Stiff Upper Lips

Originally published February 2009

Alec: We know we really love each other. That’s true. That’s all that really matters.
Laura: It isn’t all that really matters. Other things matter too. Self-respect matters, and decency.

Brief Encounter is one of those lovely old British movies full of plummy voices, stiff upper lips, and dreary tea rooms which the BBC used to show all the time on Sunday afternoons (along with Genevieve, The Way To The Stars, and The Dam Busters). Its atmosphere of monochrome miserablism was perfectly suited to that post-lunch, rainy Sunday dead zone where there was nothing better to do than sit in front of the fire and watch a great old movie.

The picture of England these films painted was of a genteel and polite country which probably only exists today in the minds of ageing Daily Mail readers. It was a place of deference and impeccable manners where the last thing anyone wants to do is cause a scene or, God forbid, get all emotional about something.

It’s a cliché about us English that we’re all a bit reserved and repressed and in Brief Encounter Alec and Laura are like the poster children for stiff English formality, living in a buttoned-up world of afternoon tea and polite chat about trains and library books. When they fall in love it threatens to tear that tidy world apart and they’re thrown into a panic by it. Laura in particular is completely discombobulated by her sudden feelings — “I’ve fallen in love. I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” — and it’s heartbreaking to see them try to be sensible and frightfully British about something as irrational and powerful as love.

Before she meets Alec, Laura’s life has all the flavour and excitement of a stale British Rail ham sandwich, with a house in the suburbs and a dull husband who looks like he probably goes to bed in the pinstriped suit he wears while doing The Times’ crossword puzzle in front of the fire every night. It’s the sort of dreary suburban trap that would later be made out to be a soul-destroying hellhole to be escaped at all costs, but Laura is a sensible middle-class housewife and people like her just don’t run off with a handsome doctor. Passion and romance might be alright for the French, but she’s British! So she does the “decent” thing and gives up Alec even though it tears her apart. At the end of the film it looks like she’ll never be happy again, but you know that she’ll pull herself together, keep it all bottled up and soldier on making the best of things, hiding her misery behind a polite English exterior. Order must be preserved, emotions must be kept in check, or England and the Empire will crumble.

It’s easy to mock (and parody) their frightfully proper manners and old-fashioned English reserve in general, especially in this post-1960s era when we’re told it’s bad to bottle your feelings up and to let it all hang out, man. But really, don’t you wish more people these days would resist the urge to share the almost pornographic details of their inner selves in public and keep the lid on a bit more? And just because the “stuffy” Brit isn’t inclined to swing naked from the emotional chandelier doesn’t mean they have no feelings, we just find it a little vulgar and juvenile to advertise them to the world in great big neon letters which is why we get embarrassed in the presence of loud Americans who will insist on talking about their bloody feelings and hugging you all the time. That’s when we start looking at our shoes and talking about the weather.

Download: I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You – Tom Waits (mp3)


Every Picture Tells A Story

Originally published September 2010

After our mother died, my sister gave me a pile of old family photos to scan, among them this one of her (left) and her three younger sisters outside their Shepherd’s Bush council flat — the same flat my gran still lived in when I was a kid and didn’t leave until the early 70s when my grandfather died. I know exactly when the photo was taken because some helpful person (my grandmother I think judging by the handwriting) has written “Coronation Day” on the back which would make it Tuesday the 2nd of June, 1953 and my mother a mere 18 years old (though I think she looked younger when she was in her 30s). She’d already left school and was working at that point, despite getting several O-levels she didn’t stay on for A-levels because the family needed the extra wage, something I think she always regretted.

My mum told me that she watched the Coronation on television like 20 million other Brits but whether it was their own set or a neighbours I can’t remember. Coronation Day was a holiday (in typical English “holiday” fashion it rained all day) and with their pearl necklaces the eldest three all look a bit dressed up to go somewhere, it could have been a street party or maybe just because they were having their photo taken, though it wouldn’t surprise me if it was because they were going to “see” the Queen on television and thought they should put on their “best” for such an important occasion. As it was a Tuesday I assume my mother wouldn’t have gone out that evening but come the weekend you might have found her dancing at the Hammersmith Palais where, in those pre-rock and roll days, the music was provided by live big bands led by the likes of Billy Cotton and Joe Loss.

