Eleven: Top Of The Pops
When my father died, he left reel upon reel of Standard 8mm colour cine film, nearly all of it viewed only once. There was also a reel made up of the remains of films my grandfather had shot on 9.5mm film (sprocket holes in the centre, rather than down the side) in the 1920s. This too I had seen once, and once only. Cine films were a palaver and a half. Assuming you didn't accidentally film twice, which gave you an interesting experiment in double vision, then the procedure was this:
1. Point camera at members of family, sky, stray dogs, passing cars, ground, unknown passers-by, sea, views from anonymous buildings of anonymous spaces
2. Press sporadically
3. Discover that three minutes have elapsed
4. Remove film carefully and send for processing
5. Wait three weeks
6. Get film back and summon entire family, and any hangers-on, to front room
7. Find projector
8. Find screen
9. Erect projector and screen
10. Thread film
11. Switch on projector
12. Switch off projector, bulb having blown
13. Find spare bulb
14. Switch projector on again
15. Gaze at film for three minutes
16. Refuse to run film backwards for benefit of children
17. Oh all right then
Slightly more cumbersome than video.
I bought an editor, and carefully spliced out most of the stray dogs and sky, resisting the temptation to produce a non-narrative alternative take on family life. And then I had the whole lot transferred to video. The whole anarchic piece lasted about fifty minutes, and covered the period 1960 to 1970. I decided to show it to my son (Thomas Patrick, and known as Tom, does this surprise you?). With the wisdom of a five-year-old, he pointed out that there was no sound. Father assumes lecture mode. That is because they did not have sound in those days (a very stupid way of putting it, but I knew what I meant). Nonsense, said Tom, and turned the volume up, just as my brother hove into view on the screen, in front of our family house. The strains of the theme to Brideshead Visited filled the room. They had dubbed a soundtrack on to our family record (the resources of the firm were limited. They looped through Albatross , Chariots of Fire and Brideshead interminably).
The wildly spliced remains of our childhood decade are niggards and skinflints. The sun always shines like syrup, and bamboozles the viewer. In the early shots, children approach the camera at first with temerity, and then more frankly, assaulting it, or running out of the waves towards it. The lens seems to act like a magnet, drawing its subjects towards it. The same is incidentally true of the film my grandfather took in the 1920s, in which the only real difference is that every child has dressed for beach cricket rather as if they were auditioning for parts in a stage show about a dinner-party. In all cases, we are, of course outdoors, sliding, jumping, waving, running in perpetual fresh air. The dog always steals the starring role.
I am sorry to say that the dog, a black Labrador, was called Sambo. To say this was tactless when we lived opposite a Nigerian dentist is an understatement. I think back to the family calling for the dog, and wonder if our neighbour saw it all as a vicious ruse. It was a daft, and eventually paranoid animal, with a slavish devotion to my mother, who could not bear the idea of its being fed cold food (it had its Pal warmed by the warm juice from the vegetable pan). It arrived unannounced. Clare and I were discussing the day's potential events, or giving her dolls names (my job), in her bed one morning in 1960. There was some yelping near the door. My father carried the dog, and formally presented to me as my birthday present - a month early, this was, and after I had whined on about wanting a cat. This was in bad taste. My father cherished a catapult (pun quite probably intended) with which my great-grandfather was set to have directed stones at cats, and all the Thomases were said to be ailurophobic. And so, to teach me a lesson, I was given a dog.
The dog was the family, to all intents and purposes. He effected introductions, he broke the ice, he ate the turkey one Christmas, too. But he was no Rin-Tin-Tin. He was a trougher of food, a dim but animate extra in the family film which ran and ran. He had at least three aliases locally. After dinner with the Greenwells, he would move on to dinner with his other adopted families, and he grew steadily more portly. Nothing was too good for him, mind. We're talking here about the first dog in Britain to have a plastic hip, for which he had to travel to Glasgow, on a train.
Video, or its successors, will change the way we understand family. The first videotapes, guaranteed to last a lifetime, have already started to deteriorate. Nevertheless, this is the first generation which will bequeath its faces and voices to the succeeding centuries. In my case, I am peculiarly fortunate even to possess the fragmentary five seconds of my father on Alnmouth beach in 1927. He wields a spade. Something on his leg distracts him for a moment. The watching eye of the camera does not comment. It simply loads it into my memory (as it did not, incidentally, load it into my father's. That incidental irritation is witnessed by me, rather than by him). The semi-professional (which means, almost completely amateur) video freaks will record their children from cradle to pension. It is the generations to come who will feed on these remains.
