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Pinning down the past - part five

This is the fifth instalment of a very occasional series in which I extract a handful of badges from my collection, write about them at length, and then return them to the padlocked, lead-lined casket from whence they came.
Also available: part one, part two, part three, part four, part six

 

The Rolling Stones World Tour
Promotional badge (1982)

 
Rolling Stones World Tour 1982 badge
 
Perhaps this is the moment I realise that I will never willingly sit cross-legged again. In this giant municipal park, with this microdot of a stage in the distance, with this sense of good money being spent on just waiting and waiting and waiting......, I'm suddenly aware that it's an alien posture, something that my lower portions should no longer be required to do. It's July 1982, I'm fifteen years old, and my body doesn't bend like it used to.

This is a bit of a shock, because when you're a kid, you sit cross-legged at the drop of a hat: in assembly, or with your cub pack, or watching telly at home with your folks. But at this moment, on the bum-flattened grass of Roundhay Park in Leeds, I decide it's all rather awkward. Because this is Not Comfortable At All. No sir. Not one little bit. In future, I will certainly demand a chair. And in making this choice, I sense that perhaps I have raised a barrier of expectation between myself and the people around me.

Because many of these tens of thousands who are awaiting the arrival of the Rolling Stones once made a very different decision. These people - who are now entering middle age, rather like my dad who sits next to me - dreamt of a world without chairs, metaphorically speaking. They wore the delicate painted faces you see on footage of the Stones in Hyde Park, and I've been led to believe that they thought sitting on a chair - even a really comfy one! - was to submit to the dictates of The Man. Instead, they wanted to squat on their haunches to their heart's content, shaking off the tyranny of comfort and good posture in pursuit of a world that refused to Sit Up Straight.

How disappointed they must be with my generation, I think, with our angular funk, our short backs and sides, our pop stars who get dressed up in suits.

I... don't belong here. I suspect I might be spoiling their fun.

And not only am I uncomfortable, I'm feeling a bit guilty as well. Thing is, my dad asked a while ago if I wanted to see the Rolling Stones in Leeds. And without hesitation I said no, because... well, aren't they past it? Old blokes from the sixties - who were famous before I was born?

But then I heard whisperings at school; friends I respected said they wished they could be here, said they wished they could witness Mick and Keith in action - to see, they implied, how it should be done. And I was puzzled, suddenly insecure in my musical preferences: so... do we like the Rolling Stones now then I wondered? I thought that we who had been conscripted into a post-punk world were under orders to close ranks against those who might be connected to hippier persuasions? Hadn't we scrubbed from history the music of our parents? Didn't we only know who the Beatles were because 'Help' was on telly every Christmas?

I was thrown into musical confusion; but as my thoughts churned, I made an instant decision.

"I'm going to see them," I said. "I'm going to see the Stones, in Leeds, with my dad."

My friends looked at me; they were impressed. Suddenly, it seemed, I was participating in history!

I was a someone! I was practically Mick and Keith's best mate!

When I told dad I was coming, I think he was pleased. But also a little puzzled at my handbrake turn on the issue. Still, it would be an adventure, a chance for him to relive some formative musical moments in the company of his son. More broadly, it was also an opportunity for his generation - those pesky chair dodgers - to relax in the knowledge that punk may as well never have happened, and a time for my people to perhaps admit that in the face of this corporate rock onslaught - rock 'n' roll's original rebellions replayed as heritage - we may as well accept our defeat. I'd been taught that they were dinosaurs, but they were clearly far from extinct.

So that's why I'm here - in Leeds, July 1982. I'm tossing away what I thought were my principles in return for a little bit of school yard respect. And now I'm waiting. For something to happen.

