After a longish period, with not much happening at all, the last week has been a particularly good time for reviews of my 'nostalgedy...
Saturday, 6 November 2010
Flying Saucers in the Front Room
I was talking to an old friend the other day about children’s magazines in our quondam days (fascinating conversation it was, I’ll bet you wish you had been there). It turned out that we had both been boring little tykes with a fondness for such improving magazines as ‘Knowledge’. Do you remember ‘Knowledge’? It was one of those magazines that they nowadays call part-works. The idea was that you collected the magazines on a weekly basis and it built into an encyclopaedia. Today, you buy a magazine with a small piece of a Tudor battleship sellotaped to it and, 400 instalments and £1,000 later, you have enough small pieces to build said battleship. On the whole, I think the encyclopaedia idea was a better concept.
I had been an avid reader of ‘Knowledge’ for some years and really enjoyed the informative articles and the exceptionally good illustrations. One that still lives in my memory was an old fable from
Asia that involved a Mandrill. I can still see the drawing of this monkey, with the impossibly vivid coloured nose markings, peering out from the depths of a sultry jungle. I was reminded of this by the recent TV advert for a certain brand of coffee shops, involving a legion of monkeys playing with coffee makers. At the end of this advert, a Mandrill appears and, thanks to ‘Knowledge’, I was able to turn to my wife and say with some authority “That’s a Mandrill, you know”. She gave me the sort of look that only a wife can and went back to her paper. Ah well, they say a prophet is never recognised in his own country. You wait until we’re stuck in some sultry forest, she’ll thank me for my extensive knowledge of primates then.
At about the same time that I started subscribing to ‘Knowledge’, in the early 1960s, I found a copy of a book by Donald Keyhoe about UFO’s (Unidentified Flying Objects) or Flying Saucers as they were popularly known. This was one of those sensational exposé publications that accused the U.S. Government and military of a gigantic cover-up. Naturally, as a young and impressionable boy, I lapped this stuff up and was soon a committed believer in extra-terrestrial visitors. For reasons that I cannot recall, but which were probably connected to my rabid enthusiasm for my new ‘cause’, I wrote to the Letters page of ‘Knowledge’ to express my disgust at this ongoing governmental fraud and to ask if any other readers were interested in the topic (nowadays I would probably be taken into care by concerned social workers). To my amazement, some months later they published the letter and, even more surprisingly, I started to receive letters from similarly obsessed youngsters from around the world.
As a child, I had always been a fan of forming clubs and was forever cajoling my long-suffering friends into joining some hare-brained society of my conception. The sudden realisation that there were quite a number of like-minded Flying Saucer fans in the world naturally led to me forming the ‘Flying Saucer Letter Club’ (snappy title huh? It was known as the FSLC to its adherents). Letters flew back and forth, from my Burton HQ to places as disparate as Surrey and Singapore, and I soon gathered quite a file of correspondence (just think what I could have done with the internet and emails) from teenage boys and girls who were either keen believers, or had actually seen something strange in the sky. Given my predilection for writing, I naturally introduced a newsletter (actually two sides of typewritten foolscap) which I foisted onto my membership (for a modest subscription) and also sold to my mates at school. Unbelievably, this was pretty popular and I started to amass a nice little income.
Despite our move from the New Talbot pub to my grandmother’s house (due to a temporary financial embarrassment) and whilst all around me was going to Hell in a handcart, I still pressed on with the FSLC and the newsletter. People seemed to find the idea of a twelve year old running a small business, based on such an exotic concept, quite fascinating and I was encouraged to get the whole thing some publicity. So I wrote to the Today programme on Radio 4 (or the Home Service as it probably still was then) telling them all about the club. To my amazement they wrote back, expressing an interest. A few phone calls later and arrangements were made for a reporter to come and talk to me.
I have mentioned before how sacrosanct my Nana’s front room was, only for use on high days and holidays. Naturally, it had to be pressed into service for a visit from the BBC, and so I found myself perched on the pristine sofa, talking to Keith Ackrill from BBC Midlands. My Mum and Nana fluttered about providing cups of tea and trying not to look as if they found the whole thing anything other than a perfectly ordinary event. I must say that Keith was a consummate professional and did a fantastic job of putting me at my ease and showing a real interest in something that was clearly never going to be anything other than an “and finally...” piece.
It was the Summer of 1967 and my bit was due to be broadcast on the
Midlands’ section of the Today programme after 8.00 a.m. Tramping around Oak Street on my paper round, the tension was building. I had my trusty transistor in my paper bag and was passing the time listening to the Top 40 countdown, which was due to finish at 8.00. I knew that, when the No. 1 finished, it would be time to switch over to the Today programme. The No. 1 at that time was The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’, which must have one of the longest fade outs in recording history. Standing at the end of Oak Street with the radio pressed to my ear, I began to develop a deep and abiding loathing of the Fab Four as their record dragged mercilessly on and 8.00 seemed to be postponed forever. But the time came, I switched over, and listened with awe at my own squeaky voice pontificating on extraterrestrials to a waiting world. Walking back from the paper shop, I think I was in a state of utter shock and disbelief. Had I really just been talking on the BBC? At that moment, a rather stern woman from across the road shouted over to me “Was that you I just heard on the radio?” blushing furiously, I replied that it was, “Thought as much. You were very good” she said, and stomped off.
I floated home on a little cloud all of my own.