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.

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Offering a holiday lifeline to the children of Chernobyl

Many of us will remember that fateful day in April 1986 when the world held its breath as an unprecedented disaster unfolded before our eyes on TV news bulletins.

An explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere over much of what was the western Soviet Union and parts of Europe.

The blackened and shattered site remains to this day one of the iconic images of the 1980s – a chilling reminder of risk posed by the use of nuclear power.

The battle to contain the radiation ultimately involved an estimated half a million workers and between 1986 and 2000 more than 350,000 people had to be moved out of the most contaminated areas of the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus and resettled in new homes.

Just 31 deaths were directly attributed to the outbreak – all of whom were people who either worked at the reactor or for emergency crews.

However, various studies have conservatively estimated that tens of thousands of additional cases of cancer and subsequent deaths have been caused by exposure to radioactive material.

In 1995 John and Julie Gater, of Light Oaks, were watching a television documentary on the after-effects of the disaster and were so moved by the story of one little boy – Igor – that they decided to become involved with a charity which provides hope and respite to the children of Chernobyl.

John, aged 50, said: “Igor was born with severe deformities as a result of the radiation but he had a personality which was 10 miles wide.

“It was that which inspired us to ultimately become involved with the Chernobyl Children’s Project (UK).

“They said they’d love to have us but that there wasn’t a group in our area and that we’d have to go away and find 10 friends who would be prepared to help us. We didn’t want to be put off by that and so we went away, and – because we are Christian – we prayed and decided to set up our own group based at St. Luke’s Church in Endon.”

Seventeen years later and the group is still going strong – having arranged trips to the UK for more than 470 children and young people and a handful of parents from contaminated areas of the former Soviet Union.

During that time more than three dozen have stayed with the Gaters in their own home.

John and Julie’s branch of the charity covers the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Moorlands area and they have a network of families willing to take in children and young people and help with looking after them during month-long visits to the UK which include trips to beauty spots and fun days out to places including the Alton Towers resort.

John, a garage proprietor, explained that doctors in Belarus say that four weeks of clean air, fresh food and a happy holiday improves the children’s health for at least two years and gives them a better chance of either recovering from or avoiding serious illness.

He added: “Julie and I have four children and, at the time we became involved with the charity, our youngest was only three.

“It has been a big commitment in terms of time and effort but neither Julie nor I regret a single moment of it.”

Anyone wishing to contact the charity to offer help can log on to: http://www.chernobyl-children.org.uk or contact John and Julie by ringing 01782 535000.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

A golden decade for Team GB’s Olympic athletes

Believe it or not there was a time when people in the UK could choose whether or not they wanted to watch the Olympic Games.
It was a more innocent age when not being interested in handball, beach volleyball and synchronised diving wasn’t punishable by incarceration in the Tower of London.
It was a time when seeing Olympic athletes perform on telly in glorious colour was a relative novelty and BBC employees had the freedom to criticise stuff as they saw fit.
It was a period when we weren’t brow-beaten into repeating the mantra that sports we’ve never heard of are all wonderful and exciting just because it has almost bankrupt the nation to stage an Olympics.
That decade was the 1980s when colour TVs which were becoming a fixture in most homes turned some British Olympians into household names.
The Moscow summer Olympics of 1980 was the games that made baldness cool as swimmer Duncan Goodhew scooped gold in the 100m breaststroke and bronze in the 4x100m medley relay.
At the same games, which was boycotted by many countries including the U.S., Japan, China and West Germany because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, Scottish sprinter Allan Wells won gold in the 100 metres in a photo finish. He was pipped to silver in the 200m by just 0.2 seconds.
It was in Moscow that decathlete Daley Thompson announced his arrival on the world stage by taking top spot on the podium – a feat he then repeated four years later in Los Angeles.
The 1980 games saw current London 2012 supremo Lord Sebastian Coe, beaten into second place by his great rival Steve Ovett in the 800 metres – his speciality.
However, Seb hit back in the 1500m race to take gold, while Ovett had to settle for bronze. Coe replicated his achievements over both distances at the next Olympics in LA.
Those games in the City of Angels marked another golden period for British athletics when Tyneside’s Steve Cram – the ‘Jarrow Arrow’ – completed a one, two, three for us when he nabbed the silver in that infamous 1500 metres.
It was a race which was so thrilling that even I, a 12-year-old asthmatic and the laughing stock of Holden Lane High’s cross country course, was enthralled.
That year also saw Tessa Sanderson become the first black British woman win gold in the javelin. She went on to represent Britain at no less than six Olympics.
Meanwhile, her close rival Fatima Whitbread, whose personal story of triumph over adversity was as inspirational a tale as you could hear in sport, won hearts and minds when she scooped bronze at LA and followed this up with a silver medal four years later in Seoul.
Hockey forward Sean Kerly sealed a bronze medal for the GB men’s team with his winner against Australia in the Los Angeles games and went on to be the Aussie’s bogeyman again in 1988 when he scored a hat-trick against them in the semi-final.
Believe it or not, 1984 was the year that a young Steve Redgrave won the first of his five Olympic gold medals for rowing.
Little did we know back then that he would go on to become Britain’s greatest ever Olympian.
Swimmer Adrian Moorhouse had been expected to win gold in LA in the breaststroke but finished a disappointing fourth. Happily he made up for it four years later by winning gold in the 100m race.
My final Eighties Olympic household name will be no stranger to Sentinel readers.
Former policeman and Cobridge newsagent Imran Sherwani scored two goals and set up the third in Team GB’s demolition of West Germany in the final at Seoul.
It prompted one of the best bits of Olympics commentary ever by the BBC’s Barry Davies whose enthusiasm led him to ask the question: “Where were the Germans? And, frankly, who cares?”
All in all the Eighties was a great Olympic decade for Britain – before the time when the games themselves became the huge corporate monster that they are today.

