Monday, 31 August 2015

Your cassette pet

There are so many reasons not to like cassettes.  How many times did something go awry and a horrible spinning/whipping sound replaced your favourite track? - you’d press ‘eject’ and find miles of thin brown tape spewing out like intestines from its plastic casing.  

Or you’d left your tapes on the dashboard of your Ford Fiesta, within reach of an absent-minded grope for them with the other hand on the wheel and your eyes on the roundabout, only to find that the previous week’s heatwave had rendered them all into some strange, melted work of art. This abstract sculpture of plastic and magnetic polymer had also now stuck permanently to the inside of your car.

Then there were the inlay cards.  Some kind souls on the product design team at TDK / Sony / Maxell / Dindy (or whoever) had thought this one through and allowed plenty of neat lines on which to write out the full details of our track-listings.  But, the lines were 4cm wide with 3mm space in between.  It wasn't easy...

One of few cassettes I still have - circa 1977

Still, I have such fond memories of recording on cassette.  As a schoolgirl without enough pocket money to spend much on records,  it was the only way I could get to hear many songs more than once.  I’d tune in to John Peel, desperate to hear a session from Wire or Siouxsie & the Banshees for instance, but because it was a week night and everyone else had already gone to bed I had to keep the volume right down.  Between 10pm and midnight I could record Peel's musical choices with my ear pressed up against the speakers, straining to hear - and then play them, loudly, at last, when I got home from school the next day.  Late at night in the half-light of a table lamp, I’d be on standby with two fingers at the ready on the heavy, clunky record and play keys, or to let the pause button on and off between songs.  I remember one fateful night when I somehow ended up getting it the wrong way round, like missing one step in a dance routine and staying out of synch for the entire duration; I was releasing the pause button when I thought I was pressing it, and ended up with all of John Peel’s dulcet-toned introductions and comments (so there were plenty of 'this one fades in slowly’s) but absolutely NO music…

Best of all, perhaps, was the chance to make compilation tapes for special people.  Every tape had character, maybe even a bit of covert meaning, and a great deal of thought, care and, sometimes, passion went into the compiling of them.  It still does with CDRs to a point, and with these at least we can make our own fancy colour covers (and tracklistings that are actually legible) with technology that we could only dream of once, but there was definitely something about the handmade-ness of a taped comp that was so endearing.  The handwriting of the person who made it for you was somehow comforting and extremely personal, or if you were making it for someone else you might deliberate over your (miniature) calligraphy like it was a love letter - which in some cases, perhaps, it was.  Sometimes you even heard the needle in the groove of a 45rpm or - if the tape’s creator wasn’t quite spot on with the timings - the sound of it alighting on, or lifting off, the vinyl.  It was like you were there.

There are many reasons not to like cassettes, but in a way there are just as many reasons to have loved them too.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Petting time

It seems like certain 'types' of pets go in and out of fashion like so many other things, and maybe we can even link them to a particular era.  Tortoises, for instance.  Tortoises were very popular pets here in the '70s, weren't they?  Unfortunately for them they were being shipped to the UK in huge numbers, cruelly packed in appalling conditions – a great percentage never made the journey.  But the ones that survived were quickly despatched to pet shops and bought by enthusiastic children - we'd all been watching Blue Peter. Some had their names painted on their shells and occasionally may have had chains or ropes drilled into them - it seemed nobody questioned whether this process would cause them stress or pain.  

My dear little tortoise Timmy managed to survive a few winter hibernations in a cardboard box in the garage, his shell intact (although I did give it a bit of a polish with Blue Band margarine on occasion).   He enjoyed a diet of dandelion leaves and bananas and had a remarkably runny nose out of which he could blow the most impressive little bubbles of snot.  I could relate to him rather well at the age of nine.

But Timmy wasn't my very first personal pet.  That was a goldfish.  During a trip to the local fair (where else?) my sister and I each won a goldfish sealed inside a tiny polythene bag of water.  I'd probably despair at the number which were flushed down toilets soon after being won on the coconut shy - but I'm happy to report that ours were relocated into a rather splendid tank with rocks and shells and all sorts of Neptunian items in it to make them feel a bit at home.

