; `Let`s go and meet the Queen!`. Her Majesty was making slow regal progress down the middle of the Great Hall, asking everyone who they wrote for and how far they had come in their careers. My new friend found a gap and lurched forward, bowed deeply, thrust out a hand and exclaimed; `Your Majesty!`. This surely was outside Royal protocol. Over the bowed figure, the Queen looked at me hanging back with an expression that sighed: `Is he with you?`. I smiled wanly and bowed slightly.
Asian Auntie-Ji - Life with the BBC Asian Network`)
Michael Chapman RIP
The British folk and blues singer and exceptional guitarist Michael Chapman has died at the age of 80 (10 September 2021). I used the title of one of his most famous songs as a chapter title in Deadlines – Chapter 15 Postcards of Scarborough. I also gave him due credit in the last chapter Debrief. Postcards of Scarborough was on his second LP released in 1970 and called `Fully Qualified Survivor`. His 2017 album `50` is another fine piece of work.
`But I’ve got postcards of Scarborough just to keep in my mind
To hide away up there and help me remind
Myself of time past and time passing
Myself of time past and time passing
Time past and time passing
Gladys Eva RIP
I interviewed Gladys for the RAF Association in 2015. She died in April 2021 aged 100. I used some of her story in Deadlines (Chapter 16 Time of No Reply 1942). She may have been one of the last people to follow the Wellington bomber of Colin Curtis and his crew. At the RAF museum at Bentley Priory in northwest London, a statue of Flight Sergeant Gladys Eva stands on a balcony overlooking the “filter room”, where she played a key role in Britain’s air defences in the summer of 1940 during the Battle of Britain. A bit more about Gladys can be found on the museum`s website here
Sir Harold Evans RIP
Sir Harold Evans has died at the age of 92 (23 Sept 2020). One of his early appointments was as Editor of The Northern Echo in Darlington, where I did my year-long course in print journalism. That fact prompted me to write this in Chapter 7 of Deadlines…….
Sir Harold Evans, one of the great campaigning journalists in British newspapers, was the Editor of The Northern Echo in Darlington for five years in the 1960s. Evans, who did his national service in the RAF, started his journalistic life in 1944 aged 16 as a reporter on the Ashton-under-Lyne Weekly Reporter, earning one pound a week. When he went for the interview, he was given a baffling test, beautifully described in his book My Paper Chase. The gruff old editor bundled up a half a dozen bits of paper from his desk and thrust them at Evans, shouting `Asparagus`.
`Asparagus?` This was still a delicacy largely unknown in Lancashire and none of the bits of paper referred to this vegetable. There were reports of whist drives, Rotary Club meetings, mourners at a funeral and church news but nothing about `asparagus`.
Young Harold put some paper in his typewriter and actually typed `Asparagus` in one corner and stared blankly ahead. One of the journalists looked at him and at the papers strewn on the desk. `Ah, you`re new`, he said. `Just write up those submissions as paragraphs.` Evans was overcome with relief at this timely intervention. Today it would be held up as a fine example of predictive text.
Evans was introduced to the proprietor of the newspaper company as a new boy who cycled into work. `How many spokes on a bicycle wheel?` boomed the boss. Well, he had no idea (and nor do I). `Find out! Curiosity is the thing in journalism!`
Terry Jones RIP
Terry Jones, of the Monty Python team and `Ripping Yarns` and `Barbarians` and……so many other wonderful projects, passed on this week (21 January 2020). I met him once and included a reference to him in both of my books. Like so many of my favourite musicians and authors, he was always there in my life. That a man who was so good with words found it difficult to speak at the end of his life due to dementia is especially heartbreaking. Condolences to his family and friends and a huge thank you for everything he gave us.
From Deadlines Chapter 25 `Contacts and Conversations`
Two of the Monty Python team visited Oxford within two weeks of each other and I was tasked to catch up with them for a `show biz` interview (1980?). Terry Jones was opening a student beer festival at Oxford Polytechnic (later Brookes University) and Michael Palin was at a charity event at the Randolph Hotel. After recording an interview, Terry Jones and I wandered around the festival introducing each other to brews we knew – my contribution to this bacchanalian extravaganza was Batemans of Wainfleet in Lincolnshire.
Two weeks later I was able to tell Michael Palin that I had already heard his humorous opening speech, involving a hovercraft. Terry Jones had used exactly the same one at the beer festival. Years later, Terry passed through BBC Birmingham on a tour to support his latest television show and book which was called Barbarians. He was reminded that I had interviewed him some 30 years earlier. Terry signed a copy of his book `To Mike Curtis – Still at it.`
According to Terry, the very first sketch filmed for the Monty Python television series was about sheep nesting in the trees. It was originally written for The Frost Report and initially deemed too `silly` for the Flying Circus by its early producer. It evolved into a discussion on flying sheep and the commercial possibilities of ovine aviation. The sketch even name-checked Brian Trubshaw who was the British test pilot for Concorde. Along with his French counterpart André Turcat, the two men had flown Concordes for the first time early in 1969. Ovine aviation made it to the small screen in October that year, leading the second programme in the first series before lurching off to the man with three buttocks.
