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?
The past is indeed another country, but the future is a map that we can draw for ourselves if we dare.
It was 20 years ago this morning, (20th November 1991) that I came to the end of the roughest night I had ever known in all my years at sea with Radio Caroline, and faced what I came to believe would be my last ever dawn.
Aground on the infamous Goodwin Sands, which have claimed hundreds of ships and thousands of lives, we were gradually rolling over, each wave pushing us a little closer to the tipping point where the ship would capsize. Ironically, although there was not enough water to float her, there was more than enough to flood into her and fill her up if we went sideways . . more than enough to drown in.
The waves were towering in the North Easterly Force 11 winds, the seas icy – we wouldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes if we went over.
The brave men of Ramsgate Lifeboat had already tried to rescue us and failed, running aground themselves, losing a man overboard in the process (happily quickly recovered by safety line). Now we were waiting for the helicopter, but it seemed we would be in the water before it arrived . .
Certain that we would be drowning in minutes, the floor beneath us already at a 45 degree angle, we hugged each other, shook hands, and said goodbye. We knew we were going to our doom . .
The story of that morning, and our eventual rescue by the RAF helicopter R166 is described in detail in my book Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, but even the printed word cannot do justice to the memories which are still vividly seared onto my brain, even all these years later.
I absolutely believed that I was about to die, and that morning, and in particular that moment, has changed my life since then.
The 20 years I have lived since that morning on the Goodwins is a bonus, and the older I have got, the more I have appreciated this, and the more I have lived my life with zeast and purpose. The sudden seeming end of Caroline in 1991 (though not the final end, as it has bounced back and is adpating to a new age) instilled in me a knowledge of the impermanance of states of being, and ensured that when I got involved with Phantom FM in later years I treasured each moment, and drove myself to both give and take the maximum from every day that I worked there.
In life too, I reach out with lust for living to take the most from each day, and push myself to do and experience more and newer things.
Life is a bonus, and I am determined to spend that bonus to the full.
Many people around me comment on my seemingly unflappable calm when faced with difficult situations. This too comes from that morning on the Goodwins, for as I see it, I have been minutes from an icy drowning death, so why should anything that happens in a more normal work or life based situation cause me to panic?
Time has been kind to Radio Caroline too, and that morning, seemingly a point of closure for the station was to be in fact the first step in forcing it to adapt to a new path, which though seemingly bleak for much of the 1990s, has blossomed in latter years into an unprecedented period of stable broadcasts, with new technology enabling the station to be heard in undreamed of quality in previously unreachable countries.
20 years on I have spent the night of the 19th/20th November sipping wine with close friends, and thanking my lucky stars for all the richness of life and the benefits of new technology that both I and Radio Caroline have enjoyed in the last 20 years.
It’s right to raise a glass and look back, but the biggest gift of all is to be able to raise my gaze and look forwards.
20 years on from the most terrifying morning of my life . . aground on the Goodwin Sands with hopes of rescue seemingly dashed as the crew of the Ross Revenge shook hands and prepared for the ship to roll over . . .
Seven Towers Agency, East Wall for All and The Sean O’Casey Community Centre present:
Radio Caroline, former Phantom FM DJ and Best Selling Author
Reading from his book
Shiprocked, Life on the Waves With Radio Caroline
Sean O’Casey Community Centre, East Wall, Dublin.
7pm Monday 21 November
free parking, admission free
20 Years ago this November, Dubliner and East Wall resident Steve Conway survived the shipwreck of the Ross Revenge, the last of the Radio Caroline off-shore Radio Ships. Reading from his book, Shiprocked he tells of this event and of his life on the famous Pirate Station, Radio Caroline.
Steve will also read a preview excerpt from his new book, due out next year, that covers his career beyond Caroline, including the 10 years spent working for Dublin’s alternative station Phantom FM / Phantom 105.2
This event is free, but an opportunity will be available to give donations and to RNLI and Sean O’Casey Community Centre.
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.
I’m now halfway through my week on board the Ross Revenge at Tilbury Port in Essex as part of the 11 days of live ship- based broadcasting to celebrate Radio Caroline’s 47th birthday.
