1961 through the eyes of an Englishman

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The BEV Retrospective - 1961.

1961 began with a well publicised divorce. Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe had been married for five years, and now got a Mexican divorce in the grounds of incompatibility.

Kennedy inaugurated.
A few days later, Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th president. The Camelot days had begun. The association arises from a song written by Alan Jay Lerner, a Harvard classmate of Kennedy, which became the unofficial theme of the Kennedy administration

Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief, shining moment that
was known as Camelot.

In his inaugural speech Kennedy made an ambitious promise to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty" - a promise that in some ways he was destined to fulfil.

Kennedy was comfortable with the media, and essentially invented the presidential news conference. He gave his first one on January 25th, beginning:
"Good afternoon. Won't you be seated. (pause) I have several announcements to make. First I have a statement about the Geneva negotiations for an atomic test ban. These negotiations, as you know, are scheduled to begin early in February. They are of great importance, and we will need more time to prepare a clear American position. So we are consulting with other governments, and we are asking to have it put off until late March..."

I can almost hear that rather laconic Boston accent as I read these words.

The beginning of his presidency in terms of international prestige and foreign policy was not auspicious. On 12 April, soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, orbiting the Earth for over an hour and a half. The best the Americans had been able to do was to send a chimpanzee on a brief sub-orbital flight that January, and it was not until 5th May that Alan Shepard was launched into a sub-orbital 15 minute flight. It got worse before it got better. In August, cosmonaut Gherman Titov spent a whole day in space, accomplishing 20 orbits. This discrepancy was to sting Kennedy into action.

He had also inherited from the Eisenhower administration a CIA plan to invade Cuba in an attempt to destabilize or overthrow the Castro government, and he went along with it. However the plan was botched. It originally provided for three waves of air strikes by US B26 bombers with false markings, to destroy the capabilities of the Cuban air force. Also the landing was to be in the area of Trinidad, about 400km south east of Havana, where there was still substantial anti-Castro sentiment. Kennedy moved it to the 'Bay of Pigs' area. The event commenced on the 15th of April, when the first of the planned air strikes achieved some success. However, the planes false markings did not achieve much, and following embarrassing revelations that they were US aircraft, the remainder of the air strikes were cancelled. The actual invasion took place on 17th April and was crushed by Cuban forces, though not without significant losses.

Kennedy improved his position in the public perception when in May, in his special message to congress he declared "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth". This statement of intent definitely caught your imagination.

On August 13th the inhabitants of Berlin awoke to discover that their city had been cut in half by a barbed wire fence erected by the East German authorities. This followed a flood of refugees from east to west that the authorities had difficulty containing. Within days it was replaced by the wall that was to divide the city for many years, and that would cost many future would-be refugees their lives.

These events led Kennedy to the conclusion that it was necessary to "draw a line in the sand" in the interest of preserving US credibility with its allies, and its reputation. He was convinced that South East Asia was the place, and later in the year he sent a further 18,000 'military advisors' to South Vietnam to support the Diem regime. In December, US helicopters arrived in Saigon along with 400 further U.S. personnel, and it could be said that the Vietnam War as America knew it had started.

In May, a group of 'Freedom Riders', 13 black and white students with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) left Washington DC on 2 buses, to test integration laws in bus stations throughout the deep South.

In contrast, later that month, and following a referendum in the previous year, in which whites - the only voters - voted in favour of a republic, the Union of South Africa became the Republic of South Africa. It also withdrew from the British Commonwealth in the face of condemnation of its apartheid policies. Apartheid was a system of legalized racial discrimination and segregation that had been put into place by the South African government in 1948. Black people were not officially citizens of South Africa, but all belonged theoretically to some 'tribal homeland'. Only there did they have any voting rights, and many of them didn't live there. Education, medical care, and other public services were segregated, and the services afforded to blacks were minimal - probably a better description would be crap. Mixed marriages between races were prohibited, and it was a criminal offence to have sex with someone of another race. Of course in practice if a white man had sex with a black woman, he might get away with it, but if a black man had sex with a white woman both would go to jail, or worse.

