The Cult of Elvis

Elvises on a council estate.
Adapted from pictures by Dr Neil Clifton and wgossett under cc-by-sa/2.0.

Council estates are grey, bleak, boring places. That’s what the propaganda says, anyway. What they don’t mention is how weird they can be, and on my estate Elvis Presley was a particular nexus for weirdness.

There were numerous small manifestations of his spirit. For example, I was at school with multiple Aarons, all born in the immediate wake of the death of The King of Rock and Roll, whose middle name it was. (I was nearly called Aaron until my parents, Elvis hating contrarians, realised the connection.)

There was at least one house with a shrine in the front window: candles, framed pictures, commemorative plates, and a brass statue of chunky mid-period Elvis mid-hip-swing. In the background was a wall-hanging depicting near death Elvis, picked out in light colours on black velvet. They sold those at Highbridge Market, I seem to recall, alongside similar tributes to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and wolves at howling at the moon.

It was perhaps all of that which generated sufficient energy to fuel the resurrection of The King himself.

Sure, I was startled the first time I saw Elvis strutting around the estate in his famous white Vegas stage outfit, zip-up Chelsea boots and gold-framed shades, but it didn’t stand up to scrutiny. The sideburns were the right size and shape but definitely blonde, and the bell-bottomed jumpsuit, though a bold effort, lacked the polish, intricacy and glitter of the real thing. And would Elvis ever have carried round a portable music system playing his own greatest hits? Well, maybe, come to think of it.

The Bridgwater Elvis was a man whose passion for the Memphis Flash combined with grief at his passing to cause a permanent transformation, or rather permit a possession. I never saw him dressed any other way and he answered to Elvis’s name when piss-taking kids yelled it at him in street, not seeming to mind, enjoying it even. He identified as Elvis on a deep level and would probably have been more offended to be addressed by his own name.

When he died a few years ago his family made sure to list Firstname (Elvis) Lastname in the obituary. I wonder what’s on his headstone?

Cousin Jim and the Severn Bridge Disaster

The Severn Bridge under construction.
The Severn Bridge in 1879 via Graces Guides.

A few months ago I was with my parents having a pint overlooking the water in Bristol when my Mum said, out of nowhere, “My cousin Jimmy Dew was involved in a shipping disaster on the Severn.”

I naturally asked for more information but she didn’t have much – it happened in the sixties, she thought; and he was the skipper of a barge. When I got home I looked it up in the newspaper archives expecting to find a passing mention of some minor incident but what I discovered instead was the notorious Severn Bridge Disaster which saw the deaths of five men and ended with the demolition of the bridge.

Though I’d never heard of it before, it turns out to be incredibly well documented, being of interest to local historians and waterways enthusiasts among others, and has received plenty of coverage in the national press over the years, too.

Here’s what happened: at around 9 o’clock on the evening of 25 October 1960 a convoy of sixteen barges carrying various flammable oil products was travelling up the Severn towards Sharpness in Gloucestershire. As they passed Berkeley a heavy fog came down and two of the barges, Arkendale H and Wastdale H, overshot Sharpness. The Wastdale H was the vessel skippered by my distant cousin, James Dew, and was carrying 350 tons of petrol; the Arkendale was loaded with heating oil.

Wastdale H
SOURCE: Friends of Purton.

With the tide against them they struggled to come back towards the harbour and, at a narrow point in the river, collided. This sent them spinning out of control, stuck together, up the river and into the Severn Bridge.

The Severn Bridge, now generally referred to as the Severn Railway Bridge, was an iron structure completed in 1879. Though old it was still in active use by trains travelling across the river between Sharpness and Lydney, and by pedestrians. Fortunately, the stretch where the collision occurred was empty at 10:30, though a train had just passed through and was still on the bridge.

The conjoined and out-of-control barges hit hard enough to bring down one of the bridge’s piers (the upright bits) which sent chunks of the span above crashing into the Wastdale. That in turn caused its highly flammable cargo, already spilling into the water, to ignite and explode; the oil on the Wastdale soon caught, too.

The crews of both barges were cast overboard. George Thompson, skipper of the Arkendale, swam to safety, and his engineer was fished out of the water by rescuers after four hours. Cousin Jim boarded the Arkendale in an attempt to get it out of gear and then, when it caught fire, he stripped off before jumping into the water with a life-buoy. He turned up naked at a pub on the shore after three hours struggling in the water.

The next day, the fog being driven away by rain, the two barges lay smouldering on the mud flats while a helicopter from RAF South Cerney swept overhead, police searched the banks, and coastguard patrolled the river helped by local fishermen. They were looking for Percy Simmonds (34) and Robert Nibblett (25) of the Arkendale; and Jack Dudfield (46), Alex Bullock (40) and Malcolm Hart (17) of the Wastdale.

