Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
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So Don, Edwin, Steve and Cyril, four ordinary young southern English bus mechanics, in the fully employed Britain of 1962, borrow a big red London bus from London Transport and set off for Greece. Somewhere along the road, they meet up with a guitar band, The Shadows, as well as a three girl singing group, Sandy Angie and Mimsie, whose car has clunked out on a French country road. Summer Holiday is a British teen musical with a nod towards the more wholesome American models. There's a lot of singing and dancing, with some unlikely adventures and an even unlikelier happy ending. It's corny and silly. The script is tenuous, many of the songs are ridiculous and the whole thing could never happen in real life. To this day it remains one of my favourite films ever and I still watch it at least twice a year.
When I first saw it at the cinema, aged 9, probably during the cold sleety half-term of February 1963, in Dundee, Scotland, its effect upon me was immediate and permanent.
Somewhere out there, I realised, there was freedom. The sun was shining, there were adventures to be had and music – guitar jangling cheery pop music – was somehow wrapped up in it all. Naturally I fell in love with Una Stubbs, this shapely, agile lovely creature. She was like the best big sister ever and one day I would grow up and meet someone just like her.
The world of Summer Holiday was not the bombsite playground with which I was familiar – a rain-grey post-war existence of yelling teachers, glinting-eyed coarse children and strict parents who ordered you home for baths, bedtime or meals. None of this. None of that. I did not only think that there was a better, more fun world outside the one in which I was trapped, I now knew there was one . And I intended to spend the rest of my life if necessary trying to find it before running off to be a part of it.
Even so, part of the essential bitter-sweetness of youth, is that youth itself is very often already painfully aware of its finite properties. Almost as soon as it is yours, time is running out. In an earlier Cliff Richard hit, The Young Ones, there's a telling line, “Cos we may not be the young ones, very long.” Even as the song is being sung – by a young man too – the poignant observation that youth itself is already on the run is made.
This feeling seems to echo in another brilliant song from the early 1960s. Moon River from the film Breakfast at Tiffany's – a further gem that will bear repeated viewings – is replete with a similar aching - a yearning for something better, “Dream-maker, you heartbreaker, wherever you're going I'm going your way.” From its outset, the key signature of the 1960s, is this awareness that the clock is already ticking. For those of us who came awake in the 60s, for me at least, there was a feeling that something brilliant was going on. If however, if I didn't catch the wave, the bus, the train, I'd miss the party, the summer, the romance, the girl and the song itself. The circus would leave town and would never return and I'd be marooned here forever....
On the Road with Julie and Una
The culture which comes to be associated with a decade rarely coincides with its beginning. It takes a little while for changes to bed in. Viewed in retrospect the 1950s were probably still the 1940s until about 1955. Similarly, the 1960s didn't really get going until about halfway through 1963 – maybe even later.
Theories for the actual point at which the 1960s are perceived to have begun are abundant. During the Cliff Richard musical Summer Holiday (1962), for instance, there's a scene where a double-decker London bus hoves into shot. At the beginning of the scene, the film is in black and white. The skies are grey and rainy. Within 8 or 10 seconds, the film fades up into colour. This, at least according to my learned colleague, Andy Partridge of the band XTC, is when the 1950s become the 1960s.
I have a different theory. In summer of 1964, at the beginning of the Beatles song, A Hard Day's Night, a chord rings out. There's a pause before the song explodes into life. In that gap, the decade turns into the 1960s. In fact, the pointers to a big cultural change were all there: in films, in books and in the music.
In the 1963 film of Keith Waterhouse's novel Billy Liar, the sense of a tide about to sweep in is almost unbearable. Billy Fisher who works as a clerk for a funeral director in the north of England concocts a wishful world of daydreams far removed from his own mundane life. The film's most intoxicating totem of the coming change however, appears in the form of Liz, played by Julie Christie. Liz is a free spirit, always hitching lifts to somewhere. She's a bird learning to fly. At the end of the film she decides to take a train to London and a new life, urging Billy to come with her. Find me a young man who ever watched this scene – Liz waiting in the carriage, whilst Billy prevaricates on the platform – who did not out of sheer frustration, yell at the screen,“Get on the train!” It's the beginning of the 1960s. You're young. You live in a dull province. Julie Christie is sitting on the London train waiting for you to join her. What are you going to do?
Over at Summer Holiday meanwhile, Cliff Richard, The Shadows, Una Stubbs and the others are doing something which in its own way echoes the New Freedom: they're taking a London bus over the channel, right across Europe, across Marshall Tito's Yugslavia, almost to Asia Minor. Are you kidding? Until almost the 1970s, most British people hardly left the island.
Aged 13, I came back from Singapore in 1966, having been away for two years, and found that I was the only kid in my class who'd ever been abroad. Up until the era of the package holiday, the chief reason why a young man might leave England, was because someone on the near continent had got a bit above himself, and some help was needed with a bit of bother in Flanders. Summer Holiday which earned both its director and its leading man lifelong bans from Yugoslavia was far more subversive in its way than A Hard Day's Night ever was. But that's a story for later...
1)The Vanishing Girl
She stands in the foreground in all of her washed-out wintry splendour. In the background is an old watermill and its millpond. The trees and overgrown vegetation which surround her, have an aura of pre-raphaelite decay about them. Over the whole photograph is a trippy psychedic tinge. To modern eyes she appears gothic – a Lily Munster or Morticia Adams figure. To anyone who was there at the time, she would only have seemed to be an average hippy chick cloaked for winter -- were it not for the greenish hue of her face, which endows her with a ghostly quality. Known variously as 'the figure' or 'the woman on the first Black Sabbath album cover' she is one of rock music's unsolved mysteries, since no one now can remember who she was.
Using her as a metaphor for the end of the Sunny Sixties, the decade in which I grew up, this seemed as good a place as any to begin my quest. Black Sabbath recorded their debut album in November of 1969. The disc was released on February 13th 1970, spawning in the process a new genre of music which the world came to know as Heavy Metal. Sabbath, were at that time an 'underground' band, very much an unproved, unknown quantity who in a famously fickle business, had just recorded their debut album on a budget.
The photo was taken at Mapledurham Watermill, in Oxfordshire. Let's speculate then, that cold and bored, our vanishing girl posed for the shots, got back in the car, was paid and went home. She may not have even known -- possibly didn't care where the photos ended up.
Assuming that she's still alive, she'll probably be in her sixties now. Whatever she was doing then, she's almost certainly doing something different nowadays. As am I.
I was six years and ten months old at the start of the 1960s. And I was just two months short of seventeen when 1970 dawned. I lived through the whole of the 1960s -- The Party After The War as someone once called the period -- firstly as a child and then as young teenager. I've been haunted by it ever since.
After a recent brush with death, the memories and little flashbacks of that time kept coming back to me with ever increasing intensity. I realise now that I'd witnessed the decade through very innocent young eyes. We hear so much from those people who were there at the time, -- people who are eight or ten years older than me, – now debunking the era, destroying in the process some of its mystique. For me, however, that mystique was very real. The 1960s was akin to one sunny week in a long decade of rain and darkness. There must have been others like myself who felt the same, surely? Or is it the pure nostalgia of one whose ship now draws ever further away from the distant quayside of his youth. For, after all, I wasn't really in the 1960s. I never experienced it as an adult. I merely watched it, felt it, and heard it as it passed through my young life. Like a vanishing girl, in fact.