The snaps that I have inherited from so many sources are in many cases unidentified and unidentifiable. Even some of the marked ones elude me. Who is “Auntie” in the picture with my grandfather's sister, Nancy? She is the same person who features in the “Greenwell family, regatta” picture, which must be almost immediately before the First World War, given the obvious teenage of my grandmother. She is a woman in her early thirties, smiling, bright, dark, good-humoured. I can only think of all the people she is not. Pictures like this are now perpetually for sale in flea-markets and even antique shops. The family history magazines are full of adverts from kind people who have rescued and transcribed the messages from the dead. With video, so to speak, the medium is not required to translate. It merely is.
How petty is this? Do we need a living archive? The answer is No. Need has nothing to do with it. What we have instead is an irony, by which families, now increasingly disparate and separate (a process that will, I think, continue) can nevertheless look into the refracted past with greater sense of certainty. Posterity is an illusion. But the sound of voices and their echoes will bind people more firmly together than they expect. Above all, they will not see the past vanish in a puffball of smoke. Our ancestors are nearer, much nearer than we think. I've spoken to people who had talked in their turn to people who lived before the reign of Queen Victoria (who came to the throne just as my great-great-great-grandfather's brother, George, was getting married). My conversations with the past are second-hand, but second-hand is close. Very close.
Of course, the voices in letters are in some ways stronger, and it's often the domestic detail which makes it like that. Six letters which Ethel Raine (born Hallewell) wrote to her son Wilfrid - this is Percy the deputy harbourmaster's brother - survive. By this time, Wilfrid had gone to sea with the Eagle Oil Transport Company. It was summer 1918. Percy was serving in the merchant navy; the three girls, Winnie, May and Mollie were at home, although Winnie was already engaged to Arthur Stephenson, who was to become to her husband. Percy had signed up quickly with the merchant navy in particular because, looking taller and therefore older than he was, he was threatened with white feathers by local lasses with their brains in their ankles. They might have thought differently if they had seen the scene when the tanker River Orontes was torpedoed, and the oil on the surface of the sea blazed its way through the bodies, while Percy hauled himself through the water to safety.
Ethel Raine, née Hallewell, in 1904, with her first three children, (L-R) Winnie, Wilf and Percy, and her husband Albert .
Ethel's letters to Wilf are breezy and chatty. She was to die of stomach cancer nine months later, and it is scarcely conceivable that she was not already suffering badly (this was to be a bone of contention between Wilf and his father, since Wilf felt his father had neglected her, indeed, had been too mean to pay the doctor's fees). They move without pause through kindly maternal advice to news about the war and little domestic detail. Wilf is only sixteen, and had followed his elder brother Percy into the merchant navy:
I am always wondering how you are getting on, I hope you are all right and do like the sea, what do you think of your first voyage, were you sea sick, my word I do miss you. Now dear Wilf, mind what you are doing & don't smoke too much, be sure and do some studying...Reggie Southwell, poor lad, he was buried today, he was in the flying corps, it looked very solemn as it passed our door, the coffin was on the gun carriage & a good few soldiers, eight officers acted as bearers... a service was held in St. Gabriel's. Winnie [Wilf's eldest sister] said there had been a lot there...Everything is going on the same, then hens laying eggs...but no Wilf to give Mollie [Wilf's youngest sister] a ride in the barrow In August, she is anxious about Wilf's health, and urges him (probably impractically) to come home. The impending 'flu epidemic appears in the background like a shadow.
