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Pinning down the past - part six

Every now and then, I love nothing better than to delve into my collection of pin badges, whereupon I extract a handful, gaze at them for hours and then channel their energy via my fingers into words on a screen. I then offer them up for your reading pleasure; this the sixth such instalment in this very occasional series.
Also available: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five

 

Radio Hallam
Promotional badge (1981)

 
Radio Hallam badge
 
The Radio Hallam Fun Tour: it was meant to be a good grin, not a raising of the devil. It was billed as a few hours of music and laughter and local DJs in silk bomber jackets clutching fistfuls of pictures of themselves; no one ever said it was an opportunity for the youth of south Sheffield to join together in necromantic union and conjure up a vision of The Beast. But on that field of grass beside the council-tended flowerbeds, we raised a flaccid Hallam Land cheer and behold, Beelzebub did walk among us.

It's only through the power of hindsight that I see the devilish way the afternoon played out. At the time it felt innocent enough; just a Radio Hallam Fun Tour in Millhouses Park, round about Easter 1981. There were badges; there were autographs; there was the thrill of seeing radio magic performed before our eyes. But there was also the promise of a Special Guest Star, a visitor from planet pop who would materialise somewhere beyond the lido, make his milky way across the grass and bathe us in his heavenly light. How were we to know he would be revealed, one day, as a fallen angel; a magician who had lost his magic?

Radio Hallam wasn't a favoured station in our house. In a home that treated Radio Four's every utterance as a daily devotional, the jingles and adverts of a local commercial station would never be listened to for pleasure; though I suppose that for all its strict adherence to the rules of the middle of the road, Hallam gave me a safe route to rebellion against the intellectual rigours of our family-sanctioned listening.

And thus, for a while at least, I actively chose the playlisted repetition of its music selection and the madcap buffooning of its DJs. Except... it wasn't really as Smashie and Nicey as, these days, you might imagine. It was as if they hadn't quite perfected the formula, and so instead of the blow-dried grins and expensively upholstered hair-dos of the national pop station, they gave studio space to a curious band of radio veterans, Sheffield personalities and genuine quirks of nature.

There was Keith Skues, a one-time pirate broadcaster who had been on the team that launched Radio One. There was Bill Crozier, a begoateed jazz man who had helmed the Cold War airwaves as a presenter on the British Forces Network. There was Roger Moffat, ex of the BBC Light Programme, whose well-spoken and well-oiled ramblings earned him regular chastisement from the station management. And above all, at least as far as I was concerned, there was the curious post-lights-out world of Martin Kelner.

Each weekday evening from 10pm, Kelner would broadcast to Sheffield's under-the-duvet teenage population. We wrote him letters using 'hilarious' pseudonyms and requested clips from comedy LPs - Monty Python of course, but also Peter Sellers, Bob Newhart, Tom Lehrer. It felt subversive and a little cultish, and being just 13 and ignorant of any comedy pre-The Goodies, it was even a bit educational too.

I rarely listened in after half past ten, but for those 30 precious minutes, I and my fellow listeners battled for Mr Kelner's attention like bright kids in the nice teacher's class. So that's why I was there in Millhouses Park - to meet Martin Kelner, and somehow gain acknowledgment that I was in his special radio club. A chosen one; a true disciple.

But how ironic that I should ultimately resort to divine imagery to describe this experience, because even as the event was reaching its climax, a less wholesome force was preparing to make an entrance: for behind the stage, the artist latterly known as the Prince of Darkness was about to take his human form.

Because here... was Mr Gary Glitter himself.

From out of a less-than-glam rented limousine he emerged, before being led onto the stage to a gust of under-powered applause; the crowd of early teens was already aware that here was a pop star who was almost a decade past his prime. His once strutting arrogance now seemed transmuted into a defiant smirk as he played his part in this budget charade; after all, there's no history as ancient to teenagers as the music of ten years before.

I told this story a few times as the years passed. Once, it was supposed to be comic, a passing observation on the way that pop careers always fade. And had the guests that day been The Sweet or the Bay City Rollers, it would still be light comedy - for us, if not for the imploded stars themselves.

