1954 through the eyes of an Englishman

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The BEV Retrospective - 1954.

Following his military coup the previous year, on February 25 Gamal Abdel Nasser becomes premier of Egypt.

The French had been tied up in North Vietnam by an increasingly strong Viet Minh. The latest move by the communist forces had been to harass the French by attacking into and through Laos. The French response was a decision to fortify and hold the small town of Dien Bien Phu taken by their paratroopers the previous year, which was strategically situated close to the Laotian border, thus threatening the Viet Minh supply lines into Laos.

The French were unaware of the enemy's possession of heavy artillery, and in any case discounted the possibility that such weapons could be got into position on the surrounding hills because of the difficult terrain. The Viet Minh proved more resourceful than they expected. They dismantled their guns and man hauled them into positions surrounding the French. Beginning on March 13th, a desperate fight ensued, in which the French were eventually decisively beaten in May.

Despite the substantial aid the French had been and were receiving from the US, this was a mortal blow, and the war between the Viet Minh and the French was ended later that year by the Geneva Accords that partitioned Vietnam into North and South.

A short time before this, Eisenhower had made a speech expounding his "domino theory". This asserted that if one land in a region came under the influence of communism, then surrounding countries were likely to follow like the collapse of a line of dominoes when you knock down the first against the second. The theory rather specifically referred to South East Asia.

On July 15 the Boeing 707 made its maiden flight, and in September, USS Nautilus - the first nuclear-powered submarine, was commissioned by the US Navy.

1954 saw the opening of the ancestor of all modern malls at Southfield Michigan. It comprised a central department store surrounded by a two story shopping centre with about 100 stores, all enclosed within a large car park. It is reckoned that this building heralded the beginning of urban sprawl in the USA.

In the UK, on July 4 food rationing was ended when the rationing of meat ceased. This is not to say that meat became cheap. A British university student - Roger Bannister - became the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes - 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds to be exact, run at Oxford University. Needless to say, the British media made a great fuss about this.


On the medical front, 1954 saw the large scale testing of the American physician and researcher Jonas Salk's polio vaccine. This was one of the first double-blind tests; a method of testing that has since become standard. Half of the children treated received the vaccine, and half received a placebo. It was a great success and the incidence of this killing and crippling disease was soon to be dramatically reduced. This was also the year of the first kidney transplant. In December, Dr. Joseph Murray and his team in Boston gave someone else's kidney to a critically ill 23 year old man, thus establishing a practice that has subsequently saved many thousands of lives.

IBM continued to make the running in the field of commercial computing. In April it introduced the IBM 704, the first mass produced computer that had floating point calculations - operations on numbers like 123.4567 - implemented in hardware. IBM would sell 123 of these systems.

A defence electronics firm, Texas Instruments, had bought patent rights to produce Germanium transistors from Western Electric in 1952. The following year they began research into the fabrication of transistors using Silicon. Now in 1954 they introduced the first commercial Silicon junction transistor and the first transistor radio. The radio used Germanium transistors though since at that time the Silicon transistors would have been far too expensive.


The first form classroom at Bingley Grammar was actually the woodwork room. The woodwork teacher, Mr. Laycock, would perform the morning ceremony of roll call and announcements as we stood behind carpenters benches. Our possessions were kept in lockers in the corridor outside the woodwork room.

In the spring of that first-form year, I became involved in my first entrepreneurial activity. My mother had taught me a couple of years before how to make 'Elderflower Champagne'. This simple fizzy drink, made from the flowers of the Elder tree, lemons, sugar, and yeast, was quick to make, refreshing and tasty.
I collected a significant number of screw-top quart 'pop' bottles. Then you'd mix up the brew, allow it to ferment for about 24 hours and bottle it. A day or two later it would be pressurized and fizzy, and if you didn't get it right, explosive. I'd fit as many of these bottles as I could into my school knapsack, and sell them during morning break. The stuff was quite popular, and though I didn't sell it for an enormous sum - I can't remember how much, possibly sixpence per bottle - it was a useful addition to an twelve-year-olds income.

Initially, my only other source of income was the small amount of pocket money I got each Saturday from my parents, and my school dinner money. Having been completely put off school dinners at primary school I never had anything to do with them when I got to the grammar school. Instead, I'd either starve, or walk into Bingley at lunch time and buy peanuts and raisins or some similar instant food. Neither source of finance being sufficient, I eventually got myself a paper round where I would deliver to houses on the south side of the River Aire in the area opposite to where we lived, from a small newsagents shop located just by the south end of Cottingley Bridge.

I was still ahead of the grammar school chemistry course, but there was new stuff in biology, physics, and math. I can not remember the math teacher's name; but he was referred to universally in the school as Bodmas, as in the chant 'brackets, of, division, multiplication, addition, and subtraction'. We also had to do French as a first foreign language, and it was popular in the school at that time to goad the French teacher - Mrs. Shearer, also the headmistress - by insisting that 'petite means small'. She always insisted that it be translated as 'little'.

Chunk of Galena crystal.

