Thursday, 15 July 2010

Mod-wasm (pt. 2: The Isle of Wight Bank Holiday Weekend)

The 80s were an awful decade for one primary reason: the conspicuous lack of sideburns. Men used to shave the sides of their heads right up to the top of their ears. This meant that even a less ridiculous haircut (a rare thing in those days) was precarious, at best. I’ve always been a firm believer in sideburns. I think you need something to hook over your ears to stop your hair flying off in the wind.

So what did it mean to be a Mod in the 80s? Well, there was a lot of pressure. On the one hand, all you really wanted to do was get extremely drunk, pogo up and down to “Going Underground” and make a nuisance of yourself in the streets at two in the morning singing “We are the Mods”. On the other hand, the Mod scene had bought into this whole French thing about berets and cappuccinos, and all the girls wanted you to have a bouffant, stand up straight and not spill beer down yourself. It became very hip to listen to the Style Council, the James Taylor Quartet and obscure modern jazz records. For the lads – if you wanted to be cool – it became almost mandatory to have a different suit on every time you were seen.  

Well, I’d advanced a bit since I’d first met Ralph and Cathy: I now had a couple of three-button suits (a cheap black one from “the Cavern” in Carnaby Street that I used for work and gigs, and a blue tonik affair that I wore to the “dos”), a handful of polka dot shirts, and a pair of penny loafers. In spite of this I was painfully aware that I was not so much the “ace-face” as the “tatty little herbert”.

Luckily, I couldn’t care less. I was an angry kid, and I liked angry music. I liked long, messy hair. I thought these cunts who turned up at the dos and wouldn’t even sit down for fear of creasing their latest bespoke mohair suits were a bunch of bum-fucking freaks. I found the whole thing vaguely repellent. But I did like the look, and even more, I liked the feeling of belonging.

Well, summer ’87 rolled round, and with it came the traditional bank holiday Mod weekender. We all piled into Cathy’s Ford Escort and headed for the Isle of Wight ferry, with the exception of Ralph, who’d got his Indian Lambretta working for perhaps the first and only time.

            “I’ll see you on the ferry,” he waved cheerfully, as he sped off. “Maybe.”

The Isle of Wight was amazing. The promenade was packed with loudly dressed hipsters and hipsterettes. There were scooters as far as the eye could see. The sun shone down upon us, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I felt part of something, at last.

And so followed three days and nights of extreme drunkenness, drug experimentation and promiscuous sex. I make it sound glamorous, but really, it wasn’t. On the Friday night I picked up what was probably the ugliest girl on the whole island; possibly the entire planet. I’d noticed her when I’d first come in (it was hard not to with those glasses she had, they were like jam jars) and she looked pretty hideous then: but as I drank more and my moral standards slipped further and my sense of the acceptable began to relax she started to look positively attractive. Needless to say, it all turned out for the worst. She shacked up in our B&B for the whole weekend, while her boyfriend paced up and down outside all night moaning and calling her name (which was Gertie). I found it hard to believe that I’d got myself into such a preposterous situation, just by trying to get a bunk up. For the whole weekend I was crucified by feelings of guilt towards the poor bastard outside and the on-going embarrassment of being associated with the nymphomaniac Gertie, who looked like the elephant man with sick all over his face. By the time I’d finished with her, she did have sick all over her face.

On Saturday night I smoked some temple ball in the toilets and ended up collapsing under a table and throwing up all over some bloke’s shoes, for which I got a kicking; Sunday saw us being chased all over Ryde by a herd of neo-fascists and mounted police. A couple of Mods were killed in road accidents after riding the wrong way up the promenade during the scooter parade and there were a of handful arrests by the local constabulary. The weekend had been a roaring success.

Bank holiday Monday was empty, and full of rain. One by one, the scooters began to head off out of town, their parka-clad riders like ghosts in the mist. What had been the point of all that? I thought. Everything was over, and it was as if it had never happened.

