I was born in November 1948. Clement Attlee was the Labour Prime Minister, and the National Health Service (NHS) had been launched just a few months earlier, on 5 July. I was the 160,000th baby born under the NHS, or thereabouts.
I’m now 73, and don’t deny that I probably spend more time than is good for me reflecting on things past. Inevitable I guess, since I look ahead to fewer years than those I’ve already enjoyed.
During my lifetime there have been some remarkable—many tragic—events that historians will analyze and write about for years to come. What world (and local) events have found a place in the recesses of your mind? Where were you at the time? How many of my memories appear on your list?
I grew up in Congleton, Cheshire. For obvious reasons I don’t remember anything about the first couple years or so of my life. In July 1950 the Korean War broke out and continued until an armistice was signed at the end of July three years later. And we’re still living with the fallout from that conflict seven decades later!
On 6 February 1952, King George VI passed away, and his elder daughter Elizabeth (then away in Kenya with her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) ascended the throne as Queen Elizabeth II. I have no recollection whatsoever of that event, and hardly any of the coronation on 2 June 1953. But I do have photographic proof, however, because all the children in our neighborhood in Congleton dressed up for the occasion. The Queen’s accession is topical right now, as she celebrates her Platinum Jubilee, the longest-serving monarch in the country’s history.
We moved to Leek ( a market town in North Staffordshire just 12 miles southeast of Congleton) in April 1956. I’d celebrated my 7th birthday the previous November. The defining event perhaps of 1956 was the Suez Crisis, which lasted for just over a week from 29 October, leading to the humiliation of the United Kingdom and France that jointly had tried to regain authority over the Suez Canal from Egypt. The events of that week mean little to me now, but the one thing that I do remember very clearly was petrol (gasoline) rationing, which began in mid-December and lasted for four months. Handing over coupons in exchange for fuel made quite an impression on my young mind.
Rationing was lifted in May 1957. During the energy crisis of the early 1970s (after I’d already moved to Peru) the UK government contemplated introducing petrol rationing once again, but this did not materialize.
Incidentally, general rationing introduced during World War II lasted until July 1954. I can just about remember running errands for my mother to the corner shop near our house in Moody Street in Congleton, and handing over ration coupons.
October 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Just a month before my 14th birthday. Was that standoff between Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and President Kennedy the closest the world came to full-scale nuclear war? I think the consensus is Yes! I remember that fateful day, 22 October if my memory serves me right when Khrushchev and the Soviets blinked first, and the stand-off between these two nuclear powers began to de-escalate. I was in high school, and there was certainly an air of anticipation, anxiety even, as the deadline approached. We all breathed a sigh of relief when no mushroom clouds appeared on the horizon. That’s how seriously we believed the situation to be, naive or otherwise.
A couple of things jog my memory from August 1963. Yeah, yeah, yeah! On the 23rd, The Beatles released She Loves You, perhaps the hit single that signaled their meteoric rise to fame and fortune.
Having seen them ‘performing’ She Loves You on a Saturday TV program, I realized this was something special. I was fourteen, and staying with an aunt and uncle who kept a pub in Staines.
Only a couple of weeks earlier, one of the most notorious (but badly planned and incompetently executed) robberies took place in Buckinghamshire when a gang held up a Royal Mail train, stealing more than £2.6 million (=£56 million at today’s value). Known as The Great Train Robbery, it was a daring raid and has, over the decades, been absorbed into popular culture. The morning after the robbery, the airwaves were broadcasting nothing but accounts of the previous night’s event, and how the police were already tracking the gang down. Most were eventually brought to justice, although several did flee overseas.
However the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963, 12:30 CST (18:30 GMT) was surely one of the life-defining moments of the 20th century. Everyone knows where they were when his assassination was announced. The whole world was stunned. I had been watching early evening television, when the program was interrupted, maybe a little after 19:00 to announce Kennedy’s death. For the rest of the night there were no further broadcasts, just solemn music, and a static image. It was, undoubtedly, a turning point in American politics. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson won re-election in 1964, and introduced far-reaching civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Movement suffered a significant loss with the assassination of 39 year old Martin Luther King in April 1968. By then the right-wing backlash against the Johnson liberal agenda had begun, and when he decided not to contest the 1968 election, that opened the door to Nixon (and Reagan at the end of the decade after Jimmy Carter’s one-term presidency).
