The Swinging Sixties

In guess we all have a decade in our lives which stands out amongst all others. I feel honoured that mine was the 1960s, one of the greatest decades of the 20th century, for music, fashion and speed of change, a great wave, ridden by myself and the other post war baby boomers.

 

Swinging sixties

From boy to man
And a string of girls
Whose names I could write
On a very small piece of paper.
But to squash that misconception,
Of drugs,
None, bar life and rock and roll,
And definitely no sex,
Until a young woman graciously
Taught me how to love.
It was a three year course
With no diploma
Just the knowledge and a heartache.
And after?
Too much alcohol and smokes
Tobacco that is,
As nothing was harmful in the sixties.
We joked about cigarettes as coffin nails.
A blur of
Friends, freedom, fishing
Until in the end
I caught a wife.

And now the sixties are a
Purple haze,
And I thank you for the days,
Those endless days,

Days I’ll remember all my life.

Alley Cricket

Thompson came to the crease,
with trusty plank in hand,
tapping nervously at the crack in concrete.
Smith bowled, right arm over dustbin,
the delivery disguised in dim street light.
Thompson played defensively,
fending the cobble from the back door.
He knew time was running short, runs were needed, but
Smith’s guile in bowling from the darkness
pinned him back,
time and time again,
thwarting a shot of perfect timing.

Out of the night a loose ball pitched inside the gutter.
It reared and tempted Thompson to the drive.
The resounding crack of flint on pine
sent fractured missiles flying through extra cover,
the neighbour’s greenhouse.

Rows of bedroom windows lit in celebration, and unusually,
both bowler and the batsman
took the run
beyond the long on boundary.
An observer in his lofty commentary position,
high above the broken panes,
shouted that ultimate of accolades:

Come-here-you-fuckers. I-know-who-you-are!

But Smith and Thompson were running out of earshot.
Laughing, running carefree.
Running through the summer darkness,
away from last of schooldays
Friends charging to uncertainty,
knowing who they are,
not knowing who they are to be.

 

Dedicated to two of my best friends at school and after, Glynn Ernest Thompson (artist and lecturer) and Kenneth Ian Smith (personnel director). Those were the days my friend.

Forty years

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How has it been, these forty years?

A long time since swaggering of youth
And your magic eyes, smiling in a crowd.
We fell like all the others of our time
And our places there were taken
By the newcomers.

And forty years where have they gone?
Five, fighting for a home
Twenty, raising kids
Ten, paying off the debts
And five now on our own.

Forty seems like nothing
Started by that glance
Yet I wish it was a record,
That we could play again,
Again those tracks etched of our lives,
And never reach the end.

Lightning the Barber

 

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Photo credit to Olphotog

 

In the late fifties I hated trips to the barber. I was in my early teens and what was not to hate? The way hairs got down my shirt and itched. The way a fresh haircut made my ears stand out. The heavy breathing of the barber as he went about his work, pausing for sips of tea. The way everyone waiting watched as I was shawn. Piles of hair on the floor. The flash of the hand mirror as the barber asked, “is that OK Norman ?” Ignoring me and addressing the question my father who was watching from the waiting area, as if I was irrelevant. My father would make sure he got good value for money and that the cut would last at least three or four weeks. Style never entered his equation.

Lightning’s shop was on Bell’s Road in Gorleston. As a barber he was quick once you got to the chair. The waiting area was almost always full however as he was the only barber in town. If you wanted choice, it was a bus ride to Yarmouth where there was a barber in the town centre near to the Regent cinema, but nobody wanted to add an hour to their barber shop visits. The place in Yarmouth was a long dark room, with chairs for waiting on one side and chairs for haircutting on the other. There was just one power point serving the stations, the electrical adapters had adapters plugged into them. I stopped off there a couple of times on the way home from school as I was getting older. Once when it came to my turn, a toff breezed into the shop and the next available barber said sorry son, this gentleman is in a hurry, and seated him in the chair. I noticed them smirk at each other. Another time, I was halfway through a haircut when the electrical bundle went bang and caught fire. Everyone had to be finished with hand snippers, scissors and razors. I didn’t go there again after that.

