Friday, September 18, 2009

Bunty, Tammy and the Marquis de Sade

Those who lived through them remember the 1970s as dark and dismal days.

Dark because of the power cuts, because it was always raining, and because everything was in black and white. Dismal because if anything managed to escape being monochrome, it was brown. Just look at the pictures in any cookbook from the era: brown rice, brown bread, brown salad. Brown crockery, brown tablecloths, brown serviettes. QED.

It was in the 1970s that Princess Anne married Captain Mark Phillips in what still holds the official record for the dullest royal wedding ever.

And it was in the 1970s that they used to put the TUC conference on the telly all day long.
It even rained on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, when everyone had the day off. Except the Queen.

The only bit of brightness in the 1970s was when Mr Dixon senior – worried about the three-day week, the miners’ strike and the inability of the government to sort it all out – nearly blew up the house and his terrified offspring by short-circuiting a car battery that he’d rigged as part of a temporary lighting system.

So why has the Guardian newspaper decided to drag its readers back to the Decade of Dreariness by reprinting a selection of kids’ comics from the era? Well, if nothing else, it gives us some insight into our formative years.

To a chap who never read them, the girls’ comics answer that eternal question of why girls acted the way they did in that grim and murky past.

Because in the ’70s, it seemed, girls were either unapproachable, or mad, or both. And these free glimpses into the world of Jackie and Bunty at last give us males an insight as to why.

First off, there were the teenyboppers. The centre spread of Jackie is taken up with a soft-focus portrait of David Essex, riding high in 1975 with such memorable ditties as Gonna Make You A Star and Hold Me Close. (“Is that George Best?” asked Dixon Junior.)

The comic strips mainly involve fantasies about copping off with Donny Osmond. And the quiz – perhaps understandably for a Valentine’s Day special – is designed to find out How Romantic You Are.

Interspersed with the fiction are adverts. Not just for make-up and spot cream, but for jobs too. Jobs in the Army (peeling spuds), in the Navy (peeling spuds), or with Barclays Bank (clearing cheques).

Then there’s Bunty. Aimed at a slightly younger readership, and published a couple of years earlier, it concentrates almost entirely on fiction. There’s the story of Thomasina, whose mum sends her off to school to be trained as a boy in the interests of women’s lib, but who ends up crumbling when Tommy the Tomboy comes into an inheritance – if she can prove she’s a “really feminine female”.

There are the Four Marys, who aren’t ashamed of being working class, and enjoy doing housework. And there’s a quiz about the dangers of going on a country walk, one of which is a jellyfish. No kidding.

So if teenage girls in the 1970s were a bit confused by this heady blend of fantasy and reality, it’s hardly surprising if those of us who were boys at the time had a hard job making head or tail about what girls were all about. And it’s taken until now to work out why.

Since writing this for The Bath Chronicle we've been treated to Tammy from 1978. Best comic strip was Slaves of War Orphan Farm. Most of the other tales involve working-class girls being thrashed by their betters. The writers were clearly in thrall to the Marquis de Sade.

(And yes, there was a heatwave in 1976. But that was an anomaly. It still rained most of the time in the 1970s.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Big Boy's hot date