Everything is going on all right here except for the 'flu, 24 deaths here last week with it, there is a young boy Hartley in Dunbar Street died Sunday night & his father died early Monday morning... . your strawberry plants are fine, there are a good few on if the birds don't peck them, there is one beauty ready now, I expect Mollie will get it
In September, she thanks him for sending money home, and delights in the vegetable patch: We have had a very good crop of tomatoes, the potatoes are splendid out of the garden, they are like balls of flour
In October, she frets over lodgers and guests (Ethel seems always to have had a full house, and until four years earlier, had been looking after her aunt Polly), and, after a brief visit from Wilf, worries again about failing to pack lotion for him - Wilf has a wound of some kind in his leg. The last letter she sent to Wilf was started on November 10th 1918, and finished the next day:
My dear Wilfrid,
I wonder how you are getting on by now, we did not receive any letters after you sent the £3, how did you come on, did you not get the back weeks paid up, you should have seen about it at once. I don't see why you should have paid the hotel bill if you could
not get to the ship. Percy [Wilf's brother, later the harbourmaster] went on Friday, we have had no word yet.... I hope before you get this, we will have peace, one feels as if we could hardly believe it would come, poor Percy Robinson in Colchester has been killed, he was only home a fortnight ago. I feel awfully sorry for them, their only boy. There are a lot of wounded being brought in tonight, your Father has just come in & says there seems a good few poor things, it will be a good thing if they are not wanted back again....We all wish you a merry Xmas& a happy New Year (as you will likely be on the water) & the best of health & good luck for the coming year.... Everything is going on the same, hens, cats, tank, & all two-legged things included. Mollie is always talking about you & wishing you were at home. Mabel [his middle sister - this was May, whose house I had visited in Southport] is getting on well with her drawing... schools are closed for the flu, there are a lot of cases here. I do hope it does not get too bad here. Now dear Wilf you must excuse me as I have nothing more to say & excuse the scribble
as I have written this on my knee drying my hair...with the best of love & wishes for your happiness & health from all at home,
with love from your loving Mother xxxxxxxxx
P.S. (Monday) Before I got this posted the town and every place is in commotion (Armistice at last) Mrs. Blake and I have put a line of big flags from his window to ours, all the shops have closed & all the men have left their work, I think everyone is out in the town, there are some fireworks going off, it sounds like old times
But it was not to last. Ethel died in July 1919 and the quiet Christmas she had that year was her last. Sentimentally, perhaps, Ethel is the distant cousin whom I should most like to have met, with her solicitous and cheery tone. She was to be buried in the same grave as her mother (the widow of mariner Robert Hallewell), whom she had outlived by only three years. It was the Greenwell family grave, and also buried there are her grandparents Robert and Ann; her aunt, Margaret Kitts; an uncle, Alexander, who died when she was only three; and another uncle, the silversmith, William. I had to scrape away the moss to trace her name, which is only just visible on the base of the plinth (1). She took the place of my great-great-grandfather, who had by that time moved to Falmouth, and who outlived her as he seems to have outlived so many in her generation.
My first marriage is not preserved on ciné. This is deliberate, since the four of us did not tell our parents. We hushed it up. It was a sensational affair, since it was not only a double wedding, but involved a pair of siblings (myself and Clare) marrying a pair of twins . How usual is that? Not very. With a bit more planning, we could probably have enticed a national newspaper to carry the story, or sold the rights to whatever was the equivalent of Hello magazine. We were able to be witnesses to each other's weddings, too, which might well be unique in the annals of family history, especially as we had to take turns being the officiating vicar.
The setting was Budle Bay, just up the coast from Bamburgh, where there was a caravan park. In the traditional manner, we did not spend the previous evening with our respective spouses. This is mainly because their bedtime was about eight o'clock, and you have to have a bit of order about a caravan, or there's mayhem. Clare's groom was called Roger, and mine had the extremely exotic and unusual name of Fereleth. We had known each other since birth, Clare, Fereleth and Roger having born either side of Christmas 1954, just two years after me. Now, at the age (in my case) of about eight, it was time to tie the knot properly. We stood on an outcrop of rock, and made extremely solemn vows. Did we swear to remain faithful for eternity? Have children by the pail-full? See if we could get our parents to take us down to Seahouses to the ice-cream parlour with the juke-box where Adam Faith's latest hit was thumping out? We did.
We all remember the occasion. There was a breeze blowing in off the sea (there is always a breeze blowing in off the North Sea, at the very least).
It is just possible that there were three others present. Jonathan, the twins' elder brother, and the criminal co-mastermind who had helped me de-trum the mattresses some six or so years earlier in Norfolk; my brother, of course (no marital shenanigans for him! he was far too young); and just possibly, the dog, although the dog's instinct for the good life probably meant he was with my mother.
