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The Swinging Years by Dave Taylor


  

It was 1964. Simon Langton was turning me into a "posh person" despite the fact that he had been dead for centuries and I was suffering the humiliation of a uniform that blended maroon, blue and yellow with all the subtlety of a Kenwood Chef. At a time when style had become  the key to self esteem, the “eleven plus” had sentenced me to seven years as a strawberry trifle. 

Nevertheless, we were all smarter and, by now, it wasn't just Father Christmas that had been sussed. Peter Brough and Archie Andrews could no longer sell the idea of a ventriloquist on the radio. (Hands up all those who thought he was good because his lips didn’t move on a crystal set). In the midst of our new "visual era", we also rejected "Journey into Space". We wanted to see green space monsters rather than have them described to us. Confronted by green space monsters, "1950s" radio actors might wait around for a description but the rest of us run away…. and we did.

We were richer. Dad put a mat over the lino, mum bought psychedelic "scatter cushions" and we headed into the "swinging" years. We even opened the front door for things other than the rent man and coffins.

Society was changing. The 50's class system was still there... but only if you looked... and no-one could be bothered to look. Humans were judged by the size of their cuban heels and not their bank balance. People now fell into four social classes:

  • those too young for the sixties ("nuisances"),

  • those too ancient for the sixties ("old sods"),

  • those ready for the sixties ("us"), and, worst of all....

  • those who would have been ready for the sixties if it had happened 20 years earlier (the "would have been readies"

"Nuisances" missed out and were forgotten. "Old sods" opted out but wouldn't allow themselves to be forgotten. To an "old sod", the new supermarkets were too far away, ten pin bowling was too trivial, TV was too bright and the world was too complicated. But, on Sundays, they marched three miles to bingo, sat under a fluorescent light for four hours and "worked" half a dozen cards simultaneously.

Old sods became pre-occupied with food. The war years had taught them not to waste a morcel and, during the affluent years of the sixties, they ate everything in sight including the tablecloth. In the process, they remained blissfully unaware that the temporary diversion of food around the digestive system didn't necessarily mean that it wasn't being wasted. And so, they grew fatter beneath hats that never came off.   

The war had deprived the "would have been readies" of an era of their own and they muscled in on ours.... following months behind and getting it wrong. Middle aged women complained about the mini-skirt in March and cut ten inches off their hemlines in June.... overlooking the fact that tights were replacing stockings, varicose veins were "out" and undergarments needed to be easy on the eye. Middle aged men moved into Beatle jackets as Beatles moved into flower power. "Would have been readies" quickly became an embarrassment.

Houses changed. We bricked up fireplaces and pointed furniture at the television. We chopped up the "living room" table and used trays in the "lounge". We replaced wirelesses with radios and demolished buildings that were listed to make room for buildings that would never last long enough to be listed. In a matter of weeks, half the national heritage had gone.

Even Valente's Ice Cream Parlour changed.... neon signs, acres of glass and a juke box. We didn't want Mr Valente to put ice cream in a cornet anymore. We wanted him to hurl it into a Coke so we could call it a "Brown Cow". We wanted old ladies to do their disapproving outside in the white, wicker chairs that still littered the pavement. We waved at them through the window as they grew moustaches in the rain.

Suddenly, no-one cared about reminiscence or disapproval.  We had left authoritarianism at the Horsebridge along with our woolly cossies. We were looking to the future in an era orchestrated by young people for young people. It had never happened before... and an entire generation celebrated.

Valente's became a temple for "sixties" people. Motorbikes roared in carrying spacemen in leather jackets.... followed by scooters carrying druids in green anoraks. Finally, as hair grew longer, the world re-united in the formidable shape of the Ford Cortina Mark I.

The juke box played on while the Valente family desperately fed it new releases.... Beatles, Swinging Blue Jeans, Dave Clark Five, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd.....  Ken Dodd, Des O'Connor. (Forget those last two..... some "would have been readies" obviously slipped in for a "Brown Horse").

