(From “Bye-bye Love,” written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, and performed by the Everly Brothers)
In early 1964, Graham Ascot, a buddy at Haslucks Green County Primary School, had a birthday party on the same day that Muhammed Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, first fought the then Heavyweight Champion of the World, Sonny Liston. Conventional wisdom was that Clay was going to lose, a young and brash upstart taking on an experienced and solid champion. The odds were 7-1 against him when he stepped out into the ring. Like most of the other children there, we presumed that the champion would win. It wasn’t much of a preoccupation for us, but I have always been impressed by Graham picking Cassius Clay to win against the odds and against conventional wisdom, and being proved right.
The party was memorable for another reason, the game of spin-the-bottle that Graham got going. I remember very little about girls at the time, and even remember very little about this game of spin the bottle, but it did happen. Boys or girls sat in a circle in his living room, all of us nervous, some of us including me to the point of being terrified, as Graham set the game up and ran it. I had no idea really what you were supposed to do if the bottle pointed at you when it stopped spinning and you “won” and were rewarded with a few minutes alone in the next room with the girl who had “won” the girls’ spin. I barely realized the difference between boys and girls at this point. We saw relatively real kisses on the TV or in movies (not at home), and the interest of kissing and girls as kissable people escaped me and scared me at the same time. I did “win” one of the games that afternoon, that much I remember, and duly spent a few minutes with an eleven year-old girl in the next room. If she remembers me, I apologize, because I can’t remember anything about her or about what we did, except a vague feeling afterwards that I had not let the boys down. We must have kissed, I suppose, but the feeling of satisfaction could have been generated by something as simple as her not laughing at me. She was probably as scared as I was, but boys always initiated, which put us in a riskier position. Thank you, Graham. The mere fact that I can’t remember suggests that your game of spin the bottle was a valuable step in growing up.
I was eleven years old at Graham’s party. The bottom line was that before that age girls had not made up a significant part of life, at least not as girls. I had girl buddies, but can’t for the life of me remember what we did together apart from chit-chat in the playground at school. I played football with boys, conkers with boys and mostly hung out with boys. I did show off to girls as well as boys, and must admit that I liked to show off and did a lot of showing off. Sue and I would dress up together, which was fun at times, but I was more likely to be train spotting, which girls never did, or bicycling. In retrospect I don’t know why, but girls did not seem to do a lot of biking. Then again, neither did boys around me: I mostly biked alone. I also rode a trolley, a kind of pedal-power go-cart that dad helped me make. It was modeled on one that I’d seen on a show called “Blue Peter” on TV. The producers sent out an engineering drawing to every viewer who wrote in and asked for one, and when we received it we adapted it to use pram wheels that we somehow had available for free in place of the smaller and probably slower wheels that it was designed
for. It accelerated down the hill outside our house before squealing around the sharp right-hander at the bottom, turning me instantaneously from the driver to the driven, risking to be tipped off the sidewalk onto the road each time the trolley squealed around that sharp bend. It was the closest I got to today’s skateboarders, and Sue wasn’t much interested, let alone my girl buddies.
It was about that age that I decided to avoid marriage and remain a bachelor. Perhaps this decision was inspired by “Bachelor Boy,” another song that Cliff Richard sang at the time. Perhaps mum and dad fought too much, or implicated me too much in their own problems, as when mum told me in Birmingham about dad’s first great infidelity before we moved to Cardiff. Perhaps I just had a dim idea of the grief that was in store in two failed marriages and a third that has to put up with the scars of the first two. I’m pretty sure that this juvenile decision had nothing to do with real girls around me. Marriage involved a woman, not a girl. “Until then I’ll be a bachelor boy, and that’s the way I’ll stay, happy to be a bachelor boy until my dying day ,” sang Cliff (from “Bachelor Boy,” written by Bruce Welch and Cliff Richard, and performed by Cliff Richard and the Shadows), and I would cite the phrase. The family used to tease me about it, especially the women. Every time we saw Aunty Margaret, she would ask me if I was still going to remain a bachelor, and I would nod yes to general titters. Not that she and Uncle Ron were a sterling example of the joys of marriage, but joy was not the point in their eyes. I never did find out what the point was.
