1953 And All That

Today is my birthday, and I reach the grand old age of 66. Six years ago was the day I officially retired from work although, as it was a Monday that year too, my last actual working day was the previous Friday, the 13th – an easy date to remember! To mark my milestone birthday my two wonderful daughters took me out for the day on Saturday 14th, which if you so desire you can read about in A Celebration. For the actual birthday I went to an exhibition at the British Museum (rock ‘n’ roll or what!) and also posted a piece on my blog. This was rather different from my usual – if there is such a thing – and I shared it again three years ago. As most of you won’t have been following my blog then, let alone six years ago, I thought I’d share an updated version to celebrate turning 66. As bingo fans will know, 66 is called ‘clicketty-click,’ which I think must derive from the noise our joints make at that age when we stand up.

So what was 1953 actually like? It was a year of some momentous occurrences, and that’s before you even consider my birth! This isn’t a standard narrative article: what I’m doing is giving you a flavour of the year in which I was born. There are some clickable links, some videos you can watch straight from here, some pictures, a couple of lists and some more words. I had loads of fun when I first researched this, and again in updating it: I hope you will enjoy it too. There is a lot here and it is probably far too much to take in at one go, so do feel free to revisit if you are exhausted before the end!

I was talking about this a couple of weeks before the original post with a friend at work, and when I told him what I was doing he showed me the wonderful Pathe News website. This is worth repeat visits, as it carries a huge number of clips from  bygone years. It’s ideal for anyone who, like me, loves those old newsreel films with the terribly terribly posh voiceovers! The only problem is that as the site is aimed at getting you to buy the clips at ridiculous prices they don’t seem to let you embed them in the same way that YouTube does. So I’ve had to make do with some clickable links – not too many, as you can make a cup of tea while you wait for some of them to load, but they really are worth it! The first of these is the Pathe News Coronation Year Review, The Crowning Year which is a ten minute run through some of the year’s most important events. Not all, by a long way, but it’s a lovely snapshot of an historic year. Not that I was aware of what was happening, especially as the two biggest events happened while I was still an expected arrival, but I was lucky enough to be born in the year which saw the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the first ascent of Mount Everest. Beat that!

As another taster of what Pathe News was covering that year, and for a glimpse at fashionable home décor, here’s The Queen at the Ideal Homes Exhibition – absolutely spiffing! I have a couple more slices of Pathe 1953, but I’ll save those for later.

To give you an idea of that year was like, here is a totally random selection of things that happened in 1953:

28 Jan – Derek Bentley (the ‘let him have it’ case) was executed at Wandsworth Prison

31 Jan to 1 Feb – a North Sea flood killed 1,836 in the Netherlands, 307 in the UK and several hundreds more at sea

5 Feb – Disney’s Peter Pan premiered (there will be a clip of this later)


1 March – Death of Joseph Stalin, the man who loved rewriting history (a certain President seems to be adopting him as a role model!)

Seems like a nice chap!

Seems like a nice chap!

13 April – Ian Fleming published the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in the UK. Little did he know what he was unleashing on the world! To be honest, the book feels a little dated now, but there has been the occasional movie of Bond books, I think?

Where it all began

Where it all began

29 May – Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest (video by The Guardian). Nowadays, people who attempt this climb are armed with all sorts of support which wasn’t available in 1953, which in my eyes makes this an incredible achievement:

2 June – Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey – contrary to popular belief, this did actually happen in colour. This clip is from a full length video of the event, which you can buy from places like Amazon, I believe, and is copyright of Granada Ventures:

23 July – Howard Hawks’ film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell) was released

What a stunning pair! Or two

What a stunning pair! Or two

4 Sept – Research on the discovery of REM sleep was first published by Eugene Aserinsky and Nathaniel Kleitman. As I’ve mentioned in several posts, I had a sleep problem, so I couldn’t resist this short cartoon, which I think was originally released in the USA in 1953. Copyright Disney, of course:

26 Sept – Following the end of sweets rationing earlier in the year, the rationing of cane sugar ended in the UK, to the great relief of the sweet-toothed everywhere! I can’t imagine growing up without sweets – but in these more health conscious days sugar is apparently a bad thing. A pity, really.

5 Oct – the UNIVAC 1103 was the first commercial computer to use random access memory. It’s hard to see a connection between this brute and today’s computers, tablets and smartphones, isn’t it!

Yes, this really is a computer!

Yes, this really is a computer!

21 November – the Natural History Museum announced that the skull of the Piltdown Man was a hoax (I gather that this was a big news story at the time – they’ll be telling us that the Earth isn’t flat, next!)

Shame, such a good-looking guy too!

Shame, such a good-looking guy too!

