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Pinning down the past - part four

A fourth portion of badge-based cultural and social comment springing from somewhere within the depths of my own rusting badge collection.
Also available: part one, part two, part three, part five, part six

 

Peoples March For Jobs
Propaganda badge (1981)

 
1981 Peoples March For Jobs badge
 
Cars burning; police running; men dying. It wasn't the People's March For Jobs that caused events like these; but that was the context in which this latter-day Jarrow Crusade took place. We were two years into Mrs Thatcher's reign. In April, the streets of Brixton had been in flames; to most they were riots, to some they were rebellions, though what they were is a discussion for another time. That they happened at all was enough to tell me that some people weren't satisfied with something; and I doubted that they were demanding a fourth TV channel or more use of synthesisers in the charts.

More dissatisfaction came in May: the People's March itself. Here was mass protest that looked all the more polite thanks to the scale of the violence that enclosed it. It was just people walking, that's all; from Liverpool to London, a core of 500 of the new unemployed making their way down Britain, and being joined by thousands more at every town and city they visited. By all accounts it was festive and even fun, entirely lacking the sense of approaching death that had tailed their ragged-trousered forebears, those hunger marchers of the nineteen thirties.

But hunger did still stalk the streets in May '81; just not the streets where these marchers chose to tread. In the cells of the H-blocks, where Irish Republican prisoners were striving to reinstate the privileges of political status that the British government had taken away, they were dying of hunger. Their self-summoned starvation passed across our TV screens like a Biblical phantom and we couldn't look away. It was horrific and irresistible; alien and strange. They faded until their shadows consumed them, yet still we came to know their faces, smiling out from photographs taken when they were just young men with something to prove. Round, solid, real young men; whose deaths meant more of that fighting on the streets.

As time passes we parcel these things separately in our minds, and it's hard to remember how they must once have run together: first Brixton, then on May 1st the march began, and on May 5th came the death of Bobby Sands. More hunger strikers died, the streets burning every time; and the people's marchers snaked through the month towards their benefit gig in Brockwell Park - and no tea with Mrs T, who refused to meet them.

Ends of tethers; varying degrees of desperation. It was the way she chose to do things, that Prime Minister who seemed constantly at war. Because May 1981 wasn't an aberration; it had become more or less the norm. Hunger strikers died throughout that summer, and in July it was the turn of Moss Side, Handsworth and Toxteth to blaze throughout the night. From marches backed by bureaucrats to half bricks hurled at heads, it really made no difference. As we know, she was not for turning. She expected it. She was ready.

And really, doesn't the badge say it all? It's the colour of the Emerald City; it's a blank tarmac track without end. Doesn't it symbolise a mirage on the horizon? The road to impossible dreams?

---

The Stranglers
Promotional badge (1981)

 
The Stranglers, La Folie badge
 
You didn't score points by being into The Stranglers.

If you were once a teenage soul boy - whether of the sweaty, baggy northern kind, or the slicker, smoother southern variety - then your misspent years will have garnered you a bulging bag of cultural credit; which can now be cashed in during 6 Music phone-ins or in the pages of Mojo. If you were light of skin and dark of temperament, and bunked your nervous way into inner city blues clubs, you could by now be earning a few handy bob writing the sleevenotes to lavish Brit-reggae box sets. And if you set up a Crass-styled commune and nourished your body on Sosmix, thrashing guitars and Gestetner ink, it's time to launch your own production company and make the film of your life - because BBC4 wants to make you a star.

But if you saved your love for The Stranglers, I'm afraid you just got it wrong.

Jesus! The world was teeming with punk groups who could have contributed to your pension plan! Magazine, Wire, X Ray Spex. The Slits, Public Image or Joy Division (peace be upon them). Those post-punk documentary makers always need new talking heads and surely, Paul Morley can't manage them all?

But The Stranglers? That glowering misogynist cartoon? Too pop, too pub, too prog. It was music for hod carriers drinking fizzy keg bitter. Like a CO2 belch in the face.

