Hi-Heel Sneakers

I’m on the Robert Elms show on BBC Radio London today at 10.30 am (94.9FM) to talk about The Saturday Girls, mods, Motown and milkshakes. The big question is – when you’re going on the radio, does it matter what you wear? In bed, before I got up, I played Hi Heel Sneakers – one of the best records to put on the juke box in the Orpheus, the mods’ coffee bar in Chelmsford, a song that conjures up the excitement, the breathlessness, the cool of being a mod. I was looking for sartorial tips.

On the basis of Tommy Tucker’s advice I should wear a red dress, a wig hat and the hi-heel sneakers. It is of course a look, but perhaps it had to be 1964, in a cellar bar with very low lighting for it to work.

Is it important to wear the right clothes for any given situation, even if no-one can see you? I think so – I once represented a client in a case where the judge needed to check something as she was drafting the order, and she rang me up at home. I was in my pyjamas! It was not an easy conversation, calling someone ‘Judge’ when you’re glancing down at your slippers. Clothes are vital.

So what shall I wear today (did I mention I’m on the Robert Elms show this morning? 10.30am)? Sometimes I wish my mum hadn’t thrown away my suede (when I was 35 and hadn’t lived at home for over 15 years). A suede coat covered a multitude of sins – the not-quite-Fred Perry, the slightly wrong colour twin-set or simply the wrong blouse.

Yes, the book is out and people are saying good things about it. People have taken snaps of it on the shelves at Sainsbury’s, as far apart as Winchmore Hill and Chelmsford (well, they have to sell it in Chelmsford). My sister was on holiday and two of her friends were reading it! Of course, they may have felt they had to, but it was a nice gesture. My sister herself read it and said it was like being back in our living room in the Sixties (it is, of course, a novel Tess!).

But back to the far more pressing issue of clothes for this morning’s broadcast. I shall wear something dark but cool, straight but well cut, the sort of thing we dreamed of in those days, but never quite knew how to put into words. Or afford.

Let Tommy Tucker say it for me.

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Four days to go!

Four days to go until The Saturday Girls appears on the shelves! Who would have believed it? 23 August 2018 – a date for your diary. It started life as Beyond the Beehive, but now under the watchful eye of the team at Bonnier Zaffre it has become The Saturday Girls.

When I began writing the stories of Linda and Sandra I was really writing notes on what it was like to be a mod girl in Chelmsford in the Sixties, a piece of history that is often overlooked. The book describes life in the early Sixties, when rationing had finished but eggs were still considered a luxury, when the war was over but the H bomb was a threat hanging over all of us, when National Service was in its last days and teenagers had just been invented, from the point of view of mods. Mods who had the style, the scooters and … the music.

We had suffered with Radio Luxembourg under the blankets, and on TV we had groaned our way through Juke Box Jury with its old fogey panellists who didn’t understand music or youth or even life.

Of course there had been the 6:5 Special on BBC, and Oh Boy on ITV but we wanted more, though we didn’t quite know what. And then Ready Steady Go! burst onto our screens on Friday nights. Ready Steady Go! had it all – mods, music, fashion, dancing.

Ohh, just listen to Otis Redding, Eric Burdon and Chris Farlowe singing Shake.

It all fed into the world that became The Saturday Girls. I hope you buy it. I hope even more that you enjoy it.

The Four Tops

Yesterday I was having lunch with Val Wilmer and the conversation turned to the Four Tops. Val had photographed them at a concert they were doing. We recalled their greatest hits, and the fabulous voice of lead singer, Levi Stubbs.

Today I’m tidying up a chapter in The Girl in the Green Mac that takes place in the Orpheus, the cellar coffee bar in the centre of Chelmsford where all the mods gathered. There was a great jukebox in the Orpheus that had all the cool hits, the obscure records you wouldn’t hear on Top of the Pops. Another of its great features was that it was attached to the wall next to a mirror by the stairs, a very handy spot for checking out who was coming in, what they were wearing and who they were with. Then it was the most natural thing in the world to turn and ask if anyone had two threepences for a sixpence, or change for a shilling, to put in the slot, or to just chat about the group that was coming to play at the Corn Exchange on Saturday. You could even pose a question about the Vespa or Lambretta’s progress since the last flat tyre or flat battery. Any subject is interesting if it has a good soundtrack.

In the chapter, Carol (the girl in the green mac) is at the counter, waiting to order two coffees for herself and her friend Angie, who is sitting in their favourite seat, a dark booth at the back of the room.  As she stands there, waiting for a group of young out-of-town mods to make up their minds between Coke and lemon or a glass of milk, with a hiss and a crackle, the Four Tops come on the juke-box. The song fills her with yearning and longing for someone to feel that intensely about her. I thought I’d get in the groove while I was writing and I clicked on this track on YouTube, ‘Without the One You Love (Life’s Not Worthwhile). It came out in 1964, after their big hit, ‘Baby, I Need Your Loving’, and was another example of the rich velvety voice of Levi Stubbs. It wasn’t such a big hit, perhaps because the title was too long, or, it has been suggested, because it was over-produced. Who knows? Perhaps because the first line was almost a repetition of the title of the earlier hit and people were worried they were buying the same thing again. But if you keep on listening it becomes a great song in its own right. And to my 15 year old ears it was perfect.