From Asian Auntie Ji Chapter 19 `Transformation`
Terry Jones of the Monty Python team passed through BBC Birmingham in June 2006, pushing his book `Barbarians` which was published alongside his BBC2 series of the same name. I was away that day but had mentioned in passing to one of the Assistant Editors that I had interviewed the said Mr Jones more than 25 years earlier when he was invited to open a student beer festival in Oxford. Then, as two sort of BBC kindred spirits (at opposite ends of the fame game), we had passed among the star-struck students, introducing each other to brews that we knew. Kully related this to the passing Python, who signed a copy of his book with the inscription: `To Mike Curtis – Still at it!`. My whole career to date summed up in six words by a comedy icon – marvellous!
Addition to Chapter 17 Much Finding on the Marsh…..
In Chapter 17 of Deadlines, I relate the story of how two Boston fishermen found themselves in the middle of a rescue drama as they headed for home with their catch of mussels one winter`s evening in 1975. The Bagley brothers – Steven and Roy – were on their boat the Boy Alan when a F-111E of the United States Air Force came to grief above them. The aircraft was commencing a run into the Wainfleet bombing range about 4pm on that November evening.
`It exploded only about 200 feet above us,` 18 year old Steven told me later that evening. `There was a terrific bang and the whole boat shook. It certainly made us jump. But the wreckage fell into the sea about 150 yards away.` His 27 year old brother Roy turned their boat around to head for where they saw a parachute come down. Another local fisherman George Lineham actually reached the crew first and pulled them out the water before transferring them to the Bagley`s boat.
I was tasked by my editor at the Lincolnshire Standard to chase up all aspects of the story.
The two on board the F-111E, which belonged to the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing at the American base at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire, ejected safely although the pilot did sustain some serious injuries. A rescue helicopter later lifted them off the Bagley`s boat and flew them to Boston`s Pilgrim Hospital for a check-up. The inquiry revealed that the aircraft had suffered a bird strike, probably a duck. It hit the right hand side of the windshield, causing a `catastrophic failure` of the windshield and the canopy. The Weapons System Operator in the right hand seat initiated the ejection which involved the whole cockpit in a capsule-like device.
In July 2019, I fell into conversation with someone from the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Society who had dropped in to the East Midlands Aeropark. Later I looked up their website (link under `Connections`) and was fascinated to discover that, among their collection, was the very escape capsule that had come off that F-111E in 1975 and saved the crew. Next to the photographs, there is this caption:
`The F-111 escape capsule displayed here is from F-111E (68-060) which crashed on 5 November 1975 in the Wainfleet ranges approximately 5 miles east southeast of Boston, Lincolnshire. The aircraft, from the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing at Upper Heyford, was crewed by Pilot Capt James Stieber and WSO Capt Robert Gregory. During low-level flight, a bird penetrated the right windshield causing catastrophic failure to the windshield and canopy glass. The crew ejected and survived with Capt Stieber receiving severe head injuries from the bird strike. The aircraft went into the sea with the crew being picked up by helicopters from the 67th Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron from RAF Woodbridge.`
A year earlier, the Bagley brothers were out working in the Wash when another military jet came down as it headed for the Wainfleet range. Full story can also be found in Chapter 27, along with an extraordinary sequel more than 40 years later which unfolds under `Lt Stephen Kershaw RN` on this website.
Edited from Chapter 23 East of Ely…..
`Somebody once stole a Hercules from Mildenhall. A ground Staff Sergeant got drunk at a party in May 1969 and, as he was missing his wife in Virginia, decided that was the time to go and see her. Incredibly he went onto the airfield at dawn, got into the Hercules, fired up the four engines and took off. There was nothing particularly unusual about him, as a mechanic, being in the aircraft but people in the control tower did sit up and pay attention after he roared off down the runway without permission.
It then appears that this huge transport aircraft was flown at low level across a wide area of Southern England. Finally picked up on radar, it came dangerously close to the routes in and out of Heathrow. Radio contact was eventually established and the rogue pilot was able to speak to his wife in Virginia before he lost control of the Hercules and crashed into the English Channel south of Bournemouth and was killed. There are those who speculate that the Hercules was finally shot down to stop it making land again.`
…………These two paragraphs that I wrote in passing around Mildenhall and its Air Fetes did not make the book. I just remember it from the newspapers and television news back in 1969. There is quite a bit about it on-line now. There is probably enough for a book behind those two paragraphs. The events of 23 May 1969 are back in the news again nearly 50 years on with the announcement that a group of divers from Dorset think they may have worked out where the C-130 crashed into the English Channel.
