The day the IRA bombed my office

The Baltic Exchange war memorial stained glass: NMM, Brian Mawdsley

Walking around the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on Saturday, I was transported back in time by the sight of this stained glass display. It reminded me of the day the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombed my office in London 30 years ago this week.

The glass was part of the Baltic Exchange’s memorial to 60 members of the exchange who were killed in the Great War. The exchange building in St Mary Axe took the brunt of the explosion and was later demolished; the Gherkin now stands on the site. My office, a short walk along St Mary Axe, was badly damaged. I never worked there again.

I walked past the Baltic Exchange every day from 1990 to 1992 on my way to my office. I seem to remember a doorman stationed at the entrance, and metal gates used to block the entrance when it was closed. Or is my memory playing tricks?

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The Falklands war, 40 years on

HMS Ardent explodes, May 1982

I never expected Britain to be at war when I prepared to sit my A levels in 1982. Let alone at war with Argentina over a group of islands 8,000 miles away.

Yet that was the reality as I woke on the morning of Friday 2 April 1982. Barely awake at the start of the last day of the school term, I heard on Radio 4’s Today programme some armchair general talking of nuking Buenos Aires. Later that day, we learned that Argentina had invaded the Falkland islands, one of the few remaining British overseas territories. Margaret Thatcher’s British government was stunned.

Contrary to popular belief, the invasion wasn’t a complete bolt from the blue. Two days earlier. I noted in my 1982 diary: ‘Falkland island crisis worsening: Guardian front page lead’. Yet the legend holds that many people in Britain were shocked, thinking the Falklands were off the coast of Scotland. Recovering them would have been a lot easier had that been true.

Going to war was a novel and shocking experience in 1982, almost 40 years after the end of the second world war. Yet it felt like an echo of the past. I described it in my 1982 diary as Britain’s last colonial war, a description that has stood the test of time. (Although there was no doubt that the islanders wanted to live under British rule.) Several of the warships involved in the Falklands took part in or were laid down during the second world war: the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano, sunk by the Royal Navy, survived Pearl Harbor as USS Phoenix. In 1982, it was not so lucky. HMS Hermes, the Royal Navy’s Falklands flagship was laid down in 1944. And the RAF Vulcan bombers that flew 8,000 miles to bomb Stanley airfield relied on an updated version of the wartime H2S navigation radar system to find their target.

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Steam’s graveyard: Barry island memories

A Southern engine reveals its origins, March 1982

I was too young to remember seeing steam engines on the mainline, but I had a childhood consolation. Just 10 miles from my Cardiff home, I could clamber over hundreds of steam locomotives without anyone telling me to stop. That playground was Barry scrapyard, steam’s graveyard.

At the end of steam in the 1960s, Dai Woodham bought hundreds of withdrawn steam engines from British railways for his scrap business at Barry Island. He intended to scrap them but delayed doing so while he focused on scrapping redundant railway wagons. As a result, railway preservation societies flocked to Barry to select locomotives to restore to operate their lines. Out of almost 300 engines sent to Barry, almost three quarters were rescued from the graveyard, and over half lived to steam again.

On my visits to Barry scrapyard, I was drawn to the ex GWR engines, especially the last monarch, King Edward II, which I saw miraculously reborn in 2011, and the engines that sustained the Welsh coal trade. But 40 years ago today I was enjoyed a spectacular sight. Twenty years of Welsh sea air had revealed the pre-nationalisation (1948) livery of a Southern Railway S15, with the SOUTHERN legend clearly visible. As you can see on the photo I took that day (above) there are actually three logos: the two British Railways lion symbols as well as the Southern lettering.

According to my 1982 diary, I had finished my A level mock exams the week before, so must have taken advantage of a lesson-free afternoon to get the train to Barry Island, before spending time in the sadly-missed Lears bookshop in Cardiff’s Royal Arcade. I bought a book about the Cambrian Railways, the Welsh line graced by some of the GWR Manor class engines I’d just seen at Dai Woodham’s scrapyard.

GWR royalty: King Edward II, Barry, 1979
Me, on GWR heavy freight engine 7229, Barry, 1983
Me, aged 20, on BR’s penultimate steam loco, 23 year old 92219, Barry 1983

The day Boris Johnson had his lockdown party…

Millions of words have been written about Boris Johnson’s illegal lockdown parties in 10 Downing Street. A nation has expressed its outrage, which will not be assuaged until Johnson resigns as prime minister.

The stories about the May 2020 party, to which over 100 people were invited to bring booze and enjoy the lovely weather, have brought back vivid memories of that extraordinary lockdown spring.

Like almost everyone in Britain, but unlike Johnson and his team, we obeyed the rules. We knew how important this was to keep safe, minimise the spread of the virus and protect the NHS. On my daily exercise, I kept local and was more careful than normal when cycling down steep hills – the last thing I wanted was to put pressure on A&A by crashing.

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2021: my biggest cycling year

It has become a tradition on New Year’s Eve for me to reflect on my year’s cycling, and look ahead to my cycling ambitions for the year ahead. This time, I’m feeling chuffed having cycled over 6,000 miles – 2,000 more than my previous record of 4.255 in 2019.

