Voltarol - related music

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Puttin' on the style

These days you can generally tell what kind of music 'young people' are in to by their clothes and haircuts. Children as young as one or two frequently seem to be making fashion statements and declarations of tribal allegiance on behalf of their parents and by the age of five and six they seem to be making them for themselves, but it was not always thus.

Like most children of my generation I had very little say in what clothes I wore until I was about fourteen and I had even less say about my haircut. My younger brother, G the D and I would be dispatched regularly to the barber's shop at the end of the parade of shops where we lived. Our dad ran the hardware shop and we lived over it from 1953 until about 1959. As a consequence my parents knew the barber well and instructions were already given well in advance of our respective arrivals in the chair at 'Maison Bert's', as it came to be known. My friend Muff was also a regular victim of Bert's ministrations and in later years we would enact little 'Barber shop' cameos for friends, nearly all of whom seemed to think that we were making it up. But we weren't.

Bert was, as far as I know, quite a nice man. He was short and Welsh, smoked incessantly, was addicted to the Welsh national sport and had learned his trade in the army. The waiting customers in his shop were provided with three or four hard-backed chairs and a small table containing a selection of racing papers and 'Tit Bits' and 'Blighty' magazines. There was one barber's chair and one mirror over a sink, around which were arranged a selection of display cards containing combs and nail clippers. Next to the sink was a small wooden cabinet on top of which sat Bert's tools of the trade (clippers, scissors and cut-throat razor), bottles of hair tonic and brilliantine and some jars of 'Brylcreem' and in which lurked 'something for the weekend', whatever that was. There was also a leather strop attached to the side of the cabinet, on which he would (occasionally) sharpen the razor.

As a consequence of his military training in the tonsorial arts, a 'short back and sides' was a short back and sides, but as a concession to civilian life the front - at least on us youngsters - was left just long enough to form a fringe, which was then cut dead straight across. The general effect was as if he had given one a 'pudding-bowl' haircut and then gone round the back and sides with the clippers as an afterthought. As you sat in the chair he would hack and snip away at you, all the while with a lighted cigarette dangling from one corner of his mouth, the smoke from which caused his eye to water and him to squint constantly. He would shower you with fag ash and the occasional live spark as he worked, whilst holding a non-stop conversation with his older waiting customers on his favourite topic - " See the rrrRugby last night, did you?". At last it would be done. "Any 'Evenin' in Paris' is it?" he would ask and, not waiting for a reply would slosh hair tonic on one's head and give it a brisk rub. "There. Lovely! Tell your dad I'll see him later." And it was done and you escaped.

When we moved to live over the shop we were only about six hundred yards from our old house. I was a frequent visitor to my old haunts as we had lived only five doors away from Muff and he was still there. There was another, slightly older boy to be seen in what had been my garden. His name was Geoff and I got chatting to him. His mother (there didn't seem to be a father about) bred St Bernard dogs and the garden was now full of dog pens. It wasn't long before I was invited in to the house and Geoff got out the record player. " Listen to this!" he said, putting on a seventy eight r.p.m record of 'The Riff Song' from Sig Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein's operetta 'The Desert Song'. (The recording I've found here is not the one he played me. I'm sure it would have been from the soundtrack of the 1953 film but this was the only clip I could find). Geoff had obviously seen the film and proceeded to fashion an Arab headdress from one of his mother's headscarves, wrap an old curtain about his person to double for a cloak and to charge around the room singing along with the record and wielding an imaginary sword. This was fantastic. "I've got to go home for my lunch," I said. "I'll come back later"

I ran home and bolted my lunch, then as soon as I was allowed to leave the table, went and rummaged in the coat cupboard. I emerged triumphant with my school mac, several long woollen scarves and an old cricket stump which for years had been used by mother as a 'copper' stick. (For the uninitiated - before the advent of the washing machine, certain clothes and items of bedding were washed in a 'copper' - a container with a gas heater underneath it. The 'copper stick' was used to stir the soap into the copper as the water heated, as well as for extracting the washed items afterwards and transferring them to the rinsing water. Interestingly, this information as not so far found its way on to an internet reference site.) I quickly fastened my mac by one button at the throat in the approved 'cloak' style, tied a woollen scarf on my head and, for good luck, draped the rest of the scarves about my person. Clutching my copper-stick like a scimitar I dashed from the house and galloped an imaginary arab steed all the way back to Geoff's house, attracting a multitude of bewildered stares from baffled passers by as I went. I confess that I must have been a strange sight. To my mind I was The Red Shadow, galloping across the desert in full battle cry. Everybody else saw a slightly overweight nine year old, short trousered, Macintosh bedraped, woolly scarf-festooned boy with a pudding basin haircut, who was waving a cricket stump and singing -
"Ho! So we sing as we are riding,
Ho! It's a time you'd best be hiding
Low, It means the Riffs are abroad
Go, Before you've bitten the sword..."
in an unbroken voice, as he gallumphed up the road sweating profusely. (It was a hot day during the summer holidays). I arrived at Geoff's house and knocked at the door. It was answered by his mother who told me that Geoff was not coming out, and suggested rather frostily that, as I didn't live there any more, I might like to go away and not bother them again. So I did. And I didn't.
That was the first time I made a conscious connection between music and clothing. I would see Geoff around from time to time but he always refrained from speaking to me, then after a while he wasn't around so much. Being a couple of years older than me he was beginning to hang out with the older boys and I didn't see him again until I was about fifteen. The one-time, would-be scourge of the desert was walking down the road in full Teddy Boy gear, complete with 'brothel-creepers' with inch-thick crepe soles and a combination 'Duck's Arse' and 'Elephant's Trunk' hairstyle. This time I found it strangely easy not to rush home and copy his outfit...