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1981. The End Of The World.

Sadly the 2013 heat wave is over and the sound of heavy rain outside the door brings back memories of many interrupted youthful summer days.  The drops hit the concrete.  At first they evaporate, flicking up the dust, until the deluge pours off the paths and in to the gutters.  One minute you’re eating an ice cream in the blazing sun, and the next you’re huddled in a doorway wishing you’d brought a coat. 

Through the echoes of time I can hear my father saying that it’s just as well, the garden needs it and I can imagine the much younger figure of my mother dashing out the back to gather up the almost dry sheets in her arms.  She is hauling them off the line, scattering the pegs across the newly mowed lawn.  It’s a time without mobile phones, there are only books in the library and there are no more than three channels on the television, though in a year there will be four. Eternity’s clock is striking 1981.  As far as years go, for me, it was a blister about to burst.  You can feel the build up of toxins, a rumbling quake of dissatisfaction about to erupt through the tarmac and fill the streets with poison.

The most common phrase to be heard back then was ‘Being made redundant’.  Political correctness and spin hadn't gained a hold of our language yet, so there was no ‘opportunities for re-employment’ or ‘Voluntary work force re-structuring’. This meant an initial wad of cash and then perpetual unemployment.  It wasn't just the dads of the kids at school, it felt like it was the whole place being laid off.  Nowadays my hometown is a shopping Mecca, cinemas, retail parks, even a bloody aquarium rising from the riverside wasteland.  The marshes now branded with motorway and slip roads, oil refineries and car dealerships rubbing up against each other. Back then shopping wasn't recreation, you worked and that’s all you did every day. If you couldn't, well that seemed like the end, and there was no end of ‘the end’ in sight.

I was an unlikely looking rebel.  I’d like to think of myself as everyman’s urban guerrilla, ready to raise the red flag above the burning barricades as rubber bullets whistled past my ear.  I’d love to say that I had a whole collection of those ridiculous Bobbie’s helmets in the shed, trophies of baton charges I had survived, but I was more Porta-loo than Peterloo. My front line was the garden shed, or the entry where I tried hard to keep my shoddily built, two year old, red PX125 in barely road worthy condition.  For anyone unfamiliar with this two wheeled ‘Icon’, and please try to appreciate the irony, it had two drum brakes, a single-cylinder engine with an aluminium head and a steel chassis. Legend has it that it even had improved front suspension and a revised rear axle for more stability.  With my ‘war time coat for the wind and sleet’, a pair of slightly faded lee cooper jeans, ox blood loafers from the town market and a check button down from Littlewood’s, I was ‘The Face’, just as every lad just like me believed they were.

But there was a malevolence cradling; something was going to spoil our innocent dances at the youth club, our Saturday morning congregation near the war memorial, and the inevitable migration to the Wimpey bar. That year Toxteth, Handsworth, Brixton, or Chapeltown suffered serious riots. The disease of racial tension, unemployment and inner-city deprivation would erupt on Britania’s skin. The riots were caused by a distrust of the police and a response to a disinterested and unsympathetic government. You could even feel a frisson of antagonism in the air of my small hometown. Desperately clinging to the wrong side of the Mersey, half of it was angrily facing up to its industrial decline, the other half was trying to bury itself in rural Cheshire and pretend it would all just go away. Two years of Thatcher and her henchmen had seen the disappearance of at least two of the towns main employers, and its easy to forget four thousand men losing paid employment in a town of just over sixty thousand takes out nearly half the bread winners in one pass of the scythe.  It would have happened anyway, but living in a Labour stronghold and suffering under a Tory government made it easy to find a figure of hate.  Lets face it none of them had faces you could love.

I’d been a Mod for about two years, but on a good day looking at my disparate group of mates you’d not always know that we weren't Rude Boys or even keeping company with a couple of Skins. I’d saved every penny I earned on a market stall to buy my scoot, a decent suit and keep myself well supplied with cheap cider on a weekend.  There was nowhere to go except the park, the youth club disco on a Friday night or meet up with your mates on ‘Oil Sites Road’.  This was a greasy stretch of tarmac that dawdled past the canal and through the refineries that turned the night in to a scene from ‘Blade Runner’.  There were melancholy looking sheds and abandoned workshops along its length where you could squat in the dark and even build a small fire.  The local plods would move you on, but unlike the city police they never seemed to look for trouble.  You could see them coming from miles away.  The blues would flash in the distance, but they wouldn’t start the siren, and if you were lucky your scoot would whisk you away in good time.  Otherwise you’d stick it in the bushes and hide on the canal bank until they’d gone.  They never got out of the car.

We were lucky.  Our local law enforcement was averse to work. The worse that was ever reported in the local rag until that point was the odd drunk and disorderly or the well known local burglar being arrested for the umpteenth time. In the city it wasn't like that.  Big cities had large ethnic minority communities.  We had Willy, a lad who’s family had come up from Coventry when he was eleven.  His dad was from Jamaica.  Willy was one of us, and it never seemed significant to us that he was black, but if we ever did get stopped even our local bobbies seemed to zero in on him.  It occurred to me years later, sitting in a pub together that he actually felt singled out.  Not by us, but by his teachers, the police and even the staff at the job centre.  Like most us he has gone on to prove his decriers wrong, but at the time the penny never dropped that he was actually suffering from a deep seated discrimination. 

Thousands like Willy’s dad had come to Britain from the Commonwealth in the late 50s and 60s to do low paid jobs.  Like the Irish migrants a few years before, the areas they were housed in  suffered from poor conditions.  Eventually the changing economic tide caused this area of the community to suffer high levels of unemployment and consequent problems with racial tensions.  Sure that is an over simplification of the situation, but at the root of it was institutionalised racism and a less that sympathetic indigenous white population.  

The Scarman report,  which was subsequently commissioned by the government, the riots were a spontaneous outburst of built-up resentment sparked by particular events. Lord Scarman informed the powers that be,  that "complex political, social and economic factors" created a "disposition towards violent protest".  As you can see the spin had started to creep in. It highlighted problems of racial disadvantage and urban decline, warning that "urgent action" was needed to prevent racial disadvantage becoming an "endemic disease threatening the very survival of our British way of life.  I think the report was actually only a surprise to the government and the police.  It sure didn't come as a revelation to us. It seemed to be stating the bleedin’ obvious to anyone that didn't live in Westminster or go to school in Eaton.

One of the catalysts of the trouble, and one that still causes conflict,  was the stop and search powers given to the police by the Conservative Party.  It  had instituted new powers for the Police under the 1824 vagrancy act to stop and search people based on only a 'reasonable suspicion' that an offence had been committed.  The infamous ‘Sus law’. Needless to say  the largely white police force applied them disproportionately to the black community.  Unsurprisingly they  caused widespread resentment amongst young black British men, who were often stopped because the coppers didn't like the look of them.

Add to this 2.5 million unemployed, mostly young men, some of whom had never worked. This level of unemployment, not seen since the economic nadir of the 1930s, had led to mass discontent in the working class areas of Britain most affected by the recession. Merseyside was one of these places and I remember thinking that I didn't fancy a government scheme when I left school.  After all where there’s a scheme there’s a schemer.  Twenty five quid a week for forty hours?  Even I wasn't going for that and I saw myself as an optimistic, well behaved citizen. 

That January The Specials were singing ‘Do nothing’ which was all some people reasonably could do without a living wage.  But UB40, named after the unemployment benefit card,  were telling us that the ‘The Earth Dies Screamin’ which combining Thatcher and Reagan’s love of Nuclear weapons and an equally stubborn Russian government it certainly looked like it may.  Both these bands from the midlands were microcosms of British youth.  A mix of races. Clever, erudite and feeling disenfranchised.  But most of all aware of the government's indifference to their plight. By then I was worried that youth culture was loosing its edge.  There were fewer mods around and some people had started to dabble with new Romanticism.  As far as I was concerned this was sticking your head in the sand, fiddling whilst Rome burned.  Ultravox at Christmas singing Vienna on the telly.  Vienna was Rigsby’s cat!  I could feel a little anger inside, and even secret Motorhead binges didn't rid me of the seventeen year old angst.  I started feeling tense, argumentative and jumpy. In Brando’s movie ’The Wild One’, he is asked what he is rebelling against.  His reply is in the region of ‘What have ya got?’.  I understood perfectly.

On 13 January, thirteen black youths died in the New Cross Fire. The police quickly dismissed a racial motive for the apparent arson attack and the local Black community were dismayed by the indifference shown in the press towards the deaths. In response over 15,000 people marched in the largest black issue demonstration ever seen in the UK at that point. But it wasn't just the Afro-Caribbean community that felt under threat. In July the "Bradford 12" , a group of Asian youths, members of the "United Black Youth League" were arrested for manufacturing petrol bombs.  They claimed it was to protect their community from a threatened attack.  The trial ended when  they were acquitted by a jury, on the grounds of self defence. People marched in the largest Black issue demonstration seen in Britain.

During March and April, the Metropolitan Police begin Operation Swamp 81, a campaign against burglary and robbery. In Brixton, over only six days, 120 plain-clothes officers stopped 943 people, arresting 118  predominantly Black youths. As a result the first disturbances began in Brixton over the weekend of the 10 to the 12 of April. These were not your standard race riots, street battles between races. The conflict was with police as symbols of white authority, with state racism and criminalisation of black communities.

But this wasn’t the only thing that was winding people up in 1981.  There seemed to be tension everywhere and I think if there was ever a year when the world, or at least civilisation as we know it, had a chance to end, then this was the year. There was still trouble in Ireland back then.  Thatcher’s government weren’t renowned as peace makers.  Protestant gunmen shot and wounded Bernadette Devlin, someone who had tried to get the peace process going.  In March Bobby Sands, a Provisional Irish Republican Army member, began a hunger strike, demanding political status in Long Kesh prison.  He he died on May 5.  He was the first of 10 men.  So Northern Ireland was more of a bubbling cauldron than normal.  Then on the 30th of March, U.S. President Ronald Reagan is shot in the chest outside a Washington, D.C. hotel by John Hinckley, Two police officers and Press Secretary James Bradyare also wounded.  Though its not uncommon for the American’s to assassinate their president, this came as a shock.  Couple this with both Russia and the USA developing very itchy nuclear trigger fingers and it really did look like the beginning of the end to me.  Seventeen isn’t the age of optimism.  I remember a poster around this time with Thatcher and Reagan’s head superimposed on a ‘Gone with the wind’ poster.  In the background a mushroom cloud can be seen.  It read…’She promised to follow him to the ends of the earth.  He promised to arrange it.’ 

