The above photo needs no introduction.
You know the spiel by now.
25 years ago today/tomorrow, the night of the 15th/16th October 1987 saw The Great Storm, or The 1987 Hurricane, or whatever you would like to call it. Millions of trees uprooted, millions in property damage, 18 people killed, road, rail and power disrupted, and none of it forseen or foretold by the met office.
Amid great sniggering, the clip of Michael Fish reading the weather forecast on BBC TV at lunchtime on the 15th will be played, with him saying there is no hurricane coming, and the talk will be of how utterly the Met Office failed to prepare the Great British Public for the terrible storm.
That’s the collective memory, and everyone knows it is true.
Except . . it isn’t.
I was there, and I was right in the teeth of the storm in all it’s fury, and I had been watching that lunchtime weather forecast, and I had heard Michael follow his comment about there not being a hurricane (technically true) by telling everyone to “batten down the hatches” as there was going to be some very stormy weather overnight. Ah, but they never play that bit of the clip do they?
But more than that, I was expecting him to say this, and I knew several days earlier that the morning of the 16th would see a great and violent storm coming in from the southwest . . because the Met Office had told me, and other BBC viewers. Far from being unprepared, we were well prepared for a storm, and although, yes, it was much more severe than we expected, it is wholly unfair to say that the nation was not warned.
The nation was, you see, mostly indifferent to the weather warnings over the preceeding days, and much more concerned with waiting for Neighbours to come on after the news bulletin. But the warning was there, as far back as the previous Sunday.
I should clarify here that myself and my colleagues on board Radio Caroline were always very attentive to the weather, and always watchful and mindful of what it was going to do, as in our exposed anchorage 18 miles off the Kent coast the weather had a profound impact on our day to day life – on our level of comfort, on the ease of our doing our jobs, on our prospects of being resupplied at any given time, and on the quality of our sleep. So we were very attentive and invested in the weather forecasts.
You might expect me to tell you of the amazing struggles to stay on the air during the great storm, and the frightening moments and waves as tall as buildings that we encountered that day, but that is not the purpose of this article. I’ve written about it in my book Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, and there is another account of it written by myself, which you can read for free online at Soundscapes (EDIT: for some reason the article cannot be directly linked from here, but if you google “soundscapes conway hurricane” you will find it)..
No, this piece is my attempt to shout my truth unheeded into the wind yet one more time, and try to tell you that the story of Michael Fish and the sleeping Met Office is . . just a story, a popular narrative.
Unfortunately, it has over time become THE Story, the only one that is told.
So, did the Met Office warn about the storm, and how far in advance did we know?
We knew as far back as Sunday 11th October, four or five days earlier, that we were in for an almighty storm in the early hours of Friday 16th.
Needing to be conscious of the weather, and as Caroline’s Head of News, one of the things I never missed was the Farming Programme on Sundays on BBC1 (not sure if it was called Countryfile back then, but it was essentially a more down to earth and less jazzy version of the programme that still runs to this day). The programme always featured a long-range weather forecast for the next 7 days, and this was highly useful to us on Caroline for assessing if we were going to have some bumpy days, and when there might be a weather window for supply boats to reach us.
I was particularly conscious of the forecast on that particular Sunday, as we were short staffed (two presenters down), running short on certain supplies, and crucially had not received new records for a number of weeks (pretty essential for a contemporary music station). The large supply ship that came out from France that weekend did not have these people or items, but brought a message with it that there would be a small boat coming from the UK on Friday with fresh staff, supplies, and music.
Looking at the long-range weather forecast on the farming programme, we knew that this was just a pipe dream, and that there would be no new supplies on Friday – the weather would be far too rough for even the much bigger French tender to come to us, never mind a small fishing boat.
Thus we were well aware of a big storm on the Friday, and when Michael Fish made his comment about battening down the hatches, well as good seafarers, his advice was more literally true for us than for anyone else.
So although the ferocity of those mountainous seas at daybreak on Friday, 25 years ago, did astonish us, we could not, truly, say we were not warned.
Next time you see the clip of Michael Fish, and you hear the story about how forecasters did not predict a storm, don’t believe it.
I’d like to believe that my personal truth would counter the popular myth, but i know that, like on that morning a quarter of a century ago, my words will be lost in the howling wind.
I think it was John Denver who sang the words “He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he’d never been before” (the song: Rocky Mountain High)
As Steve Conway I was born on the 6.30am news headlines exactly 25 years ago this morning, in the winter of my 23rd year, having just arrived at a place that would become home to me for a number of exciting drama and emotion packed years, and a sort of Tir Na Og or mystical lost land for me to look back at later in life.