Gertie made me promise to write, and I said I would. I didn’t, of course: I dumped her unceremoniously at Ryde train station and got the hell away from her as fast as I could. I was going to have a lot of explaining to do when my girlfriend saw all the love-bites. The journey back from the ferry was tedious: Cathy was still excited and singing along to “The Unsung Heroes” on the car stereo, but for everyone else it was back to reality, to mundanity. As for myself, I just wanted to go home, shut the curtains, swallow a couple of valium and listen to Bob Dylan.

The band split up fairly soon afterwards: Timmy Dingle got into acid house, grew his hair and became a DJ; Derek Riley started brewing his own beer and ended up living in a shed on the edge of the New Forest; and I got a job selling electric guitars and began my descent into alcoholism.

But the whole Mod experience had changed me, in the most fundamental way. Never again would I wear a two button jacket or pleated trousers. Never again would I let an imbecile cut my hair. Never again would I wear a biker jacket or denim waistcoat. Never would I be pierced, tattooed, brylcreemed or clad in PVC trousers. And never – but never – would my hair fly off in the wind.



Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Mod-wasm (pt. 1)

It was just a look for our rock and roll band, initially. Me and Derek Riley (my friend from The Horse's Penis, and the drummer in the band) were sat in my bedroom, guzzling Royal Dutch lager (40p a can, of which we had fifty), listening to Ian Hunter, smoking dog-ends and waiting for the arrival of Dangle, the guitar player, who was always late and usually absent. His real name was Timmy Dingle, but he was unfeasibly tall and rubbery, and used to literally dangle from the point in the air where his head was.

Anyway, Dangle wasn’t there yet, and we were excitedly discussing our first gig, which was to be the following week, down at the local youth club.

            “I think we need a new look,” I suggested, “to make us stand out.”

          “Ah, yes,” he nodded sagely, “to make us stand out from all the other bands that play down at the youth club, of which there are… let me see… none.”

He had an infuriating logic about him, did Derek, but it must have done something to his brain, because he also had a gigantic afro.

          “Well, alright then, but we need an image. All bands have an image of some sort. We don’t have any sort of an image at all, unless you count your pink ski jacket and ludicrous hair, Dangle’s acne…”

            “… and your huge nose.”

            “Big nose, big hose.”

            “Rubbish. Your mum just told you that to make you go to school. Anyway, what did you have in mind?”

What I had in mind was an early picture of the Who which I’d seen in a book called “The Swinging Sixties”. It was in a chapter called “Mods”. The singer was wearing a blue polo-necked jumper and checked trousers; the drummer had cool hair and a target on his shirt. My mum had got the book for my birthday, from Marks and Spencer; it had come with a cassette tape. The tape had stuff like Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Hollies, and Peter and Gordon on it. It was shit.

The book was ok though, and I got it out now, so that Derek could peruse the said picture.

        “The Who, eh?” Derek muttered to himself, and then: “Mods, eh?” Finally, after some minutes, he said: “Ok then, let’s be Mods.”

It was just then that Dangle finally lurched in through the door, battering the cat with his guitar case.

“Dangle,” we announced in unison, “we are now Mods.”

            “Ok,” he replied.

It was one thing deciding to be Mods, but it was another thing actually being them, because we really didn’t know what they were. It said in my sixties book that Mods wore parkas and rode scooters, listened to soul and R&B, and popped pills. We didn’t have any problem with the music – we listened to rhythm and blues all the time – but the scooters were going to pose a bit of a problem (we were all under the age of fifteen and usually too drunk to ride even our bikes), as were the pills: we didn’t know where to get any, or indeed, what kind to get. My only experience of pills up to that point had been the occasional course of antibiotics and the valium that I stole from my mum. A few years later I’d be making my first trip to rehab, but that’s another story.

So we decided to focus on the only things we could: the acquirement of parkas from the army surplus store in town, and the renting of Quadrophenia from the video shop down the road.

We learnt a lot from watching Quadrophenia.

One of the things we learnt was that we’d bought the wrong parkas. The ones they wore in the film were American fish-tail parkas; ours were German. This was a crushing blow, but we made the best of it by covering them up with patches and targets and Union Jacks.

