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volume 9
july 2006

Revisiting the early 1980s

 





  Remembering the Voice of Peace (20)
by John Bennett
Previous
  In the 1960s John "B" Bennett got addicted to Radio Caroline North and from there on wanted to be a radio deejay himself. As such he did stints on two offshore radio stations: Radio Caroline and The Voice of Peace, where he arrived in the early part of 1980 and subsequently acquired the nickname "Sloopy." Here he tells more of life on board the MV Peace.
 
1 Right: John "B" Bennett in the 1980s

Looking for some airtime. It must have been around the early part of 1980, because The Buggles had dropped out of the charts after killing the radio stars. Not being a Radio Starmy self, I avoided the carnage. I was a much unseasoned radio deejay looking for some airtime. The MV Mi Amigo from Radio Caroline had foundered in the North Sea and VOP was the only radio ship afloat. I recall the deejays at the time on the station like Keith York, Nigel (Bagwan), Tony Mandel, who'd been on Knock John in the Sixties-Radio Essex/BBMS; and Eyal, an Israeli jock who spoke English and Arabic in addition to Hebrew.

On the engineering side there was Mr Lewis (sure knew his stuff!), a succession of captains and Bill Bennett (no relation), more later. Growing up with Radio Caroline North intravenously dripped into my bloodstream, I was reared on a healthy diet of Daffy Don, Jerry Leighton and "Murph The Surf," who not only sounded great but made sounding professional, so easy. I could sound like Super Leighton, couldn't I? Fall into the studio, do a show, fall out of the studio and then read, watch TV and sunbathe? Do you know that strange sensation one gets when one unintentionally bangs an elbow on something? The numbness in the arm and the need to pause until the some feeling returns to the arm?

  The Voice Of Peace, for me, was very much an experience of, "banging my radio elbow," and from this a learned a heck of a whole lot. I marvelled at just how the Caroline North deejays, indeed all offshore jocks, made things sound easy. Being onboard a station-on-a-ship, brought with it intrinsically unique problems. What sticks in my mind, rather than the awful programmes I did, are those occasions when things went wrong, the jokes we played on each other in order to deal with life onboard, and all the idiosyncrasies of the crew, particularly Abie Nathan.
2 Left: Keith York (2006)

Three feet from Haifa. When going through the process of applying to VOP much mention was made of the anchorage, 3 miles off Tel Aviv. Upon arrival, I found the anchorage was slightly different, being 3 feet from Haifa. The MV Peace/Cito was in dock undergoing a "three week refit," which had lasted for about three months. The refit was in order to get the ship insured with Lloyds, London, which was being very particular about the work they wanted carried out before issuing insurance. The jocks had been scraping, painting, fitting and repairing for months and understandably, morale was not too good. I had escaped the major, filthy jobs such as chipping, however there was still back-breaking toil left to do over the next 4-6 weeks.

A large piece of kit came aboard that looked like the worst sort of DIY self-assembly kit from MFI. It transpired that this kit was the basic materials with which to build a corrugated iron shed of some sort, and we were told it was to eventually be the "DJ's TV Lounge" We fell for it ... Of course, we were keen to do something that should make our lives more pleasant, and once erected, Nigel (Bagwan) and I started to paint the interior of this thing. After painting for a while, I started to become dizzy from the lead-laden paint fumes. "Nige, I'm gonna open the door, it's intense in here." "No, leave it a few minutes, " he replied. The temperature outside was in the 80's. I carried on for a bit, but had to ask again a little later about opening the door. Nigel held out for a reason I couldn't establish at that point and finally, I had to say, "Sod this, Nige, I need some air." I turned around, and saw Lucy in the sky with diamonds, the girl with kaleidoscope eyes, getting into a newspaper taxi under a marmalade sky whilst cellophane flowers of yellow and green towered over our heads. I awoke on the port deck. The cook was forcing water down my throat and I was being vigorously fanned with an LP cover. Bill Bennett appeared, looked at me and said, "Dickhead" before continuing to haul ass and I then saw Nigel, in the grip of a cosmic mind expanding experience, who asked: "Was it a far-out trip?"

