Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Birmingham Pub bombs. A terrible night on air at BRMB

I was on air the night of the Birmingham bombs. Inside my radio station, here's what happened

Forty years ago this week, I was working through an uneventful evening shift at the old BRMB. It was coming to the end of the year; all the big records were already out. That meant I was playing Lamb Lies Down on Broadway with Peter Gabriel's Genesis; Sheer Heart Attack with Queen, Diamond Dogs from Bowie; Pretzel Logic from Steely Dan; Country Life by Roxy Music. And Bad Company, Sparks, Lynryd Skynyrd, Jackson Browne, ELO and more. You get the picture.  

Classic Rock was over; Punk was coming, but it wasn't here yet.  And the party season was starting to get into full swing. 

Birmingham was crowded, but the station was quiet: just me, the late show guy prepping his show for an 11pm start, and one man on the late shift in the newsroom. I had a guest: a minor Beach Boy. I don't mean that in any kind of dismissive way – it's just he wasn't Brian Wilson, or Dennis, or Carl, Al Jardine or Mike Love. Bruce Johnston had joined the band to cover for Brian when they were on the road, and 40 years ago he was working on solo projects in between Beach Boys work. He was good interview material; very widely experienced and connected; this was the man who went on to pen Barry Manilow's mega hit 'I Write The Songs'. 

The phones were reasonably quiet: it wasn't a football night. Thursday games hadn't yet found their way onto the football calendar. When we did have night games, people - no smartphones then - would call the station to get the footy scores. Especially Villa fans. That drove me crazy, as I had to keep the lines clear at all costs to take a live report on those same phone lines. 

I'm telling you all this, because that was what was on my mind on a routine night at the old BRMB. Those were my concerns.  

So Bruce is chatting away about the Beach Boys, and his solo work. It's interesting stuff.

The first inklings

And then the phones started up. 

Flashing, flashing.

All four lines, flashing, flashing.  

That wasn't right. Really not right. 

It was people in the city centre. 

There's been a bomb. 

They were calling to tell us, or to try to find out what was happening. 

They were calling to leave personal messages. They were scared. What could we tell them? 

I looked across at the newsroom. The on-duty reporter was suddenly very busy. And the first inklings of an awful feeling of dread, something we've all felt several times since, started to well up. 

We wrapped the interview. Bruce Johnston was understandably keen to get back to London as soon as possible. I called New Street station to find out if the trains were running. An equally scared man on the end of the line at the station told me, after I explained at length why I was calling, that, yes, they were. A hasty taxi for Mr Johnston arrived. 

And the phones were flashing, flashing flashing...

Emergency radio

I probably only played one or two records after that. The duty journalist came in to brief me; but I already knew. Moments after, Peter Windows, BRMB's ops manager, appeared in the studio, and we shifted to rolling news mode. I wound up driving the desk for a very different kind of programme. 

I've described maybe a ten minute sequence of events from those first ominous feelings of dread to the station going into full action. 

Suddenly, the newsroom was full. Then it emptied at speed, as reporters headed out to find out what was going on. We had to answer a lot of questions. Could you drive through the city? What exactly had happened? Where? Who had done this? 

To file an audio report in those days, you had to hot-wire a telephone and squirt your audio down the line using banana clips. It was primitive technology, but it worked. 

The calls didn't stop. The switchboard was full. Flashing, flashing. I had to keep clearing the lines down to keep things open for our reporters. People were calling in from all over the region, from abroad, deeply upset, desperate for news. I had to try to answer, and to be as diplomatic as I could... and I absolutely had to get them off the lines. More than ever, I had to keep those flashing, flashing lines open for the reporters. 

I really don't recall much more than that from the evening. I was too busy to file things away in my memory. I called home, briefly, halfway through the night, to say I was OK. And it was back to the flashing lines, the live reports, the telephone interviews. Eventually, I came off shift, stiff, tense, tired and upset. Went home feeling awful.

The aftermath

The next morning was so much worse. 

I'm told the station's coverage was exceptional, and I'm quite sure it was. I simply didn't have time to take it in. Everyone turned out to play a necessary part. From conversations with friends and colleagues, I know that BRMB's counterparts across the city at the BBC did exactly the same. As so often happens in Birmingham, there was an instant, warm, powerful response: no fuss, no shouting. Just people on hand to do what was needed, unprompted; generous, selfless. I didn't see that. All I saw was the inside of a studio; all I did was field streams of information and questions, questions, questions from desperately upset people...

Picking up the threads for the next few days was difficult. I had a show to do the following night, and shows to plan for the coming weeks. Interviews were scrapped or rearranged. The station was subdued. I looked at my music lists with horror, realising for the first time how much you have to change when disaster strikes.  I've had to do that too many times; each time, it's horrible. 

DJs have never, ever, been essential parts of our lives; they are ephemera, like newspapers or vinyl. And when something terrible happens, they are less than relevant.  

We look to our media for information when overwhelmingly awful things happen; we always have. Now, we use social media, and twitter can often be a news channel in its own right. Then, there were very few voices to carry the information people needed. And, truth be told, we were simply seconds away from those developments. But those seconds were essential. Check and check again... or you might risk ruining someone's life. That's old-school journalistic rigour, and I am very glad of it. 

One terrible night in Birmingham, forty years ago. 

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Richard Salt said...

Fantastic account of what must have been a horrible night

Roderick Hudson said...

Compelling reading, Robin. I was working a late shift in the city centre that night but it was how quiet town was the following day, despite being as busy as usual. Thanks for this post.

dematmozilla said...

Beautifully written Robin.Our band, 'Scotch Mist', had been in town that evening having a pint on a night off, but decided (strangely in hindsight) to go to the Cinema down the Bristol Road instead. We were clueless of the events we were to leave behind. We returned home later to our Mom's house to find her at her wits end, not realising we had changed our plans.... we were the lucky ones, so many weren't..... Respect, Ken Jones

Robin Valk said...

Ken, that's a brilliant but very scary story. Things like that must have been going on all over town.

Robin Valk said...

The following days were simply awful, weren't they?

Lydia Glanville said...

I recently read a fictional account of these events in Jonathan Coe's 'The Rotters' Club'. Such a tragic event. It must've been very difficult for you that night.

Robin Valk said...

After the initial shock, I was too busy to think on the night itself, Lydia. It sunk in afterwards.

Birmingham Press said...

There must have been thousands who in their own way played their part that night; they all deserve our gratitude.

Bob Hermon said...

When I worked at the MEB, Thursday was pay day, so it was a ritual that we met at 8pm every Thursday night in the Tavern In The Town. Although I changed jobs 18 months earlier, the ritual kept going for quite a long time afterwards, but then, thankfully being just an occasional thing before more or less finishing altogether.
As far as I know, none of my friends were in there that night, thank goodness, but obviously we all think of those that were. Strangely on the lunchtime of that awful day, I met my mother in the city centre, something very rare, and I actually took her for a drink in the Tavern, hours before it all happened.

Pauline Roche said...

Thanks Robin - it's important to hear and record as many voices as possible from that very sad time - and the effects linger still

john mostyn said...

We were listening to you Robin as I sat down to dinner at Linda Albert's flat in Moseley with guests Dave Carroll and his wife Alison. When the first report came Alison a GP, just called a cab with no fuss and went straight to the scene.