Nostalgia

Memoirs Part V: A Bird in the Hand

Peri - the joys of being a young Dr Who fan in the mid-80s

[“Bushmen of the Kalahari”][/caption]

It wasn't just Zammo...


“Places to avoid include almost all of Co Tyrone, which has so many non-descript, grim one-horse towns you can hear the collective hooves clop from across the border in Donegal. I have found next to nothing to see or visit in that county”

Henry McDonald, the Guardian’s Ireland correspondent

Henry McDonald, Tyrone’s version of Salman Rushdie will probably have no interest in the fact that I grew up in the largest of these grim one-horse towns.

It was the early autumn of 1986. For the first time in their history Tyrone were in the All Ireland final against the mighty Kerry. There was much excitement, and the school could claim a few past pupils among the Tyrone players. That summer I’d spent three weeks in Donegal at an Irish language college, supposedly learning the niceties of the Irish language. I shared a room with three chancers from Greencastle and Carrickmore called Bradley, Teague and Hughes. It was a rite of passage for many Irish schoolchildren. The place was called Machaire Rabartaigh (or Magheroarty) on the rugged north-west coast of the county with a view of Tory Island – the island whose name bizarrely became the alternative moniker for the British Conservative party – in the distance.
How ironic that the political party of the British establishment, a club of Old Etonians and aristocrats should be named after a windswept treeless island off Ireland’s rugged Atlantic north coast.

One of the big chart hits that year was the anti-drugs song “Just Say No” by the cast of the then popular TV series set in a London secondary school Grange Hill. You can see the video here.

I watched it for the first time in over 20 years and found it to be so embarrassingly cringeworthy – the hairstyles, the clothes, the music – it was almost painful to look at. At least it was all for a good cause.

One of the leading characters Zammo had become a heroin addict, a storyline devised to discourage young people from going down that route.
I even got to meet the boy who played Zammo and his screen girlfriend Jackie when they visited the local leisure centre as part of the town’s annual arts festival. I was the proud owner of another celebrity autograph to add the collection alongside that of former Dr Whos Peter Davison and the late Jon Pertwee as well as that of international footballer Pat Jennings.
There was even a boy at school nicknamed Zammo in honour of the character. I don’t know what became of him, but I’m sure he didn’t follow in the footsteps of his Grange Hill namesake.

The Dr Who Years
A small group of us ran a Doctor Who fan club – or appreciation society as we preferred to call it – chiefly organised by an older boy called Mark Doherty, a martial arts enthusiast, and an amateur photographer/film-maker, who in a few years time would go on to forge a successful reputation as “DJ Marco” on the local disco and hospital radio circuit . His highly original nickname was “Doc” – as was the case with virtually every other boy at the school called Doherty – and there were quite a few. Nicknames, not surprisingly followed a general pattern you see. If your name was Murphy, you’d be known as Smurf. If your name was Brian O’Donnell you’d be called Bod. If your name was Seamus O’Connor you’d be referred to as Soc and so on. But most nicknames simply just involved adding a Y or an O to the individuals’ surname . Another club member was a more anarchic lad in the same year as Doc called Brendan Bankfield, whose highly imaginative nickname was Fieldy. He had an explosion of upstanding hair and was studying art, drawing inspiration from the morbid, gothic imagery of heavy metal album covers. He showed us one of his masterpieces. As homework the art teacher had set the class an assignment entitled “Back to school – an environmental study”. Fieldy’s interpretation of the theme was a boy in school uniform hanging by the neck from a tree, with his tie as the noose.

Our club meetings were held Friday afternoons after classes had ended in the school lecture theatre. We would watch old Doctor Who episodes of very dodgy quality. These generally came from friend of a friend of a friend an uncle of a colleague of a friend of a “contact” who knew someone who worked in the BBC archives department and had smuggled out illegally copied videotapes of old episodes . So what we were watching was effectively a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy (etc) on videotape. These were the days before digital recording technology, DVDs and downloads. Or alternatively if you had penfriends in Australia which was several years behind in the episode schedules they could send you tapes.
We would have debates on who the best Doctor was, quizzes where we would impress each other with knowing who the second boom microphone operator on Terror of the Zogdats broadcast on the 12th of March 1967 was. We were basically a bunch of nerdy 13-year olds who attracted much derision from our classmates.

