1956 through the eyes of an Englishman

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The BEV Retrospective - 1956.

This was not to good year for the UK. For many years, Britain and France had regarded the Suez Canal linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, and hence to the Indian Ocean, as a vital interest. Both countries had relied on it in their domination of colonies in Africa, and for the French in their control of Indochina, and for the British in their control of India. As far back as 1875, Britain had forced the Egyptian Pasha to sell his interest in the canal to Britain, and a conference later in the 19th century had declared the Canal Zone to be a neutral area under British 'protection'. A further treaty in 1936 gave the British more control over the canal, but the Egyptians rejected this treaty in 1951 and by 1954, the British had pulled out, leaving the canal at least nominally in the control of the Suez Canal Company.

Britain and France were therefore less than chuffed when in July, the Egyptian leader, the Egyptian president Nasser, nationalized the company. They pleaded with the US for help in correcting this situation - by this time two thirds of Europe's oil was transported through the canal. The Americans were not moved. Possibly they felt that the US had done enough in the way of bailing out European nations during WW2.

Convinced that Nasser, and by that token his ally the USSR, would have them by the balls if they did nothing, Britain and France hatched a secret plot with Israel. The scheme was that Israel would invade Sinai, and advance toward the canal. Britain and France would then intervene 'to preserve the neutrality of the Canal Zone'.

This suited Israel. Many Palestinians, not surprisingly upset by their expulsion from their homeland and the slaughter of their relatives in the 1948 Arab/Israeli war, had taken to violence against Israel. These days it's called terrorism. Palestinian guerrillas, known as Fedayeen, infiltrated into the country from Egypt and Jordan, and most particularly from the Gaza Strip which was at that time under Egyptian control. These incursions were openly sponsored by Nasser, who was a declared enemy of the Israeli state. The Israelis were also denied the use of the canal, and wished to reinstate their privileges there.

Sunken ships in the Suez Canal.

Soviet tanks reenter Budapest.

The Israelis duly invaded Gaza and the Sinai at the end of October, and in a blitzkrieg style offensive, advanced toward the canal. The British and French, as agreed, offered to intervene and separate the warring armies. Not surprisingly, Nasser declined this kind offer, so the British and French, who already had the navies, aircraft, and troops in position, invaded as planned.

In military terms, the operation was a great success, and the canal was retaken. In political and other practical terms it was a disaster.

For a start, at the first sign of the invasion, Nasser had ordered the sinking of all the ships currently in the canal, rendering it useless for further shipping. Secondly, it immediately became clear that Britain and France were no longer in a position to undertake such independent military adventures in the post-war world.

Earlier in the year, at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in the USSR, Khruschchev had denounced Stalin. He painted a graphic picture of a regime of "suspicion, fear, and terror" built up under Stalin's rule, and described the purges of the late 1930s and Stalin's mismanagement of aspects of the war.

News of this apparent change in attitude at the top encouraged many in Eastern Europe who wished to be free of Soviet control. In October, a student demonstration in Hungary escalated into a national revolution against the Soviet-installed communist government and the occupying Soviet troops. Initially this also appeared to be successful, and by the end of the month it appeared that life was returning to normal and communist control had been ended. At that point though, the Soviet leadership had second thoughts, and a large force invaded Budapest on the 4th of November.

So it was in this direction that the attention of the US was turned when the British and French invaded Egypt. It was diplomatically embarrassing for the US to condemn the Soviet repression in Hungary, while saying nothing about the actions of Britain and France in Egypt. At the same time, the USSR threatened to intervene on Egypt's side and made a lightly veiled threat to use nuclear weapons against London and Paris.

Eisenhower got tough against the UK and France, threatening to sell US reserves of the British pound and thus collapse the British currency. Last, but not least, Saudi Arabia announced an oil embargo against Britain and France, and the US declined to make up the shortfall. Britain and France had no choice but to withdraw with their tail between their legs. This climb-down essentially marked the end of Great Britain and France as global powers, and was the precursor to the independence of the remaining colonies of both Britain and France that occurred over the next several years.

Nasser's standing in the Arab world was greatly enhanced, and the Israeli attack into Sinai more or less guaranteed that there would be retaliation from Egypt at some point in the future.

In Hungary, organized opposition to the Soviets was crushed by November 10th, and mass arrests of those held responsible for the revolution commenced. Soviet control over Central Europe was strengthened, as was the perception that it was unlikely to be reversed.

There were several more nuclear weapon tests all round in this year, including a particularly dirty US one in the Pacific that dumped a load of fall-out on a Japanese fishing boat.

In the US, Dr Martin Luther King was convicted of offences associated with the Montgomery bus boycott, and his home was bombed. The Federal interstate highway system act was signed, and President Eisenhower was re-elected, defeating democrat Adlai E. Stevenson. William Shockley, and his co-workers Brattain and Bardeen were awarded the Nobel prize for physics for their work on the development of the Transistor. Nearby, Fidel Castro and a small group of followers landed on the coast of Cuba.

