Irish Jack on Mod Ghosts
When the author Andy Morling sent me his book MOD GHOSTS for review I looked at the cover and was immediately reminded of the Canadian soul singer RD Taylor who, in 1967, discovered he had a ghost in his house. Consequently Taylor’s hit ‘There’s A Ghost In My House’ became an unputdownable anthem in the culture of Northern soul. And how fitting and how apt that Andy Morling on his journey through Mod came to embrace that very sub-culture Northern soul. He was born in Ipswich but not in Wigan.
As well when I read the cover ‘MOD GHOSTS’ I thought, hang on, I’m an ageing original mod and to many of the second generation of mods I’d probably appear as a ghost. The ghost of the mod I was. So, hang on again, I might be in this book if it’s about ghosts? I’m not -but- there’s a great shot of an old friend of mine Dave Dry who once organised a mod memoir reading I did in Basingstoke for the local scooter club where, unlike Rodney, I did a good reading to a seated audience of local mods but failed to achieve GCE’s in arts and mathematics. Dave Dry is photographed in full page glorious black-and-white on his scooter outside his old house in his native west London’s Acton in 1964 – complete with three-quarter leather.
At the outset and in eloquent explanation of background Morling pays homage to a bohemian character called Davie Neville. It seems Neville was almost the accidental catalyst for the author’s eventual journey through mod. Davie Neville, older than the others, dressed in what you might describe as late-sixties casual clothing, smoked marijuana and listened to black music. Neville wasn’t by any means a mod. And sometimes this is always the beauty of the extraordinaire of fact and a basis for a good story. Neville lived in a grotty room which the author tells us resembled a Rising Damp style garrett in east Ipswich’s Cemetery Road (Honestly, you couldn’t make this up !)
What fascinated Morling and his couple of visiting chums was the fact that despite Davie Neville’s lifestyle as being almost hippy-like and definitely not mod – yet, the most beautiful apple green Vespa scooter adorned the pavement outside the grotty house. Surprisingly it was Davie’s! And it was there in the cluttered and untidy room that Morling spotted a tea-ringed stained album cover sticking out from under a pile of sundries entitled This Is Northern Soul . For the author, you could say it was an epithaneous moment. We all do it. We all track back to a moment in our lives…sometimes just a single moment…that seems to define our future. For the author it was then. What I love about this great story is the fact that Mr. Neville didn’t hang around to continue to be Mr. Morling’s mentor or guardian angel like some suffocating uncle. Davie Neville like all wayward catalysts drifted to the point he and Morling lost touch. But the author describes a genuine and heartfelt longing to know what became of him. There will always be characters like Davie Neville. The beauty of them is their mystery.
Page 21 brings the first unexpected delight : two girls recline on ‘Rob’s’ scooter outside a drive in Woolatton Vale, Nottingham in 1968. The accompanying picture underneath is the exact same location where the original photographer’s lens fixed and is now recaptured in 2019. It’s just a replica of the original shot and I’m thinking ‘What the hell’s going on? Is Davie Neville on heavy duty LSD?
Sorry, not Davie, I mean the author Andy Morling. ‘What’s going on Andy? Why use a replica? Then a few pages on I discover one of the magical pieces of the book – throughout there is a series of ‘then and now’ themed photos of mods on scooters shot in the halcyon days and the author has ingeniusly come up with the novel idea of juxtapositioning a 2019 similar shot of the exact same location. In some cases the author waves a further wand of magic by superimposing a shadow-like impression of people from where they originally appeared. Ah ! Ghosts ! We’ve all moved on and I can’t pretend that what now appears more evident is the blighted sight of authoritive multi-coloured waste bins nigh garden walls whereas, back in the good old days mum and dad were happy enough to use a solitary dustbin.
There is a certain sadness therein among the photo images; a lovely Wimpy bar (then) is replaced by a car phone warehouse (now). Unbelievably a line of busy bus-stops becomes transmogrified into a characterless coffee bar in Pool Valley, Brighton. True. It’s as if the entire street has been lobotomised. A lovely old pub of Tudoresque frontage The Blue Coat Boy music venue photographed in 1966 with a distinctive Merc’ parked outside with Get Carter casualness is transformed into a three-storey red brick hosting a sign encouraging punters to enjoy Ipswich Fish & Chips. Such is the so-called progress foisted upon us in the march of time.
The book is dotted with accurate observation where Morling hits the nail on the head. I particularly liked this one : Between 1968 and 1978, in what many consider Mod’s missing decade, the brightest stars shone not from some southern metropolis but from a constellation of otherwise unremarkable northern mill towns. In Barnsley and Burnley as in Skipton and Scunthorpe, loyal and enthusiastic scooter-riding souls kept the faith almost single -handedly, when elsewhere, Mod had entered the darkest recesses of of the underground. On Bank Holidays throughout the seventies, parts of Skegness and Scarborough , veritable jewels in the north-eastern coastal crown, became hazy from the cerulean fug of a few dozen two-stroke engines. The north of England, we salute you. I couldn’t agree more. And this little nugget when he says…’There was no mod music – there was music mods danced to.’
