IN THIS CHAPTER:
- Ballroom dancing
- Triumph Tiger Cub
- Sartorial elegeance
- Canoe slalom
- Discs-a-Gogo – Lulu/Tony Blackburn
- A real Superstar
- No careers advice – £1,000-a-year made for life!
- AJS 350 and 16H Norton
- Chelsea Boots
- Early computers
In a separate thread of Mum’s child-rearing philosophy, she insisted that I would one day be at the firm’s dance and need to be able to dance with the boss’s wife. So I needed to learn ballroom dancing to impress that wife, perhaps even whisk her off her feet.
I agreed to attend the John Wayne and Irene Toft School of Dance, held in a studio above the Embassy Cinema in Queens Road. The teachers were the spitting image of the two yellow-coat dancers in the 1980s TV comedy Hi-de-Hi! I agreed because they also taught jive, twist, madison, bossa nova and the almost weekly new dance crazes (this was the early 1960s).
Another side benefit of attending dance classes was that they were held above the Embassy Cinema in Clifton which was at the time running an almost continuous fare of Hammer horror films. Opposite the entrance to the dance studio was a door that gave (unauthorised) access to the cinema’s ‘gods’ so we had free entry to see these cult movies.
Prior to these lessons I used to meet up with a fellow ‘student’, Martin Butt, at his parent’s small private hotel on the right side of town and we would spend an hour unsuccessfully trying to grease our hair into a DA. We were such rebels! One week we even arranged both to pay our 2s 6d tuition fee in ha’penies! We probably thought that was ‘fab’ or ‘gear’, the favoured terms back then.
ASIDE: Martin had a Triumph Tiger Cub motorcycle that I certainly could not afford at the time. I had to wait years for it; my son bought me one to restore for my 60th birthday. It was a labour of love (pictured above when finished) and a dream fulfilled – thanks Matt!
One girl, Angela Maidment, who went to the dancing school announced a party at hers on a Friday night. It happened that I and John Daffurn, another dancing devotee, were placed in detention for that night. Cotham Grammar School’s detention approach was for you to tackle a set of arithmetic problems using eight-digit numbers that you had to divide or multiply longhand; once you had solved them all, you could go. With no calculators back then, it was extreme drudgery. John and I finished and discussed whether to bother to go to the party, particularly as we understood most of the girls were already ‘spoken for’. Fortunately we eventually chose to do so –this was when I met my future wife.
At Angela’s Primrose Hill party I was dressed in my full regalia – gold jeans (with turn-ups!), a green mohair jumper with a white stripe across the chest, worn over a maroon and white broad-striped shirt with long pointed collar, finished off with a knitted Sammy tie (I don’t recall the colour because I owned a set of them). As if to justify that shirt colour, I wore maroon elongated chisel-toed shoes. And, of course, I had tried to Brylcreem my hair into a DA. What was Jane thinking even talking to me? But there is little logic in the coup de foudre that we both experienced.
My friends didn’t help. Seeing I was getting on well with the prettiest girl there, they let down the tyres of my trusty New Yorker bike. I had no pump with me so I had to push it to Jane’s house and then the four miles home.
When we met at that post-detention party Jane was still fourteen and I was fifteen. We agreed to meet the next night at 7pm outside the Odeon cinema near Bristol Broadmead. We planned to see the second Bond movie From Russia with Love but when Jane mentioned this to her mother, she considered it was too ‘rude’, and Jane was not permitted to see it.
That Saturday I was participating in a canoe slalom at Poultney Weir in Bath.
ASIDE: To the right of the weir was a small lock gate that could be used as a relief valve. It had one small gap during our slalom, well below the water level and too small to pass through, with a powerful pull. I capsized above it and had difficulty getting out of its thrall. This would inspire the opening sequence for my first novel, ‘Still Water’.
I finished my second run and realised it was going to be close-run if I was to make our date – no mobile phones back then. A friend with a motorbike recklessly sped me the fifteen or so miles back to my home which itself was some three/four miles north of the cinema. I changed but had no time to wash and ‘Henry Cooper’s’ Brut wasn’t launched until the following year. During the day I had capsized into the Avon several times so my personal daintiness must have been questionable.
