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?”.