It should be noted that Doctor Who was not the big budget, highly popular and successful phenomena it is now. Back then the original series was dying a slow painful death and was considered very uncool. But part of me enjoyed being on the receiving end of the derision. Part of me revelled in the nerd tag. I felt I was part of an elite minority. It would take a few more years to realise how deluded I’d been.

It wasn’t the sort of hobby you would hope to meet girls through.

However, one of the main attractions of Doctor Who from an adolescent male point of view is the high quality of the lead character’s young female assistants. The girl in the role back then was certainly no exception. She was a whiney American called Peri who often wore low cut tops exposing ample amounts of cleavage. A cynical ploy on the part of the production team to boost the already flagging ratings of washed-up TV show in terminal decline no doubt – but we weren’t complaining.

One particular teacher, TJ O’Loughlin took an interest in our club. He would occasionally pop his head around the door to lend us some moral support, impressed that we were doing this through our own intiative and without any outside interference. But he would deliberately keep his distance so as not to be seen to be interfering.
He was one of the last of a dying breed, the genuinely eccentric teacher. I suppose every grammar school must have had one or two of them back in the day. Something of a renaissance man, he ran the school chess club, worked as a part time attendant at the local swimming pool and was an occasional actor with the town’s drama society.

He once challenged the whole class to a bet about cannibal chickens – which he won and pocketed his winnings.
He was a regular visitor to Eastern Europe in the days of the Iron Curtain and one of his claims to fame was that he was one of only two men in the town who could speak Polish. Since the expansion of the European Union and the movement of labour from east to west I’m sure the town has at least a few dozen Polish speakers these days.

Since retiring from teaching he’s become a prominent spokesman for minority rights. An interesting career move to say the least.

Such was his influence on a generation of pupils that the former head boy Sean Daly at the 1993 prize-giving night paid tribute to “our swimming French teacher who has since followed in a different dimension”.

Killerball
At this time one of the popular playground games was the rather sadistic and violent “killerball”, a variation on the less harmful game of handball. About 20 boys would stand beside the wall of the school. A small rubber ball would be thrown against the wall with great force. If it hit you on the rebound you would get a kicking. It was the element of living dangerously that appealed, something that many of us would get addicted to over the coming years. But that’s another story altogether…

“I drink, therefore I am” – Is alcohol a fundamental part of our society?

The so-called binge drinking culture and the problems of alcoholism have in recent years been the subject of much debate and government initiatives, but largely to no avail. A recent example is the Scottish government’s failed attempt to raise alcohol prices. Whether we like it or not alcohol is an integral part of the social and cultural fabric of these islands. In continental Western Europe where drunkenness is largely frowned upon the cafe culture is prevalent. The continental cafes are – much like our own pubs – social and communal meeting places, but where all sorts of food and drink (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) are sold.

At the time of writing the Cartoon Museum in London has just opened a new exhibition on the relationship between alcohol and society. In a feature about the exhibition on BBC Radio 4’s morning news programme, a former newspaper editor, a recovering alcoholic himself pointed out that it would be pious to suggest that drunkenness isn’t funny – it is funny, but it’s also tragic.

We even have an entire culture based around various tribes and the type of beverages they imbibe. There is the 1980s phenomenon of the “lager lout” on the football terraces or the beaches of Ibiza, the stereotype of the bearded, jam-jar bespectacled “real ale twat” from Viz comic and in the upper strata of the society the Pimms brigade. The local pub is the social hub of a rural village or urban district, the source of gossip, where business deals are conducted, where friends and partners are made, but also where fights and arguments start and where lives are ruined.

