1959 through the eyes of an Englishman

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The BEV Retrospective - 1959.

To celebrate the New Year, Fidel Castro's forces in Cuba ousted the fascist dictator Batista, and on February 3rd, replaced him with the communist dictator Castro. Large numbers of right-wing Cubans fled to the USA and settled in Florida where they formed a political pressure group that is alive and well today.

The communist insurgent groups in South Vietnam had been pursuing a policy of political isolation of the countryside from the central government. They did this by assassination of local officials, village chiefs, schoolteachers and other establishment figures. At the same time they were also suffering badly at the hands of Diem's secret police, and had appealed to the government in the North for assistance. So also in January, the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the north passed a secret resolution authorizing the use of armed struggle in the South. Serious infiltration of men and military equipment along the Ho Chi Minh Trail commenced in May.

That July, Charles Ovnand and Dale R. Buis become the first Americans killed in action in Vietnam, at Bien Hoa, 20 miles northeast of Saigon. They were part of the US Military Assistance Advisory Group sent to train the South Vietnam army.

The Kennedy family.
Tragically, on February 3rd, my idol Buddy Holly died in an air crash along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. This was "The day the music died" of Don Mclean's later hit "American Pie".

In March, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, fearing for his life at the hands of the Chinese, who had taken over Tibet in 1950, fled Tibet and traveled to India.

In the US, the 42 year old senator for Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, made up his mind that he would run for President in the following year. Two further states - Alaska and Hawaii - were added to the union in this year.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act had been passed in 1956 by the Eisenhower administration, and various bits of the Interstate Highway System had appeared in the USA over the following years. Now the British got seriously into the act when the first section of the M1 motorway was opened between the present junctions 5 and 18. There was a smaller section of motorway-standard road - the Preston Bypass - that was completed in December 1958. The first section of the M1 was a concrete road,like most of the US Interstates, but by now I think all the British motorways have been converted to tarmac. Strangely I have been unable to find any photographic record of the M1 in its original state.

There was another British election, and Macmillan, or 'SuperMac' as the papers had it, was re-elected as Prime Minister with a large majority. He said "this election has shown that the class war is obsolete" - I think personally that any such war was decided by WW2, after which Britain was a deeply changed country.

TV picture of Earth cloud cover.

SR-N1 experimental hovercraft.

There was a slew of activity in space exploration in 1959. First, in January, the USSR launched Luna 1, which did the first close pass by the moon, and was destined to go into solar orbit. It accomplished a number of other firsts:
  • First firing of a rocket in earth orbit,
  • First manmade object reaching Earth escape velocity,
  • First detection of 'solar wind',
  • First manmade object launched into independent orbit around the sun.
In February, the first weather satellite - Vanguard 2 - was launched by NASA, although it was not very successful in monitoring the weather, since it had a bad axis of rotation. Less than a month later the US also launched Discoverer 1 into a polar orbit, and a moon shot, Pioneer 4, that missed and went into solar orbit. In May, two monkeys survived a trip lifted by a US Jupiter launcher some 500km into space. In August, Explorer 6 sent the first crude television pictures of earth from orbit. When you compare these pictures with with current satellite imagery, you can see how far we have come since then, or alternatively how incredibly bad the first attempt was.

Later in the year, the Soviets scored a hit on the moon with Luna 2, and a little later got pictures of the far side of the moon from Luna 3.

The ballistic missile nuclear submarine George Washington was launched in May, ratcheting up the cold war arms race by another notch. It could fire Polaris 1 missiles while submerged in contrast to previous US and Soviet missile carrying submarines that had to surface to fire their missiles. Submarines of this type eventually constituted the ultimate nuclear deterrent, or threat, depending which side you were looking from. They could (and still can) stay submerged for very long periods, are very difficult to find, and carry tremendous destructive power.

As part of the drive to further extend nuclear weapon delivery capability, the first successful test firing of a Titan intercontinental ballistic missile was made form Cape Canaveral in Florida earlier in the year. The Russians had tested theirs before they launched Sputnik.