From inauspicious beginnings in a plastic bag at a small-town-England fair with its rock’n’roll soundtrack and dodgy dodgems, Judith and Geraldine went on to live surprisingly long (and hopefully happy) lives in their comfortable tank chez nous.  In summer they took a holiday in the little pond in the garden, where they could mingle with tadpoles and the occasional newt.  The rest of the year they were safe and warm on a ledge in the bathroom where we watched them, and from which they had a fish-eye lens view of a human family as we took our baths and used the loo.    I think we got the better deal of the two.

Goldfish with attitude

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Land of make believe

A random mention of Bucks Fizz of all people reminded me of an old picture I'd made from around 1982.   So I pulled it out from its mouldy plastic sleeve in the portfolio behind the sofa…

Please, please make allowances for me being still in my teens at the time I drew this…and don't look too closely at the tiny hands and feet...

I think I was inspired by the Top Of The Pops video for the Land Of Make Believe single where they get to dress up in several different outfits, some of which just seemed ridiculously inappropriate, so I was being tongue-in-cheek by including the very clichéd-looking punk Destroy t-shirt - although I could be wrong, but I’m not resilient enough to sit through the whole video to check if Bobby ever did don such a garment parody-style.  I was most definitely not a fan!

I got really into depicting pop people of the time in rather bizarre ways which may explain this

Whether you were to threaten me with lead piping in the library or not, I just don’t have a clue now why I’ve shown Mari Wilson as a Cluedo character (maybe because she didn't need hands or feet...?), though I think I probably had the intention of creating a whole set of music-related cards for the game one day. And now I think about it, it could include, oh….Dr John...Colonel Abrahams... Professor Green (yes! That one works on two levels!)...

Paul King from King received similar treatment a few years later, when Love And Pride was riding high in the charts.

But all the pictures stayed in their plastic sleeves in the portfolio, which has now lived behind several sofas over more years than I care to count, and unsurprisingly never saw the light of day until here - that may explain the mould. 

Friday, 28 August 2015

Bungalows, beach huts and a boy named Bob

I’m sure the sun shone every day when I was a child on the school summer break, which seemed to last for months and months.   A montage of memories includes tarmac so hot it stuck to the bottoms of my flip-flops, water fights with the kids next door using Fairy Liquid bottles, and a strange plague of ladybirds one year which made news headlines.  I can also bring to mind Sky Ray ice lollies, riding my bike round and round in front of the house in my pink shorts, and holidays at my grandparents’ bungalow in a little seaside town.

Their home was on a small (and oh so modern!) '60s development, perfect for retired people, where all the buildings were identical and had large windows overlooking perfect, neat lawns. Inside, however, the décor was just as in their previous, older, dingier house: green fabric lamp shades with brocade and tassels, antimacassars on the armchairs, dark ugly (and slightly scary) wardrobes.  My older sister and I shared the double bed in the spare room when we stayed at the bungalow.  I loved that bed because it was the highest one I’d ever slept in; it felt like a huge effort to climb onto it to get under the candy striped sheets and custard-coloured candlewick bedspread. When inside it I felt elevated, like the princess in Hans Christian Andersen's The Princess and the Pea.

I loved waking in the mornings too; the sunlight coming in through the spotless windows looked different from that at home, and the noisy calls of the gulls were a daily beckon to the beach - that special seaside sound which is still so vividly evocative now.

My grandparents had a beach hut.  Little more than a shed without windows, it smelt deliciously of seaweed, suntan oil (oil!) and the gas from a Campingaz stove which they took down there to heat water for the tea that the grown-ups drank (while I sucked on a Sky Ray).  Diligent sweeping of the hut's wooden floor could never completely rid it of sand.  An old tea-chest in the corner contained buckets, spades, plastic beakers and a pack of playing cards in case it rained.  It never did.  There was sand in the tea-chest too.

