1980 Keep the Candle Burning (Part Two)
The reality of factory work, if jobs were available, would come as a culture shock for men who had worked in heavy industry for most of their lives. Postman Andy Dickson was one who took advantage of a recruitment drive by Vauxhall Cars; "I was in the Coke Ovens, my job was on the Exhauster. I went straight to Vauxhalls in Luton. They had set up a recruiting office by the Main Gate in the Works. There was a bus with about fifty blokes travelling everyday at first. They charged us £10 to go on the bus. Gradually many dropped out and we started hiring a minibus. Then it was down to a few cars before everybody jacked it in. I was there for three years. I then got a job making Barbecue pots for six months, moved on to another company called Pakraft and then the Post Office." Fellow postman Craig Douglas recalls, "It was a devastating blow. I was a steel erector with E.N.Wrights working in the Coke Ovens. I had four young kids and was out of work for six months before I got a job at Snackpack packing crisps." Jim Wykes, Landlord of The Beeswing in Kettering also ended up in the Post Office and has some great memories of life in the Coke Ovens; "Originally I worked in the ERW, the hours were pretty good, two shifts, every weekend off, but when I got married I needed to earn some extra cash and I was told that the steelside was the place to work, all the overtime I wanted. I got a transfer and what a difference in the working conditions! The first job they gave you was basically shovelling up crap, coke that spilled out of the wagons, hoppers they were called. It was a thankless and tiresome task. The crazy thing was as well, there was no protection for your eyes, mouth, whatever. You had to tie a scarf round your face! Talk about health and safety! The second day I was in the Coke Ovens the gaffer asked me if I wanted to stop on and gave me the job of releasing a railway truck, one at a time from a line of about twenty, by taking the brake off on it so it would roll down to a section of track which was called a tipper. The tipper would lift the wagon up and empty the contents into the oven. Well I was a bit nervous about this, never seen or done it before but the gaffer told me it was a piece of cake, 'don't worry about it', and I lifted the brake up, the wagon began to roll and then before I knew it, the whole lot of them started rolling. Whoever had parked these wagons up had only put the brake on the front one! The wagons gathered speed, went racing on and ended up about half a mile away, near the West Gate! They had to get a diesel engine to take them back! I was one of the more fortunate ones, getting a job with Royal Mail before deciding to go out on my own as a painter and decorator. That lasted a couple of years until I moved into the pub trade."
In May, a furore ensued in the House of Commons when Margaret Thatcher made 67 year old Ian MacGregor the new head of British Steel. MP's were furious about a cash deal which could lead to MacGregor's current employers, New York Investment bankers Lazard Feres receiving up to a £1.8 million compensation transfer fee. MacGregor had spent most of his working life in the US, building up a reputation as a vicious union buster. In 1975, after he had broken a bitter two year long strike, he found his services were called upon by the then Labour government in Britain. Eric Varley, industry minister at the time, recalled, 'MacGregor had a record of industrial efficiency and overall performance. He said he was sad about the demise of British industry, manufacturing in particular. He wanted to contribute and believed he could, based on his US experience. That is how he was encouraged.' The Labour government gave MacGregor a place on the board of British Leyland, the then nationalised Car Company, and made it plain he was expected to lead a crackdown on the unions. He began with the sacking of the Communist Party convenor of the giant Longbridge car plant. Derek Robinson, or "Red Robbo" as he was dubbed by the media. Robinson was one of the most militant trade union shop stewards of the 1970s. Under MacGregor's tenure, 80,000 jobs at British Steel would be slashed. Michael Foot (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) was scathing; "It's been greeted with anger and derision up and down the country. The government is the laughing stock of the country," whilst Tony Benn ventured; "The deal is bordering on bribery and corruption." Bill Homewood; "Appointment of Scots born American tycoon would only worsen industrial relations in the industry - already at an all time low."
With many steelworkers now looking forward to a future without a job, or tubeworkers worried about the prospects of long term employment, the report that appeared in the local press concerning the ever increasing claims and allowances awarded to Corby councilors was received with equal disgust.
'Attendance money shot up by staggering 300% during the year 1978/79. Corby councilors claim £1748 for attending meetings, but in the year ending March 31st it shot up to £8282. The claims of one councilor alone cost ratepayers more than £1000 in the year. Leader of the Labour controlled council, Kelvin Glendenning, who claimed £1038 defended the allowances. "The increase has been necessitated by the activity that has taken place in the town over the past year. It has been necessary for councilors to work very very hard getting new jobs and new industry into the town. Councilors have had to attend many more meetings during the year - their input has been continuous. When we came into office the closure of the steelworks was imminent. Things were more leisurely when the Tories were in office. We had to take a more dynamic approach."
Feeding on the unease, the National Front, whose rally call was 'British Jobs For British Workers. Ban Foreign Imports', selected Corby for its annual St George's Day rally on April 28th. NF organiser Martin Webster admitting "there's a chance of recruiting more members in Corby." The prospect provoked an outcry from many prominent local politicians; MP Bill Homewood called for the Chief Constable to ban the march, "It's a recipe for disorder and violence." Chairman of Wellingborough's Unity Against Racism Campaign Dr Brian Silk was 'appalled by the prospect. Corby should be spared this insult."