Front of stage, they were all toughness and menace; JJ Burnell with his top off and his bass slung at his waist looked very much like the iconic image of Sid Vicious in the depths of his dereliction. Hugh Cornwell was all confrontation and snarl: "Did somebody say wankah?" But behind them was an unlikelier pairing: Jet Black, an overweight ice-cream man on drums, older than my dad and sporting some distinctly un-punk under-chin stubble; and Dave Greenfield, whose keyboard ripples rose and fell like the Doors soaked in bad Guildford speed rather than LA LSD, and whose prog affections caused his hair to grow into a curious medieval bob, longish and centre-parted, and even triggered the sprouting of a lazy seventies moustache that loitered on his upper lip like a fat black liquorice boot strap. He was a keyboard wizard of course; but I think he may have been an actual wizard too.

The early Stranglers were beery and brutish, jumping aboard the punk bandwagon as it rolled through Essex; appealing to those who'd been happy enough with Dr Feelgood or Eddie and the Hotrods, and who saw in punk the chance to continue supping brown ale while listening to fast guitars. As their career developed they succumbed to a weakness for concept albums and created their own impenetrable lore - witness 'The Gospel According To The Meninblack', being a crazy concoction of UFO conspiracy and Biblical parody, half-baked together with a dash of Erich von Däniken - and that pulled in the neo-prog rock boys too; who were good at maths, and liked Jean-Michel Jarre, and devoured their copies of Strangled magazine for breakfast.

But crucially, The Stranglers knew how to squeeze out success from the unlikeliest of source material; bemoaning the lack of Shakesperoes in contemporary society, for example. They had hit singles, proper pop smashes, that you could whistle and which sounded good on Top of the Pops, and they kept them coming year after year, long after their contemporaries had either packed it all in or drifted too far into the mainstream. Indeed, those hit singles may be part of the problem; they simply had too many catchy melodies to their name.

So when it comes to attempting to establish a credible pop pedigree for myself, I may as well disregard the first gig I ever went to, the event that brought this badge into my life. It was The Stranglers on their 'La Folie' tour, at Sheffield Lyceum, November 1981. An abandoned Victorian theatre turned makeshift music venue, I knew it only as the semi-derelict shell that sat across from The Crucible; having served time as a bingo hall in the seventies, it was waiting for its number to finally come up, and for the council to knock it down. But that Saturday night, I sat with my friends at the front of the circle and witnessed the whole exhilarating charade play out in front of me. It was the volume of the thing that astounded - and I suppose having ears that were just fourteen years old didn't help; when you've never experienced a genuine rock gig, it seems that nothing in human history can ever have been so loud. It was a noise that was physical, that was ringed by flame; but I discovered that if I put my fingers in my ears I could extinguish the fiery distortion and reveal the music hidden within. So that's how I sat there for song after song; hypertense and amazed, fingers in ears; and ecstatic at the frenzy of the violence of it all.

We bought the badges, we bought the T-shirts; and our parents picked us up post-show and I found I couldn't hear a word that anybody said. Someone had turned down life's treble and placed a duvet inside my skull. I suppose I still carry with me the damage done that night; a fraction of the sonic world is lost to me and I can never get it back.

And would you believe it, I can't even profit from the experience. Because this was not the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall, or Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage, or The Ramones at CBGB. This was The Stranglers; and as we've ascertained, I'm afraid they just don't count.

---

Cowen Barrett, Sheffield
Promotional badge (1979)

 
Cowen Barrett, Sheffield - promotional badge
 

The clocks struck thirteen; and Britain gasped.

The Blessed Margaret: she'd finally got her claws dug in, right up to the knuckle, and as we Auld Lang Syned it and gawped at Kenny Everett, she began to crush the life from the decade's last moments. She was right enough of course, as the veins popped out on her forearms and her wicked eyes bulged like Jaw Breakers; no more winters of discontent, no more paralytic prime ministers singing drinking songs to their union mates; it wasn't the nineteen drib drab seventies no more. She was planning for years of new broomery, of cruel-to-be-kindness; of that jobs totaliser on the Ten O'Clock News clocking up minus figures night after night - a fruit machine spitting out UB40s; the devil's own Blue Peter appeal.