I have been amazingly consistent in 2021, cycling over 500 miles every month. That became a mission by the middle of the year – I couldn’t fall below 500 miles a month. The early winter months set the pattern of 500 plus mile months, thanks to my Wattbike Atom smart trainer. It was rare for me to record over 200 miles a month in winter before 2021, but the Atom made regular cycling far more enjoyable than cold, wet, icy rides outdoors. (I became far more familiar with the BBC iPlayer and Netflix as a result.)

The toughest months, ironically, were those in high summer: July and August. Summer holidays in Wales and Cornwall reduced the number of cycling days, and I confess that it was a slog to rack up the miles as the months ended. By contrast, November was the biggest month of all, with 586 miles recorded on Strava.

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Remembering the Penlee lifeboat tragedy, 40 years on

I

The bravest of the brave

It was the ultimate sacrifice. Forty years ago today, the eight man crew of the RNLI Penlee lifeboat in Cornwall died trying to save the lives of the crew and passengers on a stricken cargo ship.

December 1981 was bitterly cold and the night of 19 December brought high seas and hurricane force winds. It took the crew of the lifeboat 30 minutes to come alongside the MV Union Star. They valiantly succeeded in getting four of the eight people on the ship onto the lifeboat. The coastguard assumed the Solomon Browne would then head for shore, but the crew were determined to save everyone. Tragically, the lifeboat foundered in the attempt.

I remember the shock of the news. As Joanne Payne, the daughter of crewman Charles Greenhaugh told the BBC, the village couldn’t believe the news. She recalled that everyone thought: “It’s not true, it can’t be true. The lifeboat always comes home.”

The Penlee tragedy was the last time the RNLI lost an entire crew. Today’s lifeboats are far better designed for the dangers of the sea: they will right themselves if capsized in heavy seas.

Father and son Nigel and Neil Brockman were both members of the Penlee lifeboat crew, but Coxswain Trevelyan Richards chose father Nigel over his 17 year old son because of his greater experience. As Lamorna Ash recounts in her book Dark, Salt, Clear about life in nearby Newlyn, the coxswain had a policy of not allowing two members of the same family on the same dangerous rescue mission. An echo of Saving Private Ryan. Neil later became coxswain of the replacement lifeboat. We should also remember the other eight victims of the tragedy: those on board the Union Star cargo ship.

Christmas mourning

Christmas 1981 was the saddest imaginable for the grieving village of Mousehole. Lamorna Ash says that even today its people resent the way the media descended on them over that tragic Christmas, not allowing them to mourn in private.

It is striking how many tragedies happen on the eve of Christmas: Penlee; Lockerbie; the Clapham Junction rail disaster. Or is it just that we are more conscious of tragedy at what it meant to be a happy time of year? Closer to home, both my grandfathers died just before Christmas, in 1942 and 1966.

Supporting the RNLI: a family tradition

Owen at Penarth RNLI, 2013

My family has supported the RNLI for many years. My late mother, Rosemary Skinner, volunteered at the RNLI shop in her hometown of Penarth, Wales until her failing eyesight made this impossible. The photo above shows Owen, aged 5, at an open day there during the Penarth festival in 2013.

RNLI lifeguards in action, Mawgan Porth, 2015

We saw a further side of the RNLI’s vital work during holidays in Mawgan Porth, Cornwall. The beach has a reputation for dangerous rip currents (three surfers were killed there in 2014) so during the summer season RNLI lifeguards patrol the beach. We have heard the guards regularly calling to surfers and paddleboarders to move away from areas of danger through loud-hailers. On our first visit in 2011 I signed up on the beach to make monthly donations, which continue to this day.

It is not be as heroic as crewing a lifeboat in dangerous seas, but our donations do help the RNLI and its brave volunteers. Few were as valiant as the eight men who departed the Cornish shore on 19 December 1981, never to return.

Gate: it’s a scandal

First there was Watergate. The scandal that eventually brought down American president Richard Nixon was named after the Watergate office building in Washington DC, the site of a burglary in 1972 linked to Nixon’s reelection campaign.

Since then, every scandal – or, in truth, concocted controversy – has had ‘gate’ as a suffix. Partygate – the scandal of illegal parties held at 10 Downing Street during lockdowns – is just the latest.

I’ve always found this a tiresome, lazy journalistic practice. So I was pleased today to see The Times agreeing with me. Rose Wild in her feedback column agreed with a reader, David Simpson, who pleaded with the paper to “stop writers putting ‘gate’ at the end of any scandal”.

Rose responded that The Times style guide discourages the practice as tired and lazy.

The only time I applauded the usage was when the Tory cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell was forced to resign after allegedly abusing police officers at the Downing Street gates in 2012. Gategate was a witty description – but the more common description was plebgate, after Mitchell was accused of calling the police plebs.

I hope Rose’s verdict holds, But I fear lazy journalists will still be calling scandals gates a century after Nixon resigned.