Council chairman Peter Floody and the police urged people to stay at home. Police leave was cancelled throughout the Anglia area. Traders advised to shut up shop for the afternoon. On the day, eight coach loads of national front supporters from as far afield as London, Bristol and Manchester converged on the town, all directed to St James's Road where police searched the buses and frisked the occupants. The Rally held a thirty minute meeting on land adjacent to the old Post Office in Lloyds Road before marching behind the National Front Drum Corps and headed for the Town Centre down Oakley Road. Crowds jeered and shouted anti- nazi slogans. The first real sign of trouble occurred when police fought to hold back angry counter demonstrators in Elizabeth Street. Police used riot shields as demonstrators threw eggs, bricks and beer cans. Martin Webster was punched in the eye and a constable was hit by an egg. Cracking shot I have to say. Police made Fifty arrests. Sporting a black eye, Martin Webster claimed the day had been a success. "We chose Corby because it's being murdered by foreign imports. It is a symbol of the country's problems."
Musicians with rock band Chrome Molly, Alistair Brodie and Graham Binley were working for contractors PED at the time of the steel closure and were the only workers not to collect from the great payout. Alistair; "With the Steelworks closing down and the uncertain future that thousands of people feared, there was a pall of doom lingering over the town that left a scar like a shadow on a lung. Chrome Molly evolved into Changes when John Grimley joined up. We felt it was an apt name for a Corby group at the end of the 70's. The myth that was 'Wonderworld' lifted spirits temporarily, perhaps that was its only intention as hundreds of firms capitalised on the free Enterprize Zone so heralded by the Council as the major success story of Corby. Companies poured into the town, basking in the glow of the 'saviours' and recruiting former steelworkers to their ranks. The reality was that they were coming to Corby on the cheap, moving into virtually rent free premises, offering piss poor wages and the opportunity to work as many hours as you could want, at a bare rate. They were able to cash in on the steelworkers who were willing to work anywhere basically, as long as they were employed and not thrown on the scrapheap. The fact that the majority of them had their wages boosted by 'severance pay' for a year or two was a huge bonus for the employers. Though contractors E. N. Wright, H. B. Pearce's and Shanks and McEwans all benefited, the argument was that the PED men were only temporary workers. They came and went as they felt."
Such was the feeling of being 'brushed off' the men from PED carried their fight all the way to the House of Commons. It was to no avail and left a bitter taste. The disillusionment felt at the time could only have enhanced Alistair's desire to 'start again'. "I applied for and got a job as a Welding Lecturer at Tresham College during which time I did a teacher's training course. After a couple of years an opportunity arose for a job with the Aramco Oil Company in Saudi. I decided to 'go for it' and it was a move I would never regret though I had an eye opener as soon I arrived there. I had to go to the main administration building in Dhahran to get my travel documents and was told by a Saudi National to leave my suitcase at the bus stop which was quite some distance from where I had to go. 'Don't worry about it, nobody steals anything here', I was informed, 'the penalty if found guilty of theft is designed to discourage the thief from doing it again, it's off with the right hand, quite literally!'
Saudi of course is a dry state, violating the laws can have consequences unimagined, as some have found to their cost. A Scottish acquaintance of mine ended up in jail for drinking the amber nectar and I visited him with my workmates. The conditions were awful, no meals, no comforts. The cells were just little square rooms with a mattress on the floor and a bucket in the corner for toilet and no air conditioning. Normally in such circumstances, the inmate's Company provides what meals and necessities they can, if they don't, they have to scrounge from other inmates."
Alistair lived in Saudi Arabia for a number of years, though it wasn't all fun and laughter down the line, he suffered a serious injury when he jarred his back during a marathon run and had screws in his spine to keep it together. The former Midnighters and Chrome Molly drummer also later found himself caught up in the 1991 Gulf War, 'dodging scud missiles to deliver a truck load of Pepsi cola and packs of cold ice to the U.S. troops on the front line.'
"We were aiding the crack U.S. 82nd Regiment in their efforts to thwart the threat of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It was scary," Alistair said with understatement. "A couple of scuds dropped nearby to our compound and there was a genuine fear of invasion all the time. Though I did manage to salvage some shrapnel and turn them into mementoes which now adorn my walls."
The United States deployed thousands of soldiers to the Gulf and in particular, Saudi Arabia which was under as real a threat of invasion as it's neighbour Kuwait. Alistair and his pals joined up with the British Volunteers Force to aid in anyway they could, leading to an escapade which gave them an insight into what life was like on the front line. "The heat was awful and there was little refreshment for the troops. We left at dusk one night and drove for several hours into the desert; it was pitch black and all we could see was the stars.