In July an SR-N1 hovercraft crosses the English Channel from Calais to Dover in just over 2 hours on the 50th anniversary of Louis Bleriot's first crossing by heavier-than-air craft. There was no reported presence of eels.

Another AT&T transatlantic telephone cable - TAT-2 - with 48 more channels came into operation.

Also, another computer programming language - COBOL - aimed at business computing applications, was designed by a committee in the USA. It was to become highly successful, and also to become my least favourite language once I discovered computers later in life.


In the spring of this year I was a happy young man again, 17 in April, with an attractive girlfriend, a good social life, and a good sex life. But change loomed on the near horizon.

Since I had been bumped up at school from the 3rd form to the 5th form, this was the year when I was to take my 'A' levels, and make some sort of decision on where I was going in the future. The academic reading I had done in earlier years had by now been well overtaken by the grammar school curriculum. At the same time, I had not been paying school work the attention that it should have had; there was too much "wine, women, and song" in my life competing with the less attractive alternative of homework. I'd guess that it was at this time of my life that I developed the sense of foreboding that sometimes overcomes me on Sunday afternoons to this day. All the work that had been neglected since Friday afternoon had to be packed into a few feverish hours then, and on Monday or Tuesdays you had to put up with the scorn of teachers who knew damn well that you could do better.

So the decision about my future was to a large extent taken out of my hands. The school was of the opinion that I would not get decent 'A' levels, and would not therefore get a place at a university with a level of funding commensurate with my parent's income. They consulted with my parents and came up with the suggestion that I should apply for a job as a Scientific Assistant at the UK government's civilian Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell in Berkshire. The thinking was that there I would be exposed to a bunch of people with good scientific minds, and would be able to continue with part-time technical education with no great entrance barrier, and with no financial burden to my parents.

Looking back now, I'd say it was a pretty well considered and constructive suggestion. My parents seemed to think this was a good idea at the time, and I agreed, since it got the pressure of the 'A' levels off my back, and since everyone else seemed to think I should go that way. A couple of weeks later, two plain clothes government security agents turned up at our house to enquire if any of our parents or relatives had been or were members of the communist party. We discretely didn't mention Grandma Armitage, who was institutionalised by that time, and a bit weird anyway, and I presume that as a result I was positively security vetted.

As things were.
So it was that some time in May, as per a covering letter and leaflet from the AERE, I took a steam train trip from Bradford to Birmingham New Street station, crossed Birmingham by bus, and then got another steam train from Snowhill station to Oxford. After that there was a 20 mile bus journey to a small pub called the 'Horse and Jockey' some distance from anywhere up on the Berkshire Downs, but close to the Research Establishment.

It was a hot day, and by the time I got there I was lathered. I staggered into the pub clutching my overnight bag, and ordered a pint of Morlands bitter. The barman proceeded to extract a pint of amber liquid from a barrel standing behind the bar via a brass tap at the bottom. It was quite devoid of any head, and was at room temperature. I took a swig of it and almost spat it out. To my mind it tasted as the water in which you have kept flowers in a vase for several days might taste: revolting. Of course I gritted my teeth and drank it anyway, and that was my introduction to southern beer.
In the morning after a tedious overnight stay at the Horse and Jockey, I scrounged a lift to the AERE main gate, got myself a pass, and took the interview for a Scientific Assistant post along with a bunch of other young people. I don't know where they had stayed, but hoped they had been better directed than me. The interview was not taxing, and didn't dwell on any particular subject, and a couple of weeks later I got a letter to say that I'd been accepted, and would be paid the princely sum of 360 a year with accommodation provided at some nominal fee to go and work there starting in September.

Of course, this put my relationship with Elaine on a short fuse. In fact, the place I was to work was only about 150 miles away, but in practical terms it might as well have been on the moon. I knew I would not be able to afford the train fare to get back to Bradford at all frequently, and that even if I did, I'd be setting off back almost as soon as I arrived. My small income would certainly not allow me to own a car. The only alternative was to simply leave school, get some boring and pointless job, and then go to night school in the evenings. So it seemed that for all practical purposes we were to part and that might well be it. Neither of us was particularly happy about this.