Professional diver Grahame Knott has devoted 10 years to trying to unravel the mystery. Setting out on his boat from Weymouth, he has been trying to distinguish what may be the wreck of the C-130 from the hundreds of wartime aircraft which ended up on the sea bed. Much of his research was in pubs along the south coast, talking to fishermen who operate trawlers and scallop dredgers. These boats scrape nets along the sea bed and often snag on or bring up pieces of metal from aircraft wrecks.
Grahame and his team were able to narrow down the crash site to 30 square miles of sea. Sonar gave them a fix on a piece of metal and a video camera was lowered down to the sea bed. `Then we spotted a wheel sticking out the sand, then a section of wing with rivets. It just got bigger and bigger,` Graham told BBC News in December 2018. He says he feels an affinity with the Staff Sergeant who died. He is in contact with his widow and step-son in the United States.
The speculation that the aircraft was shot down before it made an even bigger story has never gone away. The official explanation is that the Crew Chief who stole it lost control over the English Channel. Adding fuel to the fire of speculation is a tale told by a former fighter pilot in the book `The Lightning Boys`, described as `true tales from pilots of the English Electric Lightning`.
This guy was on QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) duty at RAF Wattisham in Suffolk when he got a mysterious phone call from a controller somewhere up the chain. He was told not to ask any questions and do exactly as he was told. An American exchange officer would visit him shortly and he must hand over his duties to this man and go and wait in the Officer`s Mess.
Shortly after this all happened, he heard a Lightning take off. It returned about an hour later with, according to gossip, with one of its two air-to-air missiles missing. It taxied to the missile loading area on the airfield before being returned to the QRA stand with two missiles again. The RAF pilot was telephoned in the Mess and told to return to his QRA duties. Some time later he heard on the BBC news about the crew chief from Mildenhall who had stolen the C-130 and crashed into the sea.
The story related by the Lightning pilot states that it happened on a Saturday and that it was `near Christmas`, adding that Mayer was upset that his `Christmas leave had been cancelled`. In fact, Sgt Paul Mayer took the aircraft at dawn on Friday 23rd May 1969.
There are other stories that the USAF used its own UK-based aircraft to shoot it down, that an RAF Phantom passing through Yeovilton was dispatched, and indeed that French did not like the direction that the C-130 was taking and sent up a Mirage. Back in 1955, a Vickers Varsity was nicked by a mechanic at RAF Thorney Island near Portsmouth. It circled London for three hours chased by another Varsity before heading off to France. It finally crashed on a farmhouse near Valenciennes in northern France, killing the errant airman and three people on the ground.
Addition to Chapter 22 Settle in the Straps…..
The accident at Haydock Park race course on 8th September 2018, in which a light aircraft skidded on landing and collided with a stationary helicopter, was another reminder that jockeys and trainers regularly use air travel to get to race meetings. Certainly the top jockeys can be riding at different courses on the same day and flying is the only way they can achieve this. No-one was hurt in the Haydock Park incident. Thankfully no-one was hurt in this incident which made a fleeting appearance in Deadlines – I have now added more details……
In the book: The Mark One Eyeball was still an important asset for fast jet pilots and navigators. Later that year (1992), there was an incident involving a famous horse jockey rather than a disc jockey. As some Tornados emerged from cloud after taking off from Waddington, they had to scatter as a light aircraft hove into view. The Piper Seneca was tipped over by the Tornado jet wash before the pilot regained control. After a brief emergency diversion into Waddington, he continued on the flight, taking top flat jockey Lester Piggott to a race meeting at York. Piggott later gave an interview telling how he was thrown around in the aircraft, mumbling `Flipping heck, what was that?` (or something similar). It was a close call.
Not in the book – more on this air miss: Lester Piggott was being flown from Newmarket to York on 19th August 1992. Thirty minutes into the flight, the aircraft was at 4,500 feet over RAF Waddington near Lincoln. Fellow jockey Philip Robinson was in the front seat next to the pilot. He says a Tornado emerged from the cloud and passed so close to the nose of the Seneca that he could `see the whites of the pilot`s eyes`. Another jockey in the aircraft, George Duffield, was woken by a bang and Piggott in his lap. The pilot called a `Mayday` and checked that in fact they were alright.