One afternoon I was on the bus when I noticed an older lad on the seat next to mine. He looked like he’d just stepped out the photo in my book, and was observing me coolly.

            “Are you trying to look like a Mod?” he said, eventually.

            “What d’you mean, trying?” I replied with indignation. “I am one.”

            “No you’re not,” he said. “You don’t have the first idea.”

I knew he was right, so – bristling with resentment - I said nothing. He appeared to think for a moment, and then said: “I tell you what. I like the fact that you’re trying, even if you do look like an embarrassment. My name’s Ralph. Why don’t you come back to my house and meet my girlfriend and listen to some records. I’ve got some old stuff at home that would probably fit you. How would you like to be a real Mod? Not some ticket, but a proper Mod? I like a challenge. I can teach you everything you need to know.”

            “Yeah, that’d be great!”

“I can drop you back home later, on the scooter. Lambretta, it is. Made in India though, so it rarely starts. And bits keep falling off it. I wish I’d never bought it.  It’s a piece of crap, it really is.”

Although neither of us knew it then, Ralph and his girlfriend were about to change my life.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Low Rent

My mother was always in and out of mental hospitals. She’d had a hard life. Both her parents died in the war – he was under a truck when a bullet hit the petrol tank; I don’t know what happened to her. Mum was sent off to live with her notorious alcoholic uncle. It was a bit like Cinderella. He did bugger all but drink all day and beat the kids, and she had to drop out of school to look after him, and her cousins. Before she knew what had hit her she was either working her fingers to the bone in the munitions factory or boiling ham and cabbage for ten. She didn’t have much of a social life.

That set the tone, really. She sought escape in her first marriage, a bloke called Geoff who worked for the BBC and was into Cub Scouting on a Saturday. Except it soon became apparent that he was far more into camping, young boys and dib dib dibbing than she’d at first chosen to suspect, and that she was stuck in a loveless marriage. This was an irony, because my mother wasn’t an ambitious woman, in the normal sense. All she ever wanted was to be a housewife in a loving marriage, preferably with a man who liked regular sexual intercourse, which is the complete opposite of what actually happened to her.

He gave her three children, and humdrum weekends with which to catch up on the ironing, while he went off in his VW camper showing other people’s kids how to sew, salute flags, and wear long socks with lace-up shoes.

That was when my dad showed up. He showed up because he needed somewhere to live. He had no ambition either; he was an elephant keeper at the zoo. He did like rock and roll though, and being a bachelor boy, in the happy go-lucky way of the Cliff Richard “pop” record that nobody remembers or likes. 

He’d responded to an advertisement that Mum had placed in the local gazette:

Room to Let

in comfortable house. Low rent.

Suit single professional male.

Must like children.

My father obviously didn't think it through. For a start, he didn't like children: he liked elephants. And even if he had, he probably wasn’t planning on having any himself. Secondly, no bachelor is going to find a house full of children comfortable, low rent or not. He failed to perceive the sinister undertones that ran between the lines. It would be several years before “Tales of the Unexpected” was televised in England, and he didn’t consider that he might be walking in to a situation from which he wouldn’t be able to free himself for the next eight years, which was, in fact, what happened. He just wanted to put his brush down and have a spot of tea.

Almost exactly nine months later, I was born, closely followed by my youngest brother.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the marriage of a woman who wanted nothing more than to be a housewife to a man who wanted nothing more than to be left alone would be doomed from the very start, and you’d be right.

When my dad couldn’t cope any longer, he left, and became a lodger somewhere else. His landlord was a large bald man with a beard called Gustav, who used to crouch in a corner of the kitchen in the dark and attack my father in the evening when he returned from work. Meanwhile, my mother got a job in a bakery and started flirting with alcoholism and the Anglican Church, with the added bonus of an extra two children to bring up on her own.

It wasn’t long before potential husband number three turned up. Kurt Gruttox, his name was, and he was a captain in the British army. He’d just killed his fourth wife, and he also had five kids, so they had plenty in common.

