There is a permanent page for Memories of the 1960s here.
In many ways this is the hardest post I have made about the 1960s and it has taken me a long time to decide to make it. Many writers have tried and failed to capture the magic and disillusionment of 60s music and I most surely must fail too. But that won’t stop me ‘taking a shot’ at it, as Americans like to say, or ‘having a ago’ as Brits like to say.
I am not just talking about something in remote history when I talk about music from that era; I actually remember music of the 1960s. The first song I remember is Puppet on a String, which of course won the 1967 Eurovision Song Contest (yes, we had it then too!) for Sandie Shaw. I would have been 5 but I well remember the catchy tune blasting out of BBC Radio 1 on our little, blue radio set in the kitchen, or in my bedroom when I was sick, which was often.
I also remember Windmill in Old Amsterdam (There was a mouse! Where? There on the Stair!) by Ronnie Hilton. This was a hit in 1965 so I may not actually remember hearing the original recording on the radio but my mum sang it to me a lot. I think she was trying to teach me to sing.
The first Beatles song I remember is Yellow Submarine; a hit in 1969. Somebody played it at my school during a break and almost all the children danced spontaneously to it in the playground. The strange thing is that we thought this song must have been ancient; around since the beginning of time. We put it in the same bracket as hymns, nursery rhymes and folk songs, something that people had sung since the dawn of time. I laugh now to think this but we also put Cat Stevens’ Morning has Broken in the same category, classing it as a hymn, would you believe?
I was often ill in my childhood so stuck at home and my mum would always put the radio by my bed at these times to keep me company. I listen to a lot of contemporary music, usually on Radio 1. Now you might think that listening to the radio would bring me a cornucopia of psychedelic songs from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Mamas and the Papas and so on. But you would be wrong.
First of all, Radio 1 was pretty conservative in what they broadcast and the mornings were usually divided up between Jimmy Young and Jimmy Saville. They played The Beatles, but stuck to the more traditional songs like Yesterday, Yellow Submarine, Help! and a few other of the older hits like From me To You. I don’t remember hearing any Rolling Stone except perhaps Satisfaction later in the 60s.
And I didn’t have access to Radio Caroline, the pirate radio station broadcast from a former light ship, moored in the English Channel and manned by such luminary figures as Emperor Rosko, Kenny Everett and Tony Blackburn.
In fact, I don’t think I could even get Radio Luxembourg in the Chiltern Hills, where we lived. Even some TV programmes would phase out in poor weather conditions. Twiddle as I might with the tuning knob on the radio, I remained stuck with Radio 1, 2 and 4, a few French stations and possibly the occasional bit of static from Germany and Russia.
But what I did get was a wealth of what I would call medium level Brit bands like The Small Faces, Steampacket (featuring a very young Rod Stewart), Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (Bend It was played a lot on Radio One), Mary Hopkin. I was also subjected to a welter of novelty records by people like Max Bygraves, Benny Hill, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and Peter Sellers, but the less said about them the better! Incidentally, the eagle-eyed among you will have spotted the name of the main character in my book, The Ice Boat, among the list of acts above.
These bands were unashamedly British and flaunted it, often regressing into a kind of Cockney utopian vision as their careers progressed. This may have been in imitation of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, which was a paean to Englishness if ever there was one. But while Sergeant Pepper sounded almost triumphant, combining as it did Englishness with a hunger for a global culture, other bands would find this road harder and end up becoming more inward looking.
A good example is The Small Faces, hence my choice of image for the head of this post. Itchycoo Park was catchy and the writers even now claim they attempted some kind of commentary on the extreme trajectory of hippy culture with it. This drug-fueled culture pervaded everything in England at the time; even my father, who was a conservative voter, wore flared trousers. So you would have thought this song would be refreshing. It was certainly catchy and I remember it being only second to I’d like to Teach the World To Sing for the frequency with which it was played.
But the problem was that the producers of the record had gone for a ‘light’ feel. It sounded so upbeat that you couldn’t possibly see it as anything other than a catchy ditty. The Small Faces‘ Lazy Sunday was even worse, featuring the feigned Cockney accent which Steve Marriot began to use so heavily. I’m sorry to say that many lead singers in the 1960s used the Cockney accent to show how British they were. It probably wasn’t their fault; few bands would have had as much control over their music as the Beatles and most would have been forced to go for the common denominator, which turned out to be light, breezy songs which neither threatened or challenged anyone. Later the Cockney accent would be used by Bowie to better effect but that’s another story.
