Aldermaston March (1965)
"Ban the bomb" they used to say. It's a phrase that makes me think of creaking intellectuals sitting in the road: Bertrand Russell, with overcoat and eagle-stern expression; earnest students in duffles and scarves. No Bono. No Coldplay. (The world may have been lacking in colour, but it wasn't short of sense). It was pre-Pop non-conformity planned over coffee and jazz in some steam-fugged espresso bongo; concentration laced with condensation.
Things were not so duffled-up in '65 I imagine. There was more than caffeine fuelling the fight, and world destruction was a nearly-was rather than a could-one-day-be - the Cuban crisis must have added a certain frisson to mid-sixties Aldermaston marching.
And somewhere my own mum and dad, walking together, and buying the badge (though probably not the T-shirt, the mug and the glossy souvenir programme, all of which may have been conspicuous by their absence). I imagine the march as a state of limbo, a stopping off point between a world of dusty Oxbridge dorms, cocoa, Joan Baez; and the world of just a few months later when Dylan went electric, students went hairy, and the Vietnam War just went crazy, man.
The precepts of protest were changed the world over. The vicars and conchies and Methodists and poets seemed to give up the ghost - or have the ghost taken from them; rare was the Church of England minister wielding Molotov cocktails, or so I'm led to believe. CND would have its time again in the era of Thatcher and Reagan, post-punk faux-funk, peace shops and nuclear-free zones - but for now, anti-war was coming to mean anti-Vietnam, anti-society, anti-walking around in a duffle coat with a Dave Brubeck LP.
For mum and dad, I suppose other things brought the march to an end. Having kids. Living in Sunderland. Being approximately skint. But there's the badge, a memo from the past, a reminder of a more humble kind of protest - a kind that speaks to me more articulately than a self-righteous do-good-a-thon sponsored by Bacardi and Vodafone.
From "Ban the bomb" to "Ban the Bono". That, to me, sounds like progress.
Promotional item (early seventies)
Clearly, this dates from a golden age of freeform graphic design, when a major local radio station could knock out a badge - an item of official BBC merchandising no less - without regard for the rules of typography or aesthetics. Rigidly enforced corporate identity guidelines were some way off, obviously.
During this time, and for no reason I can now explain given that I was less than ten years old, Radio Sheffield was an under-the-covers listen of mine. From the daily morning news magazine show 'Edition One' to the more relaxed tank-topped sounds of 'It's Saturday!' at the weekend, I sowed the seeds of my future love of conversation-based broadcasting; from this seemingly insignificant acorn, my many-ringed Radio 4 oak tree grew.
I'm sure that in Radio Sheffield's early days - the time when, seemingly, a secretary on the front desk could be given paper and pens and asked to "do us a badge, love - for the roadshow" - it was innovating and pioneering, creating the special blend of warm-hearted parochialism that would define local non-commercial radio for years to come. Of course, having innovated and pioneered the style, it became an unchanging sonic tic that meant you could never mistake local radio for a national station ever.
So once I'd outgrown my naive affection for this curious sound world - yes, I became as authentically John-Peel-under-the-duvet as nature's law dictates a man of my age should have been - Radio Sheffield meant one thing only.
And that thing was:
During the Winter of Discontent - with its endless rounds of snow, strikes, snow, power cuts, snow, disco and snow - Radio Sheffield suddenly came into its own. As the white fluff fell from the sky, our family huddled round the breakfast table listening to inexpertly-tuned Radio Sheffield, praying to the pagan gods of industrial unrest and bad weather that our respective schools would be shut. It was a daily ritual during January and February 1979: a list of schools in alphabetical order, from Abbey Lane through to Yewlands; those who heard their school's name intoned would inwardly punch the air, before planning a day of furious plastic bagging. (Being a kind of sledging fit for global recession: no expensive toboggan required. Just bring your bin liner and away you go!)
For parents: infuriating it was in that dawn to be alive (especially having been forced to swap Brian Redhead for Michael Cooke). But to be young, of course, was very heaven. The creeping sense of living in a disintegrating nation was masked - nay, obliterated - by freedom from study; though viewed more optimistically, we were learning valuable life skills. Via co-operation, we learnt to build snowmen. Via the weather forecast, we learnt about meteorology. And via the manipulation of our environment, we learnt how to hurl ice at some kid's head.
