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Daleks, Death Stars and Dreamy Sci-Fi Nostalgia…

Archive for October, 2009

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 305

Wednesday 31st October 1984

Woke up at 8.10, and at 8.30 Doug came and we went to school. First we had an art test, then it was History. After that it was maths, and at 12.00 I had dinner. At 1.00 we came in and had French, then English, then science.

At 3.40 I came home and hollowed out a turnip, then I had tea. At 5.00 I watched Think of a number, at 5.30 I watched The Good Life, and at 6.30 Doug came to go Hallowe’eening.

First we went to Doug’s house, then we went to the grove. After that we went in Hawthorne, then along Leven road, and I got a hanful of shaving cream.

Then we went to Doug’s music teacher, and back to my house via the estate. We had got £2.26 so we kept £1.13 each, and at 9.15 Doug went home. I went to bed at 9.30.

Halloween! The streets of Yarm were alive with all manner of hideous, crawling creatures from the darkest corners of the netherworld… all carrying turnips with wonky candles and mumbling ‘der sky is blue, der grass is green’ into their shoes in the hope of earning 20p from some hapless, grumbling grown-up desperate to watch ‘No Place Like Home’ without being disturbed.

My mate Shack is adamant that Halloween is an American invention that meant nothing in the UK before a generation of grotty herberts saw ET over the Christmas holidays in 1982. But I definitely remember covering the festival at school in the late 1970s… mainly because I was ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIED of the prospect. In front of a cowering assembly, our teacher Mrs Parker had shone a torch under her chin and strutted around the school hall gloomily recounting tales of ‘Ghosts roaming the streets, and the dead rising up from their graves to get you…’ 

scoobydooghost
This would have been (I think) Halloween 1979, and I arrived home on the Worsall bus shaking, and visibly traumatised.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked my Mum, doing something unpleasant to a packet of fishfingers in the kitchen. ‘Has Christopher Herbert poured Tizer into your satchel again?’

‘N-n-n-n-n-o,’ I stammered… ‘Mrs Parker said the dead are rising from their graves tonight…’

‘Oh, what rubbish,’ she snorted. ‘If that was the case, my Dad would be knocking at the door already, and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t been, has he?’

I spent the rest of the night huddled in the armchair in the front room, trembling gently into a cushion and awaiting the inevitable rap-rap-rap of my dead Grandad’s bony fingers on the kitchen door. At one my point my Dad went outside to walk the dogs around the field, and I genuinely feared for his safety. I remember peeking nervously through a tiny gap in the front room curtains, fully expecting to see a riot of ghosts, witches, golems and other assorted nasties causing havoc in the darkness of the garden.

wickedwitch
By 1980, amazingly, I’d completely lost all of this fear, and myself and Lisa Wheeldon (from the house round the corner) watched the Crackerjack Halloween Special at my Gran’s house (it was a Friday night) before plastering our faces in blood-red lipstick, sticking the obligatory wonky candle into a hollowed-out turnip, and traipsing around the streets of Acklam making ‘Wooo-ooooo-ooooo’ noises in front of giggling householders, our cheeks burnt orange by the flickering streetlights.

We made £1.45 each and invested the lot in the burgeoning Sherbert Dib-Dab market.

turnip
I’d been ‘Halloweening’ every year since, although 1984 was the first time Doug and I had teamed up for this shameless profiteering exercise. Naturally we considered dressing up to be a bit beneath us, but I spent half an hour hollowing out a turnip* with a kitchen spoon in front of Dangermouse and then singing my fingers on a candle from my Mum’s ‘Emergency Power Cut’ cupboard (largely untouched since 1979)

(*NOT a pumpkin, you’ll note. Nothing saddens me more than seeing today’s generation of teeny Teesside money-grubbers saying ‘Trick or treeeeeet’ in a whiny cod-American accent while holding up a shiny, smooth, hollowed-up orange pumpkin from Tesco. Pumpkins are NOT scary. They look like items of gym equipment. Turnips are nasty, knobbly, twisted, godforsaken monstrosities with odd clumps of hair sticking out at vicious angles. The vegetable equivalent of Dean Windass. They RULE, and I fear for the future of our youth without their malevolent influence every October)

Anyway, yes… we spent our evening knocking gingerly on doors within a half-mile radius of our houses, doing the old ‘Sky is blue, grass is green’ routine with a vaguely sarcastic air, and stopping every thirty yards to relight the candle inside our leering Jack O’Lantern. ‘The Grove’ sounds like it should be a tangled forest of grasping trees and unfettered spirits, but is – in fact – a little cul-de-sac of bungalows about a hundred yards from Doug’s house. I remember we knocked gingerly on a lit-up door at the bottom of the close, and a rather well-to-do looking elderly lady with a striking purple rinse emerged, looking decidedly unimpressed at the interruption to her evening’s viewing. The conversation went as follows…

Us: ‘Der sky is blue, der grass is green, can you spare a penny for-‘

Her: ‘I’m sorry, but what on EARTH are you doing?’

Me: ‘Erm… we’re… Trick or Treating…’

Her: ‘What?!?’

Doug: ‘It’s Halloween. We’re Trick Or Treating’

Her: ‘I have NO idea what you’re talking about. Do you actually WANT something? It’s far too cold to be standing here with the door open all night…’

Me (turning puce): ‘Well… it’s like… we sing the song… and you… give us… some… money… erm……….’

