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she looked: tall and slender, she had dyed hair the colour of copper piping which she backcombed up in an elaborate and outdated beehive, wore a gold letter M around her neck and the shortest skirts I’d ever seen on anyone not on TV.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.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Watch that man

I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who doesn’t like at least some Bowie.  My first real awareness of him was when my sister bought ‘Aladdin Sane’ in 1973.  She played it a lot and even my mum liked it.  I was only ten and soon became familiar with every song, every note and vocal inflection, in that way that you do as a child without even realising it.  I may well have been heard singing ‘Cracked Actor’, for instance, on the way to the sweet shop to buy my sherbet pips.  It was also the first time I heard (but didn’t understand) wankingquaaludes and incestuous, when Bowie crossed more boundaries in the unsettling theatrical darkness of ‘Time’.   (It would be a few years before I assaulted my family’s eardrums with ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ and the explicit lyrics of ‘Bodies’ – but, of course, by then they were unshockable.)

I studied that iconic album cover so many times, wondering about the unreal paleness of his skin and the pool of mercurial-looking substance in the cavity behind his left clavicle.  It was only later that I explored his full back-catalogue and added several Bowie albums to my own collection, but 'Aladdin Sane' has always felt like my personal introduction to the man.

In my mid-teens my parents were splitting up and my mum went through another one of her deep bouts of clinical depression.  There are, naturally, many memories associated with all of that which I won’t go into here but, weirdly, one of them is 'Aladdin Sane'.  My mum started to listen to music a lot during that phase and for some reason she favoured that album.  I often heard her playing it late at night, and I admit it was a little disturbing. But there must have been something about it, something that touched her within its varying moods or the way that Bowie expresses his lyrics with a strange mixture of menace and relish – I think it’s both upbeat and downbeat in equal measure.  It was quite an insane time and the irony of that album title is not lost on me, but it’s still a record I love – along with a good deal of his other output. 

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Fast cars

Thanks to my Dad having a good job which involved some dealings overseas, I was lucky enough as a kid to spend three weeks travelling around Germany in the back of a Jaguar Mk II. 

It was the Summer of ’69 and I was coming up to six.  Dad bought the car specially for the trip as we needed something more spacious and comfortable than the Triumph Herald he used for work.

The Jaguar was racing green, with dark red leather upholstery and walnut trim.  I remember getting in the back of it for the first time and, although my interest in cars didn’t extend beyond my sister’s purple ‘Hot Wheels’ toy (with its bright orange track), I was very excited about our new vehicle.  It had a special smell, for a start.  The back seat, where I’d be spending a lot of time, felt like a luxurious sofa, and the best part was that there were these little flip-down, wooden, semi-circular ‘trays’ inserted into the back of the front seats, a bit like you have in aeroplanes.  These alone made me want to always eat in it, just for the pleasure of pulling them out and enjoying the novelty of a little James Bond-style gadget (or so it seemed).

So we drove all over Germany in this lovely, characterful car, speeding down the Autobahn and staying in a variety of houses and hotels along the way.  I remember one old Bed & Breakfast place in the middle of a busy town, maybe it was Nuremberg, and it was the first time I’d slept under a continental quilt.  I missed my English sheets and blanket.  There was a thunderstorm and I had a wobbly tooth.  My sister scared me with tales of how some people tied one end of a piece of string around a loose tooth and the other to a door handle and then slammed the door to pull it out.  In the background, as she explained this horrific extraction method, the skies rumbled and the lightning lit up the room like a camera flashcube.  That night I had bad dreams about teeth and doors and suffocating under demonic Deutsch duvets.  But a few days later my tooth fell out naturally and painlessly - and, amazingly, it turned out there was such a thing as a German tooth fairy, who kindly left a pfennig under my pillow the following morning. I was most impressed.

Some time after the German road trip the car started to play up and wasn’t practical to drive any more.  My Dad left it at the end of the road with the intention of doing a bit of weekend tinkering to get it back to roadworthy standard, but… ahem… he never got round to it. (A similar fate befell a stringless violin, a valve TV and numerous other objects.  Our home was like a shrine to unfinished projects.)  After some months - or maybe years -  the Mk II became home to spiders and ivy and probably several families of mice.  When bits of it started falling off and the neighbours threatened to petition for its removal, he finally advertised it for sale in the local paper. Soon a bald man in a sheepskin jacket came round to the house, gave him a crisp blue five pound note and towed the Jaguar away.  He was going to use it for Banger Racing, he said.  We didn’t mind the idea of our poor neglected car getting a new lease of life on a muddy race track, with black and white numbers painted on its bonnet; it seemed quite thrilling.