And those days of wellied surrender to the forces of nature seemed to have been gifted to us - not by the local education authority, but by those cosy voices on the radio.
As the Winter of Discontent turned from reality into folk memory, and the possibility of nuclear confrontation loomed ever larger on our horizon, we surely felt a strange ache of comfort that should the four-minute warning sound, we would retune to Radio Sheffield and a homely voice would inform us that our school was closing. Perhaps forever.
Then, I'm sure, Tony Capstick would come on. To play some last requests.
Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
Promotional item (nineteen seventies)
In the flickering 16mm world of council-backed promotional film making circa 1970, there are certain civic projects that symbolise pride and post-war rebirth. And the common factor that binds them together - almost literally - is concrete. Ring roads; pedestrian precincts; tower blocks; civic centres: all share a rough-hewn lumpiness that once upon a time meant Not Edwardian, Not Twee, Not The Way Things Were.
Inter-city one-upmanship helped goad utopian-minded Aldermen and Mayors into projects both ambitious and impressive in scale: Birmingham's Bullring; Manchester's Piccadilly Plaza; Hyde Park, Kelvin and Park Hill flats in Sheffield. Those stout-bellied gents were generous and forward-thinking; I suspect that all along they knew they were providing work for the future architects, engineers and builders who would one day have to plan the renovation or destruction of their concrete offspring.
Mind you, the utopian ideals were real enough, whether thoroughly thought through or not. Polytechnics, comprehensive schools, concert halls and libraries were also being rendered in system-built, rain-stained 3D. It was an age of rates and public subsidy, and of theatre that was provided as a service rather than a pleasure.
Hence the Crucible Theatre, a new nineteen-seventies home for the forward-thinking Sheffield Repertory Company. Whereas their elderly proscenium-arched Playhouse venue had merely sufficed, they wanted a building that would usher in a new era of democratic performance, of unity between actor and audience. It was the right time to entertain such dreams; this anti-elitist, out-reaching way of thinking was what councillors wanted to hear. It was also the way that theatre was heading, and with the help of the bruising theatrical heavyweight Sir Tyrone Guthrie lending more than a hand, the Crucible was conceived, and built, and opened in 1971.
It was the sixties and seventies made solid. Theatres had been for dressing up, for being charming, for escapism and entertainment. The Crucible was for wandering into in the middle of the afternoon, for milling around, for thinking and ending up with an opinion. Vast, free-flowing, undefined space. A gaudy carpet. Concrete, of course. And always some children throwing themselves around. Jazz in the foyer, a recital in the Studio, Ibsen on the main stage. And rather symbolically, the rapidly-deteriorating Victorian Lyceum - by then, a bingo hall - still standing (just) about 20 feet away.
The Crucible was about refusing to compromise. There is no flexibility in its gigantic thrust stage. It is wide open and windswept, modelled on the classical spaces of ancient Greece. It doesn't accommodate many touring shows, nor lend itself well to rock gigs. It was built for big themes, movement and imagination. With the audience sitting on seven of its eight sides, it imposes its own personality on the people who choose to work there, demanding thoughts that speak volumes.
The badge dates from the theatre's early days - the large letter 'C' is the shape of the stage. Since then, those other grand projects - the fly-overs, precincts and tower blocks - have come to seem brutally misconceived. And while The Crucible has suffered from the harsh economics of sixties civic construction - many are the buckets that have had to be employed there in rain-catching duties - it has so far refused to buckle to the revisionism that has seen its contemporaries bite the concrete dust. Quite the reverse in fact. Under a parade of artistic directors who have achieved varying degrees of success, it has taken on the spirit of the city; spectacular yet plain, and so very ugly-beautiful.
As I write, however, The Crucible is about to change. Its leaking public spaces will get a noughties makeover - an extensive one, I'm led to believe - and I suspect that edges will be smoothed, spaces replanned, 'corporate hospitality' made central in a manner inconceivable in 1971. I suppose it's about time; ad hoc changes have diluted the original vision in any case, and I'm pleased to be assured that the main auditorium - designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch - remains sacrosanct (though at some point in the eighties, the stage's shape was subtly refashioned - it is no longer quite the same as the 'C' on the badge).
