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Those “I was there” moments (sort of)

One of the oddities of life are those occasions when one has a brush, however slight or inconsequential, with an event of great historical importance e.g. whilst watching television.

Delving back into the mists of time as I begin typing I can think of two representative examples my personal past – the assassination of JFK, the US President on 22nd November 1963 and the “That’s one small step for [a] man, a giant leap for mankind” descent onto the Moon’s surface of Neil Armstrong, the commander of the Apollo 11 mission, on 20th July 1969.

Regarding the former, I was twelve at the time and incarcerated in a small boarding prep school in a town on the coast of East Sussex which was home to a number of similar establishments.

After the classroom business of the day I had become a member of a group of senior boys, supervised by a master, who had been invited to attend a production of Julius Caesar at one of them.

We walked there and back – a distance of no more than 400 yards – in what was then known as a ‘crocodile’ formation.

I’m afraid that the majesty of Shakespeare’s words and any quality involved in the production rather passed us by – for the majority of our party, who generally regarded lessons as little more than a series of interruptions between games, the ‘draw’ of the expedition was primarily its novelty value.

Afterwards, as we filed back into the school buildings via (what now at this distance) most resembled a Nissan hut housing a pair of master’s offices leading to the gymnasium, the deputy headmaster excitedly invited our group to join him and other boys in his room to watch a black and white television on which news reports upon the shocking events in Dallas were being transmitted.

Readers will know the rest.

When it comes to Neil Armstrong’s first steps upon the Moon I’m afraid I cannot recall the exact circumstances in which I watched these taking place, nor indeed where I was, beyond the fact that I watched them live on television at some point in the middle of the night.

Almost everyone I knew or cared about had made a point of staying up until “whenever it took” to see this extraordinary moment in the flesh.

I do, however seem to recall that the BBC’s ‘space expert of the moment’ – the balding but highly-enthusiastic James Burke – was one of those on hand to guide British viewers through it.

I mention both the above instances as an introduction to two further historical events that have occurred this week in which I played a minor on-looking part.

My current daily habit, assuming nothing else has intervened to alter it, is to prepare myself a gin and tonic [the recipe a healthy-slug of Oxford Toad artisan gin, a dash of Angustura bitters, a slice of lemon, two large ice cubes and the contents of a Schweppes tin can of tonic water, if you’re interested] at about 5.50pm and then settle down in my armchair to watch the Six O’ Clock News on BBC1.

My schedule on Monday evening this week was as per the book.

The leading news items of the day were (in no order of importance) a Jeremy Corbyn speech in which he announced that a next Labour government would abolish the current SATs system of measuring academic achievement for primary school children and replace it with something else and a report upon the ongoing Extinction Rebellion (eco-warrior) direct action demonstrations currently taking place in high profile parts of Central London.

Then, as some point between 6.10pm and 6.15pm – my memory is hazy – the newsreader made a no-more-than 30 second mention of the fact that ‘a fire’ had broken at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris before moving smoothly on to the next item.

Moments later a lady of my acquaintance came breathlessly in through the French window doors to draw my attention to reports she was picking upon up on her Twitter feed about the Notre Dame incident, upon which I immediately tuned my television to the BBC 24 Hour News channel and/or Sky News to watch the unfolding evens in the French capital.

In my own days in British television, a quarter of a century and more ago, whenever such a catastrophic news item such as this ‘broke’ it was an automatic and instinctive ‘public service’ reaction that the News team of the day would receive immediate authority from on high to take command of the airwaves and also that the existing (as advertised) broadcasting schedule would accordingly be junked.

On Monday I could not believe that in this 21st Century world of the internet and social media the BBC News outfit simply continued the BBC1 Six O’ Clock news bulletin as normal – and at 6.30pm passed its baton to the local BBC London News programme.

If this had happened in my time, the News editor and/or producer of the day would almost certainly have been summarily fired for not immediately implementing the “Major Breaking News” protocol and concentrating exclusively upon the Notre Dame fire.

Still, as they say, this is 2019 and times change.

My other ‘issue of the moment’ was last night’s epic European Champions League quarter-final football clash between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.

At about 7.30pm I had begun a stint as chairman and quizmaster of a gathering which plays a regular “General Knowledge” quiz game. In the background the television – situated behind the sofa upon which I was sitting – was tuned to BT Sport’s live coverage of the match with the sound button set at “mute”.

As a result, the team sitting opposite me was able to watch the football whilst those of us occupying ‘my’ sofa remained blissfully unaware of how it was progressing and were therefore concentrating upon the quiz questions at hand.

Our quiz did not last long.

After three eruptions of involuntary astonished excitement from the sofa opposite, this as an equivalent number of goals hit the back of the net inside the first eleven minutes – and to the intense annoyance of those more interested in the quiz than the football – our much-anticipated quiz swiftly descended first into disarray and then farce followed by abandonment by general agreement.

Well, general agreement amongst the males present anyway.

That’s how it is when these occasional great historical events hit the fan.

The news websites I have visited overnight seem to have uniformly hailed last night’s Manchester City/Spurs football game as one of the most exciting of all-time.

I am not sufficiently expert in football to pronounce as to whether or not that is strictly true, but it sure as hell made for great entertainment!


About J S Bird

A retired academic, Jeremy will contribute article on subjects that attract his interest. More Posts