This is a way of saying that today is the 25th anniversary of my joining Radio Caroline back in the days when it was offshore. Before that that day I had another name, but the practacalities of working on a radio station that was outside the law (not against the law, but actually outside it) made a name change advisible, and so Steve was born as a fully fledged adult, and Steve I have been ever since.
And, in a way, it was a rebirth of sorts, because joining Caroline so radically altered my life that the date 24th February 1987 is a dividing point in my life, which was very very different in shape either BC (before Caroline) or AD (after the drifting of November 1991 that ended my offshore years).
And what of the 4 years in the middle? They were, in a way, outside normal time and space – life on board a pirate radioship in International Waters being so strange and cut off from normal society, but so physically, socially, and emotionally intense that those involved seem to exist in their own little bubble. For a proper detailed description of those strange years, I would refer you to my 2009 book: Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, and my forthcoming prequel, sequel and midquel “Running Away From The Circus – Everything I Know About Radio I Learned By Screwing It Up”
No, what the anniversary has really made me think about this morning is time.
25 years – a quarter of a century. In one sense it has passed quickly, but in another, it is a very long span of time, especially if I view it in terms of the changes in the world in which I live.
I’m not talking about the micro world of radio – though that has changed dramatically, offshore pirates now a thing of the past, onshore radio multiplied in number by a huge factor – nor am I thinking about the political world, which, to be honest, despite governments coming and going, wars and alliences changing, is curiously unchanged from 1987 (I have a couple of my Caroline news bulletins on tape, and apart from the names of the participants, many of the actual stories would seem perfectly normal if broadcast today, indeed an old bulletin might almost be played out instead of a new one with few realising there was something wrong).
I’m thinking of the more general world as it personally affected me an an individual, then and now.
Information has been the defining change of those 25 years. In 1987, information was something which you were given, in limited quantities. It was not something which, in the run of the mill that you accessed, unless you have a job which specifically involved accessing files and databases.
On board the radio ship we had a television (and no, we didn’t have a licence for that either!) and it gave us the diet of entertainment and slices of news that were deemed suitable or needed for the population at large. There was no hint of customisation – you had the choice to watch or not, but could not influence that content in any way. Also on the TV was teletext, a few hundred pages of information judged to be of popular appeal, so you could look up things like sporting results, the current UK Top 40, news headlines, weather etc. No deeper dive into this information was possible, and there was no such thing as search.
Onshore it was not much different. You could go to a library, but getting hold of any kind of information outside the daily norm required a lot of effort. What exactly was said during a debate in the House of Commons last night? What are the times of the bus that goes past my friends house in a city 400 miles away? What is the history of Danzig before 1939? All of these kinds of questions were, indeed, capable of being answered, but not on the spot, not at 8am on a Sunday morning, and often not without considerable time and effort.
When I made the snap decision to join Caroline, my family and friends back home in Ireland did not find out about it for many weeks. There was no Facebook to keep in touch, no text messages, and no way for them to listen to me even if they had known I was on there.
Whenever I wanted to take a trip back to Ireland to see them, booking it was a big undertaking. I had to visit a travel agent or ferry or airline office, where first of all I would have to wait, patiently, while many other people in front of me were served, slowly. Then I would explain my needs to a person seated in front of a booking system which I could not see, and they would outline the various options of flights or ferries to me. I had no way of seeing those options myself, no way of knowing if what I was being told and sold was really the best for me, or the best for them.
When I went home to ireland, I was in a different world from the UK. No Caroline, no London Evening Standard, no access to my London friends other than making an international phone call (house to house in those days) which would seem . . well, strange.
I don’t have to tell you how vastly different all these things are now. I listened to Caroline on my way to work on the bus this morning in Dublin in clear FM quality via my smartphone, which will also give me the Evening Standard if I want it, let me search and book my flights, even act as my boarding pass. Any of the pieces of information I mentioned above are at my fingertips instantly. Travelling is hugely different, through apps and alerts I know what is going on at airports, can be certain when the next bus or tram is arriving, and can text Geoff in Surrey to tell him that I’m just about to get onto a fishing boat in Harlingen, Netherlands. Or research the history of Danzig should I be hit with a curiosity to do so at 8am on a Sunday morning.
When we look forward in time, we generally don’t see and can’t see the real changes which are going to happen. We think of faster planes and spaceships and wars for water, but we can’t forsee the changes that are gestating which will affect the more intimate, everyday world we live in.
There are other ways of predicting the future however. A couple of the Dutch crew on the Caroline ship had this thing going with a piece of string and a weight which they used to divine the future for the small but important events – such as when the next supply boat would arrive (FOOD! NEW FACES! NEW RECORDS!), who might be on it, and other such things.
The future was predicted based on which direction the string would move when held with the weight on the end, and whether it would stay absolutely still or move around.