But with Gary Glitter now, things are different. And so when I look at this badge today and remember the Radio Hallam I listened to in the gloom of my bedroom, I don't just hear risible jingles and top 40 countdowns and ads for "fresh as tomorrow" Fletcher's Bread. I taste a sulphurous tang, and feel a chill down my spine, and hear the VHF whispers of the night.

---

Lyceum Theatre Appeal
Fundraising badge (1990)

 
Lyceum Theatre Appeal badge
 
The strangest thing about standing in Sheffield's Lyceum Theatre in the spring of 1990 was that my head was almost touching the ceiling. And I don't even mean metaphorically - though I was thrilled to be in a building that I'd only ever known as a semi-derelict Victorian shell next to the Crucible - but actually up among the curls and coils of the auditorium's plasterwork. Beneath my feet was a false floor of planks; through the gaps, I could see a criss-cross of scaffolding and a dizzying plummet to the ground.

The renovation of the Lyceum had been much dreamt of, argued over, planned and abandoned. Since its closure as a theatre in 1969 it had been a bingo hall for a while, and in the early eighties its ornate but battered auditorium had housed gigs by the likes of The Stranglers, Joe Cocker, Bauhaus and The Kinks, but as the building grew ever more flypostered and frail, it seemed as though there could only be a final plunge into darkness at the end of its story.

Now though, the dust and the diggers and the hoardings and hard hats were proof that the Lyceum was making more than a curtain call. This was a full-scale renovation, not a quick lick of paint; it involved demolition of everything behind the proscenium arch and the building of a brand new backstage; it meant new bars and staircases and a cascading, contemporary chandelier; it meant the restoration of the Victorian auditorium, with its bow-fronted boxes and frothings of gilt; and up here, above my head, it meant the application of cherubs via the medium of paint.

Once it was finished, it would take in the touring shows for which the adjacent Crucible was never designed; there were whispers of star names and divas, the RSC and the National, a promised parade of luvvies and darlings that Sheffield could previously only have dreamt of. But first, there was the small matter of the money to make it all happen; the cash to construct the thing was in place, but there was a gap to be filled if the Lyceum was going to reach its potential.

Enter: the Lyceum Theatre Appeal. With a mission to raise two million pounds for the theatre, the Appeal encouraged donations in a variety of imaginative ways such as sponsoring a seat or buying a brick, and they also had plans for a book - a fund-raising souvenir publication marking the reawakening of this theatrical dame.

And that's why I was there, making my way across a makeshift floor on a guided tour of the building site, trying to pretend I did things like that every day. I was just 22 and had no special expertise in the history of the building, but through the fumblings of fate, my mate and I were going to write their book; and not just write it, but research it and nurture it, contacting the actors and audiences who had passed through the Lyceum, poring over programmes and posters, tracking down collections in cupboards and attics...

But as I stood on those planks in the Lyceum's stratospheric heights, it was all still ahead of me - the interviews, the reading, the writing and the editing. At that moment, all I had in my head was a sense that the Lyceum really mattered, that its fall into near ruin had been more tragedy than slapstick or farce, that the wooden boards beneath my feet seemed rather too wobbly for comfort - and no little puzzlement at the fact that I was being gifted this chance to write the Lyceum Theatre's book. Perhaps the magic of long ago pantomimes was still working, still dancing with the dust round my head.

Nine months later, I would be back in the Lyceum again, this time to shift copies of the finished book at the various open days and gala shows that signalled the building was back from the dead. My mate and I would be invited onto the arts show on Radio 2, to be interviewed late one Friday night about the Lyceum's past as a home of refined entertainment and its tumble into a post-TV age - and our interrogator, the MP Austin Mitchell, would look at us askance and askew, admitting that he was expecting a couple of musty academics rather than two rave-mangled juveniles fresh from college.

By then, the Lyceum would be gleaming, and I would have sucked up more fading tales about its history than I had ever imagined I would know. The Lyceum Theatre Appeal's job would be over, and it would be down to the theatre's administration to make the place work.