Four Tornados had taken off one after another from Waddington where they were based for an exercise. One controller warned them to stay below 3000 feet until the Seneca had cleared the airfield. However another controller lifted the restriction without telling his colleague – and the Tornados climbed higher. It was estimated that one of the Tornados missed the Seneca by about ten feet after a split second decision to roll away.
News of the incident emerged when Lester Piggott and his colleagues arrived at York races – and it made a story for BBC Radio Lincolnshire and other media. The official enquiry into the Category A air miss later found that there was a high workload on the air traffic controllers at the time with a stream of 45 messages between aircrews and controllers in just 90 seconds. In addition the supervising controller was distracted while arranging a relief break for staff. It was also pointed out that the radar imagery may not have been clear on the screens because a back-up system was in use due to the failure of Waddington`s primary radar. The controllers were found to be guilty of poor judgement and a failure to pass sufficient information to Piggott`s pilot.
In his autobiography, Lester Piggott said he was reading a newspaper when `a dark shadow came over the plane, we flipped over and plummeted for what felt like ages, and I ended up on the ceiling. In a moment David Smith had managed to right the plane, but it was very frightening indeed, and I was not proposing to argue with him when he pronounced that we had to land to check there was no damage. Luckily there was an airfield handy (well yes – Waddington!) so we made a hasty descent – to discover that the plane had escaped its ordeal unharmed, and that the passengers would live to fight another day.`
Edited from Chapter 21 Reds in the Med……
The Royal Review at Abingdon in June 1968 (I was there aged 14) was the main aviation event to mark the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Air Force. However many in the service felt there should have been a mass flypast over the centre of London on 1st April – the actual date of the anniversary. One pilot was so incensed by this failure to acknowledge the RAF with an airborne tribute that he did something about it. He flew up the Thames at low level, buzzed Parliament and took his Hunter jet fighter through the span of Tower Bridge at 300 mph.
Flt Lt Alan Pollock left RAF Tangmere in Sussex with three other Hunters on the morning of 5th April. They were heading back to their home base of West Raynham in Norfolk. It was a beautiful day with `gin-clear` skies. He gave the others the slip and headed off at low level towards Richmond Park, navigating with a borrowed AA map. He decided to follow the Thames in his single seat jet. Angry about defence cuts by Harold Wilson`s Labour government (including scrapping the TSR2), he vowed to make some noise above the Houses of Parliament. The Commons was actually debating noise abatement when Pollock arrived at 12 noon.
Slowing down, he circled Parliament three times and very noisily before heading off east and dipping his wings as he passed the RAF Memorial on the Victoria Embankment. Still at low level, he shot over the other bridges on the Thames until Tower Bridge appeared straight ahead. He said he had forgotten about that one. A big red London bus was among the traffic making its slow way across the iconic landmark.
Pollock made a snap decision to go for it. The Hunter shot under the girders carrying the walkways and over the top of the traffic. He was nearer the top than the bottom and briefly remembered his upright tail fin. The only casualty was a cyclist who fell off his bike, tearing his trousers. The Hunter headed on over Essex before turning north to recover to West Raynham after `beating up` the Lightning base at RAF Wattisham and the American enclave at Lakenheath.
The flight made big headlines and attracted a fair amount of support amongst the public and the forces. However the top brass took a dim view and Pollock was put under arrest for two days. A psychiatrist ruled that he was perfectly able to face a court martial. Eventually, Alan Pollock was given a medical discharge instead of a court martial. It was widely believed that this course of action was taken to prevent him being given a platform to explain his protest.
(Note: Fifty years on in the centenary year of the Royal Air Force, 82 year old Alan Pollock told a national newspaper that he had no regrets and still a great deal of affection for the RAF. A mass flypast over London was staged in July to mark the 100th anniversary)
Edited out of Chapter 10 South West Approaches……..
Just up the coast from St Mawgan is the village of Tintagel, synonymous with the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Its isolated castle sits on the rugged cliffs overlooking the Atlantic waves breaking on the Cornish peninsular. Four years before we opened BBC Radio Cornwall, the village was at the centre of another of those miracles when a pilot-less military jet hurtles out of the sky and no one is hurt.
A number of RAF fast jets were involved in an exercise over the sea more than five miles north of Tintagel on the sunny 6th of July 1979. Two of them developed problems at the same time and asked controllers for an emergency division to St Mawgan, confident that they would not be able to get back to their base at RAF Brawdy in south west Wales. Flt Lt Alick Nicholson realised soon after that he was not going to make St Mawgan either. His Hawker Hunter had lost power and was heading for the sea.