In June 1967, the Six Day War between Israel and a coalition of Arab states (Egypt, Syria, and Jordan) ended in victory for Israel and its annexation of and expansion into Palestinian lands on the West Bank. Almost 55 years on and the world sees this as yet another unresolved conflict and a potential tinderbox in the future. I am unable to offer any support for the Israelis as they continue to expand their stranglehold over the Palestinian territories.
What was the significance in my life? Well, I was studying for and beginning to sit my Advanced Level (university entrance) exams, and my exam anxiety was certainly increased as uncertainty about the outcome of the war, and possible involvement of the superpowers, was contemplated around the world.
During the Christmas 1968 vacation, I was home in Leek from the University of Southampton. As during previous Christmas breaks, I had a temporary job with the Post Office, delivering the Christmas mail. Quite a bit of snow fell during those days, and it was not particularly pleasant trudging around the streets with a heavy sack of mail over my shoulder. Also, I was keen to get back home to watch the latest news from the Apollo 8 mission to the Moon, captained by Frank Borman, and the first crew to leave Earth orbit.
It’s also remarkable to remember that only seven months (and three missions later) that Apollo 11 landed two men on the surface of the Moon in July. I was away in Norfolk on a botany field course. And, much against the wishes of the course tutors, we rented a TV so that we could watch the first steps live.
Richard Nixon had been re-elected POTUS in the November 1972 general election, only to see his presidency unravel in 1973 and 1974 as the Watergate scandal caught up with him, and leading to his resignation in August 1974. After I moved to Peru in January 1973, I did not have day-to-day access to news in English but I did subscribe weekly to Time and Newsweek. I didn’t throw any of the magazines away, not even in August that year when Steph and I decided to move apartments. The pile of magazines came with us. And it was after Nixon’s resignation, and we were thinking about moving once again, that I decided to have another look through all those copies. The American political cartoonists had Nixon’s number from very early on in the scandal, and each week, some of the very best were published. I made a scrapbook of all those cartoons; here’s a link.
Closer to home were The Troubles in Northern Ireland, with a surge in violence in the early 1970s and beyond. Bloody Sunday (on 30 January 1972) was, in some ways, the beginning of the worst of the sectarian violence over three decades until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
Four days before I departed for Lima, on 1 January 1973, the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (EEC) only to leave 47 years later (more of Brexit below).
In April 1975 the Vietnam War effectively came to an end when the army of North Vietnam rolled into Saigon in the south. Three images epitomize the horrors of that war: naked 9 years old Phan Thị Kim Phúc running down the road following a napalm attack on her village (there is a happy ending); the execution of a suspected Vietcong official in Saigon; and the chaotic evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon (reminiscent of the evacuation recently from Kabul)
I was back in the UK by April 1981, launching my second career as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham. In late March 1982 I took a party of MSc students to Israel to attend a two week course on crop wild relatives and their conservation. It was while we were there that Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) in the South Atlantic, claiming that they were sovereign Argentinian territory. We had lots of discussions how the British government would respond, with several of my students dismissing any idea that there would (or could) be any military response so many thousands of miles from the UK. They (and the Argentinians) hadn’t reckoned with The Iron Lady, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The response was swift, and on reflection, quite brutal. The Falklands War lasted a mere ten weeks, ending with defeat for Argentina. It was a war that should never have started. It did however cement Margaret Thatcher’s legacy.
What about the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 26 April 1986 in the Ukraine? To what extent did this have any impact on your community? The whole area around Chernobyl remains a safety exclusion zone. The disaster reminds us of the dangers of lax regulation of a nuclear industry, at a time when countries are looking to disinvest in fossil fuels. The effects were felt as far west as the UK where radioactive caesium-137 was detected in upland areas of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and northern England, affecting the movement of livestock.
One of the most infamous occurrences of the Cold War must surely be the erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, and its aftermath, brutally dividing the citizens of that city. But that all changed in November 1989 when the wall came tumbling down, signalling the collapse over the next few years of the Eastern Bloc of Communist countries, in particular the Soviet Union in December 1991. I passed through the wall on a visit to East Germany in March 1990. Given the current dangerous situation on the Ukraine-Russia border there are those within the Russian hierarchy who wish to turn the clock back.