One of the last times I stayed in that seaside town was when I was thirteen - but it wasn’t for a proper holiday.  My granddad had just died so the family went down for the funeral and to stay a few days either side of it.  After a long, difficult illness, his death wasn't unexpected and the mood in the bungalow that week was a strange mix of residual sadness with a simultaneous lightness of heart.  When it came to the the actual funeral, my mum suggested I shouldn’t go, so I went off to the beach alone.  I walked up and down the front seemingly hundreds of times, happy to be by myself - until a teenage boy caught my eye.  I liked his white cap-sleeved T-shirt, the chunky silver chain around his neck and the style of his sunglasses.  It was a look that, in the late Spring of '77, gave promise of someone who might have a harder-edged taste in music. Being particularly plain and nerdy in my adolescence I was extra shy around boys but, somehow, away from home, I found a new confidence and it wasn’t long before embarrassed smiles turned into tentative introductions.

We talked very awkwardly for a while, and then went walking along the front together.  'Bob from Mitcham' and I had nothing in common apart from the fact that we were both kids alone for an afternoon at the beach.  But that was all we needed.  Stilted conversation eventually turned to rather more suggestive (although really quite innocent) banter – it was easier - and then we sneaked round the back of the cluttered beach shop with its funny little model pirate heads hanging on the wall next to a display of blown glass animals (why would anyone buy pirate heads or glass animals at the beach…?)   He took hold of my hand.  Away from public view I was pressed gently but willingly against the wall as he kissed me; he was still wearing his sunglasses.  I didn’t know much about kissing but he clearly did, and I was glad.  Sweetly, given my naivete, he didn’t try to do anything else.  We just kissed.  And kissed.

It wasn’t long, though, before I had to get back to the bungalow for the return of the funeral-goers.  I told Bob from Mitcham that I must leave and I knew we wouldn’t try and see eachother again - and that was fine.  We’d already run out of things to say anyway.  But before we parted he unhooked the silver chain from around his neck.  "This is for you," he said, handing it over.  My heart skipped a beat as I clutched it tightly and then headed back from the beach without even daring to look around.  

Back at the bungalow, a gaggle of relatives and family friends were already getting tipsy on sherry and eating generous portions of Quiche Lorraine.  There was plenty of therapeutic laughter and jollity in the way that usually surfaces once funereal formalities are over.  “Were you okay on your own today, not too bored?” my cousin asked. “Yeah I was fine,” I said as I popped a triangular cheese sandwich into my mouth with one hand, stroking the chunky silver chain around my neck with the other.  I’m sure the sun shone more brightly than usual for the rest of that week.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

DIY fashion

My poor parents must've despaired when I started raiding the cupboards for old tins of emulsion, food colouring, various bits of hardware like ancient plugs and chains, and eggs....

Having tried various methods with hairspray and even vaseline, I found that the only way I could make my fine, peroxide white (and naturally wavy) hair stand up in stiff straight spikes was to use egg-white. It worked a treat but I'm not sure my mum was too pleased about the amount I got through, she could've been making lemon meringue pies instead. You can just about make out the green in the back of my hair here too – I hadn't yet discovered Crazy Colour out here in the sticks, so food colouring was the only option. Unfortunately it ran when it rained, but then with hair coated in egg-white going out in wet weather was best avoided anyway.

It was fun getting it to defy gravity and coping with all the comments that ensued when walking through the town. “Have you seen a ghost?” “You wanna have a word with your hairdresser!”, “You had an electric shock?” and far more abusive remarks too, of course, which you can well imagine I'm sure.

Great fun was to be had too in making these trousers pictured . They were just plain black straights which my older sister had turned out, and I laid them in the bath and splattered them with emulsion paint... just what was left in the bottom of any old tins I could find. I tried to make them a bit arty, with thicker paint around the hems where the colour intensified. I was really pleased with how they turned out, although they were a bit crusty-feeling and had to be washed very carefully (and preferably infrequently).

Also pictured here is a little child's satchel which I'd had since I was about five, now decorated with an old Union Jack flag salvaged from the 1977 Jubilee 'celebrations', and a piece of string vest for some strange reason, which I'd previously found in a charity shop, dyed pink and worn as a top but which had gradually fallen apart. The jacket came from an army surplus store and needed no embellishing; it was perfect in its khaki colour, with plentiful pockets and zips, and even came with an A in a circle on the sleeve which looked a bit like the Anarchy symbol.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015


