How one branch of HMV kept Radio Caroline afloat in the 80s, and Blockbuster rescued my life
The new that both Blockbuster and HMV in the UK have gone into administration this week would have been a huge blow to my much younger self, for whom those stores were an essential component of living.
I remember the first time I saw a Blockbuster Video – it was such a revelation compared to the tiny stores that were all we knew in the mid 80s, and where any enquiry for a popular video would be met with the new that their only copy was out on loan.
The arrival of Blockbuster in Ashford, Kent in 1989 was quite the most exciting thing to happen to the town since . . well, since my arrival earlier in the year.
Ashford in modern times has grown to a massive extent and now has a huge international station, but when I went to live there in 1989 it had little in the way of excitement, and the only cinema was soon to be demolished. Apart from the lure of the nearby countryside, the only thing that possibly kept me there was the girlfriend who had lured me to Kent in the first place.
Blockbuster was great, there was dozens of copies of each video, and many more titles than you could get elsewhere. I was a firm customer in those days.
I can’t remember when I last rented a video or DVD, it would have been sometime in the late 90s, but by 2000 it was more economic to buy rather than rent, especially as I can be something of a collector.
So I guess I’m as responsible as anyone for the demise of the store.
HMV is a different story. This is a store I still use to this very day, for although I no longer buy music from them (preferring to purchase online) I still regularly impulse buy DVDs from their store in Dublin. In fact you could say that they were the beneficiary of my lost Blockbuster custom.
One store will always have a special place in my heart though – HMV in Oxford Street, London.
Here it was during my period as Programme Controller of Radio Caroline in the late 80s that I would come to buy music in bulk, to bring out to the North Sea with me. Usually hotfooting it over from Chelsea, following a meeting with Ronan O’Rahilly, I would have a bundle of money provided for music purchases, and I would spend this carefully, buying as many new albums as possible, rather than singles, so that we would have fresh music for the weeks and months ahead.
I remember one day spending £400 in the store in a single visit – which, in todays money amounts to £884 (or over a thousand euro). My arms were aching by the time I had dragged my two heavy rucksacks of music from oxford Street, all the way to Victoria Station, down to Dover on the train, across to Calais, and on to Dunkirk from when our supply ship departed.
The Oxford Street store also had another connection to Caroline – it had an in-house radio station where many DJs worked while on leave from the ship – I remember Simon West being the mainstay there, but there were others too. Simon always made sure that advance or promo copies of new tracks given to the station were left in a package for me to collect and bring out to the ship also, so it was a “safe” way for record companies and promoters to get their product out to the ship.
In later years, that same store was where I bought my first console games – Super Mario 2 and 3, and Zelda for the Nintendo.
Hopefully the stores can survive, though these are indeed changed time, and I fear they will not.
Another iceberg from my past melted to nothing.
Amongst the response to my post on things seen in 2012, the Fairy Tree and the Forbidden Ground sign have elicited the following query from a UK-based reader, the always inspiring Christopher England (whose own blog can be found here).
“I’ve never seen fairy trees before. I guess it’s an Irish thing. It reminded me of the Tibetan wind-prayer flags that are placed alone and forever, right up in the remote parts of the mountains. Although they do wear and come to pieces in the wind, many remain there long after the person originating the prayer has died. That always makes them something special, imho”
The fairy tree, while not exclusive to this island, does seem to have a long connection with Irish superstition and folklore.
Although I was unaware of them myself before coming across this example in a Dublin park, according to this site they can be found at many locations around the country. There is certainly a lot of fairy folklore in Ireland, and I remember my father pointing out to me the fairy rings and fairy forts in rural Cork and Tipperary when I was very young, and noting how farmers would avoid ploughing or disturbing the ground at these locations.
Perhaps more common in Ireland is the Holy Well or Holy Bush – these can be found in many rural locations, and to this day you will still find strips of ribbon and clothing tied to trees at a “holy” location on a roadside.
The only time I ever saw anything similar in the UK was at Barnes Common, where the tree that killed Marc Bolan is still visited and decorated regularly by his fans, despite the passage of four decades.
