Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age by Adrian Johns

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Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age by Adrian Johns

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: George Care
Reviewed by George Care
Summary: A readable study by a professor of history at the University of Chicago into the development of radio and the information age in Britain.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: October 2010
Publisher: W W Norton and Co
ISBN: 978-0393068603

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If you are inclined to take your cues from the weekly reviews, as the witty poet Gavin Ewart once expressed the matter, you will doubtless find currently articles as varied as; Russell Brand predicting the imminent decline of the BBC, various interpretations of liberalism and how these struggle for expression in Coalition Government policy. There are concerns too about the legislation governing the internet and references back to the Sixties battles between, on the one hand, the unbridled self-expression of the free market and, on the other, the virtues of self-restraint in such matters as the re-examination of the Lady Chatterley trial, now fifty years ago. An unusual and quite intriguing book, Death of a Pirate, about the development of intellectual property and piracy in radio touches on all these contemporary concerns in a dramatic way. It combines the history of modern broadcasting with a crime story and consequent trial.

This is a book about the conflict between two determined but erratic men that ended in violent death. The victim was Reg Calvert, whose parents were travelling musicians who separated early leaving him to wrestle a living in various parts of the music business as an impresario and dance hall manager. He had acquired an illegal handheld jet blowtorch as an item for his own self-protection and for that of the bouncers and henchmen that he employed –usually on a non-contractual ad-hoc basis. Through ingenuity in a series of not very successful ventures he came to control the pirate radio station at Shivering Sands. This was situated on a shabby, rusty and disused ant-aircraft gun emplacement on sixty foot high steel legs just offshore at Whitstable. Becoming the base for Radio City, Calvert bought it from screaming Lord Sutch. It effected the training of a generation of DJs. Although the structure was physically stable, financially it was anything but.

It also needed an effective transmitter - including an antenna - which was imported from Fort Worth in Texas under the aegis of Oliver Smedley then engaged in the financial revival of the station known as Project Atlanta. Smedley was altogether a different type. He hailed from a military background and had distinguished himself directing artillery fire in the summer of 1944. Smedley was not just a man of action; he was nearly 20 years older than Calvert and an ideologue for Hayek and unbridled private enterprise. Business machinations and the disputed ownership of the dilapidated aerial (which had comically fallen into the sea when first delivered, being hauled up by an unsafe lashed up crane, eventually recovered by a team of divers) led to Smedley launching a Combined Cadet Force type raid on the platform carried out by a motley crew of Kentish seamen. Smedley organised the capture of the platform and the removal of microphones and the home-made silicon crystal whose oscillations drove electrons up and down the rigged aerial and without this, of course, Calvert's station could no longer transmit.

These actions eventually led to a highly distraught Calvert being driven down through the darkened hedgerows to the Essex home of Wenders Ambo where Smedley cohabited with his much younger secretary. Calvert's entry was highly provocative, especially his intimidation of the girl, but scarcely excused his being shot at close range by the irascible Smedley, often inclined to rash action and this encounter was indeed quite unexpected. It was an incident that was to have repercussions for the future of the broadcasting industry.

Strange encounters and a cast of intriguing characters, including spooks and criminals, make this factual account read like an engaging novel. The settings vary from Dean Street where many seedy business deals were cut to the untidy front rooms of amateur experimenters, laced with wires and triode valves strewn about the place. There are the grand offices of the BBC and the rusting hulks of the early pirate vessels. Prof Johns captures every aspect of the thrill of the early experimenter and scenes of espionage in conflict with the Nazis for control of the ether. The narrative tells of the thrill of the first listeners to the exciting broadcasts from Radio Luxemburg. It relates the propaganda and transmissions from within the narrow borders of the intriguingly independent and strategically positioned state of Liechtenstein. Sandwiched between Austria and Switzerland and with unstable neutrality, its windy heights became crucial to the battle of the airwaves and the control of populations.

A professor of history at the University at the University of Chicago, Adrian Johns provides a thorough and invigorating account. He has briefly outlined the impact of the technical developments from the early problems of feedback interference to the invention of the transistor. In summarising the ideological battles of the information age, he draws memorable pen-portraits of the austere Reith and the flamboyant technical wizardry of PP Eckersley, not to mention the aptly named Plugge. It was Plugge who created the International Broadcasting Company in 1931 as a commercial rival to the British Broadcasting Corporation by buying airtime from radio stations such as Normandy, Toulouse and Ljubljana.

Adrian Johns has written a well researched and clearly referenced work that demonstrates the connections between technical developments, listeners, broadcasters, academics and political factions. He shows clearly how the pirates provided the music and relaxation that the population, just after the austerity period, really wanted. He is particularly interesting on an academic called Ronald Coase who advanced arguments about the unfairness of the BBC claiming a cultural monopoly. So in addition to telling a tale with journalistic flair his book is also an introduction to cultural history and social change. It is, in this sense, a demanding book which however thoroughly repays close reading. As might be expected, there is a clear list of references and web material for readers to further their own research.

I'd very much like to thank WW Norton and Company for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestions:

The Broken Compass: How British Politics lost its way by Peter Hitchens

Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain by George Monbiot

Obama Music by Bonnie Greer

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