When I look back upon my life, it’s always with a sense of wonderment at how tribal I was in my slowly developing musical tastes. But then weren’t we all a bit like that back in the day? Single minded. Elitist even. With age, experience and, hopefully, a level of maturity comes great wisdom, and the chance to broaden one’s perspectives; facilitated by an open mind and our ever changing moods.
My pre-high school years were a stylistic tale of two towns in two very different decades. In what now looks like some sort of master plan of social improvement, in the summer of 1972 my parents moved us from the inner city pressure of sparsely furnished rented rooms in Clapham, south west London, for, yep, you’ve guessed it, that well-worn phrase A Better Life. In family terms that meant a step up from gritty, grimy urban decay to the rolling hills of the countryside and a certain middle-class Englishness.
Having spent her formative years in leafy Hampshire, my mum was glad to see the back of the capital city where she’d met my dad on a blind date in West Hampstead in 1968. They celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary earlier this month, and forty-five years since they turned their back on the capital she can’t quite get her head around how ‘Cla’am’ has become such a go-to destination in the last couple of decades. “It was a dump when we lived there,” she still snorts, proudly.
We headed an hour up the newly built M1 Motorway to rural Buckinghamshire, the very Green Belt bastion of home counties conservatism. First, to a three-bedroomed terraced house in Hunter Drive, Water Eaton, a snip at £8,000. Close to my maternal grandparents in Aylesbury, Water Eaton was a brand new housing estate in Bletchley, setting for the legendary wartime Codebreakers headed by Alan Turing. Future classmates and lifelong friends Gary Kingsnorth lived a block along the same road, Glenn Burrows lived directly opposite, and his house backed on to the stream where I would go fishing for minnows and tadpoles. Backing on to the other side of the water were Joanne and Emma Povey in Frensham Drive. My sister Stella arrived before the year was out, making her a Londoner by conception but Bletchley born and bred.
Then, at the tail end of 1979, we switched to a detached property with a garage (a garage!) in a sleepy farmland hamlet six miles away. Little Woolstone was one of several ancient villages that the new ‘city’ of Milton Keynes was being constructed around, literally from the ground up. Looking out my bedroom window – which wasn’t dirty or old – I had a view of horses, fields and a cricket green instead of the neighbours’ bricks and mortar. Things could only get better.
Kicking off the new decade in contemporary style, on January 7th 1980 I started a new middle school, Springfield County Combined. A greater contrast from the previous education centre would’ve been hard to find. Down the road from the listed Bletchley Park heritage site where Alan Turing had been that Enigma man from the future, the 1950s Eaton Mill had been your typical post-war structure for traditionalist disciplinarians. I’d started there exactly six years earlier – January 7th 1974 – and I suppose, being a bit of a rebel (rebel), I was lucky I only received the slipper (actually a cheap training shoe) from the headmaster, a Mr Miller from the Midlands, just the once.
Springfield, on the other foot, was a newly built enclave for tank-topped lefties such as Mr Freedland, the hippie deputy head who liked to stand on tables to get the pupils’ attention. Well, he was rather diminutive in size, so needs must. He contrived to be everyone’s mate, and even encouraged you to call him by his chosen pet name, Freek. It all added to an incongruous atmosphere of chummy informality that horrified my Edwardian father and bemused my easier-going mum.
Being one of those eternal free spirit types who’s never responded well to authority, I kind of liked it. Mind you, that’s despite being given the nickname of Posh Paws by my fellow pupils on my very first day. Apparently I was far too well-spoken for my own good, and I don’t suppose the navy dicky bow helped much either.
What was I thinking? I tried to ignore the playground sniggers that inevitably follow a new boy on his first day in a strange school. The golden rule is not to stand out, but although I could do little about the middle-class accent that persists to this day, by sporting the velvet bow-tie that mum had bought me for my aunt’s forthcoming wedding I seemed determined to do the precisely the opposite of what was expected. I wanted to set myself apart. Some things never change, eh? That contrariness, that individuality, I inherited from my father and became the very essence of my being, in a nutshell. Nutcase more like.