The marriage party had another outing a few days later, which was very nearly fatal. Leaving David, the dog, and also Roger on the beach, four of us - Jonathan, Fereleth, Clare and me - dibbled ourselves in the shallows while the tide came in. Jonathan had a distinct advantage over the other three of us. He could swim - a leisurely but impressive doggy-paddle, the sort that younger boys like myself could not aspire to. (I still can't swim. Trauma, as you will see.) Clare was as usual inside the duck. Fereleth had a ring round her, too, a more modest pinky-purple affair. As the husband of the pair, I forewent the security of a ring. I held on instead to the outside of Fereleth's. Sharing, as it is called in most modern marriages. After a while - it was a pleasantly lukewarm afternoon - the four of us vaguely began to notice that our feet were no longer capable of touching the sand on the sea-floor. In fact, turning round for the first time, we couldn't help but notice that the beach from which we had so recently tiptoed was a very long way away. Out of shouting range. We were bobbling out to sea..
There were only two things to do. Panic and drown, in that order.
What you need in exciting stories like this is either a) Grace Darling, who is Bamburgh's most celebrated heroine, or b) Grace Muriel Greenwell (my mother). Fortuitously gazing out to sea after a serious attempt at getting a Northumberland tan, my mother noticed four children in the process of being sucked out to sea by the current. Probably she would have alerted a responsible other authority to this imminent disaster, but she recognised the four as two-thirds of the idiotic under-tens with whom she had arrived at the beach. It is in fact the only time I have seen my mother attempt the crawl, and I would be the first to say that she looked good at it. She surfaced amongst us. She faced three difficulties. The first was that Jonathan was beginning to lose confidence in the strength of his doggy-paddle and was happy to let her know that he couldn't swim. The second was that Clare (it would be the extra power of the duck) was starting to drift away from the rest of us. The third was me. I hadn't got a ring at all. I was sharing one with Fereleth, and suddenly its buoyancy seemed inadequate for two. It was a bit early in the marriage for the spirit of romance. Fereleth went under the water more often than I did. My mother swam round with the power of one demented, and steadily shepherded us towards an outcrop of rock, on the sharp surface of which we somehow managed to get some purchase. The four of us, bit by bit, were navigated back to safety. Marriage was never the same again.
Nor was I peculiarly popular on the beach, where I had one major concern. I wanted to know if the rescue would be in the papers.
My mother, as it happens, it not the only person in living memory in my family to have carried out a sea rescue. My grandfather - who, like his own father, swam in the North Sea every day, and was therefore more than proficient - set off one morning for the Roker front in the 1920s for his usual dip in the water. About half-an-hour earlier, a girl called Una Craven from the nearby suburb of Fulwell had had the same idea. She set off from the Cat and Dog Stairs, and headed gamely for the horizon, where she exercised happily enough, and then decided to come back to shore. But she had swum too far, and the current started to gulp her under. She began to shout desperately for help, keeping herself afloat as best she could, and succeeded in attracting the attention of the other masochists gathered in the shallows. They started a human chain, in an attempt to reach her, but, perhaps predictably, given the distance she had travelled, they could not reach her. The human chain was, rather appropriately, led by a Mr. Guard.
My grandfather coolly undressed, and seized hold of a lifebelt, and holding it firmly, swam powerfully out to the by-now very anxious Una. The current, however, was too strong even for my grandfather to manage to rescue the situation entirely - too strong for him to swim back with her. Carefully, he ensured that she had the lifebelt tied round her, and told her to keep calm at all costs. Now he too felt the suction of the current dragging him down, and he had use all his strength to regain the shore. By the time he made it, the harbourmaster's launch had set out, in response to a telephone call, and, after an hour in the water, the lucky Una Craven was re-united with her mother. She thanked her “dauntless” rescuer profusely in a letter to the local paper.
My grandfather was a mixture of the spartan and the sybaritic. But what dominated his life was order. He was no great conversationalist, as his father had been, or raconteur, as my father was to be. My grandmother suffered his instructions lovingly, although for someone of such musical skill, the absence of a piano in the houses they lived in was a private disappointment. (Although they possessed a record-player, the only records that they appeared to possess, and which I have no doubt my grandfather played, were a collection of Winston Churchill speeches, to which dancing would have been difficult.) She was also a skilful cook, but it was no part of my grandfather's view of the world that she should inhabit a kitchen. Help in this department arrived in 1922, when my father was born. The daughter of a Weardale colliery manager, Nancy Bowes, was hired by my grandparents to look after my father. She can hardly have expected to have been in their employ over 45 years later, but Nancy - or “Bowsie”, as she was re-baptised - effectively married my family. She certainly never had an independent social life to speak of.
