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?
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.
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.
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 Brownewould 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 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
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.
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.
It’s 25 years this month since I got online for the first time. I’d had a computer for years – an Amstrad word processor in 1987 switching to a PC in 1994 – and had been following the growing excitement about the ‘information superhighway’ as the web was called back then.
The web looked very different back then. Pages were light on graphics, as they took ages to load on the slow 56k dial up connection most people used. (Broadband came later.) And you couldn’t use the (landline) phone at the same time as it used the same line. You also paid your internet service provider for online access as well as the cost of dialling up to get online.
The web might have been made for me. I have an incurable curiosity and was soon addicted to finding out about anything and everything online. During the 1997 general election, I found out my local winning candidate from the BBC website. (The Tory candidate – unlike in so many places during Tony Blair’s landslide victory.) Soon after, Dad and I pondered the age of the prized cricket bat that his father had bought him in the 1930s. Because it had been signed by the England and New Zealand teams, we were able to date it based on the signatures. Curiously the website we used for our research was from India.
Not another hill! I was struggling. It had been a very hilly day, and I was climbing yet again. Even in my lowest gear, the wheels barely seemed to be moving. The Yorkshire Dales are stunning, but far from flat.
I was cycling along The Way of the Rose, a coast to coast route from Morecambe on the Irish Sea to Bridlington on the North Sea. The name refers to the famous symbols of the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, although most of the route is in Yorkshire. More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, I was ready for a cycling adventure, and the Way of the Roses in three days was ideal. Best of all, it was run by Peak Tours, the company that so impressed me with its Land’s End to John O’Groats tour in 2019. I originally booked for May 2021 but Peak Tours happily transferred me to the June tour when lockdown prevented the original taking place.
I drove up to Morecambe the day before the tour began, and enjoyed walking along the seafront to see the statue of Eric Morecambe, the comedian who with Ernie Wise was one of the best-loved names in British television when I was a child in the Seventies. (He certainly brought us sunshine during the tour, in contrast to torrential rain and flooding in the south.) At dusk, I walking back from dinner with the tour guides and fellow cyclists, I was thrilled to see horses galloping across the sands. It reminded me of legendary 1970s Grand National winner Red Rum, who was famously trained on Southport sands.
What an irony. Thousands travelling to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow were stranded in London after the two rail lines to Scotland were closed by severe weather. Many took flights instead.
Trains have a vital role to play if we are to tackle the climate crisis. As Clare Foges explained in an excellent column in The Times (Trains are key to getting net zero on track) rail travel creates 14 grams of CO2 emissions per passenger mile compared with 158 grams by car and 285 by plane. Yet Britain’s railways and governments seem to do everything in their power to encourage us to take more polluting forms of transport.
Travelling by train in Britain is eye-wateringly expensive. A Which? survey, quoted by Foges, found that domestic flights are typically half the price of the competing rail ticket, yet six times worse for carbon emissions. I’d love to travel by train more often, but even for one person the cost is punitive. If you’re travelling as a family, you may need to take out a second mortgage. Saving the planet? All the odds are stacked against us. Esoecially as the UK government has just announced a cut in the tax payable on domestic flights, just days before COP26 began. Madness.
It was an odd feeling, stepping onto a London train for the first time in 19 months. This was my life for many years, yet old habits ended when the pandemic gripped Britain in March 2020.
We were heading into London for Merchant Taylors’ School’s triennial service at St Paul’s Cathedral. Our son Owen is in the Merchant Taylors’ choir and chamber choir, so we were lucky enough to be given seats under the dome. It was very moving to hear the voices from so many traditions and cultures resonating in this historic cathedral.
The service reflects Merchant Taylors’ School’s heritage. It was formed by the Merchant Taylors’ Company, one of the City of London’s 12 historic livery companies. The school moved out of the City of London to Northwood between the two world wars but still cherishes its City roots.
This triennial service should have been held a year ago but was delayed, like so many events, by the Covid pandemic. It was moving to see the cathedral’s memorial to those who lost their lives in the greatest healthcare crisis in a century.
After the service, I told Owen the remarkable story of how St Paul’s survived the Blitz during the second world war. I dug out a book I bought over 30 years ago: London Before the Blitz, by Richard Trench. The author described the cathedral as a fireman’s nightmare. There are actually two domes: inner and outer structures. The fear was a fire in the gap between the two, which could spread undetected until the whole structure collapsed.
The fear almost came true on the terrible night of 29 December 1940. The Germans planned their aerial assault with brutal efficiency. It was the greatest bombing raid ever at that time. In the lull between Christmas and new year, the City was empty of people. There was a very low tide to impede fire fighting efforts.