All five were found dead over the next few days.

Cousin Jim seems to have been quietly blamed for the disaster, even though he was officially cleared of any negligence. The Ministry for Transport suggested at the time of the inquiry that he made an “error of judgment” and he also described his own attempts to push the Arkendale off by revving into it (not technical nautical language but this is my understanding) as a “mistake” which only caused the two vessels to stick together ever more tightly. More recently BBC reporter Andy Vivian turned up official papers which seem to suggest that officials thought him “inept” and (as I read it) that he rather panicked under pressure.

I don’t know what became of cousin Jim – it’s something I’ll look into – but I was amazed to discover that the wrecks of the two barges are still there near what little remains of the bridge.

Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances

A mod scooter.

“Modism, Mod living, is an aphorism for clean living under difficult circumstances.”

Peter Meaden, 1978

For a few years as a teenager and twentysomething I tried to do the mod thing but it didn’t really take. Practical modism requires a certain arrogance I don’t think I have, and certainly don’t know how to project.

It’s relatively easy to do ‘plastic mod’, buying items of uniform off the peg at mod shops, but real mods will let you know that’s not the point: you have to really like fashion, really care about sweaters, really commit to having a ‘hairdo’. Doing it properly, or even half-heartedly, takes a fair amount of money. And, ideally, you also need to be slim – a straight streak with no lumpy protuberances to spoil the cut of your suit.

So, all of that being out of reach, I let it go, though I still thrill at the sight of a Lambretta and listen to all the right music.

Looking back, though, I wonder if the appeal of modism to me, and perhaps to other young working class people, was something beyond the clothes, records and scooters: it was the clean precision of it all.

When I got together with my partner about twenty years ago this week she was into grunge and the scuzzier end of indie, at home in festival fields. Not long after we met one of her friends described me as “a clean boy”. It was not intended as a compliment, in my view – she meant to say that I was a bit boring, a swot. But it was true, in literal terms: I don’t like to be muddy or sweaty; ‘slumming it’ holds no thrill for me; I like clean socks, clean shirts, clean bedclothes, and being clean shaven.

I think I understand this instinct of mine. A council estate upbringing is almost the textbook definition of the “difficult circumstances” described by Peter Meaden, the original Ace Face and associate of The Who, in a 1978 interview. “Clean living” is the smallest, cheapest unit of defiance. (Disposable razors can be used multiple times if you dry the blade after use; a bar of soap lasts longer than shower gel and costs buttons.)

Later on, at university, it was a way of feeling in control of a distressing situation. Scrubbed clean, dressed and out of the door every morning before many of my peers had even thought about sliding out of bed and into last night’s T-shirt, I at least started each day fresh and sharp. One of the few things from Cambridge I look back on with any fondness are the bathing facilities: constant scalding hot water delivered via showers like firehoses, or cascading into luxuriously deep Edwardian tubs. The industrial laundry facilities weren’t bad either.

But I have to admit there was also a cringe in all this. It was a way of saying, “Yes, I might be here now, but my soul and body has already begun the ascent to a better place.” If I smelled of anything at all, or had a dirty collar, I subconsciously believed I would be marked out as a ‘prole’.

Of course my up-tightness did that far more effectively, and I daresay continues to do so.

Undercover Poverty

Illustration: "Brass in Pocket"

“A man ought to have some coins to jingle in his pocket, even if it’s only coppers.”

My Mum used to say that when I was a boy as she sent me or Dad out of the door with 12p in small change scraped together from saucers and purse-corners, to make sure nobody would realise we were poor.

Poor. There’s a word.

A few years ago, having come through university trained to more-or-less pass in middle class environments, I ended up in a meeting at work where various well meaning people were trying to find a way to avoid describing children as poor. “You see, Ray, it’s stigmatising.” What they came up with as an alternative was ‘experiencing disadvantage’. I kept my mouth shut at the time but something about it made me angry. Perhaps it felt like a euphemism designed more for the comfort of the observer than out of concern for the Experiencers of Disadvantage, or maybe I didn’t like the suggestion that being poor, or being called poor, was anything to feel bad about. Being poor only feels shameful because nobody wants to admit to it.

Whatever the reason it made me want to stand up and shout I WAS POOR! Or maybe even I AM POOR! I’m not sure it’s a state you pass out of; it’s like a birthmark, or a lost limb.

The coins in the pocket are one face-saving fib among many. When you’re poor, you’re often far too busy to attend birthday parties and school trips, even though, of course, you’re not busy at all. You tell people you don’t like eating out, that you don’t like the cinema, or that you’re not interested in activities and clubs, even though you yearn for all those things. Or, rather, you would yearn if you hadn’t smothered the yearning before it had chance to cry out, convincing yourself that it’s true. “The cheaper version is every bit as good,” you say, daring anyone to doubt it, making it true through sheer force of desire.