Her: ‘You have GOT to be joking. Get away with the pair of you, I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in all my given years’ (DOOR SLAMS)

Doug: ‘OH PISS OFF THEN, YOU MISERABLE OLD COW!!!’

mrsslocombe
We contemplated putting a small packet of flaming dogshit through her letterbox, but couldn’t find any that looked remotely flammable. On the corner of Hawthorne Grove, just across the main road, a grinning middle-aged wag emerged from his front door, told me to hold out my hand, and sprayed a curling dollop of shaving foam into my quivering palm. Thankfully, the welcome we received from Doug’s music teacher, in a blackened, crumbling mansion set back from the main road amidst a tangle of trees and rhododendron bushes, was warmer.

‘Hello Douglas!’ she beamed, peering through a crack in the door after twenty minutes of systematic unlocking, unlatching and unbolting that sounded like the opening titles to Porridge. ‘How lovely to see you. Come in! And who’s your friend?’

She was absolutely ancient, and dressed like Queen Victoria. And the house was a riot of faded Edwardian glory, filled with musty books and maps and with a classic upright piano in a corner of the drawing room.

‘Now then, what can I do for you both, hmmm?’

queenvictoria
We sang our song. She smiled and clapped, and gave us 50p each, without any idea – we suspected – of what was really going on. On the way out, Doug told me that her husband had died, and she’d never really recovered… and hadn’t spoken a word to anyone for six months after his death.

1984 was a strange, marvellously macabre place to be a youngster.

We tramped around the ‘Kebble Estate’ with no great degree of enthusiasm, breathing wisps of filth into the freezing night air and kicking leaves into neatly-cut gardens. All the other kids on Halloweening duty seemed to be at least three or four years younger than us, and we started to feel vaguely embarrassed. At one point, a gang of elder, teenage boys on the corner of the street gave a violent roar of fury and raced along the Larun Beat towards is. Convinced we were in for a kicking, we dived into a garden and hid beneath the shelter of a drooping, rustling willow tree.

They ran straight past us, flashing puzzled looks at the tree on the way. Even the local loonies weren’t bothered. We divvied up the money, made one last crack about being ‘grabbed by the ghoulies’ and shuffled off to our respective beds.

I never went Halloweening again after that.

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 304

Tuesday 30th October 1984

Got up at 8.00, and at 8.30 Doug came and we went to school. First was English, then an RE test. Then it was ‘to the library’, and after that we had Drama (I was a designer on a spaceship)

At 12.00 I had dinner, then it was French and Maths. Last was HE and I made some cakes and got 8.5. At 3.40 I came home and at 4.30 Doug came and we did maths. At 5.00 he went and I had tea, and at 5.10 I watched Star Trek.

At 6.30 Doug came and we went to youth club and played Basketball. I came home at 9.00 and at 10.00 I went to bed.

Wonder why I put ‘to the library’ in dramatic quotation marks like that? It wasn’t an exciting one-off event, we went ‘to the library’ for our second English lesson of the morning EVERY Tuesday. I can only assume it had become a strange, surreal catchphrase for our form class as we tramped through the upstairs corridors of Block 1, past the History classrooms with a diagram of Mr Richardson’s North-West Passage on the door. ‘To the library!’ we cried, ‘TO THE LIBRARY!!!’

Or maybe I was just having a crap-at-grammar day and slipping them in willy-nilly. Who can say? Or, indeed, ‘who can say?’

whitemountains
Anyway, by this point in the school year I was reading The White Mountains, the first book of John Christopher’s brilliant Tripods trilogy. Our library lessons were very much reserved for ‘quiet reading’, and we had 35 minutes to gently peruse the childrens’ fiction sections while discreetly prodding each other with protractors.

I remember Ian ‘Griff’ Griffiths sitting next to me during one of these lessons and casting doubt upon my reading abilities. ‘No WAY are you reading that book as quickly as that…’ he grinned, as I turned over my second page in the space of 60 seconds. ‘I am so,’ I hissed. ‘I can read a full paperback in less than an hour’.

I was, of course, lying through my teeth… I was just flicking ahead to see if one of the dead exciting bits I remembered from the Tripods  TV series was coming up in the next few pages. Yep, for all my literary pretensions, ALL of this was inspired by contemporay Saturday evening telly, with BBC1’s ripping adaptation of The Tripods still going strong on dark, Autumnal tea-times. Once I’d finished the book (an hour later), I scoured the library shelves in vain for a hardback copy of John Masefield’s ‘Late Late Breakfast Show Chronicles’…

My stint on the drama spaceship was an on-running saga, with Mr Harrison running a weekly Star Trek-inspired improv workshop (how VERY mid-1980s! Was it Alexei Sayle that said nobody should be allowed to use the word ‘workshop’ unless they’re wearing dirty overalls and carrying an oily toolbox?) in which the entire Class of 1CW were manning an expedition to the farthest reaches of the galaxy.

My character was Mr A Weirdo (cringe) and I was the ship’s onboard designer, responsible for creating revolutionary new hyperdrive propulsion systems and advanced versions of Jet Set Willy for the ship’s hyper-intelligent ZX Spectrum emulator. Bizarrely, one of our lessons during this time revolved around a pan-galactic dance sequence to one of Mr Harrison’s favourite tracks… ‘Violence’ by Mott The Hoople…

He wanted us to CREATE OUR OWN DANCE ROUTINES to a track called ‘VIOLENCE’??? With STEPHEN MASON in the class???!! Was he mad? I think the Accident and Emergency Department of North Tees Hospital were still ringing around for extra staff at the end of Home Economics.

