Living through a heatwave – memories of the summer of 1976

The river Taff at Blackweir, Cardiff, 1976. Photo: Mirrorpix

As Britain braced itself for its hottest day ever, a single tweet caught my eye. It asked how people coped with the heat during the fabled summer of 1976.

Few who experienced that extraordinary summer will ever forget it, especially if like me they were enjoying their best ever school holiday. I can remember only one occasion in 1976 when I felt uncomfortably hot.

My memories of that golden summer start with rain. Mum and Dad took me to a summer fete at the Edward Nicholl children home in Penylan, Cardiff, and we dodged the showers as local MP and prime minister James Callaghan opened the event. But within days the rainclouds disappeared and stayed away for two months.

Photo: Frank Barrett/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The summer of 1976 may not have seen temperatures as high as this year’s frightening record of 40.3C, but somewhere in the UK the temperature hit 32C for 15 days in a row. Just as seriously, the lack of rain along with the previous year’s very dry summer led to a serious drought. I remember a standpipe being set up near our house, and the mains water being restricted. Jim Callaghan even appointed a drought minister, the jovial Denis Howell. Mr Howell worked his magic: within days of his appointment the heavens opened and the heatwave was over. Just as in 2022, the dry conditions led to forest fires, and fire engine sirens formed part of the season’s soundtrack.

Continue reading

Beating the Tories: a democratic revolution

Boris Johnson’s decrepit, dishonest government was hit by two devastating by-election defeats in different parts of England last week.

Labour retook Wakefield in Yorkshire, a seat it lost to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election. More dramatically, the Liberal Democrats took Tiverton and Honiton, a seat that had been Tory since the dinosaurs were young. (OK, slight exaggeration.) That Lib Dem success saw the biggest ever majority overturned in a British by-election.

The Tory defeat has led to a debate about the need (or not) for anti-Tory parties to agree a pact to ensure the progressive vote isn’t split, which traditionally means the Tories win despite the opposition winning more votes. Margaret Thatcher famously enjoyed big majorities because of this.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Labour won a landslide in 1997 and 2001 under Tony Blair and the Lib Dems did well too. That was the reverse effect: anti-Tory voters teamed up to punish the Conservatives,

Could the same thing happen in 2024? Last week’s by-elections suggest it might. Tactical voting can work, especially when there isn’t a Jeremy Corbyn to deter Lib Dem voters or a Nick Clegg to deter Labour ones.

What about a repeat of the Tory tactics in 2015, saying Labour will be in the pocket of the Scottish National Party? I can’t see that having any traction in 2024. Boris Johnson is the greatest boost possible for the SNP. The SNP’s apparently unstoppable advance has been turbo-charged by the Tories and Brexit. Brexit is done, at least for now, but the return of a progressive UK government might be the union’s last hope. Especially if that government replaced the deeply undemocratic first-past-the-post voting system with some form of proportionate representation.

The progressive parties must state their case – their collective case – with confidence and brio. Take a leaf out of RMT leader Mick Lynch’s book – don’t let this battle be fought on a field chosen by the Tories. Britain – England, Wales and Scotland – must be better than this. Make the case for a fairer government that fights for all the people, especially those less well off, not just the privileged few who win every time with the Tories.

As a Welshman, I long believed that Wales was best served by being part of the UK. We are a small country that has traditionally looked east to our large neighbour England for trade and much more. Yet I have come to believe that the UK in its current form is a divisive, destructive influence. London doesn’t care (spicier epithets are available) about Wales. Or Scotland. Or Northern Ireland. Even worse, it will force any amount of destruction through that negligence, as Johnson’s poisonous rejection of his own agreement to the Northern Ireland protocol shows. The Tory embrace of Brexit has made our nations and their peoples poorer than they were before. How could Wales – or Scotland – do any worse alone than under destructive London rule?

The next five years will decide whether the UK has a future.

In praise of Vigo

Vigo, my unexpected destination

I didn’t plan to go to Vigo, Spain, this month. I’d not given the place a moment’s thought since reading Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning for my school O level exams in 1980. The Gloucestershire writer began his walk through Spain at Vigo in 1935.

But fate brought me to this friendly city in Galicia. Fate and my father. Bob Skinner had been so looking forward to his first holiday for three years. He and my late mother loved taking cruises, and Bob was thrilled to book a week’s voyage to Spain and Portugal on P&O Cruises’s MV Ventura.

My cousin Brenda and her husband Ivor helped him get the compulsory Covid test and he was ready to set sail. But disaster struck within an hour of the liner leaving Southampton Water. Dad fell as he was getting out of a lift and he broke his right hip. The ship’s doctor called me the following day and explained that Bob would be taken to hospital at the first port of call, Vigo. I would soon me on my way to a city I’d not thought about for 42 years.