In October the Soviet Union detonated a 58 megaton hydrogen bomb known as 'Tsar Bomba' over Novaya Zemlya. It remains the largest ever man-made explosion to this day.

At the end of the year, the Marshall Plan expired, having donated more than $12 billion in foreign aid to rebuild Europe after WW2.

The most earth shaking events in the UK in this year were that the farthing, used since the 13th century, ceased to be legal tender. I don't ever remember spending a farthing, so I'm guessing this change was just a formal recognition of disuse that had prevailed for some time. Also, the British authorities, caught with their trousers down again, announced that they had discovered a large Soviet spy ring in London. Quietly though at this time, the first U.S. Polaris submarines arrived at the base that the British had given them at Holy Loch.


Apart from the manned space flights and the record size nuclear explosion, 1961 appears to have been a desert as far as major technical innovations were concerned.

IBM was now building mainframe computers using transistors. FM stereo broadcasting began in the USA. If I find anything else, or you can suggest anything, I'll add it later.

Boats on the Norfolk Broads.

Me and Julie on our boat.

Our route up the middle of England.

My work with UO3 at Harwell drew to a close, and I became involved in some work that as far as I could tell had no connection whatsoever with atomic energy. My boss at the time, one Ron Dell, had some sort of interest in the chemisorption of oxygen on the surface of Nickel Oxide. Why this should be of any interest was a mystery to me, and Ron never really explained. I suspect it was a hangover from work he'd done for his PhD thesis that his boss Lewis Roberts allowed him to do. Lewis Roberts was something of a hero. He'd been one of the British scientists who had worked at Chalk River in Canada as part of the program to develop the A bomb. It was rumoured that he had enough Plutonium in his body that at one time the authorities had considered 'ashing him down' to recover it.

The Nickel Oxide work followed on in the sense that the first thing I did was to use my DTA setup to investigate the temperature at which absorbed Oxygen was dislodged from the surface by heating. In order to do that I first had to do some modification work on an old glass/mercury vapour pump vacuum system that was already present in my basement lab.

This was not complicated; just the addition of a silica vessel where I could heat the Nickel Oxide under vacuum in yet another small furnace to drive off any pre-existing absorbed oxygen, and then introduce a known quantity of oxygen to repopulate the surface. Later I learned to measure the surface area of the Nickel Oxide using the tedious BET (Brunauer, Emmett and Teller) technique for which there was a setup on another glass/mercury vapour pump system in the Chemistry Division main rig hall - a more dangerous place where there was a good deal of Plutonium hanging about, and where there were criticality alarms installed everywhere. On the whole though, the Nickel Oxide work was boring.

To compensate I developed an interest in audio amplifiers, and would visit colleagues in other divisions, and shops in Oxford on tech days to scrounge or buy electronic components to build one. Some bits you had to mail order from adverts in the magazine "Wireless World", which was one of the publications that was available in the selection of magazines in the lounge at B-Mess, and which I read avidly to find out about suitable circuits. The 'state of the art' at that time was either large amplifiers using the KT66 pentode, or smaller ones using the newer and smaller audio pentodes by the Mullard company.

Both of these were beyond my means, in terms of the valves, and of the associated output transformers. So instead I used what was essentially WW2 technology, and built my amplifier using 6V6 valves (vacuum tubes), and a cheap output transformer designed for use with them. I learned about push-pull amplifiers and negative feedback, and eventually built one. Then of course I had to save for a record player deck, and an eight inch Wharfedale loudspeaker.