April saw the Brixton riots.  May saw Bobby Sands die and the whole of Northern Ireland erupt in anger.  Then as if that wasn’t bad enough on May 13th Pope John Paul II was shot and nearly killed by Mehmet Ali Ağca, a Turkish gunman, as he enters St. Peter's Square to address a general audience.  If that had been a recent event, you can only imagine what the reaction would have been.  Later in the Month Peter Sutcliffe was found guilty of being the Yorkshire Ripper. He is sentenced to life imprisonment on 13 counts of murder and 7 of attempted murder, though not everyone believes the police did their best, or approached catching him in an intelligent way.  Then on June the 13th, at the Trooping the Colour ceremony in London, Marcus Sergeant fires 6 blank shots at the Queen.  This was direct assault on the British establishment.  Ok so the President and the Pope was one thing, but an attack on the Queen is another.  It was what the government needed to prove we were in a state of anarchy and with the press on their side they could demonise any dissenters they wanted to.

Across the river, the Merseyside police force then had a poor reputation within the black community for stopping and searching young black men in the city. The heavy-handed arrest of Leroy Alphonse Cooper on the 3rd of July, watched by an angry crowd, led to a disturbance in which several policemen were injured.  The proximity of Liverpool to my home town, which also had a substantial ‘scouse’ overspill community who had been moved in during the early seventies, meant that people had relatives or communication with the people involved.  Some for justifiable or more spurious reasons fancied a bit of trouble.  Many of these people had been forcibly rehoused, given no choice but to move from their home city. Add this to the fact that there were several elements in the town who thought having a  riot of our own might be a good idea.  There simply wasn’t a big enough immigtant community in town to justify a riot on grounds of racism.  However there was strong left wing element, several of whom were in ‘Militant’, who wanted to create tension with the police.  There were also a cadre who saw an economic opportunity in looting a few shops and a large section of the youth community who just liked a fight.  But there were plenty of angry unemployed lads with nothing better to do, who thought they’d found a voice in protest.

The following Saturday, packing away the gear from my bosses market stall I could see  a group of youths gathering on the square just below the walkway leading to Woolworths.  Mostly Punks and skins at first, but a few minutes later the members of a notorious local scooter club turned up.  Dressed in Para boots and olive green monkey jackets it was clear they meant business.  They were older by a few years than myself and my group of friends.  They were big brothers and lads who ‘had not finished school’ to coin a phrase.  I peeked through the heavy swing doors of the market hall and I swear you could smell the aggression, a heavy pheromone scent on the summer air. My boss told me to get on with it double quick and I could see everyone around me boxing up gear and busying themselves to get out of the area swiftly. 

Market traders don’t pack up early too readily, not if the shopping day isn’t over.  It must have been clear something was going to happen as the car park was empty of vans by just gone five.  I wandered round the back of Asda to retrieve my PX, only to see a whole flock of  much better machines surrounding it.  I realised that if I wanted to ride home that night I was probably going to have to lift it above my head to get it out.  The owners of the other scooters were by now beginning to face off with the few policemen who normally patrolled the town centre on a Saturday afternoon.  I turned on my heels and ran back in to the hall, my cheap loafers skidding about on the warm tarmac. I began to wish for my addidas three stripes. 

Still packing away a few trellises was a friend who imediately told me ‘They,’whoever they were, are ‘Bussing them in!’.  Not coppers, but other would be rioters from out of town. We bundled back in to the car park and started to extracate my trusty wheels from amongst the other machines.  It wasn’t easy, even two brawny young lads were no match for the PX which seemed to twist and turn as soon as it left the ground.  The uneven distribution of the weight and the awkward shape didn’t help one bit and we came close to toppling several other scoots, which in my imagination would have fell like Italian dominoes and leaving me with no choice but to spend the rest of my life in whitness protection.

For once the PX started up first time.  I donned my fake aviators  (obtained with loyalty coupons from the local Esso station), open faced Centurion helmet complete with peak and gunned the throttle.  It sounded good, but it also stopped the motor from dying which it often did, enabling me to buzz off out of the car park and on to the slip road.  By now I could hear shouting and jeering from the crowd that had built up.  I could see a few Harrington jackets now, a parka or two and a few more policemen. It was one of those several moments in my adult life when I wondered about how sensible it is to have a target on your back.  Strangely the main road was empty, so I cut across and headed in the direction of home.  Then I saw why, the road was coned off at the Park end and a phalanx of police, complete with riot shields and visors were moving in unison down the road sticks in hand. They were intending to catch the crowd in a  pincer movement, appearing unexpectedly behind them from the far side of the market hall.  Self preservation is a strong instinct within me, an instinct which shares a room with cowardice on a regular basis, so I made a u-turn and bombed off the other way. 

The other end of the road was around a bend which I discovered was blocked by two Panda cars and coppers in flat caps. At the time this usually denoted a higher rank. The cars were Vauxhall Chevettes with white doors and sky blue body work.    I turned again, mounted the pavement and rode over a grass verge towards a row of red brick houses.  It didn’t occur to me until several years later that I hadn't actually done anything wrong, but even so I felt guilty of something.  Almost like the rage I had felt for a few weeks had somehow fuelled what was currently going on in front of Woolworths.  I could see in my rear view mirror that one of the cars was now in pursuit, or at least I believed it was.  Of Course it wasn't, it was just driving a bit closer to the trouble, but  a guilty mind sees what it wants to see.  In my head I was now as wanted as Ronnie Biggs and I was determined to escape. 

Ahead of me was an alley, a ginnel between two rows of terraces.  I made straight for it, knowing it emerged on to some waste ground, which in turn faced on to the road past the speedway stadium.  There was no way the Chevette could get there in time to stop me without circumnavigating the whole estate and I would be home free.  I tried to make myself narrower by breathing in but the leg shields didn't understand and I must have hit every bin on my way through.  I was a great big pinball bouncing off everything.  No plastic wheelie bins back then.  Galvanized steel, two sharp handles and a rubber lid.  I emerged still upright but worse for wear leaving the bins I managed to kick out of the way rolling about behind me.  The almost perfect red paintwork was ‘scratched to buggery’ as my father would have put it, and I continued to bounce up and down like a space-hopper across the ruts and hummocks until I reached the road.

The rest of the country was literally going up in flames, but that was my only brush with the law, and an imaginary one at that.  When I did reach home my parents were watching the news with their tea on their laps.  My father was venting his disapproval at the attitudes of modern youth and explaining to me that they should organise themselves through the union movement rather than acting like hooligans.  I was in no mood to argue.  I went to my room and put a record on.  ‘Louie Louie’ by the Kingsmen hoping that the beat would override my paranoia.  I was sure they had my number and any minute now a Z-car would come screeching up the street and hand break turn in front of the house.   It was whole five minutes before my mother called up for me to turn it down a bit.

After this I felt a certain serenity descend upon me over the next few days, and though I'm a republican through and through I was one of  700 million people watched the Wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul's Cathedral in London.  Well not all of it, just enough to moan about the swelling of the civil list.  For most people though it seemed to be an indicator that the country was pulling itself back together.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Then more evidence of common sense descending came when on November 12th The Church of England General Synod voted to admit women to holy orders.  It was followed later in the month in Geneva, when representatives from the United States and the Soviet Union begin negotiating intermediate-range nuclear weapon reductions in Europe. I breathed a sigh of relief; the world wasn't going to end after all.

That Saturday night in Town had seen a few windows broken and even a report on the national news.  I don’t think it was as bad as it was reported to have been.  But I wouldn’t know as I had done a runner, so it may have looked like the barricade scene from Les Miserables.  Woolworth’s was looted of some of its finery.  A few deckchairs and the odd rubber ring. Plate glass from several well known chain stores including my beloved Littlewoods needed replacing. Plenty of heads were broken too, but none that didn’t mend.

By Christmas everyone seemed to have forgotten it had almost been the end of days.  I was saving up for a Crombie, but some lads had started wearing make up and shirts that looked like blouses.  Other than that it was quite a quiet December, observed through the golden haze of ‘Strongbow’.  I read in the paper that Arthur Scargill had become President-elect of the National Union of Mineworkers. Good I thought.  I looked forward to a quieter future.

 

 

 

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MOD LIFE CRISIS

There is a lot of talk of a Mod revival these days. Bradley Wiggins being a good example of a Mod role model for the media. The irony is that we never went away and when the clamour has died down Mods will still be there, won’t we? Like many young men and women who found their way in to the fold with the late seventies revival, I am approaching my half century and fighting to get in to the clothes the high street has re-labelled ‘Mod Fit’. So it seems a good time to re-assess and ask myself why I have stayed with it, or am I too old and Mod is really a young person’s game?

 Every morning I wake up and still think, what am I going to wear? I then spend a few minutes putting back the shirt I chose the night before, getting out a different one, changing my tie and sometimes undoing all the new choices and sticking with my original ideas. The wife banished my gear to a spare room long ago. She needs her sleep so my wandering about before the lark doesn’t keep her awake anymore, though she is always on at me to fix those creaky boards. The question I often ask when I’m weighing up a vintage knitted tie up against a new paisley silk one is should I still be bothered? Sipping my Italian coffee a few minutes later from a carefully chosen cup, as I buff my brogues to a high sheen, I ask myself am I a Mod or am I just bloody fussy about stuff that doesn’t really matter? It’s clearly a Mod life crisis. Until about five years ago the term ‘Mod’ had disappeared from my life for quite a while. And recently when Wiggins et al appeared on Television or the papers, my older friends would often say, ‘You were a Mod, weren’t you?’ I often had the urge to raise my hands in despair and explain I still was, launch in to a diatribe about how I had never totally surrendered my position for an easy existence and still flew the flag for the ‘Mod’ way of life. But I never did, and unless I’m berating the sales assistant in Ben Sherman about the quality of their shirts I still rarely mention the ‘M’ word in public.

