If they haven’t started already, the next few days will see plenty of people attempting to tell you where they were the day President Kennedy was assassinated. I’m afraid I’m about to join them.
My account of the incident won’t help our understanding of it or provide much of a snapshot of life in 1960’s Britain, but it was certainly a significant event of my childhood. So I’m recording it here because, one, some horrible illness may one day prevent me from remembering it with any clarity, and two, the act of writing it down rather than telling you orally means I won’t see you start scanning the room for someone more interesting to talk to.
So. It’s a Friday evening in Bournemouth, England. My dad has to collect something from the home of his mother-in-law who lives about a mile away. He doesn’t want to do this at all; he just wants to eat supper and start his weekend. But for some reason the errand has to be done now. He gets me and my brother to go along with him.
How does this help? Well, my dad has a stiff leg; the result of being shot during the war. Walking presents no problem but climbing up and down stairs is a little trickier. So my brother and I are dragooned into helping. We’ll be able to bound up the stairs, grab whatever it is we’ve been sent to collect, and charge back down to dad who’ll be waiting in the car with the engine running.
Another reason might be that dad won’t have to get into a potentially evening-sapping conversation chat with granny. Why he chose to take two sons when one could have done the job just as well is a mystery. Give mum a bit of peace, maybe.
Anyway, we get to grandma’s house and run up the stairs to find her huddled close to the radio. (She’d have called it the wireless, of course.) She looks up and tells us that the President of America has been shot. We sit down and listen to the announcer for a while. I was only 9 years old but I’d heard of President Kennedy and, even if I didn’t understand then what a huge event this shooting was, the tone of the announcer’s voice must have told me that it was very grave indeed. We listen as the news unfolds until eventually we hear our dad sounding the car horn. We grab whatever it is we were sent to collect and rush downstairs to the waiting car.
Dad’s furious. Why did we take so long? When my brother tells him that we were listening to news about the President being shot, he doesn’t believe us. He thinks my brother’s making it up. I chip in and tell him that it’s true, but he won’t have it. He’d prefer to think we’re storytelling than imparting the biggest news story since war was declared. So he drives us home in angry silence. We’re angry too: the worst thing when you’re a kid is not being believed by an adult. Especially when it’s your own father.
Salvation of a sort occurs as soon as we pull up in front of the house. Through the kitchen window we can see mum staring straight ahead. Uncharacteristically, she doesn’t acknowledge our arrival. We go indoors and notice that she’s actually crying. Dad asks her what the matter is. Through tears she tells him that President Kennedy is dead.
“Christ, not you as well!” shouts dad.
Not really. That would have been a good punchline to the story but the truth is, my memories of the day stop at that point. My only other Kennedy-related reminiscence is of a special assembly held the following week at school. Everyone was told to pray for America and for the world. Me and Steve Green had a go at praying when I went round to his house for tea, but we soon started giggling and changing the prayer to include the presents we wanted for Christmas. A Johnny Seven for me, probably.
Death and birth
The other big event that weekend in 1963, as everyone knows by now, was the first-ever transmission of Dr Who.
It struck me then as being unlike any children’s television programme I had previously seen. Clearly aimed at kids but with quite sophisticated ideas, it’s probably true to say that discussion of this new series overshadowed talk about Kennedy’s assassination in school playgrounds on the following Monday. I still believe that the thinking behind the Tardis warrants the tag of genius. A time-traveling machine that was bigger on the inside than the outside fits perfectly with the theme of ‘time and relative dimensions in space’, AND gave the writers carte blanche to do what they like within the Tardis’ four (?) walls, subject to the production department being able to achieve it. Then, devising a backstory that ‘explained’ the appearance of the Tardis (it was supposed to adapt to whatever environment in which it materialised, but there’d been a fault with the mechanism) was another masterstroke. It was also deliciously British – there was never a problem with the Enterprise that wasn’t the result of battle.
Did I do the now clichéd thing of hiding behind the sofa during the scary bits of Dr Who? Yes I did. The series that particularly frightened me was the second time the Daleks made an appearance. Their arrival in London brought the terror too close to home and made the sense of hopelessness all too real.
So there we have it. One life-changing weekend – or life-ending, depending on who you were – in November, 1963.