When we arrived with the 'mobile oasis' at what we thought was near the designated rendezvous, we alighted from the truck to stretch our legs and immediately froze with fear when a voice broke the eerie silence. 'Who are you?' I was trembling, and eventually replied in its direction, 'We're from the British Volunteers Force and we've got a truck load of Pepsi cola and ice'. The reply was equally as menacing, 'You better not be shitting me man'. Suddenly we were surrounded by all these soldiers with Kelvar helmets and desert fatigues. They took off their helmets and filled them with ice and helped themselves to the Pepsis. It didn't take long for them to empty the trucks. What was scary was that we hadn't seen a thing, yet they had been all around us".
Back at base the cordiality continued as the 82nds used the BV camp's facilities and Alistair and his buddies repaired tank machine guns and supplied plastic ties to be used as handcuffs in anticipation of taking Iraqi prisoners, should they invade. Telecommunication links were also set up for the soldiers to phone home from the base, though it was under strict control. The soldiers weren't allowed to say where they were, where they had been or where they were going. Alistair; "It was basically to enable them to contact their folks at home to let them know they were alright. They had to change into civvies, which we provided and they were only allowed in at six at a time, and only on a certain night".
In return for their hospitality, Alistair and his chums were taken on a trip to witness a 'live fire', a practice range where the troops simulated an attack on an Iraqi base. Live 'ammo' was used and they witnessed a demonstration on how to repel an Iraqi tank by piercing the armour plating with a TOW missile, which vaporised the vehicle, sending the temperature soaring to thousands of degrees in a second, literally melting everything attached to it.
For their efforts the boys were awarded a 'White Falcons' medallion which Alistair proudly carries around with him. The coins are issued to the troops and have to be presented when confronted, particularly in the field. A lack of response to "Where's your coin?" could be seen as detrimental to your health.
Before the sojourn in the Middle East was interrupted by Saddam, Alistair had been settling down to his new life very well, helped considerably by the discovery of an almost complete drum kit in the company's Mess Hall. "It was a Ludwig set as well, superb. I got hold of some sticks and formed a trio with a Scottish guitarist and a Welsh accordionist. It was terrific fun. One night we even got hold of a girl singer and smuggled her into the camp because women weren't allowed out, the place went mad. The workers who were mainly Phillipino's and Thai's hadn't seen a hint of a woman's leg in years!"
At the time of the steelworks closure many of Alistair Brodie's old musician pals were pursuing a career in the business. The Tartan Combo played throughout the East Midlands and the USAF bases Mildenhall and Alconbury. Carousel, a country band featuring Campbell Baxter, John Hanvey and Laura Handyside, sister of Ann Brett, played at the Wembley International Festival of Country Music, appearing with country music legends, Tammy Wynette, Crystal Gayle and Emmylou Harris.
Guitarist Derek Cowie joined forces with Mick Ferguson (Coke Ovens), Jack Murphy (E.N.Wright's), John Donovan, Reggy Knowles and Chris Beesley to form a combo called Kez. The band made an appearance at an 'Isle Of Wight Showcase' in March and received a glowing report in the local press.
'If it hadn't been for the Star Wars movie theme I would have missed just about the best middle of the road group I have seen on the island. Having endured another marathon Sylvia Thorley Showcase at Cliff Tops, I prepared to slip away after well over three hours of rather contrasting fare. The exciting opening bars of my favourite space theme stopped me in my tracks and Kez did the rest. Amazingly the band has only been playing together for just three weeks. They drove down from Corby especially for the showcase and literally stole the evening with some beautifully tight and electrifying sounds that brought an instant
buzz of excitement from those who had stayed the course. Unfortunately some bookers and local musicians had already left. They don't know the treat they have missed. Kez play chart material, waltzes, quicksteps and also present a delightfully mixed bag that included Feelings, Music, Love of My Life, Cavatina (Deer Hunter Theme), and of course, Star Wars. In Mick Ferguson they possess a singer of immense talent and class. Seldom have I ever seen such emotion from a group singer as he produced from Maurice Albert's gorgeous song Feelings. The tears were streaming down his face. Pop singing at its best. At present, Kez are only a semi pro outfit but in March, three of them, who are steelworkers, are being made redundant and then they hope to go full time into the business. The lads told me they'd love a summer season on the island, the only problem as far as I can see is where they would play. They seem ideal for establishments like Keats Inn but there aren't too many of them dotted around. Any of the big holiday camps would also be very suitable. Most of the band has been fully professional in the past, in different outfits, and some have worked on the continent. I certainly hope they summer on the island. If they do, I am certain they will also attract a huge local following.'
Mick; "We received some great reviews in the Isle of Wight and on the back of it we secured a summer season at Pontins Holiday Camp on the south coast, which in the wake of the steel closure was welcome news. Playing six nights a week and four dinnertimes, we were paid £460 a week, roughly £115 each, out of which we had to pay £22 for a chalet. We each had our own in a two tier block, Changes were inevitable and Reggy and Chris left, Bob Grimley replaced Derek Cowie who acquired a job in Australia and then two weeks into the season, Big Jack threw in the towel! Temporarily in the lurch, I put an advertisement in the Melody Maker for a bass player and a guy from Bristol applied. As he didn't have the means of getting to Pontins I made the 450 mile round trip myself to pick him up. I should have saved my time, the bloke was awful! That bad I wished a big hole would open up on stage so we could disappear! I took him back and told him, 'don't call us'. When I returned I was told a feller from Chester was on his way down to audition. Owen Ricketts was his name. And he was brilliant!