But still, it feels like a compromise that maybe shouldn't be made. In Leeds, the West Yorkshire Playhouse has achieved a fine reputation and theatrical success, but as a presence in the city, it looks exactly like a Tesco. It is early-nineties supermarket architecture; pragmatic rather than ideological. The Crucible, on the other hand, is an argument; it bellows "Concrete for all!". It's of its era - an era that had value if not necessarily a great eye for beauty - and I wonder if it still will be once the building work is done.
When the adjacent Lyceum was brought back to life in 1990, it was "restored to its Victorian splendour", and no one would have suggested another way of doing it. So couldn't The Crucible be returned to its pristine 1971 state, its concrete-and-breeze-block spaces purged of random kiosks, table clutter, stacked chairs? Because a theatre isn't just about what happens on the stage. It's about what its creators believed they were gifting to us; it's about the building that blushed in muffled light on flickering 16mm celluloid, back when they told us Sheffield was a 'City On The Move'. And we believed them.
Willy The Kid
Promotional item (1978)
It's in those cheeks, those eyes, the oyster-ears and the onion-head. It's in the tautly fastened jacket and the dimpling bulges of cloth. It's in the fact that the kid's wearing a suit, shirt and tie - more than a hint of Just William in the guise of a seventies comic character. Mischief, a 'yuk yuk' grin, a hare-brained scheme on the tip of his tongue.
And it's in that word.
In all these things you can see the touch of Leo Baxendale, a comic artist - a children's comic artist - who was the only one I knew by name, the one who went so far beyond what was strictly necessary on the page that every corner of every frame became a fresh landscape just pleading to be filled.
I first fell for the dough-faced drawings of Leo Baxendale when he created the Badtime Bedtime Storybooks in 'Monster Fun'. These were pull-out centre pages that you snipped and folded into mini 8-page booklets entirely separate from the comic in which they came. The stories were corrupted fairy tales, classic adventures bent out of shape, twisted takes on worthy children's writing down the ages. They were Baxendale cut free from the confines of character comics, at liberty to create a new world from scratch each week.
Not that such seemingly effortless invention came easy. In his book about the comics trade, 'A Very Funny Business', Baxendale details a plummet into nervous breakdown brought on by the relentless quipping, the slap-up feeds, the catapults and broken windows - the sheer operatic scale of his humorous invention.
So while Leo Baxendale's Badtime Bedtime Storybooks were a childhood cultural highpoint, he jettisoned the responsibility sometime in the mid-seventies and disappeared from the pages of my 'Monster Fun', my 'Buster', my 'Whizzer And Chips'. Not that he'd gone forever. In fact, he was planning an audacious return.
His scheme was to devote himself to a project of his own choosing, one that would involve working for a year on a single book. And that book was 'Willy The Kid'. The first was published in 1976; it was followed by two more issues, in '77 and '78. Without the connection to an existing comic, Baxendale was able to conjure up his hero - Willy the Kid - and cram his world with friends, enemies, clockwork daleks, pet stick insects, sossie rolls galore. The drawings were large, the draughtsmanship just sublime. The books were - are - a reminder of what the world of weekly comics was losing, but nevertheless, they remain a fine and long-lasting keepsake from the dying days of pre-teenagerdom. My remaining comics are yellow, fragile and under the bed; most are gone for good. Whereas 'Willy The Kid' is on the shelf where he's always been, his pearls of Bash Street-esque wisdom a constant companion through times both black and white. And half-tone.
Membership badge (mid-seventies)
Sometimes, in the seventies, you could feel the pull of another age.
Despite charged polyester outfits and flares unlimited, despite chemical puddings and chromatically-saturated TV, despite 'Scooby Doo Meets The Harlem Globetrotters' and 'Tiswas', the whisper of the nineteen-fifties was still loud enough to be heard.
And we heard it, and we answered its call.
It urged us to join a pretend tribe of 'redskins', and dedicate our lives to observing things - road signs, flowers, architectural features, types of paving stone - before ticking these things off in a book. An I-Spy book. And having ticked a book's worth of things - church spires, lollipop ladies, dry stone walls, double yellow lines - we could return the book to Big Chief I-Spy, who would stamp it with his official seal and award us an I-Spy Order of Merit.
