From the BOOKS MONTHLY ARCHIVES:
A GLOUCESTERSHIRE LAD (Article first appeared in Books Monthly 2008)
by Paul Norman
Back in the back end of the 1950s, we had three
main forms of entertainment: printed word, music, and moving pictures. It's
difficult to be categorical about which had been around the longest, the
printed word or music, though I suspect people have been making music a lot
longer than they've been reading, whether it's words, symbols, or hieroglyphics.
And, of course, there are cave paintings that suggest that ancient
civilisations entertained themselves with pictures, too. What is beyond doubt
is that moving pictures are relatively recent, but in the context of this
reminiscence, that's an irrelevance. We still entertain ourselves with words,
music and pictures, of course, but the method by which we access two of those
forms of entertainment has changed. The printed word can be read on the screen
of a PC or a mobile phone, of course, but most people still read books,
magazines, newspapers and comics. The really interesting thing is that although
the method of watching moving pictures might have improved, and similarly the
way we listen to music, no one has come up with a major new form of entertainment in the last hundred-odd years.
It's still words, music and pictures, and this suggests that it doesn't matter a fig about the advances in
microelectronics and microcomputing, these remain our main forms of
entertainment. Literature has to be the most important of the three, as it
unlocks so many doors. Anyone can listen to music, just as anyone with eyes can
look at pictures, still or moving. But it's only when you read that you are
given unlimited access to the world of the written word. Recent years have seen
attempts to improve reading skills in schools, and 2008 is the National Year of
Reading. But the fact remains that the method of teaching children to read which
was used until the cultural revolution of the 1960s, has never been recaptured, and the consequence is that reading skills have declined.
In 1957, when I passed the 11-plus exam and headed off to Grammar school the other side of the
city of Gloucester, I was one of three in my class who achieved that
distinction. The other twenty-seven 11-year-olds went to Secondary Modern
schools – but there wasn't a single one of them who could not read or write.
Dyslexia and autism were things of the future, and it's tempting for someone
like me to dismiss them as excuses for bad behaviour and an unwillingness to
learn along with the rest of the class. It's only when a high-profile
entertainer like Eddie Izzard recounts the fact that he is dyslexic that the
seed of doubt is sewn in my mind, and I still tend to resist something that didn't exist in my day, rightly or wrongly.
At the age of ten, when I passed the 11-plus, I was reading Enid Blyton, Frank Richards, Eric Leyland, Charles
Dickens, versions of Robin Hood and King Arthur, and anything I could get my hands on, including American comics such
as Superman, Batman and Tarzan. When I finally started at Grammar School and
made friends with a half dozen people, it was tempting to think of them as
Frank Richards' Greyfriars Famous Five, but none of them knew what I was
talking about, which brought home to me the fact that people have diverse
tastes in literature. One of the first things I did was to join the school
library, where I spent many happy lunch hours poring over bound volumes of
Punch magazine and Art Treasures of the Prado with beautiful paintings of nude women. I joined the chess club to avoid
being out in the playground on rainy days, even though I had never played chess in my life.
Twice a week, midweek and Saturday nights, we went to the picture was a huge council estate the other side of the main road, with its own
"fleapit", where you could see films that had been out several years.
The programme changed at least three times a week – I remember once queuing to
see The Dam Busters, and thinking it was the best film I'd ever seen in my
life. But that applied to most of the films I saw. The Crimson Pirate and Flame
and the Arrow brought Burt Lancaster to my notice, while Lex Barker's Tarzan
set me on a course I've followed ever since – the study and appreciation of
Edgar Rice Burroughs. They never have made a decent film version of Tarzan of
the Apes, and I doubt they ever will. Tarzan is a product of the Saturday
morning cinema – I know he was written much earlier than that, but it was
Burroughs' Tarzan stories that spawned a generation of pulp fiction which in
turn inspired those Saturday morning cliffhangers. While the public still seems
to have an appetite for Superman and Batman, the same cannot be said for Tarzan, and I firmly believe that is because no one has ever brought a decent Tarzan to the screen.
large, schooldays were idyllic, leaving aside the
bullying; I made some great friends, James Harding, David Farmer and Sam Hicks in particular,
and we went through our later school years in a haze of listening to skiffle,
rock and roll and traditional jazz and persuading ourselves that we could form our own group.