Even though it's over 30 years since the release of the film Quadrophenia I still love it (despite its well-known chronological / continuity errors!)  I saw it soon after it came out, at the local Odeon, which just happened to be a five minute walk from my college.  It immediately attracted the attention of some of us who’d just started on the Art Foundation course.  Terry, a kind and unassuming mod, was very excited, and suggested that we skive off one afternoon to catch it, so a little gaggle of us did just that.  There was Ivor, the Sid Vicious lookalike (except that he had curly hair – the bane of his life) and his soul-boy mate Jake (white socks), my fellow punk friends Jill (slightly Siouxsie-ish) and Andy (chided for wearing 'Jam' shoes with bondage trousers), parka-clad Terry, and me (spiky peroxide-white hair).  Being a midweek matinée the cinema was nearly empty and we spread ourselves over two seats each, right in the middle.  Munching on bumper packs of Opal Fruits and Butterkist, we lapped up the gritty tale of a troubled young mod from ‘60s London and his cohorts, as they battled through a lot more than just the obvious conflicts with their nemesis rockers, to a vibrant, evocative soundtrack. For a start it was a much better way to spend time than designing a label for a box of dog biscuits (to a soundtrack of marker pens squeaking on paper), but, more than that, for us teenage viewers it had it ALL.  Music, parties, youth tribes, aggro, sex, drugs, unsympathetic parents, disillusionment, misunderstanding, fashion, anger… 

Like Quadrophenia’s central character, Jimmy, there were some lost souls in my local punk scene too.  Jimmy could have been pink-haired Allie, whom I remember admiringly for being one of the first to buy proper Crazy Colour from London (while the rest of us were still using food colouring).  Being a punk meant everything to him but he had that unsettled edge, as if constantly seeking something he was never going to find.  The last time I heard of him, an unhappy home life and hard drugs had taken their toll and he’d ended up in a psychiatric hospital.  I hope he recovered, and didn’t take a trip to Beachy Head. 

In Quadrophenia, Jimmy did take a trip to Beachy Head on The Ace's stolen scooter - and my college friends and I couldn’t quite figure out if he’d intended to go over the edge with it as well.  Still, we enjoyed the whole film.  Terry particularly loved the soundtrack, the scooters and the clothes, of course.  Jill, Andy, Ivor and I were quite chuffed to see Toyah – she was still a bit of a punk figure largely from her ‘Jubilee’movie appearance – and I think Jake was quite happy just to see Lesley Ash being shagged in an alleyway.   But the main thing was its relatability, in spite of its retro theme.  At that time I didn’t really care about the past and had little interest in music or fashion from another era.  I would have turned my naïve and snotty punk nose up at a Who single (I know...) - yet I liked some of what I’d heard by mod revival bands because they were contemporary.  Daft as it sounds now, ‘Mod’ to me then only meant 1979 Mod ! Some months before seeing Quadrophenia, my local gig venue had put on an all day mod event...

Wonder what the prize was for the 'best decorated parka'..? 

Punks and mods had mingled relatively easily there – just as we did at college too - because for the main part we felt some kind of allegiance.   A mutual liking for the Jam probably helped us to cross those boundaries too.   Any rivalry between us was generally confined to light-hearted ribbing.  Some elements of our look were shared, like short hair, straight trousers and multiple badges, and separated both tribes equally from hippies, teds, skinheads and disco kids.    I guess we had a joint feeling of being in the margins through our own choosing.  Our parents laughed at the records we bought... "is that how you're supposed to play a guitar now, then?" ...and couldn’t understand our sartorial obsessions... "I suppose they wear wet jeans'n'all?".    Kids got beaten up for the way they dressed and teenage dreams were shattered by adult reality.  Of course Quadrophenia acknowledged all of that.  It couldn’t have been a better time for me to see it.

When some other friends said they wanted to go to the pictures just a week later, I was happy to join them and watch it all over again.  And I watched it again the other night, all these years on.  Even from this distance and with some very different priorities and cares, I recognised a lot of those teenage feelings once more. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

January 1978

"...The ugly baby called punk rock should have been aborted before its evil face saw the light of day..." is what our local newspaper commented the week after Siouxsie & The Banshees played in the town in January 1978.  My friends and I dropped in to the Gazette offices after school to complain... and got engaged in what felt like a heated debate with the journalist, who somehow managed to defend the paper's opinion with a straight face to three girls in brown uniforms and flat shoes.  In return, all we could do was take up his suggestion of writing a letter to the paper which they would print - we did - and  I wish I'd kept that too.