The Mod psyche to me was always about aspiration. Oscar Wilde once said that we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking up at the stars. That’s Mod to me. Originally it was a working class movement followed by those that suddenly found themselves in an emergent post-war Britain with a small but economically significant disposable income. It eschewed the run down, make do and mend society in which it lived and was not so willing to imitate American youth movements like the Teddy Boys and Rockers of the day did. Its obsession with appearance, cleanliness and to an extent modernism as well as Mod-ism made it a movement that appealed to my character. It’s about grace under pressure, hard work and hard play, being the best and standing out. It’s about leading the way, but also being a positive member of a group. I identified my Mod-ism in the late 1970s and like my forebears I was rejecting the decrepit socio-economic system around me for something much better. So those stars to me were a good life, free from the constant threat of unemployment, a self contained existence armed to the teeth with qualifications and looking good thrown in. Those early desires aren’t Mod in themselves, but being a Mod has helped me to achieve some of them. So it doesn’t take a professor of sociology to realise the bubbling cauldron of economic collapse and the creative expression that it usually brings could be the main reason for a return to Mod for some of our more discerning contemporary youth.

 

 

Over the last five years, my personal resurgence has partially occurred through availability and development of modern technology all around me. It has opened doors and allowed me to re-establish bonds with other Mods that had broken. The recent availability of digital mass communication has enabled me to uncover the whereabouts of the rest of my urban tribe. The other reason for staying a Mod must also take in to account that it is a style, not a fashion, so even though it evolves it has at its core a set of iconic looks, desires and common themes that I have always stuck with. I am not a retro Mod, though I was once married to a 60s revivalist who would only style her look around original photographs or what she could purchase from vintage clothing emporia (Charity shops as they were then known). I myself have just continued to buy the same old things, but better quality since my income has risen slightly since 1979. These are now just classic pieces of menswear still in production. Chinos, knitted ties, button down collars and nice shiny brogues can be purchased anywhere that’s remotely decent. Every day I look smart. But some days it’s really obvious I am a Mod, as my clothing suddenly clicks with the expectations of others. There have been times it’s been hard to find a slim tie or trousers which are narrow enough, but it was always fun looking for them. But I know when I’m off kilter when the wife says it looks like something her dad would buy. Now recently that’s becoming a statement I worryingly hear a lot more.

I suppose I could have been a bit more explicit over the years, perhaps by donning a Parka, sporting a target patch or wearing my black Harrington more often. Perhaps I should have steered away from my obsession with British motorcycles and stuck with my PX, but I thought my identity was from within and any clichéd outward sign wasn’t really needed. In fact, I was right in believing another Mod would spot me from a mile off even if I wasn’t carrying a copy of Quadrophenia around in a plastic bag. It was at work. It was my line manager who spotted my Modism and even confessed to his own. But he did it in a surreptitious way, as though it was possibly an embarrassment to admit, as though it was his deep dark secret even though it was clear as day to me. The Brooks Brothers’ shirt, Church’s brogues, flannels and sharp Italian Blazer meant this man knew his gear. In a meeting we were got diverted and started to talk about our mutual battle with our wives about domestic decoration. I simply said I liked furniture to have clean simple lines and no ornamentation. I stated I was a Modernist, meaning Modernism the design movement originating around 1905. He thought I meant I was a Modernist as in Modern Jazz, or simply a Mod. He then produced his key ring with a target on it and told me his son had recently bought it for him. I responded by producing a Paul Weller CD from my filing cabinet and putting it on the battered CD player on a nearby dusty shelf. He then leant forward and told me that Chris, another colleague, once owned a scooter. It was obvious, even in his late forties Chris still had that rude boy look about him. We were outed. So from then on it’s been a three handed battle to look the best. I even bought a burgundy lab coat and had the textiles teacher put a velvet collar on it as a joke.

In essence it’s easier to be a confessed Mod when you are no longer alone. It was at that point I started to notice that there was a bit of resurgence and an on line community. I was even surprised to find that there were specialist shops; I mean places where you don’t have to sort through stacks of dullness to find a bit of diamond gear. Ok, I admit, it was obvious but I just hadn’t been looking. I had retreated in to a shell, made shopping a habit and took myself somewhat for granted. The trouble is I now need more wardrobe space that my wife and my shoe collection rivals Imelda Marcos. My better half keeps asking me how many pairs do I need?

 

 

My other Mod-life crisis issue is that Mod-ism has its roots in a certain tradition too, it uses roundels and union flags as part of its graphic presentation, its associated with a point in history when Britain started to flourish, so Mod subculture is one of optimism and that’s a good reason to still turn to it. To me it’s the positive face of nationalism if there is one. There is a pride in being British, because of its heart felt desire to embrace a multi-cultural version of our society that enriches us creatively and economically. Or at least I thought so as a kid. I have met a sad few who reject this version of my country and though they label themselves as Mod, as far as I’m concerned they exclude themselves because of this. Like button down shirts I’ve stuck with the notion that Britain, is a place for everyone regardless of your colour or religion. The recent Olympics proved to me, not that I needed proof, that there is strength in our union and the recent resurgence in admitting to being Mod has to be seen as part of that. I do fear that it might be mistaken for, or hijacked by the resurgent Right Wing. I refer to those bigots who once climbed on board the Skinhead movement, who now try and masquerade as political parties. Skins, Mods and Rude Boys shared a lot back in the late twentieth century. Haircuts, shoes and clothes were widely, though not totally, interchangeable, but I did notice even as kid a tendency to associate the union flag (the clue is in the name) with something slightly unpleasant, an undercurrent of racism. Coming from a very traditional Northern Western town it was there, but not explicit. The only Afro-Caribbean lad in the town was a mate from school. We were all ‘in it together’ so race wasn’t an issue. But there were times when I saw outright hostility to the immigrant community from a small amount of certain individuals which could only be equated with the Nazis. Some of these people were dressed like me. I was shocked, in my small town naivety I thought my country had risen above that. Even now I know we haven’t, we still have people who want to exclude and divide our Nation. I’m not saying that we can sweep aside the issues that arise with conflicting beliefs and cultures, but what I am saying is that we owe it to ourselves to try. Its hard work, but I’m a Mod, so it’s within my nature to devote time to things until the problem is solved. What I am saying is that I don’t want my movement, my clan, becoming associated with the problem. I see us as part of the solution. I don’t want people thinking that because I have a target on my lapel my uncle was Oswald Moseley.

My next issue is clothes, the one universal obsession that all Mods share. Fred Perry and Ben Sherman are undeniably iconic Mod brands and ownership of their products are to an extent de rigueur. If you go in to your local Ben Sherman outlet you will see the word Mod everywhere. Slim fit is now Mod fit. However this is a recent thing and just like Citroen has tried to disown the 2CV, Sherman was, until recently just a tad Mod averse or even a little embarrassed about its roots. But no brand is bigger than the movement. Austin Reed was probably the original Mod outfitters, and high street greats like Jaeger and even Marks and Spencer’s were, and are, just as Mod if you look hard enough. I wear what I fancy, what I feel fits, even if its from Matalan, After all there is a profusion of Mod standard items such as desert boots and polo shirts for instance and there is no law that you can’t search for a similar item by another manufacturer if the fancy takes you. In fact though Mods follow, they also lead and like the M51Parka a lot of older Mods see these brands as a bit of a cliché. This has become the case since Sherman, in particular, has lowered their quality. The introduction of their Plectrum designer brand does seem a bit disingenuous too. Shouldn’t all Sherman stuff be well designed and good quality? Plus that little plectrum logo looks naff compared to the signature.

Then there is the belly, or the cake shelf as my wife calls it, it’s that slump of excess which varies in mass depending on how much salad I eat. Most of the older Mods I know have one, and the middle aged Mod just can’t be expected to be the shape of a twenty year old. Recently in the Penguin shop a young lad steered me towards the standard fit section, informing me that essentially cutting edge Penguin gear was no longer designed for me. Age has finally disenfranchised me I thought. I just hope that Sherman and friends remember that not all Mods, even the young ones, are slim or I will be what they describe as 2XL forever. As I like to call it ‘Contentment Fit’.

There is evidence that my generation is valued though, and our life and times can be considered as art. I refer to ‘This is England’ piece of cinematic genius. Not since Ken Loache’s Kes has a film really left me startled by its rawness. Now the early eighties is far enough gone to be brought in to the realms of nostalgia there will probably be quite a few visits to this period of the the Mod revival time line. My daughter seemed to be particularly happy to peak in to a cinematic version of my youth and certainly gained a greater understanding of her Dad’s formative years because of it. Other films have stayed with me though. Bill Liar and Room at the Top, these films also reflect the emptiness at the core of working class society, and how the working class British male in particular is searching for an identity. We have very little folk culture in Britain. The industrial revolution wiped it out in the sudden rural depopulation. Since then men in particular have searched for a group identity beyond a sneaky bit of Morris dancing. This England is about people, like me, in their late 40s now, and their children are being presented with the sub-culture of their parents in a way I wasn’t. They can identify with the socio-economic circumstances as they reflect what is happening now within a new economic depression. With wardrobes full of their mum’s and dad’s vintage gear and parental approval we are seeing a return to what I perceive a Rude-boy semi Skinhead culture rather than a purely Mod one. Looking at the Warrior clothing website there is clearly a call for this type of gear and it can’t just be old geezers like me. My daughter is a bit more eclectic than I, but I know where my target T shirt is if I can’t find it, and she hassled me until I bought her a Harrington to go with her Doc Martin’s. In the nicest possible way this is one of the reasons that I feel I might be past it. Am I now a museum piece for my daughter’s friends to look at and say that I’m stylish for an old chap and am I in danger of dressing too young now a lot of my style is …well…back in fashion?

 

 

I suppose I saw things in, and was influenced by old movies. Actors like Steve McQueen, James Dean, Tom Courtney, etc loomed large over my wardrobe. These icons of my youth are now largely forgotten by contemporary society. Technology and the media move so fast, very few things find a permanent niche anymore. The slow pace of life that once was, gave us time to build heroes in our imagination. Personalities didn’t flicker and go as they do now. Perhaps the new Mods will do the same. Here today and gone tomorrow, just a few new converts hanging on just as we did when the nineties came. So okay, I admit it, I’m not quite ready to hang up my parka yet to use a well worn tabloid cliché. My hopes and fears will come and go as usual. Mod has had plenty of opportunity to die out. In between resurgences there have always been those that keep the faith. I sprung from the Quad revival and I have held on to the basics ever since. Mod is me, I am Mod. It’s ingrained so I can’t escape it. I’ll stick with thinking like a roundhead and dressing like a cavalier. After all just as I remember bunking in to the Odeon to see Quadrophenia with its X certificate, some Mod in thirty years time will be re-counting how they cheered when Wiggins crossed that line and they went out and bought a Fred Perry to celebrate. I’ll move on to my next crisis. Life changing things such as can you wear Argyll socks in the summer if they are beige? That has kept me worrying for days.

