A lost gig

In 1980-81, I worked as a community service volunteer at a special school at Cranleigh in Surrey. The work came with board and lodge and £10 a week pocket money.

I shared a  lodge at the school gates with two housemates who were preparing to be monks.  There was no television in the house in which we lived, no radio, and only an elderly portable record player on which to play the handful of old LPs they had.  Their conversation was often esoteric religious stuff; not much in it to interest a 20 year old with no religious background. The best moments were when they got out their Woodstock records and talked of times when it seemed that the world could have been a good place.

The pocket money didn’t go far, even in 1980, not that there was much to spend the money on. The only diversions were a pint at the local pub and occasional visits to the cinema to see things that were even half interesting.

Slowly, I began to buy odd records of my own. These were greeted with scorn and derision by my housemates, who preferred the rock music of the 1960s. I still laugh at memories of them singing their own words to Blondie’s Atomic.  They were good blokes, just from a generation before the rough edgedness of punk.

Hazel O’Connor’s Breaking Glass was among the handful of records I bought.  The album came from the film of the same name, a film that tracked the meteoric rise and fall of a fictional rock star.  The rock star’s fall comes with deep depression, and the angst and melancholy of the music express the pain of being unable to communicate from behind a wall of darkness.

The film was shown at the cinema and I bought the album at a record shop.  I played it, again and again and again.  The lyrics still come back with little attempt at recall.  Will You? a track released as a single the following year, expresses a sense of complete inability to put into words what it was you wanted to say.

Having seen the film and bought the album, I remember travelling to Brighton on a bus with my luggage in a Sainsbury’s carrier bag to see her play in Brighton a trip that must have cost at least a week of my money.

Remembering the concert being at the Brighton Conference Centre, I was surprised to discover it was at a venue called Top Rank. Furthermore, an internet search brought the suggestion that before Hazel O’Connor took to the stage that evening the support band had been the then unknown Duran Duran.

Was my memory failing? Had I imagined the large venue with tiered seating behind the large open area in front of the stage? Had I excised Duran Duran from my memory?

There was a sense of relief in finding reassurance that the my memory was not entirely faulty:

November 26, 1980 – Top Rank, Brighton, UK (cancelled)

However, of Hazel O’Connor playing at the Conference Centre, I can find no trace.

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Economics lessons

Tessa was an early lesson in the power of economics.

In 1979, in the days when the rest of the world was driving Austin Allegros and Morris Marinas, Tessa’s father drove an Alfa Romeo. Tessa’s father was a civil engineer, a profession which seemed very lucrative. Tessa’s family lived in a big old seventeenth century house, thick stone walls and rooms like something from a Sunday newspaper colour supplement, it stood in what estate agents would have described as “mature gardens,” large trees, abundant flower beds, and roses climbing the walls. It was the kind of home that you might have expected if you had known her.

Not only did Tessa’s father drive an Alfa Romeo, he allowed Tessa to borrow it to go out in the evening. The price of the car would have been unthinkable for most working people. The thought of being eighteen years old and being allowed to drive such a car was beyond our imagination. Even the cost of the insurance would have been far beyond the means of most of Tessa’s contemporaries (to be honest, even having the money required to have filled the tank with petrol would have been too much for me).

Economics excluded any prospect of romantic involvement with Tessa. When you were eighteen years old at that time, and a pushbike was your only mode of transport, attractive young women from Tessa’s background would tend to give you a miss. In 1979, driving a car was something unusual among those at our Sixth Form college, owning a car was even rarer. Tessa’s usual boyfriends would be twenty-somethings and would be driving their own cars and have cash in their pockets.

Tessa was not shallow, she was intelligent and witty and engaging, as well as being pretty. Tessa was a friend to those of us who depended upon bicycles, but when it came to choosing someone for a date, Tessa simply responded to the best offer available, as would any of us in her situation.

Human nature has not changed since biblical times when Abraham offered Lot the opportunity to choose which land he would take for his people, and Lot chose the best land.

It is human instinct to seek the best for oneself. Perhaps it is part of our Darwinian programming, our instinct for survival. Economists would offer theoretical models based on returns and benefits to explain why Tessa would have chosen a sharply dressed young man who drove a Ford Escort over a teenager dressed in sweatshirt and jeans who rode a bike.

Economics is logical, it explains much of our human behaviour, and it is always bad news for those of us on pushbikes.

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A hopeless case

His name seems to have long disappeared from local memory. It would be hard now to identify which fields he owned. The land was acquired by neighbouring farmers, the hedgerows grubbed out to create fields amenable to the use of modern machinery.

In a memory of him, his car is parked in a field of stubble. It was one of those 1960s estate cars where the tailgate split in two, the rear windscreen folded upwards, while the lower part folded flat. The tailgate was open, the reason why it was open is far beyond recall.

Perhaps the car was a Triumph Herald. Did they have a split tailgate? There was a stripe down the side of the car, the paintwork had the freshness of a new model, the chrome bumper and hubcaps were gleaming.

In my recall, he was standing near the car, he wore a checked shirt and a tie. Ties were not a frequent sight in ordinary farming life. The solicitor and bank manager would wear a tie, the vet might wear one, working farmers did not.  Wishing to verify my memory, I asked my mother about him.

“He was hopeless,” my mother replied.

“Why?” I asked.

“He had no idea about farming. He had been left the farm by his father.”

His efforts seem to have been unprofitable for the farm was sold.

