Monday, October 31, 2011

1976: Till I die

Ah, Hallowe'en.

Never really was about much when we were younger, was it? Today the shops are crammed with ghoulish goodies, but back in the Seventies you had to make your own entertainment. I never remember seeing a pumpkin on sale, not least in Safeway, and as for trick or treating, you could try but you'd be lucky.

But try we did, and people were either jolly and put the door on the latch while they sought out a few hairy Murray Mints, or sent you away with a flea in your ear for bringing commercial American ghastliness to their threshold.

Did anyone ever ask for a trick? Did they dare? I heard tales of a plastic bag with green paint and dogshit in it, with a firework attached that would explode in the face of the person at the door. But I'm convinced it was just a myth. No one I knew would go near dog shit, and fireworks were hard to come by. Knock down Ginger as about as bad as it got. But it was enormous fun, especially when we got the drunk woman who was always laughing or an unsuspecting schoolmate looking around and seeing nothing. Stifling laughter was never one of my strongpoints, though I managed to keep it hidden when the police caught us throwing gravel at a wet kid's bedroom window. And they say kids today are bored.

Playing indoors trying to find each other in the dark while the radio blared the hits of the moment was enormous fun. Every song took on a sinister tone. Even Wild Cherry and Dana. Why not try that tonight?

Happy Hallowe'en!

Monday, October 24, 2011

1984: Dressed to kill they're killing me

I don't really know why I did it, but I thought I should do it nonetheless. When I first started being a student my roomate and I decide to get Saturday jobs. Bit of extra cash, nothing too taxing, you know the score.

But for some reason or another, instead of doing something groovy like working in HMV or Top Man, we ended up getting jobs at a new fast food 'restaurant' called Huckleberry's.

The interview process was gruelling. You'd think it was to join MI5. I went in a suit, naturally, and was grilled to death. I only wanted a bit of extra pocket money, not a career in fast food restaurant managment which might have seen me marrying a woman who worked in IT, living in a Barrett home on the outskirts of Reading, taking myself rather seriously and listening to Sade on a loop. The pay was pitiful, but it would only be one morning and two evenings a week. It was all terribly exciting, they said, to be at the forefront of a new food revolution. I couldn't have agreed more.

Beacuse it was yet to open, there was a lot of training involved. It involved getting in a minibus at the crack of dawn with the other trainees, some of whom were students, most of whom were terminally dim, led by a balding man in his late twenties and what I presume now to be his younger partner, but in those days that kind of thing wouldn't have crossed my mind. I remember them both singing along to this tune, never off the radio but never a big hit. Love it though.

Traning was in Watford, far, far away from my south coast base, and we didn't even get there until lunchtime when we would be fed free burgers and Cokes. Then it was on the training. It took place on the shop floor and involved lots of bellowing greetings at self-concious customers and demanding to know if they'd like fries with that, as well as bit of learning to use a clunky early stages electronic till. It was horrific.

When the time came to actually start work I couldn't believe what I'd let myself in for. I wasn't allowed anywhere near the till, and instead found myself under threat of death from a horrible middle manager type on litter duty, bog cleaning, table-wiping and fish cutting. If I was lucky, I might get to assemble a Huckelburger. Once I cut my finger so badly doing fish that it nearly fell off, but there was no time for that. I was just put on toppings, and my blood mingled with the gherkin vinegar while my finger healed itself. I have to say it did the trick.

Food standards were appalling. Today, they've been closed down, and when I've tipped off environmental health about kitchen standards I've seen lacking in places in the past I haven't done it lightly. I know what I'm talking about. Anything that went on the floor got picked up and used again, the grill was a deathtrap and the floors so slippery you could have held an entire series of Dancing On Ice on it.

The worst part of course was the uniform. A royal blue number, with matching cap, that made you look like a cross between a nurse and a simpleton. Caps were never to be removed. Punters took the piss and lacking in any dignity it was hard to stand your ground. When they'd point out that you'd missed a bit while wiping their table and you shot back with 'well why don't you do it yourself', you had to remember that it was actually your job. It was so demeaning I'm still getting over it.

