Monday, 25 January 2016

Suburban explorers

We didn't know there would ever be a name for it, but we used to do it as kids. An old storage shed in grounds by the swimming pool, a derelict house with an overgrown garden that could be found by following a secret path, abandoned stable blocks and the newly formed shells of the homes being built on an out-of-town estate. Curious and thrilled, my friends and I would peek through their windows, some with glass in and some without, and sometimes step inside their mysterious doorways. I suppose it was a first, naïve foray into urban exploration.

Or maybe it was more suburban, as we lived near open countryside. My friends and I grew up in an era where Stranger Danger Paranoia didn't seem to exist - it merely meant being told not to accept sweets from men in cars. So around the age of twelve and thirteen, just before boys, chip shops and the make-up counter at Boots lured us away, we spent those long seventies Summers out and about unsupervised, sometimes within the streets of our small town but frequently further afield too. Our parents were glad to be free of their daughters for whole days on end as we packed cans of Coke and bags of crisps into satchels on Saturday mornings and wandered the footpaths and bridleways, without mobile phones and, most importantly, without fear. We got to know all the fields, woods, gates, ditches, farms and hedgerows as expertly as we knew our own immediate neighbourhoods. We made up names for our favourite fields and sometimes even the Friesian cows in them. We weren't stalked, flashed at or attacked; the chainsaw-wielding man we once saw in 'Top Field' was the one chopping logs - we just watched him go about his work. I still have convoluted dreams about walking those tracks, effortlessly memorising routes and reference points just as we did for real: the lightning tree, a wooden stile, a line of poplars. We didn't have compasses or maps but we never got lost and were always back home, happily tired and golden-armed, in time for tea.

The most exciting moments, though, were when we stumbled across abandoned buildings. Sometimes there was evidence of other humans having been there; the disused storage shed with its heavy but unlocked door had old newspapers spread around and a dirty old blanket in the corner. One afternoon when we sneaked inside, we noticed a small pile of ash in the middle of the dusty floor. I'd like to say the ashes were still warm but that may just be my memory playing tricks on me. “Oh, what if they come back?!” we whispered nervously to each other about the grunting, wild-haired, leather-skinned resident – our very own unseen Stig of the Dump - who had formed himself fully in our imaginations. We left hurriedly and never returned.

One day, by accident, we found a huge, derelict house. We could get to it by swerving off a path through a maze of trees which gradually thinned out to reveal a vast, wild and unfenced garden. We never entered the house though; it was too imposing, too Mockingbird Lane. We'd merely creep as close as we dared before quickly turning back (being sure we'd seen a figure moving about behind a broken window, of course) then sprinting to the safety of the shrubs where we stayed for hours, wondering in excited trepidation if we were being watched. The grounds always seemed to be in shadow, no matter what the weather; a mass of entwined roots and ivy, long grass like unripened corn and crooked, spindly trees.  There was a large, dank pond in the middle - a scary, smelly pond of unimaginable depths. We would go back time and time again, but we never told a soul. On a spontaneous whim a few years ago my friends and I decided to see if the secret garden was still there and navigated our way through bracken and tangled trees after a boozy reunion lunch, our jackets getting caught on spiky twigs and branches snapping under our unsuitable shoes. And we found it – ohhh!  It was just the same, mossy-green and dark and like a parallel world, the only difference being that the pond had gone and weeping willows grew in its place. I still felt the thrill. The old house was there too, but the new scaffolding around it and the builders' sign had finally eroded its air of mystique and menace. Sweetly sated and revived by the unexpected and dream-like glimpse back into childhood and its clandestine playground, we turned our backs on it once again, turned our backs on the past, and sprinted - well, almost -  home. In time for tea.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Shop assistant

It was time to get a proper job. I'd left the illustration course early, many months before, as I knew I'd never be able to do it for a living (I was wrong, but it took a long time...) and now I needed to earn some real money.  I'd managed to bring in a few quid here and there in other ways* but they weren't going to keep me in pickled onion Monster Munch and Star Bars.  My sister had left home and my parents had divorced a few years previously; now the time had come to sell the family home so the proceeds could be split between them, meaning my mum could only afford somewhere big enough for one.  I needed to find somewhere to live.  Having failed to get the job I didn't want but went for anyway at the supermarket, I was getting seriously worried about my future. Then I saw the ad for a sales assistant at a new record shop opening in a nearby town and it sounded perfect.

Some weeks later and I'd been invited for an interview, which turned out to be a very pleasant, enthusiastic chat - mostly about music, naturally - with the friendly, easy-to-talk-to young man who'd be managing the branch. I don't think I could have been happier or more excited when he rang the following month to offer me the position. Yes. YES! YESSS! I doubt that my delighted acceptance was at all unexpected.

Anyway, just before that Christmas I started my first official, full-time, permanent job in an independent record shop, staffed – quite unusually for the time – by three young women (each with different musical tastes) under the guidance of our lovely and very knowledgeable manager.

Soon after I was able to move into a dodgy flat above a parade of shops in a truly crappy area of town - but at least we could pay the rent!

Thirty-two years just go by in a flash, don't they?

£1.90 per hour...

