The destination for history

The swinging sixties


If you were not a teenager in the ’60s, then the chances are that they did not swing too much for you. However, the working class, (and Northerners!) started to have a voice on screen and in literature; and teenagers (like me) found there were plenty of jobs available. We had our own clothes for the first time, no longer hankering to dress like our parents. We had our own music, our own dances and dance halls, our own language, and our own voice, resulting in many of us attending C.N.D. or anti-Vietnam rallies.

Unpredictably perhaps, as a Mod, the place I was to gravitate to on an annual basis from 1965 onwards was Clacton – not to riot on the beaches or insult the Rockers, but for the first holidays without mum and dad: Butlin’s.

Aaah, Butlin’s. The scale of the enterprise was an experience in itself, as someone used to the annual guest house with mum and dad. Who remembers the Spaghetti-eating race, the cramped chalets with bunk beds, paper-thin walls and noisy plumbing, the tropical South Seas bar, the glamorous Granny contest, the early ‘Good Morning Campers’ announcements ...

Teenagers, children and parents were actually catered for separately when it came to entertainment. But I’d go with a girlfriend, another Mod from the East End of London that my parents ‘trusted’ – little did they know. To my horror (honest!) Miss Butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth (I’ll call her Betty from hereon, not her real name) was looking for notches on her early teenage bedpost – and the notches she wanted were from the members of the featured rock band, starting with the lead singer. Was she the first groupie – the word not yet in circulation – probably she was!

So Betty and I went our separate ways on these holidays and she would often disappear for the whole night and appear for breakfast with sunglasses. I have a photo of her with a plateful of English fry-up in front of her, fork in one hand and cigarette in the other – wonder what happened to her... As for me, I just danced the day away, and well into the evening.

In 1965, Mods were into bespoke tailoring, usually from Brick Lane in London, although Biba in Kensington and all the shops in Carnaby Street were also Mod haunts by then. My favourite Mod outfit was a floor-length mustard coloured suede coat, with navy blue sleeves, collar, trims and belt. I wore it everywhere, including the dance floor where, for the first time, you didn’t need a partner – Chubby Checker’s Twist had introduced solo dancing but many other funkier versions followed, with Mods adapting them with their own individual moves. 

And it was on the dance floor at Butlin’s when I spotted him. A Rod Stewart look-alike, with Rod Stewart hair, and a Mod Italian-style mohair suit with the on-trend number of cuff buttons, pockets and vents. I was more of a Twinkle look-alike, and I know the blonde hair and two sets of false eyelashes attracted attention, but not his, which was a bit annoying. He did notice me in the bar later, and turned out to be my waiter in the very functional and noisy dining room where cheap food was dished up three times a day – and he would tip me off as to what foods to avoid - very useful. (Yes, reader, we married in 1971 after he had five ‘seasons’ at Butlin’s, ending up as a chef.)

When holidaying at Clacton, I managed to avoid any clashes between Mods and Rockers. But you couldn’t avoid hearing about them as even the national press were interested. The worst was at Easter Bank Holiday in 1964, before my first visit, but it seems the ‘terror’ was in any case vastly exaggerated.

For home-grown live talent, e.g. Georgie Fame, Alan Price, Rod Stewart, Eric Burdon, Chris Farlowe, Long John Baldry, and their ilk, London’s West End was the place to be – especially the Scene in Windmill Street, and the Marquee and the Flamingo in Wardour Street.

Incidentally, it was on arriving back at Stepney Green underground late on the 22nd November 1963 that the ticket collector told me that Kennedy had been assassinated. This completely ruined what had been a great evening of ska at Leyton Town Hall – a passing phase, along with the maxi skirt I was wearing which had been popularised by Bonnie in Bonnie and Clyde.

As a devotee of the early Beatles’ music, I joined their fan club, and remember a concert for fan club members ‘from the South’ in December 1963. This meant travelling all the way across London to the Wimbledon Palais, but was well worth it because after their performance, fans had the chance to meet them. We had to queue up and had the opportunity to shake four famous hands before being ushered out, but if you chatted up the security guard, you could manage to get round a second or even a third time. Oh, heady days.

Mods were pretty evenly split between the Stones and the Beatles, and I do remember feeling a bit treacherous when I went to see the Rolling Stones live at a tiny club called, I think, the Chez Don, in Dalston – it was the day after Kennedy’s assassination, and the mood was generally muted, although their energy was not. But they were too ugly for me, although I expect Betty would have been more than satisfied.

I even spent a night on the street – on Harley Street to be exact – in 1964 waiting for Paul McCartney to leave Jane Asher’s family home (they were courting - to use the relevant expression - at the time) but to no avail. Thank goodness I had understanding parents. Not sure I’d recommend it to any daughter of mine in 2013, however.

Living in East London at the time, it was only twenty minutes on the tube to Carnaby Street, rather longer to Kensington, but worth the trip even if you didn’t buy anything, just to people watch. Young men had discovered colourful clothes for the first time, and the girls’ micro skirts and Sassoon haircuts were a source of fascination. Then there were the Hippies from the mid ’60s onwards, and the representatives of Hare Krishna in their orange robes. The ‘swinging’ sixties were a time of change and of contrasts. I’m glad I was there. And for me, it swung.

By Dee Gordon


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