The Small Faces album really entered the realm of mystical Englishness with their album Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake. Take a look at the cover opposite!
It’s almost as if they are trying to contact, through the medium of music, some spirit of bygone Englishness. And you find a lot of bands doing this. Whether they were pining for better days – going through some valedictory last hoorah! – I don’t know but things certainly seemed to implode. There was no widespread embracing of different cultures from abroad, no quest for the global village. This came only from The Beatles and a a few other very select bands. Instead, on Radio 1, which I guess most people were forced to listen to, just like me, we had a headlong dive back to essential, conservative Englishness which led us into the more insular and sombre 70s.
So what did we have at the peak of the 60s explosion of music? Well forget Hendrix! I didn’t even know about his existence until I was in my late teens, and my dad listened to Santana, Osibisa and Gong in the late 60s, so he was no slouch in musical taste! No, even he hadn’t heard of Jimi Hendrix. Instead we had a paper-thin serving of art in our music. It was almost like a papier mâché utopia, a cardboard Heaven that could be cut through by the pre-pubescent mind of any 5-year old. Indeed, as a 5 year old in 1967, I often felt the music was too childish for me! I tended to seek out classical music quite often as a respite – yes I even turned the dial surreptitiously to Radio 4.
In short, what most of us were subjected to, day in, day out, in the music on Radio 1 was a kind of artistic, cardboard world. I wouldn’t call it a mediocre world, for that word would be too harsh. But it certainly was one that could be knocked down or seen through by any over-curious child, or could be dissembled just as easily and reassembled somewhere else on Earth where it might be wanted. But it never was.
What are your memories of the 1960s? Leave a comment below.
There is a permanent page for Memories of the 1960s here.
This week: Books Available on Wattpad, Free Giveaway Honorary Cliff Robertson Documentary and Memories of the 1960s: Issue II
Books Available on Wattpad
Wattpad is fast becoming the book writers’ and readers’ social network. The website at www.wattpad.com has a nice, neat interface and in fact the whole approach is heavy on ‘simple.’ This allows you to start scribbling a story or building up a library of free reading material in seconds.
The simplicity does make it a bit difficult to figure out some features but I quickly got the hang of it. I have about eight of my books there, mostly short stories, but also the first chapters of Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate and Too Bright the Sun.
If you are just starting out as a writer or want to read lots of free stories, take a look.
From Saturday 14th June until Monday 16th June, erotic odyssey The Ice Boat Volume I will be FREE on Amazon. If you like adult fiction, and be aware, this contains vivid scenes of a sexual nature, then make sure you grab a copy.
Honorary Cliff Robertson Documentary
Just a quick mention that the project has had roughly 50 followers in the last week! Thanks to all those who have liked the page. If you are interested in getting your name up in lights (for as little as $5) on a Hollywood produced documentary on the Academy Award winning actor, please like the project page here: https://www.facebook.com/cliffrobertsonhonorarydocumentary
Memories of the 1960s: Issue II
I had several nice comments about Issue I so here is another:
Most people will remember the most two most prominent aspects of television in the 1960s; no colour and the dreaded test cards!
Colour television didn’t arrive in the UK until 1967 (BBC2) and late 1969 (BBC1 and ITV). There were some early test programmes on BBC2 and I think I remember one featuring a carnival. My father designed television cameras for a living so we were the first family I knew to have a TV set that could receive and display colour. I remember the riot of ultra-vivid colour blasting out of the screen. It seemed to completely transform the world. There were of course hiccups. Many people turned the colour button up to full, which made greens and red so bright that you would quickly get a headache. Paul McCartney had been assured that the Magical Mystery Tour would be broadcast in colour on Boxing Day 1967. But BBC1 still had not made the transition to colour so he was to be disappointed.
Test cards were what you saw when there were no programmes being transmitted. This was usually between about 1 am and 5 am, 10 am and midday and between 2.30 pm and 4 pm (5 pm on BBC2, which was the ‘educational’ channel). During these times, all you would see was a strange grid pattern with the picture of a young girl holding a piece of chalk against a blackboard and a baloon behind her, in the centre of the grid. Classical or, if my memory serves me correctly, easing listening music would accompany the picture. It would suddenly disappear when transmissions started but this was haphazard as schedules would vary by up to ten minutes.