So after about three weeks of Saturdays and the two nights a week, I could bear it no longer. When I took my break, Huckleburger in hand, trying to make small talk with a fellow employee who I had nothing whatsoever in common with and trying to keep one eye on Blankety Blank, I wondered what on earth I was doing there. And when still scraping down the girll at 3am having to be up at 7am, stinking of grease and not being able to get the smell out, I resolved to quit.

The straw that broke the camel's back was the late nights. The really late nights. Trying to get home at that time of the morning when taxis were not an option was a nightmare. One night horrid little younger partner of bald boss offered us a lift, which was nice. But when I asked again he flatly refused, then went and told anyone who might live my way that I might tap them up too. 'Forewarned is fore-armed,' he said in his best dimbulb 'only me' type accent, those words still ringing in my ears 27 years later, like I was going to ask for a pay rise or something.

You didn't have to give any notice. Me and my friend just upped and left. When they called we were both 'out'. No one came to track us down. We put the uniforms on a Guy and burnt them.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

1981: And so you stand here with the years ahead

Who could even picture 2011 in 198?. By now I thought I'd be wearing a skin-tight silver catsuit and having pills for breakfast. Later I'd be parking my hoverboard outside a floating elipse-shaped office block. The only bit that's come true is the catsuit.

Life's not changed a great deal really, has it. We still listen to the same music we listened to all those years ago. So did you realise it was 30 years ago TODAY that the classic Dare album was released? Hands up who feels old. Again.

What a classic. I'm still wordperfect, and though some of it's dated - and I really couldn't care if I didn't hear Don't You Want Me for about 20 years - it's still amazing, and songs like Sound Of The Crowd or Open Your Heart transport me back to a time when it all seemed so new, exciting and the start of an amazing future. My life was changing at this time, and this was the soundtrack to that. (They milked it for singles though, didn't they? And what was all that 'Blue' and '100' stuff about anyway?).

This track especially reminds of this time in 1981, flirting silently with two girls on the bus that pulled up next to mine one Saturday morning on the way into town. They were the spit of the Human League girls, and my hair was over one eye.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

1979: He must be happy in his work

My brother was sport mad. He was good at it too. It wasn't just confined to school teams though. He had to join a local kiddies football team as well.

Me? Not interested. It didn't help that I was no good at it, and was made to feel useless for being so. So while I resented having to sit on the sidelines (or more often than not, in the car with the radio on) there was one good thing that came out of it: The bingo nights.

In order to raise money for the team and cover its (I'm sure minimal) costs, bingo nights were held in the local village hall. I say village hall - it was a bit more sophisticated than that. I grew up in a small town rather than a village as such, and this hall was just one of a few dotted about. But it was the one I knew best.

It was the one where I watched rehearsals of local am-dram society's produciton of Semi-Detached in 1970, in which mum appeared wearing knee-high white boots and begged Nigel to forgive her, as dad put his arm around my shoulder and told me not worry as it wasn't real. He needn't have worried. I already knew as I'd seen her reading the script in bed. She was rather convincing though. No wonder the local rag thought she was the standout in 1963's The Rape Of The Lock.

It was the place where one woman's job was to walk onto the stage and say 'ready when you are, Eddie' to the lighting man. Later, I knew her better as the mother of the scariest boy in school. It was the place where I got caught trying to melt a plastic tulip on the footlights, and where a nice lady called Frances opened a fresh tin of variety biscuits during breaks. She later fell off a cliff and died after beckoning her husband to come and see something down below.

It was also the place where I went with our neighbours to see a Victorian musical hall night and saw the woman from the chemist sing My Old Man. We had a high old time, that was for sure. So I had a fondness for that hall and that's where the bingo was held.