As it turned out, when I sat the 'A' level examinations in June I got marks that would have got me into a university or at least a good technical college with no great problem. But I had not made any applications, so by then the die was set.

During the summer holidays I got a menial, but actually quite satisfying job working with the mysterious foresters up in the woods above the Beckfoot golf course. I had to cut back the bracken surrounding fledgling pine trees, and woe betide me if I cut down any of the small trees by mistake. There was an old guy, Mr Grainger, who was in charge, and who was a bit of a homespun philosopher. He continued my education in some directions. There was also another man, intermediate in age, who said very little, but actually taught me to do the work and to keep my eyes open for the creatures, trees and plants around us, not that I was a slouch in that direction anyway. It was a hot summer, and the work was quite physical. By the end of August I was as fit as I think I've been at any time in my life, and actually had a body suntan, which was something I never achieved before or since. It was also a good job for working up an appetite and a thirst, and I became even more attached to my beer at that time.

I'd see Elaine in the evenings, and at the weekends we'd go out in the evenings with some of the gang who had cars, to pubs out in the countryside at Grassington or Bolton Abbey. On Sundays we'd have the ritual of Sunday lunch at the Stead's house on the main road in Saltaire. Mrs Stead - Lucy if you knew her - was an excellent cook in the old Yorkshire school, and I have never had better Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding than you got there. Elaine's older brother Richard used to refer to me as "that long bugger", since I was reasonably tall and slim for those days, but he was good natured enough to provide wine at these Sunday meals and to share it. He had spent time in France, and knew about such things.

It was a happy time, but all too soon it was September. After a tearful goodbye, I was off on my way to a new life in a very different place.

UKAEA Research Establishment, Harwell.

Going to the AERE at Harwell in 1959 was for me rather like going to Hogwarts as a young Harry Potter. Everything was different. I was away from home, not that I'd had an unpleasant home like Harry, and the AERE was in some ways a place outside the real world. It was the size of a small town, and quite a long way away from anywhere - since it had experimental reactors, and hosted unpleasant substances like Plutonium.

You didn't have to get there by a special train, but it was quite a long and tedious bus ride from Oxford, about 20 miles. Half way there you passed through Abingdon. To the south, another 20 miles down the A34 you'd reach Newbury. To the west about 6 miles away was Wantage. The towns and villages of the Thames valley were about the same distance to the east.

Oil diffusion pump.
Like the first year at Hogwarts, we were sorted, not into houses, but into specializations, Chemistry Division, Reactor Division, Nuclear Physics, Maths, etc. It did not seem to matter much what your 'A' level results were. If you wanted to go to one of these divisions you'd be taken, unless the quota was already exceeded, then you'd have to go for a second choice. Based on my past interests, I chose Chemistry Division, which retrospectively was not the correct choice, but I had no way of knowing that at the time. We were told the rules, third floor corridor out of bounds and all that, and given passes so we could get in and out of the gates through the security fences. Finally we were allocated to hostels. The choices here were basically the hostel known as 'B Mess', which had been the sergeant's mess when Harwell was an RAF base, and a newer hostel in Abingdon. This was not a matter in which we were given any choice. I was sent to Abingdon, and put in a room that I shared with a large Welshman called Jim Parry, who had quite a strong accent, including pronouncing 'ears' as 'yurrs'. I'm sure he found my Yorkshire accent equally strange.

The hostel wasn't bad. It was mixed, and there were quite a few girls, and the food was decent, but Abingdon was not exactly an exciting place, and there were the tedious bus journey - actually a bus specifically provided for us hostel dwellers - morning and evening. If you missed the coach in the morning or evening you had to wait up to an hour for the regular bus service, and then suffer the even more tedious journey on that.