But from my vantage point at the Lyceum's summit on that spring day in 1990, I didn't know how things would turn out. I hoped the book would do justice to the trust that had been placed in me, but more than that, I was just dizzy with excitement to be walking on rarefied theatrical air. It was one of life's more precious adventures; an elevated moment I would never forget. So although I was only up there a few minutes, it seemed like months before my feet touched the ground.

---

Sheffield and District Bus Company
Promotional badge (1986)

 
Sheffield and District Bus Company badge
 
It's an immutable law of the universe that all things tend towards chaos. From light, we move inexorably to darkness; from heat, we know that everything must grow cold. And from a system of rationally organised public transport, it seemed we were powerless to prevent the collapse into a road-hogging free-for-all in which buses moved not in convoys, but in gangs.

In South Yorkshire, the deregulation of the buses in 1986 was as symbolic as the toppling of statues. I'd grown up understanding that a bus timetable wasn't just a handy tool of reference; it was a central tenet of our civilisation, an expression of all that was righteous and good. Those columns of numbers hadn't sprung into existence through the churning of primordial forces; they were precisely calculated, or so I believed, by brilliantined gentlemen with adding machines and stopwatches in a bunker deep beneath Sheffield Town Hall. Think of Bletchley Park, but cleverer.

During the seventies and early eighties, the provision of low cost public transport was an ideological prime mover in South Yorkshire's political universe. And it wasn't simply a matter of keeping fares low; it was about a philosophical tendency towards centralised control, a belief that buses, as a strategic public service, needed to be driven by a benign, but omniscient, body. Perhaps my imagined city council control bunker was less like Bletchley Park, and more like the temple of Zeus in Jason and the Argonauts - with buses nudged into position by a wise conglomerate of gods.

And if my intimation of a divine hand behind the diesel seems a little far-fetched, we can surely at least agree that the system seemed powered by the poetry of order; as if in tribute to the schedule's inner beauty, we even kept our bus queues pencil-straight.

When Margaret Thatcher's government enforced the deregulation of public transport in 1986 - for reasons, and via means, too complex for this retelling of the tale - she gave birth to a brood of squabbling infant bus companies who seemed to find it difficult to share. South Yorkshire's public transport world had once been tinted entirely cream and brown - shades that were no doubt selected for their chromatic proximity to a sensible physics teacher's shirt - but suddenly there was a clash of coloured liveries competing for our business, with buses swooping, speeding, swerving and shunting as they suddenly pulled in and slammed on the brakes.

Vehicles that had previously been deemed too elderly to remain in service were now back on the road, belching smog and begging for passengers, often with the crests and coats-of-arms of other cities still in place, as if we were living in the after-glow of invasion. Being a bus driver had been a noble profession, as evidenced by the fact that they had once worn uniforms - or blazers and smart shirts at least, with corporation ID badges clipped to the lapel. Now though they wore whatever they wanted - V-necks and tank tops and open-necked shirts - and you realised that bus drivers weren't a breed apart; they were just people who could drive, like pretty much everyone else.

And what about this badge, with its low-slung single decker heading who knows where?

On the face of it, we have one of the private operators that had sprung into existence following public transport's big bang - in this case, the Sheffield & District bus company. But peel back the intervening years and we find not just a badge, but a signifier for the forces of chaos that swept through our streets in those months following deregulation. Because Sheffield & District wasn't just a bright idea by some blokes with a bus - a way to buy into Mrs Thatcher's enterprise culture and earn a few bob. This company had in fact been started by rivals over the county border, in wild West Yorkshire, prompting South Yorkshire Transport to encroach into their territory under the name Compass Bus.

With the paternalistic principles of local public service having been detonated, there was nothing to stop buses from South Yorkshire making a play for passengers way beyond Barnsley. Was there no limit to the far horizons that could now be reached? Imagine it: with a full tank of derv they could reach... Wakefield. Bradford! Even Leeds!

This kind of competition was exactly what deregulation and privatisation were intended to achieve, but for organisations which had their roots in bodies devoted to public service, didn't this cut-throat pursuit of profit look just a little unseemly? Now there were buy-outs and backroom deals where once there had been bus services handed down from on high. Established practices like the graceful choreography of the night-bus departure from High Street, initiated by a whistle-blowing inspector, were consigned to the history books. (Rather nerdy history books, admittedly). And then, of course, there were the fares...