It was clear from the radio messages that the rescue helicopter from RAF Chivenor in north Devon was getting airborne. The coast was in sight. Nicholson nursed the nose of the Hunter round to the right so that it was pointing away from Tintagel Head. At 300 feet, he ejected and was picked up out of the sea a short time later by a fishing boat from Boscastle. One of the tourist fishermen on board just happened to be involved in the design of the ejection seat which had launched him to safety.
He was flown to Plymouth hospital by the RAF rescue helicopter. Sitting in an examination room, he heard the heart-stopping news that his Hunter had not finished up in the sea. It had turned towards land and, in a shallow dive with its engine still running, hit the cliff top at Tintagel. It bounced along the ground for about 100 yards before coming to rest in a 12 foot gap between a restaurant and an end-terrace house, where a painter was up a ladder.
Three cars, a garage and a swimming pool were damaged by the crashing Hunter. The bulk of the airframe got stuck between the houses but the nose, cockpit and gun-pack crashed through to the road in front. The gunpack spewed bullets all over the place. Some of the debris came to rest ten yards from where a tanker was about to deliver 1,500 gallons of petrol to the local garage. The tanker driver actually saw the aircraft coming towards him and heroically managed to move it out of harm`s way.
It was high summer and Tintagel was full of holidaymakers. If the Hunter had not got stuck up the alley, it could have careered off into the village centre. As it was, only two people were slightly hurt. The RAF avoided low flying in the area for a while out of respect to the locals who were very nearly at the centre of a national tragedy. The pilot apologised, acknowledging and regretting the disruption to the people of Tintagel `when I inadvertently came your way`. The end-terrace house was later renamed `Hunter`s Rest`.
(Note: Photos and the full story, including the pilot`s own account, can be found here)
Plucked from Chapter 1 Picture in a Frame…..
`My Dad always kept a photograph of his brother on his study desk at the Vicarage. This faded photo witnessed the full names for the christenings (Robert Andrew Scarborough Ferris, anyone?), the couple`s bliss of the impending wedding banns, and the undertaker`s latest list of departures.`
So begun a paragraph in the first chapter of Deadlines. Robert Andrew Scarborough Ferris was the full name of Bob Ferris, one of The Likely Lads. In the television comedy `Whatever happened to the Likely Lads`, written by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais and first broadcast across 1973 and 1974, Bob aspired to greater respectability and middle class status. His friend Terry Collier, back in Newcastle upon Tyne after five years in the Army, hung onto his working class roots and ridiculed Bob`s pretensions. The series attracted 27 million viewers.
Bob never told Terry his full name. So Terry (played by James Bolam) made sure he was in the church when the wedding banns of Bob and Thelma were read out by the vicar. `Scarborough?` roared Terry from a pew at the back, somewhat disrupting the solemnity of the occasion. In the pub later, Bob revealed that the middle name of Scarborough alluded to the seaside resort where he was conceived. I guess he was lucky he was not conceived in…….well, you choose.
Bob Ferris was played by Rodney Bewes who died at his home in Cornwall in November 2017. He was six days away from his 80th birthday. In one of Bob`s most memorable and lugubrious lines, he lamented: `In the chocolate box of life the top layer’s already gone. And someone’s pinched the orange crème from the bottom.`
Edited from Chapter 15 Postcards of Scarborough…..
I spent the evening of the Great Storm of 1987 in the company of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roger McGuinn and John Peel. The storm was the worst to hit Britain in nearly 300 years with gusts of up to 115 miles an hour. Eighteen people lost their lives and 15 million trees were flattened.
At Wembley Arena on the night of 15th October 1987, Bob Dylan appeared to be in a blustery mood. Supported by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, he hurricaned into an initially unrecognisable `Blowin` in the Wind`. It was an apt choice which gave more clues to what was to come weather-wise later that evening than Mr Fish`s unfortunate television prediction.
Dylan was dressed as if he had been blown through a hedge backwards. It took a while to recognise some songs as they no longer resembled the original studio versions. It was, shall I say, a challenging and unpredictable experience which I nevertheless warmed to in seat D105 in Block 75.
Radio 1 DJ John Peel, sitting in a seat directly behind me (thank you Roger P for several freebies over the years!), hated it. Peel wrote a review for The Observer in which he lambasted Dylan as irrelevant, a has-been and an embarrassment. He said `Being an enigma at 20 is fun, being an enigma at 30 shows a lack of imagination, and being an enigma at Dylan`s age is just plain daft.` I don`t think he mentioned the contribution from the Byrds founder Roger McGuinn or the set by Tom Petty and his band. He got a lot of what we used to call `hate mail` about his review. Now it would be a `social media storm`.
A gentle breeze was wafting down Oxford Street about 11pm as I headed back to the hotel after the Wembley concert. Apparently half an hour earlier, the impending storm had changed course and was now heading north towards the UK. By the time I surfaced next morning, it had rampaged across the south of England and was starting to blow itself out over the North Sea. I had slept through it all.
