My Life In Print
For me growing up in a newsagent shop, having a vast, free library in my own house was one of the greatest joys of life. I started with The Beano which introduced me to a world of naughty, inventive kids like Minnie the Minx, Roger the Dodger and Dennis the Menace locked in an endless battle with a host of violent, angry, usually balding, male adults. Defeats were marked with beatings by cane or slipper, victories by towering piles of sausages and mash. It was a source of regret to me that the failure of Catherine to rhyme with anything at all meant I couldn’t invent a sparky, mischievous alter ego for myself. The best thing about The Beano though was the Dennis the Menace and Gnasher fan club. Members received a large Dennis the Menace badge, an amazing 3-D Gnasher badge, a swanky plastic wallet, and a helpful glossary of Gnashwords.
In truth I was a fan of fan clubs – though sadly a specialist fan club for fans of fan clubs didn’t exist. I joined any and every club I could. The absence of any real life groups or associations for kids in the local area meant I was constantly sending off little coupons and postal orders and waiting for a sense of belonging and fraternity to be delivered back to me. I was a member of The Chipper Club for fans of Chipper, the dog featured in the daily cartoon strip of the Birmingham Evening Mail. The club was run by a shadowy figure called ‘Uncle Len’ who was never pictured and whose relationship to Chipper was never made clear.
I was also a member of the I-Spy club, for readers of I-Spy books, which encouraged children to ‘spot’ things like bollards and tv-aerials and hedgehogs. I would receive occasional communications in the post from a shadowy figure called Big Chief I-Spy. From his name and appearance Big Chief I-Spy appeared to be of Native American ancestry which I couldn’t quite connect to the peculiarly quotidian English content of the books. I assumed that Big Chief was the person who decided the weighting of the points. I imagined him sitting in his teepee being respectfully shown pictures of telephone boxes, or bird tables or signs reading ‘Urban Clearway’ and solemnly holding up fingers to indicate the number of points for spotting each one.
At the same time I was also a Blue Bird Candydate – a niche fan club of Blue Bird Toffee products open only to the children of confectioners. I didn’t even like Blue Bird toffees but was so excited to be part of anything that I joined. Such was my devotion that I asked Dad to drive Mom and me out to the factory in Worcestershire one Sunday afternoon. I’m not sure now what I was expecting. Not the whole Willy Wonka experience perhaps, but maybe a special VIP entrance for holders of Blue Bird Candydate membership cards. Being a Sunday though the factory was closed. It was a long drive to look at some locked gates. Mom and Dad stayed in the car and I got out and peered through the bars in case I might catch a glimpse of something magical. I was left with the distinct feeling that I was the only Blue Bird Candydate in the world.
Ultimately my Dennis the Menace membership didn’t end much more happily. At some point during morning lessons in Junior One my coat had fallen (or was pushed – I always had my suspicions about Mr Kilpatrick the caretaker) from its hook in the school cloakroom onto one of the volcanically hot heating pipes that ran along the walls. At lunchtime I found Gnasher’s googly plastic eyes had melted onto his cardboard face giving him a quite nightmarish aspect that changed the way I felt about him forever.
Alongside The Beano, I also read The Dandy every week but The Dandy and I never really clicked. I found the strips either bewildering or off-putting. 1960s boarding school wag Winker Watson wasn’t much of an endearing or relatable character, Bully Beef was frightening and The Jocks and the Geordies managed to be both incomprehensible and disturbing.
Cheeky Weekly comic launched in 1977 and it swiftly eclipsed The Dandy and even took the shine off The Beano. I loved it so much I had dad put it on special order for me. My favourite strip was Calculator Kid which gave glimpses into the life of a young boy and his talking calculator. Calculators were so mind-bendingly astounding that it didn’t seem that much of a stretch to me; if they could somehow do long division all by themselves then why couldn’t they also offer wise and prophetic counsel on day to day life to one lucky young man. The calculator itself was a little insufferable, ending every adventure with the self-satisfied: ‘As calculated’. In time he would probably have gone the same way as HAL-9000 in 2001, but that would have been a small price to pay to astound my school pals every day.