He was big, he was red and he was hot-looking. He was a cayenne chilli, and he was one of your humble (and hopefully horticultural) columnist’s best hopes at the Weston Village Flower Show last Saturday.
He had been tenderly nurtured from seed, coaxed through spring frosts and summer rains, protected from greenfly and sheltered from slugs and snails. He had been fed, watered, coaxed and cosseted from tender bud through burgeoning fruitlet to green, swelling pod to his final, fiery, glowing glory.
His name was Big Boy. And boy, was he big. At least for a cayenne. But then, he had a big job to do if he and his two slightly smaller companions were to win against all those other capsicums.
The show, which can trace its history back to 1892, goes from strength to strength, this year attracting around 500 entries from 100 or so people.
The title “flower show” doesn’t really do it justice, because not only are specimen flowers on show but also fruit, vegetables, paintings, photographs, floral arrangements, handicrafts, home-made wines, cakes, scones, pies and marmalades. There’s even a class for Humorous Vegetable.
The procedure for entering the show is nerve-wracking but scrupulously fair. Entries close on the Wednesday, when you have to make your initial decision about how much of your produce, cookery or craftwork is going to be ready to face the public on the Saturday. Mind you, with each entry costing the princely sum of 20p, if you misjudge the ripeness of your fruit or veg you’re hardly going to be out of pocket.
Bright and early on the Saturday morning you spring from your bed, gather your entries and trundle down to the All Saints Centre. It’s a bit of a scrum because every gardener, cook and craftsperson in Weston has got there before you and is busy setting up their display.
It’s a great chance to compare your offerings with those of your friendly rivals, and to indulge in a bit of pre-judging banter. And it’s now that doubts start to form in your mind. Is Big Boy really that big, especially compared with three chunky sweet peppers and some sturdy-looking jalapeƱos? Never mind, you think: size isn’t everything.
At 10.30 the doors close and the village enters a sort of vegetable purdah. While the judges go about their work you wait for the grand opening, courtesy of Weston farmer and poet John Osborne MBE.
The band plays, the raffle raffles, the tombola spins, and you walk the displays, putting off for as long as possible the moment when you find out if Big Boy has made the grade.
All life is here, with the exception of Dixon Junior, whose teenage cool disqualifies him from attending for more than a token ten minutes.
As you wander, you realise that it’s not you but your spouse who was first in line when they were handing out the green fingers.
Mrs D, in her second year of competition, comes away with a tidy haul of prizes including the official titles of Carrot Queen, Onion Lady and Chutney Mistress of Weston.
Eventually you get to Big Boy. There he sits, forlorn on his paper plate, without even a Highly Commended to his name. You console yourself (and him) with the thought that taking part counts more than winning. There’s always next year, and meanwhile Big Boy has a hot date. With a chicken Madras.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

When the going gets tough, the tough go camping

Now here’s a question. What is it that makes a normal, easy-going, well-family unit decide to up sticks and spend the weekend (or at least part of it) in a tent?
The spirit of adventure? A sudden desire to get back to nature? Or a general feeling that we’ve had it too easy up till now this year and it’s time for a bit of outdoorsy self-punishment to put us back in touch with our true selves?
Whatever the motivation, we make the booking and get ready to load up the car.
Lurking in the loft since the last time we went camping (only last year, but distance lends enchantment to the view) are the bags. Bags with bulges. Bags with bulges on their bulges. Bags with bulges so bulging that they could carry the gross national product of Bulgaria. In small change.
We lug them down, murmuring a prayer to the god of waterproof spray that we put the pegs back in the right place all those months ago, go back upstairs for a final check, dig out the gas cooker from under a pile of old magazines and hit the open road.
Fast forward to a field, somewhere in Wiltshire. A field into which have migrated, by some sort of magmatic sedimentary continental drift, the pebbles that weren’t good enough to be pebbledash, the rocks that couldn’t roll, and the boulders that never made it to Colorado.
Into which me must plunge our tent pegs, and upon which we must sleep.
More questions: why do the tent pegs that come with tents have rounded ends rather than spikes, and why are they made of bendy aluminium? And why are the standard-issue mallets, tent pegs for the bashing of, made of rubber? Ensuring that your temporary abode isn’t going to blow away in the middle of the night should be a process at once quick, effective and manly. It shouldn’t be like whacking a drinking straw with a lump of fudge.
Forewarned is forearmed, though and we have with us a far more sturdy implement, the club hammer from the garage, which will knock seven colours of resistance out of any rocky surface in no time flat. The fact that it does likewise to any fingers or thumbs that get in its way need not concern us here.
Extremities bandaged, sausages fried, wasps fought off, camp fire sing-song rejected by offspring on the grounds that it’s too embarrassing, a few hours’ agitated sleep on top of three or four of the more aggressive rocks, another fry-up for breakfast (you can get pretty fat in the great outdoors) and it’s time to strike camp, as the professionals call it.
And that’s when those bags come back to bite you.
Next door to the factory where they make tents is a little school. It’s where people go to learn how to fold up a tent and fit it into its bag. And all these people end up working in the factory next door.
Which means that when a brand new tent is put in its bag for the first time, it gets folded perfectly, competently and space-savingly. But when you put it away again after its first airing, it gets folded by you.
Which means that rather than a neat, symmetrical package you get a something that looks like a rejected garlic sausage. And probably smells like it, after all that frying earlier.
No matter. Camping, it seems, is in one way at least like childbirth. You eventually forget the pain, or you’d never go through it twice.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The way of the worwyur