The Hammersmith Palais was also where she met my dad about 6 years later who, I imagine, at the time looked something like he does in this photo.

That’s my old man on the left with three of his mates (he also had three brothers) and I don’t know when this was taken but judging by the suits I’d place it sometime in the 1950s too. The thing I’ve always loved about this picture is how suave my dad looks, he seems so much more put-together and debonair than the others, his suit just that bit fancier and well-tailored and he’s even holding his drink rather rakishly. Back then he was known as a bit of a fancy-pants and was nicknamed “Duke” because he always wore suits with a red lining, an indication perhaps that after he married my mother he wouldn’t be satisfied being a cab driver and would eventually make for the sophisticated bright lights of the theatre.

It’s always strange seeing photos of your parents as teenagers (and yourself too) and old photos of people you know are unavoidably poignant and suffused with a sort of innocence because you can see their future and they can’t, and not just in the long-term. Like the characters in Mad Men they don’t know that the 1960s are coming to smash the conventions and assumptions they’ve been living by and in my parents case they happened just a little too late, being married with two kids by the time The Beatles’ first record came out. Who knows what would have happened if my mother didn’t have to leave school to get a job at 16 and share a little council flat bedroom with three sisters until she got married, or my dad discovered what he really wanted to do with his life before then?

But then I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this.

Download: Photograph – Ringo Starr (mp3)

Singles Going Cheaply

I wish I could say I was hip enough to have bought Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” when it came out in 1977 but the copy I have is on the cheapo reissue label Old Gold which I bought in the 1980s. I have several of these singles because they were a very easy way of picking up old classics and often had another great track on the b-side too.

You kids might find this shocking but in the olden days you couldn’t just listen to any song ever recorded on your phone or easily find a rare original copy of a record on eBay or Discogs. If you wanted something old and out-of-print you actually had to leave the house and spend an afternoon digging through the racks at second-hand record shops or try and get it through mail order. It was a pain in the arse that required a dedication I just didn’t have.

Cheap reissues were fine with me and I don’t remember ever being bothered by not owning an original of something. That’s partly down to not having the money (I had to buy beer and fags too!) but also because I was young and there was no nostalgia involved in my record buying. I wasn’t trying to resurrect some vanished youth I’d once had by buying artifacts from it. I didn’t care if it was on a certain colour label or had the authentic smell of 1972 about it. I still don’t really.

Back then major labels didn’t give seem to give a toss about their back catalogues. Some had budget album lines like Nice Price, and Super Saver but often licensed their old tracks out to cheap labels like Old Gold, Pickwick, Music For Pleasure, and K-Tel. RCA thought so little of David Bowie’s back catalogue in 1980 they let K-Tel plunder it for the Best of Bowie album, and you could get Beatles and Pink Floyd collections on MFP.

I loved those cheap reissues and comps because they were an easy entree into the history of pop at a time when I was on a Saturday-job budget. These days there’s a heritage industry for pop music and reissues are a huge part of the vinyl market with record companies trying to squeeze every last penny out of their past glories with deluxe editions, box-sets, and overpriced Record Store Day exclusives. Maybe I’m missing some part of the music nerd gene but I don’t bother with any of those either.

Here’s another single I have on Old Gold. A one-hit wonder from 1970 that later became big in Northern Soul clubs.

Download: Groovin’ With Mr. Bloe – Mr. Bloe (mp3)

The Memory Hole

My sister came to visit last summer and brought with her this photo booth picture she found among our mum’s things. Amazingly I had never seen it before so I was bowled over at having a forgotten moment from my childhood unexpectedly revealed.

