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Pinning down the past - part three

Along with dust and grime, my badges have collected many layers of meaning over the years; here is a third portion of memories jogged by these unprepossessing personal adornments.
Also available: part one, part two, part four, part five, part six

 

Airfix Modellers' Club
Membership badge (nineteen seventies)

 
Airfix Modellers' Club badge
 
I look at this badge now and I imagine a draughty church hall, a kindly vicar dispensing barley water; boys in knitted, roll-necked zip-up cardigans; hair oiled and pressed, and parted at the side - or short-back-and-sided, with a dry tangle of curls bursting from the top of the head. There are trestle tables arranged down the centre of the hall, scattered with Lilliputian military aircraft in varying states of construction. And though these boys are glue sniffers all, their addiction is a passive one: an incidental ingestion of aromatic plastic cement is all they crave.

For they are Airfix modellers, transfixed by their craft. Silently, they paint the parts of their plastic aircraft before glueing them together (as recommended in the directions - a rule routinely flouted by rougher boys looking for instant gratification, who throw their planes together then give them a hurried lick of colour - a quick Airfix, if you will). Patiently, they float decals in a saucer of water, gently skimming them from the surface with a skilled finger and laying them in their allotted location - set-square straight. And as they apply those finishing touches, each model is allotted its place in a spectacular bedroom display, perhaps in some kind of elaborate ceiling-suspended dogfight tableau; to be glinted at by light that pierces cracks between curtains; to be shrouded as the night falls; to be dreamt about by boys with The Eagle under their pillow.

An enduring image, I'm sure you'll agree. Except that my membership of the Airfix Modellers' Club didn't involve me in any such wholesome ritual. It didn't really exist as a club; it was just a marketing wheeze that allowed Airfix to claim some real estate within the pages of then-popular comics, and as a serial joiner, I clipped the form from a page of 'Buster', filled in my name and address, and returned it accompanied by a stamped addressed envelope. The fruits of membership were the badge (above), a glossy gilt-edged certificate, and a welcoming letter signed by none other than the club president himself - TV's very own Dick Emery. His gurning fizzog served as mast-head on the club's page in the comic, and was no doubt meant to engender a frisson of show biz excitement next time we perused the packs of deconstructed fighters, bombers and aircraft carriers in our local hobby shop.

Dick Emery: a curious choice for president, it has to be said. Was he a performer famed for his deft ways with a craft knife and a can of Humbrol enamel? Did he yearn to return to polystyrene fantasies even as he dressed up as that flouncy blonde who always said, "Ooh, you are awful, but I like you"? As a child raised on seventies TV, I was certainly fascinated by his grotesqueries - his randy vicars and busty harridans - but he also seemed... illicit. He shared the same airspace as Benny Hill, Carry On, and other era-defining fare that involved much chortling over the word "crumpet". His show existed in a world of dirty weekends, of mucky books, of big knickers on washing lines and Peeping Toms on the other side of the garden wall, and consequently he seems ill-judged as the representative of a British toy brand in the tradition of Hornby, Meccano and Matchbox.

Although, now I think about it...

Sticky bedrooms; clammy palms; curious urges zipped up and tucked in...

Perhaps not such a mismatch after all.

Anyway, it's a good job we members weren't required to demonstrate our modelling prowess in a scenario such as the one imagined above. For in truth, I would never have passed the entrance exam, given that I perhaps made four, or maybe five Airfix models in my entire childhood career: a few glue-smeared planes, and a far-too-ambitious Bentley car - an inappropriate Christmas present that stretched my abilities and patience far beyond breaking point.

"As likely as a tornado tearing through a scrap yard and throwing together a jumbo jet," say creationists when they hope to discredit Darwinian theories of evolution. My Airfix Bentley, on the other hand, was exactly what you would expect such a whirlwind to create - a random-looking pile of engine parts, tyres, exhaust pipes and headlamps. And caked in dust, it stood on my shelf, symbolising my lack of intelligent design skills; had I had to bid for modellers' club membership, I would certainly have been naturally selected straight out of that gene pool.

So while I still own the badge, I no longer own the Bentley. Or the Spitfire, or the Hurricane, or the Harrier Jump Jet.

I'm sorry Mr Emery.

Erm... membership rescinded?

---

Brian Deane - Sheffield United FC
Fans' badge (1991)

 
Brian Deane - Sheffield United badge
 
I admit; I hesitated before committing this particular badge to the public realm. In its defence, I can only say that it was created with love (not by me, I rather tellingly hasten to add) and worn with pride (er... that was me). It was not meant to stand alongside the Robertson's gollywog as a talisman of accidental racism, but I fear that it may actually be shoulder-to-shoulder with that particular mystifying trademark - which I also wore on T-shirts, caps and badges throughout the 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum' years.

