Monday, 3 February 2020

Guest Posts Welcome

I am always grateful for on-topic contributions from visitors to this blog.

Do you have an interesting story to tell relating to 1976? Some memories from school perhaps, from your neighbourhood, or just some thoughts in general about the fashions, the music scene, television programmes or popular culture?

Please send me a message at info@phil-andrews.co.uk and we can discuss featuring it as a stand-alone blog story. I will be happy to include a byline and a discreet link back to your own blog or website, just so long as it isn't spammy.

This is your resource, please feel free to use it as well as to read it.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

The Challenge of Casting Adolescence for an Adult Readership

It was at first slightly deflating when recently I received, for the first time since The Best Year Of Our Lives was published two and a half years ago, a negative review on Amazon.

Awarding me one star, the reviewer, who claimed that he was personally familiar with me (?), conceded that he did like the relatability of the setting and of some of the characters, but described the novel itself as "6th former literature". You can't please everyone, I guess.

NOT PRECIOUS

It would be absurd for me to become precious over one solitary critic. Looking on the bright side, the twenty 5* and 4* reviews that the book had hitherto gathered were so collectively positive that there was a danger its ratings were giving off an impression of having been solicited. At least now the range of ratings does look a touch more authentic.

But the latest reviewer has highlighted a challenge which I've already flagged up in at least one previous article, that being how to compile a manuscript heavily dependent upon dialogue between characters who are in their adolescence in a way which will retain the interest of readers who are adults, a good many of them in mature years.

AN ADOLESCENCE OF TONE

The answer of course is that a balance has to be struck. In essence I have tried to keep the dialogue as authentic and in character as possible, whilst pursuing an adult narrative.

But then an adult narrative cannot be unsympathetic to the setting of the book, and as such there is inevitably an adolescence of tone, which is certain to irritate some.

I am genuinely grateful to my negative reviewer for giving me an opportunity to highlight this dilemma once again. I always say that if C.S. Lewis can make great literature out of a talking lion then treating the pubescent banter of a band of eleven- to fifteen-year-olds with a little more seriousness than a minority of readers may feel it truly deserves surely resides within the bounds of literary credulity.

But it won't be for everyone, and it is strangely sobering to be reminded of that fact every once in a while.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

A Farewell to a King - Neil Peart (1952-2020)



Everyone who is at the top of their game these days is referred to as a king or queen of something or other. In the case of Neil Peart, whose sad passing last week confirmed the end of the Rush era, his kingdom was a land where percussive perfection met insightful lyricism of a quality that placed him alongside the very bardest of the bards who have graced popular music in recent decades.

When Peart auditioned to join the Canadian power trio in July 1974, his future bandmates were at first underwhelmed. Bass player Geddy Lee put it thus: "He drove up in this little sports car, drums hanging out of every corner. He comes in, this big goofy guy with a small drum kit with 18-inch bass drums. Alex [Lifeson] and I were chuckling - we thought he was a hick from the country."

A short demonstration later, the tone had changed somewhat: "And then he sat down behind his kit and pummelled the drums, and us. I'd never heard a drummer like, someone with that power and dexterity. As far as I was concerned, he was hired from the minute he started playing".

Aside from being an accomplished drummer, Peart revealed himself to be an astonishingly gifted songwriter. For Lee and Lifeson, neither of whom had much interest in writing lyrics, that clinched the deal.

Thus began the Rush experience, a unique amalgam of prog, hard rock and heavy metal laced with complex signatures and unorthodox chord structures, and overlain with intellectual and thought-provoking lyrical ventures into such eclectic themes as science fiction, philosophy and spirituality.

1976 AND 2112

If any work could be said to define the Peart sound it was the concept album 2112. Like so many defining events in the story of rock and pop it was, perhaps inevitably, released in that cultural crossroads that was 1976. The fourth album recorded by Rush, 2112 became especially known for its epic, seven-part, twenty-minute anthem of the same name which occupied the whole of the first side of the record. Set in that far-off year in the mythical land of Megadon, one of the Solar Federation of planets where the Elder Race had been defeated in battle by the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx, the unnamed subject of the story finds amongst the rubble of that conflagration a guitar, which he presents to the Priests expecting them to be grateful. Instead, to his horror, they grind it underfoot and tell him to forget he ever encountered this "toy that helped destroy the Elder Race of Man". Distraught, he returns home and takes his own life, not wanting to continue his dreary existence as a subject of the Priests, whose exaggerated collectivist zeal leads them to reject any notion of culture or individual creativity. But there is some good news - for the world, if not for him - when the Elder Race returns to resume control of the Solar Federation at the end of the story.

