Sunday, 21 February 2016


GOODNESS GRACIOUS ME! And other childhood atrocities 

 Many middle class children’s early record collections contain one or two pieces of classical music, bought by parents bent on introducing their offspring to the finer things in life, rather than the entertaining trash they enjoyed themselves. Schools followed suit, even though this is a little like reading them King Lear as the home-time story in playgroup: they get the odd word but miss the bigger picture. Schools tried to sugar the pill by playing programme music – music with a story they can visualise, like ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. Pointless. They were soon very bored, often developing a lifelong allergy to the classics: how well I remember the appearance of a supply teacher in my infant school classroom, bearing a record player, to be greeted by a shrill chorus of 5 year olds: “Oh no, Miss, not Peter and the fucking Wolf, again!”. What did amuse me, however, was the way the teacher used to try to encourage listening, by lots of eye-contact with us, little movements of the hands similar to a conductor with advanced Parkinsonism, and all the while with a fixed bright, white smile reminiscent of Liberace on speed.

My earliest acquisitions were like this; I have no recollection of what they were (which rather proves the point: they were so noxious to me that I have repressed the memory). What I do remember was that they were huge black shellac things, probably melted down WWII weapons and pressed into service as records. They were simultaneously heavy and breakable, while also horribly over-sensitive: look at one too hard and you would be reminded of it with a click, 78 times a minute, in perpetuity. I never quite understood what the hurry was, and it also meant that spinning that fast got through a record very quickly: a full symphony might require 10 individual records. The complete works of one of the the three B’s would have to be delivered by Eddie Stobart in his first Transit.

My aunt Esther used to bring us a record every time she visited. She was a lovely woman, a teacher in Harringay (at it was then spelt) who doted on her pupils as though they were own children, possibly because she didn’t have any. Her favourite was Danny Kaye and she force fed us his entire oeuvre. He was an extraordinary all-round entertainer whose command of singing, dancing, acting, humour, story-telling and later UN ambassadorial work was legendary. You may have heard one of his most popular recordings, The Ugly Duckling song. However, negligent your GP, as mine was, I don’t recommend you singing the chorus to this song as he passes through the crowded surgery waiting room: “Quack: get out, quack quack: get out, quack quack, get out of here”. It makes them angry, and they have sharp things.

I think the first record I bought myself was Eddie Calvert’s recording, with the first line “Oh mein Papa, to me you are so wonderful”. I have always found sycophancy to pay off but this transparent emotional blackmail did not get me a pocket-money raise. This was followed by “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” which led to millions of children wearing furry hats with a squirrel tail hanging down the back – or swinging with every rotation of the hula-hoop, for those who could multi-task their crazes : “DaVEEE, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Front-ear ”. Our gang briefly discussed whether it was possible to have a third ear, on the forehead, before the matter was resolved by the dictionary.

My sister, nearly three years older than me, tuned into the emergence of rock and roll, so her Presley records broke the mould in our household and Hound Dog, with its “you ain’t no friend of mine” chorus, which had our own neurotic mutt quickly dialling her therapist.   My patriotic rock surrogates, were the records of Lonnie Donegan, Tommy Steele, and Cliff Pilchard as my father loved to call him. I’m hoping this public confession of my appalling taste will get me some kind of absolution when it comes to the Day of Reckoning: surely nearly sixty years of abject repentance should be sufficient? Particularly when my first albums, bought soon after, were by Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Paul Anka and Eddie Cochran, talismen of good taste by any standards.

A weird tangent to the music was the comedy record. I had an EP of ‘The Best of Sellers’, (Peter Sellers) with 4 comedy tracks including ‘Balham: Gateway to the South’, a phrase which entered the national vocabulary. More worrying was the single he issued with Sophia Loren called Goodness Gracious Me, which invoked a flirtation in a doctor’s consulting room between, sexy curvaceous Loren and Indian doctor Sellers. The comic aspect was mainly the repetition of the title as the chorus, in a heavy cod Indian accent. It was hilarious, people thought, and the phrase (with accent) became as ubiquitous for a while as John McEnroe’s later ‘you cannot be serious’. Embarrassing as this is from today’s perspective, perhaps we should not rush headlong to judgement.  It was part of the zeitgeist, one in which people called black and Asian people ‘coloured’, as my mother did her whole life, without seeing any problem. It was significant, but among the least of many sins against black people at the time.

I’ve never quite understood the comedy record thing. After you’ve played it ten times to yourself, you know it off by heart and barely raise a smile. You even resist playing it to visitors.  Same with comedy DVDs: better just to borrow them.

Interesting that not a single one of these early records would make it on to my Desert Island Discs list, except as a perverse nostalgia. Which? Probably O Mein Papa, with the bonus of its lesson in the futility of Machiavellianism. But can you be Machiavellian on your own, on an island? You may think not, but the fish you are forced to catch would probably disagree.


two from Benjamin Franklin:

'Three people can keep a secret, if two die'

'Necessity never gained a good deal'




Man to lovely young woman in Art gallery:

That’s quite a lovely Jackson Pollock, isn’t it?”   Woman: “Yes, it is.”  Man: “What does it say to you?” Woman: “It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity…” (She goes on like this.) Man: “What are you doing Saturday night?” Woman: “Committing suicide.” Man: “What about Friday night?”


The original baby boomers, born out of postwar elation in 1946, who were 18 in 1964, are reaching 70. Haven't you noticed:
1) Beatles Tribute Band tribute bands dominate the charts
2) Dealers throng the gates of care homes
3) WI cake stalls have a section for hash cookies
4) Having sex before knowing the other's name is usual
5) 'Impersonating Jagger' is new Strictly dance category
6) Kaftans are the new black
7) Old people have become visibly smug for not having paid a penny for schools, health care and university education, while retiring early and nabbing the lions' share of the national pension pot.
Those were the days, my friends...

NATIONAL TREASURES REVISITED: the darker side of David Attenborough

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