For the first two or three weeks we all had to do a form of basic training. We did some rudimentary glassblowing, learned to solder with lead and silver solder, did a bit of electrical wiring, and finally had to build a functional vacuum system that would achieve some suitable low pressure using a rotary backing pump and an oil diffusion pump. It was fun.
At the hostel we all got to know each other. I didn't get on particularly well with Jim, but we coexisted. I got to know a girl called Susan, who came from Devon, and had yet another different accent, though not a strong one. Susan was not inclined to go any further that a little snogging, but was quite good company, and was associated with me for a while, which was good for the ego. Gangs of us would go to the pubs in Abingdon, but other than that there was nothing much to do. There was another girl called Jeanette, who had a reputation for being somewhat more willing than Susan, so I got her drunk one night when her roommate was away and we ended up fucking each other without any precautions and without me even taking the trouble to find out where she was in her monthly cycle. Afterwards I panicked at this thought, and since I'd read that sperms didn't do well in acidic environment; I scrounged a bottle of aspirins from somebody and stuck a quantity of them into her vagina as a feeble attempt at prevention - she really must have been sloshed. Fortunately I got away with it and a couple of weeks later she signalled to me that it was OK. We did not repeat the adventure.

At the same time I had friends in B Mess and they would invite me in at lunch times or at weekends when perhaps a roommate was away. I found this a much more attractive environment. There was no bus journey each morning, there were decent shops on the base nearby, and best of all, there was the Sports and Social Club. There, the beer was cheap, and where there were recreational events like dances and movies on the weekend evenings. I asked for a transfer, but was told I'd have to wait my turn, since there was a waiting list.

The other source of new friends was at Oxford Technical College - yes, I was educated at Oxford! We got day release to go and study the subject of our choice, which in my case once again, was chemistry. I had to do a full day on Monday, and initially two evenings - Tuesday and Thursday. The Thursday evening was to do an ancillary Metallurgy course that I'd need as a qualification for the GRIC (Graduate of the Royal Institute of Chemistry - some sort of Victorian hangover) qualification. There were quite a bunch of us there from Harwell, but also students who simply lived in Oxford or its surroundings. I got friendly with one of these students, and spent a couple of weekends at his house in Watlington, to the East of Oxford. My chief memory is the fact that the house where he lived had once been a chemists shop, and there were remnants of stock lying about in a back room. One of these was a jar of condoms. Apparently at some point in the past these were sold in some kind of pickling fluid to keep them soft and supple - fascinating.

Building 220.
After our basic training we were sent out to our divisions, where I was put in the immediate charge of a Technical Officer called Vince Underwood in the Chemistry Division main building - 220. Vince was doing experiments on the fluoridation of Uranium Trioxide to create Uranium Hexafluoride. However, I could not be trusted with work like this, since it involved Hydrogen Fluoride gas, which is pretty dangerous, and involved the use of a hand-made beryllium spring made from very fine wire, which for all I know Vince may have been the only person in the world to perfect. He certainly spent a lot of time making the damn things, and wasn't very happy when they didn't turn out right.

The fluoridation reaction worked better if the UO3 had a high porosity, and I was set to work on a series of tests to determine the extent to which hydrating it, and then driving off the water increased its porosity. This was not rocket science. I'd soak the stuff in water for varying lengths of time, or expose it to water saturated air, then dry it and weigh it to determine the amount of water it had taken up. Then we'd heat it to a higher temperature to drive off the water, and Vince would fluorinate the different formulations to see which did best.
Most of my time in the main building was spent in a basement, a part of which had previously been used for a very large calorimeter, the pieces of which remained. I think that they might have been somewhat contaminated, and that the radiation levels in my little domain were somewhat higher that they should have been. Also the mercury vapour level down there was probably not within WHO limits. But at the time this did not seem important to me, and I rather liked having a lab to myself. There was another room down there, in which a guy called Peter used to maintain the Geiger counters and such that were used to measure the radiation levels in the building. He was quite young, but older than I was, and I used to spend a fair amount of time listening to his stories of married life. Nothing special in retrospect, but a young man will gather knowledge where he can.