We lived off Filton Avenue, a spur from the major local bus routes, and when I ran to our local stop there was no sign of a handy bus. I ended up running along the route for over half a mile to reach the main Gloucester Road. Finally, I caught a bus to arrive twenty minutes late expecting Jane to have long gone, but very fortunately she hadn’t! Something must have clicked as I am writing this more than fifty-five years later and we are still together!
ASIDE: I have only just realised the significance of cinemas in my early years – my accident coming home from the Cabot (above); Jane and I met through the Embassy cinema; we had our first date at the Odeon cinema; she lived adjacent to the Whiteladies cinema. Years later she passed her driving test in a test centre next to the Orpheus cinema. We also habitually visited the Scala cinema which showed some very different films. Only the last mentioned cinema still exists, albeit under a new name.
One Scala presentation that sticks in my mind was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Marat Sade’. The Marquis de Sade had been declared insane and committed to the Charenton Lunatic Asylum in the south-east suburbs of Paris. He was allowed to put on his own and others’ plays for the delectation of the Napoleonic elite of Paris. The movie depicts him organising the presentation of a play about the death of Jean-Paul Marat at the hands of Charlotte Corday. The inmate playing Corday had sleeping-sickness and the warders routinely had to prod her awake. The inmate playing Marat was a sex maniac and had to be beaten back away from Corday, the movie climaxing in a riot. This most uninspiring of cinemas, considered a local flea-pit, really stretched our minds with its choice of films.
The dancing lessons would later come in handy when Jane and I were in the live audience of a local television show, Discs a Go-Go at TWW (Television Wales & West) in 1965. This was presented by Kent Walton, then a DJ and only later to gain fame as the Saturday afternoon presenter of wrestling on ITV’s World of Sport.
Discs a Go-Go was broadcast in black & white (1961-1968), instead of Pan’s People they had an illustrated cartoon fox featured in a series of stills to fill the void of non-appearing artists.
It was perhaps best known locally for a couple who attended every week who were, in the mid-1960s, already anachronistic; like my step-uncles they were hanging on to the Teddy boy clothing well beyond its era. He wore a drape coat, drainpipes, and brothel-creeper shoes and had an amazing DA. She had a bouffant hairdo and a long, full skirt puffed out by many layers of stiff net petticoats . The couple were good jivers and were regularly on camera.
There was an impromptu audition for the rest of us which I clearly failed and was shoved well into the background. Jane was selected to be close to the performers as she looked and moved well. She was in the foreground when Lulu, delivered a very early (mimed) performance of her cover of the Isley Brothers’ Shout. Lulu was as yet unpolished, chewing gum and scuffing her slip-on shoes, but boy could she sing. All the flaws we saw were groomed away as she later became a TV regular.
Jane and I reunited later to do our jive. I spun her and she clipped and knocked over the next artist who was leaning against a table preparing for the cameras to turn on to him. He was caked in strange make-up, the sort black & white TV needed to make a performer look good on screen, but weird in person. This was Tony Blackburn, then still trying to be a ballad singer. He would later play the first record (The Move’s Flowers in the Rain) to initiate BBC Radio One broadcasts in 1967. One thing remaining from those days is that we still jive given the least opportunity – most recently at our Golden Wedding party in Dubai.
Above I mentioned knowing Dave Prowse, the fictional ‘Darth Vader’, but I met a real superstar through Jane’s membership of the Tyndale Baptist Young People’s Fellowship (YPF). He also crossed my path in my pursuit of canoeing.
Bristol Education Authority decided to take children from all over the city across to Wales and the River Wye to shoot rapids. In those days most of the school canoes were plywood with just a few canvas versions; modern glass fibre versions were only just being mooted.
We towed a trailer holding around twenty canoes to the riverside, which unpredictably was lacking deep water. The rocks that formed the rapids were more obvious than usual. We destroyed more than ten canoes, not even bothering to take back the debris as most bits had disappeared down the river. The canoe club didn’t recover for several years.
At one point I careened down the river and, despite my frantic strokes, landed full-square on a big flat rock at a sharp turn; the canoe appeared cartoon-like as it unwrapped around me and disintegrated. The river took me down two further sets of rapids with the remnants of the gunwale still around me. My legs took a merciless battering before I could reach shore.