However, I still keep my memory of what it was all about and it was my first, proper gig.  I was, under-age and with tender ear-drums. Getting through the doors past the bouncer, in spite of being nearly four years under eighteen (and him being the size of a house), wasn’t a problem (perhaps because I was a girl…?) Even the process of buying a pint of cider at the bar was painless. Coping with the volume was something that got easier as the night wore on. But concealing my excitement at seeing a band I really admired up there on the stage, in all their real, raw glory, playing songs I had only previously heard in session on John Peel’s radio show, was impossible. 

I say ‘proper’ here because I had sort of seen a few live musical performances prior to this. The very first ‘grown-up’ one was a few months before when my friends and I stumbled into a 'Rock Club' night and caught a few numbers being played by some local bunch of long-hairs about whom every detail except that escapes me.The hall was sparsely populated and most of the punters were sitting on the floor, so it wasn’t exactly what you’d call wild. And as we were being picked up at 9.30pm by my friend’s over-anxious dad (we had school next day) the evening was a bit of a dead loss. So I’m not going to count that, particularly as I haven’t a clue who the group was. However my overwhelming delight and incredulity when I heard that Siouxsie and co. were coming to our small, provincial home is something I can’t forget.

Triad started out as an Arts Centre and my mum got very involved in it, so I got taken along to see arty puppet shows, strange plays, an evening with Richard Nixon (the ‘70s newsreader) and even an Indian sitar performance which I like to think might have been Ravi Shankar but which I suspect was very probably not… Then in the late ‘70s it became more of a rock music venue. It must have had a pretty on-the-ball team doing the bookings because in the space of just a couple of years not only the Banshees but also Motorhead and Adam & the Ants played there (pre-mainstream fame, pre-white nose stripe and pre-two drummers…) Later it became a regular haunt for local punks and was where I spent every Tuesday and Saturday night, taking in bands as diverse as the Newtown Neurotics (local heroes of the time), Wayne County and the Electric Chairs, Crass (who hailed from just up the road), and the Passions.

Siouxsie & the Banshees were seminal, though. From memory I'm sure Siouxsie was dressed just as I’d seen her in music mag pics (striped t-shirt and thigh-length boots, black hair short and glossy andcharacteristic eye make-up) and performed to an enthusiastic audience. I bet if somebody was to do a TV drama on early punk they'd be tempted to show the crowd at an early 1978 Banshees gig in band-name t-shirts, boutique bondage and spiky crazy-coloured hair/mohawks but it really wasn’t like that then. There were loads of blokes with longish hair wearing great-coats, and those of us who had just started to adopt a very embryonic punk look were deemed outrageous simply for wearing straight trousers and baggy shirts, etc. We hadn't even cut our hair at this point. But the look was so shocking, apparently, that the local paper sent a photographer along to take some shots of the kids enjoying themselves, including me and my friends.  We pulled faces for the charming camera man and posed as defiantly as (really rather sweet) fourteen-year-old girls at their first gig could.

"Don't tell my mum I've drunk a pint of cider"

When the paper published its article and prejudiced comment, it's no wonder we objected.  My experience was of a truly great night – very much as real, raw and glorious as I had hoped. I’d got past the burly bouncers, drunk a little too much and passed my initiation into the world of proper, live music with nothing worse than perhaps slightly ringing ear-drums the next morning, seeing a band I had admired from afar. The excitement lived on for a long while.

Phoro credit unknown, original print is in my own possession

Monday, 24 August 2015

I'm with the band

A slight smell of stale cigarette smoke lingers in the stingingly cold night air. The floor of the back of the transit van where I sit feels icy, even through my trousers. My back hurts, leaning against something hard and unyielding, its corner poking into my shoulder.

There are six of us – no, hang on, actually there are seven of us, trying to ‘snuggle’ down between amps, drums, guitar cases, backdrops and bags of leads and pedals, behind the cab, hoping to catch a little bit of sleep as the vehicle we’re travelling in rumbles down the motorway in the bleak early hours of a winter morning.