We had a great time socialising with the punters. As the end of the summer season drew to a close we decided to call it a day, finished on the spot. Owen went back to Chester and we've never seen or heard of him since. The rest of us went home to pick up from where we had left off. Redundant. I was given a couple of options on our return to Corby, one was to rejoin the Roy Bishop band and the other was to take up an offer from a Peterborough showband. It was then my old mate Derek Cowie contacted me with a proposal - to help him form a group which was to be called New Horizon. It was a band that would last for over 15 years."
Derek Cowie; "I had spent three months working on a pipeline in Kalgoorlie near Perth in Australia. When I came home I wanted to get playing again and formed New Horizon, it was one of the hardest working bands I ever played in, three, four, five nights a week."
Mick Ferguson; "We were regulars at Corby Grampian Club, mainly because we would play anything the punters wanted, rock and roll, country, waltzes. One night I was looking at the Forthcoming Attractions board where each individual section had their programme. I smiled to myself when I saw the name New Horizon spread right across the whole gamut. The bowls section, darts, dominoes, travel club."
Derek; “A good laugh was the night Ray Haggart showed up. The former Drumbeats singer had been out of Corby for years, living and working as a salesman in Stratford on Avon. His old friend from the Crows Nest days, committeeman Charlie Smith announced that there was a very special guest appearing, 'Emile Ford from the USA!' Ray then came walking through the doors at the back of the hall, smiling and shaking everybody's hand as they cheered and clapped. We thought it was hilarious. He had almost everyone fooled. A great singer, full of panache."
Everybody fooled, except Grampian Saturday night regular George Bradshaw who used to be a neighbour of Ray's in Stevie Way! George: "I was in the toilet after Ray had finished his stint and my old mate Tommy Dorrian came in, and said, 'he's some singer that Emile Ford!' I cracked up! 'Yeah, he's terrific' I replied laughing my head off. Ray was always a right smooth feller, poser, great bloke and singer."
Derek; "Me and Mick also teamed up with drummer Pete Buckby for a sixteen day trip to Jabeli, Dubai to play three gigs, one of which was on a Russian ship, with 600 nurses on board! Pete's career stretched back to the Rising Sons and latterly Canned Rock. He stepped in at short notice for New Horizon when John Donovan quit - and helped land us a New Years Eve booking in Dubai - and Mick to shed the shackles of a wife who 'hindered my career, every time I went out, which was regular, she did nothing but moan. She hated the music business.'"
That moment in time came when Mick was tucked up in bed and received a phone call from Pete Buckby at 1.30 in the morning. Mick; "the phone was above my head and initially I was speaking through the wrong end! Speak up I said, I can't hear you. When I realised it was Pete and turned the phone round, he came straight to the point. 'Listen' he said, 'I want an answer right away. No ifs or buts or wherefores, it’s yes or no. I need to know one way or another right now. How do you fancy a 16 day trip to Dubai to play three gigs over New Year?' At first I thought it was a wind up, gathered my senses, weighed it up and said yes. Pete Buckby had received a call from his old Canned Rock buddy Don Maxwell. A contact in Dubai had tried to book Canned Rock, discovered they had finished and then asked Don if he could put a band together. The guy in Dubai was awaiting an answer. So it was that Pete Buckby, Don Maxwell, Derek Cowie and I headed off for the sunny climes of the Middle East from a cold and miserable Gatwick on December 28th."
How did his long suffering wife receive the news? "She was lying next to me in bed when I was having this conversation and told me that if I went through the door and off to Dubai, I needn't come back. So I went!" His good lady had the last laugh though. On returning home, she'd cleared the house out and gone.
Mick; "We kicked the trip off playing on New Years Eve for all ex pats in Jebu Ali, next night at the International Seaman's centre and then three nights later played in the poorer quarters for people who worked in the port. Filipinos, Indians, the ethnic community. It was a real eye opener. We were the only white people there. The people were great though and made us feel really welcome.
The Dubai trip was such a success we did it for the next three years. The flights were paid for, as was a chalet/villa for each of us. The equipment was all there for us. We took our own guitars and Pete took his sticks and cymbals. All we had to pay for was the food and drink. And we were paid well over a grand for the pleasure! One day we were sitting in a restaurant discussing the idea of hiring a car the next day to do some sight seeing when a feller overheard us and came over. Told us not to bother and if we were serious he'd sort one out for us and have it at our door at 7.30 the next morning. True to his word, he dropped off a brand new Range Rover! We were taken aback, 'bit heavy on the petrol' was my first thought. Chipping in about a fiver each to get petrol, we were even more amazed when a fiver filled the tank up! It was only about 33p a gallon!"
Derek Cowie; "Flying to Dubai we were sitting at the back of the plane having a bit of a sing song when some people ahead of us started grumbling. Mick got up and went to have a word with them. When he returned he told us he'd been talking to the owner of the aircraft! 'Yeah! bound to' I said, 'what would the owner of the plane be doing sitting at the back with everybody else!' Mick reckoned he'd asked the feller if he could go into the cockpit when we were coming into land so he could video it, no problem the guy said. Sure enough, just before we started descending, Mick goes up the front and videos the landing! We couldn't believe it."
