CHICAGO WAS MY HOME for the last few months of 1963. My father was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago during that period. While we were in Chicago, President John F Kennedy was assassinated. However, that was not the only momentous event that I recall from that time,
My best friend in London, whom I had known for about seven years, Nicholas Gilks who is no longer alive, sent me an airletter in which he wrote that he could not wait for me to come back to London, not because he was just missing me, but because he wanted me to watch the new, exciting television programme that had begun whilst I was away. The programme, which still runs today in 2022, was “Dr Who”. It was first broadcast on the 23rd of November, the day after Kennedy was shot.
Well, “Dr Who” was certainly a fine programme. I used to watch it at the Gilks’s home because we did not have television at our family home, and never ever did. To reach my friend’s home, I walked. On the way, I used an unlit pathway that runs between Hampstead Way and Temple Fortune Lane, where Nicholas lived. Frankly, the ominous Daleks that starred in the programmes every week terrified me so much so that I was afraid of walking home along that pathway in the dark. So, Dr Gilks, my friend’s father, used to accompany me to that dark passageway and waited till I reached the far end of it. For this, I was very grateful.
Today, a sunny Sunday morning, the 20th of November 2022 (almost 59 years after Kennedy’s death), we walked along the Hammersmith riverside and reached the Riverside Studios, where we stopped for a coffee in its superb new café. Standing next to the doorway and pointing its weapons at the tables in the café stands a real-life Dalek. Why is it there you might ask. The answer is that between 1964 and 1968, “Dr Who” was filmed in the Riverside Studios, which was then a BBC studio complex. Furthermore, and worryingly, it was from the water beneath the nearby Hammersmith Bridge that the Daleks commenced their attempt to invade the Earth.
Luckily, the sun was shining brightly and there were plenty of people out and about. So, there was little chance that my childhood fears about the robotic Daleks would be awakened.
FROM A FIELD on my friend’s farm in Essex, I could see the mid-morning sun glistening on the water of the estuary of the River Blackwater. Moored out on the water, there was a trawler with a red hull and white superstructure. A tall aerial mast, just about visible through the heat haze, was mounted on its deck in front of the bridge housing. When my friend saw me taking a photograph of the vessel, she mentioned what it is, and this caused distant memories to surface in my mind.
When I was a child in the early 1960s, I had a Phillips radio in my bedroom. I was a keen listener and enjoyed exploring the various stations broadcasting from all over the world. It was during this period and with this radio that, for example, I was able to tune into the propaganda-rich programmes transmitted from Albania by Radio Tirana. Less exotic than this was Radio Luxembourg, which unlike the few rather straightlaced, advert-free BBC stations, pumped out a stream of non-stop ‘pop’ music, punctuated by commercials for products, which were not aimed at audiences in little Luxembourg but instead at consumers in the UK. In those days, I was not much interested in pop music, but I enjoyed the commercials. The only one that I can remember was for a particular football pool company.
Radio Luxembourg was founded in 1933, long before I became one of its listeners. Located outside the UK, it was not subject to any of the legislation that ensured the BBC had a monopoly as a broadcaster in Britain.
In 1964, the Irish businessman Ronan O’Rahilly (1940-2020) and Alan Crawford came up with the idea of broadcasting to the UK from a ship moored in international waters. This way both the restrictive laws that protected the BBC, and the record company’s control of pop music broadcasting in the UK, were overcome. Radio Caroline was born and began broadcasting non-stop pop music from beyond Great Britain’s territorial waters. Caroline was soon followed by other radio stations, such as Radio London, which all made use of the same wheeze to get around the restrictive legislation in the UK. Radio Caroline has had a long and sometimes difficult history since its formation. This is described in great detail on the company’s website (www.radiocaroline.co.uk).
Our friend in Essex told me that what I was photographing is the boat from which Radio Caroline transmitted. I was surprised because, for no good reason, I had believed that Caroline was a thing of the past. The boat moored in the Blackwater is the Ross Revenge, formerly used as a fishing trawler. It was not the first boat to house Radio Caroline; it served this purpose between 1983 and 1991. A radio station bearing the name Caroline still functions. What is important about Radio Caroline and other so-called ‘pirate’ stations is that their existence had some considerable influence in causing the BBC to commence broadcasting pop music. Radio 1, which replaced the BBC’s Light Programme, was started in 1967 in response to the popularity of the pirate stations amongst the listening public.
I am glad that we were shown around our friend’s farm and that I spotted that boat in the estuary. Although I did not often listen to Radio Caroline, seeing the vessel made me recall my early radio receiver (‘wireless’) and the joy it gave me during my early teens.