Every Tuesday me, my brother and my dad would find a good table, buy a book of tickets and hope for the best. It was the first time I'd heard bingo lingo: Doctor's orders: number nine. Five and nine: the Brighton Line. Top of the shop: nine-0. Jim's (then Maggie's) Den: Number 10, and fo course, two little ducks: 22, at which the whole room, led by the bingo caller/team manager's infant daughter would chorus: 'Quack! Quack!', and then collapse with laughter.

I'm not sure we ever won much, but we did win, and we couldn't wait for the next week. We weren't the only ones. Word of mouth saw these evenings mushroom into something much bigger, and by the end of the autumn even my schoolfriends, (including Nigel, hence the song choice which he loved and hated at the same time), were coming along. In 1979 the lure of the bingo was too much for everyone. The room was hushed and tense as the prizes grew more desirable. And then a bombshell: the hall was needed for something else from now on, so bingo would be held at a hall on the other side of town.

We went a few times, but it wasn't the same. Not even the garishly iced homemade cakes, which had once been such a draw, held their allure anymore. The hall was half-empty. The fun had been had.

Was she worth it?*

*76 (7/6, the price of a marriage licence I'm told)

Monday, October 17, 2011

1971: We'll make you happy

We were quite early adopters in our family. But it was more a case of keeping up with the Joneses than any burning desire for new technology.

Our cul-de-sac was a hotbed of rivalry and competition. I often heard barbed remarks about copycat table lamps or place mats. Number 16 had an extension, everyone had an extension. And all identical too. Someone gets a chest freezer, before you know it's crinkle cut chips with every meal.

But we were one of the first to get a colour TV and, though they'd been around for a while, they weren't widely seen at this time. Some neighbours - the hippies with the bare boards and flowerless garden ("We only like trees," I was told) - didn't even have a TV, which aged six I was mystified by.

So when the day came in 1971 when our colour TV arrived it was a big day indeed. The man came quite early on, I recall, and because it was going to be a major operation installing it, we were sent out to play and told not to come back until we were called. We were on tenterhooks all day long and couldn't wait to see it.

So when the time came we rushed in to find wire everywhere but a working colour TV, my life changed forever. The first thing I saw was the opening titles of The Partridge Family. I didn't realise all the little cartoon partridges were different colours. The scales fell from my eyes and I've never stopped watching it since.

It's not always brilliant being up to the minute though. We got our first video recorder in 1981. Unfortunately, it was Betamax.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

1982: Just when I think I'm winning

My granny was great for her age. But not that great. While she could scale a ladder to clean windows three stories up without so much as blink, stand atop a step ladder dust down a chandelier and still cook a mean steak and kidney pudding, when it came to the unfamiliar she wasn't so hot.

So it was the lucky 17-year-old me who was picked to escort her to Bahrain for her first visit over Easter, 1982. (This song was never off the radio there, mainly requested by me. Surely one of the oddest songs ever to make the Top 5 after O Superman?)

To be honest, I don't remember a thing about the journey out, excpet everytime a succession of officials marvelled at this game old bird travelling a great distance she announced her age as if expecting a round of applause, Thora Hird-style. 'I'm 73!', she'd crow in her bluff, northern way, followed by much nodding from the crowd about what a trooper she was and a standing ovation. That's my mum's age now, and she's far from an old lady. She looks and lives her life like someone at least 15 years younger, health problems aside.

We'd arrived in one piece, though there'd been a bit of panic getting to the gate on time, etc, but we soldiered on. Lucky for us our neighbour in Bahrain worked on the check-in desk for Gulf Air so we got an upgrade to first class for our return journey.

It was champagne on sitdown, better food (the food on Gulf Air was always really good), and wider seats which facilitated gran's snoring all the way to London. Though it thankfully didn't transpire on this occasion, her false teeth could often be found on the verge of falling out. Hadn't she heard of Fixodent? She'd had false teeth since the age of 13 when a carrier bag got caught in her bike wheel.

When we arrived we had to get the coach to Southampton. For some reason I was expected to know how to make this happen. After a mad dash to the coach stop at Heathrow we'd found our way. But as the coach was leaving I looked behind to see our luggage becoming a dot on the tarmac.