This hell-hole is heart-breaking but we must complete the job

I suspect you are like me. It doesn’t matter where you are or what you are doing when you learn that a British serviceman or woman has been killed in Afghanistan – for a moment your heart just sinks.

That’s how I felt when I read of the death of Gunner Zak Cusack, a former Longton High School pupil, at the age of just 20.

The news filtered through to us as family and friends of another Potteries soldier – 27-year-old Lance Corporal Barry Buxton – were saying their goodbyes.

Each death is, of course, a great personal tragedy. Each one also begs the questions: ‘why were UK troops sent to this hell-hole in the first place and how long must they remain?’

At present the war in Afghanistan has the feeling of an endless conflict with ever increasing numbers of casualties.

Believe it or not it was October 7, 2001 – less than a month after the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States – when the American-led coalition actually went to war.

Its soldiers have now been fighting and dying in Afghanistan for the best part of 10 years.

That is roughly the same amount of time the Russian army spent being bamboozled in the mountains of that same country by Mujahideen resistance fighters.

The Soviet Union threw bombers, helicopters, tanks, landmines and napalm at the Mujahideen, but was still forced to retreat – losing at least 15,000 men.

Afghanistan is referred to as ‘the graveyard of empires’ for good reason.

If you recall, the stated aims of the 2001 invasion were: to track down Osama bin Laden and other high-ranking Al-Qaeda members and put them on trial; to destroy the structure of Al-Qaeda; and to remove the Taliban regime which supported and harboured Al-Qaeda members.

While notable successes have certainly been achieved against the terrorist organisation it is fair to say that only one of the three core objectives has so far been accomplished and that is the removal from power of the despicable Taliban.

Thus, as the conflict approaches a decade in length and with the arrival of a new Government, observers will understandably be asking exactly what our current objectives are.

One thing is becoming clear. It is highly unlikely that all British troops will have been withdrawn from Afghanistan before the end of the life of this current Parliament – which is intended to be five years.

As the death toll of UK service personnel approaches the grim milestone of 300 it would be easy to join the growing chorus of calls for all our boys and girls to be brought home immediately.
If only it were that simple.

Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of the invasion we must focus on the here and now.
Aside from the Americans, Britain currently has the second largest contingent of troops in Afghanistan – some 9,500 – which dwarfs the contribution of countries such as Germany and France, for example, who are committing 4,600 and 3,700 personnel respectively.

That is a grossly unfair burden for one European nation to shoulder.

Thus the first foreign policy objective of the new government should be to do everything within its power to ensure the load is shared more equally. It is high time our NATO allies pulled their weight.

Secondly, despite dwindling public appetite for the war itself Whitehall must ensure that our troops finish the mission.

The British people may be uncertain about our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan but you can be damn sure that the vast majority of them stand full square behind our boys and girls.

The harsh truth is that we simply cannot abandon the Afghan people militarily until their own security forces are in a position to maintain law and order.

To do that would be a gross betrayal and render the sacrifices of brave men like Zak Cusack and Barry Buxton meaningless.

British armed forces personnel are the finest in the world. They know exactly what is expected of them and they know the risks.

Perhaps this is why their families are able to bear themselves with such remarkable dignity and resilience through the most trying of times.

On Saturday, June 26, we can demonstrate how proud of them all we are by supporting the veterans’ parade in Stoke on National Armed Forces Day.

Let’s show them we are behind them, give them the strength to finish the job in Afghanistan, and welcome them home as soon as possible.