Monday, 30 September 2019

It’s a Beautiful Noise - 1976, The Year of Concorde

I first saw Concorde fly over my home in 1970. I was eight years of age, and the Anglo-French supersonic jetliner was landing at London's Heathrow airport, under the flightpath of whose Runway 28-Left my Isleworth home was located. My late father, who saw it too, was unconvinced. He told me it was a Vulcan bomber. So, precocious child that I was, I phoned the airport and the man on the other end of the line confirmed it for me. Triumphantly, I announced to my father: "I told you so, you idiot!"

In reply, Dad calmly pointed out that I really ought to have put the receiver down before saying such a thing.


It was almost another six years before this marvellous piece of aviation technology was to enter regular service. On 21st January 1976 British Airways flew its first Concorde passenger flight to Bahrain, while on the same day Air France flew one of its own to Rio de Janeiro. After having initially been refused permission to travel to any destination in the US due to noise concerns, services to Washington were later that year given the go-ahead, and both airlines simultaneously commenced thrice-weekly services into Dulles airport on 24th May 1976.

I had, by this time, officially been a plane spotter for three and a half weeks, and I had "copped" the numbers of all five British Airways Concordes then based at Heathrow within the space of a week or two.


Supersonic air transport (SST) may have been a new thing in the world of commercial air travel, but it had actually been quite a long time in coming. The idea had first been mooted in the early 1950s and a group formed to discuss the feasibility of developing the concept first met in February 1954, and published a report in April 1955.

The famous delta-wing design was already accepted as the model for any future supersonic airliner, having been successfully adopted in the development of a number of high-speed military aircraft. But surprisingly the question of a form of design was in many respects more easily agreed upon than the name that the finished product was to be given. The word "concorde", ironically, means "agreement", "harmony" or "union", but the English form of the word is spelt "concord" and the two parties found it difficult to agree on which should be used. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan at one point unilaterally changed the name of the aircraft to the English spelling in response to a perceived slight by French President Charles de Gaulle, but the French spelling was later accepted by the UK's Minister for Technology Tony Benn, who declared that the "e" actually stood for "Excellence, England, Europe and Entente".

Tupolev Tu-144
But neither the British nor the French could claim sole ownership of the SST idea. In the United States both Boeing and Lockheed had begun to work on their own projects, the 2707 and the L-2000 respectively. These were to have been significantly larger than the 144-seater Concorde, with early designs for both suggesting accommodation for something approaching 300 passengers. However environmental concerns along with costs that were considered unacceptable led to the US abandoning its interest in SST in 1971, having already spent in excess of $1 billion at the evaluation stage.

But in the Soviet Union an aircraft remarkably similar to Concorde in appearance, the Tupolev Tu-144, in fact rolled off the production line in 1968, ahead of its Anglo-French counterpart. The design however was generally reckoned to have been inferior, having poor control at low speeds and requiring parachutes to land. Tragically one aircraft crashed at the Paris Air Show in 1973 and another during a test flight in 1978. Nevertheless the Tu-144 did indeed enter service with the USSR's state airline Aeroflot and remained in operation until 1983. Thereafter it was utilised by the Soviet space programme to train pilots, and by NASA for supersonic research until 1999.


Despite initial expressions of interest from a multitude of airlines and air operators, including Pan Am, Iran Air, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and even our own British Caledonian, the aircraft never actually made any sales beyond British Airways and Air France. The cost of operating such an aeroplane and all the noise and sonic problems associated with SST meant it would never be a viable option as a standard service airliner. In all, only 20 Concordes were ever built and only 14 of these ever saw commercial action.

The introduction of Concorde into regular service was just one of the many great events that the year 1976 will be remembered for. Whatever one's view of this remarkable airliner, that it represented a revolution in civil air transport can surely not be disputed.


When all is said and done, Concorde was designed and operated as a vehicle for the very rich. It was never going to be viable as a conventional passenger airliner. Undoubtedly it was noisy, environmentally unsound and, for the vast majority of ordinary, everyday people, nothing more than a curiosity that they would never be in a position to partake of themselves.

From an egalitarian perspective it symbolised everything that was wrong about modern Western society. And yet, at the same time, it was unquestionably a remarkable piece of engineering and an icon which helped define the extraordinary year that was 1976.

Just possibly, one day in the future, advances in technology and fuel efficiency will allow us to fly supersonically at a price that we can all afford to pay, including of course a price to the environment. Until then, all we can do is marvel at the elegance of what, in radio communications parlance became affectionately known as "Speedbird", and not think too deeply about the social implications of its emergence as a commercial operator as we approached that wonderful summer.

Friday, 27 September 2019

A Giant Slayed in the Sun - The FA Cup Final of 1976



On 13th December 1975 my own team, Brentford, then plying their trade in English league football's fourth tier, won a comfortable 2-0 victory at the appropriately named Plough Lane, home of non-league Wimbledon, in the second round of the FA Cup. I attended the match with my mate Tim, in whose company I would spend so much of the glorious year that was shortly to come.