* Such as....
- Being taped reciting pages from a legal textbook for a man who was studying for a law degree
 Modelling at my old art school, seated on a table, fully clothed, having to keep dead still while the students portrayed it in clay
-  Photocopying my macabre ink drawings and selling them as 'gothic stationery' through an advert in the  NME

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Sweet tooth

As a typical child growing up in '70s Britain, an essential part of my daily diet was sugar, and it was usually taken in concentrated Spangles, Milky Way and Sherbet Pip form. It provided just the right amount of hyperactivity for important pursuits like French Skipping, but my teeth fared less well and by the time I was twelve my open mouth boasted an impressive display of silvery amalgam fillings. Then, just when I was at my most self-conscious, I had to wear two dental braces - simultaneously.  I could set off metal detectors three streets away with ease, but speaking and eating required more effort.

The local dental surgery was a familiar place for all the wrong reasons, so my mum used to make each ordeal a little more bearable by promising a small present on the way home. Once she'd wiped the dribble from my chin, she'd take me down to my favourite shop, Spearman & Tucker, where the delights on its many racks and displays helped me temporarily forget the fuzzy sensation in my cheek or an aching jaw.  It wasn't a sweet shop; that would have just been in bad taste. It was a bookshop.  That smell of paper-and-printing-ink overrode the essence of antiseptic in my nostrils, the crisp covers promised magic carpet rides to lands where dentists didn't exist.

I have mercury fillings, corrective braces, extractions, anaesthetics and injections to thank for the shelves in my childhood bedroom becoming filled with Puffins and other paperbacks. Mrs Pepperpot, Five Children and It, the Moomins, Spike Milligan's Milliganimals, the Children of Green Knowe and even the Wombles all came into my life via my teeth. Fortunately those frequent trips to the dentist mean they are a little stronger and straighter now, although I'm very glad the legacy of a '70s childhood was so much more than just the tooth decay.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Once upon a time in the West

From street level the cottage looked tiny, but once inside it became Tardis-like; there seemed to be loads of rooms (and, I wished longingly, perhaps some secret ones) leading off from multiple staircases and corridors.  But the best bit was that the bedrooms were downstairs and the kitchen was upstairs, which felt very Alice In Wonderland - plus it had a breakfast bar.  I’d never known such a thing and was instantly besotted.  Puffa Puffa Rice tasted so much better whilst perched on a high, slender stool at a Scandinavian style pine bench, than at the fold-out table at home sitting on a chair whose vinyl seat stuck to the undersides of my thighs.

In 1972, travelling down to Cornwall from Hertfordshire required major, strategic planning - and leaving the house at Ridiculously Early.  My sister and I were ushered out of our warm beds at 4am and bundled into the back of the car with sleeping bags pulled around us like giant cocoons.  The gentle vibration of the engine and the way the orange streetlights seemed to blink rhythmically as we passed them lulled us into a strange half-slumber for the first part of the journey, out of our dormant market town and towards London.  With the completion of the M25 still years away, we had to drive right through the city, and every so often mum would gently see if we were awake and point out some landmarks, now softly lit by the early, half-hearted sun of an August dawn.  I’m sure we made some odd detours to get close-up views of the futuristic-looking Post Office Tower and the dome of St Paul’s, which looked to me like a gigantic, fossilised blancmange.

It seemed an exotic trip across the Southern half of England.  After the high-rises and majestic bridges of the metropolis we traversed the mellow countryside of Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire.  As the hours passed along with the miles it felt like we were crossing into other countries, with their houses made of stone, bricks and tiles of unfamiliar shades and strange place names.  On through Somerset, then Devon…even the skies looked different above these unknown hills and moors.  It took all day to get there and our final destination seemed the most foreign of all; Cornwall really was another world.

I’d never seen lanes so narrow, nor hedges so high.  Steep distant cliffs gave promise of secret coves and story-book adventures of hidden treasure, whilst the sea itself seemed bigger, wilder and far, far bluer than the one I’d seen before in the South East.

My memory is playing tricks with me.  If I believed it, I would tell you that I spent every day, from sunrise to sunset, down at Gerrans Bay amongst the rock pools, because that’s what it felt like.  I realise we must have gone to other places, and I guess sometimes the sun didn’t shine, and we must have sat in the car with cans of Cola, eating hardboiled eggs when picnic plans were called off due to rain.  But all I can really vividly remember is going down to the rock pools with my bucket and spending endless hours there, finding tiny prawns and blennies, furtive hermit crabs and fantastic anemones, exotic-looking shells, slimy seaweed and pretty pebbles, the sand between my toes and the salt in my hair.  These were all  things we just didn’t have in my world back home.  Then it was back to the topsy turvy cottage every evening, and the hope of still discovering a hidden room. 

Although it’s over ten years since my last visit, I have been back to Cornwall a few times.  The cottage where we stayed was still there, exactly as I remembered it.  I couldn’t help hoping it still had the breakfast bar, and that somewhere, in a secret room, there is a small collection of shells left there by a young girl in 1972.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

A lesson learned

When I left school at sixteen in 1979 I had one ambition - to design record covers.  It seemed like it would be the perfect job, to create pictures to go with the music I loved.  Going to Art School would be my direct route to this nirvana.  Simple.

Of course the reality was always going to be different.  The Foundation Art course I embarked on at that tender age was perhaps not always as exciting as I’d hoped.  There were definitely some fun moments, but ironically many of these were outside the curriculum – drunken afternoons at the end of term and  adolescent pranks with studio props.  A lot of time was spent on  more prosaic practices such as the rules of perspective, drawing from life and understanding the colour spectrum - and I didn’t get to design any record covers at all.


With the benefit of hindsight I might have tackled that first year differently. Might have paid more attention to the technicalities and less on pondering on what I was going to wear each day.  Perhaps I'd have taken more interest in the Art History lesson which we were obliged to attend once a week.