The fact that we were doing this on board a ship which even in the calmest weather would move gently may tell you that we were not neccessarily applying the strictest of scientific methods here!
After a string (!) of successful predictions they started asking it some bigger questions.
Who would find love? Who would marry? When would the Ross Revenge make its final broadcast at sea? (the string correctly predicted 1990, but then wrongly told us that the ship would be bought by the Voice of Peace and move to the Israeli coast).
The human curiosity for the future is strong, despite our almost always predicting it wrongly. Looking back today at this junction in my life a quarter of a century ago, I can’t help but wonder what changes there will be in the next 25 years of Steve Conway. Hopefully, when “Steve” is 50 he will still be alive (his body will be 73, so that’s a reasonable hope). Beyond that I can’t really say what will happen.
Whereas before, everyone talked of flying cars, now in the information age we predict brain chips. People will be able to access everything without any external devices, our memories will be preserved forever . . .
But perhaps we are failing to see the real future, and the changes to come will be just as unexpected and profoundly altering as the ones of the last quarter century.
I just hope they are as liberating.
Anyone got a piece of string I can borrow?
Just a very quick note – I’ve paid for a couple of upgrades from WordPress to enhance the enjoyment of your visits.
As of today, we are ad-free, so there will no longer be adverts popping up for services that are beyond my control.
I’ve also upgraded the storage space which adds the ability for me to directly host audio on the site, so I can now include clips of off-air recordings etc if they add to the article.
By way of trial, below is a clip from half a lifetime ago, back in my newsreading days with Radio Caroline, at sea on board the ship Ross Revenge. The microphones and audio processing used on Caroline were very good at pulling in background noise whenever there was silence, hence the fact that on music programmes we tried to always speak over song fades and intros rather than dead air. This was not possible in the news of course – just listen to the amount of ambient ship noise (mostly generator rumble) being pulled in behind me on this bulletin – not to mention how dilligently the system amplified my between sentence wheezes!
We could have used a news bed (music behind the news) but a huge poportion of the audience find this really intrusive, so we lived with the background noise instead! The location of the newsroom just off the bridge, the closest to the generator room of any of the on board studios, did not help either. The best studio on board for silence was studio 2 (the “overdrive” studio) situated right at the back of the ship. On the clip, the news is followed by Peter Philips reading the latest Lotto 6/49 results (the Canadian Lottery was our biggest advertiser at the time) – this would have been pre-recorded in studio 3, and you’ll note that although generator noise is much reduced, it can still be heard in the background between sentences.
Anyway, I shall add in the odd audio piece here from time to time, and hope that you continue to visit and enjoy this blog.
Have just had a wonderful weekend in the UK, which included returning to the airwaves of Radio Caroline for the first time in 11 years!
My old Caroline shipmate Dave Foster was having a 50th birthday party, which I didn’t want to miss, and great fun was had by all on Saturday night, with many Caroline staff and supporters attending. I first met Dave when he was out on board the Ross Revenge with me in April and May 1987,at the height of the Caroline 558 era. We rekindled our friendship when he rejoined the station in 1998, as one of the small band who helped get the current-day satellite service started. He’s stayed with Caroline ever since, and also works for the BBC in a technical capacity.
After the party, Dave invited me to join him for his Sunday afternoon show on Caroline, and we had great fun going over the music of the past 5 decades, while sharing memories.
Caroline can be heard online at www.radiocaroline.co.uk, or via Sky Ch. 0199.
Thanks to Dave and all involved for a memorable weekend!
Comment from “Peter B” about Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline
Loved the movie. Read this book and liked it. What a story. My only complaint was that music played such a small part of the story. If music so important to risk your life, at least give us play list. Songs listed were weak…no Clash, U2, Cure, Pfurs, Who, RStones etc. What gives?
The above comment, which came in to me recently, raises a very valid point, and one that was indeed on my mind when the book came out.
The music played, and various music formats of Caroline have been a subject of huge debate over the years, not least amongst the presenters themselves, so I thought that rather than a quick reply to just Peter, it might be better going into more detail for a wider audience. So this post serves as both a reply to Peter’s question, and an introduction to some more detailed information that I will make available here over a period of time.
During Radio Caroline‘s long life, it went through many different musical phases, so much so that it could almost be regarded as different stations in its different eras (though, through continuity of Ronan O’Rahilly, the ships, and some staff members from era to era it was demonstrably the same operation). I know that in the 60s it was quite pop and chart orientated for a while, whereas during the 70s it was prog rock and album focused, but my own area of speciality would be how it sounded in the late 1980s, which was when I was personally involved.