In Vietnam, elections that were supposed to happen to resolve the partition into north and south, failed to materialize. Instead, US diplomats, who believed that the Geneva Accords gave too much to the north, engineered the creation of the Republic of Vietnam in the south. A staunch anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem was elected as president. It had not been envisaged that partition would be permanent, and the communists in the north were upset, and started an insurgency in the south based on groups of Viet Minh who had gone to ground there following the partition, and who evolved into the Viet Cong. American advisors moved in to help the southern government, and so the stage setting for a looming conflict proceeded.

In Britain, motorists panicked as petrol rationing loomed as a result of the oil embargo resulting from the Suez debacle. In December, there were exceptionally thick fogs associated with atmospheric pollution from domestic and industrial coal burning, with many traffic accidents. On the brighter side, earlier in the year, the English spin bowler Jim Laker took nine Australian wickets for thirty seven runs at a test match at Old Trafford.


It was in this year that the first high-level computer programming language - FORTRAN - was created within the IBM Company for its 704 mainframe computer. The language was conceived and submitted as a proposal to IBM in 1953 by John W. Backus, and a manual for it was produced in 1954. Before that, such computers had been programmed in their native 'assembly language' - a set of mnemonics for their fundamental binary code instructions - which was a highly tedious and time consuming process from which Backus was anxious to escape.

The earliest programmable binary computers had programs that were streams of gibberish that consisted of zeroes and ones. Every digit in maybe 16,000 had to be correctly rendered in the correct order, so writing programs for these machines was a nightmare, and understanding someone else's program was virtually impossible.

10011100 0000000000000001 0000000000000000 0000000000000000
11100011 0000000000000001 1000000000000001 0000000000010000
11100111 0000000000000010 1000000000000001 0000000000010100
11100111 0000000000000100 1000000000000001 0000000000011000
11000000 0000000000000001 0000000000000010 0000000000000000
11000000 0000000000000001 0000000000000011 0000000000000000
11100111 1000000000000001 0000000000000001 0000000000010000
10011101 0000000000000001 0000000000000000 0000000000000000

The groups of digits in these streams encoded instructions - e.g. add, and move - addresses - where in memory should something happen - and actual numbers. Later, someone had the bright idea of writing programs in short words that were an abbreviation of the instruction, and referring to memory addresses by combinations of a name and an offset. Such programs were then converted to the stream of binary gibberish by another computer program called an assembler. An assembly language program might look something like this:

DEF total, SP+16
DEF part1, SP+20
DEF part2, SP+24
... some operations on SP+16, SP+20, and SP+24
MOV R1, total
MOV R2, part1
MOV R3, part2
ADD R1, R2
ADD R1, R3
MOV total, R1

This was still verbose and inscrutable, so it's fairly clear why Backus wanted to escape. In a high-level language (this doesn't represent FORTRAN), you could just write:

integers total, part1, part2
... some operations on the above

total = total + part1 + part2

This is much less to get right, and actually gives you some inkling of what might be going on.

The FORTRAN language - especially suited to numerical computation and scientific computing - would become an enduring standard, implemented for almost every computer that was subsequently created. In the same year, IBM also introduced the first magnetic disc drive. It could hold 5Mb of data, and cost $50,000.
The first transatlantic telephone cable - TAT-1 - was commissioned by AT&T in this year. It was made possible by the development of coaxial cables, polythene insulation material, and extremely reliable vacuum tube devices that were used in the many repeater amplifiers that sustained the signals in their trip across the ocean. Transistors were not used because there reliability had not been established at that time. TAT-1 initially supported 36 telephony voice channels.


After Christmas, in the third form, I contrived to put my foot in it in a big way. Schoolboys of the 1950s were as coarse and vulgar as at any other time, and the notion of sexual harassment was unheard of. The common schoolboy term for a sanitary towel was a 'jamrag'. In a gauche and insensitive attempt to determine the sexual maturity status of one of the girls in class, I flicked her a note asking "Do you wear a) A bra, b) Panties, and c) A jamrag". I wince to this day when I think about it.

The note was intercepted by our French teacher - the headmistress. Within minutes I was in the headmaster's office. The headmaster 'Billie' (presumably William) Boston, was a quaker, but he made an exception to his non-violence and gave me a good caning. A meeting of all the boys in the school 3rd form and over was called, and we were read the riot act about behaviour appropriate to a co-educational school with reference to that of an unnamed individual. Of course, everyone knew it was me. But I had asked for it.

Life being the strange thing that it is, the two girls who sat together that I flicked the note to - Dianne Hayhurst and Carol Brown - I believe actually treated me more warmly after the incident.

Following this, just before the summer holidaye, and much to my surprise, Billie Boston, the headmaster, having caned me with one hand, applauded me with the other. He had this - possibly hare brained - scheme to take the three brightest students from the third form, and move them directly to the fifth form. Despite my vulgar adolescent behaviour, these were me, John Wordsworth, and a girl of Latvian origin called Una Gumpitress.

