A Town Without Pity

The day the earth caught fire 006On Thursday the forecast for the evening was cloudy, a little sun but no rain.  This was excellent news for those of us going to see The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) in the open air, at the British Museum.  Some were more prepared than others for the fact the sun would go down and, despite the title of the film, it would get cold.  But we had cushions and cardboard seats, and hot dogs and wine were on sale, so we were comfortable.

I had never seen the film before.  It was in black and white, British, with lots of well known faces – Leo McKern, Bernard Braden, Peter Butterworth as well as a brief appearance by Michael Caine and loving shots of London.  But with its subject matter – the nuclear arms race, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament with archive film of the Aldermaston march, and the melting of the polar ice caps – it could have been made today.

There was also a brief section where beatniks ran amok when the world seemed to be coming to an end.  They smashed windows, broke into homes, behaved in sexually explicit ways (in the nicest possible way) and were rude and brainless.  It was an image reflective of the times – society trying to come to terms with the notion of teenagers, youth culture, young people having a life away from their parents.  Even the credits showed that the ‘beatnik music’ was composed by someone other than the composer who created the rest of the music in the film.

The day before, Frank, my hairdresser, had been playing a version of A Town Without Pity – amazing how you don’t hear a song for 10, 20 years but you still know all the words – but it didn’t have the edge on Gene Pitney.   But in terms of young people, the song and the film seemed to be saying the same thing.  We don’t much like you.  Beatniks got older and made way for mods and rockers but the message was still the same.  And as Gene sang so powerfully, ‘It isn’t very pretty what a town without pity can do.’


There was something about records in the 60s which was raw and almost amateurish, a sort of echo, a grating of the guitar strings, a bit of shouting.  But it meant that the music hit you in the stomach – listen to early Beatles tracks, Bruce Chanel, the Ronettes.  I don’t think this is the best version of Gloria by Them, but it sounds as if they’re playing in their dad’s garage, and it’s as exciting as being there, like listening to the local groups that used to play at the YMCA on a Saturday night.

I also like the worried looks on faces of the older people in the audience as if they have arrived there by mistake or they had to be there because they were the mayor and it was a question of civic pride or simply that they were someone’s mum who had heard the band practising in the garage but really thought they would have improved by the time of the concert.

The record was on the juke box in the Orpheus, and there probably isn’t anyone over 60 in Chelmsford who can’t spell Gloria.

The Milk Bar

The Dolphin-Wainwrights

In Chelmsford in the Sixties, as in so many other towns in England, the demolition of many of the best parts of the town began – that is the Corn Exchange and beside it, Tindal Street, the narrow cobbled lane that was home to the White Hart, the Spotted Dog and the Dolphin, and at the far end, Wainwrights Milk Bar.  They all disappeared.  Before that happened, I started working there, on Saturdays and in the holidays.  It was August 1966.  We served milk from a special machine, milkshakes made with bright sweet milkshake mix and Horlicks, made with milk, on a noisy beige electric mixer.  I never liked serving Horlicks because somehow, for me, it always turned out lumpy.  Why would anyone want to drink Horlicks in the daytime, anyway – or at all?  We also served tea, and two types of coffee, ordinary, which we served from an urn behind the counter and – Expresso! The Saturday girls weren’t allowed to touch the Expresso machine, as we called it.  Elsie, who worked there full-time, and was usually in charge, said that was because it was dangerous.  She’d knocked out her two front teeth one morning making frothy coffee for someone.  So she said.  Her two front teeth were certainly missing.

On my second day at work, in my neat white overall and red and black check pinafore apron, I got my first and only ever tip.  Which, I wrote in my diary, was ‘for giving a man 3 sugars in one cup and 1 and a half in the other.’  It was sixpence.  Not bad!  But why?  The Milk Bar was the hub of the town, I think.  My dad went there for coffee at 11 o’clock from the AEU office in London Road, where he worked.  There he met his old friend Jimmy Peacock who wrote a column in the Essex Weekly News.  My sister’s gang – the In-Crowd – slouched in on Saturdays.  Shop workers came in, occasionally a mod drifted in, sometimes even a confused rocker, young families wanting lemon squash, people from building sites wanting pie and beans.

On 13 August 1966 – 29 years ago today – I did hardly anything ‘except make ice-cream sodas’ (which in Chelmsford consisted of fizzy lemonade, a dollop of vanilla ice-cream and a stir with a long spoon.  I still like it). People came and went, it was hot, it was summer.  The Corn Exchange was closed till the autumn.  Perhaps that was the reason the Troggs were at number 1.

A Sense of Occasion – the Chelmsford Stories

I have tried to find out who took the picture of Tindal Street.  If you know, please get in touch.


The Gift

There was a boy called Ronnie Dee.  He was older than me, 18 maybe 19.  He had a smooth face, dark eyes and short dark hair in the mod way,  and a navy blue leather.  He was quiet but he told little jokes, and then he would turn and smile at me.  When he came down the Orpheus, the mods’ coffee bar, someone would put ‘King Bee’ by the Rolling Stones on the juke box.

Bee Dee.  Blond Don would start to sing, ‘I’m a King Dee,’ and Ronnie would shout ‘Turn it off!’ but I don’t think he really minded…

Read on in A Sense of Occasion – the Chelmsford Stories

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