Continue reading

Mick Lynch: a text book lesson in winning the argument

Mick Lynch, the leader of the union that represents Britain’s railway workers, has become the media star of the past week. His calm, clever responses to hostile questions about the rail strikes have shown that disrupting people’s travel plans to fight for better pay needn’t be unpopular.

He brilliantly defused Sky News’ Kay Burley’s crazily over the top attempt to raise the spectre of a return to the violent picketing scenes of the 1970s and 1980s. Mick calmly turned to the tiny group of peaceful pickets behind him. ”That’s what a picket line looks like. We’ll try to persuade people not to go to work.” Outrageously Burley tweeted that Lynch was flustered – yet he was as cool as the cliched cucumber. The Sky presenter was the one losing her cool as her interview went nowhere. Lynch had the facts and the humour to defuse what could have been a tough interview.

The unions have a very good argument. So many people have had their real incomes slashed by 12 years of Tory austerity at a time when industry bosses have shown no restraint. The government may think that a summer of discontent will help it win back support. It didn’t work for Ted Heath in 1974 or Jim Callaghan in 1979. The cost of living crisis is going to get worse in the next year and Boris Johnson and his cronies have no answers. (Especially when Johnson tried to get one of those cronies to pay for a £150,000 summer house for his son in the grounds of Chequers.)

Keir Starmer should take lessons from Mick Lynch about how to win an argument. Right now, Labour’s leader is like a football manager winning 1-0 and determined to play safe and close down play at the risk of conceding a goal or two. He should be going for a convincing win.

In praise of Stephen Doughty MP

it has become fashionable to criticise members of parliament, and politicians generally.

”They’re all the same.” How often do we hear that? Yet so many polls show that we hold a higher opinion of our own MP than of politicians generally.

Years ago, many MPs visited their constituency once or twice a year. They regarded councillors as the people to sort out problems experienced by constituents. But now MPs (and members of the Senedd in Wales and of the Scottish parliament) take very seriously their responsibility to help constituents with all manner of problems.

My family has reason to be very grateful for this trend. Years ago, former Welsh first minister Alun Michael helped my parents secure their right to attendance allowances, as we had failed to do so through the normal byzantine process, despite Mum’s near-blindness and Dad’s immobility.

A decade or more later, Alun’s successor as MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, Stephen Doughty, has been magnificent during an even greater crisis.

I wrote a week ago that Dad, Bob Skinner, was embarking on a long-awaited cruise. Sadly, unknown to me, by the time I wrote that post Dad was in the medical bay of P&O Cruises ship MV Ventura. He had fallen getting out of the lift and fractured his hip.

He was looked after magnificently by the P&O Cruises team (note: there is no connection between P&O Cruises and the venal P&O Ferries who sacked its crews a few months ago).

Dad was taken to hospital in the first port it came to, Vigo in northern Spain. He has been looked after wonderfully by Vithas Hospital in Vigo, and I flew out to be with him and support him.

But we had a problem. His travel insurers were not communicating and the hospital was, understandably, concerned whether they would be paid. I then found, to my horror, that Dad had bought travel cover from a company not authorised to sell insurance in the UK. At that point, I thought we were totally alone.

I tweeted Stephen Doughty, Dad’s MP, last night and he phoned me this morning, and promised to help. Within an hour or so, on a Saturday morning, he’d phoned the insurers and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Soon after I had a call from the hospital to say they had just received a guarantee that they would be paid by the insurers. (We’d been about to send £10,000 to the hospital to pay Dad’s bills.) I have rarely been so relieved in my life. Stephen’s intervention was crucial. Just now, the insurers have been in touch about repatriation arrangements. Having been in the depths of despair this morning, I am now feeling confident that we will get Dad home.

Stephen didn’t have to do this. He could have spent a leisurely Saturday morning after a no doubt busy week as an MP and shadow Europe minister. But Stephen cared. He acted. All our family are so grateful.

This isn’t a party political point. MPs of all political colours take their responsibility to constituents very seriously. Friends have spoken of the wonderful support provided by the Lib Dem MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green. Tragically Jo Cox and David Amess gave their lives in fulfilling that duty. I have met Stephen Timms and Nigel Jones, who were both attacked at their MPs surgeries; sadly Andy Pennington was murdered defending Nigel. I am profoundly grateful for their selfless commitment. So is my father, Bob Skinner.

I’ll end on a family tale. I told Stephen that my mother took Dad’s job as reporter on the Penarth Times in 1944 when Bob joined the army aged 18. The following year, 1945, Mum was very unimpressed when James Callaghan made disparaging comments about the paper during the election campaign that elected him and swept Labour to power. Forty years later, I accompanied Dad to a meeting with by then former prime minister Callaghan (whom I greatly admired) to secure work permits for Hong Kong musicians performing at the Cardiff Festival of Music.

