A snapshot of 2016 from Iain Lundy

By Reporter, The HighLand Times, Wednesday January 4 2017

At the end of every year, we always look back and remember those who are no longer with us. Of course, people die every year, we know that, but let’s be honest 2016 has been quite a year for celebrity deaths – at times it seems to have been one long death-fest.

Iain Lundy Reflects on 2016 in his own inimmatable style

Back in 2008 I presented a weekly radio show on a small station in Scotland – Lundy Sunday, would you believe – and I decided to devote an hour to musicians who had passed away that year. I was limited to the 60s and 70s and it was a real struggle to fill the time slot.

Among the best known were Eddy Arnold, famous for ‘Make the World Go Away’, and Bo Diddly. Odetta, who sang ‘There’s a Hole in the Bucket’ had died, and I was reduced to Hurricane Smith – remember ‘Don’t Let It Die’, anyone? In 2016, I could have filled two hours without any problem.

Famous people – TV personalities, singers, movie stars – are a big part of our childhood and our growing up, what you might call our formative years. I religiously watched the suave Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and spent a fair bit of my hard-earned holiday cash buying Leonard Cohen LPs.

So, I was sorry to see them on the 2016 roll-call. Just as I was sad about Bobby Vee, Alan Rickman, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Gene Wilder, Victoria Wood, Andrew Sachs, Caroline Aherne, Ronnie Corbett, Johann Cruyff, David Bowie, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake and Palmer – they were all ‘in my life’ at some stage and left an indelible impression.

There were, however, two people who died in 2016 who affected me more than any of the ones listed above. In fact, for vastly different reasons, they both brought me to tears. While their names will be familiar to people in the UK, they will most likely mean nothing in the US.

Cliff Michelmore was a giant of broadcast journalism. A big, imposing presence, he oozed gravitas. It was as though he needed a large head to fit his large brain. When I was young he seemed to be the BBC’s presenter of choice for the biggest stories.

Although it may not have been my earliest memory of Michelmore, there is one major news story from my childhood which he covered and which I have never forgotten. The Aberfan Disaster was a hellish story from every perspective. I was only 10 at the time and details of it have been etched in my memory since.

If you have never heard of the tragedy, it was possibly the saddest and most harrowing in Britain in my lifetime. Aberfan is a village in the heart of the Welsh coal-mining country. In 1966, a huge slurry mountain behind the village was dislodged by water, and a river of sludge came pouring down the hillside, demolishing houses before scoring a direct hit on a school filled with children aged between seven and 10.

A total of 116 schoolchildren and 28 adults, many of them teachers, died. One of the most poignant discoveries was that of a teacher cradling five children in the remains of a classroom. They had all perished and of course, it made me think about my own class teacher, my own school mates who were all the same age.

Cliff Michelmore brought the full horror of Aberfan into our living rooms. Journalists are not supposed to cry on jobs. Michelmore admitted that not only was he in tears but he also had his sleeves rolled up and was helping with the rescue effort.

But I most clearly remember his evening broadcast, delivered live as darkness was falling over Aberfan. His speech was slow and faltering, the story was told in a sober and measured tone, without embellishment or exaggeration – there was no need for any. I remember thinking, ‘please don’t stop talking because if you cry, I will too’.

I cried anyway, and I admired and respected Michelmore from that moment. In my opinion there have been few TV journalists since who were fit to lace his boots.

Fast forward to 1985 and my next tearful moment. By this time, I thought of myself as some sort of hard-nosed newspaper reporter. But hard-nosed hacks don’t burst into tears watching soap operas, do they? So, that was that theory blown out of the water.

Hilda Ogden, played brilliantly by Jean Alexander, was arguably the best soap opera character British television has produced. She was the Coronation Street busybody, a typical ‘poor wee soul’ of a character who always wore a hairnet and curlers and had nothing going for her. She lived with her lazy, good-for-nothing, boozy husband Stan (played by Bernard Youens).

But even though they had nothing, and argued like cat and dog, Hilda and Stan were devoted to each other. Then in 1985 Bernard Youens died and the show’s producers had to find a way to write out his character. It was one of the most memorable soap opera moments of all times.

As the closing credits came down on what had been an already sad episode, Hilda was pictured opening a package containing Stan’s belongings. Finally, she came to his battered spectacle case, which she opened to reveal his trademark dark glasses. At that point she slowly put her head on the table and started to sob – and so did millions of viewers, me included.

Soap opera actors are a greatly under-appreciated species. Jean Alexander was so convincing that, to a generation of Coronation Street viewers, she and Hilda Ogden were indistinguishable.

Cliff Michelmore and Jean Alexander may not have been the most high-profile deaths of 2016 but they hold special memories. It is testament to their abilities that, as I sat here writing this and thought about them, I yet again struggled in vain to hold back the tears.

 

JUST A WEE BLETHER…

About Christmas lights American style

Well, I hope everybody had a wonderful Christmas and that Santa was good to you. In Arizona, we had to endure an unusual weather phenomenon, a Christmas Eve storm which consisted of strong winds and heavy rain, and which knocked out the power in our neighbourhood. So really, a routine winter’s day in Scotland.

