Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Ship of State

Bullet 1687 (1949)


“Amethyst” to Britain’s Communists

A large number of the lead-in lines supplied to competitors by John Bull related to British and world affairs of the time. Sometimes, the theme was specifically indicated – Russia crops up regularly in the late 40s and early 50s, for example – and sometimes the approach is more general, as in this case. In theory, competitors could have turned “Ship of State” into a comment on domestic life, perhaps comparing the steady running of a household with weighty affairs of government, and maybe some did. Bill, though, went for an issue-of-the-day approach.

The Amethyst was a Royal Navy ship, and it was attacked by communists. In the spring of 1949, she was chugging along the Yangtse River on her way to relieve HMS Consort, parked up at Nanking ready to evacuate British embassy staff as the Chinese Civil War headed into the final months of conflict. The British thought they had an agreement with the Chinese government that allowed Royal Navy vessels to potter about on the local rivers protecting the UK’s interests. The communists under Mao Tse-Tung, who had positions all along one bank of the Yangtse, thought otherwise and duly opened fire on the Amethyst. The captain was killed and the wheelhouse destroyed so that the ship lost control and ran aground on a mud bank in the river.

Unable to return fire because the power room had also been hit, paralyzing the gun turrets, the crew tried to ferry injured sailors to the bank. But these too came under fire until more than 20 of the Amethyst sailors were dead. The British response was to order Consort and another vessel to attempt a rescue of the stricken ship, but both were beaten back by heavy fire from the river bank, which inflicted further losses. The communists let it be known that they would not allow the ship to move until Britain withdrew all of her armed forces from China.

Eventually, the Amethyst got free of the mud bank under cover of darkness and prepared to move off down the river, its insignia covered with dark cloths. As luck – for the Amethyst – would have it, another boat called the Kiang-Lin Liberation, carrying refugees back to Shanghai, passed as she was about to get going. Using the lights of the other ship, Amethyst was able to navigate along the river from some distance behind. But the communists spotted what was happening and opened fire once more. In the barrage, the refugee ship was sunk with heavy loss of life and the Amethyst made it, battered and limping, to safety.

The Yangtse Incident, as it was known, was murky enough to generate differing accounts of what really happened and accusations of cover-up from both sides. But one of the first publications to get direct accounts from those involved was John Bull, which sent the Canadian journalist Lawrence Earl to interview any crew members who would be prepared to talk on the ship's return to the UK late in 1949. Earl eventually published a book on the incident from this material and his work was serialised in John Bull in 1950, after this Bullet had been written.

For public consumption, the story played out as a Boy’s Own tale of a daring escape from a despicable foreign enemy who certainly wasn’t playing cricket. An enemy so dastardly that they even injured the ship's cat Simon, who simply took no notice and carried on keeping the rats out of the galley even as shells burst around him, earning the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross for his efforts. As if that were not enough, this was  an enemy fired up by a fanatical ideology that, by 1949, was considered no less menacing than the one that had been sent packing only four years before.

In Britain there were people who were happy to call themselves communists and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) even had two members of Parliament. The party had been set up in 1920 following the Third International's pronouncement that communist parties should be established around the world. They played a major role in blocking Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts before the war, and found themselves having to flip from opposition to the conflict following Stalin's pact with Hitler to energetic support for the Allied cause after the German invasion of Russia. During that time communism and the Soviets became a source of friendly fascination for the British and membership of the party peaked at 60,000. 

Once Hitler had been dealt with and as the Iron Curtain began to fall, it was a different story. Although disparate groups of fascist sympathisers were springing up as people interned during the war were released, eventually coalescing as the Union Movement with Mosley at its head, it was the communists who were seen as the real threat to the country. In the General Election of 1950, both communists lost their seats, the CPGB began what would prove to be a terminal decline and the Ship of State sailed on untroubled by the red menace. 

Family Corner:

Dad's Bullet here has a lot to do with pleasing the John Bull editorial line. I'm pretty sure he wasn't a communist and also pretty sure he was a Labour man - but what were Dad's politics as far as you recall?

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Gone to the Dogs

Bullet 1671 (1949)
Retrieving fortunes at Dogs!