Dream Baby

A good weekend. The sun has been shining, so having breakfast in the kitchen reading the paper is already a joy. But there was a very interesting article in the colour supplement this week, by Grace Dent, the new Guardian restaurant critic. She was writing about processed food, the comfort and the deliciousness of food that comes out of a packet. She’s a bit younger than me, but it still reminded me of the treats made by Vesta or Birds Eye, that would appear at tea-time for a special occasion. You can read the article here.

And then, this weekend the writing for the next book (working title The Girl in the Green Mac) has been going well. I’m just writing a scene where our heroine is sitting on the garden wall, gazing at the flowers, when along comes bad boy/hero Cliff . He watches her sitting there and he wants to say something sweet and soft so as not to interrupt her reverie. I wanted to use the words of a song that would be short hand for what he was feeling, that they would both understand. Dream Lover by Bobby Darin has the wrong vibe – he knows where she is. What a Day for a Daydream by the Lovin’ Spoonful is just too late – 1966. And then I remembered Dream Baby by Roy Orbison. She can make his dreams come true. Yes, it’s a rocking number. But hey, Carol likes to dance, so why not use it?

In this version, much of rock royalty appears.

 

Essex Rock Groups

 

Yesterday I went to Braintree – a town in North Essex that I have never knowingly visited before. I went by train, passing through Witham, Cressing and White Notley. The train stops at Braintree and goes no further.

It is a small market town (population 45,000), set on the River Brain. In fact, my mum was a social work assistant here (one of the famous Braintree Five – my mum is on the far left).

I went to hear old friend John Power give a talk about Essex Rock Groups.The talk took place in the Braintree Museum, which was originally a junior school, built in the middle of the 19th Century.

John and I go back many years – we met first in Chelmsford and then later at Colchester Tec College where I was doing my A-levels (see my earlier post about the student newspaper, Outlook). John was doing art and went on to do a degree in Art and Psychology. He paints, but he also writes about Chelmsford and Essex history.

And yesterday he was talking about Essex Rock Bands.  The Graham Bond Organisation, the Fairies, the Small Faces (Ilford), the Kursaal Fliers, Dr Feelgood (Canvey Island), Blur (Colchester), Prodigy (Braintree’s own), to name just a few. What is interesting is how the members move from one group to another – Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were members of the Graham Bond Organisation. Ronnie Lane, Ronnie Wood, Rod Stewart all had a part to play in the Small Faces.

The talk ranged wide – from Suzi Quatro who lives in Chatham Green, through Ian Dury from Upminster, through to Eddie and the Hot Roads from Canvey Island and beyond. A good afternoon.

I wrote last year about the Saturday that my best friend Christine bought the record St James Infirmary, after listening to it in a booth in Daces, Chelmsford’s music shop. It’s still a great song.

You can read John’s book about the Essex bands here on the website Chelmsford Rocks. In the meantime, listen to Back in the Night by Dr Feelgood, who came from Canvey Island. Dr Feelgood, the first Thames Delta Blues Band.

Colchester days

 

I did my A levels at the North East Essex Technical College and School of Art in Sheepen Road, Colchester (now the Colchester Institute). During my time there I worked on the student newspaper Outlook, in particular on the fashion pages. Last week, preparing my talk for the Essex Book Festival, I went through an old box of papers, looking for my Beatles scrapbook and my postcard collection. Amongst them all, I found this copy of the college newspaper.

Apart from letters to the Tinkers Club in the Chelmsford Newsman Herald, I think this was the first time my writing had appeared in print. Unfortunately there was no by-line to this December 1967 article about the style inspired by the film Bonnie and Clyde, but I remember the angst of discovering that the illustration accompanying my article was just too small. And I clearly had not explained the brief properly to the artist (doubtless a talented student from the School of Art, but who, like me, was not acknowledged by name) so that she did not give boots to the image of Bonnie Parker. This is probably because she had seen the film and had noticed that Bonnie did not ever wear boots.

Interesting to see the longer hemlines when we were still wearing short skirts in real life. But it wasn’t long before I bought myself a maxi skirt and a pair of (admittedly unattractive) boots.

And a good beret is always good to find. 

As is Georgie Fame.

A date for your diary

Essex Book Festival

Saturday 17 March 2018 Essex Authors Day

12.00 noon – 12.45pm  Writing from my experience

‘How can authors draw on personal experience? In the sixties Elizabeth was a Chelmsford mod and used that background as well as research to create her books.’

