This is based on a true story. Names have been changed and some details added or amended for narrative effect.
Friday 6 May 1977 – Peace
Tom had taken the day off work specially. He didn’t get many chances to be present in person at historic events and didn’t intend to miss the opportunity to witness this one. His job as a civil servant in his 50s at the government offices in Longbenton – the Ministry as it was universally and straightforwardly known in Newcastle – was secure and moderately well paid but, as Tom would have admitted, not very exciting. He didn’t get many chances to see VIPs even at a distance – not even the occasional visiting government minister if ministers could be classified as VIPs at all.
When he arrived outside Newcastle Civic Centre some 30 minutes before proceedings were due to start a large expectant crowd had already gathered. Tom found a place to stand as close to the front as he could but still didn’t have a clear view of the podium that had been set up for the dignitaries. The mood was festive.
Suddenly clapping and a cheer arose from the front of the spectators. Three figures stepped onto the raised platform. From where Tom stood, he could barely have recognised them, had he not known who to expect. They were, in rising order of importance in his eyes: James Callaghan, the Prime Minister; Councillor Hugh White, the Lord Mayor and Tom’s neighbour; and Jimmy Carter, President of the United States.
Carter stepped up to the microphone: “Howay the Lads.” The words were faint at the back of the crowd and uttered with an unmistakable southern US accent. But they we so familiar on Tyneside that everyone there recognised them immediately and cheered enthusiastically.
The rest of Carter’s speech was a blur in Tom’s memory. He seemed to remember something about a Friendship Force, which he found out later was to be a form to town twinning arrangement between Newcastle and Carter’s home city of Atlanta, Georgia. Tom couldn’t even remember whether Callaghan and White had spoken at all, though he supposed that being politicians they must have done.
Tom hung around for a little while as the crowd dispersed, wanting to squeeze every moment of enjoyment from the occasion. At last, when even the reporters and camera crews had vacated their places at the front of the now virtually empty Civic Centre grounds, Tom turned for home.
Then he spotted another of his neighbours. “Hello Alec,” he said to the municipal editor of the Evening Chronicle. “What did you think of Carter’s speech?”
“Dunno,” Alec grunted noncommittally. “Couldn’t hear much of it.”
“How come?” Tom asked his neighbour “You must have been able to hear it from the press seats at the front.”
Alec tried to interject but Tom, still excited by the day’s events, was in full flow: “Anyway, you’ll have to have some opinion about it, “otherwise what will you write for tomorrow’s paper?”
“Oh,” said Alec, trying to hide his disappointment behind an appearance of nonchalance. “I wasn’t in the press seats. I was at the back of the crowd. And I won’t be writing anything for the paper.” Tom was surprised, shocked almost, that his neighbour wouldn’t be writing about what he regarded as an historic day for the city: “Why not?”
“The NUJ’s on strike today.”
Thursday 19 November 1981 – War
“Morning Alec,” said the news editor as the municipal editor was settling in at his desk. “What have you got for me today?” It was eight o’clock and the news editor would soon be going into the morning conference. As he so often did, he was hoping Alec would have a good story to top the news list.
“They’ve been discussing the War Plan,” replied Alec. It’s hopelessly out of date.”
The news editor looked at him with bemusement. “What War Plan?” he asked. “Who’s been discussing it?”
“The Tyne & Wear War Plan, and the public protection committee have been discussing it.”
“The Tyne & Wear War Plan?” said the news editor incredulously. “You mean Tyne & Wear’s got a War Plan? Why? Who are they going to declare war on?”
He started to chuckle, then stopped himself. He knew that Alec would not joke with him on such an important matter as the news list, and so close to news conference time too.
“The Ruskies I suppose,” replied the municipal editor. “Though it doesn’t actually say so. “Anyway, it’s more of a Civil Defence Plan – what to do if they drop the bomb on us.”
The news editor was beginning to see sense in what he was being told. It was the height of the Cold War and civil defence was an important national concern.
Alec began to explain the details – details he had only learned himself by attending the previous afternoon’s committee meeting and which he knew the news editor would need for the conference in a few minutes.
Tyne & Wear, Alec had learned, had four emergency plans – the Major Disasters Plan, the Beach Pollution Plan, the Rabies Contingency Plan, and the War Plan. But they were all years out of date.
Government advice was that the county council needed 12 emergency planning staff, but only seven posts had been established and of these only one, plus an administrator, was filled.
The county’s emergency headquarters beneath Sunderland Civic Centre was too small and in the wrong place, and the standby HQ at South Shields Town Hall was also too small. Communications equipment had been installed but was not fully operational. The council had declined the government’s offer of a bunker at Kenton Bar.
“So, what are they are going to do about it?” asked the news editor.
They were going to appoint six more emergency planners, Alec replied. Then they’d update the four plans and carry out exercises to make sure they worked. But as a Labour council they drew the line at taking part in a war exercise being planned by the Home Office. Tyne & Wear had, after all, declared itself a nuclear-free zone.
Th news editor summed up, to make sure he’d got the details right for the conference: “So if there’s a nuclear war the protection of more than a million people in Tyne & Wear will depend on seven emergency planning officers…
“And an administrator.”
“Seven emergency planning officers and an administrator holed up beneath Sunderland Civic Centre armed with nothing more than a piece of paper saying it’s a nuclear-free zone?”
Alec shrugged: “That’s about the size of it. What more can they do?”
The news editor walked off happily to the conference. “What a good story.”