To answer Peter’s question about music in the book, he is correct to say that as what we were doing was all “for the music” that it features surprisingly little in the text. It was not always thus – my first draft of the book was 220,000 words long, and the more polished version submitted for publication was 176,000 words, a portion of which documented in detail the day to day running of the music rotations under my control in 88/89, the long running disagreements between various factions of staff about what Caroline should be doing musically, and a number of behind the scenes changes I made to the standard 558 clock format in late 88 and early 89 to give the station more musical variety, and defuse some of the criticisms from staff uncomfortable with the tight formatting.
However, when the book was accepted for publication, I came face to face with some of the realities of commercial publishing – for a normal “trade paperback” which is what we eventually got, the ideal length would be 80,000 words, or roughly half of my already pared down first draft. In the end, we bargained it up to 90,000 words, but I still had to make pretty substantial cuts throughout the text of the book, losing many stories, and a great deal of repetitive comings and goings.
For this book, I really needed to keep the main bones of the two narrative stories I was telling intact – my own story of joining and growing as an individual, and the timeline of the series of events, disasters and recoveries that took Caroline from being a fully functioning, well run, high power station when I joined, to a near deserted and silent hulk when we finally went aground on the Goodwin Sands. There was a lot of stuff I couldn’t afford to lose without disrupting the timeline, which made the cuts to the more general background stuff deeper still.
Stripped of a lot of the detail to reduce wordcount, the bits about the music format discussions came across more as a series of petty arguments, and did not really reflect well the more complex situation whereby although almost everyone involved had different opinions, and often argued fiercely, we did so in a mostly supportive way. So in the end I settled for some simple descriptions of how the late 80s Caroline format worked, and a couple of references to the fact that there were mostly good-natured disagreements about it, which is about as much as I could get in a book of that length. If there had been a few less disasters in the 87-89 period, then there would have been more room to write about the music, but then, I suppose, the story might have been very different!
The artists Peter mentions, and many more besides, were indeed all played in the Caroline 558 era, and not just the obvious songs, but a great back catalogue including lesser known singles and album tracks. To take Bob Dylan as an example, you would be as likely to hear “Isis” or “Desolation Row” played on the breakfast show as “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “It Ain’t Me Babe“. The same could be said of artists who were new at the time – just about the only Suzanne Vega track played on mainstream radio was “Luka” but Caroline playlisted “Small Blue Thing” and “Marlene On The Wall” as well as other tracks.
Likewise in the mid 80s, Caroline was playing all of REM‘s stuff, first as current tracks on release, then later as back catalogue, years before they became fashionable on mainstream radio in the UK (which, if I recall correctly, happened with “Losing My Religion” in 1990 – Caroline had REM playlisted at least as early as “Don’t Go Back To Rockville” in 85).
Throughout the 558 era, alongside the 50% of playlist that came from the huge back catologue, and the 30% made up of Top 40 singles, 20% was playing new music on medium and high rotation, and here we really put our heart and soul in giving airplay to releases by new artists who you wouldn’t necessarily hear elsewhere. Some of these went on to be well-known names, others were never really successful, but all were given a chance.
The era of “Caroline 558″ is often dismissed as “mindless pop” by people whose tastes did not include the Top 40 stuff, but to do so is to neglect the wide variety of other material also included in the format, and the sheer genius of the system designed by Peter Philips. This format rotated the back catalogue in such a way that once played, an oldie would not be heard again for 6 weeks, and then guarenteed to be in a different timeslot. This was in contrast to the ILR stations on land where the same “oldies” were rotated just days apart, or current day classic stations where you hear the same one or two best known tracks from each artist every single day.
I will, in a follow-up post to this, examine the 558 format in some detail, with details of the catagory breakdowns, the rotation periods, the “new music” from the period, and some sample playlists which I will cull from checking back over off-air recordings of the period. It will take me some time to put this together, so expect it in a few weeks, say the end of February.
To finish with a musical memory, and one of the bands mentioned by Peter, there is a particular Cure track which brings back a very vivid memory of Caroline for me. It’s not one of those dramatic moments, not a time of crisis, just an ordinary everyday moment, and all the more precious for being so. It dates from my early days on Caroline, when I was still new enough not to have any responsibilities other than the news shifts, and weekend overnight programmes. I didn’t have the weight of keeping it all running hanging on my shoulders at that time, and life was pretty sweet.
Sometime in the spring/summer of 1987, the song “Just Like Heaven” was released as a single by The Cure, and we were playing it on out C+ high rotation, new music list. It was the middle of the night, about 2.40am, and I had gone down to the galley to make myself a cup of tea. Everything was played off vinyl in those days, and we had no way of judging the length of a track other than by experience of already having played it (if the time was not marked on the record).