I had never heard of Rush, let alone 2112, when I was a spindly fourteen-year-old at the time of its release. It was to be quite a few years before I would become familiar with this symphonic tour de force, and yet the serendipity of its alignment with the year 1976 and all the perfection that surrounded it was not lost on me when I did.

POLITICAL BEARPIT

Among the cover notes of this incredible concept album, discreet though by no means hidden, was Peart's dedication of it to "the genius of Ayn Rand" - the controversial Russian-American objectivist philosopher. In the political bearpit that was the mid to late 1970s, it's not difficult to see how Rush in general and Peart in particular came to be regarded with extreme caution by the leftish consensus which largely prevailed around the music scene during that time.

But Peart, whilst adamant that he had nothing to apologise for, was quick to point out that although he was influenced by Rand's thinking he was by no means uncritical of it. "I am nobody’s disciple," he told reporters at the time. Later he was to describe himself as a "left-leaning libertarian", taking pains to place his earlier interest in Rand into some perspective.

Meanwhile for most of us, 2112 was about more or less whatever we wanted it to be. The struggle of good against evil, the oppressed against the oppressor, creativity against bland consumerism. It was philosophy, rather than politics. Certainly the socialist comedian Ben Elton didn't need to alter the storyline all that much to imbue it with a progressive message for his hit musical We Will Rock You some years later.

A PRIVATE MAN

Peart was reportedly an intensely private man, choosing to travel between gigs alone rather than in the company of his band and crew, covering huge distances on his motorcycle, reflecting upon life as well as drawing creative inspiration from his environment.

He authored seven non-fiction books, including the reflective Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, written during a period of what was to prove temporary retirement following the tragic deaths of both his nineteen-year-old-daughter and, shortly afterwards, his first wife.

EXIT THE WARRIOR

He retired for good towards the end of 2015, his tendinitis and shoulder pain making it impossible to continue playing the drums, especially bearing in mind the force and stamina with which Peart famously plied his trade. The following year he was diagnosed with brain cancer, from which he sadly died on 7th January 2020. He is survived by his second wife, their daughter, his three siblings and both his parents.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Operation Thunderbolt, the Raid on Entebbe - 4th July 1976




Terrorist outrages were as much a thing in the 1970s as they are today, but the protagonists and their causes were often different and their method, if crude, was in many respects more audacious and daring. To some extent this was down to the fact that surveillance methods were less well developed and thus it was easier for hijackers and suchlike to gain the initial advantage, exploiting the element of surprise. Nevertheless, there were times when nation states who were the victims of such attacks resolved to suppress them ruthlessly, often resulting in a grisly end for the perpetrators and their accomplices. Seldom has this been more demonstrably the case than in the events which culminated in the Raid on Entebbe, which coincidentally took place on the bicentenary of the ratification of America's Declaration of Independence.

HIJACK

The story began on June 27th when an Air France Airbus A300 (F-BVGG, for the plane spotters) carrying twelve crew members and 248 passengers on a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris was boarded by four hijackers during a stopover in Athens and diverted under duress via Benghazi in Libya to Entebbe in Uganda. The operation was a joint one by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the German Revolutionary Cells, and was put into action with the intention of securing the release of 53 Palestinian and pro-Palestinian militants who were being held in various locations around the Western world, but principally in Israel.

Uganda in 1976 of course lived under the tyrannical rule of the despot Idi Amin or, to give him his full title, His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, King of Scotland, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular. Amin had earlier served with distinction in the British Colonial Army and had risen through the military ranks from being a lowly cook, through lieutenant and major, to becoming, post independence, Supreme Commander of the Ugandan Armed Forces. After having to come to power through a coup he had originally aligned himself with the Western powers, but had gradually drifted into the political orbit of Libya's Colonel Gaddafi and also those of the Soviet Union and East Germany.

UNWITTING CARGO

There are different and in some cases competing accounts of how Amin came to be afforded the dubious pleasure of hosting four hijackers, later to be joined by others, and their unwitting cargo of 260 prisoners. But to Entebbe they came, and a disused former airport terminal was made available to the hijackers for the purpose of housing their captives. Israeli and other Jewish passengers were then separated from non-Jews, and the latter were in due course released, leaving some 94 passengers under guard at Entebbe airport along with the 12 crew members who had refused to leave.