I try different positions, subtle reformulations of the basic cross-legged recipe. I pull my legs up in front of me and loop my arms around them, linking fingers just below the knee. It works for a while, but eventually its internal tensions cause spontaneous quivering in the biceps, and a shift is required. I squirm around, moving my weight onto my left arm which now acts as a kind of tent pole for my body, and I slide my legs to the right, kicking them out to the side where I'm afraid they seem to take up too much space. I resemble The Little Mermaid on that Copenhagen rock. This is no posture for a fifteen-year old male at a rock gig, and I wriggle again in my fruitless attempt to find a position that will see me through three big support acts and the sinewy old Stones themselves.

I wait. And I wait. And having waited, I wait a bit more.

I feel a bit bad that dad paid good money for this... this ungainly musical giganticism. But little do I know, as I wriggle uncomfortably under the raw sun of Leeds, that this is the way that pop/rock/call-it-what-you-will is going. One day, twenty or more years from now - in the twenty-first century! - these enormo-gigs will be the norm; even no-marks like Keane will play arenas as a matter of course.

And as for today, here in Leeds, eventually the Rolling Stones will appear, and I will record in my diary that they were good. But by then, simply the fact that Someone did Something and I was able to finally stand up will have come as blessed relief. I will return to school and say words like 'fantastic' and 'ace'. The experience will become the stuff of reminiscence, a fiction that weaves itself into rock history. The waiting will become triumphant anticipation. This badge the sign that I Was There.

But for now, I will sit here some more: on the ground, my legs in a knot.

Because I'm waiting. And really, there's nothing else to do.

---

National Cycling Proficiency
Personal award (1978)

 
National Cycling Proficiency badge
 
This badge is some kind of proof that I once learned to ride a bike on the road.

My instruction took place under the auspices of the National Cycling Proficiency scheme, a programme for children that was launched in 1958 and which, by the late seventies, was a mainstay of road safety provision in junior schools right across the land. Under its tutelage I ingested the 'Highway Code', and I made my way on two wheels around a breezy concrete playground, allowing my Saturday mornings to be eaten away by the desire to cycle like a nineteen-fifties' school boy.

It was the summer term of 1978; our six weeks of instruction culminated in the cycling proficiency test itself on the morning of the Arsenal v. Ipswich FA Cup final. We did turn up for assessment, but we cursed the infernal pedalling even as we smiled and were put through our paces - annoyed, because we were missing 'Cup Final Jim'll Fix It' and the footage of the teams having breakfast.

Among the bikes that kids brought along in order to take part in the course, there was a spectrum of cycling technology on show. At one end was Timothy Benton's bike, a Hovis-style bone-shaker built for delivering groceries to the top of the hill, but now being used to transport this tiny, translucent grey boy through a pretend box junction with traffic lights mimed by a copper. Richard Milner's machine, on the other hand, was as contemporary as that morning's paper: a bright purple Chopper with wing mirrors, pennants and some unidentified youth with a Kid Jensen haircut riding pillion. And my bike, I guess, was somewhere in between; neither ancient nor modern, just classic in its simplicity. It had wheels, it had pedals, it had brakes; it held the plastic tags from bread bags under high tension between its spokes, but beyond that, it bore no other hallmarks of its era.

My legs though - a different matter; they were like flag poles honouring the decade. Everyone's were. Unfurled from our thighs, our trousers bore witness to the seventies' wanton disregard for the controlled use of fabric; whether denim, corduroy or even cheesecloth. And that spelt trouble for bike riders, as our jeans billowed around our ankles and - like the parachute on a dragster - acted as a fabric-powered emergency brake. The gear and chain system would also consume the excess material with relish, adding the chomp of oily teeth marks round the hem and potentially throwing us over the handlebars as the mechanism ground to a halt. Normally, we would accept these dangers, as the alternative was to stuff trousers into socks in the manner of an urban Yorkshire Tintin. But on this day, a demonstrable concern for safety was needed in order to pass the test; we lashed our trousers down securely like the sails on a yacht, and set off for the distant horizon of the playground, hand signalling all the way.