It never turned up on the Banger Racing circuit, though.  That autumn we saw it being driven proudly around town, all resprayed paintwork and shiny chrome, by a bald man in a sheepskin jacket.  I bet he loved those flip-down trays too.  Maybe he’d even drive it round Germany one day?  If ever there was a car for the Autobahn, it was that one.

Mind you, my Mum had kept something from the car as a memento before we parted with it.  She unscrewed the beautiful silver jaguar ornament from the long bonnet and replaced the traditional handle on the inside of our front door with it.  It stayed there for years and was a great conversation piece: “What an unusual door handle!  It looks like one of those bonnet ornaments from a Jaguar car!”  “Yes - that’s exactly what it is….”   Luckily it never got used for pulling teeth.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

What's my name?

I had a friend once whose slim limbs and bony joints earned her the nickname Beanpole, and no matter how many Curly Wurlys or Freddo bars she ate, to everyone else’s chagrin she stayed as skinny as one.  At the same time, a classmate of rather more generous proportions was affectionately referred to as Podge. She took to this quite happily as a term of endearment and the name endured.  This being in the olden days meant she was one of very few chubby pupils in the whole school and the body type which earned her such a ‘fattist’ term then may well be considered quite average now. 

For a short while I was rather unkindly called Pasty Face (because I was an insipid looking twelve-year-old with a complexion the colour of wallpaper paste, not because I looked like a Cornish meat and potato dish).  And Goldilocks seems quite sweet now, but at the time I didn't take it well, maybe it sounded too babyish.  Before that, my first name was conveniently tweaked a little to turn it into an unfashionable and slightly comical-sounding boy’s one. I didn’t like it but you learn to take it on the chin, don't you?  At least it was better than my young German neighbour’s nickname, Spaz, which, for all its un-PC-ness, was simply a contraction of Sebastian.

Fast forward to my mid-teens and down at the local music venue, which became the centre of a thriving punk scene in the late '70s, there were very few people whose real full names I ever got to know, even though I’d see them there at least once a week.

The punk world was perfect for spawning some memorable monikers, especially useful for those in bands.  So we had Anarchy and Chunky (no relation to Podge) in one, and Stringy, Snout and Bondage in another.   Less evocative-sounding and of unknown origin were the names Milky, Till and Dim.  And for anyone reading this who knows the poetic output of one Attila the Stockbroker I can reliably inform you that back then he was Basil Boghead. 

Then again musicians and singers have been using handy epithets for decades.  Iggy Pop has so much more of a ring to it than James Osterberg, Twinkle far more exotic than Lynn Ripley. 

I use a shortened version of my name in my professional life, but  it's this internet business which has really given us scope.  I mean, now I have friends named after animals and vegetables...

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

I am a cliché

A lovely friend sent me a surprise in the post the other day.  I opened the package, pulled it out, and found myself grinning broadly just at the sight of this…

It was one of those books I had forgotten even existed until I saw its anachronistic cover again and then it suddenly seemed incredibly familiar.  I couldn’t even remember if I had owned it or borrowed it many years ago, but whatever the case it hadn’t been in my possession for that long.  Yet seeing it once more I just felt so well-acquainted with it.

I haven’t re-read it yet - I will do soon, just for the hell of it, and doubt it will take me more than an hour - but simply flicking through its pages, all 62 of them, is so evocative.  Everything about this book is a cliché (even its manual typewriter style typeface) and yet somehow that is exactly what confirms its authenticity.  You could say it looks crap now and it looked crap then, but I think it could only have been taken the slightest bit seriously at the time it was created, in 1977.  I mean, if it had been written in 1987, you’d notice the detailed fashion descriptions, the daft names (and dropped names) and you’d imagine it could only have been concocted by someone who’d pulled out all the most obvious references from some kind of ‘Punk Rock For Dummies’ type tome.  You’d laugh slightly disbelievingly and file it away under ‘punk parodies’ along with Kenny Everett’s ‘Sid Snot’ TV slot.