WHEN I WAS A CHILD, the family possessed a radio, which could receive long wave, medium wave, and short-wave signals. It was made by Pye, contained in a dark brown wooden cabinet, and took several minutes to ‘warm up’ before anything could be heard from it. It was faced with glass screen behind which there was a list of radio stations and a vertical cursor that could be moved across the list to tune into different stations. The stations listed were, to my young mind, quite exotic. They included places such as Berlin, Budapest, Beromunster, Moscow, Prague, Monte-Carlo, Leipzig, Hilversum, Vienna, Sofia, Cairo, and Luxembourg. One of the places on the tuning screen sounded far less exotic to me: Daventry. I knew that this place was somewhere in the English Midlands, and that gave it less appeal to me than places further afield and across the sea.
Recently, we spent a couple of nights near Rugby in Warwickshire. After leaving it to travel eastwards, we noticed that we would be passing through Daventry, and decided to stop there for breakfast. Prior to our arrival in that small town in Northamptonshire, I believed that it would turn out to be a place of little interest apart from the fact that I remembered having seen its name on our old radio back home in the early 1960s. How wrong I was to have pre-judged Daventry so harshly.
We parked next to a modern shopping centre, attractively arranged around an open space in which people were enjoying refreshments at outdoor tables and chairs. This contemporary shopping precinct is close to the High Street, which runs from Market Square to Tavern Lane. This thoroughfare is rich in historic buildings.
Overlooking Market Square is the former Daventry Moot Hall, an 18th century building, and beyond it on a slight elevation is the Holy Cross Church. This neo-classical style church was built between 1752 and 1758 to the design of David Hiorne (1715-1758) of Warwick. Not only does it resemble London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields, but on a smaller scale (and with a far smaller portico), but also many churches built by the British in India during the 18th and 19th centuries. Seeing the church in Daventry reminded me of the far larger St John’s Church in central Calcutta and the Danish church at Serampore on the River Hooghly. Unfortunately, the church in Daventry was not open when we visited it.
At the other end of the High Street, where it continues as the narrower Tavern Lane, there is a curious building with gothic revival features and crenellations. We asked an elderly man about the building and he told us that it used to be the BBC Club. It was then that I remembered that Daventry had connections with radio broadcasting. I recalled seeing the place’s name on our old radio at our home in northwest London. Our informant reminded us that for many years the transmitters near Daventry carried news and other broadcasts from Britain to the rest of the world.
On the 27th of July 1925 at 730 pm, the BBC began broadcasting from its new station at Daventry. At first, these transmissions could be received on crystal radio sets within a 250-mile radius of a circle with Daventry at its centre. Soon after this, broadcasts could be received far further afield. This was further augmented when the BBC installed much more powerful transmitters in about 1927. By the end of WW2, Daventry was transmitting the ‘highbrow’ Third Programme (now, ‘Radio 3’) broadcasts.
In December 1932, Daventry began transmitting programmes to a world-wide audience on the Empire Service. As the threat of war increased during the 1930s, Daventry started transmitting regional services such as The Arabic Service (in Arabic) and The Latin American Service (in Spanish). After WW2 broke out, there were broadcasts in many other foreign languages. Some monitoring of foreign broadcasts was also carried out in Daventry.
During the Cold War that followed the end of WW2, Daventry was involved in the transmission of programmes to people living on the Soviet side of the so-called Iron Curtain. Until its closure in 1992, the radio station and its transmitters at Daventry were continually updated. One of several reasons for its closure was the end of the Cold War following Gorbachev’s leadership of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Now, returning to the gothic revival building at the end of Daventry’s High Street, here is what Norman Tomalin, who worked at Daventry and has written a history of its radio station (www.bbceng.info/Books/dx-world/dx-world.htm), has to say about it:
“For the many thousands of BBC staff who briefly came to Daventry, the BBC Club … was home from home. It provided a central cosy meeting place, a break from the digs, a bar, billiards, table tennis, and photographic rooms and on the top floor, pride of place, a much treasured amateur radio transmitter. Call sign 5XX”
‘5XX’ was the call sign of the first transmitter at Daventry. It was superseded by another ‘5GB’ in 1927.
Our elderly informant told us that he remembered that broadcasts from his hometown used to begin with the words: “Daventry Calling The World”. In his book “Daventry Calling”, Tomalin wrote that the very first broadcast from Daventry began with the words: “Daventry Calling”, for back in 1927, it was not the world that could receive the programmes, only people in the UK.
I wonder how many of the people who listened to broadcasts from Daventry all over the world had any idea where the town was and if they did, did they wonder if it was as great a city as many of the others that appeared on radio tuning dials.
