It’s today

Today the Saturday Girls appears on the shelves.

My niece went to her local Sainsbury’s first thing this morning and sent me this photograph.

People sent messages and cards. I met friends for coffee and drinks. My publisher, Bonnier Zaffre sent an enormous bunch of flowers.

I dropped into Crouch End Waterstone’s and discussed a future event there. Date to be confirmed. A fancy meal at our neighbourhood Italian restaurant rounded off a perfect day.

But before that I was asked to answer some questions for a book website. One of the questions was if the book had a theme song, what would it be? And I thought it would have to be Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs. Perhaps not a song, to be precise, but oh, such a cool piece of music.

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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.

Here they come, ‘The Saturday Girls’

Here is the News.

As you know, last year a new publisher, Bonnier Zaffre, bought Beyond the Beehive – my book about life in Chelmsford in the 60s – and after some additions and some editing, it was decided to rename the book ‘The Essex Girls’ and publish this April – next week in fact.

BUT

things have changed. The title of the book has changed (I think Essex Girls gave the wrong idea) and now it will be called The Saturday Girls and have a different cover and will come out in August.

I’m sorry for all this chopping and changing. I, for one, was getting very excited about the publication date – but I think the new title serves my Essex Girls better.

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.

Beyond the Beehive – reading allowed

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Some of you may remember September 2016 – gloriously hot days, a bit of rain, the start of Strictly Come Dancing.  But you may also remember 2 September when I appeared at an event in Waterstone’s Covent Garden and read the first chapter of Beyond the Beehive.  It was an event organised by Novel London

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You may also remember that the event was videod and I know many people were anxiously waiting for the video to come out so that they could share in the joy of the occasion.  Unfortunately, and I am convinced it was not my fault, something happened so that there could be no video.  However, you can listen to me reading Chapter 1 here (this link takes you to my website, scroll down and it’s there after the blurb about the book).  Sit down with a cup of tea and a Bourbon biscuit and remember the 60s, the clothes, the perfume, the mods, the music.

The London Book Launch for Beyond the Beehive is on Friday 28 October – contact me for more details.

Before that listen to an interview on Woman’s Hour on Thursday 27 October at 10am.

Be there or be square!

Blues Unlimited

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I’ve written before (in Zoot Suits) about my love affair with the blues in the early 60s, listening to Mike Raven’s show on Radio 390, in the bedroom I shared with my sister, trying to catch the names of the musicians as the reception on my transistor radio faded in and out.  It was here I learned the names Peetie Wheatstraw and Sleepy John Estes, although I didn’t know what they played or where they were from.  The names rolled round in my head, as romantic as the music that rolled off the Radio 390 turntables.  The only other person I knew who liked blues as much as I did was my mate Corinne at school (long leather navy coat, fabulous swinging Cathy McGowan hair cut, total mod).  We used to meet at break on Thursday morning and over her snack of Ryvita and cheese (generously shared) we would discuss the music we’d heard the night before.  If only I had known that there was a magazine which would have given me the information to make those discussions even richer and more informed.

DSC01008 (3)Blues Unlimited was started in 1963 by two blokes from Bexhill-on-Sea, Simon Napier and Mike Leadbitter.  Issue number one contained articles on Little Junior Parker and Jay Miller, a discography of the Staple Singers (I’ll Take You There) and a request for help in compiling label lists of Sun, Bullet and Hollywood.  The magazine pages were typed on stencils and printed on a Roneo-type machine, and then stapled together – all by hand.  The first edition run of 180 copies sold out quickly.  By July 1964 the print run was 1000.  Contributions came from Europe and the US, articles, interviews, reviews and information.  ‘Cajun Corner’ began, a feature on Howlin’ Wolf starred in Issue 3 and the first major piece on Elmore James appeared in Issue 5.

In the 70s the editorial staff changed to include Mike Rowe, Neil Slaven and Bill Greensmith.  Working on the solid foundations provided by Napier and Leadbitter, the magazine now gave photos a greater importance, a letters page was introduced, and new research was done and information unearthed. Interviews became longer and more detailed.  In 1987, ‘beset by numerous problems’, the last edition was published.

DSC01008 (3)But now Mike Rowe and Bill Greensmith along with Mark Camarigg, have edited a new book ‘Blues Unlimited.’  Published by University of Illinois Press, and with a foreword by Tony Russell, it gives you exactly what it says on the cover, ‘Essential interviews from the Original Blues Magazine.’  The book is a treasure trove of articles, pictures and interviews.  From Detroit Baby Boy Warren, from Mississippi Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup, from Chicago Freddie King and Red Holloway.  And Peetie Wheatstraw and Sleepy John Estes are in there too.

In the early 80s I was at a dinner party which included one Val Wilmer, who I knew was a great jazzer, a photographer and writer, but who I had never met before.  In an attempt to ingratiate myself with her I casually brought Peetie Wheatstraw and Sleepy John Estes into the conversation – as you do, hoping she wouldn’t ask me for further and better particulars, since I was still unaware of the existence of Blues Unlimited and had no more information abut them than I’d had when I was in 4L at Chelmsford County High.  Val was very kind and did not quiz me on the exact nature of my knowledge and we became friends.  So much so that when in 1987 I went to the States for two months she gave me the contact details of Bill Greensmith in St Louis.  I rang him and ended up going to stay with him and his lovely wife, Stella.  I had never met anyone who had a working juke box in their home.  Bill was a great host and took me to hear music in East St Louis, as well as giving me a tour of the town, and showing me where exactly Ike and Tina Turner had started their musical collaboration.

Val had also given me a package to deliver to Fontella Bass who lived in St Louis, Fontella Bass whose record ‘Rescue Me’ in 1965, constantly on the juke box in the Orpheus, was the theme tune to one of my more painful heartbreaks.   Twenty two years later, I took the bus from central St Louis, I walked down the street and I knocked on her door.  People I sat in Fontella Bass’ living room.  And I returned the package.  Unfortunately Fontella herself wasn’t there.  Bad timing.

An interview with Fontella Bass appears on page 291.

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I would have mentioned the book anyway, because I know that for Bill and the other two editors -Mike Rowe and Mark Camarigg – this has been a real labour of love.  It’s beautifully produced and it’s an absolute treat for anyone who is interested in the music.  But – I do have an even more personal relationship to the book.  One Saturday afternoon, a few years ago, Bill was back in London, seeing old pals, and we arranged to meet up in a pub near Liverpool Street.  Two of the pals in the pub were Neil Slaven and Mike Rowe.  And I took a picture of them.  It’s in the book.  How cool is that?

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