Bear in mind that in those days of 45rpm seven inch and 33rpm twelve inch vinyl records, most recordings were monophonic. Stereo sound was still a novelty - certainly in England. The BBC had made experimental stereo broadcasts as early as 1925, but it wasn't until this year that FM stereo broadcasting began in the USA. Vinyl stereo recordings had been introduced in 1958, but were still not a commonplace. Eventually I had the system in my hostel room so I could piss off my roommate and neighbours by playing borrowed records, and a few more LP records that I bought. It was at this time that I became familiar with the Beethoven symphonies, and those of Mendelssohn, and one of the LPs I bought was Rimski Korsakov's "Scheherezade"

In the summer, instead of visits to Harwell, Malcolm Henry and I arranged with our respective girlfriends to go for a week's boating holiday on the Norfolk Broads. I can't recall how this was sold to parents. We were all nineteen or older now, so maybe they felt it was time to loosen the reins a bit. Anyway, you rent a house boat with an engine from a Broads holiday company, and - after a ten minute driving lesson - drive it around the system of rivers and fens that criss-cross the flat and low-lying country there. You stop by some riverside pub each night to get a decent hot evening meal, beer, and hopefully a shower. During the day you make do with what you can carry on the boat. Since we were a set of horny buggers, we could crew the boat in pairs while the other two went below for a bonk. The weather was kind to us, and we succeeded in not sinking the boat, and there was a lot of bonking. Happy days!

Apart from the holiday, sex wise, it was a thin time. By now I was living in another room with Londoner Richard Bullock, who was dating a girl we referred to as Hiawatha because of her hair style. I think he also had a girlfriend in London, which was not all that far away, and easily reachable by train. One day when he was away for the weekend presumably with the other girl - or driven away by my music, Hiawatha and I got chatting, and she took me to one of the store rooms in the B-Mess annex for a quickie. I think this was just to get her own back. Either that or I didn't get a good rating, because she didn't show any further interest.

I had another brief encounter with one of the kitchen staff from the hostel, known affectionately as 'the dragon'. She was a big girl and ugly, but amenable to suggestions. We had a knee shaker without condom against a wall after a Saturday night sports and social club dance, when we were both significantly drunk. I was quite good at those, having had practise with Elaine on various occasions. The Dragon almost lived up to her name, it was like being eaten alive, and it was quite exciting, and didn't last very long. If my mates had found out they'd have howled with derision and said "Steve, you must be desperate" and worse. But I dare say I was not the only one of them that she fucked.

It also was not repeated. She gave no sign afterward that it had ever occurred, and I had to wait a full 28 days of this silence before I began to feel secure. The nearest I came otherwise was when a rather cute girl who worked in the small convenience store that served the hostels told me out of the blue at the check out that she had had a real crush on me the year before, but she had a boyfriend now. Why, I thought, am I always the last to know? She was a good subject for sexual fantasies for a while though. Even further off the mark, I met a girl I liked and who seemed to like me somewhere or other, and we arranged to go to the cinema in Oxford, where she lived. It was a long trail for me, and when I got there she didn't turn up, or possibly turned up at another cinema. So I had to make the long trail back with my tail between my legs, and I had no phone number for a second chance.

The Don Juan of our group was Pete Havard. He was smaller than most of us, and rather fresh faced, the sort of man that girls like to mother. I think he fucked everything in the hostel except the cat. I remember one day he borrowed my room to waylay a girl called Mary Tebbit who had the reputation of being a hard nut to crack. Giles Aylmer and I thought this was a sufficiently interesting event that we climbed the difficult tree that stood outside my window to act as observers. I remember the legs in the air, complete still with high heels, and Pete giving it that with gusto - it was worth the climb.

Toward the end of the year I found a note on the sports and social club notice board looking for someone to share expenses for the car journey up to Yorkshire at weekends. The ad was placed by a scientific officer called Mike Taylor. He was somewhat senior to me and able to run a small car, an Austin A35. I contacted him, and a deal was struck. This opened up quite different avenues for weekend social life.

Every two or three weeks, we'd take a half day on Friday afternoon, sometimes a whole day, and drive up through central England to Huddersfield, which was Mike's home town. From there I could catch a bus to Bradford, and get home in time to have a late beer at the Fisherman Inn on Wagon Lane up by Dowley Gap close to my parents home. We grew to know the route well, and I still use it, more or less, if I arrive at Heathrow airport and hire a car there.