There were, of course, other temples and other juke boxes. The Ten Pin Bowling Alley had arrived on Tower Parade. Here was a game that seemed to require two brain cells.... one to play and the other to control bodily functions while playing. On the other hand, the scoring required Einstein. 

I never understood the fascination with bowling. It seemed totally dependent on machinery. Would people have become "bowlers" if they had been made to stand the pins up themselves? What was so fascinating about the machinery anyway? It resembled a bottling plant. Would anyone have paid money and queued for hours to watch a bottling plant? More important, would they have done so wearing orange shoes?

In fact, the real significance of the Bowling Alley had nothing to do with pins, machines or psychedelic footwear. It was mirrors! Sixties people could not pass a reflection without resorting to a comb. In fact, a walk along the new High Street became a problem of mammoth proportions. Sixties people performed acrobatics in front of every plate glass window in Town.

The Bowling Alley had toilets with mirrors. Bereft of plate glass between Harbour Street and Tower Parade, sixties people used the "Alley" as a vital "stopover" en route to Valente's and a Brown Cow. Teenagers dashed to the toilets for little reason and they never did so unaccompanied. Toilets became single-sex meeting places and mirrors ensured that meetings were lengthy. (Yes, I know they still are single sex meeting places... but not for nice people).

We gave up bowling when the "would have been readies" moved in. At first, we tried to ignore middle-aged men as they removed Beatle jackets to reveal sleeveless pullovers and braces. We looked the other way as middle-aged women struggled to control mini-skirts while attempting a Brooklyn Strike in suspenders. When the embarrassment factor rose to unacceptable levels, we escaped to the temples next door... Jacques and Jimmy's arcades.

At one corner of the dismal Jacques temple, stood a macabre machine that executed a 6" tall criminal for a penny. Amidst the dramatic scene of a prison gate, doors opened, a priest read the last rites and the poor criminal dropped through a hatch to dangle at the end of a rope. It had all worked efficiently in the 1950's but this was the sixties and compassion prevailed. The little criminal hurtled through the trap door only to discover that the hole was too shallow and the rope too long. Waist deep in prison floorboards and unscathed by the experience, he waited for the doors to end his embarrassment. It was the first tangible evidence that capital punishment had become a thing of the past. Even the machine had stopped the killing. Perhaps it had heard of Bentley, Hanratty, Ellis and Evans.

Jimmy’s was brighter. It also had an enormous gambling machine with pictures of five female film stars. The idea was to bet a penny on one of the stars while a light flicked between the pictures. When the light came to rest, we had a winner. Unfortunately, Simon Langton never taught me to cope with this. Having inserted a coin in Marilyn Monroe, I looked on as twelve pence shot out of Ava Gardner and into the pocket of a “would have been ready”. Ava Gardner never did that for me. Come to think of it, neither did Marilyn Monroe.

Of course, this was daytime stuff. On Saturday night, the parish hall throbbed to the sounds of the Rockabeats and Spartacans as local musicians recreated Merseyside in Oxford Street. Sixties people arrived from all directions stopping off at each shop doorway to exercise the comb.

In 1968, I became mobile…. thanks to Roy’s driving school. Dear old Roy taught 80% of Whitstable to drive and then spent half his day trying to avoid us as we circumnavigated the town in our Ford Prefects, Hillman Imps and Renault Dolphins. However, in our desperate attempt to make the most of three dimensions, we forgot the fourth. Time was moving on and the seventies were beckoning. Our teenage years would be gone forever and, ahead, there was marriage, responsibility and kids of our own.

Were those swinging years really so good… or do we simply need something special to cling to in order to soften the passage of time? The answer is not easy.... but, at the end of the day, does it really matter? Memories don't necessarily have to be wholly accurate or wholly justifiable. They exist within ourselves as a way of coping with what has gone and a means of preparing for what is yet to come. It's what we do now and the memories we create for the future that are important.

 

Dave Taylor
1999


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