Excerpted from Chapter One: “Childhood” from Memoirs of a Geezer: Music, Mayhem, Life by Jah Wobble. Excerpted by arrangement with Serpent’s Tail Publishing Ltd. Copyright © 2010. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
My memory of the mid-sixties is a pretty clichéd one. I remember it, as so many seem to do, as a sunny time, inherently optimistic and youthful. An iconic picture of Bobby Moore, in West Ham away strip, hung in Wally’s the tobacconist. He became a national hero (Bobby, not Wally) after leading England to victory in the 1966 World Cup. I can vividly remember that tournament; I was glued to the screen. West Ham were the best-supported club in the area; indeed, most of the family are West Ham fans, and even my sister had a Hammers pennant on her bedroom wall. Millwall also had a fair bit of support in the area. Indeed, my dad and his brother Terry both favoured Millwall over West Ham.
Memoirs of a Geezer: Music, Mayhem, Life
(Serpent's Tail; US: Nov 2010)
Contrary as ever, I became a Spurs fan, partly because of Jimmy Greaves, that other great sixties football icon, as well as a (super) natural affinity with the club. I was by no means alone in the East End. To this day I still avidly follow Tottenham. I’m a ‘Shelfside’ season ticket holder. As I always say, you change your house, you change your motor, you even change your wife, but you never change your team. You’re stuck with the useless bastards through (bits of) thick and (lots of) thin.
From the age of five I loved to play football; we would play for hours on end given a chance. Sometimes there would be forty a side, right in the middle of the estate. Looking back, it was reminiscent of those medieval games some of those country villages still play where all the geezers fight over a dead badger or a large piece of cheese or something. I still enjoy a game of football. Obviously I am an old boy now; however, I still have an eye for a ‘killer pass’, and I’m a pretty assured finisher. I have a good temperament for taking penalties. My youngest boy Charlie is a better player than I was at his age. He’s got two good feet, plays with his head up and covers every blade of grass. Like my older boy John he is also a musician.
Tamla Motown was the popular music of the day in that mid-sixties period. Farther down Stepney Way, the older boys hung around outside the Artichoke pub in mohair mod suits, whistling at giggling girls in miniskirts. This feeling of sixties youthful optimism was very much at odds with the essentially pre-Vatican II doctrines of the Sisters of Mercy who ran my primary school, St Mary and Michaels’s on the Commercial Road. I found the Sisters of Mercy to be a pretty neurotic group of women. I remember that whenever there was a thunderstorm one of the nuns would sit under her desk sobbing. Of course, her behaviour was never explained to us kids. If you drew attention to it you would get a clip around the ear, and be told to ‘shut up!’
As well as being neurotic the Sisters were also, in my experience, spiteful and vindictive. Their spite was more than matched by one of the two Catholic lay teachers. I had the misfortune of suffering this particular person in my last year there. If you incurred his displeasure he would utilise one of his ‘offbeat punishments’. He would, for instance, lift you a few inches from the ground, while you were still seated in your chair, and then drop you. This would jar your back, a very risky manoeuvre. He used to make a point of picking on me. He also used to pick on a particular girl in the class as well. I recall that the girl’s mum was a single parent, which was not as common then as it is nowadays. He was a pretty sinister individual.
Getting caned with a bamboo stick on the palm of your hand was, for me at least, a pretty regular occurrence at Mary and Michael’s. I was an altar boy by the age of seven. I was often pulled out of my class to go and help with the funerals. I would get the church ready for the service. Sometimes it used to be just me and the deceased in the big dark gloomy church. I would imagine the lid of the coffin being prised open from within, and the corpse slowly emerging. Quite a few of those funerals were like paupers’ affairs with hardly any mourners present.
I remember rushing in a state of high anxiety, to do the Saturday evening mass, the one people went to after confession. Apparently I forgot to genuflect before the altar on my way to the sacristy. Unfortunately there was a nun spying on me from somewhere in the dark recesses of the church. Nothing was said at the time. They waited until assembly on the Monday, at which time I was hauled before the school and given six on each palm. In retrospect I can really see where the mindset behind the Spanish Inquisition came from. After a while those sorts of punishments mean little or nothing to the recipient. You become inured to it. I think I was picked on more than most owing to the fact that my mum had on occasion stood up to the nuns and the priests. A mere parishioner should not have dared to question the authority of the Church, or its representatives, and therefore had to be punished in some way, albeit indirectly. Having a go at me was the best they could do, as they were afraid of my mum.
A lot of the girls who became nuns didn’t really want to. Most of them, especially the Sisters of Mercy, came from rural Ireland, which in those days could still be quite feudal in its outlook. So, consequently, they had little or no say in the matter. If it was decided that they would join an order, that was it, they did what their families wanted. It’s no surprise that they developed a tendency to be bitter and twisted. In effect most of them had been given a life sentence with no chance of parole. What is surprising is that not one of them seemed to have any degree of warmth or compassion. Normally in a group situation like that there will be at least one ‘nice one’. I’m sure it wasn’t like that with all orders of Catholic nuns. So there you go, the Sisters of Mercy had no mercy.
By comparison, the priests next door were a pretty docile bunch. A couple of them were pissed all of the time; however, as far as I know, none of them were nonce cases (so that was a result anyway). Thankfully the days of trying to explain the metaphysics behind the Holy Trinity to five-year-olds have now passed, as has the practice of school assemblies where the gory sufferings of saints would be recounted (literally blow by blow), along with graphic descriptions of Hell and purgatory. Basically, the message that I picked up, aged five, was this; if you weren’t prepared at some point to suffer like the great saints for your faith (and I wasn’t), then you would either go to Hell or burn in purgatory for an aeon. (The real purgatory for me was the Irish dancing that we had to do every week. I absolutely loathed it.)
I should add that there are people I went to Mary and Michael’s with who are less negative than me about our shared experience, and I must say, I did learn my three Rs very well indeed at M&M’s, so it could be argued that the end justified the tough means. I mean, look, by the time I left I had already, thanks to the various neuroses that surrounded me, developed an obsessive-compulsive personality, but by God I was a good reader. This was just as well because I could, therefore, continue to read obsessively. A circular argument of sorts, but it works for me.