Mick;” A guy complained to the stewardess about the noise we were making and I went to apologise to him. I said 'look can I get you a drink?' A vodka and coke he said. I told the stewardess to make it a double. When he finished that I got him another one. By the time we had finished having a chat and he'd knocked back about four or five vodkas, he thought I was great bloke! He'd forgotten that the drinks on the aircraft were all free! Regarding the video, I'd asked the stewardess if it was possible to visit the cockpit and she arranged it. The pilot was an American, nice guy. I told him that we both had something in common and when asked what that might be; I told him that I fly as well. Gliders. He showed me all the controls, lights, everything. One hell of a dashboard! He told me to get my video, sit next to the window but when we began the descent, everybody had to be quiet, no talking. I put the video on my shoulder, then one of my headphones over the mic to capture all the requests and orders from flight control. It was amazing. You could see the lights on the runway from about six miles. Tremendous experience which since the Twin Towers disaster on 9/11 would be impossible to do now.
We played on a Russian hospital ship which was weird. Only one person on board could speak English. He was also a bass player with the ship's band. We used their gear and played for around three quarters of an hour, went really well. Then the Russian band did their spot and the bass player paid tribute to us by dedicating an Elton John song to us. It was Nikita. Sung in English by Russians who didn't have a clue what they were singing! That was strange. Though not half as much as that of a barmaid I had my eye on! I told Derek that before the end of the night, I'd be off with her. I bought her drinks, chatted her up and then she opened her mouth. It was full of gold teeth! Christ! We called her Klondike Kate after that."
Derek Cowie later wrote a song called Braveheart for the Scotland World Cup team in France 1994 and asked the Grampian Club if they would sponsor him and let the pipe band play on the recording at Iain Wetherell's studio in Occupation road. "Somehow, Anglia Television got to hear about it and then Central TV. We ended up with an invitation to appear on Channel 4's Big Breakfast Show with Denice Van Hueton and Johnny Vaughan. They asked me if I could get a pipe band down to London to appear a well. They put us all up in the Big Breakfast Guest House overnight where next door was a pub. We had a lock in and got wrecked. Next morning, the smell of whisky in the studio was enough to knock you out! A lasting memory is of Deniece Van Hueton coming in and surprising us with her language! We thought it would be all correct and proper, 'good morning gentlemen etc' and she came in complaining about her 'effing shoes!' They were too tight apparently and crippling her. Whatever, I thought to myself ' ah, it's like home from home!' Johnny Vaughan used to be a pupil at Uppingham School and taught the kids at Firdale School in Cottingham Road how to swim. He introduced us as ‘All the way from Corby in SCOTLAND!'
Derek's compatriot from the 1960s Corby bands, Ian Murray, continued his full time career with the Rock and Roll Circus, spent mainly touring Europe; "Work in the UK by the early eighties had lost a lot of its former glitter; the Baileys circuit had dissolved into disco along with a lot of other night clubs which played on a weekly basis and we found ourselves playing a lot more one-nighters in working men’s and social clubs. The working men’s club scene in the late seventies was truly ambiguous; some of these clubs were nothing short of fantastic, wonderful layouts, great stages, incredible sound systems and great audiences but others were truly hell on earth. For a five piece band it wasn’t so bad but for a stand up comedian it must have been slaughter. Above the door leading from the dressing room to the stage in a particularly dismal club in Stockton-on-tees, some wag had written “Arbeit macht Frei”.
For reasons that I have never been able to fully understand, the majority of our work at this time was focused in South Wales and after six months of seriously getting to know the M4, we all moved down to the Swansea area. The personnel had changed again and we had a new keyboard player and a new guitarist and this line-up was to last for almost the whole of the eighties.
Trips to Europe now included regular visits to NATO bases as far removed as Naples and Brindisi in southern Italy. As before, these were planned well and usually meant a two week tour of Germany then a transit gig or two in Switzerland before the long drive down to Naples and Brindisi returning through Austria and Germany. But it wasn’t always so well planned….
..On one memorable occasion we left Swansea at midday Saturday, played at a club in Swindon in the evening, finished at eleven o’clock, packed the van and drove for Dover. Monday evening we were playing onstage at the NATO NCO Club at Pozzuoli near Naples. It nearly didn’t happen; after driving non-stop through the night and the next day, we arrived at the Swiss – Italian border post of Chiasso, It was four o’clock Monday morning, we were the only van moving, even the truck drivers were all parked up for the night and I couldn’t see anyone at all in the Italian check point. In those days we had to have a Carnet de Passage to account for the equipment we carried and this had to be stamped at every border, in and out. I eventually located the border guards by following the sounds of hearty singing and found them all inside one little, smoke filled booth drinking red wine out of paper cups. I tried to explain the situation and get our Carnet stamped but they weren’t listening. My Italian was practically zilch but after a couple of cups of red wine that were thrust into my hand, I got the message that we had to wait for the shift change at six o’clock. I pleaded with them that we had less than twelve hours to get all the way down to Naples and eventually they took pity and the youngest of the team led me out to another booth and explained on the way, in broken English, that four in the morning was not the time to arrive at an Italian border crossing; they had to have their red wine and he had to study Nietzsche for his entrance exam to Milan University. By now he was getting very friendly and, after stamping the documents, he produced a small bottle of Grappa and insisted that we empty it before I left – I staggered to the bus with the Carnet and slept for the next three hundred kilometres.
