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 story called ‘Back Through the Scrolls of the Gate’. Here’s the second of two excerpts about the comics that were worshipped there.
A Child’s Comic Sabbath, Part 2
And I took in their houses too; the artists and writers so properly rooting their resourceful stars in homes on the turn: homes being modernised and brought up to scratch. Decorating, house removals and the introduction of new items of furniture, or colour TVs and new record players – so regularly the storylines. The father chastising Ball Boy for the football posters on his bedroom wall, then stripping away the wallpaper to reveal the football stars of yesteryear which he, Ball Dad, had posted up when this room was his.
I was not ever above snagging disappointedly on details, or indulging in some little lonely chewing – how the wallpaper stripping left the posters beneath in tact – or how it came to be that a generation on they still lived at that house: this more saddening, intuitively, in its snag: where was the grandmother? (never having known a grandad I never defaulted to them), and at what point did this family become housed here? Was it a return, or a straight-througher? Ball Boy’s mother when young given no option but to move into her new husband’s family home… simultaneously pushed and pulled over the threshhold.
The sneaking boys – doubtless led by Tricky Dicky – intent upon borrowing Dad’s new record player – Hi-Fi, even – to listen with friends to a new and exciting pop disc (Mark Time?) tried every trick until one awoke the dozing lump in the armchair, who rather than rail as expected, surprised his son and pals by simply handing the deck over on the doorstep, with a “why didn’t you just ask?” – funny, and the boy gave himself a forehead-slap, but I was troubled by the wholesale handover of this fragile equipment… and why on the doorstep? Where are they going to take it?
A beautiful piece, in The Beano, I think, and again in an annual and a strip which I tore out and pasted in a notebook in my art school days, so that the memory and telling of it here marks its triplicated pleasure – its hat-trick, Ball Boy – was a special full-page-spread in two-colour reds; ‘A Dodger’s Den’: a one-off special profiling of Roger the Dodger’s bedroom – more correctly, his ideal. Iconic, I gazed on this for hours and then for years.
His bedroom’s – “Take a look, Readers!” – low-spec-improvised, remodelled and pimped for hiding, escaping and dodging: a life-size dummy decoy; escape hatches accessed by a staircase of stacked books; a priest-hole of sorts behind the dresser. And, towering above these incidentals in this bedroom of my memory – the theatrical backdropping drapes –the phrase: “… and floor-length curtains to hide behind!”
Floor-length curtains. The phrase imbued instantly with magic; thrillingly modern, forward living; furnishings of new houses, of that I was sure: of the ranch-styles and bungalows of estates by Temple Newsam – of the Bremners* and Braithwaites and Brakespears. They spoke of everything that wasn’t reserve, or caution; swags of pure swagger; domestic liberation, revolution.
An odd relation, known as Uncle J____, lived in Morecambe. During one Lytham (‘the posh end’) family holiday we visited him, and, I’m guessing, his wife – whomever she may have been, and whatever relation she and Uncle J____ were to us. He was not our uncle, that much we knew.
At some point in this Morecambe afternoon bungalow, with its giant, single-paned window gawping out on to the dusted road that separated retired people from the sand dunes, in an expansive living room I perched forwards on the settee, pointed towards the sea and asked: “are they floor-length curtains?” They were, I knew, but to have it confirmed and the words said out loud was thrilling. Nowadays, perhaps, family elders would have anticipated, with uncertain feelings, a follow-up from such a child in such, I expect, a belted coat, of “well, they are too much!” or “to die for”: but today’s camperies had no place in that world then – Dick Emery was a funny type impersonator, not a lens on a lifestyle.
But even so, how this baseless query must have tipped the room; high-pitched, sinussy, and intense, and, frankly, probably an interjection that saved the afternoon by breaking a silence – we were not great conversationalists – a tea-sipping void of human interchange; unknowingly timed to halt someone’s under-the-breath countdown to their reaching for the gun and ending it all. But so transfixed by and focussed upon the drapes as I was, their long, straight hanging majestically by the so-modern window with its daringly low-level sill, I would, on being caught in the obliging volleys from Uncle J____’s stolen service rifle, have crawled across the nylon shag to gurgle out my last blood-bubbling breath, there at the hem, clinging; my dying words wheezed and reported by a nosing neighbour as: “floor-length curtains to die behind, eh, Readers?”
Did I dutifully sit the whole while, pre and post my auntie’s Black Bob reading, applied to each comic and feature in turn? I have no memory of doing so, aware as I was of the adult lack of conversation around me in Leeds as in Morecambe, and remembering too my typographical doodlings at the coffee table, the masthead of last night’s Evening Post that wasn’t going to 3-D itself. My hunch, therefore, is that I took my cartoon bounty away with me, to pore over lazily and hooked at home, indoors.
Grandma’s house also brought me the annuals, the Christmas hardback editions, brimming with colour plates, extended storylines and generous helpings of one-frame cartoons.
The Christmas present annuals – such an easy child to buy for – followed the exact same titles; but The Beano featured more prolifically, as if its producers and publishers had hit on a magic formula of ambition, size, scope – and their format remained consistent.
My sisters also laid claim to the occasional Beano annual, which throws in a new fog of possibility that the girls were in on our auntie’s scheme, but the years have selfishly and neatly queered the memory of this weekly gifting as an art directed at me alone.
As the Beano hardbacks piled up, marking the seventies forever in the loft, Whizzer and Chips and Cor! appeared only unusually, but then very impressively so: thick volumes, weighty and lush, with bright, vivid covers, cheekier and more youthful and buoyant than whatever it was that Biffo the Bear – the un-bear-like doggish, giant, black mouse; human-strange, and over-confident, and too readily mixing with boys, fanfaring a glad old time ahead – was up to: tossing a pancake, rolling a snowball (steady!), and waving, always waving, to everyone: whilst Gus the gorilla, or Shiner and Sid, scrapped it out a little grittier, and pulled on prissy rugs, grinning from their brash, hard fronts.
But the deliciousness was across the board: well-bound in spinal webbing, robust and secure; pages upon pages of the cartoonists’ upping of games, pushing out of boats, leashes un’d.
Full colour plates and thick, rich type, and final hero frames or full-page vistas crammed with eye-kissing detail; towns laid out like maps, and landscapes populated generously, playfully, lovingly; whole windows on inner worlds, behind-the-scenes and intimate insight – “here’s the zoo I’d like to have, Readers!” – the annuals gave up years of quiet pleasure and a lifetime of comic lore, pathos and the poetry of white-bread Britain.
*Yes, the Bremners of that Bremner – the one who made the greatest impression, and will continue to do so, even when Ken Bates sells the Elland Road statue (eh, Readers?)
© Copyright, Steve Mitchell and Fisher Lane, 2012