The  narrator of this self-proclaimed ‘first punk novel’  is ‘Adolph Sphitz’.  He goes down the Kings Road.  He sees the Sex Pistols, the Damned and the Clash at the Roxy.  He knows someone called Captain Vicious.  He shares his small, chaotic teenage world with other punks and…. Teds.  Teddy-boys – remember them?!  Who knows where they are now, but my recollections of a suburban punk youth are full of them.  In the England smalltown where I pushed a few boundaries as far as I dare (which admittedly wasn’t that far but back then it was easier to shock), Teds were ever-present.  Teds were the punk nemesis.  They were always a bit older and I have this image of them burnt into my memory, where they hung around chain-smoking on street-corners, their thin-ness emphasised by chunky brothel-creeper footwear, drainpipe trousers and big quiffy, brylcreemed hair. 

Gideon Sams was only 14 when he wrote this book – originally a school project - and it shows.  I was around the same age as him at the time and if you had asked me to write my own version it would not have been that different in content.  I’d have done everything I could to make sure anyone reading it knew exactly where my loyalties lay and how much I was influenced by a certain scene, as he clearly did too.  When you read his descriptions you’re reminded of the importance of detail to a young mind when it comes to identity – and the importance of that identity and sense of belonging to your chosen youth-tribe.  For instance, I love this description of one character’s clothing: ‘She was dressed in a pair of black cotton dungarees, and a blue, yellow and red pinstripe blazer. She was wearing pale blue lurex socks and black plastic sandals…’

This book is little more than a series of stereotypical freeze-frames of a time long gone but in some bizarre way, given the nearly-forty-years (!) gap since last seeing it, that is reason enough to make me want to hang onto it now.  It takes me back to schooldays, buying those first records, spiking up my hair, listening to John Peel, hoarding safety-pins and skulking past those Teds on the street corner.  I was a cliché too.

As the person who sent it to me said, “it’s more a case of the existence of it that’s fun rather than any merit whatsoever in what is between the covers”.  (Thank you.)

Sunday, 13 September 2015

It's the Peel thing

There is a brief moment in my musical-tastes-timeline which deserves a special mention, perhaps particularly because it was so short-lived.  It was the very early eighties and a whole new crop of UK bands had released songs that just didn’t fit neatly into an existing genre.  Even with hindsight I can’t think of a perfect name for it – it wasn’t punk, nor goth, nor rock, nor pop.  Being generally referred to as ‘Post-punk’ is ok, but still sounds a bit too broad.  And  I suppose ‘Indie’ would be an understandable tag,  but that rather blandly convenient term brings to mind a slightly later upsurge of bands.  So I’ll share with you a name which sums up my listening habits of the time:  Peel bands’.  It was John Peel who brought these sounds into my bedroom through his late night radio show and for that reason they’ll always be inextricably linked.

Perhaps one of the first things to draw my attention to these Peel bands was their weird and wonderful names.  They gave no indication as to how they might sound, so when John announced at the beginning of his show, “Tonight we have a session from Crispy Ambulance and records by Ski Patrol and Second Layer..." my curiosity was already stirred.

At the start of that decade I was an art student, feeling happily in the margins, with not too many cares in the world all things considered.  I bought my singles from places like Small Wonder, who, as well as being a label for acts like Patrik Fitzgerald (and releasing the first Cure single), had a record shop in Walthamstow.  I never went there but it operated a great little mail order service.  You could phone up and speak to founder Pete Stennet  himself to place your order and send your stamped addressed envelope off for the latest list.  It’s funny how little random snippets linger in my memory for no apparent reason; like sitting on our brown-carpeted stairs with the curly cord of the big-dialled cream telephone stretching round the doorway from the kitchen when I rang up excitedly to reserve a 12" EP by the Tunes.  A Saturday lunchtime I think.  A rhubarb crumble baking in the oven.

Back then it just seemed arty, now it would be a selfie

Much as I'm happy in the present,  I’m quite glad I’m of a certain vintage. My world was so small in so many ways, my life’s limits bound by the cost of a train ticket or bus fare, late night curfews set by parents and only three TV channels, all of which turned into mute, black screens by bedtime.  But maybe all that just made me appreciate even more the exotic pleasures to be had from listening to the one and only John Peel. 

Here's a little treat from my record collection at the time.  Definitely a 'Peel band'!