Chris goes on to comment on the “Forbidden Ground” sign I photographed in Co. Kerry.
“Also, possibly an Irish thing, is the phrase ‘Forbidden Ground’. An interesting choice of words I’ve not seen before, being more used to ‘Restricted Area’ or the like”.
This one is certainly not Irish, and I am as baffled as Chris by its usage to cordon off a closed pathway in Reenagross Park, Kenmare. I have never seen the phrase “Forbidden Ground” used in a civilian context, and the crime-scene style tape makes it look even more curious. That forbidden zone is just begging to be penetrated if you ask me!
Chris goes on to comment:
“with regard to the many ‘Do Not’ signs in the Dublin Dockland, and mindful of it being an area with an ‘Explosive Atmosphere’, they do seem to have missed out a pretty obvious one of ‘Do Not Smoke’”
Just down the road from the original sign here:
there is another one, on a presumably similarly explosive compound, which does caution against smoking, as well as “spark ignition vehicles” (petrol engines to you and me) – the first time I’ve seen that warning., although apparently if you make a prior arrangement, they are not dangerous . .
As for what is hidden behind the fence, well that also has some interesting signage:
The “Stripping Pumphouse” eh?
Now THAT’S what I call “forbidden ground” in goold old catholic Ireland!
What happens when you try to swear at your Digital Assistant . . it’s either very polite to you, or more likely, trys to pretend that you really said something other than a swearword or insult.
Background: On my way into work today, I got Siri (the voice activated assistant and voice to text transcriber on the iPhone) to play a song out of the library that I fancied hearing.
When it was over, I said “Repeat”.
It repeated the last thing it had said to me (which was “Now Playing Disobey” but didn’t actually play the song. Obviously it associated the “repeat” command with wanting to hear what it said, but not replaying what it had just finished playing.
OK, so I decided to be more specific.
We take it up from there:
In addition to the new books I am working on, I have written and continue to write a number of short stories which are based around my own life experiences or things I find interesting.
This story was written in June 2012, and had its debut at the Last Wednesday Series writers open-mic in Dublin on the 27th of that month. I’m presenting it here for your enjoyment, and hope to include it in a collection of my shorter work later in the year.
I’m not sure if you would classify this story as biography or fantasy, but it’s certainly a real-life account of how my mind was working on two perfectly ordinary days . . .
by Steve Conway
It’s freezing cold, and it’ll be several long minutes before the car begins to heat up, and the window de-ices enough for me to move, but I don’t mind really. I am too busy watching the collapse of an empire.
As an introvert, I live a rich inner life, and as a writer, perhaps even more so. It could be that the introspective nature and the gra for writing are linked in some way, but whatever the reason, I find it amazingly easy to tune out of the everyday world around me and retreat into a rich and colourful inner fantasy life.
Or maybe I’m not retreating from the world at all, but just looking at it with other eyes.
The iced over car windscreen is, you see, not a windscreen, but an overview of a fantasy land somewhere beyond reach, it’s people ground down and subjugated in an icy totalitarian regime, frozen in its leaders cruel idology.
Like all such tyrannies its must be resisted and overthrown, but choice of how to do so carry consequences. Oh, I could send in the shock troops – the windscreen wipers or the plastic ice scraper – to hack away ineffectively at the frozen landscape, but think of the casualties of such brutal action. There is death and destruction in the rasp of wiper-blade over still-frozen window.
No, I prefer the revolution to happen from the grass roots, as the whispered idea of freedom issuing forth from my heater blower, slowly infiltrates and changes minds, causing the tyrant to lose his grip, one ice crystal at a time, as his empire crumbles.
At first there is no change, and then, gradually the dark stain of change creeps upwards from the bottom of the windscreen. The initial defences are down, the lands in the far south unfrozen, and soon whole chunks of ice start detaching from the mass and sliding down the screen accelerating their fall towards the heat, like defecting troops fleeing their routed armies.
And that tight knot of extra hard ice in the middle of the window? That is the seat of government and it is besieged and falling, and the ruler and his minions are fleeing north to that part of the top of the land still in the grip of winter, but there will be no escape, for my warm ideology will waft its way to there too, by and by.
