How to be a mod girl

Things are happening fast! The Saturday Girls is selling fantastically well – thank you to everyone who’s bought it – and the audio version is out in January 2019. My interview with Robert Elms was great! You can listen to it here. My piece starts about 40 minutes in, after a track by the Small Faces.

And other things are happening. Some websites have asked me to write for them, about The Saturday Girls and my writing habits, and the first piece to appear has been published in Female First, an online magazine that covers all kinds of things – music, fashion, food and books. My article gives my top tips on how to be a mod girl, so that anyone can do it. Unfortunately Ready Steady Go! – unmissable viewing on Friday nights – is no longer airing on TV, but the magic of social media allows everyone to watch old episodes on YouTube.

So get yourself a dose of RSG!, grab your best friend and stroll round your local town centre. You’re half way there! Find all the tips here.

And as ever, there’s just one song you need to get you into the mod mood, and that’s Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs. Imagine yourself, on a Saturday night, walking into the Corn Exchange  with that best friend of yours, in all your mod finery, looking forward to seeing Georgie Fame or the Who or Wilson Pickett, as well as all the other cool mods from town. That’s it. You’re there.

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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.

The Saturday Girls – countdown

In four weeks time The Saturday Girls will be on the shelves.

I really enjoyed writing the book, much as I really enjoyed those days. How iconic they were, and still are. Everyone has a story to tell about the early Sixties. Yesterday I was in a local coffee shop talking to someone who is at least ten years younger than me. We talked about a whole range of things – starting with her excellent choice, in this hot heavy weather, of iced coffee. Somehow, as it always does, the conversation turned to the early Sixties – mods and rockers and Italian style and the French New Wave and scooters and suede coats. And she had memories of those days. I mentioned the Milk Bar – in Chelmsford that was Wainwrights, on the corner of London Road and Tindal Street. And she, who had grown up in the Midlands, suddenly remembered their local Milk Bar, and its reputation for being a wild and crazy place that your mum wouldn’t want you to go to. I said the word ‘scooters’ and she had a story about riding on the back of a Vespa, and holding on tight.

That’s the book really. What I’ve tried to do is take you back there – so you too can remember those days of Motown and Minis and Cathy McGowan and her Cleopatra hair style. Even if you weren’t there, as you follow the paths of Linda and Sandra, dancing to Georgie Fame at the Corn Exchange and drinking frothy coffee in the Orpheus, and as you meet Sylvie, the most exotic person on the Estate, who has actually been to Paris – you’ll remember.

And it’s so close now. Things are heating up! My editor tells me I shall soon have a copy of the book to hold in my hands. And then it will climb onto the shelves of the shops.  And then you’ll be able to read it. As the Temptations said, ‘Like a snowball rolling down the side of a snow covered hill, it’s growing.’

You can of course pre-order your copy here!

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.

The Saturday Girls

I am really pleased to be able to show you the new cover for The Saturday Girls. The book is about being a mod girl in Essex in the 60s and comes out on 23 August 2018. It’s great to have a new title and a new cover that I think really does do justice to the book! You can reserve a copy here. 

In those days, life began on Saturdays. On Saturday mornings I worked in the local milk bar – it was vital if I was going to pay for my ticket to the Corn Exchange in the evening. I was a mod in a suede coat and danced to the live music of Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, the Animals and many more groups who played at the Corn Exchange every Saturday night. I was a Saturday girl in every sense of the word.

What a good time it was. So, I wrote a novel about it. I put in the music and the milk shakes and the magic of those days.

The first record that appears in the book is the one that could almost be called the mod anthem. Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs. Close your eyes and remember where you heard it first, a dance hall, a cellar cafe, a juke box in a coffee bar, a sound-proof booth in a record shop. Remember the excitement of hearing a song that no-one older than 25 liked.

While you’re waiting for the book to come out, stay in the groove by listening to that great organ sound, and maybe practise one or two mod dances, The Block or the mod Jive.

 

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

 

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.

Lazy Sixties Afternoon

Galleywood Heritage Centre – formerly the Galleywood Race Course – was the venue for a great heritage day on Saturday 3 June. Lots of different groups guided visitors to ways of finding out about local history or their own family history, in a room that had once been the base of the Grandstand. It was a really hot sunny day, with much coming and going and sharing information and drinking tea and eating rather delicious cakes.  In a separate room, decorated with a host of interesting pictures of Chelmsford in the Sixties, and with the Kinks and Roy Orbison and the Stones crooning in the background, I was talking about My Generation.

What was very nice for me was hearing the experiences of those in the audience. In the first session there were no (ex)rockers, but in the second session there was a mix of (ex) mods and rockers – I had to be careful what I said. The discussion ranged far and wide from the pop groups that went to Southend to the £10 Poms who went to Australia, from Martin Ford (fashion emporium) where I bought my pin-striped fan pleated skirt, to the trendy straight shift dresses that made it easy to run up a new outfit for yourself. We talked about National Service and pubs and cafes. And I read a chapter from the new book (working title The Girl in the Green Mac) which went down well. So it was a great day all round.

