We Had the Best of Times
by Brian Cotton Life President of the Radio Officers Association
‘Brian, we had the best of times.’ That was what my old friend in Singapore said when thanking me for his copy of The Long Silence Falls (of which more later) last Christmas. We were both Radio Officers in the period 1955 — 1963 and had subsequently had very happy careers afloat and in marine radio education. My friend was right.
Rather more than twenty years ago l had had a similar conversation with another ex- Radio Officer, Paul Durkin by name, who was then a Marconi Marine salesman. We were at the end of a business lunch at The Royal Southampton Yacht Club and sharing sad thoughts at the imminent demise of the Radio Officer, worried that the distinguished history of marine radio throughout the twentieth century would slip into history unremarked. Paul's leap of imagination was that a Radio Officers’ Association could preserve and honour that history. The organisation was born that day. Once we formally constituted, l took on the role of Chairman and was able to gather a dedicated Committee which has since vigorously driven our expansion. These days l have more of a back-seat role as Life President and have been succeeded as Chairman by Tony Selman.
An organisation with members from all parts of the British Isles and global reach needs a newsletter and one was set up initially on a folded sheet of A4 paper. But it soon began to grow apace. Today, published quarterly over these twenty years, it still has sixty pages in each issue. lt is a newsletter no longer, it is a prize-winning journal (of record) and we refer to it as the ’jewel in our crown’. lts title QSO may baffle, but that is marine radio speak for 'I am communicating’. With superhuman effort, the current Chairman assisted by the Editor and others have put a selection of QSO articles into the two volumes of the book The Long Silence Falls which have been selling in record numbers. These days of course, an organisation has to have a webpage and ours (www.radioofficers.com), especially its forum, has proved a popular portal to our work and objectives.
Another big success of ours is with historical records of various types. Our Archivist, an expert finder of material, is a prolific author and has excellent relationships with museums and other bodies. Were it not for him and the Radio Officers’ Association, much of what we have found and preserved would have long since been consigned to skips and furnaces.
Despite our geographical spread, some members meet up from time to time. We do it at AGM which is always paired with a visit and we now have a less formal affair, the half year visit, where we descend on a place which has some meaning for us — this year we will be going to Bletchley Park for example. And our way of doing ‘face to face’ incorporates communicating in morse on the radio amateur bands. That is a big pull for many members and they have their own journal ORZ (‘you are being called’) which is incorporated in QSO. We take welfare seriously and put a lot of store by commemoration, being represented on Remembrance Sunday, MN Day and the like — that is something that has great meaning for our members given that Radio Officers made up 10% of the Merchant Navy's losses in WWII. In this we are well served by liaison with other organisations and are always ready to network with other radio and maritime societies, indeed l have been on the FIVIIVI Council since your Chief Executive set up the Federation and have always been ready to chip in with ideas.
And the future? The colleges stopped producing radio officers twenty-five years ago but the UK industry employed about 5,000 at its peak. So we still have room to grow beyond our current membership which is heading for 450. Recently the Association has instituted prizes for our worthy successors, the Electro Technical Officers, at the UK centres at South Shields and Warsash. The hope must be that the publicity will encourage many of them to join us. They will surely come to have their own ‘best of times’ and we will want to hear of them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Brian Cotton served as a Radio Officer between 1955 and 1963 (mostly in the Clan Line). He came ashore to join the teaching staff at Liverpool's Riversdale College, leaving in 1979 to head the specialist radio-electronics department at what is now Southampton Solent University. He retired in 1997 in the grade of Vice Principal with cross-institutional responsibilities that included oversight of the specialist maritime facilities at Warsash. He is occasionally called upon as a consultant to assist with institutional management issues.