Anyway, somehow, the record was shorter than I imagined, and I was still in the galley when I realised they were in the final chorus. “Just like Heaven” has a great sort of ending which seems to hang in the air for a couple of seconds after it ends, and I can remember legging it along the corridor at great speed, the final notes of the song coming from the speaker in the Galley behind me, and seeming to almost be lasting forever as I hurtled up the stairs in a sort of slow motion, managing to hit the “start” button for the next track barely a second after the sound died away, even though I would swear the song had ended to silence while I was still in the galley.
I can never ever hear that track without being instantly transported back to that night. Whenever I hear it I immediately feel anxious because I know I need to get back to the studio. I can see the corridor, I can smell the mix of diesel and rust as I pass the engineroom, I can feel my finger pressing on that start button, all as I hear the ending of the song.
If they ever invent a time machine, I know where I’ll be going . . .
Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline had the first of its two launches, in London, on Wednesday 8th April, at The Hammersmith Ram, King Street, Hammersmith, in an event attended by a number of former Caroline associates as well as media and a good turnout from the pre-Caroline pirate station, South East Sound.
The Dublin launch takes place on Wednesday 15th April, at 6.30pm in Cassidys, Westmorland Street – all welcome! For details visit www.seventowers.ie
Saturday 28th March marked the 45th anniversary of Radio Caroline’s launch back in 1964, and a reunion event held at The Grapes, Shepherds Market in London was very well attended by Caroline staffers from all eras of the station’s history.
It will be available from that date through normal retail outlets in the UK and Ireland, through various online sales sites (including the Radio Caroline Sales operation and the Phantom 105.2 Merchandise Store ).
A special pre-order package for Caroline supporters to include extra content is currently being agreed – more details shortly.
A number of launch events and readings will take place in both the UK and Ireland throughout the spring, and I will also continue to read at the monthly Seven Towers event Last Wednesday in Dublin (next event: 7pm Wednesday 28th January at Cassidys of Westmorland street).
Progress continues towards publication of the book telling the story of my years at sea with Radio Caroline.
My original title “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” was a bit long, and after a few different iterations the title for publication has now been agreed – Shiprocked!
The above is not the actual cover art – this is still in design – but I expect to be able to bring the cover and an exact publication date here within a few weeks.
The final edit is in, the photographs have been chosen, and it’s all becoming very real.
Great to see some interest being expressed in my recently finished book Somewhere Down The Crazy River - Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline even as my agent Seven Towers work towards finding a suitable publisher.
A couple of radio interviews are lined up over the next few weeks – details here once timings confirm – and the project also gets a mention in the latest edition of Hotpress magazine as a footnote to an item on the launch of Eamon Carr‘s new book The Origami Crow, Journey Into Japan, World Cup Summer 2002. Eamon is another Seven Towers author, broadcaster and former member of Horslips.
The mention of my book in Hotpress is probably thanks to it’s Deputy Editor Stuart Clarke, who has more than a passing interest in things Caroline related – when I arrived on the ship for the first time in February 1987 to take up the position of newsreader, it was to take over the role recently vacated by Stuart himself.
Lots more activity around the book, and extra readings around the country over the next few months, and hopefully, there will be more to tell on the publication front soon.
I have spent the last 10 days in intensive editing mode, working with Sarah at Seven Towers Agency to get the book completely ready for submission to potential publishers. (to recap – this is non-fiction, my account of my experiences working for the offshore pirate Radio Caroline at the end of the 1980s).
I’ve gone over every inch of the 170,000 or so words, several times, until it’s got to the stage where I hardly know if I am living in 2008 or 1987. So much have I been reliving the Caroline days while editing and re-editing every chapter, page and incident, that I very nearly ID’ed Phantom as Phantom 558 last Sunday!!
But it’s done now, the manuscript is as ready as it will ever be for scrutiny by would-be publishers, and I’m in the lap of the gods (or the hands of my agent) for the next few months as she tests the waters to see what interest there is in it.
Back to the real world so.
iPhone owners can now produce DJ mixes straight from the phone, with the latest handy piece of software.
We’ve come a long way from the old days, when the tools of the trade were a set of record decks, and for editing, a couple of reel to reel recorders and a stack of razorblades.
I could never master the blades myself. On the rare occasions when I was called on to edit music – for advert beds, or to cobble together a longer version of a song from truncated snatches grabbed from some chatshow, I always knew exactly what I wanted in terms of what the final edit should sound like. But I never had the dexterity, or the patience, to get it.
Editing was fiddly, lots of cutting and splicing tape. Out on Caroline, we had the added problem that the razorblades would quickly go rusty in the damp salty atmosphere, and it simply wasn’t possible to just pop down the shop to get more.
Peter Philips, who was Programme Controller when I first joined Caroline was a man of many talents – presenter, manager, mast-climber, and master editor. He could and would happily spend hours in the back studio working to get the perfect edit. I recall one occasion when, due to lack of new record supplies, we were resorting to grabbing new material from the ITV Chart Show. Frequently they only played segments of records, and in this particular instance they ran about 1 minute 42 seconds of a new Level 42 song that we needed.