Panic ensued, followed by meltdown, then a rugby players pelt up the front to demand the driver stop in the world's most hysterical voice. I just sat rigid.

We backed up, cases on, then up the stairwell she came, a furious banshee. 'Your father would be ashamed of you!', she bellowed, as every other passenger turned and stared at me like I was the only non-member of their Satanist cult.

We sat in silence the whole way home.

I still hear that sentence ringing in my ears when I'm being hopeless. This song, which I loved as much then as I love now, keeps one's feet on the ground.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

1990: The sky is still blue

Through my flatmate at the time I knew quite a few people, locally. Her old schoolfriends were dotted all over the place, with a bit of a concentration nearby.

One favourite - but for all the wrong reasons, was a girl let's call Marshy. Big, tall, blonde, loud, super-posh, a hoot and a bore by turns, she was a would-be actress who was forever disappointed. She'd often call in floods of tears because the part she was after had gone to someone else and how there was simply no justice in the world. Other times she'd be hysterically happy because she had landed a coveted role.

My mum was there for one of these phonecalls, and thought it was the most exciting thing to have an actress call to tell you she'd got the part, and wasn't it fun living in London, etc., like she was in an episode of Man About The House when mother visits. If only she knew. One tried to be sympathetic when it all went tits up but couldn't help but giggle at the high drama. The highs were as exhausting as the lows. She was born to go on the stage.

Thing is though, her career wasn't really happening. She'd do the odd play upstairs in a pub but Sir Trevor Nunn was nowhere to be seen, Hollywood was not knocking her door down and even The Bill was full-up. As many actresses can be, she was a terrible attention seeker, at any party she'd have to be the centre of attention. I recall cringing until I was nearly dead when she made someone turn off the music so she could sing Roxanne acappella with her eyes shut, really feeling it. She only knew a couple of lines and she made them go a long way.

She started dating my brother, who was my other flatmate, and the two of them were a sight to see. He was smaller and slighter in those days, and they brought to mind Dudley Moore and wife - her towering above him. It didn't last long. She was too high-maintenance. He dreaded answering the phone.

She once had a party at her place, but instead of just being allowed to mingle and chat and enjoy yourself she made everyone sit down on the floor then move two people along to talk to someone they'd not yet talked to. When everyone refused she bolted the front door, stood on a chair and burst into tears about what a disaster it wall was and would everyone just do as they're told! She had to be practically wrestled to the ground so everyone could make a dash for it. I've heard of living theatre, but really...

One day in our kitchen, gazing out the window as the sun set low on a hazy November afternoon, this song playing on the radio, Twin Peaks all the rage, I remarked to her that I just knew she was going to be a huge, huge star.

She's not.

Monday, October 10, 2011

1980: There's promise in the air

My dad has never been into music. While he can do a good Adam Faith impression, has a soft spot for Midnight In Moscow and skiffle, and the Fifties certainly didn't pass him by, musically the Sixties were a total blank.

When I think of the waste! I could have been the son of Roger Daltrey or Keith Richards, but he wasn't interested. He was working in Fleet Street at that time, and while the Sixties were busy swinging all around him, Dad wasn't swayed by hippie chicks into growing his hair and wearing powder blue hipsters. No Peter Sellers in I Love You Alice B Toklas here. He kept his Don Draper look well into the Seventies. How often do I wake up and hope against hope that when I pull back the curtain it's 1966 or 1969? Just about every day. He was there. And he missed it.

Mum was the big music fan, but there were no singles in our house, just albums, and the ones we did have from the Sixties included Manotvani, The Sound Of Music and Motown Chartbusters.