Here we have, in Fimo form, the footballer Brian Deane, one of the Sheffield United players most revered since the long gone days of Tony Currie, Billy Dearden, scarves round wrists and the Stanley-knifed football specials. Brian Deane's days at Bramall Lane are also now long gone of course: however, between 1988 and 1993, he was our spindle-driven goal machine, all elbows and knees and a teetering gait that seemed to threaten perpetual overbalancing. Except that, in the words of local sports reporters, he was "surprisingly skilful for a big man" - and in any case, aesthetic ungainliness was not something that gave a manager like Dave Bassett sleepless nights. What counted were the goals: and what a lot we got.

For two cataclysmic seasons, Sheffield United hurled themselves headlong at the top division of English football. At times it seemed as though they could just batter their way in, with ball after ball flying off the end of Deane's foot into the net as the team clattered its way through successive promotions. With Tony Agana ("silky and dangerous" - © Tony Pritchett of the Sheffield Star) alongside him, Deane was our long-limbed figurehead; a brace here, a hat-trick there, and always the prospect of more to come. Hence our own Blades' Banana Boat Song:

"Deeeano!
Deeeeeenooo!
We want goals and we want some now!

Not one, not two, not three, not four,
We want goals and we want some now!"

Except... try telling all that to football fans today, and they won't believe you. Those who are old enough seem to have erased the fears that the names Agana and Deane once stirred in them; though the fears were real enough at the time, and I have the newspaper cuttings to prove it. And those who remember the Brian Deane of subsequent years - at Leeds, Benfica, Middlesbrough, Leicester, West Ham and Sunderland, not to mention two more spells for the Blades - seem to have reimagined him as a braying donkey of a player, nodding in lucky goals from balls sent heftily, hopefully high.

So this badge remains to remind us that we weren't deluded souls pinning our hopes on a saviour who could never deliver us from lower division limbo. He was, in fact, The Real Thing: he led us, and we followed, and we entered the first division's promised land in 1990. And honestly, we weren't fools; we knew a heroic but hopeless donkey when we saw one, and we had plenty; we praised them too and turned them into inexplicable cults (yes, I'm thinking of you Bob Booker), but Brian Deane was not of their ilk. When we were about to see him play, we said grace - a very awkward kind of grace, befitting his off-centred lope - and for his gifts we were truly thankful.

And now... a word on that yellow shirt. That was United's away kit from 1989 until 1991 - an acidic shade of fluorescent yellow that mimicked the high-viz jackets worn by football ground stewards; if you squinted just a little, it seemed as though we had a team of 50 at least, ringing the pitch and threatening 360 degrees of sporting devastation. The word on the terraces - and they still were terraces - was that it was Umbro's biggest selling away kit: I can't vouch for the truth of that, but wherever you went on your sun-seeking package hols, the beach would be dot-to-dotted with citric splashes of yellow-green ultraviolet-bothering light; you could always find the Blades abroad.

Ridiculed by opposing fans as rampantly tasteless, those shirts seemed to embody a 'no-one-likes-us-but-we-don't-care' spirit that came with the territory when your manager was Dave-Bassett-ex-of-Wimbledon. They loathed our yellow away kit, and they fantasised that our goal-crazy striker was a talent-free liability.

Ah, bollocks to them.

It might be a little bit unflattering, and even a little bit racist, but this badge says that Deano was one of our greats. That's, our greats.

Not yours.

---

Fred Jowett - Bradford Independent Labour Party
Election badge (circa 1929)

 
Fred Jowett - Independent Labour Party badge
 
You don't know this man, though my granny would have recognised him in an instant.

A century ago, every citizen of Bradford knew him too.

And I know him - after a fashion.

He is the Right Honourable Fred Jowett MP, Member of Parliament for East Bradford - I believe this badge dates from the 1929 general election. He was my granny's uncle, and therefore my great great uncle: that seems very far removed, but even while I played as a child, he lived on as the subject of reminiscence - though by then he was thirty years dead.

In fact, he lived on in other ways too: in the concept of free school meals; in the defiance of war; in Bradford's tradition of non-conformity and dignified support for working men and women - a stone-chapel socialism conjured not from blood-drenched barricades, but from Sunday walks under soot-cloudy skies.

