Category Archives: History

Pandemic doesn’t stop the Proms – and neither did Hitler’s bombs in 1941

I’m delighted to hear that this year’s BBC Proms will include at least some live performances. Unsurprisingly, most of the 2020 season is made up of re-runs of memorable past concerts.

The Albert Memorial and the north facing entrance to the Royal Albert Hall.

But, according to the Radio Times website, “Friday 28th August will see the focus shift from revisiting past performances to exciting new ones, as organisers plan to have musicians playing live at the Royal Albert Hall for the final two weeks, culminating in an emotional Last Night of the Proms“.

The totemic TV images of historic Last Nights of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts will have to suffice during the pandemic. Their symbolism is woven into the very fabric of British culture, though of course they form only a small portion of the full annual eight-week summer season of classical music.

I’m prompted to mention this because I recently came across a wartime copy of Radio Times in our family memorabilia. The issue is dated August 15th, 1941, and its front cover leads with the news that, whilst German bombs may have destroyed Queen’s Hall – where the Proms had taken place since their founding in 1895 – a successful transition had been made to their new venue, the Royal Albert Hall. “Traditional scenes of enthusiasm will mark the end of the forty-seventh Promenade Concerts on Saturday”, says the front page blurb. “There will also be broadcasts on Monday and Friday. More pictures of the Promenaders in their new home, the Royal Albert Hall, are on page 5”.

Turning to page 5, we hear the tone of wartime defiance in the description of audiences at the new venue …

“Blitzed out of Queen’s Hall, the Proms this season have moved to Kensington. For six weeks, Sir Henry Wood and the London Symphony Orchestra have been making music to packed audiences at the Royal Albert Hall.

“Across the vast floor of the Albert Hall stretches a sea of heads. These are the greatest Prom audiences ever. Two thousand music-lovers were capacity at Queen’s Hall – between five thousand and six thousand have been present on certain nights this year. Intent rapturous, motionless, they stand”.

“In these boxes revellers have drunk in the New Year at the Chelsea Arts Ball, cigar-smoking sportsmen roared at heavyweights, ideologists acclaimed politicians, music-lovers heard Kreisler, Gigli, Cortot. Now, unlikely in their splendour, sit Prom-goers. Somewhere in these heights lurks the Albert Hall’s famous phantom – its echo. Experts with screen and canvas have all but laid it, at last.

“Youth at the bar! Familiar to any Prom enthusiast are these types that lean intently forward in their common worship. These are the early birds, the wise who make sure of more to support them than pure fervour. Gone in many cases is the wild-haired deshabille that characterised the Prom devotee – the Service barber and the Service uniform have worked their way upon it. But battledress can’t change the heart of its wearer. Whatever the shape of future things to come, the Proms are sure to be part of them”.

The enemy in 2020 may not be raining bombs on our heads. But at this point it seems to pose as deadly a potential threat to our everyday lives as did the Luftwaffe.

Let’s hope that, by the time of the next Last Night, we’ll have consigned Covid-19 to the dustbin of history, just as we did Hitler.

 

 

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The day I saw the Bluebirds play the Busby Babes

It was one of the first professional football matches I ever saw. It may even have been the very first.

The awesome magic of Manchester United was at its height back then, not just in the way they played but in the sense of expectation, admiration and sheer wonder that they inspired in spectators. My Dad took me to Ninian Park that day, 27th April, 1957, to watch United take on the team that had already infused my bloodstream with deep, irreversible loyalty and passion, the ‘Bluebirds’, Cardiff City. The teams were in the First Division, the highest tier at the time, way before the inception of the Premier League. Nine months later, two of the United players I watched would be killed in the Munich air crash. Three others were rescued by Harry Gregg.

I was reminded of that day earlier this week by the announcement of the passing away of the legendary Irish goalkeeper. Reputations were harder to earn in the days before headline writers assumed control of the national psyche. Harry Gregg wasn’t in goal that day, his place taken by Ray Wood. Quite honestly, I remember very little about the match, which is a pity, as it was obviously a bit of a nail-biter. (As a very young lad, I think I found the spectacle of the near-deafening noise of so many supporters, the vastness of the stadium and the atmosphere of seriousness and passion even more interesting than the game. My Dad kept encouraging me to watch what was going on on the pitch!).