There are eleven chapters, seven of which are dedicated to locations; Epping, Hastings, West London, Ipswich, Guernsey, Stoke and East London. Each of which the author has tracked down a local mod who reminiscences about the joys and uphill struggles of being a late-seventies mod i.e. continual hassle from casuals, punks and skinheads. How town centre landscape has changed.
In his section on his hometown Ipswich the author gives us fascinating background on how he drifted into becoming a mod. He gives us unusual detail about an American black serviceman, with the surname Washington, who was stationed at the nearby American airforce base Bentwaters, and was prone to singing a few songs in the Blue Coat Boy pub, a hostelry mostly frequented by members of the local black community. It appears that William Washington had more than just a voice. He could really sing. And when handshook by regulars on his performances he told people he was known as Geno back home. Yes, Geno Washington. I had the pleasure of seeing him perform more than once at the Marquee with the Ram Jam Band as my good friend back then was Peter Meaden, the ace mod and their manager.
Moving along. Morling describes with graphic detail how the Ipswich’s central square the Cornhill with its eight Doric columns and steps became the hub and heartbeat and meeting point for all strands of teenagers. Bikers, punks, skinheads and mods. Inside lurked the general post office. Following its closure in the late eighties as a post office the wonderful Cornhill building became home to a succession of high street banks. Nowadays hardly anyone sits on the celebrated stone steps. Morling also let’s us in on how many towns and cities in the midlands have become lobotomised by so-called modernisation. He tells us the sadness of the devastation of similar towns across the country like Ipswich. High streets being turned into vast empty characterless open spaces. Broken England.
Here he is telling us about it :
“By 2019 many of the finest pubs of the town had gone. Boarded up, dismantled or converted into shops and apartments. Of our Mod pubs, only the Lord Nelson remains in service. The shell of the main Post Office building also sits unloved and empty, its steps no longer performing even their intended function. The building is one of many architectural casualties on a windswept, litter-strewn and forlorn Cornhill. Foot fall on the once bustling main square even on busy days, is a fraction of its eighties heyday. Although laudable efforts have recently been made to smarten up the Cornhill for generations to come, its shops, pubs and common areas remain a lesson in neglect. The Cornhill is a painfully visible symbol of the demise not only of the high street but also perhaps of youth subculture.
Ipswich, along with countless other small towns across the country, limps on perplexed by by the speed and totality of its own descent and the loss of its rich and vibrant cultural identity. It’s easy to dismiss youth subculture as meaningless and its rituals as ephemeral. Easier still to overlook its contribution to urban success. Vibrant youth subculture was to some extent a barometer of societal health. It also helped fill pubs, high streets and hearts for almost three full decades. Quite a loss all told.”
When the author covers Guernsey and the development of the mod scene there a la ‘79 he tells us how life on a small island can manage to reverberate despite obvious claustrophobic social outlets. Although I have never been there, I have a thing about Guernsey. Way back in the early eighties I happened to be sharing expensive French wine with Pete Townshend at his home (as is my wont). We were talking about mods. He said, ‘I almost forgot, I have something to show you’. He returned with some stapled sheets of A4 in his hand. The words of a new song? Perhaps a will? ‘A mod from Guernsey sent me this a few weeks ago, Jack. It’s good. I made a copy so you can have the original.’
I looked at the title and read ‘The Life And Times Of Mr. J. Cooper’ It was a lengthy poem and I just loved it. ‘Jimmy was smart, he wasn’t square, his scooter looked good, and so did his hair…’ Addendum, a-bloney-dendum. The author of the poem one ‘Oddbod’ (apologies if I have the wrong spelling) but the author of the poem ‘Oddbod’ was a local Guernsey mod. Over the many years since first reading ‘The Life And Times Of Mr. J. Cooper’ I have learned to recite it. For a long time I have included it in my Mod memoir readings to gatherings of seated mods in Paris, New York and around the UK..
It took me a long long time to discover that ‘Oddbod’ was actually a member of the local Guernsey mod community called Ray Keutzer. Some time ago whilst trying to track down the elusive ‘Oddbod’ I was put in touch with Mark Le Gallez who fronted the band The Risk. We swapped PM’s on Facebook where he told me he had some songs up online. That’s when I discovered the brilliant Risk number ‘Good Times’….and that’s when I discovered how important and how utterly vibrant it is to be a mod on a small island. Listening to what has to be described as an irresistible dance floor killer of a song with urgent brass horns pumped into the background ‘Good Times’ which provides an anthemic background to a continuous collage of still photos of Guernsey mods is something to behold. There they are, many of them in varying degrees of transitional dress towards becoming full blown mods. They’re holding the candle for Mod in kitchens, front rooms, bedrooms decorated in very inescapable early eighties mod posters, and they’re in happy and smiling groups in coffee bars and the town centre. They’ve got a fanzine In The Crowd, probably xeroxed or photocopied while the travel agent boss was out for lunch.
It’s the innocence that got me. The effort. The almost-there. The not-quite-there-yet sense of identity. This is what mod is intrinsically about. Not preening ace faces. As I read Andy Morling’s brilliant MOD GHOSTS it occurred to me how easy I had it in Shepherd’s Bush in 1964.
The patient Mrs. Morling must surely have been at her wits end and on the verge of issuing divorce papers while this tome was being assembled. This book is a triumph because its author went to the trouble.