Sadly, I truly didn’t appreciate the relevance of absorbing a subject so vast and inspiring.  My world was small and self-obsessed.  I’m ashamed to say it but the two hours a week watching a film about the Pre-Raphaelites, Surrealism or the Impressionists  became an excuse to do anything but learn or open up to such greatness.  I daydreamed in the soporific half light, and contemplated the latest episode of ‘Monkey’ or the thought of having a Findus crispy pancake for tea.  The most artistic thing I did during Art History was the occasional doodle in my notebook, in which only a few cursory educational notes had been jotted down : Florence, 1400s, Botticelli.”   120 sleepy minutes would pass in which I barely even noticed his Venus.  And then it was home time (no doubt to watch ‘Monkey’ and have that Findus crispy pancake for tea.)

Unsurprisingly I was totally - and I mean totally -  unprepared when it came to sitting the Art History ‘O’ Level exam at the end of the year.  What was worse was that, somehow, I got the day of the exam wrong.  I thought it was on the Thursday, but it was on the Wednesday.  I’d presumed I had the day off and the house to myself - bliss.  So I stayed in bed for an extra hour.....only to be suddenly and unhappily awoken by a phone call. 

It was my Art History teacher. "Where are you??? The exam starts in half an hour...!” 

“Oh no…”   It felt like a large stone had been dropped inside my stomach as her words assembled themselves in my brain, “Oh erm...  I’ve got to get the bus… I don’t know when the next one is… erm…” The rock in my gut felt even heavier.

“No, you’'ll be too late!  I'll come and pick you up in my car.  I'm leaving now."

Oh shit.  College was eight miles from my home.  She’d be here in less than half an hour. I had to scramble to get ready.  No time to even finish a bowl of Ricicles before Miss Art History pulled up outside in her Morris Minor Traveller. 

Anyway I got into the exam late – flustered, embarrassed and, worst of all, with floppy hair, which I'd had no time to spike up - and I was all over the place.  I hadn't a clue.  I tried to recall as much as I could - something about Florence in the 1400s and Botticelli? - but I knew it was doomed.  It was awful; I barely managed a few sentences.  And when the exam was over all I wanted to do was go straight home but - in the hurry to get out that morning and with not needing to catch the bus -  I only had 12 pence on me. 12 pence was enough to buy a whole packet of Polos, but only a fraction of the eight-mile bus fare. So I decided to walk.

It took me nearly three hours.   I got offers of lifts from a very persistent biker (who kept turning round, coming back and asking again) and a rather pushy lorry driver who scowled nastily at me for rejecting the invitation of a ride in his cab.  I think he had a different kind of ride in mind.  I refused both, and continued on blistered feet – eventually getting home to be greeted by my mum, who was now back from work, with a cheery, “Good day at college?”

I do not have an 'O' Level in Art History.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Teatime minstrel

Just for a moment, please forget all preconceptions about what makes good pop, and spare 38 seconds to listen to this and then ask yourself - is it not good?!

As many children growing up in ‘70s Britain would have known at the time, this was the end theme from ‘The Adventures Of Sir Prancelot’, an animated TV series which was first aired in 1971 around the teatime slot.  It had a distinctive look: graphic shapes and layered cut-out characters with open/shut mouths like ventriloquists’ dummies.  Its creator, John Ryan, was also responsible for the similarly styled ‘Captain Pugwash’ which for some reason sticks in my adult memory more, perhaps partly because there is an apocryphal tale that it included seafaring characters with the names Master Bates, Roger the Cabin Boy and Seaman Staines; however this has since been dismissed as mere urban legend.  In reality it was all perfectly innocent of course, although Captain Pugwash’s arch enemy did have the rather scary name of Cut Throat Jake, which was very appealing to bloodthirsty eight-year-olds.

But back to Sir Prancelot. The series followed the adventures of the eponymous heroic knight, who was also a bit of a would-be inventor, and his family and entourage (with great names such as his wife Lady Histeria, Duke Uglio and serfs Bert and Harry - although the Michael Caine soundalike minstrel, who brings us this catchy theme as well as some cool little musical interludes, remains nameless).  I don’t think they got to do all that much crusading in any holy lands but they did prance about a lot - and with a neat tune like this one it's no surprise.

Sunday, 18 October 2015


Ben had dark curly hair, big brown eyes and a cheeky smile which accentuated the dimples in his cheeks.   Even though we were only six he had something about him that made me feel excited.  I looked forward to seeing Ben at school every day -  so much so that it even helped me overcome my fear of Michael, the infamous class bully, who was best known for being good at kicking shins and flushing gloves down toilets.

One Spring morning Mrs Marychurch announced that she was going to take the class for a nature walk.  We had to line up by the door in pairs.  “Right now, children, join up: boy girl, boy girl…”   Some of the boys looked distinctly unsure about this while the girls giggled, but we soon fell, rather chaotically, into couples.  Somehow, magically, I ended up with Ben.  “Now hold hands with your partner, everyone, and don’t let go,” our kind, maternal teacher instructed.  Ohhh!  I clung tightly to Ben’s palm, which felt warm and nice, and I knew I wouldn’t be letting go in a hurry. 

Off we went on our walk, a Crocodile of six-year-olds, out of the school grounds with its flat-roofed 1960s classroom blocks, across the road and up to the top of the wide tree-lined path which led between a cricket field and a meadow of Friesian cattle.  There at the summit Mrs Marychurch pointed out an oak tree and some cow parsley.  Then she let us all run to the bottom with the breeze in our hair, our grey skirts and shorts flapping, and Ben and I raced down that hill, laughing, our hands still tightly clasped.  We kept on going, further and further down the path, exhilarated.  Of course we were on strict instructions to return the second Mrs Marychurch summoned us back.   We carried on.

