Saturday, 19 January 2013

It was 30 years ago today...

Beginning an occasional series reminding me if no one else what I was up to in 1983.  University, Leiwsham, just moved into hall of residence.  Losing the girlfriend of two years, discovering new music.  Boldly not doing all those traditional university things.

January 1983 seems like an alien world now.  It was monochrome, all washed out semitones of minimal colour in the People's Republic of Greater London.  Walking round the streets and markets of Lewisham, Deptford, New Cross, Greenwich, all seemed somber, subdued and depressed.  Or maybe that was just how I felt.

For the first time in ages I had nothing planned to do on a Saturday.  I blew the time going into Lewisham and buying a Joan Baez album.  What a total waste of money that was.  Never found her voice anything other than grating so I'm not sure why I parted with the cash in the first place.  I wanted something more gritty (a few weeks later I did buy something a whole lot more gritty, Dylan's overlooked masterpiece Shot Of Love, although I didn't appreciate it at the time).
 I want something more gritty because the night before I had spent a frustrating twenty minutes trying to contact the woman I thought was my girlfriend.  She was, it seemed, nowhere to be found although he roommate was located and fronted up to me that she would pass on the message that I was trying to contact her and no doubt she would ring me the next day.  She did but it wasn't what I wanted to hear.  Dylan's song, "In The Summertime" on Shot Of Love has the melancholy edge of what I felt for the rest of that weekend.

Much has been made this week of the start of BBC breakfast television.  I first saw it on Thursday 20 January 1983 having stayed up the entire night.  I should have been reading my newly acquired copy of The Theory Of Evolution by John Maynard Smith, but I wasn't.  I was mourning the end of my relationship, talking to friends both old and new and trying not to consider what my next move might be in the great lottery of life.  Actually, it was to sit through two hours of Dr Robert Spicer on plant palaeontology, followed by a practical session in the afternoon.  Dr Spicer, now Professor Spicer of the Open University, I apologise profusely for being so tired and nearly falling asleep during your lectures.  It wasn't you.  Honest.
I stopped off on my way back to digs to go into the Lewisham Centre, the shopping mall in the centre of Lewisham.  My haunts there were HMV, Our Price, Smiths and a small record stall at what I knew as the far end of the mall.  I would check out the new releases every Monday, sometimes at excessive length.  On this Thursday, I selected The Best Of The Doors, which I duly took back, put on my cassette player and fell asleep to.  That has been pretty much my reaction to The Doors ever since.

I never did read Maynard Smith's book.  I dipped into it and read some chapters but every time I sat down to read it in its entirety, I just couldn't.  It is forever etched into my mind and associated with the day I bought it.  Wednesday 19 January 1983.  It was the afternoon and a group of us biology students took the walk from Deptford where the biology department at Goldsmiths was, to the main site in New Cross where there was a bookshop.  We all got Maynard Smith's book, it was on the reading list, and after a bit of a chat we went our separate ways.  In between buying the book and getting The Doors the next evening I didn't sleep a wink, lost my girlfriend, attended my one and only university disco and had my world collapse around me.  Nothing dramatic then, just traumatic.  And it was my mum's birthday.

Actually, there was a better book on the reading list, Colin Patterson's Evolution, the Natural History Museum's guide to Darwin's great theory.  I met him a few years later when I took some fish fossils to the BM(NH) to be identified.  One turned out to be a new species, probably a new genus.  It wasn't mine, sadly, and it has not been described as far as I know, but it should be sitting in the draws of the Greenwich Borough Museum (or whatever it is called these days), gathering dust and awaiting the next person willing to sort the classification of fish fossils of the English chalk deposits.  It hasn't been done since the days of the Beatles first LP.

For shorthand, I named the fish Homonotichthys debora.  I suspect the name will not stick.

One name I used to hear quite a lot when things started to get a little less formal in the biology department was Richard Dawkins.  The Selfish Gene was still an exciting new idea, one that hadn't been cliched to death, and one that evoked a certain amount of the politics of the day.  We are talking of the interregnum between the Falklands War and the 1983 General Election.  Politics of the day was quite extreme.  My landlady in Lewisham told me about the Anti-Fascist riot there a few years before when her window had been smashed.  Looking out of that window the next day she saw a face looking back at her.  It was Spike Milligan.