The Tunes: Headlights

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Give 'em enough rope

I was lucky enough to grow up in a house with a garden which had some trees.  Nowadays I’d like them for the associated wildlife and their natural comfort – watching over us like gentle guardians, keeping the secrets of past decades safe in their silent, living presence.  But when I was a nipper there was really only one good reason why I liked our trees - well, one tree in particular.  And that was for the ‘Tarzan Rope’ suspended from it.

I don’t know whose idea it was to hang this rope from the huge central tree – mine was a family with no boys  – but my dad naturally got the job of fixing a chain to a high bough, from which he attached a very strong piece of long rope. This hung down at double thickness and was then knotted in several places.  The specially adapted piece of kit to go with it was a section of a broom-handle, just over a foot long I reckon.  All you had to do was position this wooden bar into one of the gaps between two knots, place your hands either side, lift your feet from the ground and….off you went…. Hours of free entertainment would ensue.

There were several different manoevres that my big sister and I invented and soon became experts at.  One was to walk back as far as you could in a straight line and simply swing back and forth.   A better one was to start off close to the tree trunk, run a short distance outwardly from it and then lift your feet off the ground so that you could swing around the tree in an almost complete circle, touching down again at the opposite side of the trunk.  A slightly dodgy and less popular variation was to position the bar so low down that you could hook your legs over it, effectively sitting on it and hanging on to just the rope.  This wasn’t much fun though because you couldn’t really go anywhere on it.  You’d just hang there in a highly uncomfortable sitting position trying not to look bored and ungainly, not to mention the risk of getting rope-burn in a most undesirable place.

But the best, and most impressive move of all was ‘twizzling’.  This was when you did the circular swing around the tree but incorporated some mini 360 degree spins, or ‘twizzles’ as we called them, along the way.  This took bravery, skill and stupidity.  In the relative safety of my own garden I was lithe and fearless and became a bit of a twizzling champion, sometimes managing to spin repeatedly from start to finish.  It’s funny how I didn’t seem to get so dizzy in those days.  Now I only have to turn around too quickly in the shower and I need a sit-down and a cuppa to help regain my balance.

As this was chiefly a Summer activity my sister and could usually be found throwing ourselves around this solid old tree in shorts and T-shirts, barefoot and bare-headed.  No crash helmets, no safety harness, no knee-pads.  The big old branch so many feet above sometimes creaked ominously, and I frequently got my planned trajectories hopelessly wrong, ending up slammed against the trunk with nothing to protect me from the blow except my epidermis.  I hit my head countless times, got blisters on my palms and grazes on my knees, but still I adored that Tarzan Rope. 

Unfortunately it was responsible for more casualties than just my bruises and temporary braining.  I was the lucky one.  My sister fell off and fractured a toe.  My cousin misjudged things too, came off the rope and landed on a sharp stone which embedded itself very painfully in one buttock.  And a neighbour’s awkward tumble resulted in a huge gash to her arm.  I remember my mum running out to give her a small glass of brandy.  I’ve no idea what her parents must have thought when she was delivered home to them, oozing blood and smelling lightly of alcohol - but this was the '70s after all.  It’s funny how I can still remember the way the trail of blood drips led from the tree, down our garden path, all around the house and to her front door over the road.  Those dark claret stains stayed on the pavings for several weeks that hot, dry Summer.  I think her scar lasted some time longer. 

Eventually we just grew too big for such shenanigans and my parents may have started fretting about our unfortunate, injured friends and family, even though I don’t remember them ever expressing anything outwardly other than genuine sympathy to the victims.  The Tarzan Rope was left to slowly rot away and those of us who used to swing on it like deranged whirling dervishes learned that there were even better things to spin: little black slabs of vinyl that twizzled at 45rpm.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Shoes and handbags

I’m not a shoes and handbags kinda woman at all, in spite of bit of a fetish for nice boots, but I was going through my old portfolio from college and came across some pictures I’d drawn in 1981 which reminded me of some shoes and handbags I possessed at the time. 

The Clarks shoes were unearthed in a charity shop and were possibly ‘60s.  Very uncomfortable of course (probably the wrong size to be honest but how we suffer for our art…)  And the handbag I remember well for being fabulously tacky with its silky leopard-print panel and the rest in shiny black patent.  That's a cigarette box poking out – Silk Cut by the look of it –  I think nearly everyone smoked in my year at college. We even had a pet name for them:-  ‘oolies’ (not ‘oilies’ as in ‘oily rags: fags’ but definitely ‘oolies’ for some reason).  The stairwells and lobbies used to stink of our Silk Cut and Rothmans, and occasionally something stronger too. (In the studios themselves, the smell of fixative spray and cow gum was enough to give you more than any nicotine or herbal high.)