Could this be my ditch?
We had a particularly good geography teacher called Mr. Brown, who taught regional geography by using those semi-vulgar limerick lines where the initial letters remind you of sequences of places, things, or activities.

At that time, my favourite metal was lead, for the simple reason that it was easy to melt, and you could cast things using molten lead. Of course it was also poisonous, but the poisonous nature of lead was not stressed in those days, since it was the principal ingredient of all household paints, and was widely used for plumbing. Nobody really gave it a second thought.

In this context, I became interested in the old lead mines that existed at various places in the limestone country up in the Yorkshire Dales to my north, and north west. There had been mines dating from mediaeval times, and in use perhaps until the end of the 18th century on Grassington Moor, and on the moors above Pately Bridge further to the east.

Grassington is a village about 6 miles to the north of Skipton, the last reasonably large town in going west up the Aire Valley, about 20 miles from where I lived. During school holidays I would pack myself a lunch in a small ex-army pack that I had acquired, and hitch-hike up the valley to Grassington. These were the days before hitch-hiking got a bad name because of sexual assaults and murders and such.

Once there I'd walk up to the moor - a couple of miles uphill to the north - and explore the spoil heaps from the old mines. You could find chunks of lead ore - Galena - that the miners had missed in the old days, and I used to bring these home with great glee. You could also find bits of Barytes and Calcite that were associated with the old lead seams.
One day when I was there I discovered an even greater treasure. In the middle of the area I frequented there were the remains of an old mine building, and about half a mile that I thought was about due west of this I discovered a stretch of ditch that was littered with old 0.303 brass cartridge cases. I picked up quite a few, and resolved to come back later and collect a large quantity. I did some reading to discover that the moor had been used as a shooting range by the army at some time in the past. Maybe the Bradford Pals learned to use a rifle there before they went off to the Somme battle in WW1 to be butchered like cattle.

Of course when I went back I could not find the place again. The moor is quite a big place, and pretty featureless, and my recollection of distance and direction from the old building was obviously not as good as I had thought. I've often wondered if the cartridge cases are still there. It's a bleak place where very few people go.

Later, I also discovered that you could sell lead to a scrap metal merchant for decent money, and at that point I became attached to copper also for the same reason. I had further cause to regret my inability to find the cartridge cases. Builder's rubble, the heaps of rubbish behind people's garden sheds, and the contents of attics and cellars became even more interesting.

At home, my parents had what was then known as a radiogram. This was a fairly large piece of furniture that sat in the corner of the living room, under the shelf that held the TV. It comprised a radio, a gramophone, and a storage compartment for records. In the record compartment my parents had quite a few elderly 12 inch 78rmp singles, mostly of Italian operatic arias, with some bits of orchestral music. When left to my own devices I would listen to these from time to time. This, in combination with odd pieces I heard on the BBC Third Program got me started with an interest in classical music, which has persisted.
In September it was on to the second form. My mother relented at this point and sent me to school in long pants. Then geography teacher - Mr Brown became our form supervisor. With my new pants I melted into the background but continued to be top of the class.


The critically acclaimed movie in the US was Elia Kazan "On the Waterfront" starring Marlon Brando. This won best picture, director, actor, and supporting actress awards. Top of the box-office list were "White Christmas", and a Disney rendering of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea". "On the Waterfront" was not even in the top ten.

Belles of St Trinians.
Two classic British films were released, both black and white, and both of which I can watch again to this day.

The WW2 movie "The Dam Busters" chronicled RAF Bomber Command's efforts to destroy the strategically important Ruhr dams in Germany. It starred Michael Redgrave as Barnes Wallis - the inventor of the 'bouncing bomb', and Richard Todd as Wing Commander Guy Gibson, who had led the wartime mission. It had a rather famous theme tune by Eric Coates.

In complete contrast, the film "The Belles of St Trinians", about the goings on at a girl's boarding school imprinted on the British psyche the vision of schoolgirls in mini skirts and suspender belts as the ultimate in provocative and kinky. Ah, happy days!

The top hits in the US were frankly slop! You could chooses from a selection like "Oh My Papa", "Make Love To Me" (Doris Day or Joe Stafford), or "Little Things Mean a Lot".
However, on 24th, Sun Records of Memphis boss Sam Phillips discovered Elvis Presley. He pulled in two session musicians - Scotty Moore and Bill Black to audition Presley, and this led to a session where Presley recorded "That's All Right", and the bluegrass song "Blue Moon of Kentucky". The two were paired on a single that made the charts in the south.

At about the same time, Bill Haley, who had changed the name of his group to the Comets made a record called "Rock Around the Clock", and also had a hit with one called "Shake, Rattle And Roll".

I was to remain unaware of these recordings for some time.

The UK was little if any better. As an example, try "The Happy Wanderer" - a song by a German childrens choir.

In the UK, broadcasting was deregulated by the Tory government, making possible the future development of commercial television channels and bringing to an end the monopoly of the BBC.

The second James Bond book - "Live and let Die" - was published.

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