Anyway, The Selfish Gene came up a number of times and I wish I had read it then and not waited a number of years, somewhat frightened of the reputation it had. I wasn't sure if I would understand it but when I tackled it I was ready.  It made sense and it made me understand not just the idea of evolution more clearly but the motivations of living organisms.  I had already read much of Stephen Jay Gould's polished prose and now found another biologist who could clearly write well, better perhaps than many novelists and poets.  By the time I read Dawkins's first book, I had read The Blind Watchmaker too.

 The events surrounding this week in 1983 so cloud my memory of what was going on that I had to look up some of the other things.  For instance, I had forgotten some of the music that was in the charts, perhaps because I wasn't chasing top ten hits but was foraging more serious sounds.  The naughty pleasures of Bucks Fizz were, perhaps, not for announcing in the student union bar.  But was it really the month for "Up Where We Belong", "Too Shy", "You Can't Hurry Love" and "The Cutter" by Echo And The Bunnymen.  Out of the top forty for 22 January 1983, I ended up with sixteen in my collection.  Well, I already had "Please Please Me" (a reentry, obviously) but the rest came in the next 30 years.  The following week's chart is worse - I have 21 of those.  The album chart is better.  I only have seven of those. 

Saturday, 5 January 2013

13:51 British Standard Time 21 December 1968

Go on, rack your brains and tell me you know what you were doing at exactly that time on that day.

Give up?

Thought you might.  It's nearly 44 years ago and let's face it, you've been asleep since then (or you weren't born, in which case there is a valid excuse).  But I know what I was doing.   I was holding one of these:
It is a model of the Atlas rocket on a spring loaded launch pad.  The rocket was hollow plastic and, you will note, has a rounded end designed to protect sensitive young eyes.  I was holding it because I had noticed something similar on the TV.


The launch of Apollo 8.  Sadly the BBC coverage is gone, so here is the ABC (American) version which is about as close as we can get.  For a precocious five year old interested in things in general, the idea of anyone going anywhere near the Moon was fascinating.  Not that I understood much about what was really happening.  I was more interested in Teddy Bear comic (5d every Thursday) and the comings and goings at Pogle's Wood  at the time, but the sight, in black and white, of this immense rocket lifting off on a dragon's tail of flame caught my imagination unlike anything else I can remember.

1968 was the year I started school.  I had been briefed by mum on how to behave but mostly that wasn't necessary as I was always well behaved, never a rebel and one who conscientiously sat down to work or got my nose in a book.   I remember learning my alphabet and starting on the Ladybird reading scheme and being jealous of those that had got three or four books down the line before I joined.  I was soon catching up, sort of, because actually I was, and always have been, a somewhat slower reader than I felt I should be.  Same went for writing, but I blame that on being left handed.

Me on the swing, probably in 1969 - note the glasses, the toy gun at left and the rabbit hutch at right
In some ways it was the end of innocence.  Gone were the days when I could go across the road to play with our American Air Force family - they had returned to Texas andleft us with some memories and a garden swing upon which I would spend many a relaxed and thoughful hour. 

There are a couple of things I remember about Christmas 1968 outside of Apollo 8.  One is the red toy piano I got as a present.  I loved it and although I have loved music for much of my life, my entire musical talent began and ended on the single octave that that toy possessed.  Try as I might over the years, I just don't have any musical ability whatsoever.
A bit like my piano

The second is a pair of things really.  Two songs, "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" by The Marmalade and "Lily The Pink" by The Scaffold.  The former was the one I loved and played along with on Top Of The Pops, the latter one that I loved enough to be fully envious of whaen my brother's best friend said he had it on a single.  I didn't realise at the time how closely the two songs were related - each had a McCartney in the writing credits.  For old times sake, here they are:

I never bought either song.  Eventually I came across The Beatles version of "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" and was surprised it didn't sound like The Marmalade's version.  Not a big surprise really, because they had used the unreleased first version that The Beatles did. 

I got to meet one of the astronauts from Apollo 8, Jim Lovell, a few years ago.  Lovely man, still with a twinkle in his eye betraying his sharp intelligence behind the avuncular front.  I still reckon what my dad told me was a magical truth: the astronauts on the way to the Moon had been passed by a sleigh and a man in a red suit going the other way.