One session ran from 11.30 to 12.30 and the second ran from 1.30 to 2.30. In between, with scarcely enough time for me to eat a cheese sandwich, Andy Stephens, a local reporter, asked me a few questions.  And here are the answers.

All or Nothing

I never was a great fan of the Small Faces – I think I thought they were too…. small.  But also that they tried too hard to be mod or something. But 50 years on I can see things through a Vaseline smeared lens, and I know all the words to the songs so when old school pals suggest a trip to see All or Nothing, the new Small Faces musical, I say yes quickly and find I’m looking forward to it.

We meet for dinner before the show – apart from a recent sighting across a crowded room a few months ago I haven’t seen Gayle and Amanda for almost 50 years.  Chris I haven’t seen for as long. We have had Facebook discussions as to what we should wear and we all agree we will wear something mod. They all look fantastic and I am the party-pooper who has failed to even wear a suede coat or chisel-toed slingbacks (I blame travel and accommodation problems). It is discouraging for the others, and indeed for me, because we are expecting a moment during the show when the cry will go up ‘Is there a girl group in the house that could come and sing a few numbers with us?’ We know that even though our seats are in the balcony this will not stop us and we shall become the Goldie and the Gingerbreads of Chelmsford and possibly be offered a contract before the night is out.  I only hope that my jeans won’t hold us back.

The show is just starting its regional run, in the Chelmsford Civic Centre.  As we go in we remember various shows we have seen here – mostly with The School. I am also wondering if this is where I performed with the Chelmsford Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society’s production of The Crucible. For some reason it is all a dim memory. Amanda and I eschew the notion of a bag of Maltesers and have ice cream.

In the first half charting the early days of the group there is a lot of R&B (as it then was). Each time they pick up their guitars and tune a string or two there is that exciting feeling that comes with being at a dance with live music – Chelmsford YMCA, the Corn Exchange, a Youth Club on one of the estates. The Steve Marriott character sings well. Every now and again he hits a note with exactly the same sound as Steve Marriott and it’s like being back there, in the Sixties, in the Orpheus, Snows, listening to the juke box. I remember the snatched minutes,in my bedroom, listening to blues on the Mike Raven show on the pirate radio station Radio 390, hearing Muddy Waters, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, thrilled by the music and entranced by the names, Peetie Wheatstraw, Sleepy John Estes.  Now to hear Boom Boom played very loud on stage is exciting.

In the interval we have a drink, idly glance at the memorabilia on sale and watch the unusual spectacle of hundreds of men queuing for the loos. They’re all here, most of them of a certain age. The discussion centres on our memories.  Is what it is happening on stage what it was really like?  The jury is out.  We all agree that the scooter in the foyer, adorned with a trillion lamps, is not anything any of us remembers.  The scooter boys we knew never had an extra lamp. We take photos.

          

The second half covers the move through the Sixties, via Mary Quant and op-art. We all agree we love the black and white dresses, coincidentally made by Love Her Madly, someone I follow on Twitter.  Straight and simple, we are all taken back to the happy days.

And then on through to hippies.  Hippie-dom was not my personal favourite era (not enough ironing) but others among us really like it.  At the end, our moment comes, there are repeats of the songs and people in the audience are pulled up on the stage and there is dancing.  We look at each other.  This is our moment.  Maybe.  I’m still drinking my interval wine, we’ve all got bags, and then there’s our coats. No, not today.  We probably need to rehearse a bit  too.

Gradually the show comes to a halt and happy punters leave the building. It has been a great evening.

 

Soho

2is-neon-2

I was interviewed by Radio Gorgeous last week.  We had arranged to meet in the Society Club, a small cosy coffee shop and rare bookshop in Ingestre Place, but they were clearing up from a photo shoot, so we adjourned to the John Snow pub. It’s a dark wood, Victorian saloon bar, on two levels, filled with the low hum of conversation.  We talked about Beyond the Beehive, life and the universe.  The interview will be broadcast in January.

After I left the pub, I wandered along Broadwick Street in the direction of Carnaby Street.  I passed a row of shops.  One of them had a mod target outside.  I stopped and looked in the window.

sherrys-1

sherrys

There were Fred Perrys and suits, a particularly delectable mauve suit on a tailor’s dummy, but there were also books – books aboout the Who and books I have myself including Sawdust Caesars by Tony Beesley.

It was Sherry’s.  I went inside and met Perry who works there.  I told him I’d written a book about mod girls.  ‘If it’s mod we should have it,’ he said.  ‘Speak to Bubbles,’ he said.  Bubbles is the owner.

So on Tuesday I went into the shop with a few copies of Beyond the Beehive.  Bubbles was there and was very friendly. ‘Yes,’ she said.  ‘We’ll display them.’

bthebcover

Which all means that if you’re in Carnaby Street, buying new shoes or just looking at the lights, but despairing of knowing what to buy the mod in your life for Christmas – you can nip along the street to Sherry’s, buy a copy or two of the book and order yourself a sharp suit at the same time.  A Christmas outfit!