Peter disappeared off into the production studio, and emerged some hours later with a version of the song that ran to just over four and a half minutes. You could not hear the joins, it didn’t seem to repeat itself, and we could never quite work out how he had done it. In fact, so good were his efforts, that when we eventually got the proper vinyl version, it not only turned out to be a full minute shorter, but also not nearly as good as we had thought it would be, and so we kept playing the Caroline version!
Of course, we would have killed for the kind of technology available these days, which allows even impatient and cack-handed people like me to produce decent edits with no tears, and not a razor blade in sight.
With all the best tools in the world though, I still couldn’t make a four and a half minute pop song out of a 90 second clip, so my admiration of Peter’s skills as editor still stands.
(Note: this piece was originally written back in 2008 when I was still working on the final edits ofthe book which was originally published as Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline. It is referred to here by my earlier intended title, and the excerpt quoted in fact never made it into the published version for reasons for space).
I’m back from my week long retreat down the southwest, where I spent my time lazing, writing, and thinking (in pretty much that order). Back presenting Random Access on Phantom 105.2. And counting myself lucky to be alive.
Not because of anything that happened to me during the week, but because, like a good writer, I was trying to please my editor, and ended up stirring up some sleeping dogs from the recesses of memory.
When I say editor, Sarah (from the wonderful Seven Towers Agency) is actually my agent, but she is going through an editing process with me on the book, Somewhere Down The Crazy River, as part of the preparation for marketing it to potentially interested publishers. It’s an interesting process for me, having someone with no detailed background knowledge of offshore pirate radio reading the text, and giving me the thoughts and comments that hopefully future readers would raise with the current version. Some minor typos corrected, comments on the flow and occasional suggestions for rearrangement of paragraphs, and gentle prods to include background information when certain sections rely too much on my own instinctive knowledge of how it was back then.
Amongst the material I had to examine or rewrite while on holiday was a section which takes place in high summer, on board the Radio Caroline ship Ross Revenge in 1987. Sarah had inserted a note asking what we were doing in our off-air free time, stuck out on a ship in International Waters, on the hottest days of the year.
I’d written a lot about surviving the storms of winter, and about the many mays of keeping amused on stormy nights, and the various crisis, adventures, friendships and rows that made life at sea spark. But the hot days of June . . . racking my brains I thought about the sunbathing – not all that interesting – and then it came to me, something I had totally forgotten over the years: the swimming!
This far out at sea there would be no room for mistakes, and swimming sessions were strictly a group rather than a solitary activity, with two people watching over the side, and safety buoys deployed and attached to the ship by ropes. Tidal streams in the Knock Deep were strong, and we had no rescue craft to go after anyone who was swept away, so swimming was restricted to about half an hour either side of the turn of the tide, when the current was slack. Swimmers stayed close to the ship at all times, never further away than we could throw a life buoy. Mostly we would swim up and down along the side of the ship, the more adventurous going as far forward as the anchor, or occasionally doing a complete circuit of the ship if they were strong swimmers. The watchers on deck would move around to stay with the swimmers at all times.
The first time I ever ventured into the water was both an exhilarating, and profoundly scary experience. The water was cold, and there was nothing underfoot – no bottom to touch, as we were in about 30-40 foot of water in the middle of the Knock Deep. The ship beside me was my only safety, and had precious few things to grip onto at the waterline anyway. There was nothing else in sight as far as the eye could see. Even in calm conditions, gentle swells would lift me up and down unexpectedly. At first I just clung to the side of the ship and enjoyed the feeling of being in the water with the safety of still being attached, but after a while I became more adventurous and was able to let go, and start swimming forwards, careful not to stray more than a few yards distant as I swam alongside. Going forwards, I had a pleasant surprise when I came level to the part of the ship where the generator room was located, as the cooling water outlet was discharging lovely warm water into the sea at that point (the generators used sea water cooling, drawing in cold sea water on the port side of the ship, running it through the cooling system to discharge hot on the starboard side).
The swimming sessions were enormous fun, and always seemed too short, though it was always with a sense of relief that I would climb the rope ladder and find myself safely back on board again.
Radio Caroline was a wonderful time in my life, the broadcasting was fun, the life exciting, and in general we were very responsible citizens, observing shipping regulations and responsible technical standards of operation for the radio station, but there were times too when we tempted fate, jumping from ship to ship as supply boats came alongside, climbing masts for repairs – and getting off our ship, miles out at sea, and swimming happily despite the fact that there was no rescue if we got into difficulties.