  Finally, everything that could be chipped, sanded and painted; had been. Every tiny, insignificant and pointless job that chief engineer, Bill Bennett, could dream up had been done. However, the MV Peace stayed in port. The port fees combined with the loss of operating revenue must have been enormous. Toil went on-one day when Abie came aboard, he saw someone not doing anything particularly strenuous, and so harangued Bill Bennett, and issued "Directive Number 1": "I will not have disc jockeys festering on my ship!!" Bill, of course then went into hyper drive and stormed around the ship telling every person he met to "Haul ass, haul ass!" This call to action was henceforth issued several times a day in order to prevent us jocks festering. This is when the jobs got even sillier. Tony Mandel and I were given brass cleaner to "clean the compass housing" on the bridge-a shiny piece of brass being so important to maritime safety. I believe everybody was dejected by this point. I had joined VOP to get some vital broadcasting lessons and so far, all I'd learned to do was paint-and haul ass.
  Suddenly, we got a captain, who was Chinese. VOP languages were English, Hebrew, Arabic and French, and initially I thought the addition of a Chinese speaker would be of benefit. It was soon discovered that the now captain could not speak English and when this drawback was realised another new captain arrived — a retired Dutch seafarer previously a captain of super tankers. He spoke great English, which seems to be a trait of Netherlanders — every Dutch person I have ever met, spoke fluent English, One day, in the late afternoon he said we were to sail that night. As we'd all heard the saying, "We're going tomorrow," said so many times, we didn't put much store in this announcement. However, the new captain sure knew his stuff! Frantic preparations were made, and one could almost feel the excitement as the main engines were started. The MV Peace, after so very long in Haifa, actually began to move and immediately the atmosphere onboard changed to a heady mixture of relief and exhilaration. Bill Bennett, the hard taskmaster who had us hauling our asses so much, showed a hitherto unknown side. He was now a jovial, happy guy, lots of fun, who regaled us with ripping yarns from his crusty career at sea. A nice guy in the end!
3 Right: Captain Aaldijk

Both thriling and frightening. The journey to anchor turned out to be both a thrilling and frightening experience for me in particular. I had wandered up to the bridge where the captain was busy steering the ship. The problems began when I asked a series of questions about maritime matters: What's the top speed in knots, how many miles per hour do knots equal, what navigation lights need to be shown? Etc. "Ah," said the captain "you like schepen (ships)?" I said something to the effect that knowledge is seldom wasted and then I suddenly found myself at the wheel of the ship, steering it into the inky blackness. "Keep it on ze Sou' South West, always," and with that the captain started to hurry off the bridge. "Wait, I mean, Captain, what about other vessels and stuff?" I was worried about the possibility of running into one of the scores of tiny fishing smacks that dot the sea and, more alarmingly, the super tankers that dominate that part of the Mediterranean. Our ship was lit up like Blackpool illuminations during a power-surge and so human eyesight would not be able to see the lights of other ships, well not until it was too late. The captain shrugged his shoulders and scurried away for a large brandy and a cigar in his cabin.