Okay, the latter is great, but it wasn't until the Seventies that album-buying really took off in our house. As the decade progressed we were drowning in a sea of Carpenters albums, bits of Elton, Creedence, Dionne Warwick, Seventies Sinatra, Catherine Howe, Demis Roussos, Neil Diamond, Carole King, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye (Grapevine is mum's favourite song of all time), the odd compilation like K-Tel's Feelings (first sighting of Kiki Dee's Amoureuse) Don't Walk! Boogie! and Midnight Hustle, and of course no home was complete without a Top Of The Pops comp or the Hot Hits series, the ones with women in bit of sporting gear and little else.

I became made on music at the tail end of '76 and drank it all in. Dad was indulgent and in '77 my pocket money rose from 50p to 60p as that was the price of a single, so I could buy one a week. The first one I bought: We're All Alone by Rita Coolidge. Dad would patiently wait outside the record shop while I bought Baker Street or Belfast or Hotel California, but he never really commented. He wasn't a fan.

One day he casually remarked that he'd heard Magic by Olivia Newton-John on the radio and thought it was, and I quote, 'fabulous'. But that's kind of where it ended. In Bahrain in the Eighties, were the only radion station was a music station and you couldn't help but get songs stuck in your brain, pluse the hundreds of dirt cheap pirate cassette shops that were everywhere meant we soon had a house full of Barry Manilow, Lionel Richie, Eighties Dionne, the Bee Gees and other parent-friendly combos of the era. If you were lucky, you could squeeze the Marine Girls on during a dinner party and no one would notice.

But was it the song or ONJ dad found fabulous? Hmmm.... Hands off dad, she was my pin-up first.

Friday, October 7, 2011

1987: Just another tragedy

Wasn't it about this time in 1987 that we had the 'big wind'?

I don't remember it being particularly windy that day, nor do I remember seeing the weather forecast in which Michael Fish referred to 'a woman in Wales' and her prediction that a hurricane was coming. Who was that woman? Does anyone know?

What I do recall, however, is being woken up in the middle of the night because I thought someone was throwing something at my window, and it just being the wind beating against it. I thought nothing of it.

When I got up in the morning and put TV-AM on, Britain had been decimated by a hurricane, Anne Diamond gravely intoned. Well, a few trees were down. When I went out to my car a couple of roof tiles were embedded in the bonnet. Perhaps it was worse than I thought. Amazingly enough, I didn't use it as an excuse not to go to work, and at this time and in that job I would have done anything to get out of going. I even had two weeks off with 'tonsisilitis' just prior to this, and got my flatmate to call in for me, as of course I couldn't speak. They were not amused. I spent the week watching daytime TV and going on day trips into central London with friends. I also bought this record.

As I drove from Twickenham to Paddington I was amazed at the damage done. There was little traffic but lots of carnage. Branches and trees everywhere, things displaced out of context. The roof of the post office next to the Shepherd's Bush (Wogan) Theatre was in the road. The office was stills standing and it was just me and the PA. I cold called small business in Shropshire while she typed up my letters. God it was grim. And it was still rather windy outside.

That lunchtime I went up to Selfridges to buy a birthday present for someone and saw Melvin Hayes in the book dept. He'd braved the adverse conditions to do a bit of light shopping too. Good for him.

I rememeber Jacqueline Du Pre died that day. I'd never heard of her.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

1985: It felt like the world would freeze

Laundrettes, launder-ettes, launderamas, washeterias: no matter what you call them they're depressing aren't they? They're always the same. Banks of yellow machines, the miniature soap dispenser, binbags of abandoned clothes, the warm/cold feeling you get when you walk through the door, the crazy paving/faux marble flooring, magazine racks full of crumpled back issues of Chat, the grizzled old hen behind the counter and if you're really lucky the smell of dry cleaning fluid. Ghastly, aren't they?

When I moved out of the cosy hall of residence and into a cold house with three other friends with no mod cons whatsoever - in fact, we were lucky there was a bathroom - I often found myself sitting in a thick coat in the launderette watching my smalls go round and round and wondering if there was anything more dispiriting than this.