When I was growing up in the 1980s alcohol advertising was all over the television, on giant billboard posters and on the shirts of famous footballers. This may still be the case today, but it seemed to be much more prominent back then. Although I grew up in a household where alcohol consumption was mostly confined to the odd glass of wine or sherry at Christmas or very occasionally to accompany the Sunday roast had you asked the 11-year old Ciaran Ward back in 1985 how many brands of alcoholic drinks he could name, he could have rhymed off about 10. Off the top of my head without resorting to Google the following slogans spring to mind which as an 11-year old I could have recited verbatim:

“Harp – Very much to a Viking’s liking” (as seen on billboard poster circa 1985)

“Get into the good taste of Guinness/Have a Guinness tonight”

“Smithwicks at the heart of the night/Smithwicks – it’s one great beer”

“Great stuff this Bass”

“Carlsberg – probably the best lager in the world” (spoken in a voice similar to that of Spock from Star Trek, but I’m not sure if it was definitely him)
“Fosters – the Australian for lager”
“Martini – anytime, anywhere”

Then there were the celebrities who made a tidy sum by advertising alcohol. Think of the comedian Griff Rhys-Jones as Marilyn Monroe’s plumber in the Holstein Pils ads, Paul “Crocodile Dundee” Hogan as salt-of-the-earth Aussie stereotype in the Fosters commercials, comedian Peter Kay and John Smiths and more recently Top Gear’s James May extolling the pleasures of London Pride

Many of these ads were not surprisingly quite entertaining and innovative, given the fact that the drink manufacturers spent and continue to spend millions on promoting their wares. One particularly eye-catching commercial from the mid-80s was for a now long defunct variety of lager known as Lamot – see above. It featured an animated film of a knight in armour riding a tiger-like creature through a Tolkienesque fantasy sword and sorcery-type landscape on a quest to seek out this bog-standard beer. Such imagery would appeal to a 12-year old hobbit obsessive, who may never have tasted beer, but would certainly be imbued with the desire to try this particular brand.

It would be several years before I drank my first pint – as a naïve, awkward teenager my early experiences were with cider, then graduating to lager with a shot of lime to make it more agreeable to my inexperienced palate. But repeated exposure to the apparent pleasures and thrills of drinking alcohol during my schooldays through ruthless advertising had certainly whetted my appetite. And a few short years later those clever chaps in the drinks industry came up with a solution to the “problem” of awkward teenagers like my younger self being unfamiliar with alcohol by producing “alco-pops”, a cynical, almost criminal exploitation of the market for underage drinkers.

The impact of alcohol advertising on a pre-teen as described above is somewhat disturbing when one considers the culture of underage drinking and the binge sessions which occur throughout our towns, villages and cities on any Friday or Saturday night. And as if this wasn’t enough, during freshers’ week at universities up and down the country there are organised pub crawls and special offers of cheap drink.

After many years of compulsory government health warnings featuring prominently on tobacco products we now have similar warnings on bottles and cans, promoting the “Drinkaware” website. This is a move in the right direction, but in my humble opinion, not enough. The roots of the problem must be addressed.
It may be an unpopular proposal, especially among those who wish to stem the influence of the “nanny state”, but although I enjoy the odd drink or two myself, I personally believe that all forms of alcohol advertising should be banned. The manufacturers, distributors and the pub and off-licence trades would no doubt be up in arms at such a move, but in desperate times desperate measures need to be taken. The burden on an already struggling health service in dealing with alcohol-related injuries and illnesses is phenomenal. An all-out ban on alcohol advertising wouldn’t stop those who already drink from continuing to drink, but if young children and teenagers were less familiar with well-known brands the desire to start drinking in the first place may well to a certain extent be quelled. We can still enjoy our favourite tipple down a t the local without having to see it on TV, at football matches or billboard posters.

The Scarlet Beehive – A Return to the 1980s?

Plus ça change plus c'est la meme chose

Another election over.  It was the result I had predicted (see previous blog post “Never a frown with Gordon Brown), although not the one I had hoped for.  Nevertheless, as the Ant and Dec of politics begin their historic coalition government we can rest assured that interesting times lie ahead.

As regular readers of this blog (both of them in fact) will know I tend to find myself stuck in a time warp from the 1980s recalling the heady days of my youth.  Back then the Conservative Party led by a certain M. Thatcher (but albeit without the help of the Lib Dems) was in power.  Thatcher’s iron-fisted rule led to a certain discontentment among a section of society resulting in a flurry of creative activity within the fields of art, literature, comedy, cinema and music.  With retro-nostalgia back in vogue one wonders if we’re in for something of an artistic renaissance.

Thanks to modern technology (Youtube take a bow) I’m able to recreate the memories of my youth.