“Oh I think she’s calling…” Ben said anxiously as we paused to catch our breath, Mrs Marychurch now just small and slightly blurred some yards behind us.   “No she isn’t!” I insisted.  My companion seemed less certain and urged me to return with him but I was adamant.  So we turned our backs on her distant figure and kept running.  And thus, at the tender age of six, I got my favourite boy into trouble.  When it finally dawned on us that the rest of the class had all joined our teacher and we were the only ones who hadn’t - the only ones - our sheepish return was met with a very stern telling-off.  “I told you she was calling,” whispered Ben crossly after we’d been shown up horribly in front of our classmates. I was as mortified as a lovestruck six-year-old could be, which is to say: very   

In spite of trying to make it up to him with presents of Love Heart sweets (‘Be mine’ and ‘Will you’), that was the end of Ben and me.

A six-year-old's view of Mrs Marychurch and her class, 1970

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Roll up! Roll up! CDs are in town!

The arrival of  the first CDs in the record shop where I worked in the mid ‘80s was quite a momentous occasion.  The invention of those tiny shiny discs has been referred to by some as the ‘Big Bang’ event of the digital audio revolution but, at the time, many of us were still cynical.  In his excellent book, ‘Lost In Music’, Giles Smith (who worked for the same small regional chain of independent shops) describes this perfectly:

‘That Christmas [1984] , a few rather serious-looking people came in to choose from the extremely limited range of items in the shop’s plastic tray of Compact Discs.  (Fools! We thought.  It’ll never catch on.)’

 Lost In Music by Giles Smith (Picador 1995)

I have a memory of a little frisson of excitement as we unpacked and examined the new format.  I think there were just a handful of titles and I can’t recall exactly which but I think the artists included Billy Joel and Jean Michel Jarre.  I’m sure I probably held one up and looked at it from all angles under the harsh fluorescent lights, mesmerised by its sparkle and eager for it to somehow prove itself. Would it sound amazing, like nothing I had heard before, nor could even imagine?  And was it true that you could set them alight and gouge your initials into them and dunk them in vinegar and it wouldn’t make any difference?

I sold my first CD to a regular customer, Mr Sexton (he liked to keep our interactions formal).  Mr Sexton was one of those ‘rather serious-looking people’ as Giles Smith describes.  He was a technophile.  In fact I’m sure he’d probably told us about compact discs even before the record companies did.   He’d come into the shop and refer to the list of record requests that he’d previously typed into his little Psion Organiser (they’ll never catch on either, we thought).  Prior to these new-fangled CD things, he was very meticulous about his vinyl purchases.  He’d inspect them thoroughly before parting with his cash, pointing out any tiny marks and asking that we check them specifically on the in-store record deck for possible accompanying audible flaws.  In spite of his perfectionism, he did make small allowances: “Two clicks per side per album,” I seem to remember.  Two clicks but no hisses, no jumps and definitely no pitch-altering wobbly warps.

So I think it was probably the Jean Michel Jarre CD that Mr Sexton bought first.  Grinning like a simpleton I took the little disc out of its cardboard master bag. I deliberately held it between my thumb and forefinger in the way I would never do with vinyl (having trained myself to be quite an expert in the barely-touching, edges-only grasp that defines you as a true respecter of records).  Thinking I was being funny, I made some gauche remark about smearing honey on it.  I’d seen that BBC TV item where they’d done just that and the disc had still played perfectly.  Honey AND coffee!  (I can see why conspiracy theorists maintain that these sample discs were far more resilient to maltreatment than the later production line output, because their indestructibility doesn’t make any economic sense…)  Mr Sexton was a nice man but I don’t think he was too amused at the honey quip.  He took several minutes to thoroughly examine the disc, holding it in the barely-touching edges-only grasp and I couldn’t help wishing we had a pot of Gale’s under the counter.  Anyway, he went away very happy, and came back for more, from his short electronic list that quickly lengthened over the ensuing months. 

Gradually the shelves of twelve inch cardboard album masterbags made way for more five-and-a-half inch replacements and the racks of LP sleeves dwindled.  The revolution had started. I left my job there before the transition from vinyl to CD was complete and of course I realise this all shows just how old I now am.  

"You don't have to worry about scratches"

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Sex education

It was so simple. I thought that all girls automatically had tiny babies inside them from birth and it was only when you got married that they started to grow and then you actually laid them, like a hen laying eggs. The fact that this somehow only happened when you had a husband was due to the same kind of magic that enabled Father Christmas to get into houses without chimneys.

I remember jumping up and down one day and saying to my mum, “Oh, I hope I'm not making my baby feel sick!” when I was only about 7 or 8; just for a brief moment there mum may well have felt a little nauseous herself.  Anyway, when I got married, probably to the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Christopher, who had given me a clockwork helicopter for my sixth birthday, the baby would come out of my bottom and we'd all live happily ever after in one of those houses with the sticky-out windows that I'd seen on the way to Aunty Margaret's.