I’m having a great time on board, along with other ex-offshore folk such as Dave Foster, Bob Lawrence, Cliff Osbourne, Jeremy Chartham and others. And we are joined by a new generation of people who have come to Caroline in the post-offshore years, including an amazingly talented presenter and engineer called Ollie, who is about the age that I was when I joined Caroline, and keen as mustard.
Caroline has been on Sky for 12 years, and these days gets a huge proportion of listeners online through streams and apps, and we have emails coming in from all around the world.
So why keep the ship? What purpose does it fill when we are no longer required to be in international waters in order to reach out and touch our audience? Those are questions that would be asked in the business world, where the upkeep of the Ross Revenge would be an “opex” problem.
Well, ignore for a moment the fact that this ship, and the others that preceeded it are to an extent hardwired into the DNA of Radio Caroline. Ignore the fact that every room, every corridor and every nut and bolt on the ship is infused with our history, our memories, and our dreams. Ignore these things, as although they are substantial and important, that could be said to be based on emotion and sentiment.
Even without tear things, returning to the ship to broadcast brings a unique benefit to the station which translates into better programmes and a better “buzz” for the audience.
Living on board during a broadcast, presenters who never normally see each other are forced into close proximity and develop a bond that dies wonders for the overall sound of the station. We wake together, breakfast together, work alongside each other all day, listen to each other’s shows and spend evenings laughing and debating in the record library, where old tall tales and new music releases are swapped in equal measure.
We bounce off each other musically, emotionally, technically. We share our passion and as we share it, that passion grows. A passion for music, for radio, for communication.
The ship is the soul of Radio Caroline, and the ship-based broadcasts let us get in touch with that soul, and drink deep at the well of friendship and creativity.
There are some thing that never appear in the financial entries of a corporate spreadsheet, but which are beyond value nonetheless.
As I write this, Cliff Osbourne is playing “Goin’ Back”
“A little bit of freedom is all we lack
So catch me if you can, I’m going back”
M.V. Ross Revenge
A collection of some of the milestones in my life, some important, some quirky!
First memory . . in a cot in my parents room, playing cars by driving my fingers around the blanket . . into transport and machinery even before I could walk!
First (earliest) memory that I can specifically date: the night before my third birthday, travelling down to Mitchelstown in our old Ford 100E sitting on my mother’s lap. The alternator/dynamo was failing and the car lights were dimming . . I remember being carried up the boreen to my great grandfathers farmhouse at midnight after we had broken down just short of our destination. Then I remember my third birthday itself, and my Great Uncle Billy telling me I was a “big boy” and giving me a toy tractor to play with.
First book read. . Can’t remember what was first, but I was an avid reader. I was really into Greek mythology as a child, and had read the Illiad and Odyssey by the age of 8.
First girlfriend . . When I was only about 6 I had a thing for Laura from down the road. Start as you mean to go on!
First time on TV . . There exists in the RTE Archives some footage of a nine-year-old me wandering through a field in Kerry picking blackberries, as part of a “Landmark” special on farmhouse holidays.
First record bought . . Jeff Wayne “Forever Autumn” from War of the Worlds, in 1978.
First Kiss . . Maggie from New Cross, where are you?
First dance . . some very kind Co. Clare woman took pity on me when I was all alone at the disco on our school trip to The Burren, and whisked me around the floor to the envy of my classmates. I can still remember the smell of her hair . .
First proper job . . (excluding working in the family business), my first actual job was a week as a door to door salesman in 1982. I must have have knocked on half the doors in Dublin, and made only £13 in commission before giving it up.
First car . . A lovely Fiat 500 passed down from my mother. If cars could talk, it would have a tale or two to tell!
First heartbreak . . Yes, it’s Maggie from New Cross again. If you want to know what went wrong, see pages 11/12 of Shiprocked, Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline. It’s true, I really was that innocent!
First record I played on the radio . . Joan Jett – “Bad Reputation” (on South East Sound, July 1985)
First record I played on Radio Caroline . . Percy Sledge – “When A Man Loves A Woman”
First time abroad . . England for the 1966 World Cup. (actually it was my Dad who went for the football, I was just a toddler).
First words written to start writing the book (that became Shiprocked) . . “The call came at the worst possible time . .” (Later I realised that I needed more background about what had happened leading up to my joining Caroline, so that first line written is now many pages into the finished version).