Lightning was a Pole. When it was your turn in the chair it was best not to indulge in casual conversation, just settle back and listen to his laboured breathing. Otherwise, it would be Pardon, Could you repeat that, Sorry what? Or you could just take a stab at what he said and guess the reply based on that. Then you would be repeating yourself until it matched the comment and you got the nod. So silence was best. I learned quickly to hold my breath when he came in close. I have never liked garlic sausage. Especially Polish garlic sausage.

Dad and I always cycled down, propping our bikes against the brick wall outside. There was never need to lock them – this was the nineteen fifties. People could be trusted. Stepping into the shop, everyone turned to see who was coming in. Lightning smiled, then gave a nod towards a waiting seat as if you needed an introduction or guidance. Once the ensemble had satisfied it’s curiosity, all attention returned to to the person in the chair. Dad always rummaged in the newspaper pile once we were settled to find one with a good horse racing section. He would study this carefully, I don’t know why, because he worked on hunches and his accumulators had odds which were less favourable than those for being struck dead by a meteorite. The next stop after Lightning would be the bookmakers on Quay Road. I didn’t mind the detour. If the tide was coming in we stopped off to see what the fishermen were catching. Only idiots, eternal optimists and men who didn’t get on too well with their wives fished the ebb. That was when the sewage sluice opened and the healthy sea air was transformed. So if it was the ebb we gave it a miss.

When it was my turn, Lightning would pump up the chair and ask my father how I would like it cut. The stock answer was plenty off, short back and sides. I wanted to grow my hair longer and have it styled. These were exciting times. The birth of skiffle, rock and pop. Rebellion was fuelled within me by Elvis, and later by the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. But no, it was always short back and sides. I was self conscious of my large ears and as Lightning set about shaving my head they would grow rather like Pinnochio’s nose did. At the end, Lightning would turn to my father and ask if I wanted anything on. My dad, being one with an eye out for value would agree. The full extent of ‘anything on’ was a large dispenser of Brylcreme on the counter. He would squirt a large dollop of the perfumed emulsion into one hand, massage them together, then plaster what remained of my hair into submission. By then my ears were at maximum and bright red.

When someone was nearing completion, the tension in the room rose perceptibly. I always put this down to fear of queue jumping, although it may have been more to do with something akin to stage fright, because the next person would become the centre of entertainment for the following ten minutes. Lightning had a little post cutting routine for the men. He would lean in to the customer’s ear and while half turning to wink those waiting and whisper, ‘Something for the weekend, Sir?’ Inevitably he got the nod and would go to a locked wall cabinet and take out a small packet, half concealing it in his palm before slipping it to the customer under cover of the hairdressing sheet. I always wondered what this was all about until I became brave enough to explore the bedside cabinet in my parents bedroom, on my dad’s side. I showed them to my sister and we laughed, although I remember we still weren’t sure at the time what they were for. That came much later.

It is little wonder, faced with my dad and his conspiracy with Lighning, that when I became eighteen I stopped having my hair cut altogether. My ears disappeared along with self consciousness and I enjoyed the best time of my life. There is no fear of meeting Lightning again, were he still living he would be 120 and much noticeably slower. However, even today as the hairdresser holds that mirror to the back of my head, I wait for my father’s approval. Glancing in the main mirror I see the waiting customers and he is not amongst them, but what is evident is that now everyone is very much younger than me and of course my father has been long gone. Time has moved on but has not absolved my hatred of having a haircut. Lightning saw to that.

The Conker Tree

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When I last walked down this lane
I was just a boy
Short trousered and muddy kneed.
The puddles were much deeper then
The muddy water splashing
With adventure
And a drowned mouse,
Beyond revival.

The blossom and the nettle scent
Have caught me now
But then it was stingers and the frantic search
For dock leaves
To relieve the pain,
And there beyond the hedge
the conker tree
where Peter fell.