In the end, I didn't just pass this test. I smashed it, annihilated it, rode it into the ground. Not only was I awarded the badge, as seen here; I was also handed a modest green plastic wallet that contained a Certificate of Merit, recognition that I had achieved at least 95 points from 100. And this no-mean-achievement meant I was entered into a competitive ride-off on a disused Sheffield airfield that had been laid out with dummy roads for the training of learner drivers. This was a far more stomach-tightening occasion than the proficiency test; there were no friends here. I was cycling against strangers, kids from other schools who had displayed similar prowess; our aim was to out-polite each other, to signal calmly and clearly like our lives depended on it and to obey the rules of the road with devastating ruthlessness.

And should we win, we would get a new bike.

Timothy Benton made it to the competition too, which was good going seeing as his bike was made out of pig iron and had been built to facilitate the swift delivery of butter when it was still on the ration. Of course Richard Milner, with his Chopper, wasn't there. He didn't need badges or certificates to tell him he could ride on the road, and he had spent every cycling proficiency lesson riding round the playground no-handed, a tactic guaranteed to set the teeth of the instructors on edge; and in fact to threaten the future of his own teeth too. He was last seen riding shirtless down Abbeydale Road towards town, his voluminous Oxford bags engorged with car exhaust like a couple of hot air balloons suspended around his knees.

In the end, the prize bike proved well beyond my grasp: as I trundled around the overgrown corners of the course, with its dinky little road signs and ragwort bursting through the tarmac, I knew that my mind was elsewhere. It was too spooky, simply unreal. These dummy roads were deserted; there were no buildings, no pavements, no life. I felt as though I was cycling through the day of the triffids or running errands following a nuclear attack. And suddenly, there was an examiner at the cross-roads: with clip board in hand and his John Motson coat snug around the shoulders, he silently recorded my progress. But I had peaked too soon; my glory days were behind me. I didn't even make the top ten, and I had to resign myself to not being a winner; and to simply being what it says on the badge.

I was merely 'proficient'.

Nothing more exciting than that.

---

Just one more Tory cut
Propaganda badge (1980)

 
'Just one more Tory cut' badge
 
You'll never believe it, but I made this myself.

No, really, I did; though the slogan, I admit, was nicked from a real badge I'd seen for sale at a frumpy left-wing gala, the kind that once characterised a certain kind of Sunday afternoon in Sheffield: in Weston Park, some bands on, with trestle tables bent beneath the weight of earnest literature and pamphlets flapping in the breeze like po-faced, puritan moths.

There were badges everywhere I looked, enough to make me salivate; tempting rows of pin-backed propaganda, snappy anti-Thatcher yelps rendered wearable and bijou. After all, it was the first year of Maggie's reign and things were getting vicious. But I was only 12, and was therefore afflicted by an emptiness of pocket that was also being suffered by many fellow Sheffielders as the Tories' axe began to fall - though my lack of cash was caused more by the fact that I didn't get much pocket money rather than by compulsory redundancy and the annihilation of the industry in which I worked.

So rather than simply snapping up every badge that successfully ignited my crude revolutionary spirit - which would have been hundreds of them, and way beyond my meagre means - I slowly toured the stalls, lingering over the displays and committing as many as possible to memory. Because why dribble away hard cash when I could simply liberate my favoured slogans and transform them into delectable examples of the badge maker's art in the comfort of my home? Which is exactly what I did here.

Time has not treated it well, I notice. The felt pen has faded disastrously; the typography, I admit, is rather slapdash. Its message even, once the normal currency of conversation among the Labour councillors and union stewards who manned the stalls that sold badges like this, would now be enough to get them the sack. And yet at the moment of its creation, I thought I'd done so well! I hadn't allowed my burgeoning political rage to get the better of me; I'd felt level-headed and restrained as I measured out the space available, and dragged my fibre-tipped daggers of justice across the badge's face. Like an expert junior assassin, I unleashed the people's vengeance soberly, carefully considering my every move and justifying every word.