A curiosity was the National Anthem, played right at the end of transmissions, at about 1 am. This would be followed by a continual tone. Many times neighbours would fall asleep, drunk or otherwise intoxicated, leaving the loud tone to drone on all through the night.
It wasn’t unusual for transmissions to be interrupted by atmospheric condition or even other local phenomenons. There were rumours of ‘ghost’ transmissions from crazy amateurs or TV-guerrillas!
I met one of these later in life. A physics graduate, this guy, along with some mates, figured out how to fire their own transmission at the BBC transmitter aerial somewhere in London. if they got the modulation just right and cancelled out the original signal, they could broadcast their own anarchist message. They were not completely successful the first time because some of the original transmission did reach receivers within a very small radius of the transmitter.
Undeterred, the pirates came up with an ingenious solution. They surrounded the tower at the right moment, and let rise a circle of helium-filled balloons. From these, a reflective tube of thin material was raised to form a ‘curtain’ around the tower. When this rose, they were able to block all transmission from the BBC and broadcast their own to the home counties. My friend never did tell me what message they transmitted.
And what of TV programmes themselves? The first, I remember clearly, there was Muffin the Mule, followed by the Woodentops and Andy Pandy. These were closely followed by Bill and Ben, Play School, Trumpton and Camberwick Green, Pogles Wood and of course the ubiquitous Blue Peter.
As I grew and (some would deny) matured, I progressed to a list of classics which hardly anybody will remember but I can’t resist listing: Barrier Reef, Skippy, Flipper, The Singing Ringing Tree, Jackanory, Belle and Sebastien, The White Horses, early Japanese anime Marine Boy, Origami, Yoga with Richard Hittleman, Painting with Nancy Kominski, The Magic Roundabout, Hector’s House, White Horses (so romantic that girls loved it) and of course Doctor Who.
The 1970s were ushered in with some of my all-time favourites: The Aeronauts, The Crusader (sometimes called Tibor: The crusader) and The Flashing Blade. I suppose if one thing marks out these programmes, it’s the high level of action and the driving R&B soundtracks. In those days, The Beeb (as we called the BBC) was not above hiring small R&B bands to play their them tunes and in fact Pink Floyd actually sat and played along to the 1969 moon landing, live! Unfortunately, the recordings, if there ever were any, have been lost. These, slightly kitsch, programmes may have been the progenitor of my love for driving rhythm and blues and rock.
In my childhood, we weren’t encouraged to watch ITV. This was the ‘cowboy’ channel. Mind you, some parents forbade their kids to watch it. I was lucky. I could watch it and I did. I quickly discovered programmes like Catweazle and Magpie, ITV’s answer to Blue Peter.
ITV had a much more laissez-faire attitude to broadcasting. Where else could you get a gorgeous blonde, two middle-aged guys and an Old Father Time pretending to be American Indians while showing you how things worked (How). The gorgeous blonde was Jenny Hanley, daughter of the comedian Tommy Hanley, and I immediately fell for her. I was love struck and I think I may have even written and sent a letter to her. She never replied! The Old Father Time was Jack Hargreaves, one time director of ITV, who wrote How and went on to do another of my favourites, Out of Town. I only recently found out that he made and appeared in Gone Fishing, which I referred to in Memories of the 1960s Issue I. I do remember him saying that chubb tasted like ‘cotton wool filled with pins and needles!’
Who can forget The Banana Splits or the immortal phrase “Uh-oh! Chongo!” The Banana Splits were a wacky team of men in animal suits – a dog, a bear, chimpanzee and an elephant (which never made a sound!) who delivered a crazy menu of jokes, one-liners and zany music, interspersed with comedy or adventure mini-serials like Microcar, Danger Island (Uh-oh! Chongo!) and The Arabian Knights. Their theme tune has been immortalised by punk band The Dickies and anybody who watched it as a kid will never forget the assault on their senses by the colour and sound of the Banana Splits.
I must also make a quick mention of H.R Pufnstuf, which was almost as psychedelic as The Banana Splits and more surreal – I have to believe both serials were invented by guys taking too much acid. In it Jack Wild, the talented youngster from the hit musical Oliver! strutted his stuff while battling through puberty himself. I never understood what the hell was going on, but then I guess that was the beauty of it!