I joined the youth club, which I attended with my ginger-haired next-door-neighbour twins, Norman and Nigel Hughes, and it was there that I
first heard "Will you still love me tomorrow?" (Carole King) and the
Everley Brothers Bye, bye Love. It was the start of an era when I spent many
happy hours sprawled out on the floor doing my homework and listening to the
radio, or else reading my books and listening to the radio. Challenged by my
mother and father about listening to the radio whilst working, my reply was
that it helped me to concentrate, something I passed on to my three children,
who all did the same. At the turn of the decade, there were several weekly
comic/magazines all featuring pop stars, skiffle stars and traditional jazz
stars – I collected anything that had Acker Bilk in, and followed him all over
the west country to see him in concert. I maintain that he is the greatest ever
jazz clarinettist and the Paramount Jazz Band, at the height of its powers, was
peerless. When it was announced in the NME that he was to record his own
composition, Stranger on the Shore, for a brand new TV series, I had to have
it. At the time, the only recording available was in the States, so I joined a
record club, Britannia, and paid over the odds for an imported version which I
treasured for many years. Acker Bilk could do no wrong in my eyes, and remains a firm favourite of mine.
Acker Bilk's publicist was Peter Leslie, who also wrote a number of thrillers in the 1960s. It was he who came up with the idea of the Paramount Jazz Band being smartly dressed in striped waistcoats and bowler hats, and, when Acker went from Pye to EMI, Peter Leslie turned in some fantastic sleeve notes, written in a literary style that was perfected in the late eighteenth
century, with proper names capitalised, and ten words where one would do. I devoured those sleeve notes and was even more overjoyed when a book was published: The BOOK of BILK, in which Acker was photographed as a variety of people, such as Ackawatha, Ghenghis Bilk, and John Osbilk (John Osbourne), the original "Ackery Young Man". It's inspired, a work of literary genius, and I still have the copy my dear sister bought for me on the bookshelf - you can read all about it in this issue. If you can get
hold of a copy, you'll love it!
In the city, there was a music shop, Hickies, who chiefly sold musical instruments, but also a few 78s and 45s. If you wanted the
new LPs, you went to one of Bon Marché's seven floors, because they sold everything. But it was in Hickies, whilst on the way home, probably in 1961,that I met the four Liverpool lads, on average three-four years older than me,
leafing through the tiny collection of singles and sheet music, who went on to
become the biggest musical phenomenon of the century – the Beatles. Tommy
Steele was headlining, the Beatles were a support group. I can see the poster
now. Yana was on the same bill, I think. They were heady days, days when I
discovered a copy of the newly published Lady Chatterley's Lover in the glove
box of my uncle's car whilst valeting it for him, and discovering the joy of D
H Lawrence and Constance Chatterley, days when my uncles would take me for a
cider at the Flying Machine Public House, days when everything was right, and
each week would see me add another two or three books to my growing collection.
One of Acker Bilk's first records with his Paramount Jazz Band was Marching Through Georgia on the Pye jazz
label. I was sent out to buy it but came back with Chris Barber's Petite Fleur!
Never mind, shortly afterwards I found Marching Through Georgia on a 10"
LP and bought that. At the same time we had a huge collection of old 78s,
inherited from various ageing or dead uncles. Jack Buchanan and his band, Al Bowlly, George Formby, Gracie Fields.
There was even a multi-disc set of Madame Butterfly! At about the time I started my paper round, I started to nag my
parents to buy a gramophone to replace the old wind-up record player. It took a
while, but eventually they caved in and bought it from Currys, the same place I
bought my four-speed BSA racing cycle. With the acquisition of the gramophone,
we never looked back. One of the first LPs we bought was Beethoven's fifth
symphony, purchased from Woolworths on their very own Embassy record label.
Woolworths was a fantastic store in those days. Long counters divided by glass
partitions where you could buy anything in the smallest imaginable quantity. It
was there that I discovered Airfix aeroplane kits, and added the hobby of
building model aircraft to my other three pastimes. Pretty soon my bedroom ceiling was adorned with 1/72nd scale aircraft models attached by string, my favourite being the Bristol Beaufighter. School homework was often hurried and resulted in the "must try harder" and "could do better" comments on end-of-term reports, while I spent my valuable spare time collecting everything I could about Acker Bilk - every weekly magazine, for example Valentine, had pictures and articles about trad jazz
bands, and although short-lived, the trad jazz boom was great fun. Naturally, I was already interested in trad jazz through my Dad, who had some 78s featuring Django Reinhardt and the Quintette du Hot Club de France, which simply blew me away.