It is 10pm local time and I am standing outside Ben Gurion airport in the dark waiting for a bus to take me to Tel Aviv and the start of the “big adventure”. It is late January 1987 and only a few hours before I had been tramping through deep snow in London on my way to Gatwick Airport, but here it is warm and inviting. After a short bus journey I arrive at the Central Bus Station. I ask directions from two helpful local teenagers and I am directed to the bus which will take me close to the seafront and the Astor Hotel, the base for VOP staff whilst onshore.
After a bit of a trek along Tel Aviv seafront looking for the hotel I eventually find it and approach reception only to be told that the VOP does not have a room here! Anyway after a bit of discussion, the guy on the desk admits that the VOP does have a room here and that someone is in it! I ask for directions to the room, but the guy does not seem to know, however I soon find another staff member who knows the room number. Up a few floors in the lift and find the room, a knock on the door and then a voice says “who is that?”, I reply “I’m Mike the new DJ”, a shuffle of feet and then the door opens and a gentleman called Radha Krishna introduces himself. I enter the room, dump my bags and then begin to talk to the very friendly Radha. Many hours later we go to sleep, I now know much more about Abie, the food, the conditions onboard the ship, and the other radio station staff.
Next morning after breakfast, Radha and I go to the VOP office on Frug Street. central Tel Aviv. I meet the office staff, but not Abie who is away. I then go and have my photo taken for my shore pass, then to the hospital for a medical check-up for insurance purposes. Then down to the Marina, get my shore pass from the Police, then onto the tender which will take me out to the ship, which is just visible on the horizon.
Within 30 minutes we are at the MV Peace, first impression is that it looks very rusty. Most of the staff are on deck and I climb onboard, Chief DJ Mike “Driller” Darby goes off on the tender and it sails away. I meet the DJ staff, Dave Asher, Tim Shepherd, Neil Armstrong and Gavin Ford. I also meet Teunis Aaldijk the Dutch Captain, Max the Irish cook and Arnold the Filipino Chief Engineer. Dave shows me to my cabin, which is small but cosy. After stowing my gear we grab a cup of tea, which I drink out of a milk jug “borrowed” from the Astor Hotel, and retire to the production studio where Dave and Tim tell me what programmes I will be doing, and about life onboard the ship.
Dinner time for DJs is at 5.30pm, suffice to say the meal is not quite what I am used too. There is no chance of me putting on much weight! Just before 9pm I enter the on air studio for the first time and am shown the basics of operating the equipment. I do my first programme at 9pm which is spun – Russian. New DJs are broken in on this non talking programme. After this I spend some time exploring the ship, then into the record library to select the discs for my first “proper” programme – Late Night Affair. At midnight I make my second foray into the studio. Neil kindly sits in with me and I get the Hebrew news out cue correctly. That had worried me, but I seem to have got it mastered!
After an hour or so, and the occasional small mistake, I start to feel more relaxed, the equipment is easy to use and in no time at all it is 3am and time for Neil to do “Night Beat”. I stay up all night talking with Neil, it is 7am before I get to bed. The next two weeks pass quickly, I learn more about the station and about the staff, Tim leaves in early February and we are down to four DJs, then Alex Lee arrives from Suirside Radio in Waterford. I go on to present afternoon programmes, and more or less immediately upset Abie, I played the remix version of the Pet Shop Boys – Opportunities, Abie freaks, and accuses me of playing too much disco music. I retaliate by playing the original version every afternoon for the following week! I soon find out it is pointless to argue with Abie, he does not listen to you and is totally irrational, you get your own back on him by other means.
Late February sees me go on my first shore leave, which I really enjoy. I meet up with Diane and Sharron, two English girls from a hospital radio station in Dartford who are on holiday. Together with Sarit, a former secretary in the VOP office, we go to Jerusalem, which is quite an interesting city, but also quite tense. 45 minutes after we ask directions from a group of Druze IDF border guards near a entrance to the Old City they are blown up. The exact spot we had been stood in was targeted by the PLO. It was very freaky listening to the news reports that evening on Kol Israel detailing the explosion and aftermath. Some of the IDF guards are seriously injured in the bomb explosion, and it is saddening to read the details the following day in The Jerusalem Post newspaper.