My teacher was a Mr Pearson, in a classroom that looked out onto the compact playing fields. I was immediately struck by his appearance. Medium brown hair, ill-fitting suit and gold rimmed spectacles half concealing rather bulging eyes. It was too easy to pretend he was the inspiration behind the giant teacher puppet in the video for Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall, which was sitting atop the charts this very week, but the likeness was uncanny.
During that first day many of my new classmates came to my table to introduce themselves. Some of them had come from broken homes, and the majority of them rented from the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, my father’s monolithic employer. Crikey, I’d never actually hung around kids with divorced parents before. What a bourgeois bubble I’d been in.
Nevertheless, two of my future alumni I became firm friends with pretty quickly: Craig Margrove, whose nearby house had a split level lounge – very modern indeed – and the slightly older but no less irrepressible Andy Goldberg; a diamond geezer who now resides in Hastings on England’s south coast, and still a great mate to this day, as is Sarah Kershaw, who lived on Turnmill Avenue, and was in the year below. Despite being that tricky age where girls and boys seldom mixed, Sarah and I hit it off and she would prove to be an even greater friend at our next school.
Music was a big part of Springfield’s education curriculum, but not in a formal school choir or force-fed those hideous morning assembly hymns way, as had been the case at Eaton Mill. I swear if I ever hear Onward Christian Soldiers ever again I shall be violently sick. Springfield was more interested in finding out what interested the pupils, rather than telling them what they should be interested in. Andy and I liked nothing more than recording ourselves singing the Village People’s YMCA but with much ruder lyrics, having no idea that the song was littered with a stream of gay innuendo already. One day Pearson decided to let us put together a little exercise whereby we could vote for our favourite bands in a makeshift cardboard voting box attached to the class noticeboard.
Remember this was 1980, so you could probably make an educated guess as to the acts that polled the highest. With six No.1 hits between them that year, most of the boys went for The Police and The Jam, and the girls plumped for Blondie. Did I vote for one of them? Not in the slightest. No, not even even Blondie, and 1980 was the peak of their popularity when all three of Debbie Harry and the boys’ singles topped the chart. I grew to appreciate all three bands a little later on (well OK then, after each act had already split) but I don’t remember actually voting, because – get this – I wouldn’t have known who to vote for.
Quite simply, I didn’t have a favourite band. The thought had never even occurred to me that you would have had one. I liked songs, which I would happily tape from the radio, but it mattered not one whit who they were by. I mean, the infant me liked Showaddywaddy’s Under The Moon Of Love and The Boy From New York City by Darts, so that tells you instantly how utterly indiscriminate I was.
Like almost every family in Britain, the four of us would sit around the television on a Thursday evening to watch Top Of The Pops on BBC1, but it was an anathema to actually buy these things. I guess I just hadn’t got into the fan thing like some of my peers. In fact, I still struggle with the concept of obsessive fandom to this day. Maybe my late blooming has informed that somewhat.
In the ‘70s some of my schoolmates had posters of ABBA or the Bay City Rollers plastered over their bedroom walls. Me? All I can remember blu-tacking up is a commemorative pull out of the Formula 1 racing driver, James Hunt, in his World Championship-winning year of 1976, and then during his 30th birthday celebrations, the rather less attractive Prince Charles. Both freebies ripped out of the Daily Mail. I told you I was a weird kid. Almost as weird as my parents for buying the Mail when neither of them were Conservative voters, at least not at the time.
By 1980 I preferred spending my pocket money on stamp collecting. I even made the local newspapers for the first time (but not the last) when the Milton Keynes Gazette sent a photographer round to the house because he wanted take a picture of my huge philately.
When I took the paper into school, Mr Pearson asked if I’d be happy pinning the article on that class noticeboard, and I reluctantly agreed. Amazingly, the printed me acquired glasses and a moustache in a matter of hours.
What a strange boy I was. Though at least I found another likeminded soul in the shape of schoolmate Martin Kerr, whose family had made the move southwards from Sunderland to Fishermead Boulevard. Oh, how we loved sending off for piles of worthless franked postage paper from such far flung places as Macau, Grenada and Australia.
Another week the teacher let us do a more freestyle music related project. Now we were free to think up something we wanted the class to hear. Or rather we thought they wanted to hear. Very much a double act, best mates Mark McKean and Mitchell Lord put together a brilliantly entertaining tape recording of them pretending to be Radio 1 DJs, even recreating this cheesy but memorable jingle.