Wild Things Run Fast

I was looking at some bits and pieces that I wrote both twenty years ago and thirty years ago.  What I had done was write a rather detailed account of two years in my life and incorporated into it scraps of things that I had written at the tail end of my school career and the first two years at university.  I might reveal some of the contents but suffice to say that the two years marked my putting away childish things and growing into manhood.  I had come from a small village and been educated in a provincial town, so my journey into adulthood was partly precipitated by going to live in Lewisham, of all places, at the age of eighteen, to study at Goldsmiths College.

Virtually midway through my time there I moved from digs into one of the halls of residence.  At effectively the same time I got into Joni Mitchell's music in a big way.  Luckily I was alert enough to get a ticket, way at the back of Wembley Arena, to see her on the tour that she did to support Wild Things Run Fast, her 1982 return to poppy songs album.  This was my open door to her music.  Previously, by a couple of months, I had bought Ladies Of The Canyon, played "Big Yellow Taxi", then put the album away.  It didn't talk to me in the way I had hoped.

At the time I was listening heavily to Bob Dylan.  Over the previous few months I had gone through Blood On The Tracks, John Wesley Harding, Planet Waves, Desire and finally Street Legal.  In the whole of 1981 and 82 I had gone through Paul Simon's back catalogue (at least the bits that I could get hold of then) like a dose of salts.  I was a sponge, had the energy and desire to absorb the music and appreciate both melody and lyrics.  In those two years I went from ELO and Fleetwood Mac to Joni Mitchell and Neil Young via Jefferson Airplane and The Byrds.  I felt I had grown up and that is shown by the things I wrote at the time.  There is a tangible air of the eighteen year old country boy turning into a twenty-one year old city man.  I enjoyed my time in Lewisham.  I must go back to visit one day.

I bought Wild Things Run Fast having heard both "You're So Square" (the old Elvis song) and "Chinese Cafe" on Radio 1.  I suspect they wouldn't dream of playing Joni Mitchell any more, but in those days you could hear a great deal of mature music not aimed at the top 40, not so ephemeral either.  I was impressed one Sunday to hear the B-side of the then current Abba single "The Day Before You Came", the infinitely more interesting, to me, "Cassandra".  Anyway, I bought the album on January 4 1983, on casette, from Woolworths.  I heard it first at a friend's house, waiting for my then girlfriend to visit me.  I didn't play her the album as it wasn't her kind of music.  Nor was Dylan.  She preferred Cliff Richard but she did, strangely, have Pink Floyd's The Wall in her modest collection of tapes so it was from her that I gained my love of Pink Floyd (though not Cliff, funnily enough).

At the time we were in the process of breaking up.  So that day was her last visit to my house.  I don't recall what we did that evening.  It probably wasn't arguing because we didn't do that, just fell apart.  Luckily, I had loaned my tape of Blood On The Tracks to someone over the Christmas holidays, otherwise I would have played that one to death.  Who knows how many times I would have slipped deeply into depression listening to "If You See Her, Say Hello".  No, Wild Things Run Fast was sufficiently upbeat not to drag me down into the black depths.  And when I got back to University, well, everything changed.

One thing that changed was that I now moved in a new circle of friends.  One of them, who I called Eugene was properly called Martin Klucowicz, introduced me to his friend Robin who played Hejira to us.  From that moment I knew I had broken into appreciating Joni Mitchell, not just listening.

Wild Things Run Fast contains a song that everyone should hear: "Chinese Cafe".  It is elegaic, with a swirling, climactic chorus and pieces of the classic (and perhaps overdone) "Unchained Melody" built into it.  It also reveals, for what I think was the first time, that Mitchell had had a baby in the sixties that was adopted.  The song "Little Green" on Blue (1971) was about this girl I believe.  Luckily in the 90s, Mitchells mother and daughter were reunited.

My own personal tale did not end so well.  My girlfriend and I split a fortnight after I bought this album.  I got my copy of Blood On The Tracks back.  I was thoroughly miserable for a while.  For her, things went more happily.  She left me for the man she eventually married and I am happy that she did.  I took a little longer to find my wife and I wouldn't swap her for anyone.  Even though she doesn't like Dylan or Joni Mitchell either.