On a happier note I also get to meet some of the VOP’s female listeners on that first shore leave. There’s no doubt in my mind that Israeli girls are very attractive, but somewhat hardened by the situation in the country. Young males are required to serve for three years in the defence forces, and young females serve for two years.
All too soon I have to return to the ship where things seemed to have got worse. The weather is very bad and by early March, food supplies are low, morale is low. Dave Asher and Alex Lee had been onboard four weeks and were desperate to go onshore. Abie keeps making excuses to why people can’t have shore leave, there is talk about switching the transmitter off, only one person refuses to agree with idea, all we want is a boat, with food and letters from home and a chance for Dave and Alex to get ashore.
Programmes are difficult to do, the heavy rolling of the ship makes sleeping very difficult, people are tired and miserable. Tuesday the 10th March is a very bad day, the sea is very rough, waves are breaking over the ship, I do my “Night Beat” then Dave starts his breakfast show, but soon gives up and puts a disco tape on! Alex and I make our way to the TV lounge on the upper deck, it seems safer in there. Alex goes along the deck to get some breakfast, but he and Arnold the Chief engineer have to hang on for their lives as following a huge side on wave the ship nearly turns over. In the TV lounge, one of the huge sofas moves and I quickly jump out of the way, before it crushes me against the wall. This is getting dangerous!
The next day, the seas calm down rapidly, a tender arrives bringing food, mail and new DJ Steve Richards, Radha also returns after a few days onshore. Dave and Alex go for a well deserved break, both of them are totally exhausted and near to breaking point. Three weeks of severe weather and shortage of food have taken their toll of everyone, some of us wonder what is this madness that makes us want to play records on a ship at sea. Steve does his first programme at 5pm, he reads the Captain’s Weather and realises that it is not as easy as he thought! Within a few hours the sea gets back to normal, very rough! By midnight the ship is rolling and pitching again, there are only 4 DJs onboard, Steve, Neil, Mike Darby and myself, also four crew, the Captain, Radha, Arnold and Max. Steve starts doing Late Night Affair, but soon begins to feel seasick, I take over about 2am, I manage to do my programme but end up on the floor a few times
By early morning, it is impossible to present programmes, we use tapes and the compact disc players, being in the studio is very dangerous, a crate of records takes off from the desk and just misses me! During the afternoon, Abie goes live via the cellnet telephone and does a rambling 15 minute speech, he berates the Israeli government because they will not give him a licence, he tells listeners that the ship is going to drift and end up beached on Tel Aviv beach just like the Radio Veronica ship did in Holland some years ago. We all laugh loudly at the mention of this, the speech is in Hebrew but we all catch the “important” words. He goes through the nationality of all onboard and says why do these people have to risk their lives, when the government could easily give him a licence.
In the studio Neil and I hold Mike Darby’s chair as he panel operates, Steve is in his cabin, feeling very ill, the ship is rolling from side to side. I go on deck and it looks terrifying, the seas are monsterous. We pitch and tug on the anchor chain, when we rebound, everyone and everything goes flying, Neil and I fall on our backs, badly bruising them, I break my finger when the studio chair takes off with me in it and crashes into the record deck console. Mike Darby falls head first down the stairs and badly cuts his legs.
The Captain informs us that it is the worst storm he has seen in his seven years in the Eastern Mediterranean. He tells us that when he blows the whistle, everybody must go on deck and help launch the life-rafts. We all check our life jackets and keep them close. The Captain also tells us that there must not be any of Abie’s “bullshit”, no close down announcement or anything like that, we must get on deck straight away, our lives are more important. We all heartily agree. There is constant anchor and bridge watch by the crew. We keep on the air all the time, we try and make announcements every hour with the latest weather reports, no-one has had any sleep, Steve Richards finally gets into the studio in the early hours of Sunday the 15th and looks after the CDs and tapes whilst we try and get some rest.