I was heroically on the `first train out of Kings Cross` later that morning, heading for Newark and eventually Lincoln. The county of Lincolnshire escaped relatively lightly but East Anglia took a battering. I remember being a shocked a couple of years later at the `disappearance` of the forests around the Woodbridge and Bentwaters air bases in Suffolk. The following night Bob Dylan included his song `Shelter from the Storm` in his set list – he has always had a sense of humour.
(Note: Thirty years on from the night of the Great Storm and that Wembley concert……Tom Petty has died suddenly after a cardiac arrest on 2nd October 2017 – the day after the Las Vegas shootings. The country star Jason Aldean, who was on stage when the gunman opened fire, later paid tribute to the dead and wounded by playing the Tom Petty song `I won`t back down` on the `Saturday Night Live` national television show.)
Walter Becker RIP
In the last chapter Debrief, I explained some chapter titles: `Glamour Profession` is a song by the American rock band Steely Dan, formed by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker in New York in 1972. The song, which has nothing to do with journalism, association football or being a fighter pilot, would be on the shortlist for my Desert Island Discs selections. Of course the name Becker is part of the Colin Curtis story. I wonder…..`
What I was wondering was whether in some complicated and convoluted family tree, Walter Becker had a long lost connection with Ludwig Becker, the Luftwaffe night fighter expert who shot down Colin`s Wellington bomber. Walter Becker died on 3rd September 2017 aged 67. None of the obituaries revealed anything of the family tree beyond stating that his father Henry imported office machinery from Germany. According to The Times, his British mother, Joan, abandoned her husband and son when he was a small boy and returned to England, leaving him to be raised by his father and grandmother. His father was a distant figure who was frequently absent on business in Germany, but they grew closer after he had a heart attack when Becker was 16.
Donald Fagen said in his tribute to his musical partner in Steely Dan: `Walter had a very rough childhood — I’ll spare you the details.’
Edited from Chapter 26 What`s Going On…..
Middle Wallop July 1982. The middle of the Wallops, north of Nether and east of Over in deepest Hampshire. I am helping the IAT commentary team again in support of the Greenham Common organisation who are putting on an air show on behalf of the Army. It is a punishing three day enterprise.
One night a hangar is turned into a disco plus a live band to entertain the volunteers and the Wallop-based troops. It was also an era when a night to remember in an aircraft hangar was enhanced by a couple of exotic dancers. I wander outside for a breath of fresh air and amble over to inspect a Wasp helicopter by floodlight. Out of the darkness comes the sound of a heavy boot and a clear `Hold It There!`
It`s an army policeman – nicknamed a Redcap on account of the scarlet on their peaked caps. They are not the most welcome sight to a tired and emotional squaddie lurching back to barracks after a night on the town. This one is polite and courteous. No, I am not going to swat the Wasp or even pat it. `How`s it going in there?` he nods towards the hangar where The Pointer Sisters `Slowhand` is sliding off the turntable.
`Ah, well you know. Loud and hot…..’ He bemoans his lot, nailed to the night shift guarding the static display until dawn while his colleagues down pints and strut their stuff. I confess to being with the commentary team and say we can give the night shift a mention tomorrow – up all night ensuring the safety and security of Middle Wallop so that you, the great British public, can enjoy your day today. `Blow the girls a kiss for me,’ he mutters and melts back into the night.
I circle round to the back of the hangar, unwilling to return anywhere near to the dance floor as `Come on Eileen` takes over. In through the out door and I appear to be backstage. I push another door and it is opened for me. `Can we help you?` says one of the dancers. `Oh hello…..,` I stammer. `You can come in if you want to. You won`t see much more in `ere than you will out there.`
I stay. Some bouncer called Eric comes in but she waves him away. I go into journalistic mode and start to interview them. Well, ask them questions about their lives. She says her name is Eileen. The disco sounds as though it has moved on to `Bette Davis Eyes` so she would probably have been Bette if I had turned up a couple of minutes later. I report that I had two Auntie Eileens when I was growing up. In fact I think there were three. Bloody loads of Auntie Eileens. She adjusts some tassles and offers me a cigarette. I recognise that I am on the cover of an early Tom Waits LP called `Small Change`.
I offer to give them a mention from the commentary tower tomorrow. `What would you say about us then?` Er, a big thank you to everyone working back stage at Army Air `82. The military policemen and women who secured the airfield overnight….and all the display teams and, er, exhibitors who have performed so enthusiastically over the weekend. They won`t be around to hear it anyway. After the show here, it is straight off to some hotel near Portsmouth and a pub show tomorrow lunchtime. They will be driven there by Eric in his Ford Cortina. `That`s her name – Tina,` says Eileen nodding at the quiet one. What are your real names? It doesn`t really matter. `Eileen` kisses me on the forehead and whispers `Enjoy the show` as she glides past. In time-honoured journalistic fashion, I make my excuses and leave, watching the rather unexotic show from the bar at the back, clutching a double bourbon.
