Star Wars, The Bill and a landslide for Maggie

Margaret Thatcher celebrated a landslide General Election victory in 1983.

Margaret Thatcher celebrated a landslide General Election victory in 1983.

I was 11 years old in 1983. I hadn’t even started my Sentinel paper round but my world was about to get much bigger with a move to high school.

Trawling through the archives is fascinating but it doesn’t half make you feel old – particularly when you realise how long ago it is that certain people died.

1983 was the year when we lost some stellar names from the world of showbusiness.

Believe it or not it is 30 years since the likes of David Niven, Dick Emery, Billy Fury, John Le Mesurier and Violet Carson passed away.

It was also the year that music mourned the loss of the irreplaceable Karen Carpenter, aged just 32, and Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys – along with American heavyweight boxing legend Jack Dempsey.

Closer to home, Sid Daniels – the last surviving crewmember of the RMS Titanic – died at the age of 89.

It is difficult to comprehend now but in 1983 the Cold War was still cropping up on TV news bulletins.

In March of that year U.S. President Ronald Reagan outlined initial proposals for the Strategic Defence Initiative.

The media dubbed the plan to develop technology which could intercept enemy missiles ‘Star Wars’ and it stuck.

In September the Soviet Union admitted shooting down Korean Air Flight 007 which had entered their airspace – claiming that its pilots were unaware it was a civilian aircraft.

Two months later we saw the final scare of the Cold War when Soviet officials misinterpreted a NATO exercise codenamed Able Archer as a nuclear first strike. Thankfully, someone had the gumption to realise it wasn’t.

That same month the first U.S. Cruise Missiles arrived at the Greenham Common Airbase – prompting protests from the likes of CND and other peace protesters.

While managing to keep his finger off the big red button, actor turned U.S. President Reagan proudly watched as the ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger set off on its first flight – three years before its final, tragic flight.

The former Hollywood hearthrob also indicated that the Global Positioning System or GPS, which we all now take for granted, would be made available for civilian use.

1983 was the year that the infamous ‘Butcher of Lyon’, Klaus Barbie – who is estimated to have been involved in the murder of 14,000 people – was indicted for war crimes after a lengthy crusade by Nazi hunters.

Of great interest to us here in the UK following the Falklands Conflict, military rule in Argentina ended in 1983 after seven years following democratic elections which resulted in Raúl Alfonsin’s first term as President.

Back home, on a wave of euphoria after the Falklands victory, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was re-elected by a landslide majority in June.

Four months later Neil Kinnock was elected leader of the Labour Party, replacing Michael Foot.

The Northern Ireland troubles made headlines daily in 1983.

In September 38 Irish republican prisoners armed with hand guns hijacked a prison meals lorry and smashed their way out of the Maze Prison.

It was the largest prison escape since World War II and the biggest in British history.

Then in December a Provisional IRA car bomb which exploded outside Harrods killed six Christmas shoppers and injured 90 more.

Another major story from 1983 was the Brink’s–MAT robbery in London.

Around 6,800 gold bars worth an estimated £26 million were stolen from a vault at Heathrow Airport.

In October Scottish entrepreneur Richard Noble set a new land speed record of 633.468 miles per hour by driving the British designed and built Thrust 2 jet propelled car across the Black Rock desert in Nevada. The record stood for 14 years.

In sport the Old Firm’s dominance of Scottish football was broken when Dundee United were crowned champions for the first time in their history.

Meanwhile, in tennis, the legend that is Bjorn Borg retired from the game after winning five consecutive Wimbledon titles.

In entertainment, Rock group Kiss officially appeared in public for the first time without make-up, the final episode of M*A*S*H was screened and UK TV favourite The Bill first aired as one-off drama called Woodentop.

Titanic’s captain was just a bloke from Stoke in the wrong place at the wrong time

I was lucky enough to be enjoying a tour of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery as staff were putting the finishing touches to its new Titanic exhibition.

As the centenary of the disaster approaches, bosses at the city centre venue are understandably hoping for an increase in visitors riding, if you will pardon the pun, on a wave of nostalgia for the ill-fated liner.

But what struck me most about the display was the way in which people were being asked to vote on who they thought was to blame for the demise of the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic.

Pictures of some of the ship’s officers are pinned to the wall – along with details of their role in the doomed maiden voyage.

This is a novel approach to telling the Titanic story through the people whose actions (or lack of) contributed to a catastrophe which captured the imagination of the public in 1912 and which endures to this day.

Among the suspects is the skipper who is, of course, the sole reason why one of the most land-locked cities in England is staging an exhibition to mark this most horrific of maritime disasters.

Captain Edward John Smith, from Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, was given the plum job of sailing the White Star Line’s luxurious new ship from Southampton to New York.

When news of the liner’s fate first reached the UK, my predecessors at The Staffordshire Sentinel wrote in glowing terms about the man dubbed ‘The Millionaires’ Captain’ – so favoured was he by the great and the good.

Smith was described thus: “He is one of the most experienced commanders and his knowledge of the Atlantic and its moods and phases is perhaps unique”.

Our report of April 15, 1912 – the day after the Titanic struck an iceberg – went on to speak of him as “exceedingly popular with his officers” and admired for his “tact, firmness and professional skill”.

Sadly, I reckon our city’s relationship with Captain Smith and, indeed, with the Titanic will always be a uncomfortable one.

It should have been a voyage that went down in history as a feather in the cap of our city.

Instead it was the great ship itself which went down in the icy waters of the Atlantic – bringing ignominy to one of our most famous sons.

Despite various inquiries and new evidence unearthed since the wreck was discovered in 1985, many questions remain about an event which has been immortalised in poems, books and by Hollywood.

The bottom line is that, like it or not, Captain Smith, from Hanley, was in charge of the Titanic on the night it sank with the loss of 1,517 lives.

No attempt to apportion blame on outdated safety procedures, inadequate numbers of lifeboats, missing binoculars or various members of the crew can free our man from that heavy burden.

You cannot rewrite history and I, for one, am glad that Captain Smith’s statue is in Lichfield.

I can’t think of any reason why Stoke-on-Trent would want to commemorate this unfortunate man beyond the plaque tucked away in Hanley Town Hall.

Our connection to the Titanic is nothing to be proud of – rather it is a quirk of fate.

Captain Smith just happened to come from Hanley and just happened to be the top man on the Titanic when it sank.

He didn’t design the vessel. He didn’t build it and, despite various romantic stories, we don’t know for sure how he conducted himself during those final two hours after his ship struck an iceberg.

It would be a different story entirely if he had personally rescued third class passengers from below decks, carried a dozen children to safety or ensured better use was made of the pitiful number of lifeboats the Titanic had.

The fact is we just don’t know what happened to the man who was at the centre of this awful human tragedy.

As a city we understandably celebrate the fact that the man who designed the fighter plane which helped to turn the tide of the Second World War comes from our neck of the woods.

But Captain Smith of the Titanic is no Reginald Mitchell of Spitfire fame.

To my mind, he was simply a man in the wrong place at the wrong time.