We resume normal broadcasts at 6am, I go to bed totally exhausted. When I get up at noon, the sea has really calmed down but I am amazed to see that we have dragged anchor to within 1/2 mile of the shore. Confirming how close to shore we had come, a week later a tender brings Alex back, it only takes seven minutes to get to the ship instead of the normal thirty minutes!
I go for my second shore leave a few days later with Neil, we get drunk a lot, see friends and have a good time. There is a controlled explosion outside the Astor Hotel, but I am getting used to this sort of thing. Back to the ship after six days of frantic activity, and by now Dave Asher and I are good friends, we talk to each other a lot on the air, breaking all of Abie’s rules. The 10 second talk rule is thrown out and we start to have fun, Dave pretends to cuts my leg off one morning with an electric saw, Alex and Steve join us for morning exercises, my girlfriend phones me up and Dave puts her on the air! Dave and I do spoof adverts and people like it. We get letters and phone calls from friends saying how much they enjoy the funny bits. We get a phone call from Reuven, the station’s second in command, he reminds us that Abie won’t like what we are doing if he listens in one day. We carry on and get away with it.
Paul Fraser joins us in early April, whilst we are off the air. Israeli engineer Noam Aviram is trying to fix the FM transmitter. Dave, Steve and I are bored and depressed, we tell Paul that we have all been sacked along with Neil and that he and Alex must do all the programmes when we get back on the air. We tell him that we were sacked because Neil and I managed to get the FM exciter going and we put out a silly test transmission and that when we asked Steve to run a tape to test it with, he put one out bad mouthing Abie. In our made-up spoof story Abie was in the office listening with a potential advertiser when he heard someone say “FAT BLACK IRANIAN B******D”, which was our nickname for Abie. Much to our amusement Paul believed our nonsense story and was happy to run the station on his own. In the end we came clean as Noam fixed the transmitter and programmes restart.
I go on my third shore leave again with Neil, we just get off the tender at the marina when there is an explosion. Upon investigation, we find out that our favourite pizza restaurant discovered a suspicious parcel and that it was blown up by the bomb disposal squad. I spend most of this shore leave in the company of a young lady, wining and dining and going to the cinema etc. Neil and I also manage, somehow, to have cheap haircuts at a local salon by acting as practice for trainee hairdressers. As is normal with DJs we do get outrageously drunk a few times!
Back to the ship and within a few days we are into Ashdod to pick up and install the new AM transmitter. Our arrival in port is quite easy, due to the fact that Abie is not present and we know the ropes by now. Dave Asher leaves at this time, not to return, but forgets to tell Abie. Tim Shepherd returns and along with a chap called Tony Stevens, who arrived a week or so before, they start to build up the AM transmitter. Noam Aviram also arrives to help out, and the rest of the DJ staff spend hours moving heavy transmitter cabinets and power supply units into place. A huge tidy up is also made of the ship and even Abie lends a hand.
One funny incident occurred whilst the AM TX cabinet was being hoisted aboard. Neil, Alex and I were with Abie up on deck manhandling the TX down into the hold when Abie decided to get a bit of attention for himself and had a sudden attack of heartburn. Some unkind person suggested that I get a photo of Abie in the throes of this attack and sell copies to the Anoraks!
Our five days in Ashdod were hard work, and not helped by the fact that we have to do ship watch during the night. I have to do an extra four hours one morning when I am unable to wake Mike and Neil who were totally drunk after an outing to Tel Aviv. A day later, Tony returns to the ship at 3am totally legless and incoherent. The Captain complains to Abie and we are then banned from leaving the ship the following night. We are all glad to leave Ashdod, Able is becoming a nuisance, we are all tired and want to get back on the air. Our departure from port is simple, it was the fastest departure anyone had seen, again we all knew what to do and there was no Abie to complicate matters. The FM TX would not switch on, so Noam came out just after we dropped anchor off Tel Aviv and the problem was fixed. At the same time a team of government communication engineers come to look at the AM TX and they suggest we need an ATU. No one really knew if the government people were there officially, or were just VOP fans, anyway their expertise was appreciated and acted upon.