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ONE STEP BEYOND! TRIBUTE TO THE DESERT BOOT.

The last thing you need on your feet in a rain drenched northern town in winter is a pair of suede boots.  As the freezing droplets blow in over the Mersey and sting your face you can feel the gradual seep of water into your socks.  As your feet begin to freeze, you pull the hood of your parka further over your face as if it will make a difference to the temperature of the rest of your body.  Off you go, past the high rises, along the main street and in to the council estates beyond.  The mid tan of your boots has grown in to slick black when you reach home.  You wrench them off in the hall and quietly climb the midnight stairs, desperately trying to avoid awakening your parents.  Your door is slightly ajar and you enter the warm room, the clicks and creaks of the fading central heating can be heard. The cooling pipes contract beneath the floor boards as you stuff the toes of the boots behind the radiator, haul off your drenched coat and Levis.  You climb beneath the blankets just as the wet dog aroma of your cooking boots fills the air and an uneasy sleep engulfs you. 

 

The boots are still damp the next morning, the black now an unpleasant grey, giving way to the original colour, clawing its way back across the instep with white salt stains delineating the frontier.  You put your loafers on instead. They don’t really cover enough of your foot to be truly effective if it’s another deluge. But the oxblood glow inspires you to greater things and you slip on your pair of Prince of Wales, half mast enough to display a couple of inches of white sock.  Then after a bowl of cornflakes and slice of Wonderloaf toast, you are back out on the streets amongst the Airwear, monkey boots and basket weaves. 

 

You miss your desert boots and you hope the stitching won’t have dissolved. The insoles always peel away, even when it’s dry, but you pray they hold together.  They are comfortable and if you wire brush them hard enough they are the wild buckskin shoes The Who sing about.  Yours are from the town market, they were made in Poland.  It’s not quite Italy, but it’s still exotic.  You wonder if there are Mods in the Eastern-Bloc?  As you pass Clarks near the post office, you look through the window at the rows of anonymous footwear.  At the back of the shop are the desert boots, just like your own, but twice, maybe three times the price.  It starts to spit and you realise the Harrington’s not enough so you duck in to the library. You go to the music section and leaf through the acres of 12” vinyl, as you do so the world around your starts to dissolve.  The edges of reality fading fast into a spinning vortex about the centre of the LP you are holding.  The deep red background of the Polydor logo stretches in to a crimson cloud as the vortex of time hurls you forward.  With a sudden jolt you find yourself standing there with the same LP in your hand, but it’s on a CD.  It doesn’t have the same feeling of quality the vinyl had.  You worry that its flimsiness indicates the content now lacks merit.  Over thirty years have disappeared.  You look down and there’s a pair of desert boots on your feet.  Clarks.  Well over fifty quid, perfect in every detail.

 

I’m not the only one that thinks some things never change, just the price of things.  Any Mod from seventy nine onward will have owned a cheap pair of dessert boots, imported from abroad and purchased for cash over the counter in the precinct or a market stall.  They will have sat in the wardrobe alongside a pair of loafers, a monkey boot or two, maybe even a pair of Docs if you edged along the rude-boy look.  If not they will have taken their rightful place next to a pair of Jam or bowling shoes, deck pumps or basket weaves. Without doubt it’s the item of Mod footwear that brings us all together, like the intersecting middle portion of a Venn diagram that nobody really understood in CSE maths.  They are stylish and rugged as long as they are dry, and like us they improve with age.  There’s nothing close to a battered desert boot when it comes to imparting an air of authority on the wearer, and to be fair to Clark’s, the original manufacturer, a good pair will last you for a long time if you wear them sensibly.

 

Officially the Desert Boot was designed in the late 1940’s by Nathan Clark.  It made its first official appearance during 1950 at the Chicago Shoe Fair.  Clark can’t take all the credit for it though, as he borrowed some of the design having seen something similar when serving in Egypt during the Second World War.  He noticed a crepe-soled boot made from suede in the famous Bazaar in Cairo.  Officers of the British Eighth Army, the legendary desert rats wore them during their off duty hours instead of the heavy military issue boots. The simple construction and instant comfort were a hit with the veterans of desert combat and they were pleased to shed their leather footwear in favour of these casual wonders.  After duty in Burma, Nathan sent his ideas to Street, Somerset, where his brother, Bancroft, was chairman of the famous British shoe manufacturer and retailer.  Nathan had already worked on a design for a brown suede boot and his Egyptian experiences had galvanised his ideas to a point where he sent sketches and rough patterns back to Bancroft.  Surprisingly enough nothing happened, a typical British reaction to a good idea.  Perhaps the war had made people fear change; they’d had enough of that. Clark’s would have need to take a bit of a chance on the boot and with materials rationed and shoes being expensive perhaps they felt it was too much of a step to take with precious resources .

 

The stock committee superintendent at the time, Arthur Martin, was adamant that the boots wouldn’t sell. Nathan disagreed vehemently and when he returned to work after his duties and began cutting the patterns himself.  He then used his capacity as Overseas Development Manager, to show his prototype boots to Oscar Schoeffler, the fashion editor of Esquire magazine.   The magazine ran an illustrated story and Clark’s had an instant bestseller on its hands.  Clarks themselves have sold over 12 million pairs, which is a conservative figure, and other companies have offered similar patterns ever since.  Clark’s have outlets in over a hundred countries so their shoe is well travelled to say the least.  My first hand experience of this was in Venice last year. I stood still with nationalistic pride as I saw there was a Clark’s not far from St Mark’s square.  Taking pride of place in the window was whole range of desert boots and around me hundreds of very stylish Italians wearing them.  Sadly I had a pair of Italian loafer on at the time, but I could see the irony.

 

The boot has a range of admirers. Robert Plant, Pete Townsend and Bob Dylan regularly slip a pair on.  My personal favourite is Crusty the Clown, sorry I mean Cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke.  I mean there is a dark horse.  As much as I hate any acolyte of Thatcher, putting on a pair of suede’s has certainly made me think there’s more to him than a grovelling crony.   The original boot is also an enduring design.  Even Liam Gallagher couldn't ruin its reputation by trying to re-style it as part of his Pretty Green clothing label.  Leave it Liam, it doesn't need re-inventing especially by somebody whose stock in trade is pastiche tunes riding on the backs of the greats.   Tony Blair was seen wearing a pair in 1999 during a vain attempt to align himself with Cool Britannia, perhaps they were a pair of Liam’s cast off's left at NO.10 after one of Tony’s many tea parties?  Either way, even Blair couldn't undermine their cool.Nathan was 94 when he died in New York, where he had lived for many years.  His boots live on and are perhaps most recently treasured in Jamaica where they are prized, sung about and their progress charted in a book called ‘Clarks in Jamaica’ by Al Newman.  It tells the story of how the Somerset firm became shoemakers to the reggae industry.  Its hardly surprising that a Commonwealth country which has had such a massive artistic influence on the UK should, in turn, be influenced by something quintessentially ’Mother Country’.

 

Time moves on again, its vortex picking up speed.  Once again you become intangible and the disc you are holding fades.  The holographic cover becomes something projected from the small disc glued on your palm and the music is transmitted directly to the implant in your ear.  The sounds fill your head at a perfect volume.  You could be in the studio.  You step forward on to the tram, its carriages levitating on a magnetic field above the single rail below, so it moves away without a jolt.  You look down at the floor, its litter free.  The toes of your desert boots come in to view, they are a little worn and maybe need a work over with suede brush.  You remember when they only cost sixty quid.  Those were the days eh?

Bill V

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The Beasts In The Cellar

THE BEASTS IN THE CELLAR

 

With Halloween behind us and the spectre of Christmas ahead, the darkness draws us around the evening fires to swap stories of mystery and suspense.  We allow our imagination to populate the darkness with imaginary of abominations, hideously disfigured monsters and hopeless terrors. The Beast in the Cellar is a horror film from 1970 where two ageing sisters keep their deformed and homicidal brother in the basement. He escapes from this incarceration and goes on a murderous rampage in the bleak rural landscape that surrounds the sister’s farm. Trying to hide that which is not right is a popular theme in horror and as the film unfolds you begin to understand why the sisters took the course of action they did.  I would like to recount a similarly tale of terror, one that deals with monsters, creatures which had no right to exist on this earth, constructions of terror that have largely been forgotten.  Things that when remembered will serve as a warning that certain paths should never be trodden again.  So please, sit down and brace yourself for a very frightening thought that may well haunt a Mod for the rest of their life.  That thought is, that in the past, both the British and German Motorcycle industries have produced scooters.  The true horror of this statement can only be appreciated when you see the hideous apparitions that stumbled from the mist of post war Britain and the shattered ruins of the Reich.  We can only be thankful that the Italians laid down a beautiful genotype that has blossomed and become the pattern for the rest of the world to copy.

For most of us the tale starts in Italy in 1922, when Ferdinando Innocenti built a factory in Rome. In 1931, he moved to Milan where his factory produced seamless steel tubing. During WW2, the factory was bombed and whilst surveying the ruins, Innocenti saw his future in the production of cheap, private motor transport. He decided to design and manufacture a motor scooter.  Now if Hollywood were to have been in charge of this moment, Innocenti in his linen suit and clean, white, open necked shirt would climb to the pinnacle of the smoking rubble.  Framed by a Technicolor blue sky above the ruins he would be struck by an epiphany, where the Lambretta scooter would come to him as a fully formed vision.  This simply isn’t true, and though its hard to swallow his idea was kind of borrowed.