Harsh times. So some people went into the eighties with a smack addiction. Others lost their jobs, their homes, their marbles. But not me, oh no. Because, it seems, I went into the new decade with Cowen Barrett, a supplier of bathrooms (and kitchens, and heating!); so no wonder I had a spring in my step as I took my first tentative steps into the eighties' unknown kingdom. How better to mark the onset of the decade of hip hop, of house music, of hair gel, than with a chocolate brown bathroom suite whose none-more-seventies colour scheme was about ten minutes away from going bang out of date; like voting Labour, and British Leyland, and black and white telly.

It was a colour scheme chosen to be in and of the moment - that exact moment, being the dying days of flares and bare feet and luxurious shag pile rugs, of hessian on the walls and Habitat tubular chrome. It was not designed to take account of changing global conditions - the creeping pastelisation of our world. This was not a bathroom built for golfing sweaters in shades of lemon or mint; for jump suits or ra ra skirts; for duck-egg blue Smart R's so tight they could have been prescribed for varicose veins. Within months of the decade's turn, it would become not only a dated looking bathroom, but a bathroom displaying the most unfashionable pigmentation it was possible to imagine.

"Chocolate brown? What were you thinking?"

I wasn't thinking anything of course, except for "It's a shit badge, but I'll have it."

I was just a kid.

The bathroom was my parents' concern; their choice, their responsibility. Though as I pocketed the badge (not wearing it of course; I may have been a kid, but I wasn't an idiot), mum impressed upon me and my sister the importance of cleaning away the scum ring after every soak. "If we're going to have a bath as nice as this one," (like a hollowed out Mars Bar), "we've all got to do our bit."

So I did do my bit, scrubbing away at the chalky deposits as the water screwed its way down the plug. And as the new decade grew up, and I grew up too, I tried to do my bit in other ways, attempting to wipe away the troublesome Tory tide mark by wielding revolutionary newspapers and shouting a lot. Which, rather more than that bathroom, turned out to be the most outdated choice of all.

---

The Tufty Club
Membership badge (early nineteen seventies)

 
The Tufty Club membership badge
 
It was always a thrill to see policemen at school. They towered over Miss Clarebra, the infants' Head, who would beam at them; smiling a smile we'd never previously witnessed - old-skool ma'am that she was, always ready to slipper a five-year old if the occasion demanded it, dispensing rubber-soled justice to those meddlesome children who would insist on behaving like... erm... children.

The policemen, a little nervous and polite, would carry their helmets, and bend down to pass through doors, and children would tail them through the corridor just wanting to be close, to absorb the power of the goodness that they believed must radiate from within.

The officers would be introduced in assembly, or perhaps they would visit us in our classrooms, and they would tell us how to cross the road, like Tufty. He was a squirrel who was learning the Green Cross Code, the ancient lore that instructed us in the whys and wherefores of not being flattened by traffic. He was a good squirrel, from a good home; sometimes he got things wrong, and was mildly rebuked - for suddenly emerging from behind an ice-cream van perhaps, or for running into the road for his ball. He would hang his head and accept the chastisement; and because we knew that Tufty was our representative in this woodland suburbia, we - for the most part - wanted to act like Tufty. To behave like Tufty. To submit like Tufty.

Look right, then left, then right again.

Having dispensed their sombre lectures, the policemen would then recruit us into the ranks of the Tufty Club, which meant badges, and booklets, and an invitation to their annual film show; which sounds like the sort of thing that might have been held in a dusty church hall, but was in fact a big-screen extravaganza that took place in the Sheffield ABC each Christmas; and it was a big screen, being years before such cinemas were sliced up and boxed off into parcels; it was massive, and splendid, and not like TV. The main feature would come courtesy of the Children's Film Foundation - kids foiling bank robbers or finding some treasure, like an elongated episode of 'The Double Deckers'. And there would be road safety films too, and a man-sized Tufty would be led onto the stage - shuffling, and sightless, and mute.

Someone would model a balloon and give it to a child from the crowd. And policemen - more of them, the school-visiting kind - would cradle their helmets in the crook of an arm, and repeat and repeat and repeat: right, then left, then right again. Right again. Right again.

We learnt it, and spoke it, and felt it.

It was our mantra for the times yet to come.

