Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Monday Monday

If anyone's wondering what the hell was going on with yesterday's somewhat oblique post, what with the photo of Cilla and all (looking very 60s cool however) then I feel I should explain. At the weekend I attended the excellent 2013 Unofficial Histories Conference in Manchester. UH aims to 'discuss how society produces, presents, and consumes history beyond official and elite versions of the past'. I was kindly asked to chip in with a defence of council estates beyond the elite, academic, version of them, but along the way there were lots of other fascinating papers, for instance one that examined a lovely set of scrapbooks made in 1965 by the Women’s Institute to celebrate the organisation’s golden jubilee. Each village W.I. made their own scrapbook with an intention to provide a snap shot of village life at that moment in time. They were incredibly inventive visually - sometimes being a cross between a dadaist collage and a McKnight Kauffer London Underground poster - but the most interesting aspect of them lay in how they then seemed to openly and excitedly embrace the white heat of modernity, even in the most rural and, presumably, traditional of places. 

In addition to this, there were two papers that examined two very different sets of personal diaries dating from the 1930s to the 50s. One of these is beginning to be chronicled in an excellent blog called Socks for the Boys! which can be found here. It is well recommended so do go and have a look. The papers raised an interesting historiographical dilemma in how we can begin to reconcile history, fiction and memoir. I have no answers to this as such, other than to present the usual mish-mash of memories, photos, historical research, architectural criticism and odd references to pop music that you find on this blog. To add to that mix, the You're my World post yesterday offered some, erm, 'creative writing' - an excerpt from a not very good attempt to fictionalise my memories of growing up in the 1960s and 70s, that I've called Monday Monday after the Mamas and Papas song that has a particular resonance for me and my time on the Middlefield Lane estate. I hear those opening ba-da, ba-da-da-da's and I'm in my classroom at Heapham Road Infants, just five minutes walk away from home, in the summer of 1966, with those oh-so west-coast harmonies in my head, just as the caretaker's going by mowing the playing field. In the words of the fabulous Motown singer, Chris Clark, I want to go back there again. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

You're my world

The new, knee-high privet hedge is already covered with clusters of tiny, creamy-white buds. In years to come, Ian will habitually snatch fistfuls of these buds as he gets home from school, and he will toss them high into the air without even waiting to see them fall. It is Spring. These buds always come too early, and so never seem to open in any case, even those that happen to miss Ian’s careless, destructive grasp. Somewhere in the distance, a cement mixer churns, creating a metallic loop of sound. Shirley has a golden Yale key in her hand which she wriggles into a new lock on the back door of a brand-new council house. As she pushes the door open, there is an audible release of air that reverberates through the emptiness of the house, as if it has been hermetically sealed ready for the new tenants. ‘Oh Jack, what do you think?’ Shirley exclaims. ‘Well, let’s get in properly first,’ he replies. The house smells so clean, of putty and of freshly planed and painted wood. In the face of such newness, Shirley and Jack are both momentarily stupefied by a mixture of excitement and bemusement. Ian takes his Dad’s hand as they all step inside, and straight into a small utility room. Later they will put a table and some matching chairs in there, and will come to call this space ‘the meal room’. The table will have a lemon-yellow Formica top covered with black-lined abstract squiggles that Ian will obsessively trace with his finger. Because it is a cool room, they will eat their tea there on hot summer days. 

As they move into the new kitchen, they remain speechless. Even Ian, who talks more than enough now for a three year old, says nothing, and their footsteps echo in their prospective, just-finished and ready-to-move-in home. The house is plain: four-square, and with pebble-dashed exterior walls. It has a turquoise front door with a parabolic concrete canopy over it. The house is semi-detached but only by virtue of being on the end of a short row with three others. It has two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, a kitchen, and that utility room. Jack turns and shuts the back door because the house is also cold and as yet unlived in. There is no heating other than what the open fireplace in the living room will offer, but Shirley already has her eye on a couple of new paraffin heaters. ‘Dinky’ and ‘clean-lined’ she says, in her newly-acquired ad-speak. She cannot stop herself now, she is so excited: ‘look! – a bathroom and inside toilet, kitchen ‘tops’, hot and cold running water, a TV aerial socket, a picture-window.’ 

Jack has already switched off, and stares at the chrome taps that hang over the stainless steel kitchen sink unit. The taps have little red and blue dots embedded in them, one for hot and one for cold, and Jack lifts Ian up to see them. ‘Red and Blue’ says Jack. In that moment, Ian’s world is transformed. His world – a modern, 1960s world – is transmitted in colour for the first time. ‘Red and Blue!’ Ian repeats, and his Dad hugs him closer, while Shirley bounds up the wooden, carpet-less stairs: up from a monochrome nothingness and into a world of red and blue dots, as this family finally crosses the threshold into the 1960s.
Late spring winds itself up into a summer, and the sun streams through the large, oblong, living-room window. The sun warms Ian’s back as he draws and colours on scraps of paper. He tuts as the paper slips about on the immaculately polished, mahogany dining table where he is sitting. His mother polishes it all the time. It is late June, two months or so after they have moved into their new home. Ian turns to look out of the window. They have found themselves on the edge of nowhere, at the end of the estate and exactly where the town stops. The ‘picture window’, as the promotional blurb for this new estate called it, looks out onto open countryside. ‘We pay more rent that anyone else on the estate for that view,’ Shirley tells Ian as she notices him looking out. She is decorating, busily putting wallpaper up everywhere. Jack can’t do it, she says to herself, as she gleefully stretches up to the ceiling with yet another dripping strip of gold and green flock wallpaper. 

The wallpaper’s Regency swirls move, and threaten to subjugate the modernity of the house, so Ian quickly turns his mind back to his drawing. Cilla Black’s You're My World starts to play on the radio. High pitched strings beat out a simple, haunting, morse code-like rhythm: dit-dit ... dit-dit ... dit-dit. Its sweetened pop dissonance beats back the old-fashioned wallpaper patterns for a moment, and then Cilla's voice comes in, soft and tentative for a change: ‘You're my world, you're every prayer I say ...’ Ian stops to listen, already connecting the voice with a photograph on the large, square ‘Pop Parade’ card he got free with a Mister Softee ice-cream that his Dad had bought him the previous Saturday afternoon. For about forty-five seconds or so, Ian listens intently to that heart-stopping, memory-arresting intro. But then the song builds up too quickly. Cilla’s voice, always strained at the best of times, suddenly belts out the chorus and, in an instant, Ian’s still, sun-filled moment, is shaken and shattered.