A deadline of July 1st was given, whereafter passengers would begin to be executed if the hijackers' demands were not met. Meanwhile Israeli political and military leaders pondered the various alternatives available to them through which this awful situation might be resolved. Everything was considered, from negotiation to acceding to the terrorists' demands to military intervention. No option was ruled immediately in or out, but the pros and cons considered carefully. Needless to say there were differences of opinion, and arguments aplenty. Eventually they persuaded Amin to use his influence to negotiate an extension of the deadline with the hijackers, which suited him as it enabled him to fulfil a prior engagement by flying to Mauritius to hand over the Chairmanship of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Crucially, this bought Israeli planners three extra days to perfect plans for a military operation.

NO DIPLOMATIC SOLUTION

The subsequent release of formerly classified documents has shown that attempts to reach a diplomatic solution were made through the offices both of Anwar Sadat, then President of Egypt, and (through third parties) of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Both came to nothing. Running in parallel to this was the mooting of a plan to drop Israeli naval commandos into Lake Victoria, which was quickly aborted due to the danger from crocodiles.

A full-scale airlift of hostages from Uganda across several jurisdictions between that country and Israel presented formidable logistical obstacles, but had increasingly begun to look like the only viable solution if the stalemate was to be broken and the lives of the captives spared. There appeared to be no reason to assume that the hijackers would not carry out their threat. The Lockheed C130 Hercules transport planes which were needed to fulfil the mission would have to be refuelled en route, and Israel lacked the capacity to perform this operation mid-air. Eventually, and after much initial resistance, Kenya was persuaded to allow them to use Jomo Kenyatta Airport for this vital function.

Intelligence on the location was gathered from some imaginative sources. The disused terminal had originally been built by an Israeli construction company, who were able to provide information on the layout. Unknown to the hijackers, one of the "non-Jews" they had released had in fact been an Israeli military officer with an unusual recollection for detail, who imparted his knowledge of the set-up within the terminal building with astonishing accuracy. Amongst other information he was able to impart related to which terrorists carried which weapons, and whereabouts on their persons. Other freed passengers volunteered further observations, enabling a really detailed picture to be constructed.

THE RAID

On July 3rd the raiding party set off from Sharm el-Sheikh, on Sinai, now part of Egypt but then under Israeli occupation. Four Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Hercules transport aircraft containing around 100 troops and other personnel joined by two Boeing 707s offering logistical support flew low over the Red Sea to avoid detection from neighbouring Arab forces, who may have exposed the operation or even engaged the aircraft. After refuelling the first Hercules landed at Entebbe shortly before midnight. A black Mercedes limousine and a number of black Land Rovers raced towards the terminal building. The fleet was configured to imitate Amin's presidential vehicle and its security detail, but one guard was aware that the dictator had recently traded his black Merc in for a white one and ordered it to stop. He and other sentries were shot but the Israeli assault team which was crammed into the various vehicles was forced to head for the terminal building at speed, fearing that its cover had been blown. As it happens the furore had gone unnoticed by the terrorists.

When they reached the terminal the assault team raced in and took the captors by surprise. A brief fire-fight ensued in which all the hijackers were killed. Sadly three hostages also lost their lives and a few were injured in the crossfire. Meanwhile the three remaining C130s had touched down at the airport.

Outside the building the remaining Israeli commandos set about destroying Ugandan fighter aircraft on the ground to prevent them from pursuing the Hercs once they were airborne. They were engaged by Ugandan soldiers and there was a battle in which 45 of the troops were killed, as well as one Israeli commander. The officer was Yonni Netanyahu, whose brother Benjamin would many years later become Prime Minister of Israel.

RESCUED

When the C130s finally took off for Israel, they carried 102 rescued hostages bound for safety. Three had lost their lives during the battle. One more, an elderly lady by the name of Mrs. Dora Bloch, had been taken ill at the airport and driven to a local hospital before the arrival of the rescuing party. Reports suggest she was being well looked after prior to the raid, but in its wake she was tragically murdered upon an angry Amin's insistence. A Ugandan doctor who objected was killed also.

Most commentators tend to the view that Operation Thunderbolt, notwithstanding the probably unlawful violation of another country's sovereign territory (and the destruction on the ground of a quarter of its air force), saved a great number of lives. Four innocent civilians, a brave Ugandan doctor, an Israeli commander and seven hijackers were dead. And future hijackers were served notice that such actions could well lead to consequences quite different to those intended.

Many films were made shortly afterwards about the rescue mission, the most popular being Victory at Entebbe and Raid On Entebbe. Idi Amin continued his reign of terror in Uganda until being deposed in a coup in 1979 after an attempt to invade neighbouring Tanzania backfired spectacularly and ended with his own country being occupied by Tanzanian troops. He lived in exile in Saudi Arabia until his death from kidney failure in 2003.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Wanted - Your Lord Toffingham Memories

There are so many things the 1970s will rightly be remembered for - glam rock, tank tops, flares and platforms, big hair, cold wars and cod wars, the fuel crisis, the unburied dead, power cuts, strikes, trades union militancy, the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust, the Goodies, the long hot summer of 1976 to name but a few.