The incubus of the design for the Lambretta and the Vespa originates in pre-WW2 America. Cushman scooters made in Nebraska were often used as delivery vehicles in small town USA and during the war this company made a military version.  Painted drab olive green and stripped of all panelling these scooters, along with other types of two wheelers were in Italy in large numbers due to the allied occupation. As well as the Cushman there was the British made Welbike.  Both were small, low, balloon tyred vehicles which look to most untrained eyes like an early Lambretta.  The Welbike was also interesting because it’s seat and handle bars folded away, making it possible to drop it in cylinder from an aircraft with a bunch of paratroopers.  From my experiences restoring classic two wheelers of all types, I have gleaned that these machines though useful, were never reliable, which is why perhaps the British attempt at scooter production should have stopped there.  Most vehicles made at this time were unreliable by modern standards, but the Welbike more so.  Dropping it out of an aeroplane in to a war zone did it no favours I expect.

 

Inocenti employed the aeronautical engineer Corradino D'Ascanio to design his vehicle.  This man is responsible for the design and construction of the first modern helicopter by the Augusta Company, so its hardly surprising that the Lambretta eventually inherited a slightly art-deco design, with cues taken from the fast streamlined aircraft of the 1930s.  As a competitor to the motorcycle it needed to be cheap in comparison and afford the rider weather protection. D’Ascanio’s brief was to design a simple, robust and affordable vehicle. It had to be easy to drive for both men and women, carry a passenger and not get its driver's clothes soiled. 

Now use your imagination here, envisage a bright day in Milan at Innocenti’s design office.  The bright sunlight is pouring through open windows, the sound of jazz music and the clink of espresso cups can be heard from the street below.  The chatter of beautiful Italian women fills the air as they shop at the local market. D’Ascanio is sitting in his comfortable swivel chair smoking as he languidly surveys his drawing board.  The aroma of decent coffee wafts his way from a small cup on his plan chest.  Innocenti walks in and peers over his shoulder, he claps a firm hand on his back.  He nods happily.  “Bella, Bella!”

Now the horror starts, let your minds eye fly north, back in time, as we glide over the Alps to central Europe and beyond to Germany.  Not a defeated and ruined country but an Imperial power busy re-modelling the Low-Countries with the use of a howitzer.  The German scooter story begins with Zündapp in 1917, a company founded by Dr. Fritz Neumeyer and Friedruch Krupp.  The company shortened their original name, Zünder-und-Apparatebau, to Zündapp in 1921. Its interesting to note that an advertisement of the day proclaimed that their motorcycles were "Motorrades für jedermann,". This translates as ‘Motorcycles for everyone, a bit like the peoples car concept that appeared a few years later.  During WW2 they produced a range of superbly engineered motorcycles for the military. 

Afterwards they rebuilt their factory to produce sewing machines and light engineering.  Vehicles and weapons were clearly off the menu as the victorious allies once again restricted what could be produced.  Bear in mind that the little Villiers engines you often find in lawn mowers and smaller British bikes, as well as the big Sunbeam twins of the fifties were German designs taken as war reparations.  These Germans were no strangers to decent power plants so in 1951 they constructed a Moped factory. 

Now don’t get me wrong, having ridden oil gushing British bikes and smoky, rusting, Italian scooters I can’t fault German engineering.  The BMW flat twin has been in production since the 1930s in various guises and it still works a treat.  You don’t need an oil tray under a German machine.  What I can argue with is their ‘Teutonic’ styling. In 1951 Zündapp latched on to the scooter craze sweeping Italy and set about designing a few prototypes based on Italian designs.  Zündapp decided that Germany was ready for a nationally produced scooter.  But there is no bright sunlight gushing through the windows of the Zundapp offices, no market chatter and the coffee was nowhere near as nice.  With a dark Wagnerian sky above, the country split in two and sturdy alpine maidens slapping down a frankfurter for your dinner on a paper plate, it’s hardly surprising that the German scooter lacks a certain style.

 

They were off to a good start though with a machine called the Bella.  See the Italian reference in the name, so in their defence that’s one step ahead of us Brits a few years later.   It is not as curvy as the Italian machines of the time, but the smart design did catch the eye of the press.  It was given a reasonable welcome at the 1953 Frankfurt show.  It was characterized by a very large front mudguard with a slim rear.  It had a tubular frame similar to a motorcycle.  The Bella had a strong resemblance to the Moto Parilla Levrier scooter. It had large wheels and at first it was produced in a 150cc model, but later this was bored out to a 200cc capacity. This generated a mighty 10hp which wasn’t bad for its day and it could out run motorcycles of a similar capacity.  The fact was though it didn’t have any of the engineering innovation of its Mediterranean fore-bears and none of the unique quirkiness.  When you look at a Vespa, or a Lambretta you will notice that the styling seems to flow in a horizontal sweep towards the rear.  It tapers like a wasp (Vespa) and all the upright lines slope backward.  Even when parked the feeling of rapid forward movement still remains.  It uses our natural instincts to create the illusion of forward motion in a gentle elegant way.  The general format of an early German or even an American scooter fails to do this.  All the panels and structures produce a bell like pattern towards the ground. It imbues the designs with a clumsy look but does encourage thoughts of stability but at the same time a hovering inactivity. 

In the movie invasion of the body snatchers, people are taken over by aliens from pods.  They look exactly the same, but real people know that things ain’t right.  This is the feeling you get with the Bella.  In 1955 an electric start version of the 200cc model was released as well as a special American model called the Suburbanette.  Sadly for Zundapp this just didn’t sell. Perhaps they looked too much like the old Cushman scooters to provide any market advantage, perhaps they were just too heavy and looked like a suit of armour instead of a fighter plane.  Despite the fact that, on the whole, these vehicles have been consigned to the dungeons of the popular consciousness they did try hard.  An electric start in 1955 was a pretty promising thing, when across the channel in Blighty just getting a two wheeler to start was the pressing thing. It’s Roller 50 and RS50 scooters were very slimmed down. These scooters, which were very similar to the Lambrettas of the day, were made until 1984. The smaller, 50cc engine was in line with the engineering trends but sales were disappointing.  For the next 20 years, they produced these two scooters in ever decreasing numbers.  I suppose the lure of an Italian scooter was just too much.  Why have a lumpen German copy when you can have an original.  In the mid 1980s, Zündapp began to experience severe financial troubles and as a result, the entire stock and factory was sold to China.  Zundapp weren’t the only German scooter manufacturers by any means.  Plenty of famous names went in to production.  NSU were a motorcycle company, Heinkel and even Messerschmitt the plane makers also made scooters. Some were original designs and others were made under licence. Like Zundapp they too went to the wall, their identities swallowed by big European conglomerates.  It was always going to be difficult selling a scooter with a Messerschmitt pedigree outside the former Reich.

The Germans can be forgiven for their two wheeled transgressions; their Vespa-esque doppelgänger were well meaning and serious.  The people I can’t forgive for their laziness, cynicism and arrogant stupidity are the British.  What dogged the British scooter is what brought about the demise of the British car and motorcycle industry as a whole. Just sheer bloody complacency, profiteering and management stupidity. So let’s go back to the drawing office.  This time we are below a friendly but cloudy Birmingham sky.  The designers work diligently, drinking lukewarm tea from chipped mugs and eating cheese sandwiches delivered by Edna with a Woodbine hanging from her bottom lip.  The crusts have curled up a bit, but the cheese is decent.  The office is lit by a skylight which looks out over a city which was once the workshop of the whole world, exporting quality engineered goods across the biggest empire humanity had ever seen.

It could have been the Gattino (kitten), the Veloce (fast), The Piccolo (small) the Dynamico (Dynamic) and they are just a few ideas using the Google translator. But no we came up with the Triumph Tigress, and the BSA Sunbeam.  It’s a warning isn’t it?  Pannini or two slices of Warburton’s.  Let’s go for the Warburton’s, you know where you are with that don’t you?  At least the Germans had made an effort with Bella.  It’s at this point where I confess to discovering the existence of the British scooter industry when answering the add for what I thought was a Triumph Tiger.  It was only a couple of hundred quid and was complete.  It was in a few tea chests and it needed rebuilding.  So off I went expecting to find a bargain example of Edward Turner’s twin cylinder, single carburettor classic road bike. No wonder it was cheap there had been a printing error, some Charlie had left off ‘ess’.  I already had Vespa PX125 why would I want a box of scrap purporting to be a scooter?  I even asked the vendor was he certain this was a Triumph?  Later on my dad, a native of the Midlands told me both the BSA and Triumph factories made scooters.  Of course they were designed for girls and like him, real men, bought a BSA A10 or a Bonnie. 

 

I love all two wheeled transport, but as a Mod the scooter is the one you can have the most fun with, but I’m not averse to motorcycles and in the past I have rebuilt several classics and owned some really fast and very efficient Japanese marques too.  At the end of the day though tootling along on my almost reliable, humble PX will always fill the halcyon day’s category in my head.  But if one oily monster does stand out of the crowd then it was my Pre-unit 650 Triumph Bonneville.  It’s not your standard Mod machine I’ll grant you that, but if the British motorcycle industry ever hit a peak it was with this animal.  It simply wiped out everything else on the planet in its day, not just in speed, but in looks and engineering genius.  At a time when a great big thumping 500 cc single cylinder was standard, Edward Turners economically priced parallel twin was something new.  Without this to rip off there would be no Jap bikes and it is arguably the worlds most imitated motorcycle design.  The irony is that the entry of the BSA group into the scooter field was announced by Edward Turner himself and he was in charge of the design.  So technically his Tigress would be a winner, wouldn't it?

No because it was ‘a scooter designed to have good performance and handling for the motorcycle enthusiast’.    Turner in his wisdom, or lack of it had failed to understand that Motorcycle enthusiasts don’t ride scooters.  They ride motorcycles.  Back then they liked scratching along B roads at high speed, their knees scraping the tarmac or their shoulder clipping the hedges, their goggled heads low over their tank and their silk scarf flapping in the wind like a flag.  A bit like now really except on a motorway.  Scooters are urban machines and let’s face it they are quick to accelerate, negotiate traffic and turn on a sixpence leaving a motorcycle standing, but flat out, head to head with a bike on a main road the difference between the two becomes glaring. I can’t help thinking that Turner despite his genius didn't really understand that scooters were as much about style as engineering and it was already 1958.  Even the Germans had the drop on us. He should have built a machine for stylish people in a hurry who didn't have time to get their hands dirty.