On 24 July 1926, a half-tailed dog called Mistly bounded home ahead of his rivals in pursuit of a clattering mechanical hare to win the first greyhound race in the UK’s first greyhound stadium at Belle Vue near Manchester. The site had been chosen partly because of the popularity of whippet racing in the northern industrial areas. But it was, in reality, a hybrid, its other ancestor being the aristocratic pursuit of hare coursing. The dogs at that first meeting of what was to become the quintessential working-man’s sport were coursers owned by members of the aristocracy.
 A crowd of 1,700 attended Belle Vue that day, but within a week, the numbers had swelled to 16,000. New tracks opened across the country and by the 1940s there were 77 licensed venues attracting 50 million punters a year. Lately, there has been a rapid decline in the sport, although as late as 2008 – the year that the famous track at Walthamstow closed – greyhounds still accounted for as much as a fifth of all betting shop turnover. When this Bullet was written, though, Greyhound racing was having its heyday.
Stadiums were split between those regulated by The Greyhound Board of Great Britain and independent venues known as ‘flapping tracks’. In theory, the regulated tracks make provision for the dogs’ welfare both during and after their racing career. In practice, campaigners have shown that this is not always guaranteed and the fate of many dogs over the years, when their age catches up with them or their home stadium closes, remains unknown.
In Cambridge, Dad may have been aware of the flapping tracks at Cowper Road and Coldhams Lane, both of which were operating from 1931. The better-known, and regulated, track at Cambridge City FC’s Milton Road ground did not open until 1968 and enjoyed only a brief 15-year run before being closed in 1983. 

The Bullet hints that gambling is an obsession that is driven by unrealistic hope. As with buying a lottery ticket, it's the anticipation of what you might do with the jackpot that justifies the outlay, even if there's no likelihood of actually winning. At least with horses, football and dogs the punter can get some edge by studying form. But in the end, as everyone knows, it's the hare that always wins. 

Family Corner:

Did Dad like a flutter?
Did Mum like a flutter? (I seem to remember we would always watch the Grand National.)
Does anyone remember the bookies in the back of the grocery shop in James Street?
Did anyone in the family ever get a big win on the horses or dogs?

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

This is not a blog post

Bullet 1682 (1949)
Surrealist’s signature indicates bottom

This is the bottom.
The boots were so heavy that Dali could hardly lift his feet and he had to be bundled onto the stage with the support of his stumbling assistants. Once there he stood motionless in the full deep-sea diver suit holding two white Russian wolfhounds on a leash. Then he tried to begin his lecture on Fantomes paranoiaques authentiques or, since he was in London, authentic paranoid fantasies.

When the eccentric Lord Berners had hired the suit for the show, he had been asked to what depth exactly the artist was intending to sink. The reply, of course, was that Dali intended to descend to the level of the subconscious. As it turned out, no one had thought to include breathing apparatus with the suit and it was only when the great man started to deliver himself of his thoughts on paranoia that he realised no one would be able to hear him from behind the glass porthole of his helmet. Not only that, but he was beginning to suffocate. Luckily, swift action from Surrealist patron Edward James and a hammer saved Dali from a descent into the unconscious.
The audience that day in June 1936, unaware that the artist was in real danger of expiring before them, had accompanied the wild thrashings around of Dali and his rescuer with sustained, enthusiastic applause. For them it was all just the kind of exciting unexpected thing that these new artists were getting up to. They had already seen in the halls of the New Burlington Gallery the works of Dali, Miro, Rene Magritte and Max Ernst among others in the first major UK exhibition of Surrealist art. In their thousands, they had marvelled at noses growing into pipes, clocks melting and fur-lined tea cups.
For the man in the street, the man on the Clapham omnibus and most of John Bull’s readers, though, good art was art that cleverly reproduced the appearance of recognisable things. The comment of a reporter on the Sheffield Independent who had been despatched to the London show summed up this attitude. Praising the technique of the artists, he went on to say with some regret that most of them could “obviously do ‘straight’” if they put their minds to it. In fact, he was only getting the satisfaction of technical virtuosity because of the realism that had to be there before it could be subverted to become surreal. What he would have thought of later developments like colour field painting or performance art can be only be guessed. 