(The cakes were the classic school rock cakes, by the way… filled with mouldy raisins and with a density rivalling that of the planet Mercury. In fact, as I removed the largest of my concoctions from our clanking gas oven, it drew three of Alexandra Bennett’s fairy cakes into permanent geo-stationary orbit around it. My parents ate them through gritted teeth as we watched the end of Star Trek. Well, what teeth they had left by the time they’d finished…)

And did I really go to Youth Club to play BASKETBALL? I couldn’t stand playing basketball in our official PE lessons, so it’s hard to imagine why I’d devote my own spare time to such fripperies when I could have been dancing like a lemon to Frankie Goes To Hollywood and flicking Space Dust over Debbie Jarvis’ highlights.

Unless, of course, Debbie Jarvis was playing as well…

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 303

Monday 29th October 1984

SCHOOL

Got up at 8.00, and at 8.30 Doug came and we went to school. First was maths, then History. After that it was rugby, and at 12.00 I had dinner. When we came back in it was French, then English. After break it was Geog, and last was maths again.

At 3.40 I came home and read 2 Eagles and a Buster till tea at 5.00. At 5.30 I watched Gloria, then I did rooms 5 and 6 of the RPG. At 8.00 I watched To the Manor Born, at 8.30 I watched Fairly secret army, at 9.00 I watched Laugh??? I nearly paid my licence fee! and at 9.30 I went to bed.

Maths! Maths on a twinkly, frosty morning, with ice-coated puddles crunching underfoot as I took my place – for the first time – in the ‘Top Set’, under the withering gaze of the scary, authoritarian (yet strangely sexy) Mrs Clark Without The ‘E’. Here’s what I wrote in my maths exercise book 25 years ago this morning…

Factors

If an integer divides exactly into another integer (without leaving a remainder) the first number is called a factor of the second. If an integer divides exactly into another integer, the second number is called a multiple of the first. A prime number has only two factors, and a prime factor is a factor which is a prime number. Every integer great than 1 can be written as a product of its prime factors in only one way.

I scribbled all of this down with a horrible cold sweat pouring from my forehead, and – growing within me – a burning desire to do some finger painting. And maybe make some Christmas decorations out of tissue paper and glue. And then watch The Flumps and have a little afternoon nap.

NB I got demoted from the Top Set of Maths at the end of the academic year.

In English, meanwhile, Mrs McDonald was also hammering a few rules into us, probably with a mallet while (here’s to you) Mrs Robinson held us down…

englishbasics
Our first half-term at Conyers had all about creativity and trendy, progressive teaching – we’d drawn pictures, written stories, acted out little playlets and so on – so this ‘back to basics’ academic approach felt like a bit of a culture shock, as though our teachers had suddenly emerged from the Lambert & Butler fug in the staff room chewing matchsticks and saying ‘Alright wise guys… no more playin’ games, huh…?’

Still, the prospect of a new stash of comics will have been enough to get me through the day. My comic-collecting mania was very much in its final throes by now… although at one point, circa 1982, the roll call of my weekly collection was as follows…

Whizzer and Chips
Whoopee!
Buster
Cheeky Weekly
The Eagle
Nutty
The Beano
The Dandy
Star Wars Weekly

nutty
And, on a montly basis, hardy old Doctor Who Magazine. They were very much a feature of my weekends at my Gran’s house in Acklam – all reserved for me at Mr Murray’s newsagents round the corner, so Saturday afternoons became a delirious laugh-riot, stuffing custard slices from Shipman’s Bakery down my face and giggling at Bananaman and Sid’s Snake in front of the wrestling on World Of Sport.

Throughout 1984, though, I’d started to whittle them down, and I saw – in my Mum’s eyes – a little bit of sadness for the passing of my childhood when I wistfully mumbled that ‘I don’t think I need to get Whizzer and Chips any more…’. I was still getting Buster at this stage because I loved the artwork of J Edward Oliver (with his ‘Abolish Tuesdays’ campaign and little boxes with handles) and The Eagle was still ‘old’ enough for me to get some enjoyment from the features and scary photo-stories (Doomlord… brrrrr….)

doomlord
By early 1985, though, I think I was down to just Star Wars Weekly and Doctor Who Monthly, and I’d stopped buying both of those long before the start of the summer holidays. I still – however – have every single comic I ever bought stacked up in cardboard boxes in the loft. Thousands of them. I’d never sell them, but one day I’m going to get them all down and read them in front of the World Of Sport DVD Box Set.

(Anyone know if there’s a World Of Sport DVD Box Set available?)  

And hey, straight from my comics to the telly. What a glorious multi-media experience. ‘Gloria’ was an American comedy, a spin-off from ‘All In The Family’ (the legendary US Archie Bunker sitcom) with Sally Struthers in the title role. And – fantastically – one of my favourite actors Burgess ‘Cut me, Mickey’ Meredith as her veterinary surgery boss…

Needless to say, I’ve no recollection of any of this whatsoever.