All of this - the redskin shtick, the Sunday School vibe, the biscuits-and-orange-squash atmosphere - was like the death gasp of post-war austerity. "We don't need things to have fun do we children? All we need is a pencil and some pluck. George... don't do that." And yet... like an Oxbridge don feeding secrets to Moscow, the buttered-crumpet ambience seemed to mask something more sinister...
Because the I-Spy Tribe felt like trainspotting's revenge.
Having turned generations of mechanically-minded males into an anally-retentive breed apart, and been roundly ridiculed by wider society, it was as if the trainspotting virus had mutated into an altogether more virulent strain. Now everything had to be checked, ticked, catalogued. It was like being Jehovah's personal assistant; an archivist to the gods.
And having recruited us into a super-observant youth movement with secret redskin ciphers and a pseudo-Masonic greeting, it then opened our eyes to an immense and eternal truth:
If we ticked something off in our I-Spy book - even though we'd never seen the thing we were claiming to have witnessed - no one would ever know!
Did Big Chief I-Spy have spotters on every street corner, monitoring our activities and reporting back to the Wigwam-by-the-Green?
No. He did not.
In short, you could lie through your teeth: you could tick off every type of church door, every barber's shop pole, every policeman's helmet, every sparrow, robin and crow you wanted. Big Chief I-Spy would have no choice but to award you an illicitly-earned I-Spy Order of Merit. There was nothing - nothing - to be gained by speaking the truth.
At that point, we left the fifties and entered the seventies for good.
And as if to prove that street-smart cynicism finally shoved aside all that was wholesome... can't you see the threat in that menacing I-Spy eye?
Always watching. Always watching...
Promotional item (date unknown)
Before we begin, let me admit that it's a love that defies logic. But then, love so often dares us to deny our rational selves. Distance, age, social class; these things can snuff out love as soon as the spark ignites, but when the fire is hottest, the flame burns on. And so it is with me and Little Chef.
The food is... not that nice. But don't be so foolish as to imagine you would visit a... restaurant? cafi? refreshment venue?... like this just to savour the food. Because a stop-off at a Little Chef is about a break in a journey, a pause to consider the pleasures of a holiday to come. Or just past. An opportunity to immerse oneself in an approximation of an Edward Hopper stillness. (A rough approximation, it has to be said). (Very rough).
The quantity of fellow customers should be few. The time should be mid-afternoon. The ambience should be calm, restful, unhurried (and believe me, it will be). There is humped, manicured greenery beyond the window. There is a lone businessman a few tables away, lunching quietly to himself; thinking sales rep thoughts as he gazes into the middle distance; pink shirted, a little sweaty beneath the arms.
And you sit there and sip too-hot tea, contemplating the forthcoming fried delights; hash browns from the freezer, glistening eggs, skinheads on a raft. (See? The evocation of youthful holiday moments is so complete, my mind is already in 'Whoopee Summer Special' mode; "skinheads on a raft" = "beans on toast"). It's an in-between world; in between roads and the car and a far-off destination. It doesn't move and it seldom changes; once modern, now almost obsolete, it exists beyond the rules that govern the rest of your life.
How bad would the food have to be before I refused to step inside a Little Chef?
Ahem. The answer is - very bad indeed.
They may trim the little logo-fellow's stomach. They may slice off portions of the premises and turn them into knock-off Cafi Neros - a caffeine-fuelled search for a quick (Star)buck. They may protest that no-one loves the time they spend in their eternal-Wednesday-afternoon-on-an-A-road heaven, and one day they'll vanish for good. Of course they will. But wherever there remains an off-road stop with acrylic curtains and snacks served in suspended animation, the spirit of the Little Chef will live on.
Note: You can currently find the perfect Little Chef at Llanddulas on the main A55 road through North Wales. When you arrive, tell them you've come for the Hopper-esque serenity of the surroundings. And hurry. Do it before the Chefs are gone for good...
Origin unknown (early seventies)
What is this?
An attempt by the Peach Marketing Board to claim dominion over the soft fruit kingdom?
