“she was once a true love of mine” (… until I learned she was a bit of a shit). a song for childhood heroes

I recently posted a video on facebook. I do that once in a while, hoping my friends might think to themselves – or even tell their real, fleshy friends and partners – ‘Tell you what, he doesn’t post much, this kid, but when he does, it’s always somethin’ good!’ That’s including the younger facebookers, too; I flatter myself hearing them lament their youth: ‘It’s really cool to be old – I mean, look at what we missed!’

You could say that that idea backfired somewhat this time round.

That is, I posted a video of Cilla Black doing a duet with Marc Bolan; they sang his mellow, acoustic Life’s A Gas. First finding it on YouTube, I’d recalled watching it live all those years ago – at least I thought it was live at the time: Cilla did a lorra live stuff back then! I fleetingly saw ghosts, heard the echo of long-gone voices, tasted and smelled those elusive perfumes… until I posted said video on facebook, under the heading, “Happy days. Remember this?”.

Instant, was the first reply: “Yeah, it made me cringe!”

She’s around my age, my facebook friend and respondee. She was a big fan of T.Rex, she told me, in so many words. No, what she actually said was that she “was completely in love with Marc Bolan”.  And given I, along with the North of England’s male population, I guarantee, was in love with Cilla Black, I guess we were looking, my facebook friend and me, at the footage from slightly different angles, both then and now…

Fair enough.

I went on to explain that many years later, I, too, was able to appreciate the ethereal genius of Bolan’s work – I wasn’t allowed that privilege at the time, it was all about hair in those days: you either had it or you didn’t.

Phillip depicts matters best in my novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J:

* * * * *

   A year on, through my abhorrence for the pop group Sweet, I set up my own Slade fan club, of which I was the boss and in which no member was allowed hair longer than a number eight on the clipper-range. Unlike Sweet, Slade represented the masculine – head shorn virility and not Hairy-fairy. We’d play the straggly ‘Sweeties’ at football in the playground, and if we lost, fights broke out leaving them wishing they had.

* * * * *

The interesting piece of our musings, though, and inspiration for my ramblings – this blog post – was my friend’s subsequent allusion to how she viewed Marc Bolan today, with: ‘I didn’t learn what he was like until a long time after.’

I didn’t push her on it; I replied with something flippant: ‘Not nice learning your childhood heroes were shits in real life, is it!’

Yes, it got me thinking.

If there’s one aspect of, or subtheme in, the book, whereby I am Phillip and Phillip is me, then it’s that we share the same childhood heroes – though I wouldn’t be too fooled by his football allegiance. Phillip’s initial nod to children’s hero-worship – the full passage of which I’ve already quoted in a previous post about being geeky – is his portrayal of a fictional character currently celebrating his 50th year on this planet as well as everyone else’s:

* * * * *

   “The second Doctor was my second hero when I was a lad, second to my dad.”

* * * * *

That was Patrick Troughton. A great actor, in my eyes, and not only as The Doctor, but in good old fantasy-yet-earthy films like The Omen, and Jason and the Argonauts. I caught onto his talent as young as I was; he was earnest, made me feel safe – he’d have made a wonderful uncle or granddad! I’d truly hate to learn today that he was one of those “shits in real life”.

It’s a dilemma…

… and also what this post – like the novel – is about: growing up.

Is it better for us to keep our childhood heroes in that safe place, where they made us happy, had us view the world in a wondrous fashion? Or, like Blake’s innocence to experience, should we, as in every other way, be made to grow up, to discover that our heroes’ lives off the set resembled nothing of those on it?

Arguments for both sides are strong, and most of you, I imagine, will go with the latter: it isn’t healthy to see someone as good and great without really knowing that person; and to dismiss what’s said and written about him/her is plain stupid.

But there’s a contradiction in that argument: how is it possible to know that person, when all we ever learn generally comes from the mouths or pens of others? And what might be the real motives of the writers/interviewers in the first place? And their views as people are surely constrained by their own experiences and subjectivity, regardless.

I know very little about Patrick Troughton. And I’ve never looked for any kind of biography. The same goes for another of Phillip’s childhood heroes, Harry H. Corbett – Harold Steptoe to most. And Eric and Ernie – I can’t forget Eric and Ernie!

Nor could Phillip, looking back. He and his best friend are fully groomed, geared up for an evening’s outing:

* * * * *

   “Like from Morecambe’s two-handed slap at either side of Wise’s lovable grin, as my mum pushed open the door at the bottom of the stairs, that exultant audience laughed wholly again, and we with them, as if seated front row.”