Kurt had pretentions to culture. He used to scan the free ads and come back with all sorts of awful crap. One day I got home from school to see a new bookcase filled with exotically bound hard-backed books. He can’t be all bad, I thought, until on closer inspection I discovered that they weren’t books at all, just the spines of books stuck on cardboard boxes. It was the same with the chairs, which he bought because the seller had advertised them as Parker-Knoll. “They’ll be fine when I get some spray-on leather and cover up the worn bits,” he said.

Even then, I wanted to see him crash and burn.

One of Kurt’s pretentions was Bridge. He bullied my mother into learning to play – he considered it a useful tool for social climbing – and started buying the Mail on Sunday. He also persuaded her that it would look good if she attended church every Sunday, and took my brother and I with her. They became very friendly with a couple who lived a few doors down, Henry and Margot, and every now and again they’d all go off on Bridge nights together.

They were an odd pair, Henry and Margot. He was a solicitor in his late fifties who had a permanently dazed look about him, was fond of the scotch and did an entertaining impression of Les Dawson on the piano. She was twenty years or so his junior, with a liking for short skirts and outlandish wigs. They had a son, Little Mickey. Mickey (or Little, as he was sometimes known) was a horrible child. Very milky. Pasty and pale and freckly and awful. He was a lot like the Milky Bar Kid, only milkier. He was also a bastard. Not infrequently we’d return home from church to find Margot in the kitchen having coffee with Kurt, while Little Mickey played on Kurt’s new computer, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Sooner or later the Captain’s parents began turning up on holiday from Southport. He was a white-haired friendly sort of a fat chap; she was a dried up old bag who looked and acted like she’d been sucking on lemons. She expected us to call them “Nana and Granddad”, which I found embarrassingly working class.

Well, it wasn’t long before Granddad started volunteering to babysit for my brother and I, forcing his pink tongue into our mouths when he kissed us after a story, and creeping upstairs when we were alone in our respective rooms to “have a good feel”. I found these kind of shenanigans distasteful, but there was a part of me that sympathised with the old boy; I mean, he wasn’t getting any from the shrivelled up old harridan that he’d married, and probably hadn’t for the last thirty years; and even then it was probably fully clothed in the dark while she recited verses from the Bible and slapped him if he seemed to be enjoying himself or acting too much like a Catholic.

So we bore it stoically, my brother and me, and said nothing to our mother. Possibly it would have destroyed her, and possibly she wouldn’t have been able to bring herself to believe us anyway; she wanted to be married again so badly.

Finally the Captain got posted to Germany, and his calls to my mother became less and less frequent. We didn’t seem to see so much of Margot anymore either, although in the aftermath of Kurt’s last phone call to mother we felt obliged to go and fetch her. Mum was in an awful state; she was nearly hysterical. I’d sat at the top of the stairs all evening listening, as she’d variously sobbed and begged and pleaded with him to give her one last chance. It was pitiful. And all the time I was praying to God: “Don’t let him give her another chance, don’t let him give her another chance.” I just wanted to see the back of him and his Audi and his fake books and his child-molesting parents.

Margot finally landed in her red wig, and spent twenty minutes rolling her eyes, looking at the clock and saying not much at all to mum, who was a quivering wreck. She was no help whatsoever. In the morning her husband Henry awoke to a note saying she’d taken Little Mickey, and gone, to Germany.

Shockingly, Margot died of cancer within the year, leaving Kurt to bring up Little Mickey on his own. But Mickey always did look like a member of the Hitler Youth, so it probably all turned out for the best.

Monday, 5 July 2010

The Last Chance Employment Agency

After my brief flirtation with unemployment I now find myself working for a temping agency of the “if-it-looks-Mexican-take-its-passport-and-lock-it-in-the-basement” variety. The kind where you just walk in and they put you to work straight away, usually someplace way out in the middle of nowhere; you know the sort of thing: watercress factories, vegetable farms, slaughterhouses and sinister looking experimental facilities that go a hundred stories down into the hot bowels of the earth: they drive you there by cattle prod. Still, it had to be done because the bills were mounting up and my self-respect would soon be taking a nose-dive. I’d briefly considered signing on again, but the fact is that I'm nearly forty, and these days I like soft furnishings.