The biggest ones are at the top
He always said.
He was the bravest climber
But sadly fortune
Does not always favour
In the crash of falling branches.

A crowd of villagers
Silently assembled as if
Taking guard.
The ambulance came with just a bell jangling
And on a bike, a policeman
Looking stern, asking, writing names down
Around the bloodied corpse
That was once a boy.

So I’m walking down the lane
And fifty years have gone
But Peter isn’t here, just the same old conker tree
Which somehow looks much larger
And quite alone like me,
As I think of fifty years he missed
And all for conkers,
conkers that were no bigger at the top.

Pat Ladbrooke

The Kissing Gate

imageThere is a five bar gate,
close by a woodland track,
where, half a century back,
we talked till evening late.

Then walking in the almost dark,
her radiance and the night
made each and every footstep light,
as she breathed life to love’s spark.

I find the gate that stands today,
as solid to the lean as then and
I stop to seek her face, as when
love graced that distant May.

But this gate is not the same,
a rotting frame replaced three fold
unlike the love unchanged I hold
sacred, to her whispered name.

And I must always have this dream,
hold tightly to its sturdy bars,
to wonder why the passing years
wash all within their cruel stream.

How different now, her youthful face,
still smiling in my mind?
And does she hold that special grace,
that made my love so blind?

See Rouen and Die

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Willie’s face looked grim. In all my life I had never seen an expression like it. His skin turned from ruddy to white, his lips tightened and his jaw set against the deceleration. I could tell his whole body was stiffened and braced. We glanced at each other across the central aisle of the aircraft. I must have looked the same. My mind asked “What’s going on? Is this normal?” There was no time to communicate and no chance of hearing anything other than the scraping roar which filled the plane.

His eyes gave me the answer. See Rouen and die.

There was blistering heat as the summer sun beat down on Rouen. The runway shimmered in my vision, partly due to the heat, partly due to Calvados at dinner the evening before. There were four of us; Les, Willie Perrier, our friendly Frenchman, Mike and myself working on business development.
“Push the boat out and sting the bastards,” Les said as we dined at a plush sea food restaurant. We were there to deliver our plans for the UK business to French masters. Les, I believe, was the only one who saw what was coming. “The last supper,” he named it. Les’s words were almost prophetic as it happens. He actually meant we were making ourselves redundant. Mike knew. Mike was in HR. I have an inherent suspicion that HR always knows much more about what’s going on than anyone else, except the man at the top.
I remember in minute detail that dinner. The delicious smells. The obscene number of oysters Mike consumed. The bottles of wine of all shades. The five pence sized crab which crawled from the salad garnish and took refuge in the ice tray. An introduction to Calvados. Walking back to the hotel through the warm night air afterwards, we chanced upon a perfect view of Rouen cathedral, the buff stone floodlit against a black sky. All four of us stopped in awe of the spectacle.
As we stood, Willie briefed us about the director we were to meet the next day. He said he was reptilian, a cold creature with a calculating stare and a handshake so feeble and cold it is almost impossible to sense life in its owner, let alone forge a bond of friendship. He said he would listen intently to all of our presentations, thank us. He would then tell us then how it was to be. I pictured a cross between Uriah Heap and Monsieur Defarge. To make matters even more uncomfortable that night I fell into dreams of the French revolution, imagining the guillotine above my head and crowds outside in the square dancing the compagnole.