Some more of my all-time favourites were the Gerry Anderson serials; Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and UFO. I am too young to remember Fireball XL5, Supercar and Battery Boy etc, but I loved Thunderbirds.
The first episode, Trapped in the Sky, I watched, as I watched many, with my father. We would have been out, possibly fishing or to Church and come home to chicken pie or roast chicken at Sunday lunchtime. I would beg my mother to let me eat it in the lounge, with my knees stuffed under and ancient, miniature titling stool like a piano stool and, if I succeeded in persuading her, my dad would watch too. The amount of testosterone pumping through my system after watching these superhero brothers dicing with death in futuristic, jet or diesel powered behemoths probably gave me indigestion!
Then there was Captain Scarlet. This was one man against the evil Mysterons. And he was reincarnated! In fact, he died in every episode and his steady stare above a square jaw, only slightly more mobile than Mount Rushmore, gave no emotional hint of his suffering! I was hooked! Unfortunately it was rarely shown. A rumour would go around that there was one on TV (God knows where kids heard about it) or I would see it in the listings and then tune in, goggle-eyed! I would later learn that not only was the theme of death and reincarnation, Captain Scarlet representing a modern ‘Jesus’, considered too scary for kids but apparently Anderson had had his funding cut and all the character represented his revenge’portrayal of senior ITV management personnel. Captain White was Lew Grade, for instance. Soon the programme was moved to a late night slot. It was followed by UFO, which I also loved, but again, it seemed to be rarely shown on TV, unless I was out playing at the time. I did’t get to see the full series until about 2010.
Then there was Star Trek! By 1970, I was allowed to stay up until about 8.30 pm, twice per week, with my father chaperoning me. He loved Star Trek so I was able to drink in the colourful American vision of the future. The other evening programme, which I watched a lot, was The Virginian. This may seem vastly different from Star Trek, and it was, but it featured many stars of the future; Angie Dickinson, Doug McClure, Lee Majors and many others. And how can I ever forget the dry wit and calming influence of Medicine Bow’s sherrif, played by Clu Gulager?
In 1970, my father brought home the first portable television I had ever seen. None of my friends had one, or had even seen one. For me, it wasn’t that surprising – I regularly found bits of TV cameras strewn across my father’s study – but it was a mouth-watering opportunity. With two televisions, and one being portable, I could finally see a way to get access to the mythical ‘European movies’ that my friends whispered about reverently at school.
The portable TV was only black and white and only had a ten inch screen (I think, possibly twelve) but I quickly made excuses to watch it:
“Oh, star Trek is on at the same time as that film, you and mum want to watch. Can I take the portable upstairs?”
My parents, trusting me as they did, let me take it to my room on condition that I would turn it off after Star Trek. Of course, I did. But then, a careful perusal of the Radio Times’ late night schedule would reveal some dubious ‘European’ movie, usually with no, or very little, description and no (in those days) cast list. I would put the TV in my bed, so that the sound and light were muffled. Then, until the early hours of the morning I would watch Sylvia Kristel (only guessing here, I don’t remember who these people were) undressing and committing carnal acts on wiry, shady men, who always wore socks, and usually their underpants, I seem to remember. Thankfully, they usually left their umbrellas and bowler hats at the door. I guess I nearly came unstuck when I saw Get Carter (1971, I know, but indulge me!). The violence in the film didn’t bother me too much but when he murders the prostitute by injecting her with heroine, I was shocked. I think this may have left a lasting mark on me but I do think the late-night films widened my horizons considerably.
The daytime and evening film fare was usually a Western but the first daytime film I (vaguely) remember being impressed withe was The Wages Of Fear. I had to see it again recently to remind myself of the nitro-glycerine, nerve shattering tension in the film. If you haven’t seen it it yet, make sure you do.
Finally, I have to mention other activities resulting from watching TV (apart from romantic, that is). I probably first felt the inspiration to try fishing while watching Out of Town. During the massive interest in the Gerry Anderson programmes, there was the TV21 annual. 21 stood for ‘Twenty-first Century,’ and the annual, much more exciting than the Blue Peter annual, had plans for all sorts of crazy things you could build.