It was after a frustrated morning of fruitless pavement-pounding in Old Christchurch Road with my semi-autobiographical CV that my eyes alit upon a dingy sign which read: “immediate work, start today”; a formidable looking arrow pointing at the dark and steamy staircase that rose from the street to the Last Chance Employment Agency above.

The receptionist was pleasant enough, once you’d got over the carbuncle.

            “I’d like to register for work, please,” I said.

            “What sort of thing are you looking for?”

        “Anything, really. Ideally something that doesn’t involve manual labour, heavy lifting, steel toe-caps, extreme temperatures, the dissection of animals, the serving of alcohol, the cleaning up of bodily fluids, delivering anything, fixing anything, being responsible for anything, hair nets, beard nets, hard-hats, helmets, wellington boots, surgical gloves, polyester waistcoats, sycophancy or having to kowtow to cretins.”

            “We have just the thing.”

The following morning found me crammed into a van with a bunch of shoeless foreign language students, most of whom had just come off a twelve-hour shift at the glue factory, our destination: the Sandy Balls Holiday Park.

The irony of calling the place “Sandy Balls” may have been lost on the owners of the establishment - or maybe it wasn’t: if I came into possession of a massive swathe of hilly woodland full of Swiss-style chalets and thirty miles from the sea, and was in a playfully infantile mood, I’d probably call it Sandy Balls too (or Salty Clefts or Crusty Groynes, or maybe even Oily Gruttocks) – but it certainly wasn’t lost on me, and seeing dozens of employees wandering round with “Sandy Balls” written proudly on their t-shirts caused me the kind of amusement that rarely wears thin.

Upon arrival I was presented with a bucket, a map, and a lad of Turkish extraction, and told to go and clean windows. It was a beautiful day, so I concurred. I’d much rather be out cleaning windows in the sunshine than stuck inside a chalet changing beds with some gluey language student, however sticky she may be. I’m trying to stay out of trouble.

The Turk was called Deniz, and was overjoyed that he’d been teamed up with a real, honest-to-God Englishman: I was, in fact, the first he’d met since coming here. I wondered how this could possibly be: this is England, after all.

          “Ah,” he said, “at my language school there are no English, only foreign. French, Bulgarians, Czechs. Then when I’m not at school I have to work, here, or in the glue factory, or wherever the Agency send me, and there are no English working for the Last Chance Employment Agency. You are the first and only one.”

I wondered whether I should feel proud, and decided that yes, I probably should. Not for being English, or for working at the Last Chance Employment Agency, but for being the first and only one of something. Of anything.

Deniz was very keen that I should correct any mistakes I noticed in his use of the language, and interested in learning the kind of everyday English that they don’t teach you in school.

        “Come on Deniz,” I said, for example, as we were leaving one of the chalets where we’d just smashed a window, “let’s get out of this fucking hell-hole.”

         “Fucking hell-ho?” he asked me quizzically. “What is fucking hell-ho? I know fucking hell, but no fucking hell-ho.”

            “Hell hole,” I replied. “As in: let’s get the fuck out of this fucking hell-hole.”

            “What is hole?”

            I pointed at the broken window. “That’s a hole.”

            “Ah, I understand. Now what is the difference?”

         “The difference is this: you break a window, you say: ‘Fucking hell!’ You want to make a quick exit from the scene before you’re discovered and have the cost of a new window deducted from your already minimalist pay cheque, you say: ‘Fucking hell, let’s get the fucking hell out of this fucking hell-hole!’”

Deniz was very pleased with his new slogan, and repeated it frequently and joyfully throughout the afternoon. I, for my part, was proud that I had been able to enrich his understanding of our mother tongue.