Maybe I’m older and less adventurous now, perhaps I’ve lost the spark, but I like to think that I’m simply a little wiser. Some of the things I have written about in the book, done without a second thought twenty years ago make my hair stand on end now.
Amazing also that I had so completely forgotten this activity – that’s the purpose of a good editor when you are writing – they don’t ever write a word for you, but they push and they prod and they question to bring more colour and depth (in this case literally) to the writing.
With a career spanning three of the greatest 80s pirate radio stations – Radio Jackie (London), Radio Nova (Dublin) and Radio Caroline (International Waters) before moving on to high profile jobs in the far-east, Richard is not only a talanted and entertaining broadcaster, but thanks to his thoughtful and kindly acts at the beginning of my career, someone I will always be indebted to.
“IN PRAISE OF” is an occasional series of writings in this blog where I share my admiration and delight of the people, places and things which have helped and influenced my career or life.
I haven’t been in touch with Richard for a number of years, as I have lost track of his progress through the radio industry in Thailand – last I heard, he was PD of a very successful station there. I haven’t actually seen him since the night in 1987 that he sailed off over the horizon, departing from Radio Caroline on a French supply boat, while I stayed on board, still a fairly nervous newbie. And I owed my position on board Radio Caroline, and by default my years of enjoyment with Caroline and my current career with Phantom 105.2, entirely to Richard, and his patience and kindness.
I had heard Richard long before I met him. He was a weekend presenter on the then pirate station Radio Jackie in southwest London, at the peak of its success, shortly before a series of raids by the authorities brought it to an extended halt. I remember hearing Richard several times on Saturday evenings, and enjoying his lyric quizzes on the station. This was at the end of 1984, and the start of 85.
Jackie was closed in February 85, and by that summer, I had taken my first tentative steps into radio, having joined the backup crew, and eventually becoming an occasional DJ for a much smaller, but very colourful pirate station, South East Sound.
Richard had moved over to my native Dublin was was working on the legendary Radio Nova but when he visited the UK he would hook up with his old Jackie colleagues, who included Jeff Rogers, who now worked with me on SES, and I met and socialised with Richard on a few occasions.
In 86 he went out to Radio Caroline, for the first of several stints there.
I had been harbouring ambitions to develop my interest in journalism, and combine it with my radio dabblings, and had set my sights of somehow getting out to Caroline as a newsreader.
When I told Richard this, rather than just giving words of encouragment and promising to pass on a demo-tape as others might have done, he took me under his wing and embarked on a crash-course of training for me, designed to ensure that when I did submit a demo, it would be the best sounding, most professional one possible.
Over a period of a couple of weeks, he had me out in his house in Ashstead, Surrey, for 4 or 5 evenings, guiding me as I worked on compiling and reading news bulletins for a potential demo tape, giving me lots of tips on style and presentation, and refusing to commit me to tape until he was absolutely sure it was as good as it was going to get.
He gave me a BBC book on the techniques of radio production, and instructed me to read and reread it.
Eventually, we were ready, the tape was made, and Richard went off out to sea for his latest stint, during which time he would give the demo to Caroline’s programme controller, Peter Philips.
As the weeks went by with no word, I lost hope – staff were always needed on Caroline, particularly in midwinter, so it seemed obvious to me that the tape had not been good enough.
In fact, as it transpired when Richard eventually reappeared on land in January 1987, my tape had never even reached the ship. When arriving on board Caroline back in November, there had been an accident while transferring supplies from the tender, and all of Richard’s belongings has fallen overboard, leaving him with nothing but the clothes he stood up in. Yet despite this, his first thought on arriving back on land was not to go out and buy himself more clothes, but to ask me to come over to his house so that we could record a replacement demo tape!
This time the tape reached the programme controller, was accepted, and I was mightily pleased to find that the first time I went out to Caroline in February 87, Richard was travelling out with me on the same supply boat.
Having him there helped me fit in to my new surroundings, and he continued to put in effort to help and tutor me as my newscasting in the first few days was more than a little shakey.
I went on to stay with Radio Caroline for many years, becoming Head of News and eventually Programme Controller after the departure of Peter Philips. I would return to Caroline again in the satellite era at the end of the 90s, and since 2000 have broadcast with Phantom, Dublin’s alternative rock station, as a presenter (and during the 2003/4 special licences, a newsreader once more).
I’ve worked with so many people and had so much fun during the past 21 years, and though I’ve always tried to give help to those joining my various employers as newcomers to radio, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to give even half as much time, attention, patience and kindness to them as Richard gave to me.
A true gentleman, hopefully we can meet again one day and I will tell him this to his face.
The BBC book on radio production techniques that he gave me so many years ago has stayed with me as a valued possession, not only a source of knowledge but also a reminder of a wonderful and exciting chapter of my life, and the man, Richard Jackson, who helped make it possible.