He had been older than my grandfather, who was born in 1913, his birth would have been in the Edwardian or late-Victorian era. How readily might have someone who grew up in the Edwardian age have adjusted to the rapidly changing realities of England in the 1960s?

He was a man of gentle manners, softly spoken, unfailingly polite, a man from a culture very different from that of his yeoman farmer neighbours who were men who would have enjoyed neither the education nor the refinement to which he was accustomed.

Perhaps he had been a child at a time when there were farm workers to carry out the daily agricultural work, perhaps his father’s role had been one of oversight and a foreman had ensured that the farm was well managed. The First World War reduced the supply of agricultural labourers, mechanisation began to change farming, the depression years were difficult. Perhaps by the time the farm was bequeathed to him, it was already going to be a difficult task to sustain the farm.

Perhaps the car parked in a field of stubble represented the problem, whatever his background, whatever the life to which he had been accustomed, a new car was beyond budget of a working farmer.



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Ian Dury reprised

A friend shared a meme that said being the age that he was meant he visited three shops, the optician, the pharmacist and Gregg’s bakery: specs and drugs and sausage rolls.

It was the English band Ian Dury and the Blockheads who in 1977 sang Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. Dury was a memorable, distinctive character who had overcome childhood polio to establish his music career. His lyrics were strong, his style individual, there was no mistaking his music for the schmaltz of pop bands or the cacophony of much of rock music.

More lyrical than Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll was the 1979 record Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3. Ian Dury made a lengthy list of things that created a sense of well-being, running to sixteen stanzas and a refrain, his reasons to be cheerful combined the global and the domestic, the sublime and the lewd. The first two stanzas captured the mood of the song:

Some of Buddy Holly, the working folly
Good Golly Miss Molly and boats
Hammersmith Palais, the Bolshoi Ballet
Jump back in the alley, add nanny goats.

Eighteen-wheeler Scammels, Domineker camels
All other mammals plus equal votes
Seeing Piccadilly, Fanny Smith and Willy
Being rather silly and porridge oats.

When Ian Dury released the song in 1979, it seemed odd to an eighteen year old who listened to it on BBC Radio 1. Why would anyone be cheerful about such a random collection of things? Whose likes would include porridge, NHS glasses and carrot juice, as well as Salvador Dali, Dmitri Shostakovich and Gaetano Donizetti? If nothing, it was a list that eclectic.

With each passing year, there seems more cause to embrace the spirit of Ian Dury’s song. At the start of lockdown last year, the list included the opportunity to travel and to work and to be able to teach in a school where education came before business models.

A year after those early days of lockdown, I wondered what I would now add to my Ian Dury list. If I were to be writing a personal version of Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3 for 2021, what might make the list?

  • The National Health Service: as George Osborne once declared, quoting Nigel Lawson, “the NHS is the closest thing the British people have to a national religion.” Without the NHS, it is hard to imagine what the past twelve months would have been like.
  • Oxford University: when the government announced last year that Oxford would receive funding for Covid-19 vaccine research there was a sense that if the world’s leading university could not find a vaccine, then no-one could.
  • Sainsbury’s Oatmeal and Raisin Cookies: doing the shopping each Wednesday evening, bags of cookies are bought to sustain the humanities teachers through Thursdays.
  • Robert: the long-suffering mechanic who has succeeded Eric and Richard in keeping my cars on the road.
  • Chris Hawkins: the BBC Radio 6 presenter who cheers me on the way to school between 6.15 and 7.00 each morning.

Reasons to be cheerful? Indeed, they are.

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An end of a holiday romance

Why did we do the stuff we did?

At Easter 1977, a sixteen year old youth caught a National Express coach from Bridgwater in Somerset to Bristol, and then caught a coach from Bristol to Birmingham. It was probably the furthest he had ever travelled by himself, teenage country boys did not get around very much.

On the previous summer holiday, a camping holiday at  Westward Ho! in Devon, there had been a teenage romance. It had been the hottest summer on record and the sun had shone every day and the hours had been filled with laughter. Oddly, the affection had continued through the autumn and winter, there had been an exchange of letters every week and plans were made for a reunion.

Neither house had a telephone, so working out the details of a visit to her home in the Birmingham suburb of Erdington had been done by post, and by arranging to make calls from the respective local telephone boxes at particular times. It was undiscovered territory; did other teenage friendships proceed on a similar basis?

The coach journey had been made on the Easter Saturday that year.  There had been an affectionate greeting and on Sunday and Easter Monday there had been outings with her parents in their Volkswagen camper van.  The Easter Monday afternoon had been spent on Cannock Chase, the local beauty spot. To someone accustomed to the West Country, it didn’t seem such an exciting place.

Easter Tuesday, 12th April came, and the holiday weekend was over. Her father and brother, who had been good company had returned to work; her mother resumed the usual daily routine; and they were left to plan their own days. It became apparent that they really didn’t like each other very much, and that there was not much in common between a sixteen year old from deep in a rural community and a fifteen year old, exactly fifty-one-weeks his junior, from Birmingham.

There was no falling out, there was an outing by train to Stratford-on-Avon and bus trips to the city centre, to the art gallery and the other places thought significant by teenagers, but by the end of the week it became clear that the friendship would not continue.

It was not a surprise when, a few days later, he received a Birmingham postmarked letter from her that told him that there was a nice boy in her class with whom she wanted to go out and that she hoped he wouldn’t mind if she didn’t write again.

The letter was received with complete equanimity. It was a recognition of the obvious. He couldn’t think what the fuss had been about.

Forty years later, that trip to Stratford remains a happy memory.

Why he went to Birmingham remains a question.

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