The guitarist, drummer and bassist, and their three girlfriends, one of whom is me, make up six. The vocalist and his girlfriend are sitting in the front with her brother, the informally appointed roadie. The seventh person in the back with us is a ‘fan’ who is cadging a lift back home after the gig. When everyone was packing up at the end of the night - always a long-winded and frustrating business - he’d asked, “Any chance of dropping me off in Hull?”  (or wherever it was).  With the band’s badges on his lapel glinting in the streetlights as he’d made his request, the bass player and self-appointed spokesman for the group could not have refused. However, the detour for this additional passenger takes us maybe an hour out of our way back home and it feels like an eternity when we’ve got so many more miles to go. But this often seems to happen at gigs; there is always someone in the van travelling back with us who hasn’t travelled out with us, and usually it’s someone who smells strongly of sweat and dope and farts, with long limbs and a bulky rucksack, taking up precious space and time. And space and time mean more than anything on the home-bound stretch, because everyone is knackered, hungry, dehydrated, cold, squashed up, uncomfortable and grumpy. Everyone just wants to get home as soon as possible, longing for deep sleep in a warm, soft, bed. But at least nobody can accuse the band of being ungenerous in that respect.

It was the early 1980s and this became quite a frequent event for a while as I travelled with my boyfriend’s anarcho punk band to an assortment of venues up and down the country. We usually tried to get back the same night, which in reality meant arriving home just as the sun was coming up.  A few times we stayed over, like once in a damp squat – a condemned terraced house with no plumbing (ironically it was in Bath) - and another time on the floor of tiny council flat in a high rise in St. Helens. That one had plumbing but, by strange coincidence, the toilet was broken. We had to use the bath.

My memories of those days are a melange of odd moments and images. From being stopped and searched by the Mets as we travelled home through South London, to seeing a cow giving birth as we ventured through the Cumbrian hills on the way to a gig near the Windscale (as it was then called) nuclear plant. From hearing rumours that British Movement skinheads were going to storm in and give everyone a kicking at Grimsby (they didn’t), to paddling in the sea before a gig in Fareham. There were the unkempt crusty/hippie children climbing on top of the van at Stonehenge, where tales of Hells Angels with knives made the place feel distinctly unwelcoming and the schedule got so far behind that in the end the band didn’t play anyway. And there was the punk in Burnley who was ‘wearing’ a condom, attached to his face between safety pins (one in his lip, one in his nose. It was quite a look.) It turned out he was the singer in one of the support bands, whose only memorable number was a re-worded demolition of Eddie Cochran’s ‘C’mon Everybody’ endearingly entitled ‘Fuck Off Everybody’.

I remember the inter-band arguments, the waiting around at soundchecks, the sharing of bags of chips with chilli sauce at The George Robey, the listening in on fanzine interviews, and the way only Northern punks sported moustaches… Strangely enough, perhaps, the thing I probably remember the least about is the performances. They were good, though.  Of course.

So where are they now? The bassist founded a record company, the vocalist and drummer are fine and I met them again a few years ago, and the guitarist… well, he’s in the kitchen right now, making me a cup of tea.

It's my party

In the Summer of '77 I decided to celebrate my fourteenth birthday with my first proper party.

It really should have been fine.  My parents insisted on being in the house but said they’d stay upstairs, out of sight.  We were allowed to have a few cans of shandy, which felt terribly daring but, with all the Coke we'd be washing them down with, seemed unlikely to get any of us swaying and slurring our words.

Plates of Cheesy Wotsits and KP WigWams were arranged on the table and a collection of singles stacked up on the stereogram.  The turntable had one of those auto-changer things where you could pile them up and they'd drop down one by one - perfect - and I was very excited about the varied selection of 45s that my friends and I had pooled together for the big night.

We rolled up the rugs so that the parquet flooring was exposed, ready for the easy mopping-up of inevitable spillages and some non-slip dancing.  By 7pm my female friends had arrived, smelling sweetly of Charlie perfume, made-up in powder blue eye-shadow and lip-gloss.  Then the much-anticipated male contingent turned up: my (very) new boyfriend J, who I was keen to impress, and a small group of his mates whom I’d asked him to invite.  My pal Helen was quite interested in tall, curly-haired Nigel, and their shyly exchanged glances across the mustard-painted living room gave promise of an exciting liaison later on.  “When are you going to play some slow ones?” she asked as I rifled through the singles, placing the Alessi Brothers ‘Oh Lori’and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Sir Duke’onto the long spindle.   She looked longingly at my sister’s copy of ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ by Rod Stewart.