So it was all a bit of a shock when Elizabeth told me what really happened. Elizabeth was off school for a visit to the dentist that fateful day. It was a Wednesday, and on Wednesdays at 10 o'clock Mrs Williams took her class of 9-year-olds into the assembly hall whereupon she wheeled out the big television with wooden shutters on its tall stand and we spent the next half hour sitting on the floor cross-legged being educated and entertained, often by some rather excellent programme such as Merry Go Round. However, for some reason that Mrs Williams wouldn't explain, that Wednesday the routine was changed and we didn't get our usual telly session.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth, being a good, studious, little girl, thought she'd watch some educational TV at home anyway before she went to the dentist. Her mum was upstairs cleaning the bathroom and left her daughter to it.

When Elizabeth and I sat together on the Pudding Stone at playtime the next day she was a different girl. She knew. She knew all about how babies were made... she'd seen it on Merry Go Round... and she couldn't wait to tell me. It was shocking. “The man puts his thing right inside the woman!” “But howWhere?” I was aghast. It was hard to imagine Christopher putting his thing... well... you get the idea.

By the time I got to secondary school, just turned 11, I felt I knew the basics, but I was surprised to discover it was complete news to some of my classmates. We had to watch a creaky, unimaginative film about The Facts Of Life, all very cold and anatomical, and one of the Bagwell twins fainted. I don't think she even knew about periods, poor thing.  But later in the year we got the gory childbirth film in Biology and with all the blood and guts and umbilical cords I nearly fainted too.

Then there were those conversations on the way home from school. Sarah T revealed what her big sister had told her she'd done with her boyfriend... We giggled uncontrollably, titillated but uncomprehending. Gradually we notched up a bit more knowledge, like when Tracy P found a load of torn out pages from Playboy and Mayfair strewn around on the footpath behind her house (how did they end up there?) She brought them in to school and we pored nervously over the naughty pictures, in disbelief, unable to compare those pink bodies on the pages to our own not yet fully formed ones.. so much hair! much strange-looking flesh!...

I don't know what kids of that age know now, how much is taught or when, nor how much sense it makes to minds that may have already been exposed from infancy to the internet. There must be a fine line between a refreshing openness and too much too soon but, not having kids of my own, I've swerved that particular challenge.

Elizabeth went on to be a midwife, by the way.  And by the age of ten Christopher and I were no longer talking, so I wanted to marry Simon, who had a bicycle with gears.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Made do and mended

It didn’t seem to matter that my dad had a good job.  I don’t know what it involved, but he went off to ‘The Labs’ every morning where he fiddled about with computers the size of small houses, fibre optics, radio waves and things that involved complicated mathematical formulae.  I don’t know how much he earned but presumably enough to keep his family comfortably in Clarks shoes and Vesta Paellas and yet the maxim in our household still remained:  Make do and mend’.

We didn’t replace things when they went wrong; we found increasingly inventive ways to keep them going for a bit longer with pieces of green nylon string, old pennies, discarded chewing gum or whatever was to hand.  And what was to hand was a cornucopia of oddities, because we rarely threw anything away -  ‘it might come in handy one day’  being another family maxim.

Does anyone darn socks these days?  My mum used to darn my dad’s socks all the time.  The giant darning needle was kept with the balls of wool which I'm sure dated back to wartime, along with a vast collection of spare buttons and a ridiculous array of ribbons.  I don’t think we ever needed to use  ribbon for anything and, besides, most of it had already come from Christmas cake decorations and still had tiny fragments of icing stuck to it.

I’m sure my dad’s latest technical report on the descaling of electro-magnetic noodles could have bought us a new television, perhaps even a colour one, but still we persevered with the ancient black and white one because it worked.  Well, it worked when you twiddled the strategically placed matchsticks between the control buttons when you couldn’t find the channel  you wanted and seeing as there were only three channels at the time that shouldn’t have been that difficult.   The picture was ok, as long as the image wasn’t too stark.  Anything with high contrast caused the picture to wobble, twist and stretch and for a long while I thought Morecambe and Wise – whose black and white suits posed a major challenge to the TV’s warp factor – were contortionists.  But we soon learned that a quick thump to the top of the set could sort it out.  Not just any thump, though, there was a knack.  My father always got it right but then he had probably calculated the exact degree of force required according to velocity and gravitational pull.

I grew up in a household where remnants of old candles were melted down and amalgamated to make new ones, which were then placed in empty wine bottles acting as candleholders; where cushion covers were made out of old curtains, and where my mum’s laddered tights were recycled and stuffed to make draught excluders for the back door.  I try to resist doing the same.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Record shop regulars

As anyone who’s ever worked in a shop probably appreciates, regular customers tend to earn handy nicknames.  Not that they have a clue what they are themselves.  These useful identification labels are an important secret, closely guarded by the knowing assistants on the other side of the counter.  As a customer I must've had a few too and I'm glad I don't know what they are.  

From '83 to '87 I was one of those knowing assistants, however, in an independent record shop; it was a long time ago and sadly I can’t recall many names now, but... let me think… well, there was Worzel Gummidge… and Bog Monster… and Tiger Man…and the Fraggles… and plenty of other less imaginative tags too - and we knew who we were talking about, even if they didn’t.

Other regulars, however, actively introduced themselves in the way they wanted to be addressed. For example, there was ‘Neil the Mod’.  The ‘Mod’ part of his name was emphatic.  I don’t think we ever knew his surname –  I mean, when we reserved, say, the latest 2 Tone release for him, it was just ‘Neil the Mod’ that we wrote as his name on the order slip.  As instructed by him.  He was never seen wearing anything but full (‘80s) mod regalia, such as his parka (with target), pork pie hat, sta-prest trousers, etc.   