My two favourites were a version of a tree-house, which you actually suspended from the eaves of a house using pulleys, rope and packing crates or bits of destroyed go-carts, and an SPV simulator. The SPV was Captain Scarlet’s vehicle and SPV stood for ‘Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle.’ Of course, nearly every boy I knew had a toy SPV. But to actually drive one? That would be something. The detailed drawing showed you how to make scenery, which would then run endlessly on a conveyor-belt within a cardboard box, cut to look like a TV monitor. In the full-sized SPV (nobody ever built one, but indulge me again here), the driver faced backwards, to save his body from damage during high-G braking, so he could only see the road through a monitor. The conveyor belt was powered by pedals which in turn were powered by the ‘driver’s’ feet. It was all hilariously good fun. I didn’t, but if anybody did build any of these things, please let me know!
Well, I think that’s about it. Please let me know your memories by posting a comment below.
There is a permanent page for Memories of the 1960s here.
Last week I took a long walk next to the Grand Union Canal near Ware in Hertfordshire. It reminded me of my fishing days in the 1960s and I wondered if fishing could still feel the same. It occurred to me to try and write about the 1960s and I decided to try it. Each post will be entitled Memories of the 1960s and followed by the issue number. Here is the first:
Memories of the 1960s: Issue I – Fishing
A few years ago I took a long walk next to the Grand Union Canal near Ware in Hertfordshire. It reminded me of my fishing days in the 1960s and I wondered if fishing could still feel the same. It occurred to me to try and write about the 1960s and I decided to try it. Each post will be entitled Memories of the 1960s and followed by the issue number. Here is the first:
Fishing in the 1960s
Don’t get me wrong; I couldn’t fish now because I have long since become vegetarian and I could not possibly hurt a fish by tempting it to take a hook into its mouth. But the nostalgia for those almost-lost hazy summer days of my youth is a powerful intoxicant.
I cannot possibly hope to equal the success or effect of Mr Crabtree and his stories. For those unfamiliar with him, Mr Crabtree was the wonderfully avuncular central figure in a series of cartoon strips for one of the daily papers (Mail, Mirror or something like that, I can’t remember). In it, he taught a young boy to fish and these stories were wonderfully and evocatively illustrated. You could almost smell the ground bait and ginger biscuits. But here we go:
I first came to angling, or course fishing as fresh-water fishing is called, through my father. I think I had tried sea-fishing, in Sidmouth, and didn’t like it. But I knew my father was taught to fish by his father so I wanted to try.
One Christmas, the usual toy car presents were supplemented by a very long and thin package. It turned out to be a solid fibreglass rod, about six feet and six inches long, longer than me!
It came with a small reel – I think it was a tiny Daiwa 7270 open-faced reel – some line, a few hooks, some lead shot weights and some floats. That weekend, my father took me on my first trip. I can’t remember where we went but I soon discovered that the three brothers next door all fished and they took me to Rickmansworth Aquadrome, a large lake and one of a string along a valley.
The lake was well known for its high yield of fish and I was soon catching some. I quickly found that I needed other equipment; a rod-rest, for holding the rod to release your hands to eat, a bait tin, a landing net and a folding seat to mention a few. These were soon joined by more floats and ledger weights (flat or cylindrical lead weights).
A typical fishing trip would go like this:
Woken by alarm at 3 am (that’s right!) on Sunday morning. Make breakfast quietly, get maggots out of fridge, quietly, and pack bag. At 5.15, watch Gone Fishin’ on BBC1 for 20 minutes and then get ready to leave. Walk 5 miles to Chesham tube station. Catch ‘milk train’ to Rickmansworth. Walk mile to Aquadrome. Climb around locked gate (locked until 9 am) on bridge with all your tackle and shimmy along large pipe under bridge until you could climb back onto bridge and reach lake. Walk fast (sometimes run, if it was a nice day and there were lots of other anglers on first train) to best swim. Fish until you started catching or moved to another place. Drink lots of soup, tea or orange squash and ginger beer. At midday, with hot sun blasting away all thoughts of school on Monday, eat cheese and tomato or chicken sandwiches. Fish until about 5pm when light starts to fade. Father or whole family arrived and ate a picnic while you told them about, or showed them, if you had a keep net, what fish you had caught. Taken home in style, in the back of an Austin Maxi, complete with hydro-elastic suspension. Have bath, watch TV until you go to bed, very content.
