In which Scalextric, Subbuteo, sexy sultresses, Southend and soccer shape the sixties... along with coke, crisps and cigarettes...
By George!... it was the Best of times!
Alvin even gets to visit THE Palace to see THE Queen!
the time of my initial infant fascination with the Rolling Stones in the mid-1960s (Charlie Harper was actually going to see them play and regularly socialised with Brian Jones and Mick Jagger during this period) my family moved out of the damp, cramped flat in New Addington into a three-bedroom house on the Monk’s Hill council estate in Croydon. It was a small unremarkable terraced council house, but to my sisters and I it was South-East London’s answer to Versailles Palace with its lounge and dinning room, a small garden ornamented by a pair of Silver Birch Trees, and an attic, which I turned into a kind of private den for playing Subbuteo football and racing my Scalextric cars with my school mates. I even had a bedroom exclusively to myself. My father had meanwhile succeeded in working his way up to being transport manager at his company and used some of his new disposable income to buy a Triumph Herald car.
One afternoon I took a ride with my parents in this vehicle - an automobile that I believe to be one of the lamentably overlooked design icons of the sixties - to Gatwick Airport to pick up a Portuguese friend of my mother’s who was flying in from Lisbon to stay with us for awhile. Upon checking the arrivals board my parents reported her flight was delayed and we made for the airport bar where my dad ordered a pint, my mother a glass of wine and I was treated to a Coke and a bag of cheese and onion crisps.
As I sat with my parents and enjoyed these rare delicacies I became conscious of a group of people leaning against the bar a few feet away from our table. They were exotic creatures from some strange, alternative realm and the main focal point of my consideration was the single female among them. Maybe in her early twenties, with hair that imitated the colour of ripe wheat and a face so absurdly beautiful that it seemed almost artificial, she was wearing a chic paisley trouser suit that flattered the contours of her curvaceous figure. This novel fashion innovation - women were hardly ever seen in trousers back then, let alone as part of a corresponding suit - was no doubt the creation of one of that decade’s supreme garment designers, perhaps Mary Quant or Yves Saint Laurent. To me, anyway, she was certainly equal in allure to one of those glamorous but inaccessible models/movie stars from the lustrous pages of one of my mother’s fashion magazines.
Summoning up my visual memories now I’m positive she had a remarkable resemblance to Bridget Bardot, as that formerly stunning movie star would have looked back in that year of 1967. Actually, for all I know, she might even have been Bridget Bardot, as this exquisite vision was indeed French. But no matter, Bardot or no, my nine-year-old-self fell childishly skull over feet in love with her, so much so that I even considered offering her one of my crisps.
The two guys she was drinking wine with were also highly memorable. Both had hair longer than I had ever seen on a man, even longer than those eccentric lengths worn by the Rolling Stones. And, incredibly, one of them had a gold earring! They wore velvet hip-hugging trousers and vibrantly patterned shirts which they had both unbuttoned to navels to reveal large medallions attached to the chains manufactured from precious metals that hung from their necks. I had never witnessed such people in the flesh before and to discover that they actually existed outside the aloof mediums of television, films and magazines was deeply exciting.
Eventually the Bardot creature caught me staring at her and offered me a smile. My heart did a pogo but I managed to bashfully deploy one in return. "Hey little man", she said while summoning me with the arc of a slender finger, "come and join us". I looked at my parents for permission to make the move. They were both amused at my evident fascination with this woman and nodded their consent. My father whispered "looks like you’ve pulled there son", as I slid off my seat and started towards the Gallic goddess.
They even smelled different. She, of some luxurious, sensuous Parisian perfume, and the hirsute Frenchmen of aftershave of a quality and subtlety far removed from the overpowering Brut or Hai Karate whiff that my younger uncles allowed themselves at Christmas and on other special occasions. My father’s view on men who wore ‘smelly stuff’, as he termed it at that time, was that they were either of suspicious sexual orientation, pimps, spivs, or dodgy Mediterranean types, the latter classification being I suppose pretty much the correct one for these particular gentlemen.
The goddess had me sit on the bar stool adjacent to hers and gave me a sip of her wine. As the Beaujolais rode through my body my skin heated up, but not so much from the drink as from my close proximity to the woman who had just inducted me into the joys of the grape. The guys shook my hand, and one of them, quite seriously, offered me a Gitane cigarette. Although I thought it was cool to be included like that, as an adult and an equal, I declined. My parents were perfectly untroubled by my tasting the wine but I thought they might consider their nine-year-old son wheezing on a French cigarette as a lenience too far, and I therefore asked where they were going in order to move things on. It was the goddess who answered in her turbo-sexy French accent, "Firstly to Paris for a some days, then on to St. Tropez in the South to stay with friends, and then to Rome where we attend the premiere of a film by a director friend of mine. Have you ever been to Rome little man?" I didn’t want to divulge the fact that the furthest I’d travelled at that point was Southend in Essex and so quickly changed the subject to the Rolling Stones, who they all enthusiastically agreed were "tres, tres cool".
I instantly understood these were my kind of people, comfortable in their flamboyance, proficient at enjoyment, carefree and confident. Beautiful, Bohemian, hedonistic adventurers. They were members of what was evocatively referred to as ‘the Jet Set’ back then, and they were as different in essence and physicality from the people I lived amongst in South London as Antarctica’s icy Tundra is to the scorched deserts of Arabia.