In 1980, the world seemed mad for badges. Our school, so strict in some regards, did allow the wearing of these portable messages, even though the rules of uniform were otherwise rigorously enforced. So CND insignia were de rigueur. Two Tone, Madness, each and every branch of ska - there were mini skinheads who could hardly move for the weight of metal hanging off their cheap grey jumpers. There was even a kid whose lapel declared 'Never mind the bollocks', and no teachers ever did seem to mind.

But a badge promoting prime ministerial assassination?

I really don't think so, do you?

My dad advised that while it was a great badge - in many ways exemplary - he didn't think it should accompany me to school. There were some teachers, apparently, who might get quite upset! And until that point, I hadn't really considered it offensive; I hadn't allowed for the existence of people who wouldn't want to see her dead. But as I thought about its implications - properly now, weighing out their meaning and feeling them pinning me to the floor - I sensed a crimson stain begin to creep across my shirt; it was sticky, thick and red.

There was blood on this badge; there was blood on my mind.

I was just 12 years old; and deeply chilled, I hid the badge away.

---

Shipley Glen Tramway, Bradford
Promotional badge (late seventies)

 
Shipley Glen Tramway, Bradford badge
 
It was a rattling wooden cart set on rails, a Victorian novelty designed to get you to the top of a hill. And not an impossible hill at that, but a pleasant-afternoon-stroll kind of hill; a place for tipping hats to young ladies and pausing to mop at the brow; a place of waistcoats and watch chains and gentlemen on the Pledge. But in a land-locked Yorkshire city like this one - Bradford, with its temperate air and sense of pleasures being taken in small doses - a gentle wooded valley was just the place to build an attraction such as might be found by the sea: a trundling wooden tramway pulled by cable. It was a simple mechanism really - it could have been easily modelled with pulleys and blocks, and it didn't stretch Victorian ingenuity very far. But as a distraction from the working week among people who seldom travelled further than Brid, I'm sure it raised the heart rate just a little, and afforded many a young man the opportunity to curl his arm protectively around his sweetheart.

The Shipley Glen Tramway was founded in 1895 as a pleasure ride, but by the late nineteen seventies it was sadly devoid of romance, though it hadn't been depleted of magic - at least, if you were just a kid, like me, on a visit with your granny and grandad. There was a little station at the bottom at which you paid your fare and took your seat, and before the journey began you maybe wondered at the lack of fellow travellers, perhaps aware that this wasn't somewhere that anyone you knew had ever been. In an age of round-the-block queues to see 'Star Wars', the Shipley Glen Tramway was a quieter kind of treat. But as the clank and rumble began to echo round the valley, and the truck began to inch forwards, I still felt a ripple of the excitement generated by those Victorians so many years before. It was just a trundle up a Bradford hill; but to me, it was a tramway to a modest kind of heaven.

For although Bradford at this time had spent a decade or more carving chunks from its portly Victorian belly, exposing an emasculated brutalist frame - and was therefore, by most objective measures, far from heavenly - the Shipley Glen Tramway was still capable of a surprising divine revelation. Because once at the top of the hill, an Eden of earthly delights lay in store; a 'pleasure garden' from a time just passed, a wonderland of spinning dodgems, flashing lights, grimy fair lads and Ben Shaws pop gulped by the cupful.

Well, at least that was the promise.

In fact, the pleasure garden at Shipley Glen was like a fairground's graveyard, possessed of the spirits of happier times but now condemned to this netherworld at the end of the tramway. There were some dodgems, it's true, but they were clumped motionless together in the centre of their arena, watched over by a man who had no soul (or at least, no teeth). There were 'amusements' - chiefly, a fruit machine; but it swallowed your coppers, and payouts came there none. And there was the Aerial Glide, which as I'm sure you'll have guessed, was far from the exhilarating swoop through the stratosphere that its name would have you believe; instead, you were suspended from a rail several feet above the ground, then you trundled round a rusting iron frame - perhaps a little thrilled as the ground dropped away beneath you; but mostly, with its rickety metal uprights and fast-corroding welds, it was like having a bird's eye view of some scaffolding.