The plane had problems. We waited and eventually French Regional Airlines flew in a replacement. It felt like an omen. The replacement plane looked an old heap, a prop for a black and white movie. Much later, when we were back home, the Air Accident Investigator told us we were lucky the replacement was an old Gulfstream. Only the solid fuselage of that type of plane would have retained its integrity. A flying Volvo my friends, he said in summary, and that is the only reason we are all sitting here together.
Eventually the pilot strutted out. He was worryingly young, disarmingly handsome and impeccably dressed, with an assistant and two female cabin staff at his heel. His strut was a performance designed to impress. Mike appraised him. “Cocky little French bastard,” was the summary as twenty five trusting souls followed him up the steps.
The French travellers were pushy, grabbing our allocated seats in an undignified free-for -all. My perception may be wrong, but I have noticed the surprised look that French women give when you hold a door open for them. From this I deduced that Frenchmen are not that chivalrous. Certainly, nobody wanted to sit by the engines. It was pointless trying to resolve anything as the pilot was engaged in flirting with the cabin crew, who were summarily distracted from their duties. At the time I thought if I was in his shoes I probably would too, they were pretty girls. We were left with the worst seats, next to the engines.
Soon we were high into the blue of French airspace. The engines throbbed with a varying wave of intensity, droning in and out as the plane laboured to the top of an imaginary hill somewhere in the massif centrale. I promised myself never to drink Calvados again. Conversation was not possible; voices seemed to be forced back into lungs with the vibration. I looked out of the window at the wings, checking the rivets. Every so often a puff of ice crystals came off the wingtips. In the distance the Alps came into view, with the majestic Mount Blanc standing clear amongst them. We hit turbulent air, which always comes as a surprise in fine weather, then the plane turned away and soon we were approaching Lyon Satolas.
The final descent was steep and fast. It felt too steep and too fast, but then you have to trust the judgement of the pilot. After all, he has a vested interest in getting it right. The outer beacon bleeped and the runway was beneath us. The angle seemed impossible. It was too late to pull back. The ground became a meaningless blur. Seconds after, the plane slammed down. That was when I saw Willie’s face, just before the cabin baggage hailed through the plane and piled up at the front. The plane lurched to the right and filled with a strange orange light. A deafening roar reverberated from beneath our feet, titanium on concrete. There was a smell of kerosene and burning brake linings. I expected life to flash before me but it didn’t. Instead I waited for some sort of pain, wondering if it would be from fire or crushing. I remember reading how a tortured mouse is anesthetized by its adrenalin. I wondered if that had happened to us. I prayed that it would not be fire that took us. The plane veered off the runway, turned over and suddenly we were dangling like puppets from our seats, jerking and swinging together in time with the plane’s final movements, all lit by the orange glow.

There was a strange silence for a second, except for the crackle of flames, then a metallic scrape which ran along the fuselage. Later we were told the wing had broken off, spun down the runway, eventually meeting up with the plane again. I had never realised the fuel is stored in them. In gathering smoke and almost darkness, seatbelts clicked and people thudded onto the ceiling below. There was no air to breathe. I held on to what breath I had and in the darkness edged toward the front of the plane, walking, tripping, crawling over bodies or baggage, I couldn’t be sure. Lungs bursting, I fought to hold onto the precious air inside them. I reached the door. It was jammed. Others were there kicking it, so I joined them. I reached the point where bursting lungs forced exhalation. I took a small gasp of new air, but it was too acrid to continue. Smoke! I hadn’t considered that option.

Suddenly, the door surrendered and moved about two feet, sufficient for bodies to wriggle through. We spewed like worms onto the airfield. I remember clutching the grass, using my arms to pull clear, taking that first breath of sweet air, choking, then stumbling and running with everyone else. Planes were still landing and taking off around us. We lay on the grass and looked back at the wrecked plane as black smoke billowed across the runway, before a sickening thud and orange flash came from the place we were sitting in minutes earlier.

I grabbed handfuls of grass and kissed the earth, French earth. It was a perfect summer’s evening. I thought of my wife and children back home in our village. It seemed a million miles away. We were swept away in a melee of police, fire, medics and press to hospitals. Some had broken bones and serious burns, but we had all survived. The irony is that the worst injuries occurred to the French passengers who were in the seats allocated to us. Mike lost a shoe and fractured his ribs. We all lost our luggage apart from Les who managed to cling to his brief case, smiling from behind crocked spectacles and producing a bottle of duty free Lagavulin from inside.

In our return we were treated as heroes. On reflection, at the time it seemed we had been gifted a new start in life. That was a deception. Within five years we were all redundant. I guess business is like that. You give your life, then you’re out and it all carries on without you.