By Christmas morning, everything had reverted to normal. The sun shone from a blue, cloudless sky, and Santa had manfully struggled through the wind and rain to leave a barbeque grill – complete with a red bow – in my garden. And it had my name on it. What a good guy he is.

We can barbeque all year round in Arizona, as opposed to three or four times a year in Scotland. I’ve only ever had little charcoal barbeque grills before. This is a gas-powered model – so bring on the sausages and chicken.

Christmas over here is no different from Christmas everywhere. People enjoy large family gatherings, a lot of food, a lot of gifts, wear ugly sweaters, and have a generally fun-filled time.

There is, however, one noticeable difference, where Americans go further and, to an outsider, take things to extremes – lights.

Houses and front gardens are illuminated in spectacular fashion from early December through the New Year. In some cases, whole neighbourhoods are closed off to traffic so families can stroll round and look at the displays.

There are lawn displays of cartoon characters, nativity scenes, and inflatable Santas. In many cases, householders provide mugs of hot chocolate for the adults, and candy canes for children.

We toured a few places this year and the amount of work people put in is incredible. Not to mention the money involved. Some families must spend thousands of dollars on their Christmas lighting displays, and many have charity collection boxes at their front gate.

The city I live in, Chandler, has a downtown area which is nicely lit up and boasts a curious 60-year old tradition. The Christmas tree centerpiece is made up entirely of tumbleweed bushes bound together. Volunteers collect the tumbleweed – of which there is plenty in the Arizona desert – and build up the tree.

The other hugely impressive display is at the Mormon Temple in the next-door city of Mesa. Every year, tens of thousands of families make a special trip to visit the illumination display there.

It is all a welcome change from Scotland where I remember only a handful of houses being ‘lit up’ – often for charity – during the festive season. That was followed by newspaper headlines that thieves had stolen the charity money, or that neighbours were unhappy that they couldn’t hear Coronation Street for the noise outside. Bah humbug, right enough.

So here are a few shots of Arizona lit up for what they call over here ‘The Holidays’. Perhaps, in true American style, I’ll go and pour myself an eggnog.

JUST A WEE BLETHER…

About hiding from the fugitive outside

Every so often a little incident happens that reminds me I’m not in Scotland any more, and that America can be a slightly scarier place. And it’s amazing how the imagination can play tricks.

The towns and cities that make up greater Phoenix typically consist of what they call neighbourhoods. The one I live in is typical. It has three entrances, two off main streets and another which is more of a back entrance, and there are in the region of 100 town houses with a couple of communal outdoor swimming pools.

A couple of weeks ago, I drove in one of the main entrances and a police car was parked there. The officers didn’t stop me, but I noticed another couple of police vehicles further down the road, as well as two police helicopters circling overhead.

That didn’t bother me too much. Police here tend to respond quickly, and in numbers, to any incident. However, by the time I’d reached my house, about two minutes later, I became aware of a larger police presence than I anticipated. I passed at least three other vehicles, and there were two or three officers standing guard.

My immediate guess, and it didn’t take a genius to work it out, was that they were hunting for someone who was on the run.

So, when I got to the house, I parked the car, and looked around. There is a large area of waste ground nearby and I wandered over in that direction. There were five more police – two on bicycles would you believe.

And these guys were not to be messed with. When I say they were armed, they had some of the biggest guns I have ever seen. I know little about guns but these were very large and I took them to be automatic or semi-automatic.

I was getting the feeling that this might be more serious than first appeared. I called my wife, who was heading home, and told her what to expect. It turned out that, when she got to the neighbourhood entrance, police wouldn’t let her in.

Eventually the police called everyone in the neighbourhood. The message was simple. There is an ongoing police incident, stay inside and lock your doors and windows. The area is “in lockdown”.

That made me feel just a little uncomfortable. I’ve seen all these movies. So, I did lock the doors. I even closed the window blinds, and made sure the computer and TV were turned off – just in case.

I decided to check the local news on the phone. The helicopters were still buzzing overhead. The story was that a driver had been pulled over by the cops. Instead of stopping, he had rammed the police vehicle, sped off, driven into the neighbourhood, and fled. The police were obviously in hot pursuit so he hadn’t got far. By my reckoning, he was possibly outside the house.

I wasn’t panicking by any manner of means. But my mind was beginning to work overtime. What if…this guy was in my back yard, about to knock on the door…what if he was drugged up or drunk…and, this being America, what if he had a gun?

At one point, I took myself upstairs, just to be on the safe side. My wife kept in touch to say the entrances were still blocked off. The cops had ‘huge guns’, she told me.

It was a weird feeling. I’m not saying I ever felt in danger or under any threat. There were plenty police around. But I felt jittery. If there had been a knock on the door or window, my heart would have missed several beats.

All of a sudden, I became aware that the noise of the helicopters had stopped. The local news confirmed that the incident was over and that a man was in police custody. I could breathe easily again.

Perhaps I’ve been watching too many TV shows. And maybe I wouldn’t have been so apprehensive in Scotland. But being part of a lockdown situation in America was an experience I wouldn’t like to repeat.

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