It was a beautiful, warm July evening, and it could all have gone so well, only I hadn’t banked on J telling a whole load of other people that there would be free drink, food, music and girls that night at Holloway Close.  I must have been busy topping up the bowl of salt and vinegar Twists when somebody let them in.  One big, older lad already seemed to have a bit of a sway and a slur and an air of arrogance about him.  His name was Rob.  But J said he was OK.  And anything that J said was OK must be OK.  He was my boyfriend, after all.

By dusk the party was in full swing but things had already started to go awry.  Helen had disappeared and was found upstairs crying because Nigel had declined her approaches. This tragic rejection resulted in her downing two cans of shandy, then falling against the edge of the toilet and laddering her Pretty Polly tights, before fleeing into the bathroom to sob inconsolably.  It was so bad she couldn’t even be persuaded to come down and dance to the bouncing beat of Joe Tex’s ‘Ain’t Gonna Bump No More With No Big Fat Woman’.  (I later discovered, of course, that no party is complete without a girl ending up in tears before 10pm.)

I'd rather hoped to get some serious kissing practice in with J but he was barely talking to me.  Every time I looked for him he was in the midst of the uninvited boys, including Rob, who were gathering in the dining room acting rather furtively.  I consoled myself with DJ-ing duties and found to my excitement that one of the lads had at least brought along some good records.  On went the Jam 'In The City' album; I'd never heard it before.  'Art School'...  'I've Changed My Address'...  it was all sounding good.

But then the shouting started.


I looked out the window and there was Rob now in the back garden, flailing his arms and kicking the wooden edges of the guinea-pig run. There was something in his right hand – a bottle.  A whisky bottle.  It was nearly empty.

The guinea pigs started to squeak, anxiously.  The neighbour’s head appeared from over the other side of the fence – I'd like to think now that he might even have shaken a fist although I suspect he didn't. Rob continued to shout and swear and swig from the bottle.  “YOU’RE ALL FUCKING ARSEHOLES! PISS OFF!”  My friends and I edged nervously towards the back door as the Jam’s ‘Time For Truth’ started to play, Paul Weller’s voice drifting across the lawn…

…’you’re just another red balloon with a lot of hot gas
Why don’t you fuck off?
And you think you’ve got it worked out
And you think you’ve got it made
And you’re trying to play the hero
But you never walk home in the dark
I think it’s time for truth…’

And then my mum appeared.  She walked out into the garden and stood right in front of this drunk, swaggering sixteen-year-old boy, her hands on her hips.  Time for truth indeed.

I later found out that far more dodgy things go on at parties of course, but at the tender age of fourteen this one couldn’t have been much more cringe-worthy.  A boy who I didn’t even know was swearing at my mum who had discovered that he’d found the family whisky hidden away in the dining room and had drunk most of it.  Under the beady eye of the neighbour and my embarrassed schoolfriends, she kicked Rob out and closed the party down.  Lights went on, music went off.  And then J chucked me.  I think I might have cried.  Just a little.

The only good thing to come out of it was that J forgot to take his copy of ‘Anarchy In The UK’ with him.  I kept it for several weeks before reluctantly handing it back, having taped both sides and decided that I’d never liked him that much anyway.

In case you’re wondering, the guinea-pigs were fine.  I never had another party, though. Oh and I’ve just realised that my mum was younger then than I am now.  Perhaps that’s an even cringier thought.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Girl next door

My parents, sister and I lived at No. 2 for many years, while some different families moved in and out of No. 3.  The first was a sweet German couple with three children.  Michaela, the youngest, and I quickly became playmates.  Every Saturday afternoon she’d call round and she had a habit of being early.   “It’s Bing Bong,” my mum would say, knowing that the little girl pressing our two-note doorbell  bing-bong, bing-bong, bing-bong - while we were still finishing our lunch - would be Michaela.   I still think of her as Bing Bong.  However, on summer Sunday mornings she would forego the bing-bong and the signal to go out to play would be the tinkling of a cowbell coming from her open bedroom window.  I’d go to my shelf full of model animals and Ladybird books to find the little brass bell with the painting of eidelweiss on it (that she’d given me), open my window and shake it in response. 