A few days later Abie goes bananas when Mike Darby goes down with flu and we frequently mention the fact on air. Abie tells us that it is not personality radio and that the listeners don’t care if a DJ is ill. A few weeks earlier a number of us had gone down with flu and Abie insisted that we go on air and if we were not able to talk, then we should simply spin the records. The station had two “live” programmes a day for a week. When we asked for medicine and tablets, he sent out two small bottles of cough mixture and some aspirin. We just had enough mixture for two doses for each of us! He showed his total disregard for us once again.
Late May saw me on my fourth shore leave, where I spent most of the time with Dave Asher and some young ladies. Six days later and it was back to the ship and within a day the parts for the AM ATU arrived followed two days later by Canadian engineer Jack Hoeppner and Noam. With help from Tim and Tony, the ATU was built up and tested. However as it was necessary to work close to the FM transmitting system there were frequent breaks in transmissions for safety reasons. However, as always, Abie got very wound up, and was constantly screaming down the Motorola at the DJs complaining about everything. He accused me of a long break in the music and would not believe me when I told him he was imagining things. Steve Richards seemed to attract a lot of hostile attention from Abie, and he also accused Alex Lee of playing disco music in the rock show. We went through the playlist for Alex’s programme and agreed that Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Hawkwind etc were far too “disco” for the rock show. When the AM TX was finally working correctly and the FM was restored to full power Abie calmed down and life got back to what passed for normal on the MV Peace.
We had the first AM/FM split using the new transmitter on the 14th June. I did the classical programme from the production studio on FM only whilst on AM we had a live football commentary programme via cellnet telephone from Greece using the main studio. The split went perfectly and many listeners phoned the office to say how much they enjoyed the live sport.
My fifth shore leave came at the end of June, and my shore mate was Alex. We went drinking, eating and visiting friends. We also went to the cinema quite a lot. Alex was always irked by the fact that the subtitles in Hebrew for English language films meant that the Israeli audiences’ loud reactions drowned out the original soundtrack before we were able to hear it!
It was then back to the ship for about ten days until my contract finished. The Dutch Captain vent back to the Netherlands for a short holiday on the 10th July, a new DJ by the name of Richard Steed joined the same day. He had hospital radio experience and was quite a good DJ and very easy to get on with. Gil Katsir who works in the VOP office but also DJs at times of emergency came onboard for a few days to remove all records in the Hebrew section of the library that had been written by an Israeli who had threatened to sue Abie if he ever heard one of his songs played on the station.
During the time Gil was onboard an Israeli singer called Benny Berman came out to the ship on his yacht and handed over a copy of his latest record as a publicity stunt. The record was played immediately as Gil did the honours. During all this activity we had also smuggled Itzik, the VOP van driver, onboard the ship and he jointly presented a Night Beat programme with Steve Richards early one morning. Steve later received a telling off for this incident, but luckily Abie never got to know about it.
I did my final Classical programme and as I did the opening link, there was a huge “WAAH” from the air conditioning vent, Tim, Neil, Alex and Steve were shouting down it! I totally cracked up and the classical programme lost all its dignity! It was the first time I had ever been caught out, many people had tried all sorts of tricks, but I never crack up, even when Alex had once removed his trousers. Tim had even tried to tickle my leg with a feather duster on one occasion. A few hours later I did my final Night Beat which had become my programme for nearly six months, there were lots of favourite records, and dedications for friends in Israel and on the ship. Then myself and Tafchok the faithful teddy bear, who holds the record for being kissed by over fifty Israeli girls, said our final goodbyes over the air and that was it. The rest of the day was spent packing and then the tender arrived bringing the Captain and Paul Fraser back. Tim and I went off along with an Israeli Captain who had been in charge whilst our “mad Dutchman” had been back in the Netherlands.