Chelmsford Library, Market Road, Chelmsford CM1 1QH       Free    BOOK NOW

And then, come and chat. 1 -2pm Meet the Authors

o o O o o

 

Angel Cake

 

The Essex Girls are on the way! For people new to the blog, The Essex Girls is my novel about two working class girls in the Sixties – mods, Motown and milkshakes. The book comes out in 2 months. A few final touches and we’ll be ready to go. One of those final touches is putting a recipe in the back of the book, based on a dish from the novel.  At first I couldn’t think what that might be – most of the time Sandra and Linda eat beans on toast, egg and chips, and Ready Brek. For special occasions, it might be ham salad.

But then I remembered the cake! There is a birthday cake (not in Linda’s house, it should be said), and it’s an Angel Cake. So – not only will readers get a cracking good book (as we say in the literary world) but a recipe too! For Angel Cake.

I have to admit that when I wrote about the cake, how soft, creamy, even moist it was, I hadn’t knowingly eaten Angel cake. Of course, this is why it’s called fiction. Writers make things up. But they must do research.

For me, writing about the Sixties, research is usually looking at my old diaries. However, while in a popular supermarket yesterday, buying frozen, microwaveable chips for my Aunty Rita (89) I was walking past the cake section and saw a packet of Angel Cake Slices, Tesco’s own brand. In the pursuit of knowledge and experience – who knows what questions I might be asked when the book comes out – I quickly snatched a packet from the shelf, paid and took them back to Rita’s flat. We had a cup of tea and a piece of Angel cake. Delicious, soft, moist and a little cream. The perfect cake to go in the back of the book! I left the slices with Rita to enjoy in her own time.

This morning, needing to double check my facts, I bought a packet of Mr Kipling Angel Slices. I have to say, they are not as delicious and unctuous as the Tesco brand.

Clearly, there must be a way forward for readers. Here is my 5-step plan.

  1. Pre-order The Essex Girls here.
  2. As soon as you receive it on or about 19 April, read it and thoroughly immerse yourself in the glorious decade that was the 60s.
  3. Find the recipe at the back of the book.
  4. Make the cake.
  5. Eat the cake.
  6. (optional) Think about angels.
  7. (even more optional) Wonder why you can’t take your eyes off that male dancer with the floppy hair.

 

Top 3 pictures – Christine Wilkinson

 

The Beat Goes On

I apologise to my faithful readers, I haven’t posted for a while. This is because I have been editing The Essex Girls (formerly known as Beyond the Beehive) in preparation for its publication on 18 April 2018 – hence photo above of a lovely old typewriter seen in a dark corner of a pub in Farringdon. I have not been sitting in a pub in Farringdon, nor indeed, working on a typewriter, but it’s the atmosphere that counts.

Some of you will know that in the book Linda, mod, Essex girl, narrator – is required to learn a poem at school and the poem she learns is by the Beat poet Lorenzo Fabbrano (my thanks to Roy Kelly for his assistance in obtaining permission to use the poem). And so it was a pleasant surprise to receive an email from a friend directing my attention to a lovely programme The Beat Hotel which combines many of my favourite things – Paris, the Sixties, and coffee – in particular a mention of the Cafe de la Mairie in Place Saint Sulpice, one of my favourite hangouts.

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It’s just half an hour, but it’s very interesting as a slice of social history with some good stories about the old style hotel managers.

Listen here

The Essex Girls is available for pre-order here

 

Good Morning Little School Girl

This week it’s all been about The Essex Girls (formerly known as Beyond the Beehive). I’ve been editing the book for its new publishers, adding a couple of extra scenes, re-reading it all, reminding myself about Linda and Sandra’s exploits in 1965.

In the process I was working on the chapter Good Morning Little Schoolgirl. In the Sixties, at my school we had to wear a uniform. The colour was navy blue. The rules were very strict. A beret (that I always folded in half and clipped as far back on my head as possible) had to be worn at all times on the way to and from school, as did a navy blue raincoat or duffle coat. If the weather was warm we would go home in a navy blue blazer with the school’s crest on the breast pocket, or simply the navy jumper, navy skirt and pale blue shirt and tie that we had worn all day at school.  There was a summer dress of a strange shape and flowery material, but no-one who was cool wore that.  And it all cost money. My mum knitted my V necked sweater which was seen as rather risque. As the mini-skirt became popular rules were made that skirts could be worn no more than three inches above the knee.

Backcombed, beehive hairdos were frowned on, so neat mod hair worked well, and my class mate Corinne and I tried to perfect the Cathy McGowan Cleopatra hairstyle. Corinne was more successful than me.

I would walk home from school along the Main Road till I reached the parade of shops at the bottom of Patching Hall Lane, where I would meet my best friend Chris whose school, the Blessed John Payne, as it then was, was just up the road. In the picture she is holding a guitar which she did not own or play. And then we would walk home together, planning what we would wear when we went out in the evening to the Orpheus coffee bar.

And here is the song that inspired the chapter.