At 6.40pm the call went out: St Paul’s dome was on fire. An incendiary bomb had pierced the lead covering the outer dome. It looked like Wren’s masterpiece was ablaze. American broadcaster Ed Murrow told the world that ‘The church that means most to Londoners is gone. St Paul’s cathedral, built by Sir Christopher Wren, her great dome towering over the capital of the Empire, is burning to the ground as I talk to you now’. Happily, as he broadcast the incendiary burnt through the timbers and fell onto the floor of the great church where it fizzled out. Herbert Mason’s iconic photo caught St Paul’s in its moment of crisis. Richard Trench’s book graphically illustrates how miraculous the survival of St Paul’s was: almost the whole of the City around the cathedral was in ruins.
After the moving service, we headed back to Marylebone, following our old footsteps along Wigmore Street and Marylebone Lane, popping briefly into Daunt Books, the most beautiful bookshop in London.
We took our seats on the 1724 from London Marylebone to Gerrards Cross. The train was earily quiet for a rush hour – even on a Friday. I reflected that I’d once have struggled to reach for my bag from the overhead rack amidst the rush hour passengers. It made a much more enjoyable trip, but I do fear for the economics of rail travel when the climate crisis should be making railways the obvious means of transport into our great cities.
We relished our return to London. We shall be back.
Britain was horrified by yesterday’s murder of Sir David Amess – the second member of parliament to be killed in five years, after the tragic loss of Jo Cox in 2016. Police are treating Sir David’s killing as an act of terrorism.
In the meantime, I yearn for an end of the climate of hatred that has developed in British politics in recent years. As I blogged a week ago after the death from cancer of James Brokenshire MP politics has always been a rough trade. But calling your political rivals scum (as Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner did recently in referring to Tories) and enemies of the people and traitors (as populist right wing papers labelled the judiciary and MPs who didn’t support Brexit) is undermining democracy and the rule of law. All amplified by the poisonous echo chamber of social media, which circulates hate speech and lies.
This rancid mix may not have been the spur to the person who ended David Amess’s life. But it makes reasonable debate on crucial but sensitive topics almost impossible.
Britain’s parliamentarians – in Westminster, Cardiff Bay and Holyrood – serve the people tirelessly. A friend recently praised the new MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green, for her superb support on a family matter. Our friend is not a natural Lib Deb voter – but Sarah, like all MPs, is dedicated to serve and help all her constituents, no matter how they voted. MPs, MSs and MSPs have become a social service, far removed to their predecessors years 60 years ago who had far less contact with their constituents. They deserve our support especially when they live in fear after two of their peers have been struck down in the service of the people.
Back to the Seventies. That has been a theme of the past few weeks as a fuel crisis looms, with rocketing prices and supply problems in Britain.
Few people will remember, but the early 1970s also saw one of the biggest changes in British domestic and industrial history. The discovery of gas in the North Sea in 1965 led the nation to switch from town gas, which was produced by heating coal. As a result, around 40 million gas appliances in Britain had to be converted to burn natural rather than town gas. Britain used to have over a thousand local gas works, but North Sea gas made these manufacturing sites redundant, with gas now being stored rather than made locally.
Our family was very unusual as our gas cooker was converted not once but three times. We were living in Whitton, Twickenham when London converted from North Thames town gas to North Sea gas. But soon after, we moved back to Wales – which had not yet switched. So we had to convert the cooker back to run on town gas, before switching yet again when Cardiff converted. The change had another legacy: a huge banner advert for High Speed Gas across the front of Cardiff Central station, which hid the legend ‘Great Western Railway’. (On display again since 1985.)
It wasn’t our only big fuel switch. When we moved into our house in Winnipeg Drive, Lakeside, in 1971, we inherited a coal burning central heating boiler. I remember a frightening drama soon after. The pressure gauge on the boiler was moving into the danger zone, and Mum and my sister were getting worried it was going to blow up. (Dad was in Japan at the time on a coveted Winston Churchill fellowship.) My uncle Bert came to the rescue, and I think they poured water over the furnace to put the boiler out and end the crisis. Soon after, we switched to gas central heating, and the coal shed became a storage room.
Gasholders like the famous one behind the Oval cricket ground in London were a familiar part of the urban landscape for years. Originally they were part of a town’s gas works, storing the gas produced there. For the past 50 years they have stored gas from the North Sea, but from the 1990s onwards they were condemned as unnecessary and few now survive. How ironic that Britain’s acute lack of gas storage capacity is such a feature of the growing fuel crisis. (The country has storage for just four or five days’ winter demand; Germany has 16 times as much.) The government’s decision allow the closure of the Rough storage facility in the North Sea in 2017 now looks like an act of self harm. Maybe we shouldn’t have pulled down all those iconic gasholders.
PS: I played a very minor part in the privatisation of British Gas in 1986. I was a management trainee for Nationwide in Newport, Wales, and gave a presentation to British Gas employees in Cardiff explaining the sharesave account used for the staff share purchase scheme.
PPS: we even had a gas fridge when I was very young, but got rid of it before gas conversion.