December – the first issue of Playboy was published, Marilyn Monroe was the nude centrefold and it sold 54,175 copies at $0.50 eachPlayboy Issue 1

30 Dec – the first colour television sets went on sale in the US, priced at $1,175. At today’s exchange rate ($1.25 to the £) that equates to £940. In today’s money, however, that would be just over £26,000!First colour tv 1953

I mentioned earlier that I had another couple of links to Pathe News, to give an insight into life in 1953. The first of these is the Boy Scouts’ Soapbox Derby which really is from another age! The second is a group of Carol Singers in Ashford, Kent which is rather nice – to an oldie like me it somehow seems more Christmassy than nowadays, although it is an unfortunate coincidence that Santa bears an uncanny resemblance to a former BBC DJ who was at one point on trial for some unpleasant offences. He was found not guilty, unlike some of his peers.

As I’ve mentioned often in my posts, I love music and it has always played a very important role in my life. So I thought I’d show you what was top of the hit parade (yes, they did call it that!) when I was born. Charts as we know them today had only been introduced in 1952 – previously they had counted sales of sheet music – and sources differ as to what actually was No.1 at the time. As far as I can make out, though, the No.1 in the UK, for the first of six weeks, was Guy Mitchell, with Look At That Girl

And in the USA it was Les Paul and Mary Ford, Vaya Con Dios, enjoying the sixth of nine weeks at No.1


Reviews of the year always do these, so I thought I should follow suit. Among those who share my year of birth are Lucinda Williams – wonderful singer/songwriter; Carl Hiaasen – writer of some of the funniest novels I’ve ever read; Tony Blair – after dinner speaker, world traveller, waste of space; Mike Oldfield – the man with the Tubular Bells; Pierce Brosnan – been in a few films; Victoria Wood – brilliant writer, actor, comedian, singer etc etc, now no longer with us, sadly; Michael Portillo – bouffant-haired railway traveller and former Tory government minister; Keith Allen – the Sheriff of Nottingham on the BBC, loads of other acting roles, father of two vaguely well-known kids; Cyndi Lauper – who just wants to have fun; Nanci Griffith – another great singer/songwriter; Nigel Mansell – the boring racing driver, used to go ‘Brum Brum’ to himself as he drove round the circuits; and Kim Basinger – blimey, I feel old!

And these are just a few of those who departed in 1953: Hank Williams – country musician; the aforementioned Joseph Stalin; Arnold Bax – British composer; Sergei Prokoviev – Russian composer; Dylan Thomas – playwright who wrote Under Milk Wood, set in the fictional town of Llaregub (read it backwards); Django Reinhardt – the very talented French guitarist; John Christie – the Rillington Place serial killer who has since been the subject of stage, movie and TV adaptations of his gruesome life; and Guccio Gucci, who began a fashion house – guess which one!

In these days of Brexit – and our (hopefully temporary) Prime Minster, who is a fan of his, it is appropriate that I mention Sir Winston Churchill, who won the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature, and may or may not have done a Bob Dylan in accepting it.

Churchill accepting the Nobel, according to the caption - his wife went to Sweden to pick it up!

Churchill accepting the Nobel, according to the caption, though the Nobel website says his wife went to Sweden to pick it up!

To round off, I’m going to add a few more videos for you to dip into if you feel so inclined. They aren’t in any particular order, and the only connection between them is that they date from 1953. Firstly, the famous film of the train journey from London to Brighton, which the BBC often used to show as a filler in the 60s when live broadcasts didn’t go to plan:

And I couldn’t do 1953 without Stanley Matthews’ FA Cup Final, with commentary by Kenneth Wolstenholme, who was the voice of football as I grew up:

From a 21st century perspective this one is hysterical (they sure knew how to have fun, and that Betty – what a gal!):

Do you fancy a trade advert? It seems they couldn’t afford a voiceover, or maybe that profession had yet to be invented, thereby creating work for countless actors who couldn’t get any real roles. There was clearly a job for someone with a wobbly hand to roll the script, though:

Or a film trailer, for Peter Pan – great special effects here. The original clip I used for this is no longer available to UK viewers (thanks, Walt) so I’m sharing a more recent clip for the DVD release:

I could go on for ages, but I’ll stop here. I’ll leave you with one final one, a news story that caught my eye. At that time, this must have been revolutionary, and I can’t begin to imagine the prejudice Christine Jorgensen must have endured after this blaze of publicity :

If you’ve got this far I really do applaud you, but there are no prizes, I’m afraid. Not even one of those shiny capes they usually give out at the end of marathons! I really do hope you’ve found something to interest and entertain you and that I’ve given you an idea of what 1953 was like – not that I really knew, of course! It does seem, in many ways, a more innocent time, but consider that it was only eight years after the end of WW2 and was the dawning of an age of rapid social, cultural and technological growth and you’ll get a sense of the world in which I grew up.

Have fun – I hope you enjoy playing with this stuff as much as I have.


The Ongoing Nightmare

A year ago today – April Fool’s Day, in case you hadn’t noticed – I wrote a little piece I called ‘Nightmare’. In full, this post read:

Taking liberties with the format, a little piece of 100 word flash ‘fiction,’ especially for today:

“It’s April 1 2020. The news is worrying. The UK General election is coming fast, and the country is veering towards a post-Brexit win for Nigel Farage’s renamed UK National Socialist Party. President Trump has just declared war on Mexico for its continuing refusal to pay for his wall, and has threatened Scotland with armed retaliation for the nationalisation of his golf course. President Putin and Wendy Deng now control her ex-husband’s media empire: their newspaper, Pravda of London, has begun circulating.