When I was at boarding school we had to do our own laundry, but it just involved shoving it in then go off and do something else, knowing you were only inches away. I took no care over it. My roommate and I would have everything mixed together. All whites were a lovely shade of used chewing gum. Not that there were too many whites. This was the Eighties after all.

The laundry room was a treasure trove of sorts. If you were lucky you could lay claim to items of clothing that had been hanging around just that bit too long then swear blind they were your own. I got a lovely pair of stonewashed jeans off Jason Charnell, and the denim jacket with the cream cord collar that hung there most of the summer was a gift from God. David Hunter's discarded (clean!) underpants came in useful once too. How did I know they were his? It's boarding school Everything's got name tags.

Doing laundry as a student was a different kettle of fish though. It meant you had to physcially be there. It was too far to drop off and go home again, so it required one to sit there for what seemed like hours on end. I think of chilly March skies and hearing this song on my Walkman, which is appropriate because I always think of it as a cold weather song. That and Matt Bianco's More Than I Can Bear both put me in mind of the spin cycle.

It was grim but it had to be done once in while. The people were scary, all sitting there on a Saturday afternoon buried in Titbits and looking like they might slit your throat as soon as glance at you. I think I went once a month.

Of course, by the end of the year I'd discovered the service wash and though a tiny bit more expensive, fluff and fold was the way forward. Life was never the same again.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

1983: For a ride to outer space

Learning to drive was really hard.

It didn't help that I had a driving instructor who did not put me at my ease. He lived next-door-but-one to my grandma. He was all above board, ran his own driving 'school', had the car with the dual controls, etc, but he wasn't very patient. If you recall your first time behind the wheel you'll remember that mix of panic, cluelessness and fear. While millions of people drive around perfectly fine in these metal boxes, it was at first glance more complicated than it looked.

So it wasn't the best start to grab the wheel from me as the car bunny-hopped along a quiet stretch of cul-de-sac, screech the car to a halt and get out of the car and take off your jacket. I knew instantly that this was going to be difficult, and it was unlikely I'd be betting anywhere near a test centre anytime soon. It was a struggle. I hated it. He thought I wasn't trying hard enough and would complain to my grandma on a daily basis. She took no notice.

But we had a limited window in which I had to get profficient, so each day at the beginning of the summer of '83 he'd arrive at my house in the nasty little metallic grey Honda, flirt with my mother, talk about her non-stop as I gradually got to grips with the rudiments of the road.

But my God it took its time. How my left leg ached from having it pushed to the floor on the clutch. Why did I keep cutting corners? Would I ever be able to parallell park and would I ever remember to check the mirrors a million times before any kind of manoeuvre? And will he ever stop calling the accelerator pedal the 'gas'?

Amazingly, we found ourselves at the test centre, and after lots and lots of practice at a disused aerodrome (isn't it always?), and around the streets of the town, I was ready. Kind of. I could even do the emergency stop thing.

Sadly, the examiner was a meanie in a mac who didn't crack a smile as I mounted the pavement while taking a right turn and narrowly missing being crushed between a coach and a bus on the high street. Oh well. There was always next time.

The examiner on attempt two was the model of cheeriness and I was immediately at ease. It helped. So that July I was a fully qualified driver. Mum was so thrilled she practically wrestled me to the ground in her glee. It was a big day, I know that now.

So I've been a driver for almost 30 years. I love it now. I enjoy it a lot. There's nothing I like more than zipping down the motorway singing along to something old, like this tune, all over the radio at this time in '83, and is still as good for shouting out the window as it was back then. But it took a while. I couldn't have the radio on if I was parking (too distracting) and I couldn't possibly smoke at the wheel either. Two hands at all times. I'm over all that now though, and you'll be thrilled know I'm fearless. If you can drive in Bahrain you can drive anywhere. In fact, if you can drive in London you can drive anywhere.

It has been a bumpy history though. The following year I wrote off a car on a test drive (that's another story), and I still only drive automatic - so handy in town! And while I am seasoned now it doesn't make my passengers any less white-knuckled.

Road trip?