* * * * *

I can still hear that audience, in my mind, and maybe there is where that audience belongs, along with Eric and Ernie…

One of my pet gripes in our modern, digital age is a reaction to that very idea: that we’re able to acquire an abundance of third hand information by the lightest touch of a screen, regarding any ‘celebrity’ in any part of the world. I’m only grateful, then, that it wasn’t like that in those halcyon days, the days of Morecambe and Wise, and Steptoe and Son et al; and that little exists of them outside of their shows, like footage of rehearsals, the makings of, what Sid does on Sundays…

Here in Norwich, I had the good fortune to attend one of Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen’s final concerts, not long before Kenny’s passing away. I was even lucky enough to chat a while with the band’s original and enduring trombonist: John Bennet. I should point out that Kenny Ball was a household name when I was a lad – like Elvis, and The Beatles – thanks partly to him and his band’s being residents on The Morecambe and Wise Show, from 1968-’72. A modest, lovely, down-to-earth John Bennet spent part of said evening after the show, a pint of Guinness at hand, recounting to me – on my un-restrainable prompt – what it was like doing those shows, the full-on all-week rehearsals. And I listened in awe, yearning for the evening to slow down… as long as he restricted his recollections to the positive – I wouldn’t have coped learning of arty tantrums; it would have shattered my sweet-old memories to pieces. But then John Bennett didn’t strike me as the kind of man with hidden agendas; he had nothing to prove to anyone…

You see, artists were allowed mystery in those days; we didn’t know too much about them. And I liked it that way…

Noel Gallagher, in keeping with musical artists, expressed a similar gripe some moons ago, when asked how he felt about the release of a DVD containing unseen, uncut footage behind the scenes of The Smiths’ iconic albums. And he was right. He was appalled by the idea, that the mystique surrounding his heroes should be erased by the simple, mundane routine of DVD extras…

Less is more in these cases.

Going back to one of Phillip’s and my childhood heroes, Patrick Troughton, even at our tender age, I’m not so sure the second Doctor would have had the same effect had we been able to watch him night after night via the BBC’s ‘makings of’, his musings over each and every scene, his and our repeated viewings of those scenes from an abundance of different theoretical angles – how to kill something to death!

And then, of course, we have said DVDs, YouTube…

Over exposure, whether on screen or off, that’s what I’m trying to say!

Which leads me to social media, the likes of facebook, why not!

It’s called ‘democratisation’, and it has many positive aspects – i.e., all writers can strut their stuff, show off, and have a fair crack at the whip. But I really can’t make up my mind whether I want to be friends with Phillip’s – my – childhood heroes, now that we’re all, as said, in the same boat.

Take a peek at this scene, where Phillip has finally entered his beloved Wigan Casino:

* * * * *

   “Once on the balcony, I caught Macca below, an unleashed hound upon the longest beach, accompaniment: these here rhythmic contagions. He didn’t so much run as jostle between fitful drops and a surplus of sporadic spins, as in flighty chase of his own tail, or in search of a bone buried a week gone. Owing to the UV strip hanging above the stage – our lightshow in its entirety – his proud and entertained owner flung me a fluorescent beam and an all the darker fisted-salute from the sidelines. She was sitting legs crossed, yoga-like, on one of those inexpressive chairs, which would have creaked without the ricochet of Brenda Holloway’s appealing accusations…

   There was nothing false about this place.”

* * * * *

Brenda Holloway. She’s there, too, hanging out in cyberspace. I only ever heard that tune once, Just Look What You Done, on actually entering Phillip’s hallowed hall, and I practically burst into tears for the love of life – everything made sense for those following eight hours… Martha Reeves is out there, too, and Kim Weston, Candi Staton… – could Phillip, or I, have ever envisaged the idea, back then?

These people, to me and countless others in our great, underground circle, were gods and goddesses. The Untouchables. And aye, I know, that there’s the rub.

Because, indeed, we all know that there’s another side to the coin. I’ll repeat your previous reservation: “it isn’t healthy to simply see someone as good and great without really knowing that person.”

In the days before social media, actors, musicians, presenters, anyone who was able to get his/her face before a TV camera on a regular basis, we described as “famous”; and fame amounted to, no less than, god-like status. Hence the reason – along with others more nefarious: complicity, cowardice… – the likes of Jimmy Saville and co were able to hide their heinous crimes behind their screen personas, while we, the beguiled masses, blinded ourselves still by our own unimpaired reverence, whether we like to admit it or not.

Now, it should go without saying that I pity the poor souls whose bodies and minds were abused by Jimmy Saville and co. But, to a large degree, I also pity those whose starry childhoods were one day blackened, as adults, when they were to discover that the very man to have made their dreams come true – ‘fixed things’ – was everything but the third granddad they may have secretly wished for.

And it’s hardly an isolated case… Perhaps, then, my love of the mystique is too heavy a price to pay, and that media scrutiny, either formal or ‘friendly’, is a much healthier concept at the end of the day. Perhaps, then, the 60s, 70s and 80s are days, years long-gone, never to be repeated, for good or bad.

And just maybe it is time for me to grow up?


Chris Rose

Your literary, soulful friend

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