The reaction of a large part of the general British public to modern art has always been marked by contempt and/or derision, fuelled by a deep suspicion of all things intellectual. There’s a feeling that someone is trying to pull the wool over our eyes, usually for personal advancement and money. More often than not, this antipathy is manifested as humour. Tony Hancock's rebel was the best of many comic portrayals of the modern artist and, over the years, a whole genre of newspaper cartoons has developed with the pretensions of modern art as its target.

The mockery in this Bullet revolves around one of the most often expressed put-downs of modern art. Given the technical competence of the Surrealist painters, the old ‘my 5-year old could have done that’ won’t wash. So the next most obvious deviation from notions of good art is that it is impossible to tell what is going on in the picture, so most normal people would have no idea which way up it should go.

This is the top.

Family Corner:

Did Dad like art?
What art did Dad like?
What pictures did we have on the walls at Christchurch Street (1940s-1970s)
Were your artistic achievements and aspirations celebrated and encouraged?


Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Radio Times

Bullet No.1707 (1949)
More Radio – Less Activity?

This is one of many efforts from the late 40s and early 50s that are coloured by events of the day. Just two years after Hiroshima, in 1947, the site of a former arms factory at Sellafield in Cumbria was renamed Windscale and cleared to make way for a new atomic energy site. A year later, the first large reactor outside the US was commissioned and BEPO (British Experimental Pile ‘0’) was born. Although it took until 1956 for the world’s first nuclear power station to open at Calder Hall in Northumbria, the idea of a zippy new future powered by the atom was gaining credibility by the time this Bullet was written.
The twist in this one, though, is that while it nods to this bright new world, it tuts like a curmudgeon at the corrupting effects of the latest technology on the feckless Human race, which loves nothing more than finding novel ways to waste time. One of these ways was the wireless, whose rise had been almost as rapid as that of nuclear power so that, by 1949, more than 9 million radios were licensed to British households.
The invasion of those polished cabinets, with their elegant knobs and dials into the post-war living rooms of the nation had its roots not just in the development of valves and speakers for amplifying and revealing radio signals, but also in the notion of radio broadcasting as entertainment. In the early days of radio transmission, authorities kept strict control over the use of frequencies - in the UK, through the office of the Postmaster General. The technology was regarded as a utilitarian form of communication that was becoming central to shipping and, increasingly, aircraft operations.
But in 1920, the Marconi Company caused a sensation by broadcasting from its Chelmsford works the shrill, quavering tones of Dame Nellie Melba belting out a 30-minute programme of songs. The broadcast was heard as far away as Madrid, The Hague, Berlin and Paris, where it was captured on a shellac disc. Its imagination fired, the public clamoured for more and, despite the opposition of the authorities and those who felt that the gift of radio waves should not be used for trivial purposes, permits were reluctantly granted for regular broadcasts.

The early stations were run by Marconi from Chelmsford and London and their output consisted of music, banter and amusing poetry.  These efforts laid the groundwork for what would later become one element of the BBC’s characteristic style. The other classic BBC ingredient came from the compromises reached with authorities for whom the primary use for radio was the dissemination of information, such as shipping forecasts and kings’ speeches.
I’m pretty sure Dad did not really believe that radio would make us a nation of couch potatoes, but he couldn’t resist the ‘Activity’ pun for his entry. Maybe in 1949 he enjoyed listening to Tommy Handley gadding about in ITMA or Ted Ray’s domestic comedy Ray’s a Laugh on the BBC light programme. Perhaps he was as astounded as the rest of the country when astronomer Fred Hoyle explained the origins of our planet by coining the phrase 'the Big Bang' on BBC’s Third Programme, or it could be he enjoyed tapping his feet along to the Billy Cotton Band Show.
And just as with iPhones and tablets, people must have learned to multitask rather than slumping into inertia as the radio anaesthetised them. In fact, washing dishes, putting up shelves, even working out ideas for your Bullets, can all be done while the radio burbles away in the background. A hundred years hence, we can have our radio and our activity.

Family Corner:
* Did Dad enjoy the radio?
* What programmes did he like?
* Can you remember what radios we had? (I seem to remember a wooden thing that seemed quite big to me, with a complicated scale of stations.)
* Did you get your own radios when transistors came in?
* Were you allowed to play pop music in the house? (I’m moving forward in time here, to the 60s.)