I had just graduated and Sunny Jim asked me what I wanted to do for a living. ”I’d like to go into PR or journalism,” I replied. Ignoring me, he turned to Dad and commented ”They all want to do that now, don’t they!” He wrote a note to then Tory employment minister Alan Clark, got it couriered over and soon after we returned to Cardiff with the crucial work permits, allowing the concert to go ahead at St David’s Hall. An early lesson in the influence of an MP – especially one of very few people to have been chancellor, home secretary, foreign secretary and PM.

Admiring my Dad’s enduring zest for life

It was wonderful to get a call from my father Bob Skinner this afternoon, reporting that he was in his cabin on P&O Cruises’ Ventura, about to set sail for Spain and Portugal.

Dad will be 96 in November and this is his first holiday in three years. It comes just six months after he moved out of his care home and into his own flat in Penarth, Wales.

Dad and I were talking about his father this week. It was prompted by my return to his childhood stomping ground of Wandsworth, London. As I walked over Wandsworth Bridge to my first work summer party since 2019, I realised I was very close to where my grandfather Frank had worked as a crane driver in the 1930s. Frank operated a steam-powered crane that ran along rails on the banks of the Thames at Sparrow Wharf. One awful day his crane toppled over and my grandfather was trapped as boiling water dripped onto him. Fortunately he was freed.

Dad told me that his father featured in the national press after Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935. Frank featured in photos of two barges named Italy and Abyssinia. He was on Abyssinia and was throwing stones at the boat named Italy. It would be fun to track down the images in the newspaper archives for 1935.

Me and my father Bob, March 2022

Sadly Frank died in 1942 in his early fifties, but happily Dad has inherited his mother’s long-living genes (Nan was almost 103 when she died in 1994). Long may he enjoy his zest for life.

Highland 500 Day 7: Lairg to Inverness

This post recounts the seventh and final day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 6 Durness to Lairg

Ferry across Cromarty Firth to Black Isle

Our final day. The end of a 470 mile odyssey across the Scottish Highlands. And the sun was shining.

We continued to retrace in reverse part of my Land’s End to John O’Groats route in 2002 and 2019. It was an easy downhill to the Falls of Shin, along an eerily quiet road. Yet when I paused at the falls I was amazed to see a crowd of people. Then I spotted the tourist coach… I didn’t linger long, not expecting to repeat my 2019 success in videoing salmon leaping up the falls. I was sad to see the lovely cafe and visitor centre was boarded up, a victim of the pandemic.

I followed Rose to Bonar Bridge, seen above. She set a cracking pace, and my average speed to lunch was far higher than on any other day on the trip. Not far beyond Ardgay, where we had lunch on LEJOG19, I said goodbye to the LEJOG route, glancing up towards the Struie hill viewpoint where I’d taken photos in 2002 and 2019.

Continue reading

Highland 500 Day 6: Durness to Lairg

This post recounts the sixth day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 5 Ullapool to Durness

Group photo at The Crask Inn

Today, we said farewell to the sea and the route of the North Coast 500.

Tràigh Allt Chàilgeag beach

The first few miles followed the far north coast, with a few inevitable short, sharp hills. I was entranced by the sight above: wild campers above a beach not far from Durness. Scotland allows wild camping and I can imagine the delight of drifting to sleep to the sound of the waves at this beautiful spot.

Continue reading

Highland 500 Day 5: Ullapool to Durness

This post recounts the fifth day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 4 Ullapool to Summer Isles

Kylesku bridge

This was the hardest day of the tour. Harder than the Bealach na Bà day. And all because of that cyclist’s curse: a headwind.

Yet it started well. The 1,000 feet of climbing over the first nine miles from Ullapool that sapped my morale yesterday proved easier when repeated today. And I was looking forward to seeing Assynt and cycling over the stunning Kylesku bridge.

Loch Assynt with Ardvreck castle (and picnic!) behind

We had a lovely stop by the shore of Loch Assynt with Ardvreck castle in the distance. The sun was shining, it was warm and we had a stunningly scenic day ahead.

Continue reading

Highland 500 Day 4: Ullapool to Summer Isles

This post recounts the fourth day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 3 Gairloch to Ullapool

Images of heaven: Loch Cùl Dromannan

I was cursing my decision not to take a rest day in Ullapool. After nine miles and 1,000 feet of climbing I envied the wisdom of those taking a lazy, late breakfast, enjoying a good book or taking a boat trip. Then I glanced and saw the mountains, blue sky and brilliant clouds reflected in the still waters of Loch Cùl Dromannan. I gasped in wonder, and slowed the bike to a stop to drink in the vista and take the photo above.

It got better. I was soon following Peak Tours guide Simon down a heavenly lane, a tarmac thread along the lochs leading to the coast. After the slog up from Ullapool, we were now coasting along this gently undulating route. Before long we came to the morning’s brew stop overlooking the islands on Loch Lurgainn. I smiled as two recumbent trikes came past as I turned in for my morning coffee. It would be fun to lean back on the comfortable seat of a trike and drink in the view.

Continue reading