Fashion-wise this was a great era for an impoverished student - although I was lucky to be undertaking further education at a time when grants were the norm. I’d moved on from being predominantly punk by that time, there was so much more going on to be into and like many of my peers I was enjoying a wider range of music and clothes.  The latter were mostly hunted out from charity shops which at that time were a fantastic and exceptionally cheap source of unusual old items, because comparatively few people were interested in anything vintage or anti-fashion, it seemed.  And they didn’t have that overpowering smell of industrial-strength washing powder then, either…  

I remember finding a black and pink dress with a scenes of Paris print on it (oh, how I’d love that now) and with a floppy fringe over one eye, lacy tights, the snakeskin slingbacks, plenty of black eye make-up, a plastic ring from a Christmas cracker and an old man’s cardigan to top it all off, the overall look must have been not unlike one of Diane Arbus’ photographic subjects or an extra from 'Summer Holiday' who'd got dressed in the dark.   Great escapism in a year remembered for (amongst many other unsavoury things) Peter Sutcliffe, the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, and Bucks Fizz winning the Eurovision Song Contest…

Monday, 7 September 2015

Fantasy punk band

I was never going to make it as a Slit or a Raincoat but that didn’t stop me fantasising about forming an all-girl punk band with my schoolfriends in ’78.  We couldn’t play any instruments (apart from the recorder on which I was at least adept at Greensleeves and the theme from The Wombles) and we couldn’t have afforded guitars and drums even if we’d intended to learn.  Hope had glimmered briefly the previous Autumn upon finding a discarded electric bass thrown onto the huge communal bonfire down the road before its potential incineration on Guy Fawkes’ Night but, seeing as it had been stripped of its pickups, strings and electrics etc., it wasn’t going to be easy to do much with.  So we just looked at it admiringly and wondered if it could be used as a prop one day in our promo photo-shoots.

With or without instruments, promo photo-shoots were a must.  Most were posed outside my mate’s dad’s garage, made of grey breeze-block and thus looking suitably cold and urban, with us trying to look unapproachably snotty while her dear mum took the pictures and tried not to laugh.  Fortunately she knew it was vital to keep the adjacent hanging baskets out of shot.

Finding a name was of the utmost importance – far more of a priority than actually playing anything.  I borrowed mum’s thesaurus and looked up words like dirt  and chaos and noise etc. to get ideas.  A long-list was compiled – names like The Dregs, The Deranged,  The Blasts… nothing really seemed to fit.  Then we got a bit more imaginative and for a while called ourselves The Xtremists - never mind that we were 14-year-old schoolgirls from nice suburban homes and the most extreme thing we could do was to swear within earshot of a Geography teacher.  Some time later I preferred the name The Arseknickers.  I thought it was a neat play on words and it sounded a bit rude – it looked good written on the cover of my school rough book too.

But our fantasy punk band remained just that. 

One day we made the mistake of telling the older blokes who worked in our local jeans shop that we were in a group.  “Oh, have you got many songs?  Do you have any tapes?” one enquired.  I think he must have had something in his eye because it sort of twitched when he looked at his colleague as he said it. Desperate not to lose face we told them that we’d recorded loads of songs.  I frantically searched my brain for lyrics I’d scrawled out during double Maths, most of which went along the lines of  “I hate school, they don’t understand, they just want to rule, they’re so bland”… (or whatever.)

“Well, bring a tape in next Saturday and we’ll play it in the shop”.  Whatever it was he’d got in his eye was seriously troubling him by now and causing his mouth to twitch at the corners too.  “Okay…” we replied with brash outer confidence, whilst wondering inside what the fuck we were going to do.

An emergency plan was quickly scrambled.  We gathered round my house the next evening with all the equipment we needed to make our tape:  my dad’s TEAC portable cassette machine with its little microphone, a Maxell C60, the Clash album on the turntable of the family stereogram, and a few pages of hastily scribbled lyrics - Clash album lyrics.  The mic was carefully positioned to pick up both the record playing and our voices singing over the top, fingers poised to press the clunky Record and Play keys just as the needle dropped on the vinyl.  Yes, you’ve got it: we just did Karaoke Clash.  “No-one will know”, we thought.