You jingle, you swagger and bluff, and hope nobody calls you on it — “Shall we do rounds?”

Of course that doesn’t happen, as long as you know your place, where everybody has the same handful of nothing.

Plymouth the Wonder City, 1964

Book cover: Britain in the Sixties

One of my favourite paperbacks is The Other England by Geoffrey Moorhouse (1931-2009) and here I want to share a few of his observations on a favourite city of mine: Plymouth, in Devon.

The book was published as a red Penguin Special in 1964 and contains a set of essays on every part of England except, pointedly, London, though of course a few digs are made along the way. It employs a mix of observation, political commentary and sly wit which makes it as fun to read as it is interesting.

When I lived in Penzance, Plymouth was the nearest ‘proper’ city (sorry, Truro) and a mere two hours away by train compared to three for Exeter (which feels distinctly less metropolitan) or four for Bristol, another great maritime city with which Plymouth shares a certain style and atmosphere.

Moorhouse sets the scene for his observations with a cinematic wide shot:

There is an element of surprise about Plymouth if you approach it from the East. After the bleak and haunted bulk of Dartmoor you don’t reasonably expect much in the way of civilization beyond; the idea of an ultra-modern city of 200,000 people sprawling down from that boggy plateau is faintly preposterous.

Plymouth doesn’t seem ultra-modern today and, indeed, is gaining considerable traction as a kind of living museum of mid-century planning and architecture. In 1964, however, it was ahead of the curve:

It was as early as 1943 that Plymouth, with the help of Sir Patrick Abercrombie, drafted its post-war plan. It decided that the city centre had been a pretty awful mess anyway, and that this was a chance to make something better of it. Instead of the narrow, wriggling maze bequeathed by generations of city fathers and commercial hardheads, there would be broad traffic and pedestrian ways keyed into a rectangular grid. The Plymouth Plan was something the town-planners from half Europe came to marvel at, for no one had thought of attempting anything like this before. Perhaps Plymouth got off the mark with this vision of the future just a bit too soon; if it had waited until Coventry and then the New Towns had hit upon the idea of shopping precincts totally devoid of traffic it would doubtless have been happy enough to follow suit.

A department store.
Dingle’s in 2016.

Despite being from Bolton in Lancashire Moorhouse had a personal connection with Plymouth because, like many British men, he had lived there while serving in the Navy. In this book he recalls the excitement around the opening of the first of the city’s newly built shop, a department store, in 1951:

[You] couldn’t, as I remember, do much shopping in Dingle’s that Saturday, so congested was it with West Countrymen who had come not only to wonder at the extravagance of it all after years of buying from makeshift shops rigged up out of Nissen huts, but simply to travel up and down all day long on the escalators. It was the first time this new-fangled device had been known West of Bristol.

There’s an unfortunate hint of ‘Ho ho, get a load of these bumpkins’ in that last line but I don’t doubt it’s true.

Tower block
Civic Centre and Council House.

Revisiting the city in the early 1960s Moorhouse found the transformation remarkable:

The city centre is now just about finished, a gleaming thing of Portland stone and as fine a shopping area as any you’ll find out of London; as the official guide book remarks, ‘Many London fashion houses and Bond Street tailors have seen fit to open branches in the Metropolis of the West’. It is true that hardly any of the buildings there quite dare us to accept a revolutionary line or two — thought out of Crownhill there is one of the most adventurous of our post-war churches with a free-standing altar and a flower-bed by the font. In the centre they have laid out a mosaic piazza, planted a swathe of trees…. and conjured up a pool beside the civic centre in which sailors are apt to bathe after a roistering night ashore.

Murals and architectural details
Plymouth Pannier Market, Walls & Pearn, 1959-60, as it looked in 2016.

He was quite won over by what he called a ‘smart and enterprising city centre’:

In its way it is all as exciting as a New Town, though they have meticulously reconstructed the Guildhall shell in a fanciful mixture of English and Italian Gothic, presumably to keep faith with the past. An almost tangible air of ambition hangs about this work of restoration and not long after the visitor arrives and starts investigating it dawns on him that Plymouth, having got well into its stride, doesn’t know where to stop.

That last thought suggests that, despite his admiration for the city, Moorhouse was aware that Plymouth’s post-war reconstruction was in the process of grinding to a halt. The grand architects’ plan was hobbled at various points (see this post from Municipal Dreams for details, or the account in John Grindrod’s 2013 book Concretopia) and long before the mid-1960s locals had begun to grumble about the vast empty spaces, the howling winds and how inhospitable it was for smaller independent businesses.

If you come across a copy of this book, do you pick it up — my copy cost £2 — and if you get chance, take it on a trip to Plymouth to trace for yourself the outlines of a more optimistic time.