She was, like my sister, a skinny Minnie; and, unlike my sister, she was only five feet tall. She was the same age, she claimed, as the century (as the Queen Mother, as she would point out), and her birthday was on Valentine's Day. February 14th was her birthday all right, but she'd actually been born in 1898. Her eightieth birthday was celebrated when she was 82. During the First World War, she had returned home after two years in Buenos Aires, where she had stayed with distant relatives, one of them a champoin golfer. Her seventeen-year-old account of her return journey - in 1915, of course - as printed in the Sunderland Echo , is a masterpiece of its kind. The journalist has rewritten her words so that she sounds like a peculiarly strangulated minor member of the royal family:
We left Rosario, which is up the Plate on the 7th February, and sailed down as far as Monte Video, in Uruguay, which is a very attractive city, having an almost Oriental appearance, with its towers, and domes, and white houses....We went ashore [at Tenerife on the way back] and had a look at the shops, and the German passenger ships interned there, as well as the famous Peak of Tenerife, which, as you know, is one of the wonders of the world..... As illustrating the kindness with which I was treated on board, I may say that the anniversary of my birthday was made the occasion of much rejoicing and jollification; the cook made a first-rate birthday cake, and I was the proud recipient of several presents.
She goes on to describe the journey back through a minefield (“the sailors, who seemed quite excited, said that we were in danger, and had just missed a mine. Some of the mines could be seen distinctly, and looked like little tubs in the water”). Only that last phrase about “little tubs” seems to have any relation to Bowsie's speech, or indeed anyone's.
What had in fact happened to her was that she had been the daughter of a deputy colliery manager at Annfield Plain - who had risen to that position, as his father had, from being a hewer, and who had achieved a considerable 'respectability'. Her father had, however, made a fatal business error. He attempted to start a bus company in Consett, but neglected to insure his vehicles. A fire saw his savings disappear, and with them any aspirations his daughters may have had. They went into service.
There was something of the Stan Laurel about her. She liked to trill a song, and to imitate a dance in a skittish way. She was slavishly devoted to my father. A peculiar tradition (family rituals again!) arose, whereby she was carried in with the Christmas pudding. On special occasions, she became enjoyably tiddly on champagne. And she had a number of one-liners, of which the most memorable to me was her much-repeated comment “I'll just have a little portion of that minced beef” (which was one of her specialities). When she came to stay, she invested any house with my grandfather's sense of order, shutting and opening curtains at set times. She also enjoyed the tyranny of her kitchen, and berating other employees who did not respect her place. Her half-sister Blanche was employed by my grandmother's sister, and similarly re-christened (“Bam”) and then set to work in the family salt-mines. The two sisters, leading parallel lives to their mistresses, were intensively competitive, not least about their flair for cooking. My grandmother's sister was married to the president of the Rugby Football Union, and was inclined occasionally to come within the outer orbit of the aristocracy. This meant that Bam sometimes got the big culinary occasions to organise, and Bowsie (who enjoyed calling her sister “a silly little bitch”) was once peculiarly discomfited when Princess Margaret complimented Bam on the colour-coding of a meal she had prepared (pink).
It was said that she had learned her exceptional cooking skills from my grandmother, but this does not seem to me especially likely. And she was, in fact, despatched to my mother's side when she married my father, to teach her how to cook for my father. When asked if she had objected, my mother simply defended Bowsie. Bowsie was game for anything. For those who enjoy eating Twiglets, it may be surprising to know that they pre-date the Second World War, although Peek Freans, the makers, were naturally obliged to desist from their production and distribution while the war on Nazism took place. Bowsie was obliged by my grandfather, an addict, to fake them, and this she duly did with consummate success. It seems to me that she became, over the years, my grandmother's closest friend, although the mistress-servant relationship was always publicly upheld. She was much more than what my father would have called head cook and bottlewasher. She was the Greenwell family incarnate (2).
There had been one self-confessed cook in the Greenwell family before. The second wife of William Greenwell the silversmith, the former Ethel Pottinger, the one who had allegedly appropriated the box of family documents in 1913, also fancied herself as a caterer, although her idea of cooking consisted largely of thinking up recipes for others to put into practice (she had undertaken a cordon bleu cookery course, but was not particularly au fait with kitchen implements). In her heyday, just before the first world war (3), she arranged for all the well-heeled Sunderland ladies to contribute recipes to a publication in aid of charity. It seems likely that they took some advice from the Bowsies of their day, but the book, Dozens Of Delightful Dishes , still exists. It must be the only 140-page cookery book published for a church bazaar (held in April in the Victoria Hall, the scene thirty years earlier of the catastrophe).