In October of that year he announced there would be a 250 cc Scooter model which would have a cruising speed of 55 to 60 mph (89 to 97 km/h) and petrol consumption of 120 miles per gallon. A prototype 250 cc BSA Sunbeam was displayed at the 1958 Earl’s Court Cycle and Motor Cycle Show and it wasn't bad looking for a non-Italian example. This bright new machine was supposed to start manufacture in late 1959, but delivery difficulties were to follow due to problems with recruiting labour.  Unlike now, back then as I am reliably informed, you could walk out of job one morning and walk in to a new one in the afternoon.  Anyone who wanted work could find it and there simply weren't enough skilled people to go around. It was claimed that the group had a manufacturing capacity of 50,000 machines a year but this was an optimistic assessment and the lads at the factories were suffering from lack of investment in machinery and tooling.  Much of it had been there prior to the war and nobody was in a hurry to replace it.  Already Turner and his ilk were showing a complacency that would be their down fall and they were failing to see that the rest of the worlds were not only catching up, but especially in the case of the Japanese, over taking them with efficiency but even more importantly innovation..

The design by Turner’s group drew upon Triumph's long experience of building fast motorcycles, and just like British Leyland, years later, the machines were sold under two brand names to take advantage of established and complex distribution networks. This badge engineering was one of the last uses of the Sunbeam name. The differences between the BSA Sunbeam and Triumph Tigress were entirely cosmetic.  The former was in polychromatic green paint or two-tone red and cream, with a BSA badge; the latter in a shell like blue with the important and still prestigious Triumph badge. So it was clear somebody had thought about marketing somewhere, though two tone tanks on bikes were pretty standard.

The machine was available with a bulky 250 cc four-stroke twin power plant or 175 cc two-stroke single-cylinder engines.  This stroker used the BSA Bantam engine, one of BSA’s world wide successes, a small, cheap and relatively fast starter or commuter bike.  In my opinion this machine already fulfilled the niche in Turner’s head that he was aiming the scooter at.  If he could have spotted this there might have been a different outcome to this story.  The Bantam for all its faults was a proper, rugged little motorcycle which was easily maintained at home with a spanner and a can of two stroke oil.  The four-stroke motor intended for the bigger scooter was a completely new parallel-twin with gear rather than chain drive to the gearbox and not as easy to deal with as the other unit. Further specification information tells us more about its complexity as the contact-breaker fed two ignition coils, each of which had a lead to its spark plug without a distributor. Drive to the rear wheel was by a fully enclosed chain in an oil bath.  Oil bath of course is the phrase with any British machine of this time, as it was what every owner took when they removed any part off their machine.

Both versions had four gears which were foot operated not mounted on the bars and actuated by cable. Some of the 250 twins were fitted with an electric starter and a 12 volt electrical system which showed some thought along the lines of Zundapp. The 250 twin sold very well at first and could easily reach 70 mph with its efficient suspension engendering good road holding.  Ten inch wheels were small compared to the huge rims Turner and his men were used to dealing with so they had put plenty of brain time in to keeping the vehicle going in its intended direction. This would indicate that by both luck and design Turner had himself a potentially world beating machine on his hands that could rival the Italians.  Truth is you cold see a Sunbeam from a distance and not become unduly worried by its British providence and though Turner had missed the point a bit, it wasn't enough to consign this two-wheeler to the dungeon straight away.  Let’s say it was more an evil twin than a cellar dwelling mutant.

The only problem was build quality.  Not that we haven’t heard this before in the context of British auto-manufacturing.  I quote one vintage owner from a rally.  “The Tigress is a joy to own so long as someone else is paying the maintenance bills.  But it was always like that.”

As a result, the 250 cc four-stroke model was discontinued in 1964 and the smaller 175 cc two-stroke model a year later at the height of the Mod movement.  The two strokes probably survived a bit longer to use up stock piled parts that were also common to the long lived Bantam.  The truth is there was always internal opposition in the company from those who felt that scooters would dilute the macho image of the British motorcycle brands.  Despite this they did produce other scooters and a sad leaning motor tricycle for "shoppers". The Triumph Tina and the Ariel 3 tricycle were intended to tap into the market segment for a convenient 'shopping basket' and because they were aimed at women the machismo of the management was in no way offended.  Considering the machines that Ariel had given birth to, including the remarkable and mighty Square Four, the tricycle was an insult and the Tina.  Well that was as inglorious as its name sounds. 

The Triumph Tina was with a 100 cc two stroke machine with an automatic transmission, and so I am informed, a shopping basket.  It was not unlike the successful Honda 50 in its original brief. Its lack of gears meant it was ‘ideal for a woman’, Clearly the British motorcycle industry thought gears too complicated to be operated by a girl despite the fact that most domestic transport  between 1939 and 1945 was operated by females including our very own Queen.  Sexism was ingrained back then and there was a hint of disapproval at any woman who had the temerity to be motorised, but the Mini was to change all that.  Cars and other machinery could be designed with women in mind without patronising them.

The real problem with the Tina was that it used a continuously variable transmission (CVT) system with a centrifugal clutch; the system had been patented by Turner and Triumph in May 1959. The engine itself was mounted on the rear swinging arm rather than in the main frame, which unlike on a motorcycle, could not form a sturdy cradle. An extensive marketing campaign was carried out, fronted by the English Elvis, Cliff Richard.  Clearly a case of minimal ‘Power to all our friends’!

You guessed it though. The Tina's patented drive train had problems. The CVT drive belt derailed easily, causing the transmission to seize.  Not only did this disable the scooter but also prevented the damn thing from being pushed home through the mucky streets in the rain. Also, the starting procedure for the Tina required moving a switch on the handlebar to "start" before kick starting the scooter. This activated a safety governor to keep the engine speed too low to activate the transmission. If the switch were to be left in "drive" while the scooter was being started, the motorcycle would accelerate immediately. This happened to Turner who really saw his own arse when he crashed into a kerb and a broke his ankle.  Maybe this was the gods of Mod punishing him for propelling leather clad rockers about with smiles on their faces.

The Tina was replaced by the Triumph T10 in 1965. This included an improved CVT and the "start/drive" control moved to inside the seat.  Here the "drive" setting would be activated by the rider's weight. This weight-activated switch ensured that the rider was seated before the drive was engaged and was quite an innovative thing to do.  But as usual a casual, arrogant attitude of leaving things to chance led to an embarrassing incident at its press launch. The switch had been set at 10 stone.  The dolly bird who was to ride the scooter away weighed only 8 stone.  As a result the switch would not activate and the scooter remained motionless, as did sales until its inevitable demise five years later.

Not for one minute do I believe that Italian scooters are heaven sent and faultless, but their strength lies in the fact they were born from necessity and designed for a real purpose.  They weren’t bandwagon jumpers like the Germans or a styling exercises like that of a massive British conglomerate.  They were a product of the Italian post-war urban landscape with its tiny alleys, crowded city roundabouts and a complete dearth of parking.  Most of the country was still dusty rural tracks and sleepy piazzas.  They made the best of the economic circumstances and materials of the time.  Britain with its miles of wet and leafy B roads, rebuilt modern town centres (courtesy of the Luftwaffe) and emerging Motorway systems was a wildly different place.

Like Germany there were other British scooter builders, though many examples were half way houses between these and other machines.  Feet first motorcycle is perhaps more apt; and for a while even the jewel in the crown of British biking, Vincent, dressed their machines up with ergonomic panelling. If the classic bike clubs ever read this article I’ll be lynched for saying it, but the Vincent  Black Prince, a full blown 1000cc V-Twin, looks like it dressed up as a scooter for Halloween.

 

Now before I leave I must mention DKR, another forgotten Scooter Company. It was founded in 1957 by three industrialists; Barry Day, managing director of the Willenhall Motor Radiator Company, Noah Robinson, another director of the Company, and Cyril Kieft, who built racing cars.  He also imported motor scooters and he had the expertise required to come up with a decent vehicle. The company was run from premises at Pendeford Airport. Cyril Kieft designed the machines, which were constructed at the Willenhall Motor Radiator Company's factory in Neachells Lane.  Once more a Midlands exercise, it’s almost as if somebody woke up one morning and decided they might have a go at building a scooter and just got on with it.  Expertise in frame making and design wasn’t hard to find in the area.  After all people still wax lyrical about the Norton Featherbed, so welding two wheels and an engine together was probably something most engineers could do in Birmingham. 

 

It’s not as if you couldn't go for a walk and pick up all the other bits you needed off a shelf.  Wheels, motor, carb, lights and anything else required could be obtained locally from a range of willing suppliers. Their first machine, the 'Dove', appeared in July 1957. It was powered by a Villiers 150 cc fan-cooled engine. It was fitted with a three-speed gearbox, and a kick starter, and was painted in 2 tone blue.  Sales were very good and more models soon followed. The 'Pegasus', 'Defiant' and 'Manx' were introduced in 1958.  'Defiant' had a bigger motor with a quite reliable 12 Volt 'Dynastart' electric starter. It was also fitted with a four-speed gearbox, a Villiers carburettor, and could achieve 60 mph .  Compared with a Vespa these things still looked like monsters.  Their fixed one piece front mudguard, leg shield and light assembly was wide enough for the wheel to turn inside it.  Weirdly though, DKRs though not Italian, do have a strange originality about them.  They don’t imitate like the Sunbeam they kind of re-assess.1960 saw the launch of the 'Capella' range powered by a choice of engine sizes, all single-cylinder, two-strokes. In 1966, due to falling sales and increased foreign competition DKR packed it in.

Innocenti’s crew had glimpsed the immediate future and in terms of styling they used the familiarity of the past, the streamlining of the 1930s, and a dash of foresight in the direct requirements of their contemporary clients and modern rationalised manufacture.  Over the years this has lead Italian scooters along a gentle road, straddling what has been and looking carefully at what is to come.  They have sought out style rather than embracing fashion.  They have done it seemingly effortlessly so their machines never jar or look particularly antique.  For some reason their American, German and British competitors felt that scooters needed to herald the future.  This is why many of them now look like retro-futurism or steam punk fantasies.  Contemporary views of the future quickly become anachronistic. Our lack of ability to predict the march of technology means our visions of tomorrow are really just optimistic or dystopian views of now.  Gerry Anderson’s Space 1999 is a case in point.  This brings me to Anderson’s Thunderbirds, in which to avoid having his puppets walk any distance he employed the hover-bike which is not unlike a DKR.  If only DKR could have done away with the wheels they would still be around.