And this was heaven?

Most certainly.

To be goaded by your grandad on otherwise deserted dodgems is a very special kind of bliss. To realise that, for want of anyone else demanding their turn, the vacant-eyed man at the controls has given you at least twenty minutes and doesn't look like chucking you off any time soon - well, surely anyone who's been a child would appreciate such a miracle. To clutch your granny's leather-clad hand as she leads you to the Aerial Glide, and to hear her say "Hold tight" in a way that suggests she believes this to be the Grand Canyon - again, life dispenses these pleasures only rarely. So for me, the tattyness was rendered invisible. The bleakness meant I didn't have to share. The sense that everything was slightly out of time was... not so strange. I had vivid memories of 'Tom's Midnight Garden' on TV: a ghostly time-shift and the shadows of the past all around me were things I could easily handle.

Real fairgrounds, contemporary fairgrounds, were hectic and deeply hormonal: they were full of waltzers and tannoys and The Dooleys at ear-battering volume; not to mention tank tops and fat heels and rubber johnnies unfurled behind the ghost train. This fairground though, this spectral carnival, was a place for spirits from history: bequiffed young lads and jiving girls buttoned up to the chin; chips in paper, frothy coffee, rock 'n' roll; greasy fingers, slapped hands, pneumatic bras. As I swung round the Aerial Glide's final bend and swooped towards the landing strip, it wasn't those Victorians from the tramway I could see below me. It was something akin to a Super 8 projection from the fifties - the time of my own mum and dad's Bradford youth. There they were, missing Bible club for another go on the dodgems; or maybe grabbing a Horlicks after a night watching Chris Barber at a soot-blackened St George's Hall. And in that moment, the pleasure garden wasn't faded or past its best; it was brilliant, electric, full of life.

And when my appetite for this melancholic festival had finally been sated, there was still the tramway's return journey to come. The earthward plummet to the seventies caused a temporal churn that left me reeling, and when I stepped off the Shipley Glen Tramway with just a cheap green badge to show for the adventure, I'm afraid the bleakness of the pleasure park's future flashed before my eyes. I knew it would struggle gamely on for a few years more, but would eventually close its gates for ever while those who'd once been young there would try and save it for the nation. The tramway would go the same way perhaps, though being mechanical, and Victorian, and something out of the ordinary - which let's face it, a fairground really is not - it might become the hobby horse of enthusiastic amateurs, and open once again for pleasure rides to the top of a suburban hill.

Strangely enough, at the time of writing, I believe this is how things have turned out. The pleasure garden is gone but the tramway, somehow, remains: and as "the oldest working cable tramway in Britain", not to mention a bona fide time machine with phantom-conjuring properties, I must admit to being at least a little pleased about that.

---

T.B.M.D.
Promotional badge (circa 1980)

 
Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers badge
 
My badges, as a rule, don't shirk controversy. They can be defiant, argumentative, bloody minded. They are badges after all; they're about passions and opinions set free. They declare themselves without fear of reprisal, perhaps unwisely; but they seldom conceal their true selves.

But this one seems to be keeping things hidden. With just four mysterious initials, no image, no stated declaration of intent, you can't help but wonder at its motive. Is this something shameful? Something secret? Something terrible? Something that might frighten the horses?

I think of government agents, covert operatives, men from U.N.C.L.E. This badge is for people who move in the shadows, whose names must never, ever be known.

They are identified only by these four initials:

The 'T', the 'B', the 'M' and the 'D'.

All of which makes you wonder - what did the Traditional Bampton Morris Dancers have to hide?

 

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

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

 

© Damon Fairclough 2010