Remember when it cost two pence to go anywhere?

How quaint. You may as well ask "Do you remember the Ark?".

---

Hefts & Blades Folk Song and Dance Club
Promotional badge (1980)

 
Hefts & Blades club badge
 
On Sunday nights...

As I straddled the border between the weekend and the five school days to come. As I pushed vegetables around my plate and tried to hide them beneath my prostrate knife and fork. As I bathed and hair-washed and felt my stomach churn at the thought of homework left undone...

As I did all these things, there were men and women in Sheffield who had more on their minds than simply packing their PE kits for the Monday morning mud bath, or wondering if they'd be allowed to stay up late enough to watch Esther Rantzen and her pals. They were folk music's foot soldiers, and to them, Sunday night meant a pint and a fol-de-rol-rol at Sheffield's premier folk song and dance club, the none-more-hirsute Hefts & Blades.

The gathering had begun life as The Old Towler Wossal club, a product of the British folk scene that had fermented during the fifties and sixties, and which, by the nineteen seventies - when I became aware of its existence - had fizzed up into something more hairy, more flarey. And it was into this swirling, smoke-filled world that Hefts & Blades was born in 1978, a product of passion and fall-outs and schisms in the scene, and around which gathered the devotees of a more industrial-flavoured folk - music and dance that honoured the scythe-swinging rural past, but whose cutting edge had been ground down to give it a sharper, urban glint.

Its name, of course, spoke of lives spent at the grindstone rather than harvesting the mangelwurzels with Rambling Syd Rumpo. A 'heft' meant a handle - of a knife presumably - while a 'blade' was, well, a Sheffield United fan as everyone knows. But more than this, the musicians and dancers in the Hefts & Blades orbit were youngish men and women who loved folk music, but whose lived experience was of a city suffering recession and political strife. They may have resided, for the most part, in Sheffield's leafier districts, but the industrial struggles of the age touched everyone, and you could tell by the badges festooning their waistcoats that these folk had steel in their hearts.

And then there was the club logo, as featured on this lightly-rusting, less-than-stainless badge. Here we see a Sheffield grinder hard at work, rendered in finest black Pentel by my dad, who had become attached to the Hefts & Blades tendency through his membership of Sheffield City Morris Men. It was through this association that my late seventies soundtrack of punk guitars and new wave synths gained a come-all-ye accompaniment - afternoons in pub back rooms sharing pop and crisps, while strumming, fiddling and proper open-throated singing occurred.

These remembered meets were morris gatherings, but as many of the participants also attended Hefts & Blades, by smoke-fugged osmosis I absorbed their common language, their spirit. Dancing seemed important - they talked of longways formations and stripping the willow - and when our local neighbourhood group held its fund-raising barn dances in Abbeydale Grange school hall, I was able to refuse to participate not only for reasons of embarrassment, but from a position of considerable knowledge: "I'm not entirely sure this event meets the exacting standards of the English Folk Song and Dance Society...".

Those Hefts & Blades personalities became the faces that floated through our weekends, even our holidays. So whether we were tailing sword dancers through the streets of Grenoside, soundtracking some pot-bellied dwile flonking (Google it) or bringing a French campsite to a standstill via some closed-eyed, cupped-ear singing, there was a sense in which I felt as one with an extended folk family even as I affected to be really not that interested.

But my fašade of feigned disengagement has lately begun to crumble, and though my true musical taste tends towards the most brutal of hypnotic grooves, I can now find myself accidentally bewitched by melodies and arrangements that connect to that sweetly sung, pseudo-pagan past.

It isn't 'folk' as a Radio 2 genre that delights me, but 'folk' as a flammable energy ignited by the struggles of history, its psychic flames scorching the locations I recollect from my life: a pub car park in Wath-upon-Dearne maybe, or a dusty community hall, with Wards bitter served in polystyrene cups. And into these kitchen-sink settings, conjured up by my consciousness, stride men and women who just want to light up the evening with a trad arr tune, to smoke roll-ups made using a curious hand-held mangle, and to lead their Clarks' Desert Boots through a succession of time-honoured steps.