Thankfully, I DO remember Fairly Secret Army, as it was bloody brilliant… slap-bang in the middle of Channel 4’s TV comedy golden age, it starred the mighty Geoffrey Palmer as the insane Major Harry Truscott, training a raggle-taggle paramilitary group in a secret rural hideaway in preperation for ‘the balloon going up’…

fairlysecretarmy
Written by David ‘Reggie Perrin’ Nobbs, and with Sir Geoffrey essentially reprising his role as Reggie’s brother-in-law Jimmy, it was comedy gold dust, and the absence of a DVD release to date should be filed alongside the Tunguska explosion and the popularity of the Commodore 64 as one of our generation’s great unexplained mysteries.

Meanwhile, ‘Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee’ was one of the rash of vaguely ‘alternative’ sketch shows beginning to dominate the TV schedules around this time… starring Robbie Coltrane and John Sessions, and I think this might have been the first episode of the only series. All I can really remember are Coltrane’s bloodthirsty criminologist (who might have been called Edgar Lustgarden?) delivering hilariously gruesome monologues from his study, and the permanently-angry Orangeman, Mason Boyne…

Oooh… was there a ‘Film Buff Of The Year’ spoof as well, with all the questions being about mucky films? Or is that from Naked Video? So vague… so very vague…

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 302

Sunday 28th October 1984

FRANKIE’S BIRTHDAY

Woke up at 8.30, and at 10.00 I got up and typed out rooms 2 and 3 in my RPG. At 12.00 I had dinner and then I did rooms 3 and 4. At 2.00 I went to Ozzie’s and we first played Atic Atac on the Spectrum, then Jet set willy.

At 5.00 I came home with Ozzie’s Now III, and I played that till tea at 5.30. Then I mucked on till Ever decreasing circles at 7.15, and at 7.45 I had a shower, and had my hair washed and cut. I watched Just good friends at 8.30, and at 9.00 I went to bed.

Ah, the last day of the half-term holidays… never tinged with quite as much melancholy and trepidation as the end of the summer or Christmas break, but still usually a bleak, listless affair. Good to see me attempting to transcend that with possibly THE geekiest mid-1980s day imaginable – throwing myself into Role Playing Game construction, with lashings of ZX Spectrum-related madness to follow. Yay!

For those of you that have missed out (where have you BEEN?) I’d spent the previous few days writing my own Dungeons and Dragons-style RPG for a competition in Warlock, the official Fighting Fantasy magazine. It was called The Moonstone Dungeon, and I’ve still got it! Here’s Room 4…

moonstone4

And for the benefit of those of you without super-human powers of vision (you FEEBLE EARTHLINGS!!!)…

This is a round room crammed with artefacts from every corner of Allansia. On shelves, in cabinets and on tables are items such as Minotaur horns, Unicorn hair, Werewolf fangs, a magnificent golden winged helmet, a sword of skill and a disc-blade which is a deadly weapon manufactured and used by the Brigands of Scorpion swamp.

Sat at a table, with a large leather book open in front of him is a strange, kindly looking man. He has short, fair hair and he keeps pointing his fingers at things in the room and shouting ‘Emove ey meti won!’

When you enter he looks up and smiles. ‘Hello travellars.’ he says. ‘Please excuse my strange behaviour. It’s just that I’m not very good at casting spells yet.’

Eat your heart out, JK Rowling. And then ask nicely for a bespoke heart-renewal spell to be cast by Erotharn, my apprentice wizard, learning his trade from the legendary Grand Wizard of Yore.

‘Emove ey meti won’ is, of course, a vaguely backwards corruption of ‘Move ye item now’, and the deadly disc-blade – I’ve just remembered – was based lock, stock and dwarf-built barrel on a ‘Space Spinner’ frisbee that was given away in 1982 with Issue 1 of the relaunched Eagle comic. I’d recently rediscovered it lying around in my bedroom, and – on gloomy afternoons in the garden – was living out my fantasy-based, erm, fantasies by mentally converting it into a Ninja weapon and taking out the evil hobgoblins lurking in the flower beds next to my Dad’s beloved Peony Roses.

eagle1

Funny how these things come back to me when I start writing this rubbish!

And then, yep – over to Ian ‘Ozzie’ Oswald’s house in the pretty little village of Maltby. Ozzie’s dad was (I think) a maths lecturer at Teesside Polytechnic, and as such his house was filled  with all manner of exciting computers, and the front room looked like Mission Control for the Stokesley branch of NASA. Within nanoseconds of stepping through the front door, I’d been whisked into Ozzie’s bedroom, and the classic ‘Boooo-bip boooo-biddybiddlyboddly’ of the ZX Spectrum loading sequence was in full swing. 

My ‘main’ Christmas present was always agreed well in advance, and it was now open knowledge that, in eight weeks time, I’d be the proud owner of my own Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K. I literally couldn’t stop thinking about it, had been counting down the ‘sleeps’ for months (only 57 left!) and – if made some kind of ultra-geeky Faustian offer by the Prince of Darkness himself (the Devil, not Simon Bates) – I’d have happily sold my mortal soul for the chance to spend the rest of eternity playing Jet Set Willy and Manic Miner.

Two random memories from this day…

1. We listened to ‘Now That’s What I Call Music 3’ while we were playing on the Spectrum, and – as we were getting stuck into a strange, aquatic game called ‘Scuba Dive’, the Howard Jones song ‘Pearl In The Shell’ suddenly parped out of Ozzie’s bedroom stereo. Which made us both laugh a little bit too long to be entirely comfortable.