(originally posted on 25th Nov 2007)
So here I am sitting in Phantom Towers waiting to do my usual Sunday evening 7-9pm slot. Life is pretty good at the moment, I’m enjoying work, loving Phantom and managing to get by OK in all the other areas of my life.
It was only as I signed in to the building this evening that I realised the date – 25th November. Exactly 20 years since a very eventful day when a lot of things changed . . .
Life was pretty good at that time too, at least up to that day in November 1987. I’d been working on board Radio Caroline for about 9 months at that stage, and had progressed from bumbling newbie newsreader to something at least passably presentable in the newsroom. I hadn’t really got the hang of being a music presenter or DJ though, despite some overnight stints at weekends I wasn’t very confident, and it was probably a good thing that Caroline’s format demanded that you keep your mouth shut most of the time.
(the full story of my years at sea with Radio Caroline is in the book)
I had just come off the ship about two weeks earlier, after a marathon 101-day stint at sea, which had included being on board for the famous October 87 “Hurricane”.
Caroline’s owner, Ronan O’Rahilly had roped me in to do some running around on land while I was on shoreleave, as there was so much going on at the time.
Caroline in 1987 was going through a very strong period, our main English service on 558 was running reliably and had increased power the previous May, the Dutch station on 963 was paying all the bills, and we had just started test transmissions on shortwave, with the aim of launching a new service in Dec ember which could be hired out to religious broadcasters to bring in even more money.
Even bigger things were afoot – a new 50kw medium-wave transmitter was on its way from the US which would more than quadruple our power on 558, and allow us to use the existing transmitter on another frequency to launch yet another new service, probably a 24×7 country music channel.
We had just done a deal with MAN in germany to supply a new half a megawatt generator we we need to power all the extra transmitters and studios, and all sorts of other stuff was going on.
On the 24th November, I worked busily recruiting extra staff for the winter – always difficult to get people to live on a pirate radio ship in the winter months – and running other errands for Ronan.
That evening two major pieces of good news came in – a new advertising contract with Island Records, and another with the government of a Caribbean nation who wanted a two-year campaign to encourage tourism.
Things just couldn’t be better.
When I woke up the following morning, on the 25th of November, it was all gone.
Our 300 foot broadcast tower, the tallest mast on any ship in the world at the time, had come tumbling down in the middle of the night, apparently fatigued in the October Hurricane, breaking off at the base just 3 inches above deck level, and plunging into the sea. Parts of the mast and the dozens of steel stay-wires had caused enormous damage all over the ship as they fell, while in the transmitter room, a giant feed-insulator had plummeted from the ceiling destroying tens of thousands of pounds of equipment below before smashing into pieces.
It was just about the worst possible thing that could have happened to us at the time short of an actual shipwreck, and it not only put us off the air, but inflicted long term damage to our plans which never really healed in the remaining 4 years that Caroline was at sea.
When we came back, we were on such pitiful low power that we could hardly be heard, and it took 3 months of hard work in the bitter cold of a north sea winter before we had built new masts and an aerial system good enough to return us to our previous coverage. And this happened at exactly the same time as BBC Radio 1 were getting their own FM frequencies for the first time, encouraging a mass migration away from mediumwave
The photo above is ironically one of my favourites, despite being so dark and gloomy. It is taken a couple of weeks after the disaster, and shows engineer Mike Watts and myself (I’m the one on the right) standing on the back deck of the Ross on a very bleak and cold December morning, with damage caused by the fall still clearly visible around us. In the background you can see the tiny temporary aerial array (dubbed ‘the coathanger” ) which was rigged to get us back on the air on very low power. I love this photo because, for all the sunny images of brightly painted ships and smiling DJs, this cold, weary, shattered look is part of what those days were about too.
We did recover over a period of months, (see photo below for our more permanent repair work – all built at sea) but the grand plans and the big advertising deals had been lost in the meantime.
I was to stay with Caroline on and off for another 4 years, eventually being one of the final crew on board when we were shipwrecked in 1991, also in a November gale.
I learned many lessons from Caroline in my time there, but the one that is strongest is this: always treasure what you have today, and give it your all, for you never know what is just around the corner.
It’s always at the back of my mind, but it’s on cold November nights when the wind blows strong, that I remember it most.
However, despite everything, some good came from that bitter winter. So many staff had chosen to leave Caroline when the mast fell and times got hard, that I was left with no option but to become a full-time presenter on daytime slots on the station, as there was simply no one else to cover the programmes. And somehow, the fact that it was either me or nothing, made me lose my fear of being on air as a DJ, and I gained confidence and never looked back
Out of all adversity, some good will come, and that’s something I learned from Caroline too