The final few days in Israel were spent with Gil Katsir, Noam Aviram and some other friends, and then Tuesday the 21st July came and it was off to Ben Gurion again. Tim and a girlfriend of mine called Yael came with me. There was some fun at the baggage search, when the official noticed the radio stickers on my case, he asked if I was a radio enthusiast? I told him I was a mega anorak! Baffled, he read my letter from Abie which said what I had been doing and then waved me through without even searching my bags!
So that was it, my six months on the Voice Of Peace, did I enjoy it? Well it was very hard at times, a lack of food and water, bad living conditions, technical problems and lack of feedback from the listeners, not their fault, Abie won’t allow you to give the address out and when we did give out the address in Hebrew, a load of letters came in and he realised that we had given out the address. He screamed down the Motorola that we were not to do it again. I never saw those letters and I now know that a lot of letters sent to me from both Israel and the UK never reached me.
On the positive side, I learnt some things about radio, though not as much as I hoped, the station set-up does not allow you to be overly creative. I made a lot of very good friends, I survived some very bad weather, I saw a different part of the world and I gained a lot of confidence. I also had a lot of fun. As for Abie and his beliefs, well in my own personal opinion I did think that the whole peace thing was a bit of a sham. I may be wrong, but I did not see much evidence of any attempts to get Arabs and Jews to talk to each other, The station has done good deeds in the past, but even though people have benefited, I suspect the reason behind it was Abie Nathan’s ego. My own experience of Abie is that he did not seem to care about the staff on the ship. I saw people and crew on the ship needlessly told off and occasionally sacked for speaking the truth and trying to be reasonable with Abie. He told us on one occasion to stop having milk in our drinks as we were costing him too much in milk bills. The food that was sent out to the ship was very poor quality and often past its sell by date. There was hardly enough food to go around. There were no cakes or biscuits or coke or lemonade. Personal mail was withheld from us until work had been done.
Things like that make you doubt the sincerity of the operation, but there were a lot of good times, a lot of time was spent talking, there were practical jokes, Gavin Ford and Dave Asher did a new version of a Modern Talking record called “I Want A Chopper” which had a very heavy homosexual overtone, this was carted up and played frequently. Israelis were actually going into record shops trying to buy it, even though most Israelis speak good English, they sometimes miss the humour or double entendre in some of the things we used to say and do, which is why we used to get away with a lot of dubious stuff. Abie speaks very good English, but when he was not listening you know that you can more or less say anything and get away with it.
The Dutch Captain, Teunis Aaldijk, deserves a special mention, as he provided many hours of fun for us, quite unintentionally. I had a big argument with him just before we went into Ashdod one day, he then didn’t talk to me for a few days, but one afternoon he saw me in the galley and put his hand on my shoulder, I thought he was about to restart the argument, however he then wished me happy birthday! He was a day late, he had got the date wrong and would not believe anyone that it was already the 29th June not the 28th!
Another funny incident was when he went on shore for one day and a night to get some money out of Abie who had not paid him for months. He took Neil Armstrong out for a Chinese meal and a mega drinking session. Neil was totally legless after about 10 pints and the Captain still kept on drinking and complaining that Neil was drinking too slowly. This was also the night that he told Neil that he had been aboard the Radio Veronica ship. Norderney for a look around, and also that many years before he had a mutiny in Sydney when his crew of Yugoslavs rebelled and left him and his ship.
Every now and then he would get interested in football and start bringing down football results, taken from the BBC World Service, for us to read out on the air, the problem was that he got the scores very mixed up and some quite ludicrous results were broadcast. He never usually listened to the station, but once when Kol Israel were on strike he tuned in and told Steve Richards that his programme was rubbish. He did a weather report twice a day and brought in a slip of paper just before 8am and 5pm with a summary of what he sees out of the bridge windows. One day he had the sky clear to hazy at the same time and on another occasion the weather was dated 1967. At the time he was 77 years old, but insisted that he was 74, or whatever age suited him at the time. He was quite a character, and I did enjoy my conversations with him when he was in a mood to talk about life in general.
So that’s it, a rather sketchy write up of my first six months working on the Voice Of Peace radio station in the Eastern Mediterranean. Hopefully it has been of interest, and corrections and/or additions are very welcome!