Through the 1970s and into the 80s, every Sunday morning, for an hour after church, me, my dad and my sisters would visit Grandma and my auntie and uncle who lived with her. A few years ago I wrote the full hour of these visits in a (long) short Proustian romp, called ‘Back Through the Scrolls of the Gate’. Here, in two postings this week, are a couple of excerpts about the comics that were worshipped there.
A Child’s Comic Sabbath, Part 1
And Grandma’s house, Sunday morning, was much more than a brief, wobbling deck for my comedy. It was, for years, the engine room.
Auntie J___, planned and warm, every Sunday kitted me out with comics. Four. Four fusing, enriching publications, become the backbone of my youth, and a lifelong legacy of learning, of my true culture; my world, planet place.
Whizzer and Chips, The Beano, Cor! and The Dandy. Always these four. And in the order here they are in preference, in descending order of degrees of adoring, of my felt connectedness with. In style and message, The Beano and The Dandy versus Whizzer and Chips and Cor! (BBC vs ITV; RAC vs the AA; as I then understood them, unpeeling ‘brand onions’ since birth)
Oh, a generosity to receive, unfailingly, an investment totalling forty? fifty? pence; loaves and fishes to last me the week, but at Grandma’s, my comic sabbath, the reading week was ritually launched.
Religiously, up first was Black Bob; rather sadly a lower-league bore of a double-spreader; a fastidious, fusspot sheepdog, moralistic, jokeless, which took some effort to enjoy and which was, to cap its Presbytarian solemnity, read to me as I sat upon my auntie’s knee. Which holds nothing against her, how could it, High Priestess? it just didn’t make either of us laugh; its role, in kinder hindsight, the measured graphic transition between the joyless mass we’d come from and a better afternoon.
Quite when that weekly practice – the knee thing – ceased, I don’t recall exactly; some time before her marrying and moving when I was fifteen, I’d hope – but I’ve forgotten or blanked out any grieving or upset upon my, at some point, mumbling spurning of her lap. In my lifelong mission to avoid personal conflict and diffuse all tensions, I don’t doubt that as that changing child I attributed my sudden but polite refusal of a perch, to an increasing dissatisfaction with the restricted character development of the shepherd and his panting charge, the lack of plot-variables in their heathered hills, and elected to remain upon the rug, fiddling with a white glass shell decorated ‘Gibraltar’ on the hearth, or playing with the push-spin mechanism of the pedestal mounted chrome ashtray, my fingers dusty with fag ash and my face blushed ablaze when snapped at to stop.
So Black Bob stands, a monument marking family ties; a good and glad bond beyond the immediate home; and one of relatively few. Industries of nostalgia have mined already and deeply my comic titles; The Beano continues to this day. (Viz used to run a strip in the eighties or early nineties, a homage to my dearly unloved Black Bob, with the sheepdog replaced with a black bin liner being a-blown aboot the glen.) About Whizzer and Chips and Cor! I hear, and have heard, little. The former my favourite by some way, but the two were looser, freer and more modern than The Beano then or the shamelessly stuffy old Dandy – and therefore held that bitter-sweet attraction, a licentious appeal: the flared trouser, and more bicycles (certainly drop-handled racers and up-reaching dragsters) than the others – the bike not yet had by me then, the handsome symbol of freedom and self-actualisation, craved, and when got at thirteen, as superbly completing, moreso, than imagined.
Dour Bob aside, the comics’ storylines played out in settings that were clever and true and, above all, home-focussed; the subject matter, bedrooms, flower beds, bicycles, sheds, policemen, footballs and food – always food: feasts longed-for; sweets and treats and sausage and mash – how close we remained to the ripples of rationing – my characters conspiring always to eat and to eat enormously. Not just cow pie, but homely and suburban menu items: sausages ever the lead; beckoning with languid fingers of steam, coveted from neighbouring tables where elbowing fatties pronged them on forks; in hung links in shop windows, with pet dogs trained to procure.
Not a child of any appetite myself; lacking it through its pointlessness rather than anything impressively abstemious – Lent was never a big deal for me (Christ knows it would be now), I was like some religious ringer joining in with fingernail chomps, when in reality I could last till selection boxes appeared in next January’s sales – I nevertheless looked upon, repeatedly, these frames of food with empathy and envy, because the simple heroes indulged in well-earned munching whilst being patted on the head, adorned with a sash and rosette; the dog by the chair relishing a chop also – all at peace, rewarded and protected, well-fed in every sense.
The characters, these boys in comics, were ‘a me’ – and if not ‘a me’, were my references and friends. Chalky, Ball Boy, Billy Whizz, Roger and Sid. Dennis was unlikeable, charmless, a bully with a fetish; but the just-simply-talented kids appealed to me always; walking a line as they weekly did between Britain at War, and modern life.
Nowhere better was this delicious, paralysing tension played out than in a Bash Street Kids story, involving the return visit of an ex-pupil, now pop star, named Mark Time: a name gag I didn’t really get straight off. His long hair, mirror shades and flared apparel created a disruptive and sensuous buzz around the school. He wore a Top of the Pops moustache.
And in the main the boys in the stories I liked had a passion, a thing, a reason to be beyond funny: Chalky with his need, his addiction, to drawing; and Ball Boy with his football fanaticism – the things that made them them, and thereby infused a hollow me with a desire to find my own.
To this day, of course, thirty-something-or-more years on, I’m still scratching for this, and when a defining trait is suggested, always kindly, I still flinch from it or shoo it from me, thinking that my brief in life, articulated to me by sixteen, and going into band battle with my synthesizer, is not to let it snowball.
At Crossgates library, East Leeds, on visits from St Theresa’s (the librarian spinster heroically sticking with ‘Miss Titball’), a school friend borrowed books on football only. A teacher said of him – and I heard this back from many – that he ‘lived, breathed and ate football.’ As a playmate and neighbour of his, I didn’t quite ever see this – but he had the perception nailed.
He read no comics other than Shoot – found even Tiger and Bobby’s Boots too, well, irrelevant, I suppose – and where I devoured demos of young British lives, accepting them as instruction manuals, guides for humorous living, he just got on with it. Hey – but without punchlines. All this was – is – of course, my thing: never given voice to; never legitimised when a child.
In that papery foursome I examined and tested each intriguing character and their semi-detached comic adventures: their lives so frankly open with kissing and chiding parents; slim beds and significant bath times – wise-cracking tuffs yet still so often cosied off to bed or soapy, and embarrassed with love after all.
© Copyright, Steve Mitchell and Fisher Lane, 2012