Wednesday 25 July 2012

Bungalows, beach huts and a boy called 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, although it was the right season.  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 early days of Summer '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.

Big Star: Thirteen

* And that reminds me - what about the use of gull sounds in music?  For a great post on this topic (and an excellent read all round) take a look at the blog Liquid Tin Too...

Monday 23 July 2012


Some quick snaps of shadows that caught my eye today...  I couldn't resist them.

Sunday 22 July 2012

A soul thing for a Sunday morning VI

I've got things on my mind  - haven't we all?  But it's still the weekend, so let's put off until tomorrow what we don't have to do today, and have another cup of coffee.

Thursday 19 July 2012

I ♥ Gail Ann Dorsey

Some people have just got that certain something, haven't they?  'Cool' is probably an over-used word but I can't think of another to replace it just now.  Anyway, whatever word you want to use, it describes Gail Ann Dorsey.  I have a real thing for talent.  I find it something of a turn-on when people write well, draw well, play well, etc...!   Talent is the thing and, wow, does this woman have it.  (I also have a bit of a thing for women with really short hair... ditto!)

Her work with many musical acts is well documented but she's no doubt best known for being part of David Bowie's backing band since 1995.  I love her bass-playing here with him on 'Later' from 2002.  Like the outfit too.

Rebel Rebel...

Saturday 14 July 2012

Record shop memoirs, part three (Roll up! Roll up! CDs are here!)

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 happened to work for the same small regional chain of independent shops as I did) 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 the availability of 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.  (And you can watch it for yourself  here . 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.  (But will downloading ever catch on…?)

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Conversations with my hairdresser

I know there’s a joke out there about hairdressers and taxi drivers and I’m racking my brains to think what it is.  Ah – got it: Q) Why do hairdressers make good taxi drivers? A) Because they know all the short cuts.   My hairdresser certainly knows my short cut and I’m very glad of it.  Since adopting a cropped style a few years ago I’ve become addicted to the feel of her slender scissors snip, snip, snipping around my nape, something I never previously imagined I would. 

Hair salons used to be no-go areas for me, mainly because I couldn’t bear the whole process of sitting in front of a mirror (ugh!) making small talk with somebody who was giving me the hairstyle they wanted to give me, not the one I wanted to have.  I had a particularly bad experience in my twenties when I decided to temporarily abandon DIY post-punk haircuts and bravely ventured into the town’s most popular salon (I can’t remember what it was called but undoubtedly it was a pun like ‘Hair Of The Dog’ or ‘Hair To Dye, Gone Tomorrow’...)   I asked a young stylist to make my fine hair look fuller in any way she thought would suit me and next thing you know she’s mixing up chemicals in big bowls and putting strange plastic contraptions on my head; I felt like Frankenstein’s monster at the hands of a mad scientist, the twist being that Dr Frankenstein was a 25 year old blonde with pink nails.  There were nasty smells, complicated charts, ticking timers and possibly some puffs of blue smoke.   When it was all over, my hair was as frazzled as I was, in a side-parted, swept-over, short curly perm – the type that was fashionable in the late ‘80s for all of about a month; I had just picked the wrong month.  As I went down the salon stairs to have my unrecognisable new hair (and my secret tears) blow-dried, I looked around the room and saw that every other customer in the place had exactly the same style.   I walked home in the pouring rain and chose not to use my umbrella:  please, please, rain, fall on me and wash this horrible perm away.

It was a long time before I plucked up courage to go back to a hairdresser but now my experience is so different.  At an unpretentious little local establishment (which doesn’t have a pun for a name), Beth was the first to give me a proper ultra-short crop, exactly like I’d asked for, and I was hooked.  Beth was always good for conversation too.  We didn’t do the “going anywhere nice for your holidays?” type chat (to which I can never reply anyway because I haven’t been on holiday in ten years.)  Instead we quickly got into the fact that Beth’s parents went to art school with Keith Richards and that Lucian Freud’s one-time wife Kitty Godley was a regular at the salon (she lived in the next village up to her death last year.)  We got onto deeply philosophical subjects... life, love, mental illness and more.  When Bess left to have a baby her replacement, Karen, turned out to be just as good.   Last week we talked about shyness and how we used to feel at being amongst the last to be picked for school sports teams.  We talked about books and films, seventies sun tan oil and positive thinking.  My hairdresser understands me!  And all the time I’m loving the snip, snip, snip of those scissors round my nape.  How times have changed.

Uninspired, an old profile pic gets used again...

Sunday 1 July 2012

Quadrophenia, my first time

So Quadrophenia was screened on BBC4 on Friday.  It’s nearly 33 years since its release but I still love that film (even with 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 me 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 rivarly 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 last Friday 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. 

A little bit of inspiration for the Who from Slim Harpo

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