He was known by Great Men of his age. By Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald of course; by Fenner Brockway, who in 1946 wrote a book - 'Socialism Over Sixty Years: The Life of Jowett of Bradford'; by J.B. Priestley, the great playwright, who gave his name to a Bradford theatre, the Priestley Centre - which stands on the site of a building once called Jowett Hall.

But his name travelled further still. Far beyond the temperance bars and Sunday schools and auto-didactic endeavour of buttoned-up radical Bradford, he was known too by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who in 1912 discussed recent events at the Independent Labour Party conference in Merthyr Tydfil. 'Opportunists' in the party wanted to support the Liberal government against the Conservatives. Fred Jowett, on the other hand, moved a motion to reject this plan. He wanted his party to remain as its name suggested it should be: independent. If that meant victory for the Conservatives, then so be it. His party would still be a 'labour' party in more than just name.

Lenin wrote:

"Jowett's motion took the bull by the horns... The opportunists, who predominate in the party, immediately attacked Jowett...

...The opponents of opportunism acted far more correctly than their like-minded colleagues in Germany frequently do when they defend rotten compromises with the opportunists. The fact that they came out openly with their resolution gave rise to an extremely important debate on principles, and this debate will have a very strong effect on the British working class."

This, in its own way, was a glowing tribute to Fred Jowett. The two men were from left wing traditions that were as different as could be; they could scarcely have agreed on much with regard to the elusive road to socialism - it is impossible to imagine a relative of my gentle grandmother taking command of a workers' army and defending the deeds of a bloody revolution - but from the famous to the almost forgotten, there is respect for a principled stand.

So am I wrong to think that granny's tender ways maybe mirrored those of her much admired uncle? Could he really have faced down those 'opportunists', denounced war after popular war, or presented himself time and again for possible rejection by the city's electorate if he was as kindly and mild as I imagine him to be?

Well, there's no reason to doubt it. In 1906, Fred Jowett was described thus:

"This quiet-voiced, slightly-built, demurely-dressed (grey and black tie, starched collar), pale young man, with smooth black hair, correctly parted. Why - I told myself - he might have been a college student preparing for the Nonconformist ministry!"

A hushed presence; morality built from millstone grit. That's what Bradford makes me think of. Small people with colossal thoughts; creating futures that others could take for granted... and for their trouble, becoming memory, then becoming nothing at all.

Fred Jowett is not the only one. There are always many like him.

Not giants.

But we stand on their shoulders just the same.

---

Dead Kennedys
Promotional item (early eighties)

 
Dead Kennedys badge
 
Flailing; venomous; they came screaming by: and in those brief moments of noise and dread, the Dead Kennedys were ciphers for things that I never suspected. A president had his head demolished in order that they should be so named; the West Coast scene from which they sprang was fired by a muscle-bound political viciousness that was focused and motivated; the language they used wasn't subtly ironic - it was sarcasm wielded as brutally as a nightstick. "I kill children" indeed.

These things were all but lost on me, but to my dad - always interested in the music I professed to like, and intrigued by punk as a social phenomenon, or as a new folk music - here was cause for alarm.

This was not like The Damned, who were feathered and boa-ed with the spirit of the music hall, and who were just a mouthful of gob away from being suitable guests on 'The Good Old Days'. This was a world apart from The Stranglers, whose Hammond-driven pub rock and real-life cartoon capers threatened no one except the odd smart alec music scribe. And despite "You dirty fucker" and the rest of that Bill Grundy pantomime, even the Sex Pistols turned out to be more art school prank than sedition made flesh. Nothing wrong with art school pranks of course, but they don't chill the parental blood quite like the DKs hollering "This world brings me dowwwwwn, I'm looking forward to death."

When I played the Dead Kennedys, I heard a sound that was scabrous and incandescent, that scorched the teak-effect music centre from whence it came. What I didn't discern though, was the fact that this music, these songs, were born from a seething spirit of discontent that found delicious thrills in confrontation - meaning real confrontation; without fear, and with hatred unbound. A decade and a half previously, it was this spirit that had made gun-runners out of bedroom fodder - the kids who would otherwise have spent their time with headphones clamped to their, er, heads. Once begun, the journey that this music could take you on had no prescribed end; it could inspire belief in 'all means necessary'; it meant no room for argument, no compromise, no fuckn waaaaaaaaaaay!

There was also so much cloaked meaning behind those furied Semtex-powered guitars that it could all be taken any number of ways. The confusion was such that the Dead Kennedys were later obliged to release one song that said what it meant from first chord to last: 'Nazi Punks Fuck Off'.