2. In the middle of our Jet Set Willy marathon, Ozzie’s little sister Joan – who was still at Levendale Primary School – popped in to see what all the noise was about, and clearly thought we were the geekiest, saddest individuals she’d ever encountered. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a five-year-old girl actually roll her eyes in despair. But, hey – we were about to perform a Quirkafleeg!!!

And yes, I borrowed Now 3 and brought it home. On cassette, naturally, so while my Mum was cutting my hair (on a dining room chair in front of Antiques Roadshow) we listened to Smalltown Boy, It’s Raining Men and Free Nelson Mandela. I had no idea who Nelson Mandela was or why he’d spent ’25 years in captivit-eee’, but if his release had been sanctioned by the compilers of Now That’s What I Call Music 3, then I was prepared to fight for it all the way.  

now3
I was still pondering on the intricacies of this delicate political situation when my Dad said ‘Turn that bloody rubbish off, Just Good Friends is starting soon’, thus putting off South African reform for a further 35 minutes. And I still think of Just Good Friends as one of the ultimate ‘Sunday night before school’ programmes, because it always had one last joke AFTER the end of the final credits… the VERY LAST second of fun that it was possible to squeeze out of the weekend’s activities.

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 301

Saturday 27th October 1984

Got up at 9.30 and at 10.30 I went to Doug’s. Then we came back to my house, got my trunks, and at 11.30 Doug’s mam came and took us to the baths. When we came out of the baths we got some sweets, then at 2.00 I came home and had dinner.

At 2.45 I went to Doug’s and we took the stone out of the van, then went to the mud track. Doug got a flat tyre so we went to Yarm cycles and pumped it up. At 5.45 I came home and watched the Late Late Breakfast show, and at 7.00 I watched Cannon and Ball.

At 7.45 I watched Punchlines, at 8.15 I watched 3-2-1, and at 8.45 I watched Wogan interview Kevin Turvey/Rik/Rik Mayall.

After that I typed the RPG, and at 11.25 I went to bed but turned the clocks back so really I went to bed at 10.25. But then again, you’re not supposed to turn them forward till 2.00am tomorrow. But who’d be awake then? Not me for a start!!!!

Yay! The ideal cure for an upset stomach… erm, an hour’s worth of swimming in Thornaby baths and a bloody big bag of sweets on the way home. I remember Doug’s mother, a flame-haired thirtysomething Australian woman, being slightly taken aback when my Mum revealed that I’d ‘been sick’ before bedtime the previous night.

‘What, you mean actually VOMITED?!?!’ she asked, in a broad Australian twang* ‘Are you SURE you should be going swimming?’ But I was made of sterner stuff, and it would take more than a dicky tummy to deter me from arsing around down the deep end with my best mate. Although I came close to a repeat performance when I emerged from the depths with a second-hand piece of elastoplast (complete with vague yellow blotch in the middle) stuck to my forehead.

thornabybaths
*She must have been the only Australian in the world who wouldn’t have used the word ‘chundered’ in this situation. That’s what living in Yarm does to people. Booooo!

And then home with a bag of aniseed balls, bought for pennies in the very old-fashioned sweet shop across the main road from Thornaby baths. The smiley old dear behind the counter had clearly been running this deliciously gloomy enclave for several centuries, and still got a delightful thrill from scooping ‘a quarter of Black Jacks’ from a gigantic glass jar into a crumpled white paper bag, handing it over to the 65.3% of her kiddie customers that sported spiky wet hair, soggy towels under their arms and a lingering, overwhelming stench of stale chlorine.

aniseed
The ‘stone out of the van’ was a little favour to Doug’s dad, who – as I cycled up the driveway – was parking his Ford Transit in front of the living room window and  preparing to unload (I think) a huge quantity of stone cladding, intended for the back of the house. ‘That was well timed,’ he beamed, as Doug came pottering around from the back*. Good job I’d had a bag of aniseed balls, I spent the next 20 minutes fired up by the usual post-Thornaby sugar rush, and only hit the comedown when we got to the mud track.

*Doug’s house, it’s just struck me, was one of those strange residences where the front door – y’know, the most accessible one that faces the road – was NEVER used. The first time I went to Doug’s house, on his 11th birthday in October 1983, he was with me, and he explained that the entire family came and went via the kitchen door round the back, and so – on future visits – that was the one to aim for. Looking back, I’m not even sure if the front door was real, or if it was just painted on the front of the stone cladding to keep up appearances.

flattyre
And yes, Doug’s bike tyre! As my mother would no doubt say, ‘flat as a fart’ (a phrase that gets applied equally in our household to tyres, singing voices and tonic water). By the time we reached the mud track it was flopping around like a soggy pancake, so we wheeled his BMX along West Street to Yarm Cycles, where the kindly owner rolled his eyes and lent us a grubby, ancient bicycle pump as a temporary measure.

What I don’t mention in my diary is that we’d already made a more drastic attempt at re-inflation at the old petrol station at the top of Yarm High Street. Doug was actually fixing the nozzle of the air machine to his bike wheel when a red-faced man in grubby overalls came charging out of the cabin and shouted a word I’d only ever seen before in comic strips… ‘S-T-O-O-O-O-O-P-P-P-P!!!!!’