At the same time, Yugoslavia began to break up between June 1991 and 1992 with the inexorable slide to war in the Balkans between 1992 and 1995. I was working abroad again at that time, and didn’t have regular access to TV news bulletins, so perhaps was ‘spared’ some of the daily horrors of that war even though we were aware of atrocities like the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995.
And talking of moving abroad, there was an event in June 1991 that almost put paid to my travel plans. In the Philippines, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo was the second most powerful eruption of the 20th century. And combined with the arrival of Typhoon Yunya, the towns and villages surrounding the volcano were deluged with volcanic ash and that, mixed with rain, formed a concrete-like layer (lahar) that buried some communities meters deep. Ash fell on Manila 91 km to the southeast and closed the international airport. Ash even fell on Los Baños (my destination) a further 70 km south. With the closure of the airport I did wonder when I might be able to travel to the Philippines to begin my new job at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
Ironically, the eruption of another volcano 19 years later almost delayed my return to the UK after retiring from IRRI. Between 20 March and 23 June 2010, the Icelandic Eyjafjallajökull volcano spewed an enormous ash cloud over much of Europe closing down aviation for several weeks. We left the Philippines on 2 May arriving home the following day.
It must have been mid-morning, 1 September 1997, and Steph and I were shopping in the US embassy commissary in Manila. Another British couple arrived and asked if we’d heard the news that Diana, Princess of Wales had died in a automobile accident in Paris some hours earlier. I can’t deny that I had little time for this rather shallow woman, but she was an iconic celebrity on the world stage. What took me by surprise was the overt outpouring of grief, not only in the UK but in many in the countries around the world. I was amazed how my Filipino staff reacted to her death. Quite extraordinary scenes in London during her funeral.
Another tragic natural disaster was the 26 December 2004 earthquake and tsunami that affected 14 countries surrounding the Indian Ocean, with more than 227,000 persons losing their lives. One aspect of the reporting of the disaster in the British media particularly disgusted me. By then we’d already had daily access to BBC news broadcasts. And as was typical of reporting on disasters around the world, it was assessed by the number of British citizens who lost their lives. It seemed as though all the other deaths were somehow collateral and didn’t matter. It certainly affected the psyche of millions in the region. The Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan on 11 March 2011 was Mother Nature’s repeat performance, but one that was extensively captured on video the destructive power of tidal waves for the first time. It also led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Let’s, for just a moment, turn to something far more positive and uplifting. What could that be? The election of Barack Obama as the 44th POTUS, the first black American to hold that post was not only a momentous occasion in the United States but worldwide. After eight years of Dubya, Obama’s elevation to the highest office in the land was a breath of fresh air. His empathy, charisma, and oratory to inspire set him so apart from his predecessor. Of course he didn’t get everything right. But in light of what was to come after Obama, GW Bush does not, in hindsight, seem to have been the appalling POTUS that many perceived or implied during his eight year occupancy of the White House.
And so to the 2016 general election, when Donald J Trump, Cockwomble-in-Chief became Number 45. What an unmitigated (and dangerous) outcome for the USA.
For many of us in the UK (48% of those who voted) 2016 was also a disastrous year, with the referendum on membership of the European Union (EU) leading to our exit: Brexit! And still Brexiters are trying to conjure up advantages and opportunities of leaving the EU when all the data point in the opposite direction.
As I conclude this post, we are still in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, although the government here in the UK would have us believe otherwise. So many invocations of British exceptionalism over the past two years make me almost ashamed to claim British nationality. Boris Johnson‘s government is mired in scandal and corruption and one can only wonder how he’s managed to hang on this long.
Just at the time when we need a strong government to help rebuild the economy and society as the pandemic wanes (hopefully), and in the face of Russian aggressive moves on Ukraine’s eastern frontier. It seems that we are closer to a wider conflict in Europe than since the Second World War. For f***s sake, what does Vladimir Putin think he’s playing at? While also recognizing that the NATO alliance hasn’t got everything right either, this warmongering on both sides is, to me at least, inexplicable. It’s not as though the world doesn’t have enough issues to confront: emergence from the Covid pandemic, regional conflicts, and climate change to mention just three. I’m sorry to end this post on such a depressing note. I wish I could be more optimistic. Hope springs eternal, but is certainly being challenged right now.