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.