A velvet-skinned version of 'Finger lickin' good' or 'Beanz meanz Heinz' perhaps?
Or just a poetic thought to pin on your lapel? An appreciation of nature's bountiful harvest, expressed with a hippyish stoner's grin? "You can't get anything more luscious than a peach maaan."
I acquired it in 1974, and I like to think the latter explanation is the truth. Admittedly, this would make it troublesome to explain how it came to be in the possession of my great uncle - a man who loves toys, sweets, comics, TV, but who has never to my knowledge kept the company of flower children. For it was via him that it was passed on to me that summer; just a little something that a kid might like.
I did like it. I do like it. And now... I wonder if there's more to that peach than meets the eye. Is it really just a pin-backed hymn to the prunus persica? Or does it speak of... fleshier delights?
Not something that troubled me aged seven, I must admit.
Sheffield City Museums
Promotional item (nineteen seventies)
A polar bear; yellow teeth bared, a corked hole where it had been stuffed (and not "where it was shot" like your mates said).
Two Samurai wrestlers made of wood; faces grimacing, real hair decorating their taut-muscled legs.
A 3D tableau of back-yard creatures; mice, birds, a tattered fox; never moving, always the same.
Clocks; a corridor of ornate chronometers decorated with rising moons and setting suns, variously inlaid with silver and gold, many with moving figures - rather like shelf-bound versions of Trumpton's Town Hall timepiece.
Knives and forks, of course. Enormous fan-like displays of cutlery, more boring than you could possibly imagine - at least to me, aged nine, or ten, or eleven, etc. Vast peacock tails of stainless steel and silver, all dedicated to the fine art of cutting up food and sticking it in your gob. "Let's go and look at the clocks again," was the oft-repeated cry.
Sheffield City Museums taught me plenty about so many things: the hypnotic joy of repetition (every visit the same), the curious lifelessness of the taxidermist's art, the fetishism of objects plucked from their context and annotated with typewritten cards. The curiosities were curated, though of course, they could only work with what they had - namely the whims and fancies of Victorian collectors - but as long as you weren't longing to go outside for a game of football, you could hardly help but be blessed/cursed with a love of eclecticism and the pleasure of knowing exactly what lay round the corner. Bees in a glass-fronted hive; a shrivelled vole stuck in a milk bottle; an X-rayed mummy; those wrestlers; that polar bear. And so on, glass-cased and permanent.
They were something to look at. On drizzly Sunday afternoons, or during summer, as a prelude to a Lolly Gobble Choc Bomb by the band stand in the park. They didn't look formally educational but they were infinitely interesting (except for the knives and forks - but that was an early lesson in 'to each, his own'), and in their own way they provoked a particular passion for objects (especially those chance encounters - sewing machines, umbrellas, operating tables - beloved of Surrealists).
And so 'something to look at' becomes 'something to think about' and 'something to remember'. That's how the museum worked for me and, no doubt, many others. There was a tiny sales desk - not a shop exactly, but somewhere you could buy, for instance, a museum badge with a picture of... erm... a barrel organ? There was no cafi. There was no interactivity - beyond walking, and looking. But really, there were worlds within worlds, and a quiet that was so profound, it actually made your ears ring.
Promotional item (nineteen seventies)
Firstly, you're thinking, (I think), "Uncle Sam's what?"
It's Uncle Sam's Chuck Wagon, of Ecclesall Road, Sheffield. An American-style burger restaurant of course, dating from the days of napalm and body bags, of Tricky Dicky, of Californian AOR rockers with their denim shirts, fat free-lovin' 'taches, and dusty motel stops in the sun-sinking early evening. Uncle Sam's dates from those times, but as I write it's still there, though the circumstances in which it exists are now rather different.
Once, for me, Uncle Sam's meant Friday tea time. It meant 'two franks in a basket'. It meant cold ice cream with hot fudge sauce. It meant Coke lamp-shades and a poster of a glistening black woman with revolutionary afro. And once, it meant the large tortilla ordered by my dad, which sat on his plate like a portion of Sydney Opera House, boggling my mind as to what it actually was.
