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.
Reggae and Other Cultural Matters
The late sixties was the skinhead era, and ska was the popular urban music of its time. In the East End it was called ‘blue beat’. Indeed, Paul’s, the local record shop, had a blue beat chart, a lot of which was made up of blue beat versions of contemporary pop hits. I often tended to like the blue beat versions more than the originals. I continued to buy ‘specialist’ records and CDs at Paul’s right up to the mid-nineties. In the seventies I would go along there every Friday (funds permitting), around lunchtime, by which time they would have had a delivery of reggae ‘pre-releases’ as well as the best of any soul imports. If you were late you would miss out on the best stuff. There would often be twenty or so in the know, local DJs and punters, in the shop jostling up at the counter checking out the new stuff. Back in the sixties and seventies Paul’s also used to run a stall directly outside Whitechapel station on Fridays and Saturdays.
The stretch of market there was known locally as ‘the waste’. Every week from the age of six or so my mum would take me there to buy a single. I think that Jim Reeves’ ‘Welcome To My World’ was the first single that she bought me. Jim Reeves was very popular in Jamaica, as was Perry Como for that matter. You used to see their albums stacked up in reggae shops. Another record that my mum bought for me was ‘Froggy Went A Courting’, a bluegrass tune that, for some strange reason, I fell in love with; apparently I played it to death. I think it’s a Burl Ives composition, but I’m not sure who sang the version I had.
I did like some pop; for instance, ‘Strawberry Fields’ transfixed me. I remember being puzzled why this pop band that all the young girls liked had suddenly made something so deeply strange and pleasurable after pap like ‘She Loves You’, yeah yeah yeah. I never liked anything, either before or since, that the Beatles released as much as ‘Strawberry Fields’. I don’t think that I was allowed to buy it. I think that my mum and dad considered it to be druggy music. Up to that point they and my aunts and uncles were quite approving in regard to the Beatles. However, from about ’67 onwards that changed, especially when John Lennon got involved with Yoko Ono. They thought that the four youthful and clean-cut Scousers had been corrupted, and led on to a wayward path by an oriental temptress. One of my first memories of watching television consisted of seeing a performance by the Rolling Stones (maybe it was a broadcast of the Ready Steady Go show). My dad and my mum’s brother Johnny were in the living room having a beer. Their eyes were drawn to the TV. They both went totally mental. I think they came quite close to smashing the thing up (I don’t think Radio Rentals would have been too happy). I don’t know why they didn’t just turn the thing off.
It may surprise you but I do have some sympathy with their response. I have never warmed to Mick Jagger. Of course, my dad and Uncle John were affronted by the campness of the Stones’ performance. I think that’s why they were shouting things like ‘I’m not paying ten bob a week to watch a load of unwashed queers prancing about’, and ‘I’d use them to clear mines’. Incidentally, the other early memory of TV is watching Dr Who and the Daleks, and yes, I was another of Britain’s kids who hid terrified, peeking from behind the settee when it was on.
It was my sister (who’s four years older than me) who first bought stuff on the Trojan label (the ‘Tighten Up’ volumes). When I heard that music I went absolutely nuts for it. I liked the instrumental stuff the most. In a move typical of younger brothers/sisters, I would claim those records for myself, and therefore, as usual, we would fight like cat and dog. My mum would sort us out by attacking our legs with a thick wooden coat hanger. That would soon separate us. When I think about it now, it’s incredible to think of my sister being into reggae but, as I say, it was the popular urban music of its time. Unlike most people I knew, I stayed with reggae all the way through to the eighties, by which time it had gone, with the odd exception, off the boil. Throughout the seventies I used to listen to BBC London’s reggae hour on a Sunday lunchtime, and then around 1974–75 Capital Radio began a terrific Friday night show, hosted, in its early days, by, inexplicably, Tommy Vance, the heavy rock DJ. It was on that show that I first heard ‘Marcus Garvey’ (and the dub version) by Burning Spear, one of the seminal moments in my life.