In fact, I never had a blank day, a day with no fish, at the Aquadrome, even though once, I was only saved by a lucky miller’s thumb, a sorry looking fish, only one up from a stickleback. It was a highly competitive place, every angler competed in an unofficial match. The bailiff, who didn’t seem overly bothered about making you pay the 50p ticket, would walk around telling you:
“Such and such has caught five tench two swims down!”
A swim was the area of water adjoining the bank, which you had chosen to fish.
My own particular record was 122 fish, all in, and that remained a record for about six months, I seem to remember. I kept a log book and measured the depth of every part of the lake using a plumb on a line. I mapped the lake meticulously and became adept at ‘thinking like a fish.’
The only bait in town then was maggots. Hemp and sweetcorn hadn’t really been discovered. Of course, all the fishing books told you to use bread; bread was a time-honoured bait, used in the earlier part of the century by everyone but by the 1960s, fish had encountered maggots and they were addicted!
I used to breed my own maggots. I well remember leaving a breast of chicken in a shed on some nearby waste land (sorry Mr Thame, if you are still alive – you must be 122!) while we went on a two-week holiday. Maggots will normally grow from birth to full size, and form chrysalises, by this time so it was a stupid oversight on my part. By the time I came home and checked the box, the stench was terrific and the maggots were the size of prawns! As usual, I washed them, which entailed washing them in a bucket of soapy water, drying them by rolling in a towel, washing them a second time and placing in a tin or plastic container of clean, dry sawdust and then put them in the fridge! My mum went ape! Later she calmed down and said that they actually smelled okay. They were in a tightly sealed box so there was no risk of their escaping. In those days you bought sawdust by the sack load from the nearest timber merchant for about 50p per sack.
I made my own ground bait; the mixture of bread crumbs and other stuff you throw in the water to conceal yourself and attract fish. I would practice lobbing it into a plastic hoop at ranges up to 60 feet in the back garden. Later on, I bought a maggapult; a catapult designed to hold maggots or ground bait. With that, I practiced hitting the target right across a field -perhaps 2-300 feet away. It was all pretty technical stuff.
At the end of my sting at the Aquadrome, I had progressed to a 12’6″, orange, fibreglass fishing rod and an Intrepid Black Prince reel. I was using Bayer fishing line which was ultra thin and strong (I remember mine was 1lb or 1.5lb breaking strain). Somebody offered me a Billy Lane Match Rod, which was old, still fibreglass, and had two alternative tops, one for float fishing and one for ledgering, and two alternative butts. My landing net was a collapsible thing with very course mesh, handy for travelling but a bit abrasive for the fish. Technology had moved on, Micromesh was in, and I a keep net about 12 feet long, big enough to hold the large number of fish I was catching.
I had many amazing and weird experiences at the Aquadrome. An ancient willow, of about a metre’s girth, fell into the water right next to me. I was soaked but glad to still be alive. I remember several times sitting so still that water voles actually sat on my feet to wash themselves. Another time I was concentrating very hard on fishing when I felt a twig fall of the tree above me. Nothing unusual about that but then it started to move! I cautiously put my hand on my head and picked off… a five inch long stick insect! I had no idea if they could bite or were poisonous so I put it on a bush and left it.
Another strange thing which actually happened to me was when I almost pulled off a woman’s skirt. It happened like this: I was fishing on a bridge over the canal, next to the lake for a change, and cast out my float using the 12’6″ rod. Now that rod had a very whippy action and, combined with the excellent new Mitchell 410 reel I had bought, only one step down from the ultimate Mitchell Match, meant that the float, hook and maggot went much further than I expected, partly because I was 15 feet up on a bridge. The result was that it landed somewhere near a passing narrow boat. I didn’t know quite where but I soon found out when an old woman, sitting in a chair and sunning herself on the boat’s deck, suddenly started screaming and pulling on her skirt. I could see it was mysteriously lifting off her. I knew I had snagged it. What to do? As the boat moved further away, I simply let out more line until the boat was almost out of sight. Bayer line is very expensive so there was no way I was going to break the line at my end. Just when the line almost ran out, I decided to yank it hard. I know the hook came out because it came back to me, bent. I saw the woman standing up and shaking her fist at me so I presume she still had her skirt on.