Am I dreaming? Is this real? A bad April Fool’s Day joke? Or is the world really stumbling towards oblivion?”

Far-fetched? I hope so, but there is so much happening now that makes me worried about our future. I hope I’m wrong! Happy April Fool’s Day!”

A year on, it seems an appropriate time to revisit this. Whilst the blossoming romance between Vladimir Putin and Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife doesn’t appear to have taken off I don’t think I was far wrong with the rest of that. I wrote it nearly three months before the UK referendum and seven months before the US election. Both my main nightmare scenarios came true, and the world now feels a scarier, less stable place as a result.

Whilst I could go on at length about the Orange One, on his mission to destroy the world in four years or fewer, my focus today is on my own country. It can’t have escaped any Briton’s notice that on Wednesday, 29 March, the letter from our Prime Minister was delivered to the EU, giving notice of the country’s intent to invoke Article 50 and withdraw from the EU in two years’ time. This has been described by some commentators as the most significant political act for this country since WW2. I’d go further: it’s probably the most significant act since Magna Carta was signed in 1215. It will change the whole shape of our country in ways that no one can predict and, on the basis of what we have seen since the referendum last June, I fear that many of these changes will be for the worse.

I don’t think even the most ardent Remainer would argue that there is nothing wrong with the EU. Rumours of corruption have long existed, and the suspicion that it is a vehicle for certain countries to promote their own agenda has long been present. I remember when we joined it was the European Economic Community (EEC) – in other words, a trading organisation. Since then – following the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 – it has expanded and become a more political union, moving towards a kind of federal United States of Europe, and opposition to that is what has, in my view, brought about the Brexit situation (how I hate that made-up word!). A great statesman said these words in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of WW2:

“We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living.”

That statesman was Winston Churchill, who had the vision to see that the US of E approach was needed for future stability. But Churchill was also a good symbol of the UK’s ambivalence towards this: in 1930 he gave a speech in which he said that Britain would always stand alone, and by 1953 he was saying that Britain wouldn’t be part of Europe! This is tied up with the issue of sovereignty, which gave rise to the Leave campaign’s claim that we were ‘taking our country back.’ Taking it back from whom, exactly? It wasn’t as though the UK had been the most committed member of the EU, was it? We had refused to adopt the Euro as our currency, had negotiated a large rebate on our contributions, and had expressed opposition to many EU objectives and wishes – the pan-European defence force being one such example. I don’t feel any less British than I did in 1973 when we joined the EEC, nor do I expect to feel any more British from 2019 onwards. Anyway, I’d challenge anyone to come up with a meaningful definition of what being British means, in terms of our ‘independence’ from Europe. My suspicion is that it will mean we become a nation seen as Little Englanders, convinced of our own superiority over ‘Johnny Foreigner,’ with all the xenophobic connotations that has. There has been much evidence since the vote to support this: after all, the Leave campaign’s main appeal was to our innate racism and the promise of reducing immigration (coupled with their lies on finances, and that bloody bus!).

The formal notification of our departure, together with the other 27 EU countries’ initial statement on their negotiating position, has highlighted for me the difficulties we will face as a country. Only a fool, or a myopic Brexiter, could believe that we will obtain equally favourable trading terms with those 27 countries from outside the EU. Notions of trade with the rest of the world appear to be based on an idea of Make Britain Great Again being to return to ‘traditional’ markets. The very ones that we have traded with less and less in recent years. All this at a time when one of the major markets – the US – is moving towards protectionism of its own industries. I can’t see a strong financial future coming out of this, realistically.

Politically, the situation is a shambles. The government tells us that as a nation we have a great future. But Scotland voted by a wide margin to remain in the EU and is now demanding a second independence referendum – after the ‘once in a lifetime’ vote of 2014. So, on the one hand, the PM is telling us how much better things will be when we come out of one union, whilst trying to explain the exact opposite in respect of our own country. Good luck with that – it may need more than the politician’s usual two faces to pull that one off! There’s also the issue of Gibraltar. Despite its proximity to Spain it has been a British territory since 1713. Gibraltar saw a huge margin in favour of staying in the EU, but is now faced with managing a volte face to stay ‘British.’ Spain already seems to have seen Brexit as an opportunity to raise this again, and whilst it does seem to be an outdated bastion of a colonial past, if Gibraltar sees itself as British, rather than Spanish or European, that needs to be respected. Gunboats in the harbour, anyone?

My feelings of disquiet about our uncertain future are, I believe, shared by many. The well-attended marches in London and other cities last weekend attest to this. Not that the BBC reported them to any degree. The simple act of delivering a letter was a momentous act, and I hope I’m wrong in thinking that the government is clueless as to how they will follow it up. We are already seeing falling exchange rates and higher prices, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. Things are going to get much worse before there can be any hope of seeing benefits. As Churchill also once said:

Our average voters have proved him right. Isn’t democracy wonderful!