Sunday, 17 July 2016
Incredibly, my sister turned 70 this last week. I dug out some ancient family snaps and found this one, probably taken in Hemsby, Norfolk, probably in August 1957 or 1958. And, yes, that cheeky chappie clutching his little stick of rock is me. No wonder my teeth have given me so much trouble over the years... We had been pounced on by one of those roaming seaside photographers, who would hand you a ticket so that the next day you could visit a booth and buy the prints if you liked them. The clue to its origin is the pencilled number on the back (not to mention the poor fixing of the image...). Few people owned their own camera in those days, and until the late 1960s you could scrape a living in the summer months servicing the demand for photographic souvenirs. Fifty-eight years later, such ephemera have become precious heirlooms.
What years those were, the late 1950s! Wartime rationing had ended in 1954 and a New World was dawning, the UK had become a Welfare State, with free education and healthcare for all, antibiotics and mass immunisation, full employment, television (although we didn't have one yet), telephones, nuclear power, jet aircraft, and – as is evident from the photograph – cheap yet jazzy clothes for the young. On the jukebox (though rarely on the radio) you could hear freshly-minted classics from Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Everly Brothers, with British copies and covers from the likes of Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde, Tommy Steele, and Lonnie Donegan. A shocking noise, according to my father. It was the age of cover versions; you could probably fill a jukebox with covers of "Volare" alone, much more to his taste. Rock'n'Roll? Skiffle? Country and Western? No – to my four-year-old ears it was all Cowboy Music, and I loved it.
The seaside, with its liminal, permissive air, was where America was leaking into the Old Stiff Britain like penetrating oil, freeing things up. I can still recall the joy of sitting in seaside cafes in those years, being taught to hand-jive to the jukebox by my sister, drinking warm Coke through a straw and with the prospect of a brand-new Superman comic to share. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that I learned to read via those capitalised speech balloons. ZAP! Though, just to keep things a little British, I can also never see a pack of Cadbury's Snack (chocolate covered shortbread biscuits) or Chocolate Fingers – usually bought from a sparsely-populated counter-top glass cabinet in a cafe, alongside some disgusting cream horns and sugar-crusted Chelsea buns – without an overpowering sense of seaside nostalgia.
Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive – no-one, in the entire history of the world, had surely ever been so blessed or so happy (indeed, the Prime Minister himself told us so in July 1957) – although I will concede that to have been a teenager then, when the very word "teenager" was being coined, was probably very heaven. What a shame, what an appalling shame, that the political will wasn't there to make it last beyond the troubles of the 1970s. It seems we simply couldn't afford to go on being so happy, to continue living in such a hopeful, generous world. At least, most of us couldn't. What had we been thinking? Who on earth did we think we were? As another Conservative Prime Minister was to tell us, twenty years later, we had been living beyond our means. It couldn't be allowed to go on!
The tragedy was, so many of us were prepared – wanted, even – to believe her. But we'll always have 1958, won't we? Except, of course, that those of you with the misfortune to have been born later than that will never have it, even though your cokes will always be cold, and you have more music than you know what to do with.