The NATO Base at Pozzuoli is a large, sprawling community perched high on the south side of the volcanic Phlegrean peninsula north west of Naples, famous for its earth tremors and stinking fumes. Less than a kilometer from the club is the continuously bubbling mud bath known as Solfatara and when the wind was from the north, you could smell nothing but Sulpher. The guards at the entrance gate are all Italian, there are small contingents of Dutch, Spanish, Greek, Brits and German military but the Americans dominate the scene. The AFSOUTH club as it was called was staffed by Italians and run by Americans. That meant that the club was run efficiently and the food was outstanding. But it was the volcanic nature of the area that was to surprise us. Saturday evening was the Naval Officers Ball and we were the star attraction. Everything was laid out to perfection; tables, chairs, candles, bottles of wine on each table, officers in full regalia and the wives in their best ball gowns. The dance floor spread out in front of the stage and everything was set for a memorable evening. The waiters had done this a thousand times before and all was running like clockwork, the meal was finished, the Baked Alaska had been served with all due pomp and ceremony and the dancing began. Half an hour into the show I suddenly began to feel a little queasy and, looking up, I saw my cymbal stands wobbling from side to side. Then the microphone stands started doing the same dance as it dawned on us that we were having an earthquake. Soon the whole stage was shaking and amplifiers were moving about, plaster was falling from the ceiling, women were screaming and everyone was heading for the doors. All that is except the stunned musicians on the stage more worried about their gear than anything else and the waiters who were calmly carrying on as if nothing had happened – they’d seen it all before. One of them came to the stage just as things stopped shaking and told us to help ourselves to the wine that was left over. Of course, we obliged! Evidently, it happened all the time; the place would shake a little, the plaster would fall, the Americans would depart and the waiters had enough wine to last them for months.
Naturally, we got to know some of the Americans personally and we were often invited to social parties and barbeques at the sports centre which was situated behind the base in what was the huge caldera of an inactive volcano. There were football fields, tennis courts, running tracks and separate areas all set out for grilling and partying. Promotion parties for officers were traditionally held on the island of Capri, out in the Bay of Naples and these were substantial affairs, the costs must have run to thousands of dollars so when two or three officers received promotion at the same time it must have saved them a fortune. The complete party were ferried over in a series of privately hired boats from the harbour at Naples to Capri then shuttled up to the Hotel Caesar Augusto one of the most famous restaurants in Anacapri, the terrace of which commands an incredible view of the Bay of Naples from Ischia in the north to the Sorrento peninsula in the south. The whole afternoon was spent on the terrace eating far too much and drinking far too much and in the evening, the whole party was a little unsteadily shuttled back down to the harbour and onto the waiting ferries.
Several of the officers were members of a sky-diving club situated around the other side of the Sorrento peninsula at Pontecagnano and we were invited to join them for a Sunday of eating, drinking, singing and, of course, jumping out of aeroplanes (we didn’t accept the offer although I, being a long time aeroplane fanatic, did join the jumpers for a never-to-be-forgotten trip up to four thousand feet just to watch them jump). It was a typical Italian Sunday outing (for skydivers); the kids playing football the wives cooking in the hanger and the men jumping out of planes. At the end of the jumping day, the food was served around long tables with copious quantities of dark red wine and naturally, the majority of them being Italian, they started to sing and it was no pop songs that came forth, these guys had a repertoire from Verdi and Puccini, Donizetti and Rossini and they could sing too! We had brought the guitars out of the bus and supplied a little light entertainment of our own but the Donizetti proved just too much so they had to sing it acapela.
We’d finished a tour in Italy and, with some time on our hands, were heading home the slow way, enjoying our trip up the length of the country with plenty of stops for good food and wine. Passing into France at Menton, we thought we’d cut down into Monte Carlo as none of us had ever been there before and as it wasn’t much of a detour, it sounded like fun. The sun was shining, the sky was cloudless and azure, the sea was turquoise and we were tranquil. So down we came, winding through the streets and checking out all the Rolls Royces and Ferraris, windows rolled down and enjoying the fresh air. Soon we saw the sign for the Casino and decided it was a must on our sightseeing tour. As we came around the square just outside the Casino an ‘Apparition’ with a whistle in his mouth jumped out in front of the bus with his hands up to stop us. He looked like something out of a Peter Sellers movie; somewhat portly and red faced with a flowing, white moustache, dressed in a white uniform with what appeared to be a white British policeman’s helmet on his head. I stood on the brakes. Even with very little French between us, it was apparent that he wanted us all out of the truck. Now, he’d stopped us in the middle of the road and there he left the truck standing as he frog-marched us back in the opposite direction for fifty meters to a police station. He left absolute chaos behind him, cars and tourist busses had to swerve round on either side of our truck but he wouldn’t let me park it – he wouldn’t let me move it an inch (or centimetre).