The contributors dragooned into the enterprise include her mother (now also her sister-in-law's mother-in-law, or daughter-in-law's mother-in-law, such were the complications of the marriage), and May Pottinger out in Tientsin, a notable non-cook, as well as her sister Floss. Geoffrey Greenwell's mother, Ernest's widow Helen, contributes a Milk Soup; one of the Herring cousins to whom May Pottinger was related in two ways, supplied a Soufflé de Perdix (partridges, since you ask); so does one of my great-great-grandfather's former sisters-in-law, a Mrs. Bell. My great-grandfather's wife chips in with a Galantine of Veal And Ham. The wife of the shipbuilder George Bartram offers Chocolate Fingers. The addresses are principally of the imposing houses belonging to the doctors, accountants and ship-owners. Perhaps you would like to try Ethel Greenwell's Dutch Sweetbreads?
You will need half a pound of veal, two ounces of beef suet, two ounces of fresh breadcrumbs, one tablespoonful of cream, the rind of half a lemon, pepper and salt, a little nutmeg, and one egg. Now pound the veal and suet to a smooth pulp. Add the breadcrumbs soaked in cream, then the seasoning and rind, and then the egg (beaten). Divide into three sweetbreads. Poach in white stock for twenty minutes. Dish up with good white sauce poured over them, and, the Nigella touch, garnish with chopped truffles. If this feast leaves you with constipation, then I have good news for you. There is an efficacious recipe for A Valuable And Simple Laxative. Take half a pound of best figs, half a pound of prunes, half a pound of golden syrup, an ounce of senna powder, and boil them slowly together for five hours . Place the result in a jam jar and use as required - say, half a teaspoonful at bedtime. I am bound to say, looking at the ingredients, that that should certainly do the trick, although whether “it is very pleasant to taste, like jam”, I have grave doubts. Someone has incidentally tested this recipe just before publication, because there is an urgent (the right word, I think) erratum included: “N.B. Stir in the senna powder AFTER cooking the other ingredients.”
My father gave all his records away - a collection of American big band 78s, with Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey to the fore - when he married. As a young man, he had sat around, looking louche in a silk dressing-gown, according to his cousin Rosemary, and listening to music. For perhaps the first time, music could be heard in a Greenwell household; but by the time the three of us were born, in the 1950s, wind-up gramophones were already being relegated to attics, and replaced by music from the radio. We had a large, brown bakelite set, more furniture than music centre, and I cannot remember any programme other than Children's Favourites and Two-Way Family Favourites on a Sunday morning, presented respectively by “Uncle Mac” and Jean Metcalfe. The songs hypnotised me. Max Bygraves' I'm A Blue Toothbrush, You're A Pink Toothbrush. Michael Holliday's The Runaway Train. And a song by Danny Kaye, Mummy, I Want A Drink Of Water.
At Christmas in 1960, not long after the dawning of the age of vinyl, my father produced a record player at Christmas, and - it seemed logical - a record to go with it. It was the soundtrack from The Glenn Miller Story , a film to which he had been, on his own, some seven years earlier, returning to the family home in tears (Glenn Miller had been in an aeroplane that crashed over the Channel during the war). My mother would have gone, but she had an infant child that she couldn't bear to neglect. Me. I was quite glad to hear that my father could weep at a film (I am afraid it is a habit of mine, most embarrassingly in a children's screening of The Jungle Book . When I was thirty). The only film I ever saw with my father was necessitated by one of my mother's rare absences from home. We went to see a desperate film called Grand Prix, the first lap of which my father got through before settling down for a protracted snore.
My father cannot have foreseen the consequences of placing a music machine in the house. The girl next door obliged with a couple of Elvis records to start with, and, since the machine was still capable of taking 16 r.p.m. records, huge circular, tray-like affairs on which the spoken word was sometimes recorded, the whole of Tubby The Tuba . Such innocence did not last long. The first two records to infiltrate the calm were Cliff Richard's The Young Ones and (my very first purchase) Helen Shapiro's Tell Me What He Said . “I've lost him, but I don't know how. He's going with another now. He'll be at the party on Friday night. I'd go there myself, but it wouldn't be right,” sang Helen, hour by hour and day by day. Probably, this was tolerable. However, as 1964 arrived, one song in particular must have caused some serious grievance. What I might have seen as the strange, incantatory property of The Beach Boys' Barbara Ann must have lost some of it charm on the twentieth repetition. The phrases “Turn it down” and “Turn it off” became part of the daily badinage between child and parent. So too must the repeated playing of any recording by The Animals, the most successful North-Eastern export of the 1960s “beat boom”. I subjected my mother, amongst others, to their song Gonna Send You Back to Walker (4), Walker being a suburb of Newcastle. It much later transpired that this was where her mother had come from.
