They used to say that everybody knew where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news, but that’s becoming more and more uncertain as the years go by. A quick mental headcount of the people I work with on my team, in my specialism, on the floor of our building suggests that I may possibly be the only one old enough to have actually been alive at that moment.
There have been other times since. Other moments that went round the world, moments of disbelief and incredulity that were only too real. I remember where I was and what I was doing on Friday 10 November 1989 when I first heard that the Berlin Wall had come down, and again on Tuesday 9 September 2001, when the Twin Towers were hit by planes.
But the original took place 49 years ago today and, as those of you with a knowledge of history will have already discerned, it was Kennedy. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, the youngest man to be elected President, the first man born in the 20th Century to become President, the only Catholic President, the youngest President to die: assassinated in Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963: progenitor of perhaps more conspiracy theories than any other incident of the 20th Century.
I’m not going to argue about Kennedy’s qualities, good or bad, nor rehearse any of the theories about his death (save to say that, like a two-thirds majority of American citizens the last time this was polled, I do not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone). But his death was one of the earliest events to resonate around the world with the rapidity we know and understand now. And the man that it was: young and handsome, a complete contrast to the white-haired and balding men before him, in the most powerful country on Earth, shot in the street.
Never had there been, before or since, such a greater sense of change on the election of a President. Eisenhower, when his term ended, was then the oldest man to be President. In handing the office over to the second youngest President of them all, there was, both in fact and in mythology (on which Kennedy and his speechwriters played) a change in generation, a change in the nature of America. The torch was passed, as Kennedy’s speech made plain, from the generation who came from the q19th Century, to those of the 20th Century: from looking backwards to looking forwards.
Kennedy even came equipped with a young and beautiful wife, in Jacqueline Beauvier Kennedy, and with two very young children. The American family took over the White House, modern and bright. All was possible, all was for the best, all would be the best in this American future that saw the World’s boundaries being drawn ever tighter, as Telstar took to the upper atmosphere to begin the broadcast network that would take pictures, take reality, faster and further than they ever had before.
And the Kennedy White House emphasised culture and talent, embodied glamour, as did the first generation of pop stars and teenage idols that were striding forth. Whatever the reality might have been – and to take one truth, Kennedy did not have the strength to force a Civil Rights package through Congress: that would fall to Lyndon Johnson, dealing with an legislature that wilted almost in shame that it had defied the Martyr-King – the mythology was a Camelot, the Best and the Brightest, the Promise that all would better than ever.
In the midst of this, one man shot dead the President and killed the future.
I do remember that Friday night. I was eight, my sister no more that an eighteen month old baby. Mam and Dad were having a rare night out in Manchester, a dinner-dance hosted by Industrial Models Ltd, of Ashton-under-Lyne, for whom my Dad worked as a draughtsman. Even that early, it might have been their Christmas Do, or perhaps not in an England where Christmas didn’t exist as late as 30 November and decorations public and private not appear until there was no more than a week to go.
I recall Dad saying that the news broke whilst they were travelling into Manchester (by taxi, I presume, this being before our first car, when Dad’s mode of transport was a motorbike), and they were told in the Cloakrooms. There was, he commented, very few other topics of conversation that night, though I think he and Mam managed to have a good time anyway, away from “the Terrible Two”.
But I remember that night myself, even though I was just turned eight, earlier in that November. Granny and Grandad were agog with it too, and the television, that 405-line black-and-white box in the corner of the living room at 41 Brigham Street, that couldn’t get enough of it. Schedules were torn up, programmes postponed. It was not the sort of TV an eight year old boy could take interest in – though in years to come I would discover a fascination with American history and, yes, conspiracy theories about Kennedy – and I was frustrated.
The worst of it was Bonanza: a very popular Western in an era when television loved Westerns. It was on ITV at 8.00pm, until 9.00pm and I was allowed to stay up to watch it because there wasn’t any school in the morning. But it was gone, postponed, for another discussion of what had happened, and what it meant, and why, and how, and what next: all the 24-hour rolling News paraphenalia with which we’re familiar now but which was rare, if not unknown, in 1963, and I can’t help but think that maybe on that occasion the words weren’t necessary to justify salaries and careers and fill otherwise blank broadcast hours, but were instead weaving a protective nacre hardness around people stunned, and a little frightened at what might come next: like an oyster that has got an obtrusive piece of grit between its shells and is weaving something to smooth things out, and relieve it of the intolerable pain.
All of which is being wise after the fact: my first recollection of being conspicuously smartarse about anything didn’t come until 1968. At the time, I simply grumbled, like any seven year old deprived of what he expected.
But yes, I too recall where I was and what I was doing when I heard that Kennedy had been shot. I was complaining about why they had to take Bonanza off: “It’s not going to bring him back, is it?”