And while all this is flashing through my head, I am far too busy and entranced in my own imaginings to mind the cold of the morning, or the delay to my journey, and by the time the last castle falls the car is warm and I’m ready to be on my way.
Another time, a different place.
It is baking hot, and I am walking down a dry dusty road, and straight into a 1950s movie. The dust road is arid, it runs through the desert alongside a railroad, and my destination is a forgotton, tumbleweed-infested station where no one ever gets on or off.
In my mind I have wandered into the world of the 1955 Western Noir classic A Bad Day At Black Rock, one of Spencer Tracey’s finest, in which, for the first time in twenty years, the train stops in the eponymous town, a stranger alights and trouble ensues. Maybe I’m the stranger, maybe I’m the secret he’s searching for, but I’m certainly in the middle of a dusty wilderness.
Actually, in real life, I am in South Dublin, walking alongside the Green LUAS line extension to Cherrywood, at a place where it runs for a mile or so through a semi-razed wilderness, a bulldozed land now returning to nature, a site of several hundred acres where a vast new town was planned, but which never got under way before the boom ended. The LUAS trams go whizzing by every few minutes, and I’m getting close to the ghost station of Laughanstown, where the trams stop, but no one ever gets on or off. There is nothing at Laughanstown but a tiny country lane and a single house, and the tram stop built in anticipation of the vast new development rarely gets any custom. There isn’t actually any tumbleweed blowing past, but it wouldn’t look out of place if it did.
Normally on my lunchtime walks when I exit the high tech office building where I earn my bread I stick to the nearby roads, and wander through a local park, lush and green. But I spy an opening in the fence that has previously sealed off the dirt road through the abandoned wilderness and I am onto it like a shot, wanting to explore pastures new, and silent.
The sun is baking, the rubble-strewn track is rough beneath my feet,I am sweating copiously, but I’m in the bliss of absolute solitude. No one ever comes this way because there is nothing to come for, who in their right mind would walk through this rubble on a scorching day, heading alongside the LUAS line for a ghost station that no one uses? And as I walk I seal myself into the world of the western, the 1955 film keeping me mentally far away from the work-day reality I’ll have to return to in an hours time.
And then, shimmering in haze ahead of me on the dusty track, there is a flash of brilliant pink.
For a moment it is impossible to define any form or purpose, but eventually it solidifies into a feminine form, far in the distance, coming towards me as I am coming towards her. The heat haze makes her seem to float, and immediately I am in a different space in my head, the film gone, I’m now living in the lyrics of the Talking Heads song “And She Was” watching this mirage-like woman as she seems to glide this way and that over the ground without really touching it at all.
I wonder idly if there is a song playing in her head as she sees me moving inexorably towards her . Perhaps she hears an indie beat from The Automatic asking her what kind of monster is cresting the hill ahead of her.
More than likely, of course, she doesn’t notice me at all.
She is so vividly pink, the two of us alone in this desolate landscape are such utterly opposite magnetic poles as we come towards each other, that surely there must be some sort of explosion if we touch.
She is female, young, brightly clad and long of hair, blonde, I am male, older, dressed in black and grey, hair short and greying.
But we pass without any chemical reactions or explosions, and after a while she is swallowed up into the landscape behind me.
There is nowhere she can possibly be going. If she was heading to any destination the LUAS would have been quicker, and this track was not usually accessible. She was walking into that wilderness for the sheer joy of it, and as we passed I could see through her smiled greeting the same dreamy look in her eyes as I must have had, and I loved her for it.
I am not the only loner in the desert today. And that, somehow, just the seeing of her, and the realisation that she is there for the same reasons as me, reconnects me with humanity, and makes a difficult work day more bearable, and all this without a single word spoken.
A bad day at Black Rock.
But a good day at Laughanstown.
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?
I’d love to be angry with Chris England.
Logging on to his compulsive-reading England’s England site, and seeing a post titled “Steve Conway Fights Fat Bastard Syndrome” is probably not the ideal way to start a Monday morning, and not the kind of flattering portrayal one likes to see of oneself.