I haven’t found any full match report, but I have discovered the timings of the United goals. They scored in the 43rd, 86th and 90th minutes. So it looks as though my beloved Bluebirds were probably 2-1 up with four minutes left on the clock. Irish international Liam Whelan, who was one of those who tragically died in Munich, scored in the 43rd minute. That would be a good time (maybe) to bring the scores level at 1-1 (I don’t know). Another guess: Cardiff went ahead again in the second half. But Scottish international Alex Dawson scored in the 86th minute, that much is sure. And Liam Whelan finished us off by scoring from the penalty spot on 90 minutes.

Liam Whelan died at the age of 22. Eddie Colman, who also played in the game I watched, was another who perished in the disaster. An England international, he was just 21. The only Welshman to play that day, Colin Webster, would certainly have gone on the Munich trip if he’d been fit, but he had ‘flu and couldn’t go.

It’s difficult to describe the depth of national mourning – across the whole of Britain – that surrounded that disaster. There wasn’t quite as much of the mind-numbing, media-fed tribalism back then. There had been twenty-three deaths in total, including players, crew members, club staff and journalists. Manager Matt Busby survived, but the list of famous players who died also included David Pegg, 22, Mark Jones, 24, Geoff Bent, 25, Tommy Taylor, 26, and team captain Roger Byrne, 28.

So when it was revealed that Duncan Edwards seemed to have survived, a collective sigh of relief went around grieving football fans. He was a true “Busby Babe”, only 21 on the date of the crash. He was without doubt one of the most admired players in the United squad, arguably in the whole of England, despite having had a couple of ‘dodgy’ games just prior to the crash. I can’t improve on the Wikipedia section on him headed Style of Play. He was highly talented all around the park and played 177 games for the club.

Although Match of the Day didn’t launch until 1964, I’d often see Manchester United featured on sports reports on TV. Now millions tuned into news broadcasts on the BBC Home Service (precursor of BBC Radio 4) to hear the latest updates. Initially it appeared that Duncan Edwards would recover from his injuries. As the situation with the other survivors – and most notably that of Matt Busby himself – became clearer, the whole focus of news reports about the crash eventually switched to the condition of Duncan Edwards (see right – photo of the statue of Edwards in the centre of his home town of Dudley). Every morning, I’d wait for the 8.00 am news broadcast. Invariably it included an update on Edwards’ condition, such was the level of public interest. At first things looked good and after the first week he seemed to be making a recovery. But then reporters became less optimistic. His condition took a turn for the worse. On the morning of 21st February the lead story told of his death, which had happened overnight. That was a highly emotional moment for me and millions of others. I don’t want to overstate the extent of national mourning, but looking back it does have just a tinge of the kind of feelings engendered by the deaths of John Lennon and Princess Diana. That’s the way I remember it, anyway. I think emotions were heightened by the two weeks he spent fighting to survive.

Although tributes to Harry Gregg were fulsome, for me they didn’t entirely do him justice. “He went back into the ‘plane and saved a number of people” doesn’t really describe his courage. And he was a very courageous player, by the way. Those were the days when ‘keepers were far less protected by the rules of play. It was perfectly legitimate to barge into a goalkeeper and bundle him over the line. Nowadays I sometimes wonder if giving a goalkeeper a dirty look can result in a red card.

Trapped in the wreckage at first, Gregg managed to prise himself out of the twisted metal. He ignored shouted orders to get away from the plane for fear of explosion. In fact, he clambered back into the shattered shell of the blazing aircraft to undertake a series of rescues. Amongst those he pulled to safety were Vera Lukić, pregnant wife of a Yugoslav diplomat, and her daughter, Vesna, together with the three other players that I’d seen play – Albert Scanlon, Ray Wood and Dennis Viollet – as well as Jackie Blanchflower and the now-legendary Bobby Charlton. According to reports, Charlton and Viollet were unconscious, Gregg dragging them from the plane by the waist-bands of their trousers.

Sport, in general, and football, in particular, has a way of creating lasting memories, whether for the onlooker or the participant. My memory of the match I attended has all but faded; but what happened nine months or so later, and the aftermath, will stay with me as long as I live.

 


Image credits

Busby Babes last match – public domain – see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Busby_babes_last_match.jpg

Munich crash –
Deutsch: Crash des BEA Fluges 609 am Flughafen Riem, MünchenFotofuzzy1 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Duncan Edwards
ChrisTheDude / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

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