If a bunch of comedic fez-wearers like Madness could find themselves with their own fascist following, for the Dead Kennedys there was surely no chance of escape.

So when I brought home the Dead Kennedys album 'Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables', there was much furrowing of brows and hovering in doorways. There was earnest stroking of chins. There were sudden and serious conversations that seemed to come out of nowhere - about songs that said one thing and meant something else, about discussion and argument, about nihilism and protest, about Jello Biafra's visions of AmeriKKKa. I believe there were whispered discussions when I'd gone to bed, undertakings to "keep an eye on this" and to be watchful, wary of some threat left unspecified but that could tip me into future oblivion.

Still, if it was felt I was heading for some kind of political and moral meltdown as a result of being seduced by this music (and while I think I was more or less saved from such a fate, I do recall wantonly startling babysitters by playing 'California Uber Alles' at extreme volume), there were other parents who took a rather different view...

In the autumn of 1980, a school friend of mine returned from the summer break somewhat translated. His hair was cropped spikily short; his natural blond locks were streaked vivid orange; he wore a stud in his ear; his school trousers were calf-clingingly tight. With famously wayward siblings and a gig-going mum and dad, he was only pursuing the family tradition, but to the rest of us, his was a lead we wanted to follow.

This fresh-faced junior punk would bring back reports from his family home, though to us, they may as well have been coming from another universe: his parents owned 'Never Mind The Bollocks'; his sister had dyed her pubes green; and then came the news that, aged 13, he was going to a gig at the Sheffield Leadmill; he was going to see the Dead Kennedys; HE WAS GOING WITH HIS FUCKING MUM AND DAD!

They weren't there to chaperone him, or monitor his activities, or warn him of the dangerous paths that might lie ahead.

No.

They were there to see the band. That's all. To see the band and spend some time with their son.

In the middle of an aural inferno.

It was, in effect, a gob-flecked family picnic; somewhere to take the kids; a nice evening out - like going to the panto.

And that same year, our family went to see The City Waites - a medieval music ensemble with songs called 'Pox On You For A Fop'. Rather than songs called 'Kill The Poor'.

Which went to prove little, except that, in the words of teenagers everywhere: life was so unfair.

---

Greetings from Sheffield
Promotional item (circa 2003)

 
Greetings From Sheffield badge
 
Greetings...

From the name on the knife blade. From the place where you once changed trains. From Orgreave. From Hillsborough. From names that hollow the soul.

From the Sheffield Pensioners' Liberation Army Faction. From Betty Spital. From Bobby Knutt. From the papier-mâché pages of a wet Sheffield Star, shoved through the letter box and soaked grey by the rain. From 'Praise And Grumble'. From 'Capstick Comes Home'. From beer offs. From Walsh's. From Redgates. From Cole's.

From the ether. From the static. From the ever-fading pirate chatter ("Shout going out to the Firth Park Crew - watch your bass bins Sheffield"). From the Socialist Choir and the Fuck City Shitters. From the Flexible Penguins and Trolley Dog Shag.

From rooms above pubs, 50p on the door. From Hattersley. From Furnival. From Mappin and Graves. From Henry's and Cairo's. From the Leadmill, from Stars.

From the Boxing Day Massacre. From the Sheffield Show. From "Fresh as tomorrow". From the hole in the road. From the Green 'Un, the Brown Cow, from the workers' flag. From Caborn Corner to the Town Hall steps. From banners, from stirrings, from placards, from speeches.

From Angel Street, and West Street, and signing on. And on and on.

From 'Looks and Smiles'. From waged/unwaged. From the night bus on High Street. From the 1pm whistle. From fingerless gloves and jumble sale coats. From Henderson's with everything. From Whitbread and Wards. From the Anvil, from Pond Street, from 'El off' and 'FON.'

From staring at the horizon from bus stops: from the 59, the 17, the 24 and the 76. From top decks fag-butt littered, smoked like a kipper. From "Brian Deane and Tony Agana, bibbidy bobbedy boo". From the Owls, from the Blades... and from the pigs. From the biggest village in England, the one with summat to prove.

Greetings from Sheffield, from a drizzling there and then: England's fourth largest, Yorkshire-But-Not.

Greetings from Sheffield: out on its own, twinned with Bigger-Than-You-Think, and nowt to do with Leeds.

Greetings from Sheffield.

Greetings... from eternity...

...back to here.

 

Also available: pinning down the past part one, part two, part four, part five, part six

And don't forget - exclusive Noise Heat Power pin badges are NOW AVAILABLE from the Noise Heat Power shop.

 

© Damon Fairclough 2008