Holding the door of the police station open, he indicated that we should all file inside and so in we went to a scene out of Inspector Maigret; there was a veritable fog of cigarette smoke and eight or so tired, bemused policemen, all smoking Gitanes, looked up from their typewriters in absolute amazement at this intrusion to their routine. Our white-clothed jailer indicated that we should all head towards the back of the room where there was a white washed jail cell complete with open door. He took all of our passports from us, then we all filed into the cell and he closed the door behind us and locked it. By now we were almost in hysterics, all the other policemen were looking at each other in disbelief. I held out my camera to the nearest one of them through the bars and asked him to take a photo of us (it would have been priceless) but he didn’t oblige. Instead, some kind of an inspector came out of a side office and took in at a glance what was happening, called our man in white over for a talk – which sounded more like a screaming rage. He unlocked our cage, gave us back our passports and sent us on our way escorted again by our now somewhat crestfallen jailer. Everything went in reverse; again, it was like a Sellers farce, he frog-marched us back to the truck and with several blows on his whistle and much waving of his arms, he stopped all traffic in both directions so that we could get in the bus and continue on our way. Just why he stopped us in the first place is a mystery; maybe he just didn’t like the look of us. But to this day I regret that missed photo opportunity.
Coming up the coast road from Naples we had just joined the Autostrada at Rome’s Fiumicino airport when, from the right hand side approach lane, a small, black, drab, dusty looking Fiat cut right in front of us causing Ollie, the driver to swerve to avoid him. Without hesitating, Ollie – partial to a little road-rage now and again - pulled into the overtaking lane and shot past the Fiat and pulled in sharply in front of him. We all had a laugh at this manoeuvre. Seconds later the Fiat pulled along side of us again and I, sitting in the front left hand passenger seat and looking down into the car could only see his right hand passenger seat and the lower part of his black jacketed arm with a shaking fist on the end of it. Once more he cut us up and braked sharply. Ollie once again overtook him and cut him up – it was getting really funny by this time. However, all the fun ended with the third overtaking; this time he was a little bit farther to the left when he overtook us and at the top of the extended arm and shaking fist this time I could make out the three white stripes of a Carabinieri sergeant’s uniform. “Oh Christ” cried John Tebb from the back seat, the only one in the band with a smattering of Italian, “I don’t speak a word of the language – OK?”
We pulled in behind the Fiat but as there was no hard-shoulder, that meant that we created a traffic jam behind us and instantly, a cacophony of truck and car horns began sounding. We watched nervously through our front windscreen as the drama unfolded. Squeezing his bulk out of the little Fiat, a fat, squat little man in a black Carabinieri uniform reached back into the car and brought out his cap, placing it dexterously on his almost bald head before he started walking towards the bus. He was fuming, no he was past that, he was in a state of agitation which can only be described as manic. He was sweating (it was a hot day), his face was reddened, he had murder in his eyes but - more worrying to us – he had his revolver in his right hand. Blinded by his rage, he headed to where he thought the driver would be and it was my privilege, winding the window down, to look into the barrel of his gun, thinking as I did that it was much smaller than I would have imagined. He ranted, spitting and screaming, shouting against the collective un-orchestrated horns of the traffic behind. People passing on the outside lane were blowing their horns (we were in Italy after all) and shouting abuse at him. Then the whole absurdity of the situation seemed to dawn on him; he looked down to where he expected to see the steering wheel, then over to where it actually was. A look of resignation came over his somewhat sanguine face and he stepped back from the bus, took a deep breath, put his ‘cannon’ back into its little leather holder, glanced at the chaos behind us and then dejectedly headed for his car. However, as if to complete the farce and add insult to severe indignation, his Fiat wouldn’t start. He tried three our four times before the battery gave out and he collapsed with both arms onto the steering wheel. Our bus had no such problems; some kind soul let us out into the other lane and we left him sitting in his little car probably thinking that he should have stayed in bed that morning.
We were driving down the Autostrada del Sole heading for Naples and in a hurry as we were behind schedule. I was sitting in the front passenger seat by the window with a pair of headphones on listening to music from my Walkman. Somewhere south of Bologna we came out of a tunnel and started to overtake a large truck in a tight, right-hand bend. We must have been doing eighty mph and suddenly, right in front of us was a traffic jam – everything was stopped – and we were sliding down onto this traffic jam at eighty miles per hour!! Five guys let out a scream, ten hands reached out in front to grab what they could, five right feet stood on the brakes although only one of them was actually on the brakes and all I could think about was the eight millimetre thick piece of hardboard that stood between us and three and a half tons of musical equipment in the back of the bus. To this day there is a blank in my memory from this point until we found ourselves all standing outside the bus and the truck driver was throwing up on the side of the road. The stink of burning brakes from the truck was sickening and we were all so stunned that we were not even concerned about approaching traffic behind us, just walking around very glad to be alive. To this day the smell of burning brake pads takes me instantly back to that Autostrada just south of Bologna.