We would drive up the middle of the country, north through Abingdon and Oxford, up the A26 to Banbury. Then we'd do a long country section where we skirted our way between Warwick and Solihul, then east of Birmingham on minor roads to Lichfield. From there, the A51 and A515 take you on another very long cross-country stretch, across the A50 through Ashbourn to Buxton in Derbyshire. Then it was up the A6 through Chapel-en-le-Frith to Chinley where we'd break off to the north over the moors to Glossop. This was far enough north to be able to stop and get some decent fish and chips. From there you skirt around the corner of the sandstone moors past the chain of reservoirs to Woodhead. Then turning north again, it's over Holme Moss through Holmfirth to Huddersfield, the bus to Bradford and thence to Bingley.

There and thereabouts I could be a Yorkshireman again for the best part of two days before setting off back late Sunday afternoon on the bus to Huddersfield. From where we'd make the return trip with a break somewhere for a beer and some food before getting back to Harwell around midnight.

This put the relationship with Elaine back as the primary thing. The new estates crowd who had been my Sunday school and youth club mates had taken to using the Fisherman as their local, so we would meet there with them on the Friday if I was early enough, and on the Saturday. We'd digress for some nookie on the way there or on the way home, or both. This was still usually an outdoor event, since I didn't have a car and we had nowhere else to go unless there was nobody at home at my parents house. We must have been hardy in those days.

I became a regular visitor at the Stead's house again, with Mr Stead's excellent Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding as the star attraction.

In the December of that year the National Health Service announced that the pill would be available to all, but only with a doctor's permission. Elaine never quite worked herself up to asking. So given the fact that the timetable was now set largely by Mike, and our dislike for condoms, we were now living more dangerously.

Mike and I arranged compatible dates for the Christmas/New Year break so we could travel together, and all in all, the travel arrangements were most satisfactory.


At the movies, in the US the award winner was "West Side Story" from Bernstein's musical/opera - lots of good songs.

The huge ($187 million) box office hit was Disney's "One Hundred and One Dalmatians", financially, nothing else came close. The other best seller that I remember was "The Guns of Navarone", but that was not special.

The Beatles at the Cavern Club in 1961.
British cinema had a bad year. I would only consider "A Taste of Honey". The musical film "The Young Ones" featuring Cliff Richard was popular with teenage audiences. This film coincided with the rise of the package tour industry that would for many years transport large numbers of British and other European tourists into Mediterranean resorts to escape the often dismal weather of northern Europe. It would be a long time before it was my turn.

The songs from the British charts that stick in my mind were:
  • Ben E King - Stand By Me,
  • Crazy - Patsy Cline,
  • Connie Francis - Where The Boys Are (sentimental, but a strong tune),
  • Temperance Seven - You're Driving Me Crazy/Pasadena (an outfit designed to sound like a 1920s jazz band
  • Del Shannon - Runaway,
  • Billy Fury - Halfway To Paradise,
  • Danny Williams - Moon River (unadulterated slop).
  • Hello Mary Lou - Ricky Nelson,
  • Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow - The Shirelles (a Carole King song featured on the Tapestry album).
I notice I've picked out quite a few 'sloppy' records here - I must have been feeling sentimental that year. A couple of these would come back later and bite me in the arse. Let's do 'Crazy' for now:

Cliff Richard and/or the Shadows, the Everly Brothers, and Duane Eddy continued to crank them out, but nothing I'm going to name.

This year however, a little known group called The Beatles performed for their first time at a basement rock and roll club in Liverpool called the Cavern, at a lunch time gig. They graduated to night-time performances in March. A Liverpool businessman - Brian Epstein - visited the Cavern in November having heard about the band. He chewed on his visit for a while, then about a month later he offered to manage the group. John Lennon is reported as replying "Right, then, Brian, manage us now. Where's the contract? I'll sign it".

Barry Gordy had founded a record company called Motown Records in Detroit in 1959. It now produced its first #1 in the US pop charts - The Marvelettes, "Please Mr. Postman".

A book I admire - Catch-22 - a quirky WW2 novel by Joseph Heller, was published in this year.

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