On Friday, 24th September 1976, Bertyl Gaye, a Cambridge-based photographer, paid a visit to the Red House, Benjamin Britten’s residence in the Suffolk town of Aldeburgh, to keep a sitting appointment. Britten, who had but ten weeks to live as it turned out, posed with the score of his third and final String Quartet, absorbed of expression and pencil in hand as if adding the final touches. Ms Gaye admitted that the portraits she took were not as crisp as she would have liked as her hands shook palpably throughout the session, so shocked was she on seeing how frail the composer had become since she had arranged the date with him.
Sadly, I was not aware of the decline and passing of Mr Britten at the time elsewhere — nor would I be for almost two decades — but I know exactly what I was doing that morning: I turned five that day and my sister sang me a song about what a wonderful number it was before I went to school. I had recently started school and life was a blur of culture shock, fast friendships and harsh lessons not always learned in class. I remember going to the schools outfitters in Sidcup with my mother and being kitted out with my complete uniform. St Joseph’s Convent was a privately run school under the jurisdiction of elderly nuns. They were old enough to have taught my mother when she was a child, which considering she did a stint as a teacher there herself during my tenure at the school, is going some. I don’t believe any of them were younger than in their fifties and while I was there, one of them, as we’ll see later, made it past one hundred. We’re talking old. Values were Victorian, or Edwardian if we’re being progressive, and all the usual hallmarks of a Catholic education — discipline, snobbery, guilt — were set well in place. The uniform belonged to the world of Enid Blyton: grey shirt, blue tie with gold stripes, blue blazer and cap, grey shorts and a black overcoat. NO LONG TROUSERS. After my first day at school, I threw off the coat and cap and left them on the floor. My mother told me to pick them up as I’d need to keep them smart for next day. Next day? Why, what happens next day?
Oh. Apparently you had to go to school five days of the week. I thought it was just for one day only, ever. How crushing.
Music was obviously a compulsory, participatory activity at school, with the communal singing of hymn practice from day one. We even had our own School Hymn and it went like this:
“We are the pupils of St Joseph’s School and to him we sing our praise,
May the holy spirit of St Joseph rule within our hearts always,
With St Joseph to guide us, always walking beside us, so secure and protected we will be,
So safe in the love of him who was the father of the Holy Family.
Bless us dear St Joseph,
May our hearts be good,
Teach us to help and love one another just as Jesus said we should.”
My memory is only selectively brilliant, but it brings the old School Hymn effortlessly, instantly, back to me; I’m not so enamoured with the words, but it was a catchy little number, make no mistake and with good reason: it was written by a gentleman called Tommie Connor, whom I had the pleasure of meeting briefly when I was about 11 years old. He was a very elderly man in Sidcup at the time and a devout Catholic. To me, Mr Connor was a jovial, venerable old chap with a natty moustache and equally dashing dress sense. What I didn’t appreciate at the time is that he was a songwriter of illustrious pedigree, a gentleman of the Tin Pan Alley era of composing; he made his career from the 1920s onwards writing and co-writing some of the runaway hit songs of his era, the most famous of which are probably Gracie Fields’ ‘The Biggest Aspidistra In The World’ and ‘I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus.’ Look him up!
The weekly music lesson at school usually consisted of listening to the BBC Music Workshop programme on the radio at prearranged hours of the day. You could follow along in the accompanying comic-strip booklet containing the music, lyrics and narrative. Sometimes the stories were designed to appeal to the preoccupations of the youth collective with plots derived from football (Will Wanderers Win?) or sci-fi movies (Caractacus Turniptop’s Space Adventure), but mostly they were based on folk tales or Bible stories, such as Mrs Noah’s Missing, Rumpelstiltskin, Little Mookrah and Ali Baba. They’d be met by me and my classmates with varying degrees of reluctance, only rarely bordering on enthusiasm, but I think it’s worth mentioning the BBC Music Workshop because ironically, many of the songs I learned in these lessons are still hard-wired into my brain whether I want them there or not — and I challenge anyone else of my age and education not to recall one or two of them with minimal mental prodding.
Lest I dwell too long on the rigour and routine of school life, let’s say now that most of my memories of my time at the Convent were happy ones. I was one of the oldest in my class, which mattered then, and found it easy enough to get good enough marks when I could be bothered to try. However, one of my earliest ever recollections in pop culture-related japery, was deeply embarrassing. I had a kindergarten teacher called Miss Lenihan, who was probably not long out of teacher training college. In my mind’s eye I see the long denim skirts, boots and centre-parted hair of a young, trendy, mid-Seventies woman — probably a very attractive one at that. She had set us one of the big questions: what will you be when you grow up?