  I steered the MV Peace on "ze Sou' South West, always," whilst telling myself that there are no icebergs in the Med. One of the ship's crew later brought me a mug of tea and I asked whether there was any radar I should be watching and if there was a telegraph/ring down mechanism to the engine room in order to stop the ship in an emergency. He was very helpful. He shrugged his shoulders and went below. I remember thinking that if a tanker the size of The Torrey Canyon appeared abruptly in front of the ship, then I would run out to the bow and shrug my shoulders — the time-honoured, nautical collision-avoidance signal. "What's that?" I said to myself. "Was that a light, ahead, a Navigation light?" I had seen something ahead and to port in the pitch black night. Maybe the blackness wasn't night but the sheer, immense side of a tanker. A hundred thoughts surged into my brain in a micro-second: "If I turn to port, or starboard, will it increase the chance of collision? Can a ship be safely heeled over when at full power or, would such a violent manoeuvre bring the propeller out of water, causing it to sheer off? Will a sudden turn to side catapult anyone on deck overboard? The captain said: "Keep it on ze Sou' South West, always" — according to maritime law I must do just that and nothing else.
  It was then that I had an idea. I could warn the other vessel of our presence with the foghorn, the handle being just above my head. I reflected whether a foghorn could be sounded when there is no fog; and decided that if there was a collision then I may have something a little more serious to reflect over. I yanked down the handle awaiting the massive bellow of sound. I got a click, and another click, and more clicks as I frantically pulled on the thing at least 20 times. The voice of Bill Bennett came wafting up from the foredeck where he was doubtless hauling ass — "Oy, stop playing with the fxxxing deck light, Dickhead ...!" I guess I hadn't seen a navigation light after all, but instead glimpsed a bit of phosphorous.
  Around 4:00 a.m., the engines cut, and I guess we'd arrived at anchorage. I was able to go to the Mess and have five cups of tea, and (now the scary steering was over) brag to everyone how my "navigational skill and expert seamanship," had got the Peace to her anchorage. To this day, whenever I hear someone say that they drive a bus or 50 feet long, 64 ton truck, I say, with some glee, "Hmm well the biggest thing I've driven was 140 feet long, and weighed 570 tons ..." It's a great memory.
  Incredibly, the VOP was back on the air, 1540 AM, and, courtesy of the refit now on 100 FM with stereo, music for both ear holes. Keith York, Nigel, Tony Mandel and all were so experienced and thus sounded fabulous, I recall thinking that I could learn a lot from these guys. I think it was Keith York and Tony Mandel who worked hard on the station format and there was an excellent "clock system" in studio. Whilst the clock ensured that listener/grabbing music was played, it had built into it that little bit of elasticity for a DJ to have some personal input into their own show — a small but most important thing that is so sadly lacking in the current UK stations. Twilight Time, a programme that was, and is, legendary in VOP terms, took to the air each evening consisting solely of MOR /easy listening tracks. It sounded like Radio 390 from the Sixties mixed with a hospital radio station in a coma. It was Abie's most favourite and treasured programme.
  The refit had given the benefit of an FM signal. It had also facilitated the fitting of a Motorola style ship-to-shore radio, for Abie's personal use. Suddenly, a "Radio Watch" system had to be put into place, which meant that someone had to be on the bridge every minute of every day. This was not to monitor the marine frequencies, rather to monitor the Motorola used exclusively by Abie Nathan. It was rumoured that he carried the handset with him at all times. Radio Watch was universally hated by the jocks, not because it was lonely and boring, rather because it was the source of some strange messages. Tony Mandel and Keith York had worked hard on the format and the station was sounding good. However, when a jock happened to play a track Abie didn't like e.g. anything faster than a waltz, the Motorola would burst into angry chatter, with: "Tell the boys to stop playing this boogie-woogie music!! Tell them to play, Perry Como, Perry Como, not boogie-woogie, play Perry Como ... and guys like "dat"!" One would have to make a quick foray into the studio to let the on-air jock know about Directive number 2, and the jock would go off clock to play a Perry Como track.
4 Left: Arik Lev

Directive 2. Directive 2 was issued many times, over many weeks. One morning I was in the record library doing some cataloguing and the on-air jock came in to get a Perry Como track. It was then that I decided to change the MOR box section of the library by taking off the label, "MOR," and substituting a new classification, called, "Guys like 'dat." I was on-air one day when the chap on Radio Watch came into the studio and I automatically said, "Tell the boys to play some Perry Como," and reached for the MOR pile. "No!" came the unexpected reply, "play some Joan Baez!" "Joan Baez? Joan Baez?" I stuck on some track or other-might have been, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The next month or so saw a very Baez-heavy output from VOP. I presumed it was some sort of plugging rather like Caroline and Major Minor in the Sixties. I think Joan had a new album out at the time.

I said to Keith something like, "How much are we (VOP) getting for plugging the stuff?" Keith burst into a paroxysm of laughter and looked at me rather strangely. I was then told that the Joan Baez tracks were being hammered not as a plug but because Joan had recently visited Israel, met with Abie, and that he really fancied her. "Ah," I said, "a genuine case of "Loving Awareness ..."" Keith looked at me impassively. A chance for some in-house radio humour there , but I could see he wasn't going to roll with it! Eventually things settled down and I was learning a lot from the other jocks and I think it's fair to say that VOP was sounding very, very slick-apart from my show that is.