Pearson asked if any of us had a portable record player at home, and knowing my father had one upstairs, I put my little hand up. Thus it was my task to carry that hefty thing in to school the next morning – a grey Dansette if I recall. I didn’t have anything of my own to play, so I grabbed a couple of 7” singles also courtesy of Dad.
I got as far as playing Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones and then after hearing a lot of grunts and groans decided to call it a day, but not before catching Mr Pearson tapping his feet. I still hadn’t got the hang of this current pop malarkey, clearly. To be honest, at that time I didn’t really care. Because if I had I wouldn’t have chosen one of the most embarrassing and cringeworthy recordings of all time to be the first piece of ‘music’ I ever bought.
At that point there wasn’t much in Central Milton Keynes beyond the shiny and new “city centre” shopping building. MK wasn’t actually a city, and as I write this 50 years since its inception, it still isn’t, whatever the inhabitants try to tell you. For some reason Her Majesty The Queen has rejected several suggestions to confer city status on it. I’m guessing concrete cows don’t do it for her then.
However, it did become one of the largest towns in Britain pretty rapidly, the main (only?) attraction being the eternally long Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-inspired shopping arcade that was very much a temple to consumerism and capitalism.
If anyone identified with true blue aspirational Milton Keynes it was the even newer Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Thatch was more than happy to officially open the centre outside the John Lewis department store just five months after being swept to power in the Conservative landslide of 1979.
Scores of shoppers with heavy wallets used to flock from all over the country to see this futuristic marvel, half a mile in length and at one time the largest covered complex in the entire United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Attracting the new and the extremely old, even Duran Duran and roller-skating closet Cliff Richard got in on the act, wanting to be seen shimmering and sashaying around this marvellous mirrored mecca.
Midway during 1980 I was with my parents and younger sister Stella when we decided to check out what was casually called The Information Bubble, a self-explanatory temporary structure ‘up the city’, situated just off Saxon Street, or the V7 as it’s technically known, meaning it’s the seventh major vertical road on the town’s Manhattan style grid system, which is made up of 11 streets aligned roughly north-south and 10 ‘ways’ aligned roughly east-west. It’s a veritable roundabout spotter’s utopia.
At the counter I chanced upon a rather curious item they had for sale: a one-sided flexi disc record containing a song composed by a Ronnie Bond called, conveniently, Central Milton Keynes: ‘you’ve never seen anything like it’.
Yes I bought this. No, I most certainly didn’t upload it
In reality this was little more than an extended generic jingle single waxing lyrical about how the centre was “Shopping as it should be,” and was, um, originally created for a British commercial television advert. Until November 1982, that consisted of one solitary network – ITV – to rival Aunty Beeb’s two channel superiority.
Like the eponymous CMK of the tragic track, it was all so shiny and new that this pint-sized 10-year old found it hard to resist its slippery, silvery allure. I handed over the requisite 30 English pence and was now the proud-ish owner a piece of vinyl for the very first time. A whole week’s pocket money! What on earth was I thinking? Well, at least I could say it was mine, though in retrospect it was more in keeping with the children’s novelty records that mum and dad had bought for us than my next ‘proper’ purchase. Whatever did happen to Pinky & Perky*, by the way?
I made it through the wilderness, though. Somehow. In December 1980 two things happened. At morning assembly on the 9th – a Tuesday – a fellow pupil, Adrian Dobson, sat crosslegged on my left and told me “A man from The Beatles has been shot dead in America. John Lemon or something.”
“Jack Lemon, I think his name is.” Oooops! I may have got my fruits slightly mixed up, but I vaguely knew Some Like It Hot as a perennial of British telly back in the day, along with those other eternal film favourites, North By Northwest and James Bond (no relation to Ronnie). I was only ten but an old Hollywood black and white movie about men dressing up as women seemed to be more of a subliminal influence than the Fab Four, and that’s despite my father’s proudly displayed record collection pretty much beginning and ending with the Beatles and the Stones.
Steve Pafford, Springfield Lodge, Sydney
Part Two: It Was 37 Years Ago Today Adam Ant Changed My Life is here
*Absolutely nothing happened to Pinky & Perky. They’re still as deliciously deviant as ever…