I was sad when Michaela and her family moved back to Germany, but she left me her golden yellow painted bike, which I named Dobbin, and a pair of children’s skis.  The skis got stored away in our draughty garage, along with Dobbin; unlike that bike they never got any use, although I did slip my feet into them sometimes just to try and imagine what it might feel like to be a skier.  Dobbin, meanwhile, was ridden with great frequency, round and round the quiet road in front of the house, up and over splintery planks set up as ramps, and in and out of slaloms of upturned seaside buckets and other assorted objects.  He was used and abused, until his paint rubbed off, his brakes rusted and his tyres perished, just as a bike should be.

Next in at No 3 was a contrasting family.  The dad was a lorry driver and the mum was a hairdresser, they drove a Ford Cortina and had two white, rather smelly poodles whose curly-haired heads were often decorated with red ribbons.  There was an Aunty Renee who visited them frequently, usually turning up in full ballroom dancing regalia and beehive hairdo, wearing more make-up than Divine.  The older of their two daughters, Mandy, was the same age as me.  I wasn’t sure about Mandy at first; she didn’t seem to understand the concept of sharing.   She would happily eat her way through a packet of Tooty Frooties or a paper bag of Sherbet Pips without offering them around.  At her birthday parties we played Pass The Parcel and every time the music stopped her mum made sure it was when the brown paper package reached Mandy’s grasping hands.  And every time her little girl excitedly tore at each layer of wrapping, there would be a  present under it for her, like a pencil-top rubber shaped like a mouse or little pack of sweet cigarettes.  After an afternoon of similarly manipulated games, the rest of us went home empty-handed.  Maybe that’s why she never latched on to the sharing thing.  She was also the biggest liar I’d ever met.  I got used to Mandy’s ways, though, and when we were nine she took me to my very first (and only) under-12s disco on the other side of town in a hall where there were snooker tables and dartboards.  “They have striptease nights here sometimes,” Mandy told me proudly, “and a lady takes all her clothes off”.   I was shocked.  All her clothes?” I ventured, nervously, trying to imagine something that I couldn’t really understand, but which seemed horrifying and unspeakable. I was haunted by this thought for some time.  Ladies took all their clothes off in places like this?  Something told me, though, that Mandy wasn’t lying this time.

No. 3’s next occupants were a headmaster, his teacher wife and their only child, Janet.  “Oh, you look like a little pixie,” were Janet’s first words to me, to which I took great offence.  She was a bit older than me and seemed very bossy and bookish; I couldn’t imagine ringing bells out of the window to her or accompanying her to junior discos.  She wasn’t very good at sharing, either.  And, unlike mine, her house was like a showroom, with nothing ever out of place and strange looking objects kept in highly polished glass fronted cabinets. But we got on in a remote kind of way and sometimes walked home from school together or rode our bikes around.  One Summer, Janet’s cousin Robert came over to their house for a week and she persuaded me to let him borrow Dobbin, which he did enthusiastically, every day, while I propelled myself along behind them on my annoyingly tiring metal scooter.   On the day of his departure Robert announced,  “I don’t like your bike.  You’ll have to get a bigger one for next time I come here.” 

Playing was easier with the family of six at No. 1, who moved in the same time as us and stayed there long after mine had gone our separate ways.  They were an eccentric family at times with some idiosyncracies, but then so were we.  With two boys and two girls, an apple tree in the garden, assorted bikes, a piano, a mangy cat (left to them by the German family from No. 3 – I think I got the better deal), bows, arrows and a selection of cowboy and indian outfits, an inflatable paddling pool and a Spacehopper , theirs was like something out of an Enid Blyton story.  We all frolicked, fought, laughed, argued, teased, climbed, made mud pies, grazed knees, built snowmen and did bicycle slaloms together - and we all knew how to share.  I think I was quite a lucky girl next door.

Happy days with the neighbours
(That's me in the middle, with black tights and missing front tooth)