Not three months after the spin-the-bottle party, we moved house again, to Dorridge. This was the move required by mum’s ambition to live in a better neighborhood as much as by dad’s desire to advance professionally, because we moved without changing his job. We did so just before the end of my four years at Haslucks Green school, transferring me to Dorridge County Primary School for the remainder of primary school, a grand total of nine
weeks. Needless to say, this was not enough to make friends with anyone in Dorridge, but did cut me off from my old friends at Haslucks Green. The theory at home was that this break did not matter, because I was moving on to Solihull School in any event, and none of the old crowd was going there with me. Up to a point, they were right. The given was that in any event there were no girls at Solihull, which did not seem to matter even to me. It was an all boys school, which in its institutional mind somehow reflected its innate superiority. Solihull concentrated on its innate superiority, which made it less innate if
you think about it.
The effect of the move to Dorridge was that I left the neighborhood where I could have found my girl buddies after school or on the weekend and moved into one where I knew no girls in the neighborhood. At precisely the time when nature would lead me to see girls differently, no longer as boys with different tastes, I was cut off from them almost completely. Only writing this down have I figured it out, but my break from girls was particularly complete in that it encompassed not just the school week, which was a break that many lived through, but also and more unusually leisure time. My sister was pretty much the only girl in my life for about three years after the move to Dorridge, until after I turned 14.
I have a letter in my archives from Frances Kruc, who was a girl buddy at Hasluck’s Green. I had apparently written a long letter to her after the move to Dorridge and before starting at Solihull, perhaps during the summer holiday. She was sweet and encouraging in the letter, telling me not to write so much in the future and about how things were at Haslucks Green after I had gone. Graham Ascott was winning the weekly quizzes. I still ache rereading the letter. Longing for what? Not Frances, although I liked her and biked over to her house to visit her a couple of times before moving. Not Hasluck’s Green, because it was not much of a school and in any event I would have left shortly. Not Shirley, which was bit too close to Birmingham, the industrial heart of England, where the word “heart” is pretty much a complete misnomer. It looks more like an indeterminate longing for a lost community, for absent friends, for the past. It looks like the nostalgia that at least in part fuels this memoir.
One of the bike trips over to Frances’ house resulted in what is called a screen memory. I rode across a wood to get to her house, taking one or other of the paths that criss-crossed it, and once saw a young couple doing something. If you are reading this with voyeuristic inclinations, I apologize. All that I remember is quietly laying down my bike and gently positioning myself, on all fours, behind a fallen tree trunk. I also remember being engrossed in what they were doing not that many yards away from me. But I can’t for the life of me remember what was so worth watching. If I only knew! It engrossed me for several minutes, and then I was disturbed by a stinging in my hand. I looked down to discover red ants running randomly over it, and shocked, shook and rubbed them off as quickly as I could. The scene that captured my juvenile boy’s attention is now gone, although I can make obvious surmises about its content, but those red ants and their bites remain. Psychologists say that the remaining memory serves to screen off the real subject of interest. I was surprised by the red ants biting: the black ants which I was familiar with did not.
Oddly enough, at a time when girls seemed to matter little as potential women, I was already starting to worry about becoming a man. I was very thin, and beginning to feel self-conscious about it. At a school assembly in Dorridge when we were all singing, I remember trying to sing with a deeper voice, an effort which went on for years and permanently ruined any chance I may have had to develop a half-decent singing voice. How did I know so soon what physical maturity meant for a boy, and why was it so important so soon? Is that normal? Is it normal to be so concerned about not appearing physically immature when you are and when girls don’t yet matter? My own development would preoccupy me more as time went on and I fell behind my peers. What is striking looking back now is that this particular preoccupation took root at precisely the moment when girls disappeared, a moment when my physical development as a boy was not behind my peers. Was it a kind of desperate pre-pubescent effort to locate the girls I’d lost, at a time when I didn’t even realize that they’d gone?
In daily life, I was elsewhere. We were all looking forward to my starting at Solihull School. 1964 was the year that I started there. It was also the year that I won the scholarship, had a whole day to explore London’s gorgeous train stations alone, made an overnight train trip
with mum, dad and Sue to Scotland, and saw my heroes performing live on stage in a sea of screams at the Hammersmith Odeon. In short, it was a fabulous year.
©Ian J. Stock
Next chapter: Chapter 14 The Scholarship Boy
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