I remember the first few times he came in - he must only have been in his early teens and he was just a little too exuberant.  If there had been such a thing as ‘The X Factor’ or ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ at the time, you might have thought you’d accidentally walked into an audition on any occasion that he was in the shop.  Before you had time to say ‘Green Onions’ he’d be singing to you.  Mind you, that was nothing new when you worked in a record store.  People frequently came in and said, “There’s this single I want, and I can’t remember what it’s called, or who it’s by, but it goes a bit like this…” and then self-consciously proceeded to ‘da-de-da’ a few bars with maybe the odd memorable word thrown in (something really useful like 'love' or 'baby'- not much narrowing down to be done there, then).  But these were quietly sung by the enquirer at close range, and only after checking that the shop was devoid of other customers and possible eavesdroppers.  Conversely, Neil the Mod actually wanted everybody to hear him.  He sang at full volume and even threw in a few dance moves too.  It was as if he had no embarrassment filter; the more attention he could get, the better.  At first this was a little tiresome but, I suppose, at least we knew we were in for a bit of free entertainment when he was around. 

However, over time he calmed down as he grew from a rather over-enthusiastic teenager into a more focused young man.  It was then I realised that his career as some kind of performer had been inevitable; he started to get entertainment work at holiday camps and local events, and in a way he’d been practising his art on us in the shop.  Maybe it was really quite a privilege to witness his early forays into singing publicly.  A few years after I’d left my job there I bumped into him (and his guitar) in town where he’d apparently been doing a bit of busking between seasonal leisure resort bookings.  He'd ditched the full Quadrophenia gear in favour of a more subdued retro look.  We had a bit of a chat before he said “So what song is it gonna be – fancy a bit of Beatles?”  Then, right in the middle of a busy retail centre full of Saturday shoppers he launched boldly, and perfectly, into ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’, the Carl Perkins number, as performed by the early Beatles.  If you’re familiar with this you’ll know there is no handy guitar intro, no time to take breath nor get in tune with a few chords at the start….  It's just the vocal that kicks it off.  It takes guts.

Then in came his vibrant, strumming guitar.  His performance was strong, captivating, pitch-perfect and LOUD.  The shoppers all stopped to watch, their worn-down faces lighting up with admiring smiles, feet tapping in time.   You just couldn’t fail to be both impressed and uplifted.

(Pork pie) hats off to Neil the Mod.  I hope he's doing well, wherever he is now, and I hope he's still singing.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

School dinners

I expect my primary school had the best of intentions when it came to feeding its pupils at lunchtime, it being late 1960s/early 1970s Britain, a time and place where meat, potatoes and two veg were the school dinner staple, and fast food hadn’t yet made its entrance as a daily diet option.  There were certainly no cold choices, nor cheese strings, burgers or crisps on the menu.

The canteen with its wobbly-legged tables covered in sheets of blue PVC, and little chairs (colour coded for size with a red, green or blue spot), was a noisy place between 12 and 1pm as 200 children aged between five and ten were herded in to get our plates of lumpy Shepherd’s Pie and bowls of gooey Rhubarb Crumble.  We drank lukewarm tap water from lightweight, slightly dented beakers, possibly made from titanium, in not-quite-shiny gold, silver and – if you were lucky – pink.  There were far fewer pink ones than gold and silver and so they took on some kind of special status, making the water in them taste just that little bit better.

Dishing out the servings from behind the hatch and taking away our empty plates (as well as supervising at playtime) were the Dinner Ladies.  Some were surly and authoritative, others kind and maternal.  We soon knew which ones to turn to and which ones to avoid.  Mrs Bird was one of the ones who’d give you a cuddle if you fell over and got those little bits of playground grit embedded in your freshly grazed knees.  I can still remember every detail of how she looked: tall and slender, she had dyed hair the colour of copper piping which she backcombed up in an elaborate and outdated beehive, wore a gold letter M around her neck and the shortest skirts I’d ever seen on anyone not on TV.  We loved Mrs Bird.  Whereas Mrs Cann... I can see her hard, lined face now, her sallow complexion and her pencilled-on eyebrows resembling wasp antennae, several dozen shades darker than her hair... no, Mrs Cann was not the kind of woman you'd get - or want - a cuddle from.

Unfortunately Mrs Cann frequently made my dinner times a source of great stress.  She was a stickler when it came to checking that we’d consumed everything on our plates.  “You mustn’t waste it” was the motto.  Under her watchful eye we felt forced to swallow every last crumb.  However, we also learned that there were cunning ways to make it look as if you’d eaten more than you had.  The easiest way was to smear your leftover bits of hard mashed potato and bullet-like peas around the perimeter of your plate, making sure to leave a nice, clean space in the middle.  There was quite an art to it.  Or you could make little piles out of the mushy sprouts and watery carrot slices and hide them skilfully under your strategically placed knife and fork.  Alternatively, you could just be a messy eater and  drop half the contents of your spoon onto the table or floor.  But I had an additional problem.  It wasn't just a few last mouthfuls of boiled cabbage or a burnt pastry crust I wanted to leave - I didn’t want to eat any meat.  This wasn't something that was ever taken into account at my school back then.  The feeling was that everybody had to eat meat; in fact, didn't everyone want to eat meat?  There was no saying "no" to it.  I spent most of the morning dreading dinner time, and most of the afternoon recovering from it.  Occasionally I’d be relieved to find there was Macaroni Cheese or Egg & Chips on offer and lunchtime would be a breeze.  But most of the time there were meaty things – flabby, greasy sausages, grey slabs of lamb, unidentifiable brown chewy lumps in brown slimy goo.  I’d ask for the smallest portion I could get, then spend the entire mealtime finding ways to avoid having to swallow it.  If the smearing round plate, hiding under cutlery or dropping onto table ruse didn’t work,  I had to put it in my mouth and then conveniently ‘cough’ it into a hanky which I’d shove back in my pocket.  It would stay there leaking gravy or fat into my pleated skirt until playtime, when I'd drop it nervously into one of the deep wire bins, dreading that one day I'd get caught.  I don't know what I thought would happen if I did, but in my head it would be a punishment just too awful to contemplate.