Edited from Chapter 10 South West Approaches…..
A lot of information contained within these (personal contacts) books was quite `sensitive` but was given to journalists on the understanding that it was respected as confidential. In Cornwall, we all had the home number of Sir John Nott, the Defence Secretary who offered to resign after Argentina invaded the Falklands. Nott was a local MP, representing St Ives from 1966 to 1983 when he stood down. In Lincolnshire, I had the phone number of the former Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, who lived near the county boundary. He agreed to an interview with me about the state of the RAF shortly after he retired from the service in 1997. More than twenty years on, Sir Michael is still articulately expressing concern about the state of the RAF.
During my time at BBC Radio Oxford, we had some high profile Conservatives in our patch like Douglas Hurd (my MP in Witney) and Michael Heseltine who lived near Banbury but was Conservative MP for Henley-on-Thames (Ch 5). Airey Neave, who was Margaret Thatcher`s confidante and her Northern Ireland spokesman, was the MP for Abingdon. Neave, who was the first British officer to escape from Colditz prison in 1942, was assassinated by the Irish National Liberation Army in March 1979. They hid a device on his car which exploded a bomb as he drove up the ramp of Parliament`s underground car park.
I got the last radio interview with Airey Neave. On Wednesday 28th March 1979, James Callaghan`s Labour Government lost a Vote of No Confidence and a general election was called which Margaret Thatcher went on to win. As the late reporter on that Wednesday, I had arranged to ring up some of our MPs to get their reaction to the Commons vote. I got Airey Neave on the line for a two minute recorded interview for the following morning`s Breakfast Show. Two days later Airey Neave was dead.
Sometime around 1990, John Major came into BBC Radio Lincolnshire when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was in Lincoln for a Tory constituency event and agreed to come in for an interview first. I did the `meet and greet` and later collected him from the studio and steered him to the manager`s office where he was offered a drink. A few years later as Prime Minister, he was frustrated by Euro-sceptics including the Lincolnshire MP Sir Richard Body, who rebelled against Major`s Europe policies. Major is reported to have said of the long-standing member for Holland with Boston: `Whenever I see him approaching, I hear the flapping of white coats.`
Douglas Hurd once referred to Sir Richard Body in a radio interview as `Dick` Body which initially took me by surprise. Having reported on his activities as a young newspaper reporter (I actually started one pre-election meeting report with the line `It`s a long way from Butterwick to Westminster….`) and then later as News Editor of BBC Radio Lincolnshire, it was the first time I had ever heard him abbreviated and called `Dick`. He was difficult to deal with, veering between mischievousness and pomposity. On one occasion during the recording of an interview over the phone with one of my reporters, he took exception to the questioning and decided he would never talk to us again. Good story. He did, of course.
(Note: Sir Richard Body died on 26 February 2018 at the age of 90).
Edited from Chapter 18 Glamour Profession…..
The celebrated football commentator John Motson is also a `Son of the Cloth`. His father Bill was a Methodist minister and was born and grew up in the aforementioned village of Swineshead near Boston. Bill supported Boston United and his nearest `big` club which was then Derby County. `Motty` was quoted many years ago as saying that he always looked out for the Boston United result, now in the Vanarama National League (North) below the Conference. I always check it out too, along with Oxford Utd, Hull City and Lincoln City.
Living in Filey, I sometimes boarded the coach that took locals to watch Hull City. This was a challenging journey if it was the Sunderland fixture. Manchester City came for an FA Cup third round match in January 1970. Seven months later Manchester United were the visitors to the old Boothferry Park on a Wednesday evening in the Watney Cup. George Best was in the United team, along with Bobby Charlton, Alex Stepney, Nobby Stiles, Denis Law and Pat Crerand. They eventually won that semi-final on penalties after extra time – and went on to lose the final to Derby County only three days later.
Hull City featured their legendary twin strikers Chris Chilton and Ken Wagstaff (`Waggy`), and goalkeeper Ian McKechnie whose goal was regularly showered with oranges at the start of each game. Home fans had spotted him eating an orange after training one morning and decided it would funny to provide him with more, some including telephone numbers from female fans and others with messages of good luck. One Hull fan was arrested at an away game for throwing an orange on the pitch. McKechnie wrote to the court in his defence to explain this odd ritual.
Edited out of Chapter 10 South West Approaches……..