A real winter: memories of 1981/82 in Cardiff

40 years ago today…

It was 40 years ago today that the snow came. It wasn’t unexpected: in my teenage years, winters featured regular heavy snowfalls. In 1978 rugby fans were stranded by a blizzard returning from an international in Cardiff. The winter of discontent, 1978/79 was characterised by blizzards as well as strikes. But 1981/82 was different: the snowiest winter since the great winter of 1962/63.

Little did I know, when I pleased myself by marking the date in snow on our greenhouse, that the winter of my A level year would be so special. My first diary noted that there had been a rail crash claiming four lives at Seer Green (Sear Green, as I spelt it) in Buckinghamshire. I had no idea that I’d commute from that village station for several years 20 years later.

The Seer Green rail crash, 11 December 1981
The accident report

We had further snow over the Christmas holidays. The photo below, taken on Boxing Day 1981, shows brother-in-law Julio, Siân, aged 14 months, sister Boo, Mum and me.

The serious snow arrived in the new year. It snowed continually for 36 hours. It’s hard now to imagine that kind of snowquake. Urban landscapes were transformed. The photo above of Heath Junction in Cardiff tells a story. No trains were running on the Coryton line, so you’d never know it was a junction were it not for the old GWR signal box and signals.

Heath Low Level station

The photo above shows the snow at Heath Low Level station untouched by trains or people as British Railways didn’t attempt to run any services on the Coryton line while the snow persisted.

I eventually cleared a path to the garage and drive as seen below. The 1960s Hillman Imp was Mum’s car.

I eventually helped clear a path to the garage – as seen above and below.

The sheer weight of snow changed the landscape for ever. The old Sophia Gardens pavilion, which was a venue for the 1958 British Empire & Commonwealth Games, collapsed under its weight, as did the bowling club in Rhydypenau.

Near Cardiff Castle

One day, I walked into town, past the scene near Cardiff Castle seen above. It was a great adventure.

Days later, we were due to go to London on a school trip for a series of history lectures, five months before our A levels. One of the star lecturers was GR Elton, who featured heavily in our A level Tudor history course, and was well known for his clash of theories about Henry VIII with rival historian JJ Scarisbrick. We were due to travel by train, but bizarrely the trains were blocked while the M4 to England was still open.

Dad, off to Majorca

Dad, Bob Skinner, was working flat out during the blizzards of early 1982. As public relations officer for South Glamorgan county council, he was the spokesman for the Welsh capital’s council as it kept people informed about how its services were affected by the great freeze. By early January, he was desperate for a break, and planned a rare holiday in Palma, Majorca. He was picked up by a Land Rover to get him on a train to Birmingham to get a flight to Spain. Dad recalls the delight of sinking into his seat on the plane.

Our house in the snow

You can see in this shot how high the drifts reached – over the wall between our front garden and the pavement.

Paths for Spot the cat

I was concerned that our eight year old cat, Spot, would be adrift. So I built paths (above) and a tunnel (below) for her. It’s fair to say she needed a bit of encouragement to use them!

Eventually, the snow melted and life got back to normal. We’ve never had a winter like 1981/82 in the intervening 40 years. Will the snow ever return in such a magical way?

January 11 and January 20, 1982

The path seemed clear to A levels. But none of us could have know that Britain would be at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands during those exams…

95 year old leaves care home for his own flat

Bob leaves Sunrise

My father is amazing. After two wonderful years at his Sunrise, Cardiff, care home, he left today after buying a flat in Penarth, near Cardiff.

Everyone at Sunrise has been so kind to Dad since he moved in just over two years ago: former general manager Sara, new boss Virgil, Francesca, Diane and so many others. They guided him through the pandemic, and we will always be so grateful. His book, Pandemic: my Care Home Diary, is his tribute. His time at Sunrise rebuilt his health, and has let him spread his wings once again.

Dad is very happy with his own company (he enjoys blogging and writing) but also loves the companionship of others. As I carried more stuff up to his new flat, I came across a group of women enjoying a bottle or two of wine. I explained Dad’s Penarth heritage dating back to his joining the Penarth Times as a reporter in 1942 – an astonishing 79 years ago! – and said he’d be happy to join them, and the men, for a glass of wine or a coffee.

Karen and I are in a unique time of life. We have a very special 13 year old son who is finding his wings as a teenager. And we have a father/father-in-law who is also retrieving his own wings, setting up home once again, some 70 years after creating his first home with Mum in Caerphilly. It’s like keeping an eye over 13 year old and 95 year old teenagers! Long may they flourish. We love them both so much.

Royal Mail: rewarding shareholders, failing customers

What a surprise. Royal Mail is handing £400 million to shareholders after a rise in postal deliveries during the pandemic. It’s bitter news for its hapless customers.

I finally received a birthday card two weeks after blowing out my candles. I’m still waiting for last week’s New Statesman – and the previous edition, published 11 days ago.

This isn’t a new failing. Twice I have had to chase The Times because I haven’t received my subscriber’s tokens for the print edition of the Sunday Times. Businesses like The Times and New Statesman are suffering customer complaints through no fault of their own.

When will Royal Mail reward its customers rather than its shareholders, and provide the service we have paid for?