But this guy, who I knew through YPF, had arrived with his personal canvas canoe. He was tall and gawky and promptly put his foot through the bottom before he even reached the rapids. He went down every set of rapids caught in this way and of course we all found this amusing. Despite our own experiences, someone else’s misfortune is always funny.
The individual was Andy Ripley who later evidently learned how to apply his gawkiness! He went on to play between 1972-6 for an England Rugby Union side that beat all three southern-hemisphere sides and he was a member of the unbeaten 1974 Lions team that toured South Africa. He is perhaps more generally famous for his appearances in the Superstars TV show, winning both the British heat and the International version in 1981.
No careers advice
I think at my school there was a small box containing several brochures with scratchy details of various careers. You were free to delve into the box but there was no such thing as a careers officer or lessons to assist in choosing a future occupation. I recall from school days going through phases of interest in things as diverse as the east coast fishing fleet or joining Customs & Excise. I clearly had no idea.
Mum and Dad stressed that I should learn a trade because that would help me one day to earn £1,000 a year, then I would be ‘made for life’. But I realise the advice I gave to my children (get a degree!) proved not particularly appropriate for their lives, though it gave them useful grounding. Taking my parents’ advice I applied for two apprenticeships at the age of fifteen. I had taken and passed three ‘O’ levels a year early at that age but the impression was that as the eldest of three, perhaps my family needed me to be out of school and earning.
By this time, I was already into working on motorbikes, having bought two ‘basket-cases’, a 350cc AJS Twin that turned out to be missing its camshafts and an ex-War Department 490cc 16H Norton that was much more successfully restored (more of this below). These two bikes cost me less than £20 in total. I can only assume that this interest was the reason for my apprenticeship choices.
The first application had me travel by train alone to Birmingham, probably the longest solo journey of my life at the time. Arriving at New Street Station I found it was being re-developed so was a horrendous, gloomy, dirty and confusing building site. When I found my way out I was in a Birmingham that, like Bristol, still prominently bore the scars of WWII. It was a patchwork of building sites and bomb sites. It was raining. The interview was with Lucas Automotive Products, on a sprawling site that immediately filled my nose and throat with that very particular cloying taste that engineering plants and foundries emanate. I do not recall what happened, whether they turned me down or if I discounted them.
The second interview had my dad drive me across to Luton for an apprenticeship with Vauxhall Motors. I have no idea of where I would have lived 130 miles away from all I knew. Fortunately, I did not pursue either career and went on to take further ‘O’ levels at sixteen.
ASIDE: many years later Jane and I met up with two German journeymen in our Prague hotel; in their traditional Bavarian costume they looked larger than life. I had to look up what a journeyman was – a trainee or apprentice. They were travelling and offering their services to local master carpenters to gain additional experience. Now that sort of apprenticeship seems like fun. When a cousin gave me a box of old family documents, I found my grandfather’s wedding certificate described him as a journeyman locksmith.
My next foray to look for a job was to be with Bristol Siddeley Engines (later Rolls Royce). This had nothing to do with any careers advice and everything to do with selling the shop’s most expensive pair of six guinea shoes (£6.30) during my Saturday job at Saxone.
A customer came in and inevitably you talk of ‘cabbages and kings’ during the sale and he explained that he was a computer programmer, perhaps the first time I had seriously encountered that term. He was a nice bloke who clearly could afford expensive shoes in his chosen career and before I knew it, aged fifteen, I had applied to Bristol Siddeley to train as a computer programmer.
I need to immediately correct the impression the job title will have conjured up today. This was the early 1960s and computers needed air-conditioned rooms, weighed tons and did very little. They were used for very early forms of invoicing, payrolls and stock keeping.
During my interview they showed me their current computer. It consisted of vast arrays of flashing diode and triode vacuum tubes, and thousands of hot valves making for a harsh environment that produced more heat than calculation. They proudly took me to another area which had a false floor with many panels opened to reveal a huge rats’ nest of cabling under the floor, around the walls and across the ceiling connecting a series of cabinets that would, in the next year or so, be their first solid-state transistor computer.
Of course, programming back then was about machine-code, or it used Autocode, ALGOL, COBOL and FORTRAN which were specialist languages developed in the 1950s. You could not programme a computer directly. You prepared software in one of those early languages, usually to paper cards or paper tape. Then you had to wait your slot to have the computer compile it, requiring a number of iterations to eliminate inevitable errors. The output could finally be applied to the computer – when your place in the queue for access next came up.