You couldn't get these things anywhere else in Sheffield. This wasn't a limp Wimpy-style burger experience, with nylon-smocked waitresses and a whiff of post-war misery. This was teen girls in tight tees, flapping jeans as seen in UCLA campus riots, and an open kitchen in which strutting cooks laughed in the face of the REAL FLAMES that licked explosively at their faces. Forget the fact that we customers were of typical Sheffield suburban seventies stock; we felt embraced by the spirit of the American age - of the space race and presidential corruption, of San Francisco bath houses and bankrupt New York, of 'The Towering Inferno' and 'Kojak'.
Uncle Sam's was paper place mats printed with a star-spangled menu. It was a burger in a wicker basket. On Fridays and Saturdays, it was (GASP!) 'open till midnight'! It was French fries, not chips. It certainly wasn't gourmet grub, but neither was it Birds Eye.
I say 'was' all these things, because of course, its monopoly didn't last long. It was soon joined by Yankees just a few hundred yards away, and any number of other establishments that were either slightly more up market, or a little more down, or by the end of the decade, a different kettle of McFish entirely. So the Uncle Sam's that now exists in the same spot on Ecclesall Road is not so special; but during the young years of the seventies, when no one you knew had ever been to America, it was like a journey to the States (without leaving a carbon footprint as large as Robert Wadlow's).
Strange, then, that the first and (so far) only time I have witnessed an afro-haired black woman say "Sure thing" in response to my dad's request for a new fork, it was in the formica-tabled, ketchup encrusted Golden Egg.
How did you let her get away, Uncle Sam's?!
Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire
Propaganda item (early eighties)
To some it was an insult. To others it was a badge of pride. To most, it was just about refusing to give Thatcher an inch, and if you could do that by pretending your beery, sandwichy local council was akin to the Paris Commune, so be it.
Apparently, the phrase 'Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire' was first coined by Irvine Patnick around 1980, for years the only Sheffield Tory you could actually remember by name. He meant it as abuse, of course, but there were plenty of socialists in the city who thought that while Maggie ruled Britain, we could at least make it known that we had no part in her victory. And that was undoubtedly true; there was just one Conservative constituency in the whole of South Yorkshire, and this during a time of ideological, evangelical Tory domination. To the people who came round our house for left wing banter, 'Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire' sounded actually rather splendid: so quick, get out the badge making machine.
In 1980, the steel industry was being put to the (Sheffield made) sword, of course, and the most socialist thing the council could have done would have been to urge those workers to political and social revolution. Of which, no chance. Still, in the early eighties of an emasculated Labour Party, you could signify your socialism in other ways.
So Sheffield became a natural home for CND's annual conference. The council helped find a home for the National Union of Mineworkers, guaranteeing the city a starring role in the 1984-85 strike; BBC reporters treated the place like a war zone from which their correspondents might never return. The locally-raised rates were shovelled into public transport subsidies, arts centres, peace shops. A few quid was found for a red flag, which was then unfurled above the Town Hall on May Day. We were twinned with Donetsk in the Soviet Union and Esteli in Nicaragua. And no vaguely left wing festival anywhere in the world was complete without a visit from Sheffield Socialist Choir.
And as if to prove that Soviet-style bureaucracy wasn't the worst thing that our democratically-elected representatives could think of, the council-funded recording studio they launched to a) give unemployed youths access to a bit of music industry know-how, and b) to further enrage anyone who thought the council was squandering rate-payers' money, was named... Red Tape.
Beloved of tabloid headline writers, behated of tabloid editorial writers, Sheffield was 'loony left' without the entryist abandon of Militant's Liverpool or the metropolitan swagger of Ken Livingstone's GLC. Indeed, it often felt as though he was following Sheffield's lead, while adding the familiar 'one-legged lesbian single mother' spin that helped gift him the title 'Red Ken'.
In Sheffield, we were more famous for bus fairs that cost two pence.
And when our cheap fares went the way of the trolley bus and the horse-drawn carriage, you knew that our socialist republic was beaten.
Only to be preserved in pin-backed metal and plastic; a fitting memorial to those badge-happy, confrontational times.
And don't forget - exclusive Noise Heat Power pin badges are NOW AVAILABLE from the Noise Heat Power shop.
© Damon Fairclough 2007