First Draft (of Shiprocked) . . 225,000 words. Redrafted on my own account to 176,000 words to tighten up. But then cut down to 90,000 words for publication . . that was tough!
First (of many!) rejection letters . . 1993 from an agent in London. It would be another 15 years and many more rejections before I came across Seven Towers Agency, who have been utterly brilliant in supporting me, and in refusing to take no for an answer.
First interview as a published author . . The day Shiprocked was published, I was interviewed by Sinead Ni Mhordha on Phantom’s Access All Areas show. I was used to hearing Sinead interview great rock bands, and was just blown away that she was interviewing me. Forget TV3 forget The irish Times, it was sitting across the desk from Sinead that I really felt like I’d arrived!
First show on Phantom . . November 2000, the breakfast show. I started with a news bulletin, so my very first words on air were to inform the world that George W Bush had just been confirmed president following the final court hearing into vote counts. My first record was Greenday – “Minority” – as good a musicical start as any!
That’s it for now – let’s hope I have many more “firsts” still to come.
My posting of an old picture on Facebook of myself in pre-Caroline days sparked a discussion below which has revived my memories of those great years in Surbiton in the mid-80s and prompted me to search for other pictures.
First, the facebook discussion:
Friday · ·
Mike KerslakeThat’s the van!Friday at 06:42 ·
Mike KerslakeSame here, only weddings ad funerals see me scrub up!Friday at 06:46 ·
John Burchand when it turned up at a TX site loaded with car batteries, tape machines, a TX and other equipment it looked most incongruous amongst the trees and bushes!!Friday at 09:30 ·
Mike Kerslake:-)Friday at 09:39 ·
Christopher EnglandLooking at the side of the van, whatever happened to ‘Apricot’ computers, eh?Friday at 11:22 ·
Warren StevensonAPS Systems: Were they at the bottom of Brghton Road Steve, close to the petrol station – before you got to the traffic lights at the Portsmouth Road ?Friday at 16:20 ·
Warren StevensonClose to the tyre repair centre I recall.Friday at 16:25 ·
Mike TerryBeing a regular Tuesday night 60s and 70s fan I’m looking forward to your show Steve. Hope you have loads of requests.23 hours ago ·
Warren StevensonIts a coincidence also Steve that the petrol garage in Brighton Road used to sell Epson computers in the late Eighties !21 hours ago ·
Warren StevensonOur paths may well have crossed Steve before I headed for a pint in the Black Lion for a pint or two of Youngs Special14 hours ago ·
Warren StevensonI also recall in the late Eighties that in a road just off the Brighton Road in Surbiton (The Mall), there was always a black Mini parked which was adorned with Radio Nova car stickers. There was also a Triumph Dolomite that could be seen also regulalry in the town with a Caroline 319 sunstrip . OT: There was an excellent fish and chip shop just down the road, next to The Lamb pub !.13 hours ago ·
So, the above has prompted me to search my hard drive for a photo I know I had of A.P. Systems itself, which was based in a tiny office on the forecourt of what is now the Total Service Station on Brighton Road in Surbiton:
Click any picture for bigger version
A. P. Systems was a wonderful little company, it was run by a great guy called Tony Williams whose father owned the petrol filling station (A.P Garage) which sold Total fuel (and was in later years taken over fully by Total).
As well as being a kind employer, Tony was quite a genius with computers, and had written software for the early Epson portable systems, which eventually led to his running a full dealership, at first for Epson, and then expanding to sell other brands such as the Victor 9000 and ACT Sirius system, Apricot, IBM and others. Tony was a very good salesman, and despite our small size, he managed to make sales into companies all over London and much of southern England. This was before the days of Windows (though it launced while I was there) and all programmes were Dos based – MS-DOS version 1.12 when I started (and the Epson PCs used the less friendly CP/M system).
Wordstar was the main game in town for word processing, with Supercalc or Lotus-123 for spreadsheets. But we also provided custom systems written by Tony himself.
I came to work for him in 1984 as the tech support guru for the firm (I had been trained up by the Irish sole distributor for Sirius/Apricot, so my knowledge was good). In those days desktop computers were in their infancy, and in almost every case the company we would sell to would be buying their first computer, and it would be my responsibility to deliver and install the systems, and train the staff in how to use them, as well as being on call for tech support for ever afterwards.