Only the lovely Mrs Bird was sympathetic.  If she was on duty I could always ask her if it was okay to leave some food on my plate, and without fail she would nod kindly, and maybe wink one of her pastel blue-shadowed eyes, as she discreetly took the gristly remains of my dinner and scraped them into the slops bin.  To this day I don't think I've experienced a more reassuring sight than that of the long-legged, beehived Mrs Bird in her mini-skirt, walking away from me with my plate of uneaten liver and kidneys.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Letter

Mandeep wrote the most beautiful letters.  He was articulate and imaginative, and even his handwriting looked intelligent, somehow – slightly sharp edges made it appear confident, while the characters with descendents had large flamboyant curls… passionate curls.  When those folded blue aerogrammes from Nairobi arrived with his handwriting on, I felt new things.  Every letter from Mandeep made my heart skip and my head rush in ways I’d never known before, nor really understood. 

The eleven-year old me fell a little bit in love with Mandeep, or at least with the idea of him, and it seemed to be mutual.  Gradually we began to write quite romantically… paying compliments in the most touching of ways, hinting at something between us that we didn’t quite comprehend and allowing each other to read between the lines.  He had a poetic turn of phrase and was never boring.  By the age of twelve, in my imagined future, I was going to marry this exotic, dark-skinned boy and have his babies, and all because of the way he wrote.  He had seen a photo of me, sitting in a sandpit wearing a kilt and white socks - but I had never seen one of him.  Still, the way he described his life and his interests was all it took.  He told me in detail about the house where he lived and I pictured myself there too, leading a new life in Kenya with my Indian Sikh husband... looking back on how we had found each other as childhood penfriends through 'Look & Learn' magazine.

Of course the dream was shattered when we eventually met.  He came to the UK to visit some cousins and incorporated a side trip to see me.  It felt like a huge event, absolutely huge... and it was perhaps inevitable that it would be a let-down, as well as one of the most awkward, cringe-worthy days of my life up to then.  We were both embarrassed, inhibited and so very, painfully shy.  He was nothing like I’d imagined; it was as if the skinny adolescent boy sitting there on my sofa nibbling on a Barmouth biscuit and struggling for words was an entirely different person to the hero of my romantic fantasy who wrote those thoughtful, exciting letters, and I know my disappointment was reciprocated.   After that, our exchanges immediately lost their magic and soon after, we stopped being penfriends completely.   I can't help but wonder how different it might have been if we'd just kept it in writing.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Jesus Christ 70s Superstar

My upbringing was secular, just as my life is now; we didn’t have a bible in the house and nobody went to church.  That isn’t to say that God was never mentioned, his name did come up occasionally as a useful way to get round things which are difficult for very young children to understand.  For instance, when it thundered, Mum would say, “God is moving his furniture around” and I was happy with that explanation.  Also, because we were taught that stuff at primary school my young and open mind was quite content to accept that there was some higher being in charge of all the important things like growing trees and making clouds.  He even answered my prayer once after I’d joined the Brownies.  I was just settling into my team, the Imps, when Brown Owl said there were going to be some changes and I'd  have to move to another team, the Elves.  I really didn’t want to be an Elf (the little Imp on the sew-on patch was perky looking and yellow - far preferable to the dull blue Elf) so I did something I’d never done before: I prayed for help.  I prayed really hard. The following week Brown Owl said that I could stay an Imp after all.  I put it all down to God and thanked him profusely that night for making space for me in his busy world.

Whatever your religious bent may be, I hope you’ll understand why it seemed to me that the early ‘70s were a good time for Jesus.  Being into Jesus was almost akin to being into some kind of musical cult as far as I could tell.  Long hair, sandals, singing, wearing big wooden crucifixes, talking about love and peace… it all stacked up.  That side of religion seemed quite trendy for a while.  My sister got in (briefly) with a crowd of Baptist hippies and there was some churchy youth club place where they hung out to play music, tap tom-toms and get off with each other.  It was a happy place and it appeared kinda cool.

And then there was Jesus Christ, Superstar.  The album, in all its yellow, (deep) purple and red laminated cover gatefold glory, was in the family record collection, alongside Holst’s Planet Suite2001 A Space Odyssey, and some Erik Satie.  That was how classy it seemed.  It had Ian Gillan* on it, whom my sister fancied; I remember the lovely picture of him on the inside, he was just as I liked to imagine Jesus.  And there was a sweet photo of Yvonne Elliman, who I had a bit of a crush on and wanted to look like.  I recall overhearing a conversation between my sister and my mum about her character, Mary Magdalene, in which the word 'prostitute' had come up. It sounded a very important, serious, grown-up word but no-one would tell me what it meant.