  Nevertheless, one had to be on guard against some of the practical jokes that were played. On the starboard foredeck was a strange looking thing that formed part of the bow. It was basin-shaped and had a pipe attached that ran down to just above the sea. Now I was told that it was a "Deck Urinal," and in the MV Cito days, it was designed to save a member of deck crew from having to go down into the ship to use the Head (toilet), thus saving time. Everyone told me this story and I had no reason to disbelieve them-until one night when I had decided to take a stroll around deck to view the Mediterranean at night. Needing to P, I went to the basin and started urinating. Three deck-lights came on immediately and lit me up from head to toe. There were gales of laughter from the bridge and foredeck and I realised that, again, I'd been truly set up.
5 Right: John on deck of the Voice of Peace

Drink Water. The Voice of Peace, from "somewhere in the Mediterranean" was pulling in some quite decent advertising and I was curious about a new ad that was on the commercial log. It was voiced by Abie (very unusual) and the ad said, in Hebrew: "Stu Myem, Myem, Stu Myem." I asked Tony for the English translation and was told it was, "Drink water, water, drink water." The commercial was played a lot, I think a few times an hour at that stage, and, having worked out that it wasn't a paid for advert, I remarked to Tony that Abie must be very health conscious by encouraging the listener to have the health benefits of lots of water. You know when you've dropped a clanger don't you!! Tony was in fits of laughter and said, "I've got to tell this to everyone," and hurried off to inform the guys that I'd done it again. It was only later that I was told that the reason for "Stu Myem," was that a departed DJ had once insulted Coca Cola on air and that Coke withdrew their advertising. Abie was running these ads exhorting everybody to Drink Water, in retaliation against Coca Cola.

  Throughout Radio, I've always had a thing, a fear, of The News. This started on VOP and has stuck with me. We stole our news from station, Kol Israel, which was rather like their Radio 2. Most offshore stations tape someone's news, chop it up and change it a bit, and then type it out as their own. The VOP, instead, had Kol Israel on a dedicated fader on the desk. The DJ had to start the VOP news banner at 20 seconds to the hour, and precisely on the hour bring up Kol just as the Kol news banner had ended and the Kol newsreader started the first news item. If it was mistimed and the jock accidentally included all or part of the Kol news banner, it was a black mark, and so the timing had to be exact. Coming out of the News was even more difficult! The Kol guy would say, "Ad can had-a-shot," which meant, "That's the News." As soon as this was said, we had to chop the Kol fader before they could get their jingle in, and hit our News out jingle to take its place-this way it looked like we had our own very pro and suave newsreader.
  I was coming up to News one morning, and got into Kol Israel as per usual. The news rambled on and I wasn't taking too much notice, just waiting for the Hebrew out-cue, "Ad can had-a-shot." The News seemed to go on and on, far longer than usual and I thought it must be a very heavy news day. The studio door burst open as though a stick of dynamite had exploded behind it. "Oy, Dickhead! Are you in love with Ben Gurion Airport or what!" It was the dulcet tone of Bill Bennett. "Uh? I replied. "You've missed the fxxkin' end of the News and are broadcasting a bloody Kol discussion about a fxxkin' extension at the airport. Haul ass! Haul ass! Get the music on Dickhead!" Somehow, I managed to get through that last hour of shift even though it really seemed to drag. Once off-air I had to report to Tony Mandel, and I apologised profusely for missing the News-out cue. It was such a basic mistake to make, as, all jocks were so used to the technique involved as we'd done it so many times. It really was an inexcusable clanger and I received a much-deserved telling off in my cabin, I brooded over my stupid mistake. We were all primed so much that within a micro-second of hearing, "Ad can had-a-shot," we would chop left fader with left hand and hit the fire tit on the VOP News out banner with the right hand. A knock came on my door and Tony entered with an immense grin on his face. "The News, it wasn't your fault." Seeing my puzzled look Tony explained that, the jock up after me had hit the same problem with the News, as I had. Kol Israel had realised we were pinching their Newsreader and had dropped the words, "Ad can had-a-shot" and their News out jingle in order to mess VOP up-it worked extremely well! For the next few weeks, VOP and Kol played a deep game of cat and mouse with hilarious results and it became quite sporting and gentlemanly in the end.
   
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