The general public’s knowledge of computers was limited, and employees would be very wary of these new systems I was installing in their firms, a lot of my time would be spent soothing people rather than fixing computers. I well remember one customer who had bought an Epson potrable computer asking, in all seriousness, how much heavier it would be once the data was loaded onto it!
In the three years before I left to work for Radio Caroline, I travelled to every part of London in that little van, as well as most parts of the home counties and beyond. As well as hundreds of small businesses getting their first computers, I also got to deliver and install systems in the GLC (in its dying days), Shepperton Film Studios, Gatwick Airport, and a law firm called Penningtons with offices in the City of London and in Godalming, where I encountered that most rare of beasts, the Apple Lisa – the almost unknown predecessor to the Macintosh.
I also have memories of making several trips down to the heart of Wiltshire, to install computers at a dogfood factory in Tisbury, whose owner was very forward-looking, and incredibly nice to me, putting me up overnight in his country lodge and serving me breakfast in the morning (no – not dogfood!) I think they were called Dinnodog or Dinnadog, but I can find no trace of them on the net these days.
AP Systems was a small operation, most of the time there was just myself as tech geek, Tony running the company and doing the selling, and young women called Kathy who acted as receptionist but did a lot more besides. There was also a guy called Nigel who came to us from South Africa and moved on to Australia, a bit of a programming wizard, and a wonderfully good-natured salesman called Brian Street who joined not long before I left, and I’m sad to have lost touch with these people over the years.
As well as us computer people, there were a steady stream of people working in the garage including a great woman called Ruth who I lodged with for many years, and a new recruit called Gail, who I remember as a part-time a couple of nights a week, but who turned into a mainstay of the site, so much so that now, almost 30 years later, she is still there, as manager for Total.
Another photo I have dug up shows the 65 bus, which in those days was the main route through Surbiton, taken in May 1984, just days after I arrived. This route normally went along Victoria Road, but was diverted due to roadworks when I took this picture. The 65 was two-person operated with Routemasters up until February 1986, but these days does not even reach Surbiton (except night services).
Notice the wonderfully high-tech (!) top-loading video recorder being advertised on the side of the bus – I think 1984 was an Olympic year, hence this being used to push video sales.
There were many nice places in Surbiton, it was quite self-contained, with a good variety of shops and eating places, and remains so today. It was a wonderful place to live a work, and I have many happy memories of the people and places of those three years before I headed off to sea to work for Radio Caroline. (see: Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline).
Looking back, I can’t recall another year in my life when I have lived as vividly as I did in 2010.
Despite 2010 being bleak economically and politically both home in Ireland and pretty much everywhere else in the west, despite long hours and stress in various workplaces, despite some non-threatening but quite inconveniencing medical blips, despite my car heater dying just in time for the coldest December since records began . . 2010 was a year in which I really lived, in which old emotions were reawakened, and new ones discovered, and my store of life experience grew more than it has done in a long time.
I had set myself a challenge at the end of 2009 to start doing things I had never done before, to open myself to new experiences beyond my comfort zone. And while I didn’t get to the arbitrary goal of “10 things” during the year, I reached 5, two of which were experiences that profoundly moved or enriched me, and a third which brought back childhood memories entwined in a futuristic setting.
Not all of the great things that happened to me during the year were as a result of this self-challenge, but perhaps the attitude it engendered in me of being more open filtered through to other things too.
So what made my year?
Well, some unique experiences came about as i sought to push myself into new things.
Taking part in the Bristol Balloon Fiesta was certainly a “high” point of the year, and my first ever hot-air balloon flight, as part of a mass ascent of more than 80 balloons within an hour at dawn, was a unique and moving experience, so much so that I felt to write about it in purely descriptive journalistic terms would be . . to miss some indefinable element of the experience.
Twisting it in my mind, it instead inspired me to write a short story “A Bristol Awakening” that is neither fact nor fiction, but also both. A very intimate story, it has been received well at a number of public readings, especially by women, and I am hoping to see it published in 2011.
