Empire of Light and Cardiff cinema memories

Above: the cinema in Empire of Light

Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light was not the film I was expecting. I was looking forward to a moving story about a neglected seaside cinema lovingly brought back to life. (Think Cinema Paradiso, Margate-style.) Instead, it was a far starker and more complicated tale of early Eighties Britain, with racism, mental illness and misogyny centre-stage.

I’ll share my thoughts on Empire of Light later. But this post is an unashamed exercise in nostalgia. The film revived long-dormant memories of childhood trips to the cinema in 1970s Cardiff. Going to the pictures (as parents, aunts and uncles described a trip to the cinema) was a very different experience 50 years ago, and Empire of Light brilliantly captures the mood of the time.

The first film I remember seeing in a cinema was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on its release in 1968 when I was five. We also saw Earthquake, a 1974 disaster movie, in Elephant & Castle when we were staying in London for a weekend. (It featured sound effects designed to simulate an earthquake.) But most of my childhood big screen outings were in my hometown, Cardiff, Wales.

One Christmas, my father Bob Skinner took me to the old Globe cinema in Roath to see A Christmas Carol, which I now realise would have been the version that came out when Dad was 12 in 1938. (Dad’s favourite film.) The photos above capture the venue exactly as I remember it, with a bush growing out of the roof, and a shabby auditorium. (The moniker ‘flea-pit’ could have been inspired by the 1970s Globe.) In those days, films were often played on a loop, which gave rise to the expression ‘this is where I came in’. Sure enough, we stayed long enough to see the film starting again! Dad tells me that the cinema was run by a Welsh rugby international, whose wife worked in the box office. It was one of the first venues to show foreign films. The Globe closed in the 1980s, not long after my friend Anthony and I watched Return of the Jedi there – the only early Star Wars film I watched in a cinema.

Continue reading

Captain Boycott, Coventry and the origins of cancel culture

Captain Boycott by Spy, Vanity Fair 1881

Cancel culture is a hot topic in today’s world. It’s seen as a product of our aggressive, confrontational online society, with its culture wars.

But cancel culture is likely to have been a feature of life since early humans started living in communities. This thought only struck me when my son Owen was researching for a school talk on cancel culture. My mind went back to a class room at Cardiff High School, Wales, in 1979, and a lesson on British and Irish history with our wonderful O level teacher, Dr Davies. Back then, the name ‘Boycott’ was associated with cricket: the Yorkshire cricketer Geoffrey Boycott was in his pomp, having completed his 100th first-class century two years before. Dr Davies told us of another Boycott, who gave his name to the English language after he was ‘boycotted’ by a community in the west of Ireland in the 1880s. In other words, he was cancelled.

Charles Boycott was the agent of Lord Erne, a hated landowner in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. After Erne refused to accept the tenants’ plea for more affordable rents, Boycott tried to evict them. The community was outraged, and pressured people working for Boycott and local shops to refuse to deal with him. Boycott wrote a letter to The Times in London, which created sensational news stories around the world. Boycott left Ireland in disgrace soon after.

“The shopkeepers have been warned to stop all supplies to my house, and I have just received a message from the postmistress to say that the telegraph messenger was stopped and threatened on the road when bringing out a message to me and that she does not think it safe to send any telegrams which may come for me in the future for fear they should be abstracted and the messenger injured. My farm is public property; the people wander over it with impunity. My crops are trampled upon, carried away in quantities, and destroyed wholesale.

extract From charles boycott’s letter to the times, 14 october 1880

Essay in Irish history: my O level mock history paper, Cardiff High School, 1979

The treatment of Boycott gave a huge boost to the campaign for justice for Ireland’s rural tenants. Ireland was then part of the United Kingdom, and prime minister William Gladstone recognised that solving the land question was critical if he was to achieve his mission of ‘pacifying Ireland’. Parliament passed an Irish land act within months, in 1881, meeting the demand for the ‘three Fs’: fixed tenure, fair rents, and free sale of leases. A long-ago example of how cancel culture can force dramatic, historic reform.

Sent to … Coventry. Photo: BBC

As I reflected on that Irish boycott, I remembered another phrase that proves cancel culture’s long history. When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual to hear of people being ‘sent to Coventry’ when they were being ostracised or given the cold shoulder. Some say that the expression dates back over 470 years to the English civil war, when Royalist prisoners would be taken to Coventry, where they would be shunned by the locals.

I will know better next time someone claims cancel culture is a uniquely 21st century issue!

Note: Charles Boycott was not an army captain. It seems he was given the title of captain by the local community, who did not intend it as a compliment.

In praise of journalist Ian Jack

Ian Jack’s Guardian by-line photo

We’ve lost a fine writer and observer of British life and politics with the death of Ian Jack.

My spirits always rose on a Saturday when I spotted one of Jack’s beautifully observed Guardian columns. It helped that I’m fascinated by the topics he made his own, such as Britain’s industrial heritage, and the long-lost glories of our railways and maritime traditions. Who else would have linked the disastrous new rail timetables of 2018 with the misreading 153 years earlier of a timetable that caused the Victorian railway crash that ruined the health of Charles Dickens? (In that piece, Jack also highlighted that Dickens was travelling with his lover when their train crashed into the river Beult.)

He turned wistful memories into compelling copy. Take this example, a childhood memory of a 1950s dining car experience, woven into a column mourning Chiltern Railways’ axing of on-train catering services:

Continue reading

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.

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?

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.