Well, at the age of four I wanted to do two things. Becoming an astronaut was one; space travel was a real and ongoing thing in the mid-Seventies, with frequent updates about Skylab orbiting far above us on John Craven’s Newsround from the BBC’s Space Expert, Reg Turnill. I knew deep down that somehow, I’d never make NASA’s Space Programme. Never mind my tender age, or whether I could pass the physical — I suspected not being American was enough to disqualify me. Oh well. To this day though, if there was ever a chance to go up into space — seriously — I’d take it, like that.
My other dream job was, if anything, even harder to attain. After all, there are a few hundred people in the world currently trained as astronauts, but there’s only ever one chap who raises and lowers Tower Bridge to allow ships passage along the Thames. The technical term for the pivoting sections of bridge and road is ‘bascules‘ in case you needed to know. I loved Tower Bridge from before I can remember, it being on the main route back across London after countless Saturday afternoons spent with my father at London Irish Rugby Club in Sunbury, Surrey. No M25 existed — only the North and South Circulars, but traffic density in the City was rarely prohibitive. My dad’s knowledge of Central London was good and he was open to suggestions regarding landmarks and sites we wanted to see on our way back. I remember my sister wanting to visit Fleet Street, in those days still a journalistic hub. My brother loved to see Cutty Sark and Gipsy Moth II in Greenwich, hardly a salubrious area then. I always wanted Tower Bridge. ‘A Tower Bridge Opener And Closer’ I would state, inadvertently lending the occupation an unnecessary, Regency-style pomposity.
However — back to school and Miss Lenihan’s question. I remember one of my schoolchums answering, brilliantly, that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and run a pub! I kept both my occupational desires to myself. My answer was decisively calculated to entertain rather than state a vocation — I wanted to be ‘a burglar.’ I had no real conception of what a burglar did but I suspect I had seen a comic depiction and liked the regulation black-and-white striped sweater, eye mask and accompanying bag with SWAG stencilled upon it. How Miss Lenihan laughed sweetly about it and probably muttered something to the effect that I really needed to find out exactly what it entailed. Unfortunately that was the day I chose to steal a plastic wallet from a classmate called Simon Francis. I believe his dad may have also run a pub, in Sidcup at the time, but this could just be wishful thinking on my part now. The wallet contained no cash, but something far more precious to me: pictures of various Doctor Who monsters that had come free with some bulk purchase of coffee, or cereal or suchlike — I am fuzzy on this detail. I thought I had got away with my crime until later in the afternoon during PE, while performing exercises involving laying face upwards on the floor of the school hall, the wallet chose this deadly moment to slip noisily from my pocket. The purloined artefact was spotted instantly and identified as belonging to poor Simon. He had been so upset earlier at his loss as you may imagine.
Miss Lenihan was furious. “You’re not a burglar, you’re a baby!” she scolded, slapped me smartly across the back of my thighs and sent me to sit on a separate gym mat on one side of the hall, exiled to my abject shame. I can feel my cheeks burning hotly right now with the memory as I type, much as my legs did then. That put the mockers on any career prospects, had I harboured any, in burglary. It’s all about bloody Doctor Who with me.
1977 was the year of Saturday Night Fever, disco and the Silver Jubilee. It seemed like all that to me, anyway. My memory of the Jubilee is all the things that didn’t happen. No street party. No-one I knew had been to one. Did anyone? I’m beginning to think they never happened. Neither did I get my Jubilee Crown, that I understood every person in the country was entitled to receive. I can’t say I was too upset by either of these omissions. I got a large commemorative lollipop. Saturday Night Fever was the film everyone talked about but the kids couldn’t see it as it rated an ‘X’ certificate that would brook no exception from the cinema commissionaire at the ABC in Sidcup. We are talking about the days when people in those jobs seemed to have real power, just a few steps down from policemen and bishops in my world. I never understood at the time why SNF was such an ‘adult’ film; surely, as the only clips ever shown on tv at the time proved, it was a film about a sharp-dressed guy walking down the street to a funky beat and pulling some flash shapes on the dancefloor? No? Ah, no. I didn’t see it in full until about 15 years later, when I realised that the power of marketing and overfamiliarity with the soundtrack had sold me the idea of an entirely different film over those years. Right.
But never mind the Bee Gees…here’s the Sex Pistols. Coming to this blog soon.
Doctor Who: Planet Of The Spiders. Jon Petwee’s patchy, excellent-when-it’s-good valediction and the source of a lifetime of arachnophobia (BBC, 1974)
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. Our friends are not in Hogwarts any more. Gritty, bold and grim (David Yates, 2010)
Nowhere Boy the early years of John Lennon. Good enough for people who don’t know the story. (Sam Taylor-Wood, 2009)
The Last Legion. A light, happy tale of the origins of Excalibur and Arthur. Better than I thought it’d be. (Doug Lefler, 2006)
Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time. Better than I thought it’d be. (Mike Newell, 2009)
The Expendables. Er, about as good as I thought it’d be. (Sylvester Stallone, 2010)