The strangest thing happened in the stick insect swim, which was ‘V’ shaped and between a spur of land and the shore. I had been fishing there all day on a Saturday, quite a good day’s fishing as I recall, and was back there at 6am the following Sunday morning. However, when I reached the spur, it was sealed off by bed sheets, hanging from a clothes line strung between two trees! I saw a policeman poke his head out between the sheets and asked him when I could fish. He said, “Not today. Dead body in the lake.”
As if to balance my karma over the woman on the boat, a car drove over my rod a week later and squashed it, making it useless. It only cost me £12, about 12 weeks pocket money then, but I was still very upset. The Aquadrome was getting too busy and it was time to move on.
About this time, I discovered two things; Ivan Marks and the Boxmoor section of the Grand Union Canal. Ivan Marks was at that time the British Angling Match Champion, a working class hero if ever there was one. He looked like a toothy John Lennon, complete with flat cap and a big grin. Boxmoor was a narrow valley near Hemel Hempstead. It not only had a lovely quiet stretch of canal but also a tiny, concealed lake called Pixies Mere (I kid you not!).
Ivan Marks had started a shop called Marks and Marlow with a mate and their first rod was a black beast, the first carbon fibre fishing rod offered for sale in the country. It was called the Persuader. I had to have one! I saved my pocket money, did two paper rounds and bought one of the first. It came, personally signed by Ivan Marks. It was so light you could swear you were holding only a pencil in your hand if you closed your eyes. It was 13 feet long!
I discovered Boxmoor by accident. I had started going out on my Dawes Dapper, a no-gear bicycle, to find new places to fish. The rods and landing net were tied to the cross bar, a bag was on my back and the seat was slung around my neck! Most good places were south so I headed north, into unknown territory. I tried the Grand Union Canal near Hemel Hempstead, one wet and miserable day in February. I hadn’t actually started to fish; this stretch of the canal was filled with pianos and rotting, sunken barges. Then I reached a lock and a boatman offered to take me on board, complete with my bike.
“All you have to do is open the lock gates for me,” he shouted. “Here is the key!”
He passed me a giant piece of iron, bent into a shape like a car jack. I put the bike on board and started to wind down the lock sluice. Once this was done, I could push open the gate by hand. We travelled like this for a few miles before there was trouble. When you wind open a sluice, the weight on the handle seems to get heavier with each turn. When you wind it closed, it goes faster and faster. This time, I must have been tired because it got away from me and whacked into my elbow, sending me sprawling. For a while I couldn’t feel my arm.
“I better go home I think,” I told him.
He let me off and I rode along the tow-path, one handed. I had almost reached my turn off when, what with all the weight on the bike, I lost my balance and rode straight into the canal!
“Shit!” I thought. “Deep shit!”
My dad had sacrificed a lot to buy me that bike so there was no way I was going to leave it fifteen feet out in the canal. After hauling myself and my stuff out and peeling off my trousers and shirt, I dived back in and down to the bike. I found it in the silt and dragged it along the bottom until I reached shallow water and could haul it out, all with one hand.
I took all my clothes off and rung them out.
“Are you okay?” called a woman from her back garden.
“Fine!” I replied, because that’s what you did then. You didn’t make a fuss.
I was freezing as I rode home. The wind chill, combined with the wet an my fatigue became too much for me about a mile from home. I had already ridden about 10 miles but I stopped at a phone box and reversed the charges to get my dad to pick me up. He was very angry with me for some reason.
“You’re always falling in water!” he said. This was totally untrue. I was pushed into a lake by a next door neighbour once, many years before. Perhaps he was just concerned for me!
A few weeks later, I tried riding the other way, west, and discovered a place where the boats turn. A wide basin, in the middle of nowhere, called Cow Roast, was to prove my Nirvana.
I baited it for a week, riding there each day and throwing in as much ground bait as I could afford. When I began to fish, small fish came out in streams. And then I caught a very large fish. I wondered what it was. It fought like a carp. When it broke surface, I saw the gorgeous brown colour of a Bronze Bream. It was the first I had every caught. People say bream don’t fight but these ones fought like devils. It would often take me twenty minutes to land one of these giants and then I would be surrounded by gawping locals.