In no time it was the tail end of December, and I had some time off to go back to Yorkshire for Christmas and the New Year.

The relationship with Elaine seemed to have survived OK, and we enjoyed each other's company in the customary way while we had the chance. We had written to each other intermittently, though without having a great deal to say.


After my move to Harwell, I would not spend much time in front of a TV set for some years, so since we are now more or less at the end of the 50's, a word about British television broadcasting in that decade might just fit in here.

The choice available to audiences under 30 during these years was what I can only describe as dismal. This is not to say that some of them did not get large audiences. Judging by their longevity, programs such as "The Black and White Minstrel Show", and the "Benny Hill Show" must have been, and in the case of the latter, I know were, hugely popular, but I thought they were crap.

The first of these would have had its producers in court in later years for racial discrimination or stereotyping. The second would be cited by Americans for years to come as the great example of British comedy - God help us!

"Sunday Night at the London Palladium" was a hangover from the pre-war and 1940's theatre variety show genre, and as a teenager, it could make you squirm. "Six Five Special" was as close as the 50's got to a top-of-the-pops program, and we used to watch it as a source of pop music information, but only because there was nothing better available.

The outstanding TV of the period was the "Hancock's Half Hour" series, which more or less single handed established the situation comedy genre in the UK. Those programs, although black and white, and dated in their context, would still be funny to most people who had never seen them before now, at 40 years later. In general, if you have fond memories of TV in the 50's, forgive me, I had better things to do.

Obviously I can't speak for US TV, but I note that Rod Serling's classic anthology series "The Twilight Zone" premiered on CBS in this year. We also got "I Love Lucy" and "Sergeant Bilko" on British TV, and though I found the American humour somewhat strange, I thought these program were better done than much of the British stuff, and quite amusing.

At the movies, in the US the best sellers and award winners that I recognize were Ben-Hur, Some Like it Hot, and North by Northwest.

I'm All Right Jack poster.
The UK had an interesting crop. The "Carry On ..." films started to appear at this point - actually the first one was the year before, but now it became a series. What can I say? They were very silly, very British, and a good laugh, but they would go on for too long. The classic quote is the one where a doctor is examining a young woman's chest with a stethoscope - "'Big breaths please', 'Yeth and I'm only thixteen'".

Another British comedy of the year was "I'm All Right Jack", from the Boulting Brothers. This film was a quite biting example of British satire/irony, and also very funny. On more serious levels, there were The 39 Steps, and Room at the Top.

The latter had a tenuous connection with my close-to-home town Bingley. The author of the book - John Braine - had been a librarian at Bingley Public Library, and the story featured a thespian society not dissimilar to the Bingley Little Theatre, of which my mother was a member. The fictitious location - Warnley - of the story also had a steep valley feel about it that matches Bingley, and it was easy to associate the car crash episode of the story to the "Twines" on the Harden road.

My mother was at the same time scandalized and intrigued by the story. I had read the book, and could relate to it, and I think the film was reasonably well done. It was rather explicit for the time, and unusual in its depiction of an affair between a younger man an an older woman.

After September, in Abingdon, I can't remember ever going to the cinema.

Pop music seemed to be languishing in the doldrums. Presley continued to crank out hits, but to my mind he was past his prime and had lost the edge that made him exciting. I think mine was a minority view however. Buddy Holly had a posthumous number one six weeks after his death. In Britain there were first number ones by Shirley Bassey and Cliff Richard, both of who were destined to have long lives in the British charts.
Rock and roll, as I understood it seemed to be dead, and pop music had reverted to hits engineered by the major record companies, rather than from any particular ingenuity. For what it's worth, the ones that catch my eye now from the top fives of the year were:
  • Buddy Holly - It Doesn't Matter Anymore,
  • Connie Francis - Lipstick On Your Collar (once again, catchy, and you could not avoid it),
  • Cliff Richard & The Drifters - Living Doll,
  • Cliff Richard & The Shadows - Travellin' Light.
Not making the British charts, but stuck in my mind, there was "La Bamba" by Ritchie Valens.


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