WE WATCHED TELEVISION FOR less than two hours in the whole year of 1993 and decided neither to renew our TV licence nor to watch anything more on our ageing TV set, which we got rid of. At monotonous regularity, we received letters from the TV licensing authority, asking us whether we had a licence and informing that if we did not have one, there would be dire consequences. They were all aggressive and threatening in tone. We always replied that we had no TV. Eventually, my wife got fed up with these annoying missives.
She took the latest threatening letter from the TV licensing authority and wrote a letter on it that went something like this:
“To whom it may concern. We neither own guns nor sell liquor. Neither of the authorities that license these things pester us for licences. We do not possess a television, as we have told you before. Why do you persist in sending us letters regarding TV licences? Please cease forthwith.”
My wife read me her letter and asked me whether I thought it was alright. I asked her in whose name she had signed it. She told me that it was in her maiden name. I told her to go ahead and send it.
For a while, we did not hear any more from the TV licensing authority. Now, we receive differently worded but still threatening letters from the authority, but these are addressed to “The Occupier” rather than to anyone in particular.
A few days ago, at the end of August 2020, there was a small piece in the London ‘Times’ newspaper. It reads as follows:
“Rachel Mackay, a manager for Historic Royal Palaces, gave a sigh when she received a familiar brown envelope addressed to ‘The Current Occupier, Kew Palace, which has not been lived in for two centuries. ‘Oh good,’ she said, ‘it’s the time of year where I have to explain to the TV Licensing Authority why George III hasn’t paid his TV licence since 1820.”
I have attended concerts at BBC recording studios. Before the performance begins, the audience, members of the public, are asked to be very still and silent, so as not to spoil the recording or live broadcast. The audience is politely requested to be so silent that one feels that even the sound of breathing might disturb the event.
With the exception of one western classical music concert in Bombay, audience disturbance is well tolerated at concerts I have attended in India. Pepole arrive and leave the auditorium whenever they feel like. They chat and take photos and often mover from one part of the auditorium to another.
Once, I attended a musical performance that was being relayed ‘live’ on All India Radio. Unlike the BBC recordings and live broadcasts, the audience was far from placid. Throughout the event, there were disturbances as described above, but no one seemed in the slightest disconcerted .
But, all is no longer well with British audiences. Recently, I have been to a few classical music performances in London, at which there has been applause at inappropriate places in the music. An example of this is clapping at the end of a movement of a symphony, rather than at its ending. Maybe, orchestras are getting used to this, but I find it a bit disconcerting.
When I was much younger, my parents often took my sister and me to eat dinner in restaurants.
Before we looked at the menu, my late mother used to examine the plates and cutlery on our table. If there was a blemish on the cutlery or a crack or chip in the porcelain, the waiter would be summoned to replace the defective item(s). Often this delayed the arrival of any food. If we looked reproachfully at my mother, she would say:
“You can eat off cracked plates if you like, but I am not paying good money to eat off bad plates.”
She said this in such a way that meant that really there was no way that any of us could eat off damaged crockery, even if we wanted to.
As the years went by, I used to look at my plate and cutlery carefully as soon as we sat down. If I spotted a defect, I used to casually lay my hand on it so that my mother would not see it. I was always hungry before a meal and wanted to get on with it rather than having to wait for perfect eating utensils to be fetched. Once any defective cutlery/crockery was replaced, the meal could be ordered.
My mother was fond of beef steak. Rather unfashionably for London in the 1960s, she preferred her steak rare, almost what the French call ‘bleu’. This simple request was the real test for a restaurant. Frequently, the rare steak would arrive cold. My mother would then summon the waiter or maitre d’hote.
“My steak is cold.”
“Madame, I will ask the kitchen to heat it for you.”
The steak would then be returned, and my mother would begin cutting it. Soon the waiter would be called again.
“My steak is no longer rare; it is overcooked. Take it away and bring me another one cooked rare and warm.”
Any restaurant that could get this right without fuss, won my mother’s custom. She would then return there frequently.
Today, rare steak is the ‘in thing’. Most good chefs and discerning diners prefer the insides of steaks to be red, if not bloody.
Writing of steaks reminded me of Monty Modlyn (1921-94), a radio presenter and journalist. Occasionally he would speak on the early morning Today programme on the BBC Home Service (now ‘Radio 4’). He would report on steaks and other meat he had eaten. He had a metal ball that he would drop onto pieces of meat. The depth of the indentation made by the ball’s impact was his measure of the meat’s quality. It all sounded a bit mad to me when I listened to him when I was a young boy. Apparently, what he was doing was quite sound. The quality of raw meat can be judged by indenting it with a finger tip and then watching how quickly the indentation disappears. If the meat recovers quickly, then the quality is likely to be lower than if it recovers slowly.