I don’t think our girly choruses of ‘I’m so bored with the USA’ really drowned out Joe Strummer’s vocals and I’m not sure that the finger-tapping on the sideboard added much to the drumming either.  Of course it sounded horrendous, not helped by the fact that the crappy little mic probably picked up the sound of my mum hoovering halfway through Protex Blue better than it could my “he’s in love with Janie Jones, whoa”.

When it came to Saturday morning, I seemed to have developed that twitching condition myself…  So we did what any self-respecting rebels would do – we bottled out and went back to posing instead.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Oh, Baby!

It’s very strange to be reminded of what the world looked like to you when you were just a child and I think these snippets say quite a lot. They are the original (biro!) drawings for ‘Oh Baby Your Waisting Time’ (sic) from 1969.  The young author/illustrator was heavily influenced by the fashions of the time as seen on TV shows that year like ‘Top Of The Pops’ and in her older sister’s copies of ‘Jackie’ and ‘Honey’ magazine.  (Note the fringed jackets, choker and ringed belt and also the maxi coat and braided hair portrayed here which show the increasing popularity of more hippie styles.)  The language too is characteristic of the period; the word ‘baby’ as a term of endearment features frequently and one of the characters is named Cliff.

The  entire story (which is a bit lame to be honest) and its carefully drawn illustrations were completed in one day, after which the book’s creator probably sucked on an ice pop, watched an episode of ‘The Clangers’ and then retired to her bed after eating a tea of macaroni cheese and a rice crispie cake.   Later in life she found how to ‘waist’ time in numerous ways including blogging now and then too.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Take three girls

My two longest-standing friends and I try to meet up a couple of times a year.  We’ve known each other since the age of eleven, when we started at the same school, our home town’s equivalent of a 1970s St Trinian’s – all hockey sticks and Latin lessons.  We went through the same humiliation of wearing the awful brown uniform (which, for the first two years was a shapeless tunic because, the school’s Ministry of Uniform dictated, “we don’t offer the option of a skirt to the younger years because they haven’t yet developed waists”.)  Our bond of friendship helped to get us through all those awkward moments of adolescence, comparing notes on buying that first bra and snogging.  And developing waists, amongst other things.

We pooled our pocket money to buy Cadbury’s chunky chocolate bars to share at break times and some years later upgraded this to the occasional Benson & Hedges, ten in a pack from a slot machine in town, having meticulously planned our movements in advance to avoid being spotted.  We’d sneak them into school and find a quiet corner of the playing field to try a furtive puff or two.  I’m pretty sure no actual inhalation ever took place.

By the age of 14 we were also into punk together.  We’d invade the local record shop on a Saturday afternoon and pore over the album covers, longing for the day when we’d saved up enough to buy one.  My first was the Clash's debut, eventually followed by the Stranglers' Rattus Norvegicus, which cost about 50p more for some reason and I remember how much I deliberated over spending those vital extra pence.

We also made forays into the local hardware stores – rummaging through trays of bulldog clips and sink chains and any other strange looking metal fasteners or hooks we could find with which to accessorise our DIY clothes.  On the last day of  term in 1978 when the school finally allowed a ‘no uniform’ day, we all got into trouble together.  It was our one chance to ditch the brown uniform and proudly wear our bulldog clips and Sex Pistols badges on our DIY clothes into school.  I'd had my long hair cut off completely the evening before and wandered into the classroom with my newly cropped barnet and punky clothes to a room full of shocked faces.  That afternoon we were called in by a teacher and given a stern talking-to; there had been complaints at our apparent lack of respect.  We could not have been awarded a better compliment, it was perfect. 

We all left school at 16 and went to different colleges, got jobs, got married, moved house a few times, but always kept in touch.  Now we meet when we can for lunch in our old home-town, our old stomping-ground, where none of us live any more.  Now our bond of friendship helps to get us through all the awkward moments of middle-age – comparing notes on a whole new set of life experiences.

As I sat there drinking wine with my two lovely friends last time, reminiscing about the day we sat and wrote dirty stories in the school lunch-hour, only to be so mortified at the thought of them being found by a teacher that we tried, unsuccessfully, to flush the offending pages of our exercise books down the toilets, it seemed impossible that over 40 years have passed since we first met.   And those school loos were out of order for days.