We think it was taken around 1967 which makes me about five years old (bless), and fifty years later I find myself staring at it trying to imagine where we were and what that day was like. We were probably out shopping and the photo booth was a spur-of-the-moment bit of fun because I do remember us doing that on other occasions. We certainly look happy, especially my mum who is positively beaming — I like to think with pride over her lovely kids.

I treasure pictures like this because I don’t have many of them. We didn’t own a camera until my mum bought a Pocket Instamatic in the 1970s so I don’t have a lot of family photos from before then. I have school photos but those are really just a record of the changing length of my hair.

It occurred to me writing this that the really big hole in the photo album of my life is that I only have one photo of me with my dad when I was a little kid. I guess he didn’t have a camera either.

This is Dusty’s 1982 version of a great Elvis Costello song.

Download: Losing You (Just A Memory) – Dusty Springfield (mp3)

The Sunday Matinee

The highlight of a boring, rainy Sunday in my youth was often the film on BBC1 in the afternoon. This was usually an old black and white movie, perfectly timed to come on after we’d had our Sunday roast and were very happy to laze in front of the gas fire and wallow in some musty melodrama.

One of our favourite Sunday afternoon films was The Way To The Stars, a beautiful WWII weepie made in 1945 that should be better known than it is. Set in an English village near an RAF base during the war, it’s about the lives and loves of the pilots and the locals as they deal with war and death in a quietly English way by papering over their emotions and trying to carry on.

The above scene is when RAF pilot Peter (John Mills) tells local-hotel manageress Toddy (Rosamund John) that her husband has been killed. What makes it doubly-heartbreaking is that Toddy has just had a baby, and because of this Peter breaks up with the girl he loves because he doesn’t think it’s fair to be involved with her when he could be killed at any time himself. If you’re able to make it through this scene without at least getting a little lump in your throat you must have a black hole where your heart should be.

The poem Mills recites was actually written by John Pudney.

Do not despair, for Johnny head in air.
He sleeps as sound as Johnny under ground.

Fetch out no shroud for Johnny in the cloud,
and keep your tears for him in after years.

Better by far for Johnny the bright star,
to keep your head and see his children fed.

This is “war” film where the only battle shown is an emotional one. It does have its lighter moments but mostly it’s a three-hankie heartbreaker and it never fails to hit me in my sentimental English soul.

The whole film is on the internets if you fancy a good wallow.

Download: He Wears A Pair Of Silver Wings – Gordon Jenkins & His Orchestra (mp3)

Old Money

I’m old enough to remember when Britain still used pounds, shillings, and pence for currency before the nation switched to the decimal system in February 1971. You would think a system based on units of ten would be easier to figure out than one that used twelves — in the old money 12d = 1 shilling and 20 shillings = 1 pound (or 240d) — but for a lot of people it wasn’t. Despite a long government campaign explaining it, the supermarkets and grocers were full of confused old ladies complaining they didn’t understand this new-fangled money.

But us kids all thought the new coins were great and couldn’t wait to get some because they were new and shiny and grown-ups didn’t like them. I do miss the old money names though, like a Tanner (sixpence), Bob (shilling), Guinea (21 shillings), Half a Crown (two shillings and sixpence). The thrupenny bit was a nice heavy little coin to hold in your grubby kid hands too, and a paper 10-bob note felt like a more special gift from an Uncle than a 50p coin.

There have been enough cover versions of “Money” over the years to earn a very large pile of shillings for its composers, and this is one of the newer ones I like. This was a bonus track on a limited-edition CD release of Charli’s Sucker album and sounds more like she’s covering The Flying Lizards than the original.

Download: Money (That’s What I Want) – Charli XCX (mp3)

Dirty Old Town

I look at photos of London from my youth and it looks like another world compared to the shiny capitalist megapolis the city is now. The scars of WWII were still everywhere in the form of old bombsites that had been untouched for decades and become wastelands surrounded by brutalist corrugated iron fences. I don’t think we knew what they were at the time, just that we had all these empty spaces to play in and that the city was a bit shabby, the colour of a smoker’s lungs, with dog shit all over the pavements.