‘Eh?’ said Doug, who’d clearly done this a thousand times before.

‘You can’t blow up bike tyres with one of those!’ said Garagey Man, tearing the nozzle from Doug’s hand and hooking the tube back to its holster on the side of the machine. ‘It’ll go up like a bloody balloon in your face. Have you ever seen anyone who’s been caught in the face by an exploding bike tyre? I have, and believe you me, it’s not a pretty sight…’  

‘Have you shite,’ muttered Doug under his breath as we slinked away. ‘I bet it’s a prettier sight than him,’ I mumbled, sympathetically. These were the days, of course, when petrol stations (or ‘garages’ as everyone just called them back then) WEREN’T generally owned by the petrol companies themselves. Nowadays, your average filling station is a slick mini-supermarket owned by BP or Shell, teeming with middle-management f**kwits who leave their Range Rovers parked idly at Pump 6 before embarking on their entire weekly shop while an angry queue of traffic mounts up behind their stationary knobmobile.

oldpetrolpump
In 1984, most petrol stations were owned by 45-year-old blokes who liked messing about with cars. The forecourts usually had a couple of clapped out Ford Cortinas dotted around their outskirts (with the gearboxes on the floor nearby), and the petrol pumps themselves were archaic, off-white 1960s machines with painted white digits on a rolling black wheel, a far cry from the slick, self-service, computerised machines of today.

You’d park up and wait for the owner to emerge from his grotty hut. ‘How much?’ he’d grunt, wiping oil from his hands with the back page of last night’s Evening Gazette Late Final. ‘Ten pounds, please,’ you’d reply, and he’d unhinge the nozzle and FILL YOUR CAR UP HIMSELF, because clearly petrol pumps were complex, specialist bits of machinery not suitable for use by the general public. He’d then pump £10.02 of petrol into your car, swear softly under his breath as though he didn’t mean it, and lure you back into the cabin to WRITE OUT A CHEQUE (from a chequebook no doubt encased in a musty leather wallet). You might, if were lucky, be able to buy an oil-stained packet of Polos or some boiled sweets. No other food, though. No fizzy drinks. No newspapers or magazines. No cigarettes, Rizla papers and Monster Munch. If you wanted that sort of thing, you could go to bloody Presto like everybody else, couldn’t you?

prestobag
(The last time I saw a non-self-service petrol station was in Dorset in 1996, when I pulled up, got out of the car, and was slightly taken aback when a very old man in a flat cap emerged to ‘fill her up’ for me. Brilliant, though. I wonder if there are any left at all, anywhere?)

And then back home for tea and telly, although I’m surprised that I didn’t race back to catch The Tripods. Still, not to worry – my hero Rik Mayall was on Wogan! In this strange, mid-80s period, Michael Parkinson’s traditional Saturday night BBC1 chat show had been take over by Uncle Terry, but the format was pretty much the same. Rik was, of course, my favourite character in The Young Ones, and was shrouded in mystique because I’d never actually seen him out of character. So this was something of a revelation for me…

(Pesky Youtube won’t let me embed these films in the blog, so just go to the ‘Watch On Youtube’ option)

His in-character stand-up is tremendous, isnt it? And what a great, revelatory interview. Really inspiring stuff for the 11-year-old me, and I think the funny little diatribe at the end of my diary entry is a little homage to his Young Ones character. Bloody heck, eh kids?

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 300

Friday 26th October 1984

Got up at 9.30, and at 10.30 Doug came. We went to Doug’s house and told Doug’s mam that Doug was staying at my house for dinner, and when we got back we had dinner.

Then we played Fighting Fantasy, and at 2.00 we went down the mud track, then down the riverbank, then to the mud track again, where we saw Griff.

At 5.00 I came home and had tea, then I typed up some more of The Moonstone dungeon for the Fighting Fantasy competition. Then I read House of Hell in Warlock, and at 11.30 I went to bed to be sick. 

Why didn’t we just phone Doug’s mother from my house to tell her Doug was staying for dinner? We must have been desperate for the feel of drizzle on our faces. Anyway, it’ll have been cheese-on-toast… it always was when Doug stayed for dinner. Two slices of white Mother’s Pride bread, toasted and coated in four slabs of bright orange, breezeblock-sized cheddar, in turn melted to the same temperature as the Earth’s inner core. Thanks to a entire childhood spent stuffing my face with this delicacy, I now have a mouth that can withstand boiling hot tea, and can usually polish off a steaming, fresh cup within seconds. I’m like Yarm’s own Hans Morretti.

A pretty listless afternoon, I think… we pottered around Yarm on our bikes in the gloom, no doubt stopping at the mud track to talk filth while rocking gently backwards and forwards on the kids’ swings. Around this time I began to seriously fancy myself as a writer (as well as just fancying myself in general) and would spend hours on the swings creating lurid, tall tales from nothing and spinning them to Doug – who, bless him, would give them his undivided attention and offer criticism and encouragements accordingly. 