So though the Hefts & Blades club called its last dance years ago, and those pub back rooms are now smokeless and largely folk-free, I can still sense their distant drum beats even as I lock up at the close of another Sunday night.

But then again, maybe it's only muddled nostalgia. And what I'm hearing is just the theme tune to That's Life.

Thanks to Ted Fairclough, Gerry Bates, and John and Sue Newman for their additional Hefts & Blades memories.

---

Crich Tramway Museum
Promotional badge (1970s)

 
Crich Tramway Museum badge
 
Where is Crich? I've got no idea. Or rather, I have a vague notion that it's in Derbyshire, but I certainly couldn't place it on a map. Because to me, Crich is a word, not a place, and Derbyshire is less a location, more an evocative idea - a catch-all concept that means Sunday afternoons and splashing through streams and long wind-blown walks with mum and dad. In my head, it isn't a county in its own right; it's Sheffield's rocky outcrop, its playground, lawn and tram repository in one.

This is unfair to Derbyshire I know, not to mention a slap in the face for Crich. But whereas citizens from elsewhere in the country know so little about it that they'll inevitably mispronounce it - giving it a short 'i', akin to a crick in the neck - at least Sheffielders know how to say it. Cry-ch, with a built in sob. Because we all went there, to see the trams, on those days when there was nothing else to do.

I grew up in the seventies, born too late to have known the original trams, and too soon for their 1990s return. As far as I was concerned, trams were simply artefacts from history - museum pieces in fact, like Egyptian mummies and Viking swords: when you tired of the ancient oddments on display in Weston Park, you might head into Derbyshire and see the trams at Crich.

The museum opened in the early sixties after a decade or so of hectic work by pioneering enthusiasts; they were well aware that trams were in decline, and understood that the preservation of this everyday infrastructure would one day come to be recognised as no mere eccentricity, but a service to the future, a means of seeing into a present that would soon become The Past. Just as diesel was killing steam on the railways, the internal combustion engine was laying waste to tram networks across the land, and these near-sighted folk peering through their bottle-bottomed specs could see that photographs and memories weren't enough.

Post-war, in an age of white-hot technological advancement, and with ideological modernists wiping away yesterday's trace, it may have been a minority pursuit. But the spirit of the times soon caught them up - or dropped back to meet them. Within a decade, the concept of 'industrial heritage' would become a focus for museum departments across the UK, and recently abandoned workshops and factories would find themselves reopened, not for the production of textiles or cars or crucible steel, but for wandering round on Sunday afternoons in an era when the shops were all still shut. Crich, with its working trams and pleasure rides along a single mile of track, was in the vanguard of this restoration of a freshly fading past.

Despite owning this badge - an object that might be presumed to mark me out as a tram fan, or 'tramp' as they're almost never known - I only remember actually visiting the museum at Crich on one occasion. Through a haze of misting decades, I can recall sitting on a top deck, then journeying to the end of the line before heading straight back to where we'd come from, flipping the seat back and forth in accordance with the direction of travel. It was a mystifyingly pointless journey to a child, but good training for later years of commuting by train. Similarly repetitive; similarly pointless.

And though I don't remember it, I'm sure my mum and dad enlivened the brief journey with richly detailed tales of their top ten childhood tram moments: all those trips to the cinema and chips out of newspaper and change from thrupence ha'penny for a tram back home. This, too, was good training. Because my sons will tell you how I adept I am at turning every family experience into an orgy of reminiscence: their eyes glaze over as I begin yet another trip out with the words, "We came here when I was a kid..."

And so often, the places that trigger these reveries are those idle afternoon activities; they are those things you do in Derbyshire, which isn't an earthly location, but a heavenly idea, like Valhalla. When the clock has stopped at two o'clock, and it's sunny out but it just might rain, you paddle its streams and tour its caverns and take a ride on one of its trams, and you remember how it used to be, and you tell your kids and they store it away until it's their turn to relate the tale.

That's what Derbyshire's for, what Crich is for. So though I tip my hat to those original pioneers who thought they were opening a museum, I'm afraid they were wrong. What they opened was an everlasting Sunday of the soul.

 

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

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

 

© Damon Fairclough 2014