So you fancy doing a long walk for charity? And you need sponsors and support – and publicity. How about a really original route like John O`Groats to Land`s End? Fantastic – let`s tell the media including your local BBC radio station and BBC Scotland.
When Radio Cornwall went `on-air` in January 1983, little did the newsroom team suspect how much we would be in demand from our BBC colleagues around the country. How many of us picked up the ringing phone to hear `Hi, it`s Radio Lancashire! Someone from our patch is doing a charity walk from John O`Groats to Land`s End. And we wondered if you could cover his arrival for us?`
`Hello, it`s Radio Kent. We have a war veteran who is doing a sponsored walk from Land`s End to John O`Groats. We wondered if one of your reporters could do a piece for us as he sets off from Land`s End? It is for charity.`
There were about 40 BBC local radio station when we opened Radio Cornwall, plus the national newsrooms. They all thought nothing ever happened in Cornwall except people starting or finishing bleedin` (feet) charity walks at Land`s End. Our news editor put his foot down, so to speak. He announced that we would only cover them if they were doing something extraordinary like licking the tarmac all the way.
Edited from Chapter 11 Mrs Simpson played the organ…..
National newspapers used to have a small spot on the front page for `Late News` which was usually just one line in red. They did not like to leave the slot empty as it might imply they were not on the ball. In the dirty, noisy way of producing newspaper in years gone by, type setters slotted `slugs` of hot metal bearing the words and adverts into a tray before running the whole page through the printing works. One editor was said to have an emergency metal bar in his pocket to ensure the Late News box was never empty. It said simply: `Snow fell in the Cairngorms yesterday`.
When a big story broke in your patch, the nationals would descend mob-handed. Despite most of these journalists starting on local papers, they forgot about local sensitivities in the scramble to get one over on their Fleet Street rivals. Years of good contacts and hard-earned respect in the local community could be swept away overnight as national reporters `door-stepped` bewildered locals and seized on small points for a hopelessly exaggerated opening paragraph, complimented by an exploding headline.
Back in the old days, they came with money and expense accounts, racking up impressive figures in bar bills in the local hostelries. When the story about the Lincolnshire nurse who got 13 life sentences for murdering and harming children first broke in 1991, I allocated one Radio Lincolnshire reporter to follow it all through to the end. One national newspaper simply bought a house in the child killer`s home village as a base for its team. After the trial finished two years later, it just sold it again.
A too late contender for Chapter 25 Contacts and Conversations……
For many of us, the paper round was our first paid work. We arose early and went out into the cold winter dawn whatever the elements to tramp the streets, stuffing newspapers through letter boxes. Little did I think that one day I would be writing the stories that I was then delivering.
We quickly learnt which addresses demanded some special care. Some had springy letterboxes that snapped back at your fingers. Others had rabid dogs that leapt at the slot as the paper sailed through. You edged it open then hit the rolled up paper with the palm of your hand, launching it across the hall and annoying the dog even more.
If you did a paper round in north Oxford, you had to have some strength. The roads linking the Banbury Road and the Woodstock Road were awash with university academics and wealthy business people. They did not take The Sun or The Mirror – and very few took The Daily Mail or The Express. Oh no, their daily reading was The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Times, still a broadsheet around 1980 (it went tabloid in 2003).
The bulk of the bags slung round the necks of these stoic youngsters doing a paper round were consequently vast. They were particularly heavy on a Sunday when their orange bags were full of The Observer and The Sunday Times with all their supplements and magazines. One of our news team at BBC Radio Oxford saw a heavy laden red-faced paperboy struggling on his bike and thought it might be make a feature for the breakfast show. It did – and hopefully increased the Christmas tips for those gallant souls.
Nearly 40 years on, I was reminded of this story while doing a paper round myself. I help out my local newsagent Yunus occasionally when his delivery team is reduced by illness or holiday or when the papers are late from London. It gives a purpose to an early morning stride round the neighbourhood and reminds me that much of my working life involved bringing the news to people. Instead of coming out of the radio speaker, I am posting the news through the letterbox.
One Monday, I had 15 deliveries in my bag. The following day, I turned up to do the same route and the same letterboxes but the pile of papers seemed bigger and certainly heavier. It was the day after the announcement of the engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – and most of the tabloids were breathlessly trumpeting souvenir editions and 24 page supplements. Thank you, Your Royal Highness…..
Summer 2020…….a Lidl store has opened in the neighbourhood and Yunus has sold up. The supermarket does sell newspapers and so the footfall for the local newsagents and Georges,another Asian cornershop that has served the neighbourhood so well for so many years, has changed completely. Both small shops are now shut, along with the long established Italian deli on the corner opposite Lidl.