I think the story I created on this very day concerned two starstruck lovers (clearly modelled on myself and Debbie Jarvis, or whichever other doe-eyed school honey I was fawning over at the time) racing against time to escape the SS Maximus, a luxury cruise liner sinking in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Against all the odds, they fought their way through untold terror into a lifeboat, and clung onto each others’ battered frames as they were rescued by another passing ship. However, as their new liner disappeared into the blackness of night, the name on the bow was reflected in a glancing shard of moonlight… the SS Titanic.

titanic
Lovely old hokum, of course, but I told it with ludicrous theatrical relish, and Doug gave me a thunderous round of applause at the end. For all we took the piss out of each other on a daily basis, we were always deadly serious in encouraging our respective passions and creative endeavours, and that’s what made the friendship so special. It wasn’t all knob gags and playful kicks up the arse. There was passion, and pride and poetry as well. Awwww. (And, naturally, I wrote up the entire story virtually word-for-word for one of Mrs McDonald’s English assigments a couple of months later. 9/10. Merit. Get in!)

Griff was Ian Griffiths, a cheeky, friendly lad in our Form Class 1CW. He was just wandering around by himself on a dreary half term afternoon, looking for someone he knew, and he found us. Hard luck, mate.

And yes!!! I was sick! A proper, hurling-the-guts-up chunder in the bathroom upstairs. I remember it really well… I was indeed reading Steve Jackson’s cracking ‘House Of Hell’ Fighting Fantasy adventure in the new Warlock magazine, laid out on the rug in front of a roaring coal fire. It was late – certainly after 11pm – and my Dad was giggling softly at some late-night Channel 4 comedy show, in fact I think it might even have been the notorious ‘Who Dares Wins’ with Tony Robinson and Rory McGrath… does that sound about right? Whatever it was, it was pretty risque stuff for me to be watching as an 11-year-old, but my parents were always cool about respecting my advancing tastes, and I’m very grateful for that.

But yeah… I was drinking some kind of cheap cherryade concoction from a wine glass, and suddenly looked up from my magazine with – apparently – a deathly white complexion. ‘Are you alright?’ asked my Mum, momentarily suspending the clack-clack-clack of her knitting needles.

‘I don’t feel very well… I think I might go to… be-e-e-e-e-e-e….’

With an impressive turn of pace, I charged up the stairs, shouldered open the bathroom door and discharged half a pint of cheap cherryade, a mushed-up bucketload of chips and at least one completely intact Mr Kipling’s almond slice into the toilet bowl. Our pale blue toilet seat had one of those horrible, fluffy, 1970s covers, and I remember looking at the string tied above the Royal Doulton logo with tears in my eyes and that truly horrible (yet strangely tangy) burning sensation at the back of my throat.

toiletseatcover
‘Where did that come from?’ asked my Mum, gently slipping a glass of tepid tapwater into my hand. ‘Something you’ve eaten?’

‘Cheese on toast,’ I replied, through panting gulps for breath. ‘Go easy on the cheddar next time…’  Given that, for the first sixteen years of my life, virtually everything I ate was either a) fried, b) deep fried or c) chocolate, I’m only amazed it didn’t happen more often.

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 299

Thursday 25th October 1984

Got up at 9.10 when I got a letter from Richard Moxham, and when I got downstairs I did some more of POG-I. After that I wrote a letter to Richard, then at 11.30 I went to Doug’s but he wasn’t in. I came back and at 12.00 I had dinner.

Then I did some more of POG-I, and at 2.00 we looked at some old photographs. At 5.00 I had tea, and at 5.15 I watched Blockbusters. After that I went outside, and when I came in I started writing an RPG for a Fighting Fantasy competition in Warlock magazine.

At 9.30 Dad came back from the motor  show with some leaflets about the Scimitar SS1, and while I read them I had a bacon sarnie. I went to bed at 10.30.

The motor show! Yes, every October, my Dad and half-a-dozen of his similarly fortysomething friends would hire a minibus, fill their coat pockets with scotch eggs and hip flasks, and drive to the NEC in Birmingham to eye up bouffant-haired blondes in bikinis, sprawled alluringly across the bonnets of the new Austin Montego Estate. 

So, by the time my Mum gently shoved open my bedroom door at 9.10am, he was long gone. ‘You’ve got a letter from Richard Moxham,’ she smiled, handing over an enveloped coated in tell-tale Airmail stickers. Richard Moxham had been one of my best childhood friends, but – in 1981 – he and his family had upped sticks and emigrated to Canada. In those hazy, pre-internet days, a carefully-scribbled letter packed with gossip, giggles and rumination on the latest A-Team storylines was the only way to keep in touch. We usually managed a few pages every couple of months, and a phone call at Christmas. Always from him to me, of course… to my parents, the prospect of actually PHONING CANADA FROM YARM was the flamboyant equivalent of chucking a load of ten pound notes into the coal bunker and setting fire to them.

I think this particular letter was the one in which Richard had painstakingly copied out the logos of all his favourite new rock bands… Van Halen, Twisted Sister, Def Leppard and ZZ Top. I was utterly bamboozled by all of these, as – you guessed it – I’d never heard of any of them. Pop music was still splendidly parochial in the mid-1980s, and the overwhelming majority of Top 40 hits were gorgeously clunky pop songs by familiar, UK artists – packing their songs and videos with reassuringly British traits… widdly synths, downbeat lyrics and repressed homosexuality.

Suffice to say I wasn’t really ready to ‘rawk’ at this point in my life, so I wrote back with a few half-hearted ramblings about Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Doctor Who before losing myself in beans-on-toast and the first ten minutes of Pebble Mill At One.