But I can’t possibly object, because I’m a realist, and I have to admit that Chris is only (kindly, as you’ll see when you read the text) telling it like it is.
I have got myself into an overweight, unfit state, and that’s my doing, not his.
Over the last 20 or so years, I have allowed myself to go from this:
So I can’t really complain about Chris pointing out what is inescapable reality, especially as in doing so he admits to similar problems himself, and wishes me well in my quest to fight back to fitness.
And, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, I am taking steps to change. Interventions from friends such as Chris are useful in reminding me of how others see me, but only I can make the change.
Over the past month, I have been walking almost every day, and I’m aiming to continue this. I’m doing a minimum of 2km on working days, and at least double that at weekends.
Now, I’ve done this in the past, intermittantly, but always petered out.
This time has to be different. And I mean has to be.Whereas previously I could start and stop my weight-loss kicks with no real consequences, this time it is a neccessity.
What spurred me into action at the start of December was finding myself at a tipping point, health and fitness wise. I found myself at the point where I was actually beginning to waddle rather than walk. The smallest bit of activity would leave me breathless. And my feet, which had always been fine, were beginning to hurt, presumably under the ever increasing burden of carrying me. As someone who used to walk a lot, who in his youth had climbed all of the Dublin, Wicklow and Kerry mountains without a thought, this appalled me.
I’ve had a full health check-up. My heart is fine, I don’t have any health complications like Type 2 diabetes yet, but it would be only a matter of time if I abandoned myself to further inaction. So I’ve started walking, and I won’t stop.
I wish I could do more than 2km a day, but such is my level of unfitness that my feet give up after this and become numb, so I will have to do a little every day, and get them used to this before I can do more. On the longer weekend walks I have to rest halfway. Just ten years ago, I used to walk from Ballinteer to Eastpoint (about 12km) on bank holidays without a second thought. I’d love to be that person again.
I have some help in the form of technology, a great smartphone app called Walkmeter which tracks and records my walks, maps them for me afterwards, and whispers in my ear each time I have completed another half a km (user defined setting – it can announce at any interval you like).
So there you have it – my biggest challenge for 2012.
Tougher than keeping this blog up to date, more important than getting my second book published, but if I can pull it off, more rewarding than anything else I could achieve.
I’ll keep plugging away at it, and we’ll see how far I’ve got at the end of the year.
But time to put down the keyboard now, and get outside.
And, though it hurst to say it, thanks Chris.
2011 has mostly been a year of transition for me. It involved opening doors to a few new outlooks, and closing doors on other parts of my life where things weren’t working or it was time to move on. A few spots of difficulty, mostly self-inflicted and quickly recovered from, were outweighed by many cherished moments with friends and family, including a stint on the Ross Revenge at Easter and one at sea with Seagull in June, a novel and wonderful trip around London of which I will write more later, and my best Christmas in years.
Mostly though 2011 involved making changes and laying plans which will come to fruition in 2012, and I’m greatly looking forward to many of these things.
My second book, Running Away From The Circus, will be published in March (more details on that here in the weeks to come) but before that I will have another short story – Schrodinger’s Bus – in print in the third Seven Towers Census Anthology in February. After Running Away From The Circus, a further book is already half-finished, and I hope to complete it in 2012, so that in 2013 I can begin serious work on the 4th, which is structurally planned and a small part written.
I am happy with my shows on Radios Seagull and Caroline, but have something else planned which will increase my reach in the radio world, in fact more than one something. Details, as always, closer to the time . .
I’m planning a trip to Canada, and hopefully a return visit to the wonderful folk of the Ramsgate RNLI too.
I want to develop my mind in 2012, and reverse some of the neglect of my body – for the last month I’ve been walking every day, and I hope to have the drive to keep this up and push further back to youthful fitness in the year ahead.
Whatever 2012 brings, it will stand or fail on my own efforts – If I want it happy, I must make it so.
For you, can I wish you a peaceful New Year, and the opportunity to reach your goals in the next 12 months too.
All the best,