I played that album a lot and then one day it was decided that we’d go and see the live show of it in London for my sister’s birthday treat.  We had a meal in the city too, at a Berni Inn if I remember rightly (everything was dark brown).  I had an omelette and a banana split; I’d never had a banana split before and I loved it and then followed one of those childhood food fads where you don't want to eat anything else but that for a few months.  After lunch we went off to the theatre and I thought the performance was great although it didn’t have Ian Gillan or Yvonne Elliman in it.  But whoever the stars were that night, they were attractive, long-haired and cool, just like the hippies I’d occasionally seen around town in cheesecloth shirts and maxi skirts.

I was reminded of the show some years ago when I was working in a large office and one of my colleagues told me about the time she went to see it.  She’d got hold of tickets through work and when she settled herself in to her seat she recognised the man next to her.  She was racking her brains to think why, and then it dawned on her, of course – he must have bought a ticket through work too, that’s where she knew him from.  During the interval she smiled and introduced herself, “I know you, don’t I?” she asked, " - you work at my office!”  The man looked a bit puzzled, then laughed.  “No – but you might recognise me anyway,” he replied.  “I’m Paul Nicholas”…

I don’t think it was Paul Nicholas in the ‘70s production that I went to, but I enjoyed it immensely at the time and then when I saw the posters for ‘Hair’ I was really into the idea of going along to see that too, especially if I could have another banana split in a Berni Inn as part of the deal.  I never did understand why I wasn’t allowed to go, at least not until I was a bit older and after I’d learned a few other things too (like the meaning of the word ‘prostitute’).

Now, I don’t have a religious bone in my body, I can’t stand Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I couldn’t listen to it now for any other reason than for a brief blast of nostalgia, but I still have a fond memory of playing that double album all the way through as a kid and thinking that at least that hippie Jesus guy seemed to be a very nice man - he couldn’t half sing well on ‘Child In Time’ too.

* Other notable contributors to this album included Mike D’Abo, Chris Spedding, Murray Head and Lesley Duncan.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Dancing through dark times

At an age when my friends and I should have been enjoying the most hedonistic time of our lives, there was something dark and ominous looming over us like a monstrous headmaster ready to dish out discipline at the merest hint of any mischief: the threat of nuclear war. 

For me - and maybe for you too?  - the early '80s were schizophrenic in the extreme.  On the one hand there were 'Protect and Survive' pamphlets dropping through our letterboxes plus, a little later, visions of a post nuclear apocalypse would be beamed into our living rooms via programmes like 'Threads'.

Even the children’s author and illustrator Raymond Briggs, best known for his wonderful books ‘The Snowman’ and ‘Fungus the Bogeyman’, stepped into this terrifying territory and haunted us with ‘When The Wind Blows’.   And ‘Only Fools And Horses’ parodied our deepest fears of imminent nuclear conflict with an episode entitled ‘The Russians Are Coming’ in which the hapless Trotters build a fallout shelter at the top of a tower block.  This was not so far from reality – anyone could buy DIY shelter kits through the Sunday supplements, which carried adverts for them as if getting one was on a par with purchasing a new shed.   With one of these safe havens in your back garden you could relax in the knowledge that when World War III kicked off (which it was definitely going to at any moment) you’d be protected against radiation by a few layers of lead, dirt and concrete and some strategically placed cushions.

On the other hand - perhaps as a direct response to the above - there were a lot of bright  and creative things going on behind the scenes.  However, the mainstream took colourful frivolity to an extreme, and seemed dominated by a culture (if you can call it that) of bubble perms and padded shoulders.   Frothy bands like Bucks Fizz topped the charts; everything about them summed up this strange, frilly party atmosphere.  On the surface it was all primary colours and lipgloss, and I can’t blame anyone for wanting that escapism.  If I’d been into plastic pop and not into punk – or at least the ‘anarcho’ element which some of it had evolved into -  maybe I could have remained ostrich-like too, and emerged from the sand a few years later, blinking incredulously while asking, “Did I miss anything important?” 

For a short time I felt right in the thick of it, immersed in a scene in which music and politics became so tightly entwined that fanzine writers interviewed bands less about their musical influences and more about their stance on fascism and veganism.  Record sleeve artwork no longer exposed us merely to horrific fashion crimes, but instead to the horrors of crimes against animals and the inhabitants of third world countries.  Although… speaking of fashion, the faded black shapeless uniform of protagonists and followers did suggest an almost criminal lack of imagination. (With the exception of Rubella Ballet, who brought a much needed splash of dayglo to those murky days.)  

My college portfolio at the time included collages of mushroom clouds, strange drawings of women bound by bandages and barbed wire, and a lot of black and red.  I was even commissioned to do a picture of balaclava-wearing activists carrying puppies and guinea pigs for an Animal Liberation Front flyer. 

Of course, I still had some fun; skiving off college and travelling halfway round the country in the back of a hired Sherpa Van with my boyfriend’s anarcho punk band was not without its lighter moments.  There were nice people around and good gigs and sometimes a very genuine sense of connection, especially in the face of this cold-hearted world we were kicking against.  And the causes were very real; we cared about both human and animal rights, the divisive effects of the Thatcher government, the miners’ strike, police oppression, poverty, sexism, racism, etc., etc. It’s easy to feel downhearted about the notion that we didn’t make any difference – but in a small way I think we did, and maybe I’ll write more about that another day.

Meanwhile, it seems strange now to think that I really did spend some time in my late teens giving serious consideration to what I’d do when the four minute warning was sounded (eat chocolate? - snog the first person I saw? - phone a friend?) whilst at the same time Top Of The Pops gave us fluffy pink-clad dancers flashing vacuous grins to four minute pop songs.