            “You should be an English teacher,” he said to me as we clambered into the van. “I’ve learned more English today than I have since I’ve been here. You do a six-month course and you can teach in a language school. You’re very understandable. You’d be good at it. You should think about it. And now,” he added, as the mini-bus pulled away, “let us hasten from this godforsaken place.”

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Death of John Lennon

I was eight years old when I heard the news about John Lennon. My father had obviously not left home yet: he was still in bed with my mother; they were having their morning tea. It was customary in those days for my brother and I to bombard our parents at the crack of dawn with the thoughtless exuberance of the not yet jaded. My father was jaded though, and his response to the news was nothing out of the ordinary.

            “Bloody hell,” he said. “That’s just bloody typical.”

He was not surprised; he was merely disgusted.

            “John Lennon is dead,” I heard the newsreader say, his disembodied voice crackling over the airwaves. “The former Beatle was shot four times in the back at point blank range as his wife Yoko looked on…”

It was the way he said it that made me take notice.

John Lennon is dead.”

Not “John Lennon passed away in hospital last night after being shot outside his apartment building in New York”; not “John Lennon has died at the age of forty, a victim of a crazed gunman”: No.

            John Lennon Is Dead.

It sounded so final, like the lid being slammed shut on a coffin. It also sounded like this John Lennon was a man of importance; that the world had lost someone of priceless and infinite value.

            “…the killer has been named as Mark David Chapman, a twenty-five year old born-again Christian and Beatles fan from Fort Worth, Texas…”

            “Who’s John Lennon, Dad?”

            “Who was John Lennon. He’s dead.”

            “Who was he then?”

            “He was one of the Beatles.”

            “What are the Beatles?”

            “They were a pop group. You know who the Beatles are. They always show their films over Christmas.”

            “Oh, I know. There’s four of them.”

            “That’s right. They sang that song ‘Help’. You know the one.”

            “Help, I need somebody, help, not just…”

            “Yes, that one.”

            “…you like the Beatles, don’t you, Dad.”

            “They were alright. Actually I much preferred Elvis Presley.”

            “Oh, I thought the Beatles were much nicer,” said my mother, “in fact I think I’ve got nearly all of their records downstairs. I always thought Elvis was a bit… well, greasy. The Beatles, well, they were cleaner and just… nicer. And Trini Lopez. He was nice, too. He sang ‘If I Had a Hammer’.”

            “…Chapman remained at the scene after the shooting, sitting down to read a book while he waited for the arrival of the police.”

The book was The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, in which the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, saves the children in a field of rye from straying too near to the edge of the cliff, at the bottom of which awaits adulthood, the loss of innocence, and “phoniness”. Chapman identified himself completely with the character, and saw it as his purpose to defend the world from this phoniness. A born-again Christian and megalomaniac who had largely fried his brains with mescaline, acid and smack, he decided that he needed to make an example of someone; to kill a phony.

It wasn’t too difficult for him to decide upon a target. There were other people on his list, notably David Bowie, but let’s face it: it wasn’t Bowie who had claimed in 1966 that his band were “bigger than Jesus”, was it? It wasn’t Bowie who sang “imagine no possessions” while living in a sprawling mansion (with moat) in Weybridge, was it?

No, it was that impudent Lennon; Lennon, the hero who had let him down; Lennon, who had lied to him, for fuck’s sake.

The guy clearly needed to die.


Mum didn’t have “nearly all” of the Beatles’ records downstairs (they made thirteen albums), but she did have three: “With the Beatles”, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Rubber Soul”, and fucking ace they were, too. I’d never heard anything like it. All I’d heard up to this point were horribly bearded MOR groups like Abba and the Brotherhood of Man, who all wore spandex bodystockings and platformed shoes. I’d heard better sounding dogshit. The Beatles blew my head off. They were what I’d been waiting for.

In 1981 Chapman was convicted of second degree murder, and sentenced to a minimum of 20 years confinement at Attica State Prison, where he still resides.

“He told us to imagine no possessions, and there he was, with millions of dollars and yachts and farms and country estates, laughing at people like me who had believed the lies and bought the records and built a big part of their lives around his music.” – Mark David Chapman