We would go on to lose a replay by the same margin at Bolton Wanderers, then in Division Two (which today is called the Championship), in the next round. As it so happens the home fixture, which was goalless, earns a mention in my novel The Best Year Of Our Lives.

That was the end of Brentford's brief FA Cup campaign for that season. But for Second Division Southampton, who began theirs with a draw and then victory in a replay against Aston Villa, a dream which few of the team's fans could surely have dared to dream, was just beginning.


Fast forward (as by that time we could, albeit clumsily, on our clunky cassette recorders) to 1st May 1976. The heatwave had not yet officially started, but it was a hot day at Wembley when 5/1 outsiders Southampton, who had finished sixth in their division, ran out onto the hallowed turf alongside their mighty opponents. Nobody gave them much of a chance, but they had got there on merit and they were determined to make the best of their day out in the capital.

Lawrie McMenemy was managing Southampton, and his task was to pitch his wits against the old hand that was Tommy Docherty, a.k.a. "The Doc". Both were top league managers, but only one team boasted top league players (although a good few of the Saints' eleven had seen plenty of action at the highest level, not least Mick Channon and Peter Osgood).


But whoever had drawn up the script had left it at home. Although United started stronger and missed several good goalscoring opportunities, Southampton soaked up the pressure and managed to apply some of their own, with Channon being denied by the reliable England stopper Alex Stepney. They played it long, and out to the wing, until a sucker punch in the 83rd minute by the sadly late Bobby Stokes thrust the Saints into a shock 1-0 lead.

From then until the end of the match the almost 100,000 people who were crammed into the stadium were to share in the excitement of what McMenemy was to describe as "the longest seven minutes of my life". Southampton had defied the odds, and had won the FA Cup Final against Docherty's United giants.


The celebrations throughout Southampton were amongst the largest ever seen in the south coast city. A quarter of a million people came out onto the streets to cheer the open-top bus, which was also diverted into the grounds of local factories to prevent workers from taking time off to head into town and join in.

1976 was not an ordinary year. It was special on so many counts, but for few more so than for the good people of the city of Southampton.

Friday, 20 September 2019

The Early History of Worple Road Infant and Worple Road Mixed Schools 1897-1927 by Ken Noakes - Review

Having reviewed his two previous booklets Crowlink, a Magical Location for School Journeys: an Appreciation and Working at Worple, it would seem a logical next step to complete the trilogy by taking a look at this compelling work by Ken Noakes on the same subject, namely the history of this seminal Isleworth school which was the centre of so many of our universes in simpler days now long gone.

But being a history, and a comparatively long distant one at that, it is actually much more difficult to approach and then to dissect. The reason for this is, quite simply, that other than for the school building itself there is little contained therein with which old pupils like myself can directly identify. Not only does the story end almost forty years before I was ever to set foot in said building, but the names of its characters are all unfamiliar to me too.

Or at least they were. Because in this well-written and deliberately dispassionate account of Worple life between the tail end of the nineteenth century and the inter-war period, my old teacher and friend Ken Noakes succeeded in taking this much more recent ex-pupil back into the classroom in a way which at times made me feel I had actually been there.


The scene is set with a reminder that 1897 is Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee year and, needless to say, for the children who were to become the first pupils at the brand new Worple Road Infant School in Isleworth this was an occasion like not many other. On March 1st of that year they took up their places at the school, resplendent as it was with all the latest technology in the form of gas lamps and coal fires.

From this point onwards the booklet is a fascinating chronology of the school and its development over the ensuing three decades, heavily fortified by illustrations from the archives and quotations from school and local authority documents. Throughout this process we are regularly updated in respect of the sundry key appointments, including (of course) head teachers as well as other members of staff who were to play a role of what was to become some historic significance.


Ken Noakes
As with any good narrative of its kind, it is difficult to single out individual entries as being of special interest without doing an injustice to the others. This 115-page printed A4 booklet, after all, serves as an invaluable resource for the local historian as well as for the casual nostalgic in every single page of its being.

Nevertheless, if only by way of a taster there are a few pieces which serve in particular to remind us of how the culture of our schools, our education system and our society in general has changed since the days in which the work is set. In 1905, for instance, much emphasis was placed upon ensuring that girl pupils were taught the art of being a good housewife, able to knit a pair of gentleman's socks, employ a hemstitch and create a gusset. During the First World War rationing was introduced, first on a voluntary basis but later as a matter of law, and the threat of air raids (usually associated in the public mind with World War Two) had become a reality. Pupils at Worple were given their first air raid drill on 23rd July 1917, and subsequent alarms and sometimes false alarms were to play havoc with school attendance figures.


It would be easy, not to mention tempting, to go on and to hone in on other gems of information which might help to place my own time at Worple (1966-1972) into some kind of historical perspective. But, as the saying goes, you'll have to read the book.

The Early History of Worple Road Infant and Worple Road Mixed Schools 1897-1927 by Ken Noakes is available at £7.95 plus £2.00 postage and packing (UK orders). Contact him at to order a copy.