Slightly more down to earth, though involving a different sort of (non) flying, as one of my challenges I put myself forward to the Dublin Airport Authority to be one of the special testers of the new Terminal 2 before it opened. Apart from fulfilling my curiosity about the new building, and allowing me a sneak peek at new transport infrastructure, which I’ve always been interested in, the experience reminded me of aspects of my past that I had long forgotten, and also gave me a chance to get my own back on customs, just for once. You can read the details in my post Mr. Beagle Goes To London (Not).
Something I have never wanted to do, and felt I would always avoid, enriched my life and gave me a wonderful experience when i tried it as part of the “going outside my comfort zone” element of my 10-things challenge. A visit to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, accompanied by a an impossibly glamourous companion, opened a whole new world of experience, sight, sound, and stimulation to me. I enjoyed it more than I could possibly have imagined, and do intend to write up the experience here at a later date.
Pushing myself outside my comfort zone, doing what I would not normally consider doing was one of the elements i wanted to achieve in drawing up my list of 10 things, and I am so very glad I did this.
As the year comes to an end, I’ve so far ticked off 5 things, and have more still in planning, with some space left on the list for spontenaity.
So 2011 should continue in similar vein, and to be honest, when I reach 10, why stop there?
Of course, there were other things which made 2010 an exceptional year for me, some planned, others unexpected.
A couple of things that really moved me were radio related, and did not come about as a result of my challenge list.
Going in March to Ramsgate to do a reading from Shiprocked for the benefit of the RNLI, brought me face to face with the men who came to my rescue on one of the darkest days of my life, 19 years earlier.
Meeting the crew of the lifeboat who battled through a Force 10 NE to come to our aid when the Caroline ship was aground on the Goodwin Sands was a profoundly humbling experience, all the more so because of the warmth of the welcome I received, and the support they showed for Caroline despite having been put through hell that morning and nearly losing their own lives on account of our stubborn decision to stay on board the apparently doomed vessel.
I won’t forget the men of the Ramsgate Lifeboat, and will be making another fundraising trip to see them in November 2011, on the 20th anniversary of the grounding.
The same weekend I revisited the Ross Revenge for the first time in many years, and was invited to join the current-day lineup of Caroline on satellite, which, despite the many years of my absence, felt like a real homecoming.
(I can be heard on Caroline every Monday 2-4pm, Sky Digital Ch.0199 and via RadioCaroline.co.uk )
Another emotional moment came about in May, after I had been invited to join the crew of the Dutch station Radio Seagull, which was celebrating a month long offshore broadcast, 8 miles of the coast of Friesland.
There were many memories stirred by being offshore for the first time since 1991, though the most intense of these was to come on me unexpectedly.
The week I spent at sea with Radio Seagull was bliss, with old memories awoken, and new friends and new memories made at every moment of each day. (See the posts OFFSHORE AGAIN and Seagull Day 1 and More Seagull Pictures and Clear White Light and A Ferry Large Tender as well as Seagull Offshore – The Pictures for the week as I blogged it at the time)
But the most vivid experience of that week came for me, unexpectedly, in the middle of the night and alone, and had nothing to do with the radio side of the visit. Being given the job of staying up on watch overnight for one of the nights, while usually regarded a something of a chore, for me brought both fear and redemption, as I was finally able to lay to rest the ghosts of what had happened on the Caroline ship, many years earlier, when we drifted, unheeding, onto the deadly Goodwin Sands.
For all that the storm in 1991 had been so fierce, and our ship so run down and unable to navigate that we could not have resisted being swept onto the Goodwin Sands even if we had realised earlier that our anchor chain had broken, I had carried with me these many years a nagging sliver guilt that I should have known, should have been more alert, should have done better.
Now, here I was again, and for the first time since that fateful night, entrusted to watch over a ship at anchor at sea, and in the grips of bad weather too. I was both siezed with fear that it would all go terribly wrong on my watch, and grateful for the chance to prove myself dilligent and keep the most careful of watches. I checked our position regularly, I did a full round of the ship and checked the anchoring cables every hour, I saw us safely through to dawn, and I slayed a dragon that had slumbered in a corner of my mind for many years.