With my Dad away for the day, my Mum was clearly in the mood for a bit of ‘sorting out’, hence the ‘old photographs’ being plonked on the coffee table while we whiled away the afternoon, lost in giddy nostalgia. For as long as I could remember, this magical collection of sepia-tinted prints had been stuffed into a battered, brown leather suitcase and buried at the bottom of the wardrobe, only being brought into the open air on the rainiest of rainy afternoons, when coffee, toasted teacakes and wistful sentimentality would tide us gently over to Blockbusters and Northern Life.

suitcase2
I’m delighted to say that the collection is still intact, and – not only that – still contained in the same battered suitcase (above)! It’s two feet away from me now, on the floor of my spare room office… (I swiped it to – yep – ‘sort out’ when my parents moved back to the UK from France this summer)

Fancy a random picture from the collection? Go on then, here you go…

grandad
This is my Grandad, my mother’s father, Ralph Atkinson. Pictured during his World War II service, and the first person to mention Captain Mainwaring gets a taste of cold steel right up ’em. I never knew my Grandad, he died in 1971, eighteen months before I was born – he had a silent heart attack in his favourite armchair, and slipped away with barely a sound while the family watched TV around him.

granddog

I guess every family has a photo collection like this. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of battered pictures stuffed into the suitcase, telling a vague, befuddled family history through these little snapshots in time. Desperately-missed parents and husbands rubbing shoulders with barely-remembered Great Aunties and half-forgotten cousins. Men in tank tops polishing Morris Travellers, and peroxide women in gingham dresses desperate to look like a young Diana Dors. Long-forgotten dogs chewing bones in tiny gardens, and joyous-looking babies on rugs in front of three-bar fires.

1970s

And someone, somewhere, in that vast morass of vanished time, loved them all enough to point a camera and go ‘click’. My Mum clearly adored flicking through this collection, and so did I… and nothing has ever changed. In June this year, 25 years on, we sat down at her kitchen table in France and ‘looked at some old photographs’. The same ones. Me aged 36, and my Mum now 67, but – aside from that – nothing had changed a jot.  We even had coffee and toasted teacakes (although they don’t have Blockbusters on French TV) 

(By the way, I’ve just realised, for the first time ever, that the above two photos are clearly taken on opposite sides of the same window, several years apart! It’s the curtains that are the giveaway. I think it’s my Gran’s house, the one prior to the famous sci-fi bungalow from ‘Wiffle Lever’. My Gran is in the first picture, with my Dad’s dog Penny, who also features – looking quite a lot older – in the second shot. That’s my Dad on the far right of the settee, sporting a sensational pair of ginger sideburns.

NB Those curtains eventually emigrated to my parents’ kitchen, and were still hanging there in 2000 when they sold my childhood home. We’re SUCH scutters…)  

And then, predicatably, back to my own little world of nerdiness… writing a Role Playing Game for a competition in Warlock – the official Fighting Fantasy magazine. The slow slide into teenage geekdom. My adventure was called ‘The Moonstone Dungeon’ and featured Reknor the Dwarf, Derfa the Elfin Girl, and an army of fighting potatoes… and I can state this with some authority, because – fantastically – I FOUND IT ALL A FEW WEEKS AGO!

moonstone
It was in a box in the loft, still packed into a brown foolscap folder with ‘THE MOONSTONE DUNGEON 26/10/1984’ written neatly in pencil on the front. Here’s the introduction…

This adventure is set in the dungeon of Moonstone castle, which is an ancient castle in Eastern Allansia. For centuries the castle has been deserted, but recently there have been rumours that Ane Vilman, an evil warlord from the North, has been using the castle dungeon as his hideout while he plans an invasion of Allansia.

Such rumours have reached you adventurers, and, determined to fight for your country, you have set off for Moonstone castle to defeat Vilman and his evil followers before such an invasion takes place.

You reach Moonstone castle early in the afternoon, and, in high spirits, you make your way to the dungeon. The entrance to the dungeon is a large round pit in the stone floor with a rope ladder hanging down the side. Cautiosly you descend the ladder to the danger that awaits below…

Ane Vilan. An evil man. I was destined for a career in local radio, wasn’t I? Mind you, it’s odd the way that life works out. Yesterday, almost 25 years to the day since I started writing my own Fighting Fantasy adventure…

…wait for it…

stevejackson
…I met Steve ‘Fighting Fantasy’ Jackson! Yep, the man who launched the range with his Games Workshop cohort Ian Livingstone. I was flogging Wiffle Levers at a gaming convention in Watford, and Steve was on the Fighting Fantasy table barely ten feet away. (I did, of course, meet Ian Livingstone earlier this year, on 3rd February in fact, so I can now die happy in a treacherous corner of the Moonstone Dungeon)

And then my Dad returned from the Motor Show, no doubt smelling slightly of draught bitter and cigar smoke, and talking enthusiastically about the new Scimitar SS1 sports car that we were going to buy…

scimitarss1
All glorious 1980s pipe dreams, of course, except… we did buy one. Fourteen years later, in 1998. My Mum paid about £1500 for a fifth-hand model that looked – quite frankly – nothing whatsoever like the picture above. She drove it around Yarm for about a year before declaring it was ‘like to trying to steer a Sherman bloody Tank’ and selling it on for roughly the same price. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, is it?