Having kissed me farewell on the mouth with lips of Bordeaux Red the goddess and her colourful cherubs left my life forever to catch their plane to the City of Lights. As I mournfully watched them depart I became assured of two things: from that day on I would strive with all my energy to escape from the dullness of my familiar world in order to attain the travelled, pleasure-seeking kind of life that they lived; and, more importantly, that fine Wine and Women were definitely to my taste, although Song would still have to await my mindful consideration for some time to come.
In the 1960s, one of the few ways that working-class men were able to escape the factories and menial jobs that they were predestined for was by excelling at sports. In particular, excelling at the greatest sport ever devised by the human mind - football. To this end I applied myself to the game and hustled myself into the school team, playing in the position that was then known as Inside Right. Inside Rights were, along with Centre Forwards and those at Inside Left, part of the strike team that played upfront with the responsibility for scoring goals. I scored a lot of goals for my school team, so much so that I was invited to play for a very prestigious Sunday League team, Warren Wanderers, who wore blood-red shirts with black shorts and socks, a colour combination I’d always much admired.
My soccer hero at that time was George Best. George had that alluring ‘otherness’ of the Gatwick French trio. He was the Jim Morrison of English football. A good looking, long haired rake who drank to excess, fucked fashion models, movie stars and Miss Worlds, dressed like a dandy and habitually gambled money in casinos and race tracks. But despite having such interests commonly considered inappropriate and damaging to a professional sportsman, on the field of play he was still able to pass and strike the ball with such elegance, precision and style that his mere presence in a game could bestow it with a level of exhilaration that would be sorely lacking without him. He was a kind of Homeric, heroic figure made flesh from the pages of the Iliad, and just like Achilles - a mythical personage who also excelled at his profession and enjoyed drinking and fucking - he was struck with a detrimental flaw that was to one day prove fatal.
It is with a measure of pride then that I can reveal that I actually saw this prodigy play for real. The youngest of my father’s bothers, my uncle Les, was the only one of the wider Gibbs’ family that had a real interest in soccer. He supported our local professional team, Crystal Palace, and was thrilled when they managed to get promoted for the first time to the old 1st division (later re-branded the Premier League). I really liked my uncle Les. He had been a mod, rode a cream and black Vespa scooter and would have me listen to the Who and the Kinks on his Dansette record player when my parents, sisters and I occasionally visited him and his glamorous wife, Jean, back in New Addington. After a particular weekend visit in 1969 he announced he’d got me a ticket to see Palace play their first ever game in the top flight against - roll of drums, blast of trumpets - Manchester United.
Manchester United was the gold standard club of Europe in the 1960s. As European Cup winners they, as today, would have considered not attaining the league championship season after season as abject failure. On their roster were names like Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law, Brian Kidd and, of course, the coolest man in football, George Best, and the thought of going to see these demi-gods play on the green turf at Selhurst Park, Crystal Palace's stadium, was beyond exciting.
Most people thought it would be a bloodbath, myself included. Despite wearing an unfamiliar all white away-strip rather than their famous red and white kit, as United took to the pitch and their team line-up was announced over the stadium's tannoy, I became certain Crystal Palace were about suffer a painful football humiliation. But the largely unknown players in the claret and blue shirts had other ideas that afternoon. Palace scored first. The Selhurst faithful went appropriately bonkers and I could not help but join in the celebrations by throwing my plastic cup of muddy Bovril in the air and leaping around like some demented marsupial on the muddy slope that was then the Homesdale Road end of Selhurst Park.
The jubilations were somewhat shattered when Bobby Charlton scored to even things up before half-time, but went back into joyous overdrive again when Gerry Queen hit the back of the United net to put Palace once more in front. Just as we thought the unimaginable was about to occur, United’s Willy Morgan screwed-up the script by scoring a last minute goal for the team from up North. Still, Palace had held the most feared club in Europe to a draw in their first game in the top flight (they also repeated this feat later that same season at Old Trafford) and heroes each, were applauded from the field of play as if they’d just won a cup final or gained a championship. I fell in love with the club that day, and have been an ardent supporter ever since.
Below: Spot Alvin in the crowd at Selhurst Park?
Just a brief digression here… Recently I played a show with the UK Subs at a venue in Brighton. As I shared a drink at the bar with fellow Croydonian and Palace supporter, Captain Sensible, the familiar face of someone I knew to be one of a group of Palace supporters who also happen to be Sub’s fans approached us and handed me a gift.
I opened the envelope he’d placed in my hands. There I discovered an original match programme from the game I’ve just described. He told me he’d remembered this had been my first Palace game and wanted me to have it. I thanked him profusely. His gift has subsequently become one of my most treasured possessions.
After this glorious professional match-in-the-flesh baptism, I thereafter went to watch Palace’s every home game in the company of uncle Les and my cousin, John Gibbs. I also simultaneously carried on racking up goals for both school and Warren Wanderers, and got to see my name in print for the first time in our local paper (the Croydon Advertiser) for having scored a Hat Trick against a rival team, and in subsequent editions for other goal-related football achievements. I did seriously consider taking trials for the Palace’s youth team with a view to one day being able to play professionally for the club I loved, but as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s the profound televisional music moment that I touched upon earlier in this sprawling screed was about to ambush my ambitions.
Tune in next time for...
Alvin exchanges footy boots for a cheap electric guitar, discovers Glam Rock and the music press, sees his first concert and joins his first band...