Friday, November 22, 1963
by David Soulsby, author of the novel "Somewhere in the Distance"
It started out like any other Friday during school
term. Along with a close group of friends I was looking forward to our regular end of week visit to the famous
Studio 51 in London’s West End, where we indulged in our love of blues and rock music. It was a highlight for
us. That day in our English Literature class the topic up for discussion was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New
World. I remember it well because later that day Huxley died, although we, including the teacher, didn’t
know about it until a few days later. His death was lost in the dramatic events that were to enfold throughout
the ensuing hours.
During the break between lessons one of our group
produced a copy of The Beatles new album, With The Beatles, which had come out just that morning. It
was causing quite a stir and we were eager to listen to it. As I lived closest to the school it fell on me to
have everyone round at lunchtime to give the Fab Four an airing. We weren’t disappointed. We arrived back at
school with a spring in our step. We’d heard some great rock and roll and it put us in the mood for the Studio
51 gig. We were in our final year at school and everything seemed perfect. We thought the world was wonderful.
We didn’t have too many problems or responsibilities. What could possibly change this innocent and naïve
outlook? In just a short while we would know the answer …
Getting ready to go out, I turned on the radio and
soon the current number one hit in the British charts filled the room. It was Gerry and the Pacemakers’
You’ll Never Walk Alone. I recall the tune swirling around in my head as I left to meet my friends at
the local tube station before heading to Studio 51. Once there, we quickly staked out our positions close to the
small stage and next to the refreshment bar. It was a routine that we’d gone through countless times. We always
wanted to be near the action in the cramped venue, and this night was no different.
The music was loud and invigorating. Everyone was
having a great time. People tried their best to chat above the noise. It was always like that. The only respite
was usually a short break half way through the evening. But things happened that changed the atmosphere from fun
and innocent indulgence into a nightmarish scenario.
The first whisperings that something wasn’t quite
right came when the guy running the refreshment bar realised that the images on the tiny black and white
television set above his head were depicting some dramatic event. Even with the sound off, it was clear some
tragedy was afoot. Before long, details started to emerge that shots had been fired at President John F.
Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, Texas. It wasn’t known yet if Kennedy had been hit, but it was confirmed that he
had been rushed to hospital. It was news that stopped us in our tracks. The music was secondary. We wanted to
know what had happened to the man who regarded as the most powerful man in the world. He had captured our
imaginations. He was young and charismatic and we liked him for that.
Slowly, details emerged, and then the shocking
announcement that Kennedy was dead. It hit like a thunderbolt. We just couldn’t believe it. How could such a
terrible thing have happened? Some of the girls in the club were in tears. There was a weird atmosphere that
seemed unreal. No one there had experienced such a thing. Feelings and emotions were hard to fathom.
On the tube journey home my friends and I were
subdued. We just didn’t know what to say to each other. I remember getting home and quietly opening the front
door so as not to disturb my parents. It was around midnight British time and after making myself a hot drink I
turned on the television to see what further news there was.
George Brown, a leading Labour Party politician, was
being interviewed in the studio. He was obviously upset. He was slurring some of his words and was moist eyed.
He was a very emotional man and it showed. He may have been drinking earlier and that maybe accounted for his
speech but there was no doubt about his genuine grief at Kennedy’s assassination. I went to bed but couldn’t
fall asleep for what seemed like hours. My head was full of images and words that made it difficult to turn off
and relax. It was a restless night.
Next day, Saturday 23 November, I recall waking up
suddenly and taking a few minutes to assimilate what had occurred the night before. Of course it had happened
but it still seemed unbelievable. It was only when I saw the headline on the front page of the morning paper
that I finally came to terms with the killing. The bold headline screamed out ‘Assassinated’. Below was the
famous picture of Kennedy’s car speeding away from the scene with Jacqui Kennedy and a secret serviceman
straddled across the back of the vehicle. It’s an image that stays in the mind even after 50 years. I recall my
parents being upset, particularly my mother, who shed a few tears as she read the reports.
The rest of the day was lived in a sort of daze. We
tried to carry on as normal but the impact of Kennedy’s death was such that you couldn’t helped but be touched
by the full tragedy that was unfurling. With my parents, I watched the first episode of the science fiction
series Doctor Who. It was escapism and took our minds off things for a short while. Later that night we
watch the satirical show That Was The Week That Was. It was usually pull no punches stuff, ridiculing
pompous politicians and highlighting sham individuals but not on this night. Instead, the programme was
shortened to honour President Kennedy and lament his loss. The singer Millicent Martin sung In The Summer Of
His Years. It was moving and humbling.
Sunday, 24 November: It was a quiet start to the day.
My friends and I had decided not to go to Studio 51 for the lunchtime gig. We usually went, but not today. We
didn’t feel it appropriate.
As if the trauma of Kennedy’s assassination hadn’t
been enough, we were soon to be witness to another act of brutality that left us speechless. I was in front of
the television with mum and dad when Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of killing the President, was himself
gunned down in cold blood in front of a stunned crowd of policemen and journalists. Jack Ruby had been able to
step out of the crowd as Oswald was being escorted by police and with one shot to the abdomen had silenced him.
All this was live on television. It was a disturbing incident that added even more horror to the chain of events
that had shocked the whole world. It had been a weekend unprecedented in history.
Monday, 25 November: The school assembly is hushed.
Our headmaster pays a heartfelt tribute to the late President. We listen intently. It still seems unreal. It
will take time to understand what has happened. We leave school earlier than usual and head for home where like
millions of other people we will watch Kennedy’s funeral and ponder what might have been had he lived and gone
on to serve a second term of office. It has been four days that I will always remember. Of course, some details
fade with age, but the immensity of it all remains sharp.
A few days later, my friends and I join a lengthy
queue at the US Embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square. We talk in hushed tones as we move up the line. It’s a
long wait but it’s what we want to do. We sign of names in a book of condolence and heads back home only a few
days older than on the morning of Friday 22 November but more unsure of ourselves and what the world will become
over the years. We have lost some of our youthful arrogance and cockiness. We have changed. We don’t really
appreciate that, but we have. We just didn’t know it until we grew older.
David Soulsby lives in
Romford, Essex, England, and is now retired after 46 years as a journalist. During his career, he worked on
local and national newspapers and magazines, and in the Sixties met many of his musical heroes,
including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Sonny Boy Williamson, James Brown and Mel
Torme. He’s now freelancing as a writer and proof-reader, working from home. He’s the author of
Somewhere In The Distance, a novel about four friends growing up in the