But of all the memories that those of us who are of a certain age refuse to lay to rest, one of the most precious must surely be that of the splendid Lord Toffingham. A thick blob of toffee submerged in a banana-flavoured coating, the Toffingham lolly seemed suddenly to disappear from our lives with neither announcement nor ceremony. It is sadly missed.

With all its eccentric simplicity the Lord Toffingham personified the 1970s, and it is perhaps not surprising that there is at least one active petition calling for its return. Alas, memories do lose a certain precision and clarity with the passing of time and information is difficult to come by; even Google seems unable to elucidate.

So my plea is to readers of this blog who remember and share my yearning for this wonderful creation - what do you remember about the Lord Toffingham?

Let us have your recollections, no matter how sketchy, by posting them below.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Alice Cooper at the O2 Arena



As a birthday treat to myself I took me along to the O2 Arena in London to see Alice Cooper, 71 years young, performing the London stage of his Ol' Black Eyes Is Back tour.

Whatever influence Bowie and other artists such as Steve Harley may have had on me during my very most formative years, it was Alice who in fact provided my initiation to modern music back in those long gone hazy days of 1972. It is true that on the very first day of my "conversion" to the pop scene the Number One spot in the UK was occupied by Donny Osmond with his cover of Paul Anka's Puppy Love. But having realised within a week or two that Donny was actually a "girly" artist, my attention soon switched to his successor at the zenith of that illustrious chart, which was Alice Cooper and his classic School's Out.

It helped that my dear late cousin Steve was also a fan, and in fact we both went as far as learning the introductory chords on our electric guitars before becoming distracted by something or other and losing interest.

BILLION DOLLAR BABIES

Billion Dollar Babies became a rare album purchase, rare because an LP ran to several weeks'
pocket money, and I still recall the pull-out billion dollar note and the perforated tear-off cards which graced the album cover.

But the content was rather good too. Alice Cooper was not just a glam singles artist, but had strength in depth. A fine set of songs from beginning to end.

Alice continued to be one of my go-to artists for much of the seventies. Come the year 1976 he wasn't actually doing a lot as far as I could see, but he was always there, in the background and firmly in my memory and my affections. And of course he has recorded some excellent new material in subsequent years, not least the smash hit Poison.

So when he announced his latest tour, complete with birthday date at the O2, I canvassed my household to see who might be interested in joining me. To my great surprise it wasn't my wife but my 22-year-old daughter Rosie who stepped enthusiastically up to the plate.

A CLASS APART

On the night Cooper was supported by MC50 and The Stranglers, the latter of whom I had seen at Wembley Stadium in 1979 supporting The Who, where to be honest they were less than impressive. But at the O2 they were quite superb, and had it been announced after their set that they had in fact been the main act and it was now time to go home I still would not have left feeling cheated.

That said, Alice Cooper was a class apart. Backed by a formidable band containing literally some of the world's greatest rock musicians, much fortified by a guest appearance by his original bassist Dennis Dunaway, he belted out hit after hit with nary a hint of deference to his mature years. Where some other great vocalists have become, well, not so great vocalists over the passage of cruel, relentless time, Cooper has retained his vocal range and power in all its awesomeness and, were it not for a few wrinkles (well, quite a few actually), we could quite easily have been watching the Alice of the early seventies in full flow.

There is always rather a sense of urgency about going to see long-established, septuagenarian artists when they decide to tour. But Alice Cooper looks fit and on top of his game, and points out without tongue in cheek that as a man who is six years younger than Mick Jagger he still has at least that long to play before hanging up his witches' costume.

As a first-time visitor to one of Cooper's shows I was slightly embarrassed when a 31-year-old fan with whom I got into conversation informed me that it was his third such experience. Thankfully it would seem I've at least six more years to make good.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

James Hunt vs. Niki Lauda 1976 - The Greatest Ever Formula One World Championship?



As great sporting rivalries go, they don't come any more tense or bitter than that which existed between British playboy racing car driver James Hunt and his steely Austrian competitor Niki Lauda. And nowhere did this stark contrast of style and character manifest itself more explosively than in the unforgettable Formula One World Championship of 1976.

The consummate professional, Lauda had already established himself as the man to beat after having won the championship the previous year. Hunt, having joined the sport from Formula Three driving - and winning - for the Hesketh team, signed up for McLaren in 1975. His daring and skill rapidly identified him as one to watch and, combined with his flamboyant personality and pop star lifestyle, he fast became a celebrity whose fan base extended well beyond the somewhat niche world of motor racing.