Thanks to the said site I was able to find two songs from late 1980s which I hadn’t heard for over 20 years.

One is I walk the earth – the official anthem of the Rambler Association (not really, but it would be a good idea) by the “Anglo-American college rock/alternative band” (Wikipedia’s description, not mine) Voice of the Beehive, who had a string of hits at this time, but son faded back into obscurity.  Which is a shame as they did make some decent tunes.

The other song is a one hit wonder (and a rather good one at that), Scarlet Fantastic’s No Memory – the official anthem of the Amnesiacs Association (very bad taste I know).  No doubt complaints will flood in – that is if anyone actually reads this blog!  Big hair and cleavage were the order of the day in this video.

It’s funny how listening to a certain pierce of music can trigger off memories in the subconscious. 

 Think inner city riots, anti-apartheid demonstrations, boycotting South African fruit in the supermarkets, skeletal bearded men wrapped in blankets in filthy shit-smeared prison cells, running battles between police and striking miners, Russian tanks rolling over Afghanistan, Americans in Grenada, warfare amidst the penguins and sheep on wind-swept South Atlantic islands, loud-mouthed Dubliners ranting about famine in Ethiopia, the Chernobyl disaster, statues of communist dictators being toppled, BMX bikes, footballers in tight shorts with bubble perms and moustaches, Joan Collins in shoulder pads, Rubiks cubes, grotesque rubber puppets imitating the politicians and celebrities of the day…I could go on all day.

On Extinct Tropical-themed confectionery products

It was while driving to work one morning last week when it occurred to me for some bizarre inexplicable reason that the canned fizzy drink Lilt was no longer on the market.   Or at least not in cans anyway.  If I remember correctly it was a mixture of pineapple, grapefruit and various other tropical fruit flavours, topped up wiht citirc acid, tartrazine and assorted crap that would now probably be banned by the EU. The TV ad featured shots of an idyllic tropical island with thejingle sung in a strong Caribbean accent “Lilt – with a totally tropical tee-yast”.

Around about the same time (ie early ‘80s) I recall there was a coconut and cherry flavoured chocolate bar called Cabana, which disappeared without a trace soon afterwards. Then not so long after this came out a disgusting bright red drink purporting to be a mixture of various tropical fruit juices called Um Bongo. The song featured in the TV ad (sung – I believe, but can’t be 100% sure – by the comedian Lenny Henry) was along the lines of an African tribal chant accompanied by a jungle drum beat with the chorus line “Um Bongo, Um Bongo, they drink it in the Congo”. It’s unlikely that this sort of thing would be broadcast nowadays in the age of rampant political correctness. But it’s probably purely coincidental that roughly around the same time the Tory MP Alan Clarke called for black immigrants to be sent back to BongoBongoland.

It’s not so much the politically incorrect nature of the ad, nor its stereotyping, but more the gross factual inaccuracy that bothers me. I’m sure if you were to ask Fergal Keane or Orla Guerin fresh from a reporting assignment in the corrupt, war-ravaged, mineral-rich central African state (that’s assuming the song refers to the Democratic Republic of Congo rather than Congo-Brazzaville, although the former was at the time still known as Zaire (but before that the Belgian Congo at the time when waffle-eating Sprouts had an empire), so it’s debatable) if they saw anyone sipping Um Bongo out of a straw from a garishly-coloured cardboard carton, I’m sure the answer would be an emphatic “no”.

A cursory glance at Wikipedia proves my point:

It is particularly famous for its long running (sung) slogan of “They Drink It In The Congo“, used with the accompanying animated television advert since the 1980s. However, Um Bongo is not marketed in either the Republic of the Congo or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

And just to be clear I don’t miss Lilt, Um Bongo, Cabana or any other e-number, artificial-flavouring-infested tropical-themed confectionery product of the 1980s (nor for that matter do I miss that particular decade), but I do toss and turn in bed at night wondering whatever became of them. I assume they went the way of the yuppy, the spangly flecked suit, black slip-ons and white socks, the bubble perm and matching moustache as sported by stock stage Liverpudlians in period comedy sketches, the wafer thin leather tie, the skintight pair of bleached jeans and the mullet haircut. And good riddance to them all.

Nostalgia’s just not what it used to be.