Now China, Japan, India and Korea build scooters.  But even the licence built clones aren’t quite what we want.  I think Vespa understand this and have recently re-introduced the PX and even though the other new models are radically different, they haven’t abandoned the essence of their original machines. In retrospect I should have bought those crates and rebuilt the Tigress.  Perhaps I would have found something unique, perhaps an optimistic vision of a new age?

 

I have tried to keep this as accurate as possible, much of it is from memory or experience of restoration. Scooter historians, feel free to email me any mistakes and I will amend the article.

Bill V

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I MOD

Walking down the main street of a nearby small town I became conscious of my aversion to sportswear as a crowd of young men in hooded tops and trainers approached me spitting and smoking.  As a teacher I’m not easily intimidated by today’s youth and most of the time teenagers get a bad press, but it was their sartorial attitude I was judging as much as anything else.  Put them in chinos and a Harrington and I would have felt a lot more forgiving.  Of course there were also the customary phones super glued to their ears, or being caressed by their extraordinarily prehensile thumbs. This just confirmed it was a typical sighting of these creatures that were as busy ignoring each other as they were me. I felt a ‘Daily Mail’ inspired spasm of disapproval coursing through my body which thankfully I soon shook off.  

 

I think I would have had a lot more natural respect if it was a crowd of Punks, Goths, Rockers or even Skins.  At least identifying with a particular branch of youth culture indicates a belief in something, an ideological stand point that shows a greater understanding or exploration of the world.  Recently though, the streets of our towns display a much more homogenised adolescence than in my own formative years.

 

Sportswear to me shows a certain acquiescence that I naturally disapprove of, which manifests as an urge to belong, but not to display virtue in the process.  I shall qualify that by saying that this kind of sweat shop produced apparel, manufactured and promoted by large companies that appear to want to Americanise the youth of the world, removes any smartness and formality from our appearance.  It makes us sloppy by the virtue of its design and undermines the important social aspects of manners and appropriateness.  And whilst we are all victims of label culture in some way, of all the cheap things that benefit from the value of a logo-type, and are as result exalted and inflated its trainers, hoodies, joggers and anoraks. For better or worse, it shows a mainly working class British youth without a culture of their own, only too willing to accept the scraps from the table of the urban American ‘Gangsta’, rather than exporting their own ideas across the Atlantic as they did in days of yore.

 

Now you may be sitting there thinking that’s a sweeping statement and you’d be right.  It is, but sitting on a fence never made for interesting reading did it.  So as I walked around the corner and went in to a local menswear shop to check out the Fred Perry shirts I tried to pin point the seminal events in my life that made me feel this way, the events that revealed to me I was a Mod.  But before I do I confess to owning sportswear myself, which in my own defence I wear when I take part in, well ………sport.  This summer a holiday in Italy brought about the need for a casual lightweight approach. Beneath my Panama, I wore chino shorts, deck shoes and a polo shirt and that’s as close as I ever come to taking part in the kind of fashion activity I described above.  You would have spotted me because my shorts had a crease in them.  But this has always been typical of me, so you could say I was already a mod before I even knew such a category existed, which brings me to ….

 

EVENT 1: LIVING ON THE ESTATE.  Even as a very young child I had always experienced a compulsion to be neat, smart and well organised for a start, but it was the aspiration to what I perceived as better things that really marked me out from the most of the kids on my part of the council estate.  It was a great place, good quality social housing. Neat, modern, nineteen fifties terraces arranged around greens or formed in to sycamore lined avenues, a genuine gift from post war socialism.  I still grudgingly believe that Mod is a working class movement that perhaps reaches up in to the lower middle class.  As a kid television was my door in to another world, one that it seemed I could have if I worked hard.  I wanted a wife like Hannah Gordon from ‘My wife Next Door’. I always rooted for the social climbing Terry and Thelma in ‘The Likely Lads’ and I admired the suburban steadfastness of ‘Terry and June’.  I remember my father saying to me that I should be a bit less serious and then I’d be happy.  I nodded and returned to my homework.  School was difficult, I had to pretend to be doing very little, but at the same time do everything I was told.  I realised early on that some kind of education gave me an advantage as hard as it was to get one. My comprehensive school was once the local secondary school where the eleven plus failures used to go.  Despite the change in name there was not a change in staff attitude.  The Old grammar school was conveniently situated amongst the private housing in the town whilst the comp was at the confluence of four very large council estates.  I am not a subscriber to conspiracy theories but I am convinced that this was more than just a coincidence. 

 

Most of my male friends were content to enjoy a kick about and practice quiet indifference in the classroom.  They had been conditioned in to believing that they would leave school walk in to a job in one of the factories or refineries on the south bank of the Mersey.  Little did they know it wasn’t only punk rock that was on the horizon, there was Margaret Thatcher too.  I bucked this trend, in my own naive way. I set my sights on Polytechnic and strutted around like I knew everything.  Whilst the others shuffled about in kippers, polyester blazers and platform soles, I bribed my sister to narrow my tie, wore flats and badgered my mother in to buying a wool blazer.  I wanted to stand apart.  One of the teachers, one of the few that made an effort, smiled down at me on the first day and said.  “Looks like we have a Mod.”  I was none the wiser until……

 

EVENT 2:  THE LONE SCOOTER PILOT.  My father loved his bikes, those big, oily monsters, with shiny paint and plenty of chrome.  His Tony Curtis hair cut and his stock of Brylcream marked him out as a rocker.  Photographs of him in his National Service de-mob suit, and crepe soles, which my mother kept on the sideboard confirmed this. We went everywhere on these fire breathing monsters, ‘like the clappers’ as my maternal grandmother would say.  British and later Japanese, motorcycles were his thing and he never owned a car. Despite having driven tank transporters in the army he claimed they were too big and clumsy!  He and I would often make the journey to Birmingham via Wolverhampton and I would ride pillion, clutching the seat strap and watching the scenery zip by in a satisfyingly noisy blur. 

 

One day, as we toddled along a straight road between towns on his Honda 750 Four, I heard a noise.  A high pitched buzz, a bit like having a wasp stuck in your helmet.  Gingerly I turned around.  Fifteen yards a way was something I’d never seen before.  A young chap in an open face helmet, dressed in a suit and sitting perfectly upright was wobbling towards us on a silver machine clearly not designed for high speeds.  With great effort he overtook us and gave my father a cheeky wave as he literally buzzed off.  My Dad shook his head and called back.  “You don’t see many of those these days, a bloody Mod on a hair dryer!”    I still didn’t know exactly what a Mod was but it had certainly irked my father.  At this stage teenage rebellion and anything that wound up my old man was good with me.  To be fair to my dad, a Honda like that was probably faster than most things on the road, and he’d been taking it easy. Here was some jumped up little squirt that had had the temerity to overtake him.  Crouching down over the tank and notching up the revs the big four burst in to life and propelled us at light speed past the young chap on what I later identified as a Lambretta.  My father returned the wave and disappeared over the horizon.  I remember thinking that the man in the suit, though he didn’t have the cubic capacity, he had certainly won on style.  This brings me to the next event, when everything was explained.

 

EVENT THREE:  QUADROPHENIA.  In 1979 I was all of fifteen, a seething pustule of anarchy and dissatisfaction, flexing my political muscle with the junior section of my local militant group, flying the red standard above the roof tops…….  Ok I was a bit grumpy and helped the young socialists sell Socialist Worker on a Saturday morning outside the civic hall.  I was busily fending off the desire of everyone else in the town to become a punk by deliberately wearing the squarest polyester shirts I could find under my combat jacket, on top of my straight Levis and a pair of baseball boots.  Finding straight jeans in a town of flared pants meant a trip to Liverpool, a bus and a ferry to anyone without wheels.  I often tried to converse with the punks about anarchy, the socio-economic impact of mass unemployment and the rise to power in that year of the so called Iron Lady.  However they just wanted to fight and spit on folk.  Real punks were different, but in a small town they would only be punks until the next trend came along, which wouldn’t be long.  My musical tastes were influenced by my mother and father’s record collection of fifties and sixties sounds and that of my future brother in law.

 

Mike was in to Prog-Rock.  He went to Warwick University (Years later I was disappointed to find out it was nowhere near the castle!) in Coventry or some other such impressive midland town.  He liked Floyd, ELP, King Crimson, Led Zep and The Who.  He was a font of musical knowledge and his head was full of links and timelines that could recall the pedigree of any musician you could name going back to Bill Haley.  He even told me about the short lived Mods that sprung to mind now and then.  He assured me that The Who, a band both he and I really liked in all their forms, were never really Mods.  They were just associated with the movement by default as were the early Stones and the Beatles.  To him it was all blues or R&B.  Her explained how even bands like Led Zep were just an evolutionary stage of the blues. The fast becoming popular Heavy Metal thing was pretty much the same with a bit of classical music thrown in.  In the end he told me it was about attitude not tunes.  If you want to live life in your own way, do your own thing you were a rocker of some sort.  If you wanted to conform and work for the ‘man’, then Mod was your thing. 

 

Of course Mike was wrong, but that’s how it looked to him from the furry fuzz of his afghan coat collar and he felt a bit more of a rebel than most of his family.  They were from the private estate, he’d failed his eleven plus and still got sent to secondary school.  Looking back at the fiddling of post codes that went on, he must have failed by miles or they would have sent him to the grammar school anyway just cos’ his folks owned their own home.  He lent me his copy of Quadrophenia and he told me they were making a film about it.  He was dead chuffed he was in the know.  It was a big expensive thing in a gatefold sleeve, complete with a photo-book which made it progressive rock simply by virtue of its concept packaging.  Of course I fell in love with it and went on to buy half a dozen copies over the following ten years, giving it as a gift to every girl I fell in love with hoping they would ‘understand’ me.  Sadly they did, understanding pretty quickly what an idiot I was.

 

Then the movie came out.  You had to sneak in to see it, but frankly I was a bit dismayed as the would-be Punks morphed in to would be Mods and claimed it as their own.  But so did I.  I forsook my combat jacket for a parka, replaced polyester with Perry and my fake Converse with Clark’s dessert boots.  I had found myself, lurking in the gatefold of an early seventies concept album.  I wasn’t Mao, I wasn’t Kerouac I was Jimmy. 