Thus the stage was set for a showdown in the extraordinary year that was 1976 between the bad boy from Belmont and the dedicated, methodical Lauda, born into a wealthy Viennese paper manufacturing family. The season featured the World Championship of Drivers and the International Cup for Formula One Manufacturers, which were contested concurrently over a sixteen-race series starting on January 25th and concluding on October 24th. The season also included two non-championship races. As he had done in the previous, winning year, Lauda drove for Ferrari.

SERIES OF CONTROVERSIES

The season began in São Paulo, Brazil. After having initially claimed pole position Hunt crashed from the race with a sticking throttle, handing Lauda victory in his first defence of his title of the previous year. A similar scenario played out in the next race in South Africa, although on this occasion the Briton did at least manage to place second. In the third race, in the US, the Austrian had to settle for the second spot, though still finished ahead of his rival.

The fourth race, at Jarama near Madrid, saw the first of a series of controversies that were define this memorable year in Formula One racing history. After having beaten Lauda into second place with his first F1 victory of the campaign Hunt was then disqualified due to his car allegedly having been 1.8 centimetres too wide, only to be reinstated as the winner on appeal some two months later.

It wasn't until the ninth contest that Formula One came to the UK, in July, with James Hunt determined to triumph before his home crowd at Brands Hatch. In the event though Lauda took pole position, forcing his rival into an early second spot. At one point the race had to be restarted after debris was cleared from the track following a minor collision in which Hunt was involved, and he and two other drivers recommenced driving new vehicles. Lauda remained in the lead until his gearbox malfunctioned, allowing the Englishman to overtake him and to relegate him to second place.

However, more controversy was to follow. After the crash James Hunt had taken a shortcut to the pit by means of an access road, which meant that technically he had not completed the course. Ferrari contested that the rules stated that even if a race was suspended, drivers still had to follow the course before accessing the pit. A hearing was held in September at which Hunt was disqualified and Niki Lauda was awarded the win.

SHOW OF HANDS

But the race that will be remembered forever will be the West German GP, which took place on the on the deadly Nürburgring track in Nürburg. The mountainous Nordschleife section of the road was fourteen miles long, nearly three times longer than Interlagos which was the next longest circuit on the calendar and seven times longer than the Monaco street circuit. It had already claimed a number of victims and as the competition's safety spokesperson Lauda proposed a boycott of the event. When drivers took a show of hands he was defeated by one vote, and the race went ahead.

On the second lap of the race Lauda lost control of his car due to a probable rear suspension failure whilst driving at high speed on the wet track, and crashed into barriers before bouncing back. The car became engulfed in flames. Lauda was pulled out of the burning car by some fellow drivers, and was rushed to hospital where we was read the last rites by a priest. He died and was resuscitated on two occasions. Some obituaries were already written and ready to be published. But incredibly Niki Lauda not only survived the lung damage and the severe burns, which left his face permanently disfigured, but he was back on the grid for the Italian GP just six weeks later. "I said then and later that I had conquered my fear quickly and cleanly," he was later to comment. "That was a lie. But it would have been foolish to play into the hands of my rivals by confirming my weakness. At Monza, I was rigid with fear."

TREACHEROUS CONDITIONS

The sixteenth and final race in the Championship took place in Japan. Before the start of the race, Lauda was still leading Hunt by three points in the tournament. But once again conditions were treacherous, and many of the drivers (including both Lauda and Hunt) argued that it was too dangerous to proceed. Bullied by the demands of the TV companies, their protestations were overlooked and the race went ahead in sheeting rain.

In Lauda's case his difficulties were compounded by the fact that his accident in Germany had left his tear ducts damaged which rendered him unable to blink in the spray. Under protest, he performed two laps and retired from the race. At the finish Hunt came home in third place, overtaking Lauda's points tally and thereby handing him the 1976 Formula One World Championship.

The excellent 2013 film Rush depicts the fierce rivalry between these two gladiators of the race track wonderfully, but what perhaps does'’t quite come across is the sheer love and respect that existed between them. They were friends before, during and after the epic battles of 1976 and Lauda was especially touched when Hunt announced, after winning the Championship in Japan that year: "I wanted to win the championship, and I felt that I deserved to win the championship. I also felt that Niki deserved to win the championship, and I just wish we could have shared it."

Tragically, James Hunt died from a heart attack in 1993 at the age of just 45. Lauda went on to enjoy a long career in Formula One as a driver and manager, also writing five books and even setting up his own airline Lauda Air. He died in May 2019, aged 70, following kidney problems.