The sun could be shining in Naples and Capri but we had to return over the Alps to continue our tour through Austria and Germany. It must be said that part of the attraction of these long trips was the overnight stay in some little hotel – we always made a stop-over on the return trip - and it gave us a chance to savour the alimentary delights of Italian cooking. No matter where we were at six in the evening, we would pull off the Autostrada and find the nearest hotel, book in and then head for the restaurant. Following the Italian example, we could still be there four hours and several litres of red wine later. Ahead of us the next day was the long trek up to the Brenner Pass – more Carnet paperwork and the slide down into the North European weather system.
Designed to give the town of Corby a massive boost and hope for the future was an announcement that a major new development of a theme park to rival that of Disneyworld was being proposed on the soon to be derelict British Steel site, providing an estimated 8,000 jobs. WonderWorld was going to be the saviour of the town if not indeed, the whole of Northamptonshire. The tag line was 'For everyone, everything wonderful in a world of its own.'
WonderWorld, an idea proposed by Group Five Holdings Limited, promised a theme park that went beyond the root purpose of entertainment to add thoughts upon existence and education. It was to be a kind of edutainment resort that would at once impress and blend in with the local countryside. The heart of WonderWorld would exist within a massive, enclosed environment where the widest variety of attractions could be housed, themed in history, folklore, fairy tales and the future.
WonderWorld promised a massive project spread over a decade or more of development, starting in early 1983. There was land clearance, construction, services, utilities, staff and more besides. The whole project would use only leading specialists in all required fields guaranteeing the highest possible standards. It would involve schools, old people, families, local companies - the whole community.
The project was driven by a propaganda engine that included models at the local council building, articles in Corby's Evening Telegraph newspaper and glossy pamphlets.
Quotes from the Leader of Corby District Council, Kelvin Glendenning, and the Right Honourable Sir John Eden MP, proclaimed the opportunities for employment, building the community and offering unsurpassed facilities. Personalities like TV botanist David Bellamy and golfer Jack Nicklaus had their names associated with different aspects of the project.
Attractions would include; The Body, a ride through an enormous Pythonesque body, starting in a pool of lime green soup and travelling aboard an enormous pork sausage. Hands-on edutainment in the world of film-making and craft displays. An invitation to the Butterfly Ball, which was a great themed party event filled with costumed, fairy tale participants. The Jack Nicklaus master class golf simulator which was to take advantage of the most cutting edge motion capture technology of the time. A World War II flight simulator that would allow visitors to take the pilot seat of a fighter amidst the Battle of Britain. Space age facilities, such as a massive, domed Communications Centre. The Lost Village of Rhyme, which was a whole gathering of fairy tale and nursery rhyme sourced buildings, including a teapot house, a liquorice-roofed corner shop and a bookshelf-shaped library. A full 18-hole golf course that spanned the full length of the WonderWorld location and a fully-equipped sports centre.
A massive open air concert arena styled to look like one of the Martian tripods from Jeff Wayne's War of the World, all blended into the surrounding countryside.
The description created a vision of glass and metal fused with the countryside. It was an incredible project that excited the whole community and promised not only a feast for the eyes but a hands-on world of participatory entertainment as well.
Scepticism from Corby folk towards this sort of enterprise has never been in short supply and right from the beginning doubts and laughter was the reception this project received. As the venture dragged on, it was with some amusement that a huge billboard erected on the sight depicting the sign WonderWorld, which was supposed to signal to passers by on the nearby Weldon Road that all was going as planned, someone scrawled out the 'World' and substituted it with When?
In 1982 was a further announcement that Wonderworld had been given backing by the East Midlands planning committee members despite condemnation from its chairman councillor Lewis Sturge. "The scheme is a misfit and too big for England, an importation from America." The latest plans stated the development would include hotels, offices, administration facilities, a golf course and holiday villas and areas of open land and woodland. Technical advisors had also revealed the theme park’s engineers had designed balancing lakes on the site to overcome drainage problems.
The affect all this would have on the existing countryside and villages was discussed with plans to meet the Department of Transport to press on with by-pass schemes for various towns and villages, particularly that of Bulwick. Councillor Roger Glitheroe warned that too much emphasis could be placed on the creation of local jobs by the construction work. Many people now working on construction jobs in Corby came from outside the area. He also warned that many people might be driven away from their villages by the influx. Although the area would gain from the additional rates cash paid by the theme park there would also be heavy outgoings on providing extra facilities like policing. Kettering General Hospital could also feel the strain if the park went ahead. "It would inevitably lead to more accidents". The chairman of the Kettering Health Authority Paul Seddon said that they had already been in touch with planners of the complex to discuss the possibility of the company providing its own casualty unit on the Wonderworld site to deal with minor injuries.
As the years would pass by, Wonderworld became so much of a joke nobody took anything serious further announcements claimed. Many astute observers were convinced from the beginning that it was all just a land occupation scheme. Developers holding on to land to sell on a few years down the line.