The guys there advised me that the ‘trade’ of computer programming was competitive and I would do better to hang on in and get my O-levels before joining them. This was bad advice. It turned out that by the time I completed Os you needed A-levels to be recruited. By the time I had completed As an applicant would not be considered unless already graduated in an appropriate course. Make decisions – don’t take others’ advice!
In proceeding to A-levels I had to choose my courses. Essentially the first option was whether to pursue arts or sciences; of course all my early thrashing about had pointed me to science and to computers. I opted for Pure Maths, Applied Maths and Physics for my three A-levels. The school only ran Maths (general), Physics and Chemistry but agreed to set up special classes for me to pursue my chosen subjects.
When it the time came to decide on a university course there was still no input from my school. I recall my peers thumbing through a book which stated the ratio of female-to-male students at each college – this was the only criterion they used to select their three options.
I had lost momentum for education, being much more engaged by my casual work (see later), and my A-levels were not great – a C, an E and an O. I completed the UCCA form and applied to Sheffield and Leeds for Automotive Engineering courses and Loughborough for a Cybernetics and Ergonomics course (not really understanding either term in detail). It was Leeds where I hit it off with one of the faculty team. I had overnighted in one of their halls and over dinner we had a long conversation about the pros-and-cons of the eccentric-rotary Wankel internal combustion engine, another 1950s development. I got an offer from them.
In those days we received local authority grants to go to college but Bristol Education Committee refused to pay for Leeds when I could do the same course at Bristol Poly more inexpensively living at home. I did wonder if this was pay back for my part in wrecking their canoes!
I studied for an HND in Electrical Engineering, taking a college-based sandwich course at Bristol Poly which was later to merge with Bath University. It was sited in an old orphanage in commanding, or is it forbidding, grey brick buildings. The inside was better.
Most fellow students had a relationship with a company, many of them with the local electricity board, whereas the college was supposed to find me a series of placements. I loved the fact that our lecturers were people who had actually worked for a living, with practical knowledge of the material they were presenting. But once there, I was more seduced by the freedoms and other things on offer, becoming rather good at table football and shoot pontoon.
I promptly fought a husting to become NUS Chairman (National Union of Students) for the College. Union committee members had previously only been drawn from the Chartered Surveyors’ faculty or Domestic Science department; the Faculty of Electrical Engineering took a very dim view of my taking up this appointment.
The husting proved not to be my only fight. I also had a battle with the Radical Students’ Alliance (RSA) that was moving in on colleges. A student organiser of the British Communist Party had founded the RSA. It was heavily under the influence of a Trotskyist group which controlled the National Association of Labour Student Organisations. They were backed by aggressive activities from the West German extreme left-wing Socialist Students’ League. They were doing all the fun stuff, protesting about Vietnam and later organising the Grosvenor Square riot. As my dad had been an ardent trade unionist, I might well have opted for their side of the argument, but did not. The local battle was occasionally quite heated.
I did briefly become a hunt saboteur, spreading aniseed to annoy local toffs during their hunt. But perhaps the most outrageous act of rebellion was to barricade Ashley Down Road during Rag Week. I claimed, on signage, to have found a manuscript that awarded rights over the road to the college. Anyone with an ounce of local knowledge would know the college history was short, although the drab grey buildings which had originally been Müller’s Orphanage founded in 1845 lent it some semblance of age. We collected monies from cars, vans and buses for the best part of an hour before the police arrived. The copper asked who was in charge and we remained quiet. He was a clever guy; he stood back and ordered us to move the barricade and stupidly I said ‘Come on guys, let’s do it’. He immediately grabbed me, now revealed as the organiser. Not such a smart revolutionary! At the end of my first year I sat nine examinations for the various subjects. I passed seven of them but failed Workshop Technology and General Studies. The first was messing around with lathes which I didn’t find particularly edifying and missed most of those lessons; the latter was a mishmash of Philosophy and Psychology, topics that were of interest to me but the lecturer was weak.
Overall my lecture attendance on that course had been only 16%, I had lost momentum. The college concluded I would have to redo the first year, so I walked.