The event of the week on television was always Top Of The Pops . This was a great family occasion in most households, since it provoked rows, scorn, and references to Good Old Days when a song was a song, probably Begin The Beguine in the case of my parents. The format, like so many early television programmes, was lifted awkwardly from the radio, and actually involved watching a radio disc-jockey (Alan Freeman, Pete Murray, David Jacobs and, more eccentrically, Jimmy Savile) getting a young female sidekick, Samantha Juste being the second and most famous, to put a record on a turntable. After this the lucky new entrants into the Top Twenty mimed their contributions, a practice that lasted for two years until The Musicians' Union outlawed the practice. Not that the watchers would have known - the TV quality wasn't good enough - or indeed cared. It began on New Year's Day, 1964, and survives, with its curiously naff title, even now - indeed, it has staged something of a revival over the last five or six years.
Being able to watch the singers and groups (“bands”, when the going got serious later), as against listen to them, brought home what a curious affair “popularity” was. It was a source of great tension, finding out who would nab the top spot, and the source of sibling spats between myself and my sister. Oh all right, and brother (move over on the sofa, please). There was an almost complete lack of discrimination. If it was in the charts, it was good. That meant the Crystals were good, the Beatles were good, Val Doonican was good. You could appear in a cardie, crooning away like a very pale imitation of Bing Crosby in pipe-and-slipper mode, and it was accepted that you were good, because you were popular. That's all it took. Thursday night - briefly Wednesday - became essential. You stole your style from Top Of The Pops , or its rivals, Thank Your Lucky Stars and Ready Steady Go . In my case, it was Sonny of Sonny and Cher who was my first sartorial role model. Much good has it done me.
My father remained loyal to the big band sound, although not with any degree of fervency. He once asked me if I liked Glenn Miller as well, and my honest approval seemed to give him some private satisfaction. But the record player he had purchased to play Glenn Miller hits was beyond his command by then. His one appearance at the side of the record player occurred when my musical tastes took a side-turning, and I bought a record of the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert by the Benny Goodman Orchestra - the first concert to bring jazz to the famous American venue. “Go on, then,” he said. “Go on, what?” I replied, surprised to see him looking so eager. “Put it on. The Benny Goodman,” he replied. Listening to Gene Krupa smashing his kit, and hearing the brilliant, impromptu piano solo by Jess Stacy in the epic rendition of Sing, Sing, Sing - this brought us together more neatly than at any other time.
Chris Cowey, appearing on TV in 2001.
Nor is Top Of The Pops as irrelevant to this narrative as you might think. The original producer, Johnnie Stewart, worked a winning formula for a couple of decades, before he retired. There followed an interregnum, in which new formats and timings and styles drove the viewing audience towards effective extinction, playing down, as it did, the main item of interest - who would win the race. Not until the second half of the 1990s did the programme start once again to pick up where it had left off. It acquired a new producer, Chris Cowey, who pushed the show back up the ratings, and developed a spin-off show, TOTP2 (5), which plundered the archives, rather like a genealogist. Johnnie Stewart paid Chris Cowey the important tribute of saying the show was as good as it had been in his day.
Chris Cowey's grandmother was called Lilian Reid. But she was born Lilian Hallewell. And Lilian Hallewell's great-grandfather was Robert Wilson Greenwell. Chris Cowey, to my surprise, turns out to be my fourth cousin.
(1) Ten years later, Wilf left for Australia to start a new life, and never returned. He worked principally on the coastal ships, although he had a brief spell in 1932 as a gold prospector - finding just enough gold to live on - in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales. Her husband Albert re-married; Winnie married and had two daughters, before a botched operation cut short her life in 1938; Mollie, the youngest, later emigrated to South Africa; May moved eventually to Lancashire. The assistant harbourmaster, Percy, was the man whose trail I had originally followed.
(3) And also in the last year of her husband's life. It is probable that she is the one who encouraged him to advertise in the 1913 Sunderland Yearbook - the only one of the twelve pre-war editions in which he did so. There was a social cachet in being seen to sponsor the publication.