The week was over too soon, but I was delighted to be asked to join the staff of Radio Seagull and to contribute a weekly show from my own studio in Dublin, with my own choice of music – a mix of new and alternative music as well as classic rock, with a bit of blues and soul mixed in. Presenting these shows on Seagull have been an immensely satisfying experience for me.
(I can be heard 7-9 am and pm each Saturday, on 1602Khz MW in The Netherlands, and worldwide at RadioSeagull.com )
Phantom 105.2 in Dublin also continued to be a source of great enjoyment for me, and though I had to move away from regular weekend shows towards the end of the year due to domestic commitments, the station and its staff still feels like an extended family for me, and keeps me informed on new music trends.
There were lots of mini high points in 2010 – from an unexpectedly beautiful sunrise encountered one morning on my way to work, to, finally after all my years on this earth, a proper White Christmas.
There was also another experience, quite unexpected, which made me feel like a teenager again, one unremarkable Saturday afternoon at a railway station in an unremarkable British city . . but I won’t go into that one here!
Suffice to say that, for me at least, 2010 has been a year in which i started living and growing anew, despite being at an age where comfort and stagnation would be more usual.
May 2011 have more of the same . . and new . . for me . . and you.
Happy New Year
Another highlight of my trip to the UK last weekend was the chance to set foot on the Radio Caroline ship Ross Revenge again, my first visit in more than 6 years!
I’ve taken lots of photos, and will put them into a large article showing the ship’s many different corners after the weekend.
In the meantime, the pics below show her in her secure location at Tilbury, and myself back in the old 558 studio*.
(*Someone at one of the readings hearing one excerpt from Shiprocked – Life On The Waves with Radio Caroline asked me “what is a 558 studio?”. Well, it is the main Caroline studio, used for most transmissions in English from 1983 to 1989 (until the raid that is) and because the bulk of that time we were on 558Khz medium wave, it was often referred to as the “558 studio” as at certain times there would be multiple versions of Caroline transmitting, with a rock orientated service on a second frequency from a different studio).
A wonderful visit, and thanks to Peter Moore for arranging it for me.
After a series of public readings from Shiprocked – Life On The Waves with Radio Caroline at venues around Ireland I’m pleased to be able to announce a pair of UK readings on March 27th and 28th.
On Sunday 28th March, I’ll be reading at a special Seven Towers event at The Hammersmith Ram (time to be announced shortly), along with a number of other Irish authors and poets. The Ram is a great, friendly pub, very accessible by public transport, just a couple of minutes walk from the tube and on many bus routes. More details here soon.
The special event of the weekend though is my long wished for return to the town of Ramsgate, virtually on the doorstep of Radio Caroline during its days at sea, and embarkation point for many clandestine tender runs in the late 1980s.
I’m coming to Ramsgate to fulfill a long-standing wish to return to the town and thank the brave team at the RNLI, whose Ramsgate Lifeboat came out to our assistance when the Ross Revenge ran aground on the nearby Goodwin Sands in November 1991.
Since the publication of Shiprocked a year ago, I’ve done a number of fundraising readings for the RNLI in Dublin, Dun Laoghaire and Galway, but I’ve always wanted to go back to Ramsgate, and give a personal “thanks” to the actual lifeboat station which came out to our assistance on the darkest day of my life. Although we were eventually rescued by helicopter, the Ramsgate lifeboat crew braved incredible seas to come to our assistance, and came close to losing lives when their craft ran aground on the sands beside us, and a crewmember was washed overboard.
As well as giving the profits of each book sold at the event directly to the RNLI, I look forward to reading the tale of what happened that morning to illustrate just how desperate things looked for us, and how glad we were to see them. Plus, there will be several of the lighter tales of life at sea with Radio Caroline too, and I’m hoping that many of the local people who remember Caroline from the 80s will come along to hear what it was all about.
The event takes place at 3pm on Saturday 27th March at Ramsgate Public Library, which is close to the RNLI station in the town. Admission is free, but a donation to the RNLI will be appreciated.
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 . . .
Came across the wonderful Wordle site yesterday – www.wordle.net – which allows you to generate a “word-cloud” from any given selection of text, or blog.
It handles quite large amounts of text too – I fed the entire text of Shiprocked into it, and generated the image below.