---

Warlord Comic
Membership badge (mid nineteen seventies)

 
Warlord comic membership badge
 
I blame the boys who lived down the road; one older than me, one younger. They were a pair of brothers whose favourite game was war; it was something they knew about, were interested in; they could always ID the uniforms on those tiny soldiers who came attached to a rectangle of plastic. They had battalions of them, entire armies of moulded polythene killers; you could arrange them in wave after wave on their utility room steps, till the wind came up and sent them tumbling to their miniature doom.

They were boys with pea shooters and catapults, arrows and bows. The eldest had a Chopper, a bike that elderly neighbours whispered was "dangerous" - something they'd heard on the news, and meaning, I think, that it was the two-wheeled choice of the naughtier brand of boy. They had an arsenal of cap guns, and rolls and rolls of the spiralling paper explosives that gave them their sour-scented CRACK! They had toy daggers and Action Men, and they were cheeky to passers-by. I was in awe of them, and scared of them; but they were exciting, so I made them my friends.

We would lie on the eldest's bed and read comics; not the Monster Funs and Whoopees that I had at home, but comics in which World War II was still going on, thirty years after the fact. These were scratchy, inky worlds of maverick soldiers and hired guns who thought nothing of opening fire on a frame full of men. "Aieeeeee!" came their death cries as their bodies were demolished across the page. And there was I, the offspring of peacenik parents who were veterans of the Aldermaston March, absorbed in these stories of bloodshed and honour, fighting and death. And it was a world I wanted to join...

Which is where the winged 'W' comes in. Because this badge is the insignia of Lord Peter Flint, the aristocratic secret agent who lent his own codename to the comic in which he starred: 'Warlord'. Flint himself was a bit James Bond, a bit Sir David Stirling; he was clever, brave and as posh as a bottle of Pimms. His was the tradition of the playboy spy whose dazzling espionage skills were masked by his aristocratic sportsmanship, his carsmanship and his boatsmanship - his shipsmanship if you will. You could imagine him deep inside enemy territory, slitting the throat of an unsuspecting guard before lighting a cigar with a distress flare and taking out the machine gun nest with a Molotov cocktail made from the finest single malt. Shaken, not stirred.

So given the opportunity, who wouldn't want to join his club, his underground Warlord society, with its badge and its brown plastic wallet crammed with secrets? We all joined, the three of us: the boys from down the road, and me. And we read Lord Peter Flint's weekly message in the pages of Warlord, feeling part of his righteous fight.

One day dad came in as I read my comic. He hoped to see me chortling heartily over a Whizzer & Chips, but laid out in front of me there were Bren guns spluttering, bodies flying, fields of fathers being wiped out, mown down. And that's how he put it when he pointed out what was really happening in the pages of that copy of Warlord: every death marked the erasure of a mother's son, the removal of a much-missed dad.

I felt sheepish and embarrassed, mostly by the fact that I understood what he was saying but still enjoyed the thrill of the tale being told. Had I known more about the era in which he grew up, I might have pointed out that where I had "Take that Jerry!" and "Tommy, you have breathed your last!", his forties/fifties childhood resounded to Westerns and shoot-outs and the slaughter of those gosh darn pesky injuns - a caricature of history that may have seemed rather more distant from its source, but that politically was just about as suspect as the japes of Lord Peter Flint.

Now though when I look at this badge, I still feel a shudder of shame that I was so entranced by a comic with a name like Warlord. Through my now adult eyes, I can see how it misrepresented the near and still-painful past, how it was more or less morally askew, how its weekly parade of death might numb small minds against the reality of battle. And it still goes on - though I feel relieved that to my kids a war story is something that happens in space rather than something that happened to their grandad.

But ultimately, I think, it was the story that mattered, not the dying. So though the context was problematic, the narrative, in the end, won through. I was a Warlord agent, ready for action, eager to do my bit for Harry, England and Saint George; but it was a fiction, a fantasy, a nonsense. Better to have the contrary position seeded in the back of my mind than to have had the comic banned outright; because here I am, an adult, completely devoid of blood lust.

I think, perhaps, those boys down the road were blameless after all.

 

Also available: pinning down the past part one, part two, part three, 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 2009