 

However the Mods around me knew nothing of the working class struggle, nothing about R&B and clash of cultures that bore their predecessors in to the early sixties.  There wasn’t any modern jazz in their veins; there was simply the continuing desire to fight.  Unlike the pseudo-punks who had a go at everyone they targeted Rockers.  That’s what Mods did wasn’t it?  They fought with Rockers, every bleedin’ Friday at the youth club disco. I admit it now that most of my friends back then were rockers.  We shared a root musical taste and at least they were interesting.  Within a year or two most of the Mods had migrated to the swamp of the Casuals, the precursors in my opinion of those that inspired this article in the first place.  It’s not long before a Lacoste polo top becomes an Addias T-shirt.  Then before you know it, a track-suit. 

 

There were worse fates in store for my erstwhile Mod chums, some became skinheads.  The resurgence of Ska was one of many good things that emerged from the Mod revival I was part of, this notion of black and white youth standing together, making political music.  But it also gave rise to a species of skinhead that was looking for an excuse to perpetrate racism and take part in football hooliganism.  These are not the Skins from the eighties who were part of the spearhead to rock against racism, those who moon-stomped side by side with black British youth.  These were the same idiots that wanted to fight and spit on people a few years earlier whilst pretending to be a Punk.

 

EVENT FOUR: BOOKS, ART SCHOOL AND BBC2. I went to Art school eventually; here I became addicted to books. This is a world where we thought we had mastered the art of mass communication via the printed page.  The book was the ultimate capsule of knowledge and public lending libraries the place to find them.  If you do not remember a world without a PC or a mobile phone you will not understand the wonder of entering a well stocked reference library.  Even thinking these two words conjures an image of a tall grey Librarian in glasses and a bun putting her finger to her stern lips and hissing shush! Several novels stood out. ‘Absolute Beginners’ is pretty much the ultimate Mod novel, not that the M word is used.  He drives a scooter and wears Italian suits and drinks coffee rather than pints in his lunchtime.  He likes jazz and does wacky stuff.  ‘Lucky Jim’ is another classic that I devoured.  It’s about a young Grammar school upstart fighting his way towards tenure at a University that doesn’t really approve of him.  ‘Kes’, the classic Barry Heines novel, about a working class urban youth that adopts a kestrel and fights against his brutal background despite of it all. Then there was ‘Room at the Top’, about a social climbing ex POW. ‘Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner’ about a borstal boy determined to deny the system it pound of flesh and my all time favourite.  ‘Billy Liar’.  Not to mention ‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’ and ‘A kind of Loving’. The thread is simple; you can be more than you are if you aspire.  To help all this along was BBC2, a channel that had the habit of putting on decent movies late at night when most people had taken to their beds, including black and white British film versions of most of the above books.

 

Art school taught me very little about composition, drawing and colour.  But what it did teach me was to be creative.  I remember somewhere on the site, a series of Mod commandments.  One extolled the virtue of spending every minute of your creative day being productive.  It suggests you make music, paint and even writing poetry.  I agree, but just make sure you look smart when doing it when all around you look like crap.

 

So here I am, many years on still polishing my brogues every day and buttoning down my collar.  I don’t look like I stepped out of 1964 anymore but you can see where my heart lies when you see how well my flannels are ironed, my knitted tie and sharp blue blazer. I still have a little target badge on the lapel of my olive green Barbour Field jacket but I no longer have a parka with a patch on the back.  I have a black Harrington but my wife hates it and I only wear it for gigs.  But Mod never goes away, not if it’s heartfelt. As a result I have a few more commandments to add to the Mod cannon for any of the youth thinking of donning the Mod mantle.  Evolution works better than revolution.  Change things for the better from the inside out.  Use your Modness to get within, show them that you are smart and have principles to set an example, and then bring about the changes to make a better world.  Remember good manners cost nothing and always put you at the advantage.  Use them like ‘The force’ to do good and be strong. It’s a positive thing to help old ladies across the road, but only if they want to go.  Seriously, be seen doing good works and further the generally positive view that society holds of the Mod.  Most of all be an individual, but not to the detriment of those around you.  Personality is your uniqueness not the way you dress. Remember no one is an island and we all have to live side by side.

 

The next time I am confronted by a kid in a hooded top, I might pluck up the courage to ask him…”Have you ever considered a Harrington?”.

Bill V

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The Desire For Knitted Neckwear

In the long running franchise, Sean Connery’s Bond is seen as the definitive portrayal of the eponymous character.  Connery was the epitome of cool and in "Goldfinger" and he wore a black knitted tie. The knitted tie was a very popular item for many years, not only with the original Mods, but it was also found in the wardrobe of any country gent.  After all, what else do you wear around your neck whilst sporting your tweed shooting jacket? But it was that image of bond, with his narrow tie and sharp Italian suits that captured the imagination of many school boys sitting in the darkened stalls at their local Odeon.

 

For many of us the knitted tie was something found in your father’s cupboard. It was probably unearthed whilst hunting for original 1960’s gear during the mid-seventies when the kipper was king.  Many of us were never comfortable with those table cloth sized bolts of polyester fabric weighing us down and we yearned for something sleeker, something less luminous.  A square ended knitted silk tie was the just the tonic.  Until recently I thought I was restricted to buying second hand examples from classic clothing emporiums.  Edinburgh’s Grass Market area has plenty of dedicated classic clothing suppliers where you can hopefully find a gem, as does Camden.  The modern tie originated as an adaptation of the cravat so its common sense it too would be made of silk or satin, so the knitted item is a more modern product first emerging in its current form in late Victorian times. 

 

A few years ago though I purchased some new knitted ties via special order from the ‘High Town’ outfitters in Sandbach.  This is one of handful of classic ‘Suits you Sir’, establishments left in Cheshire.  A place that can obtain pretty much any arcane item requested.  All dedicated followers of past fashion know it pays to develop a relationship with your local menswear independent. A conversation whilst buying a nice Lee Cooper button down, from very old stock, alerted me to the fact that they are still being made. I was reliably informed that they were still very popular abroad.  Probably I thought with ex-secret agents with a hankering for halcyon days.   

 

The knitted tie had clearly lost its appeal between Connery and more recent years.  Perhaps it was a case of guilt by association.  It became the domain of beatniks, librarians and vegetarians according to a scathing report by my late father and that’s why he abandoned his.  You could imagine Philip Larkin, poet and librarian, bent over his microfiche wearing one.  Or some well meaning late sixties English teacher in a corduroy jacket complete with patches waxing lyrical about Keats to a disinterested classroom at the local secondary school whilst his bedraggled neck wear frayed in to obscurity.

 

On the way home from work one evening my man telephoned me to say that the tie salesman had been and he had on approval a whole range of knitted neck wear for my perusal. Like most Modernists would, I felt thrilled at the idea and I went straight there.  I was bowled over by the myriad of options.  Widths, weaves and materials seemed to be available in infinite variations.  I left with a very narrow tight weave polyester item in red for work, a mid width yellow silk one with a chain like texture for weddings and a claret coloured wool blend which would be ideal for smart casual. Of course the next day a small stir was caused amongst the small Mod enclave at work and over the next few weeks my compatriots all appeared in similar newly purchased items. 

 

T M Lewin seemed to be their favourite destination, so there was clearly mainstream availability, but at a price.  There was thirty percent mark up on my local independent’s price for the silk equivalent and only one weave and one width, though a veritable rainbow of colours.  I am no fashionista, and I don’t think for one minute three middle aged men in a semi-rural location had any effect on the resurgence of the item in question, but it seems now that it has once again come back into favour and can be seen about the throats of popular celebrates.  I believe that Mod fashion should be widely available and not particularly exclusive, that kind of preciousness goes against the common man, so I’m pleased to say that I have purchased knitted ties in Next, Burtons and Matalan.  All of which have been good quality for the price.

 

The older knitted ties I have are bulky and are made from cashmere, and heavy woollen yarns.  These have a very British look about them.  The few stripy ones I own are a bit ‘Just William’ or as I prefer to say, ‘Eaton Rifles’ and there is a history of school ties being knitted as they were once less expensive and more durable than plain silk.  Recently though, cheap silk and the introduction of artificial fabrics have seen real wool being largely replaced as the knitters choice. Even with these new materials the knot is still bigger and squarer, but only in comparison to a silk tie of a similar width.  As for tying, it is often said a Windsor knot is not appropriate and generally I don’t disagree.  You need to tie it in a traditional slender way and avoid bulking up or it won’t sit tidily below your button down collar.  Its common sense to a Modernist but you’d be surprised. The other tip is do not over tighten it either, the texture of these beauties grips like rope and you’ll damage the weave if you are brutal.

 

As a veteran of knitted ties I have noticed a few things about modern life that need to be addressed when sporting this kind of item.  Flat silk ties slip about against other fabrics, their smooth composition reduces friction with other clothing and slides off obstacles such as ID badges, keys on a lanyard, spectacles on a chord.  Knitted ties are textured and as a result they catch on things, get tugged and will bobble or loop up if you are unlucky.  They will bunch up under a jumper or cardigan if you are particularly active and leave an unsightly lump. They are also warmer than normal ties, the gaps in the weave, even on the silk ones trap warm air.  This is ideal on a cold day, but it can be counterproductive under a lab coat, an overall or in an air-conditioned office.  A really heavy duty one can abrade your chin in extreme circumstances, particularly if you are in a situation where you need to keep looking up and down all day.

Finally, my sartorial counsel is primarily wear your knitted tie with whatever you like, you are a Mod, so you will instinctively know what looks right and if you don’t, your fellow Mods will tell you.  The most widely agreed advice is to avoid textured or patterned shirts and keep it plain and slightly contrasting.  Pale blue or white can’t steer you wrong so stick with them.  It’s also been said you should avoid corduroy and other textured jackets but I’m not sure this is good instruction as long as you are subtle.  I wear mine with a blazer or a pull over.  That square end is a talking point, as is the deliberately frayed end on a more vintage tie. If you want to make a point I would take it no further than a nice tie bar through your collar.  This draws attention to the knot. Because of their manufacture and their resulting texture, avoid any kind of tie pin, or clip, on or through the tie itself as this will only contribute to its early demise.

Bill V

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