By the early 80s though my attention started to drift to titles aimed at older kids and teens. For some reason the transition from child to adult publications was marked by a gradual but thrilling shift in illustrated content from just cartoons, to a mixture of cartoons and photos, to the final, grown-up destination of all photos. Although I didn’t know it at the time I was living through a golden age of teen-mag publishing with seemingly new titles launching every month. I segued from Cheeky Weekly to Tops – ‘A great new mag for boys and girls’ which launched in 1981 when I was 11. Tops combined comic strips, TV and pop music. In some ways it was doing nothing that rival mag Look In hadn’t been doing for years, but Look In had never appealed to me. Problem one was that Look In covered only ITV programmes which I viewed with a great deal of suspicion and distaste. I was so blindly loyal to BBC1, that I would endure the boredom of Blue Peter and the mystification of Ludwig, an animated programme about a Beethoven playing metallic egg, rather than switch over. The second problem for Look In was the fact that it carried with it the unmistakable taint of the 70s. Tops on the other hand – setting aside awkward throw backs like the Little and Large comic strip – felt distinctly edgy. Its very first cover star was Adam Ant – a man genetically designed to completely fill the intersect between childhood comics and teen pop obsession. I’d watched him perform Ant Music on Top of the Pops earlier that year and had been wowed enough to divert some of my precious Two-Tone funds to buy an Adam and the Ants badge.
Teen girl titles and photo stories didn’t appeal to me at all. No matter how hot off the press they were they always seemed old-fashioned and creepy. Jackie had been around forever and felt out of place in the new decade. But newer rivals were no better: even just the title of My Guy was embarrassing; similarly Blue Jeans felt irretrievably naff. In my head it was linked forever with Neil Diamond’s song Forever in Blue Jeans. I had a feeling that anyone prefacing the word ‘jeans’ with the word ‘blue’ was probably best avoided. Worst of all the boys in the photo stories sometimes still had long hair and wore flares. They were more Brian Tilsley than Adam Ant.
I’d been aware of Smash Hits for a while, but hadn’t really paid attention. I had the idea it was just a lyrics mag with nothing more than words to generally nothing more than rubbish songs. Now though I started to take notice. I learned that not only did it often have features on The Specials, Madness, The Beat and even those few non-Two Tone related bands that I considered acceptable, but it was funny too, just like my old comics, poking fun at pretty much everyone it featured. I started slipping a copy off the counter every fortnight: assiduously reading every word on bands I liked, studiously avoiding the ones I didn’t and then closely studying all the adverts for remarkable artefacts like piano key ties, studded wrist bands and bondage trousers.
The very best thing about Smash Hits though wasn’t the funny interviews, the dismissive reviews, or the indignant letters page, it was the pen pals section. Every issue, half a page of the magazine was devoted to small-ads placed by readers reaching out for contact with other readers. Seen from the perspective of a more risk-averse era, the concept seems quite problematic. Basically the Biro Buddies section (later known as RSVP) was a list of children’s names, ages, their personal interests and their full addresses.
13 year old girl would like to write letters and receive letters from handsome skinheads ages 14+
15 year old handsome guy would like to hear from gorgeous girls 13+. Response guaranteed to letters with pics.
Now I find the vulnerability of the correspondents to everything from mild ridicule and hoaxes to out and out exploitation both worrying and heartbreaking. None of this though troubled me in the least when I was 11. My fascination and indignation was focussed on the lack of cohesion or logic of people’s stated musical tastes. How could someone say they loved Madness and David Essex? How could someone profess to be ‘into’ both punk and metal? Maybe, it was just possible that there were people in the world who genuinely liked Bucks Fizz, but those same people just couldn’t also like the Stranglers. These things were not possible and yet I was presented with these and other provocations week after week. Worst of all were the people who went to all the bother of writing in only to say that there were ‘into all kinds of music’! What was the point of that? And how could anyone be that indiscriminate? Being into music, as far as I was concerned, was all about being judgmental and narrowly prescriptive. My greatest hope was that someone out there felt the same. Every fortnight throughout my entire adolescence I scanned that one page in Smash Hits looking in vain for the perfect person who chose only the exact same bands and artists that I would choose.
To be continued…