READING FOR VOLVO OCEAN RACE, GALWAY, SAT 6TH JUNE 2009
Seven Towers Press Release
We would like to invite you, your friends and guests to a wine reception and reading to celebrate the recent launch of ‘Shiprocked, Life on the Waves with Radio Caroline’ by Steve Conway, in the City Museum in Spanish Parade in Galway at 3.30pm on the 6th of June – just after the boats leave the bay.
Steve Conway, a former newsreader, DJ and programme controller on the famous pirate station Radio Caroline has just released this ciritcally acclaimed memoir – described as ‘the radio obsessive’s version of Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch” by the Sunday Business Post; as ‘hard to resist’ by the RTE Guide and former Galway Bay abd current 4FM presenter Gareth O’Callaghan praises ‘Steve’s wonderful ability to tell stories and create pictures’.
Steve will also have a thing or two to share about life on the high seas, and the perils that are likely to face the the sailors who have just left the bay – including treachorous currents, high and sometimes unpredictable winds – and the possibility of running out of chocolate.
You will also be given a chance to donate to the brave members of the RNLI who daily risk their lives to rescue people on the seas around Ireland and England and €1 from each book sold on the day will be donated to the RNLI
You can RSVP to this email address, which can also be used to send your messages on to Steve.
Steve’s agent can also be contacted on 0872283351.
Looking forward to seeing you there
The BBC are celebrating the 45th anniversary of Radio Caroline‘s launch in 1964 by running a special “pirate” station from a former lightship at Harwich Pier all over the Easter weekend – see details and listen here.
It’s great fun to listen to, they have got a lot of the original 60s presenters from the various offshore stations, and are drawing huge crowds down to the pier, and lots of listeners around the UK and further afield.
As part of my UK visit to promote the book I called in to the Radio Caroline sales stand that is nearby to deliver and sign more books, and was delighted to be invited on board the ship to be interviewed on Pirate BBC Essex about the publication.
I also caught up with many old friends from the Caroline days, including Roger Day, Albert & Georgina Hood who used to run tenders, and now run the sales stand, ex Caroline and Laser engineer Mike Barrington, Paul Grahame and the Balls brothers.
Don’t forget that Radio Caroline themselves have special broadcasts over the Easter weekend, live from the Ross Revenge, though sadly the ship i not accessible for visitors.
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.
The “Love & Chocolate” reading in Tralee went very well, and made for an enjoyable afternoon, even if I am shattered after the 600km return drive.
Very close to the final proof of the book now, just writing the acknowledgements!
Tonight (Wednesday 28th Jan 2009) I’ll be at the regular Last Wednesday writers open mic hosted by Seven Towers, along with a huge selection of poets and prose writers. I’ll be reading a newly written short story “Of Little Consequence”.
Last Wednesday takes place every last Wednesday at 7.30pm, in Cassidy’s of Westmorland Street - more details at www.seventowers.ie
Last Wednesday Series Reading and Open Mic
January 28, 2009 (7:30 pm – 9:30 pm)
(Open Mic Night) First Seven Towers event of 2009. 7.30 in Cassidy’s of Westmoreland St. Our regular reading and open mic with Steve Conway, Ross Hattaway, Eamon Lynskey, Donal Moloney, Noel O Briain, Oran Ryan among others!
On Saturday 31st Jan I’ll be taking part in a special day of fundraising for the RNLI, with a reading at the Pavillion in Dun Laoghaire at 3pm, featuring the grounding/rescue story from my forthcoming book Shiprocked.
Also reading will be the poet Ross Hathaway.
Here’s the piec e on Shiprocked which ran in the Irish Independent on Saturday.
The cover illustrated here is still currently a roughwork, full version will be available soon.
Publication date in UK and Ireland is 31st March 2009
There is a nice little piece about the forthcoming publication of Shiprocked! – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline in the Review section of today’s Irish Independent (Sat 17th Jan 2009). it gives some info about the book, and a mention for Phantom too.(the review section is not online yet, so I can’t link to the piece)
Speaking of Phantom, I’m now on regularly on Saturdays 5-7pm as well as every Sunday 7-9pm.
Back here later this week with a review of a great album I picked up this week from a former broadcaster turned singer, Adrianne Sebastian Scott.
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).