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.’

Hi Heel Sneakers

It’s funny to think that in our house it was my dad who originally went to the Orpheus.  It was a coffee bar in a basement in London Road near to his office, and beatniks and Swedish-looking girls with long straight hair went there.  For a while Dad abandoned Wainwright’s Milk Bar and arranged to meet his friends at the Orpheus, Richard, the Labour party agent, other union officials and Jimmy Peacock a reporter on the Essex Weekly News, but soon the Mods came and took it over, attracted by its dark interior and superior juke-box, and dad and his mates returned to spending their coffee breaks in the light of the upstairs room of the Milk Bar. 

When Sandra’s older sister Marie became a mod she became a regular at the Orpheus.  She told us about it, the scooters parked outside, swanky Vespas with chrome bubbles, and Lambretta’s with maroon panels, the good music on the juke box, the slice of lemon you got if you ordered Coca Cola.  Sandra and I longed to go there, but we were too young and unstylish.  It was only after Marie and her friend Rita sold us their suedette jackets that we dared even to contemplate it.  Of course, they sold us their suedette jackets because they had moved on to the real thing, suede. 

One Saturday afternoon, after we had passed Walkers Jewellery Shop where we had looked at eternity rings, and Bolingbrokes where we had sneered at the lack of modern clothes on display, Sandra and I strolled casually down London Road.  Outside we dared each other to make the first move.  Together we stepped into the entrance.  We stood in a narrow hallway.  On the left was a door leading into an art supplies shop and at the end was the narrow twisting staircase leading to the Underworld.  Cautiously we made our descent.  Almost as soon as we reached the bottom stair and stepped into the gloomy cavernous space, I realised how wrong suedette was.  People wearing leather coats, suede coats, girls in twinsets, boys in Fred Perry shirts, turned and stared.    I felt young and silly, like a kid still wearing short socks.  My suedette jacket couldn’t cover my twist skirt.

An orange bulb glowed over a large silver espresso machine.  Boys in parkas, leaning on the counter, looked up as Sandra marched across the room.  Reluctantly I followed her, wanting to hide in one of the dark booths which were faintly visible around the walls.  I was relieved to see there was another young girl with a frightened-looking face in the place, till I realised I was staring at a reflection of myself in a mirror.

And then the first twanging notes of Hi Heel Sneekers bounced round the room.