If you have nothing better to do at 10pm on a Tuesday evening you might well find yourself idly switching on the telly and turning to Bravo.
What you’ll find, depending on your outlook on life, will either amaze you or leave you completely cold.
Because the idea behind Deadliest Warrior is to pit against each other historical and modern-day soldiers, who never actually fought in real life, in a computerised face-off to see who’s the hardest. Spartan vs Ninja, Viking vs Samurai: you get the idea.
Bio-medic nerds and techno-geeks called Max and Geoff (and Armand, but let that pass) compare weapons, fighting techniques and military ethos, and at the end of the show a bunch of beefy-looking actors get to dress up as the opposing forces and pretend to duke it out to see who’s the deadliest.
Max and Geoff and Armand (snigger) have a staccato, shouty delivery that will give you a headache in no time flat.
Max and Geoff and Ar-“I’m changing my name to Kurt”-mand use the word “warrior” quite a lot. But they have a transatlantic way of enunciating it that makes it come out more like “worwyur”. Don’t try saying it at home: it’ll make your tongue feel like a cold wet towel that’s just lost a fight with a mangle.
Deadliest Warrior is rather like a cross between Gladiators, Horizon and a gory war movie. With extra testosterone. Testosterone by the bucketful. More testosterone than a lady South African athlete. And more fake blood than a Harlequins winger.
Deadliest Warrior smacks you in the face with the facts. Repeatedly and loudly. For. Viewers. With. Very. Short. ATTENTION! SPANS!
From that brief description you may get some idea of the sort of person Deadliest Warrior is aimed at, and you may even have the beginnings of a hint as to whether you are that sort of person.
But unless you’re a teenage lad who probably ought to be in bed at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday evening, the chances are that you aren’t.
Even if screaming Ninjas and grunting Vikings leave you cold, though, there’s something to be said for using the basic premise of Deadliest Warrior as part of your daily decision-making process.
Can’t decide between watching Star Trek or Doctor Who? It’s Klingon versus Dalek! Special weapons? Weird curvy knife, meet sink plunger. Secret powers? Mad staring eyes, say hello to grinding electronic voice. Weaknesses? Klingon has propensity to topple over backwards in the heat of battle, thanks to top-heavy skull. Dalek can’t go upstairs without cheating. Klingon wins by an edge.
Choosing a new pet? Cat takes on dog! For special weapons, both have a fearsome set of teeth and claws, but Moggy’s retractable kitchen knives are a strong point. Secret powers? Cat induces paranoia in intended victim with fixed stare, subtly conveying the suggestion that victim has no clue what he or she is doing and couldn’t run a whelk stall. Dog slobbers. Cat wins by a whisker.
Car insurance up for renewal? Here comes the series finale: a three-way face-off between a meerkat, a gurning cartoon bulldog and a sad Plymouth Argyle fan. Their weapons are their catchphrases: “Simples!” vs “Oh yes!” vs “Green Arrrrmy!”.
And is there a winner? Computer says no.