“Niver seeen nuffin like ‘at!” they would say.
When my parents arrived, they couldn’t believe their eyes. It took both my father and I to haul up the keep net. It weighed about 100 pounds. The biggest of those bream weighed about 5 pounds! Whoppers! I had so many lovely days there. I began to lose interest when other anglers discovered the spot. It became too busy for me.
I tried the King Richard Lake, near Basingtoke, with a friend and between us we caught over 240 tench, another lake record.
But it was Pixies Mere that attracted me most. An older fishing friend had to get me in because it was ran by a very private club; you had to be recommended. It also had the biggest tench in the home counties, or so the rumour went! If I may, I would like to extend my memories into the 1970s because the essential ethos of fishing hadn’t changed yet.
Summer 1976 – the hottest summer on record.
We had 13 weeks of unending sun. I also discovered sweet corn as a bait and by now I had acquired a proper fishing basket. I must have looked the part the first time I rolled up to fish Pixies Mere. Imagine the scene:
It’s August, 1976, 7pm, dusk. We open the gate in the trees and see a lake with the magical name, Pixies Mere. It is about the length of two football pitches and the western end, to our right, is divided into two arms. It nestles among the trees which concealed it, mostly willows which hung down to weedy, fertile water. The swim we want is in the fork between the two arms and can only be reached by a perilous scramble along a rough path on the side of the bank and then traversing three planks of wood over boggy ground.
The dragon-flies are out in force, nightingales are singing and there is the occasional ‘plop’ of what we think are large tench. The lake is a mystery, it’s all a glorious mystery.
I try to set up my fishing seat, full of tackle, on a mud flat, barely half an inch out of the water. It begins to sink and so do my feet in my wellington boots. The flies are attracted to my face but I don’t care. From under my cap, I survey the swim with the experienced eye of a veteran.
“I will go over there,” I suggest, pointing to the left.
“Okay. I will go right,” whispers my accomplice.
Quietly, we rig up and sit down. It’s almost completely dark by the time he gets a bite. We are using large floats, crow-quills we have made ourselves and painted with Humbrol fluorescent pink.
His float whacks under the water and his line sings in the air as the big fish races away from us. He hauls on the rod and it bends over double, looking as if it will break. Soon, the reel is screaming and the battle reaches its climax. Slowly, ever so slowly, he works the fish around some lily pads, past a bed of rushes and close to where I have submerged the waiting landing net.
By the time I lift the net, encircling the tench, it is exhausted and gasping for breath. Tench are very powerful fish. They have thick, olive green bodies with large, rudder-like fins, which can often be red. In the mating season, and in August some still are mating, their bellies are crimson, to match the colour of their bead eyes.
I marvel at its beauty and he puts it back. My friend has caught tench before but I haven’t. We fish on. It is now completely dark. The lake is closed up at 10.30, just in time for last orders in the pub at its side. My parents will be arriving to treat me to a pint of cider. I am only 14, but nobody cares about such niceties in this day and age, the summer of 1976.
Finally my float, jabs out of site.
“Steady,” my friend tells me. I cannot believe the strength of the fish on the end of the line. It is like having my sister pulling for all she is worth. I swear quite a lot and steer the fish around some of those lily pads and start the perilous haul to the net. Finally, it is safely inside and my friends drags it onto the mud. I drop my rod and gawp, wide-eyed at the beautiful fish. We weigh it; 4 pounds and 8 ounces. Not a giant but the most amazing fish I have ever caught. A few weeks later, I caught my biggest, a 5 pound four ounce beauty. We were the first to try sweetcorn at that lake. For a whole summer, we caught the biggest. The tench could not resist us.
When we can finally no longer see in front of our faces, we have to call it a night. By torchlight, we pack our stuff and then I hear my father’s voice calling across the lake:
“How do I get out there?”
I tell him and fifteen minutes later, he reaches me, feet soaking wet. He doesn’t seem to care.
“Show me then!” he demands, when I tell him we have caught eleven between us. He is as amazed as I am when we see the lovely olive green and crimson fish in the net. I can hardly believe such a beautiful creature swims in English waters.
Wearily, we follow him to the pub, where my sister and mother watch over two pints of gloriously sweet cider.
What a day!
I hope you enjoyed my description of course fishing in the 1960s. What are your memories? Leave a comment.