Sunday, 22 November 2015

Sweet tooth

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

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

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

Monday, 16 November 2015

Once upon a time in the West

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 8 November 2015

A lesson learned

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Teatime minstrel

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

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

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