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.

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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.

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.

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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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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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.

My 25 years online

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.

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Cycling The Way of the Roses with Peak Tours

High Hill Lane, Settle – well named!

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.

Eric Morecambe in his hometown

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.

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Climate crisis: the train must take the strain

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.

Family travel – at a cost

Cost

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.

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