Parents had been consulted, and flattered by the suggestion, had agreed, so after the holidays I was to be skipped up a year, at an already impressionable age, into the company of classmates who were all a year to two years older than I. Hmmm.

Cottingley Town Hall.
In the summer of this year, one of the teachers at Cottingley Town Hall Sunday School had the bright idea of forming a youth group that would keep us adolescents off the street in the evenings to some extent. This was the time of a growing tendency for teens to revolt against the somewhat stifling and conservative attitudes of the 50s. The 'Teddy Boy' phenomenon was in full swing, and the street of a small town like Bingley at night could be a bit rough. The youth group was fixed up to be on each Thursday night, in the Town Hall basement or lower floor where the Sunday School was held.

I think we all attended with some trepidation in the first place. Sunday school and anything to do with it was not the place anyone expected to be particularly cool. But we were proved wrong, largely because the adults who were in charge chose to adopt a pretty laid back attitude, and left us for the most part to our own devices.

This coincided with a dramatic switch in the contents of the popular music charts. Foreshadowed by the success of "Rock Around the Clock" the previous year, Rock and Roll broke out on a large scale in the US and in Britain.
The youth club was endowed with a record player, so most of us took it upon ourselves to learn to dance to this music in the bop style inspired by "The Blackboard Jungle". Some of the numbers were slower though, and this posed the problem of getting close to a girl.

Interestingly, in 1956, two young Liverpool lads called John Lennon and Paul McCartney met for the first time in a similar context when Lennon's rock group the Quarrymen were performing at a church function.

At about this time I was introduced to the James Bond books by the British author Ian Fleming by another youth club member. I started with the then current "Diamonds are Forever", and then proceeded to plough through the whole sequence, courtesy of the Bingley Public Library.

The problem in getting close to a girl was to be resolved that Christmas. A youth group Christmas party was organized, and for some reason, rather than having this event in the Town Hall building, it was held at the boy scout/girl guide hut, next to the Sun Inn, close to the bottom of Main Street. There we had the whole place to ourselves for an evening. I believe to this day that the whole thing was a conspiracy by the girls of the youth group to put the boys on the spot.

All I remember about it for sure is that later in the evening a game was played that involved the winner, or loser, of a round in going into the small cloakroom with a member of the opposite sex, where kissing was to occur. I was surprised by the intensity of this event, particularly in the case of a slightly older girl - Brenda Williams - with her younger sister Andrea not far behind. A couple of the other girls were pretty impressive too.

Brenda kissed me full on the lips, and stuck her tongue in my mouth. This was something I had not experienced before, but I most definitely liked it, and found it very sexually exciting. I stuck my tongue back. As it happenned, she was also the girl I danced with best - surprise, surprise; we men are always the last to know. Within a couple of days it was agreed that we were 'going out together', and from that day, Brenda, then 15, and I, at 14, became inseparable. It was love.


The award winning movie in the US was "Around the World in Eighty Days". This combined the roles of award-winning movie, and plug for a cinematic display system - in this case the 70mm 'Todd-AO" format. It was based on a Jules Verne novel, and starred everybody you could possibly think of.

The box office topper was "The Ten Commandments", a biblical epic by Cecil B. DeMille starring Charlton Heston. Third was "Giant". This was the first James Dean film I was able to see as it had a less restrictive rating than the previous ones. His appearance was of course posthumous.

I'd pick out one British film of note. "Private's Progress" because it was the first of a popular series of successful satirical comedies made by the Boulting brothers.

The first of the 'kitchen sink dramas' made its appearance this year when John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger" opened at the Royal Court Theatre, in London. In this case, it was an ironing board rather than a sink.

Elvis Presley.
As for popular music, well 1956 reads like a catalogue of all the songs you remember if you were in your teens at that time. Elvis was in the charts with "Heartbreak Hotel", "Blue Suede Shoes", "I Want You I Need You I Love You", "Hound Dog", "Blue Moon", and "Love Me Tender".

Presley's version of Blue Suede Shoes was a cover of a successful recording by Carl Perkins that also got into the charts in Britain and the US. It was fashionable at the time to prefer the Carl Perkins version.

Fats Domino had "I'm In Love Again", and "Blueberry Hill" - I was particularly fond of the latter.

Gene Vincent was pretty hip with "Be Bop a Lula", and "Blue Jean Bop".

Bill Haley was back with "See You Later Alligator", "Rock Around the Clock" (again, twice), and "Rip it Up". By then though he was just about obsolete - he had other chart entries, but they were rubbish, in fact almost 'square', and just got there on momentum. There was also crap. Think for instance "The Ballad Of Davy Crockett" and "Rock And Roll Waltz" - isn't that one of those oxymoron things.

This year saw the migration of a rather well known British radio programme to TV. "Hancock's Half Hour" was a sitcom about a down-at-heel comedian living at the fictitious 23 Railway Cuttings in East Cheam. You can find the radio shows on the web - here's one.

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