Look at these photos of the East End in the 1960s and you wouldn’t think Swinging London was happening just a few miles to the West. Or these ones from the 1970s where the city often looks like the set of some bleak post-apocalyptic movie.

Many of the buildings were black with soot. Famous landmarks like St. Paul’s, Tower Bridge, and Westminster Abbey in particular were reminders of why London used to be called The Big Smoke.

They’ve since been cleaned up and restored to their original glory, but having grown up with the dirty versions they don’t look quite real to me anymore. With all the centuries of history washed off them they seem more like faux reconstructions at a Disneyland London theme park.

There was a street near us I didn’t like walking down when I was a kid because the tall, dirty-grey terraced houses on either side turned it into a dark canyon that I found a bit creepy. The dusty net curtains and peeling window frames of the houses didn’t help either, nor did the fact that no one seemed to live in these houses because I never saw anyone going in or out of them. Almost every street back then had a dingy house your friends claimed was inhabited by some crazy old person you never saw.

Our estate was built in the 1960s but every flat still had a coal chute by the front door (we never used ours but the chute was handy for getting in when I’d forgotten my key) and some older people on the estate still had coal delivered in big black sacks well into the 70s. To add the extra Dickensian touch, I can still remember the Rag & Bone man clip-clopping down our street with his horse and cart, even an old bloke who used to ride around in a bath chair.

The modern London we recognize today didn’t start to appear until the 1980s. Young, middle-class professionals started buying houses and doing them up, giving the old exteriors a new lick of paint which made formerly dingy streets brighter. Property prices skyrocketed, and new restaurants and shops appeared in response to this influx which changed the character of so many neighborhoods. I lived in Clapham for a while after leaving college and I remember overhearing these two Sloane Ranger girls on the Tube talking about their houses (a major dinner-party topic back then). One said she had lived in Clapham for two years and her friend replied “Oh so you’re one of the originals then!” as if the area hadn’t existed before their kind brought with them the new wine shop and trendy Tapas bar.

I’m not going to romanticize dirt and decay, but at least London was more affordable back then. The remodeled houses, gourmet sandwich shops, and gastropubs are all very nice, but they’ve created a different kind of wasteland.

Download: London Bye Ta-Ta – David Bowie (mp3)

Candid Camera

This photo of my mother looks like a still from a Hitchcock movie. Her short blond hair has something of a Kim Novak and Janet Leigh vibe, and the off-camera stare gives it a curious, anxious edge as if she’s just seen Anthony Perkins with a kitchen knife.

I’ve always thought this was an unusual picture, and not a little mysterious. I recognize the location as the hallway of my grandparent’s council flat in White City, but I’ve no idea why it was taken. These days people are constantly taking photos of even the most humdrum aspects of their lives, but in the past the camera usually only came out to record events and gatherings: on holiday, a party, a wedding etc. This would have been shot on my Grandmother’s Box Brownie which was the first cheap, snapshot camera and enabled photos like this, but why photograph my mother staring into space in a hallway, not even looking at the camera?

The truth is probably quite mundane — using up the last frame on a roll of film? — but I like to think someone in the family was being arty and liked the light in the hallway, or perhaps my mother was a budding Cindy Sherman.

Every picture tells a story, but I think this one will remain a mystery.

Download: Girls On Film (Night Version) – Duran Duran (mp3)

Commercial Break

One look at an old photo of London will tell you the past was a dirtier place: Soot-covered buildings, smog, everyone smoking. But I never knew it was so bad that sweets came in specially reinforced, anti-dirt wrappers.

Download: Trash 2 – Roxy Music (mp3)

This was the b-side of Roxy’s 1979 comeback single “Trash” and is a mellower take on the same song. I prefer the original but I quite like the broody atmosphere of this version.