First-Person Accounts

But to Be Young

Ian Martin was 18, many years ago.

Coming of age arrived in 1971, between the Representation of the People Act and Rod Stewart’s first number one. It was the year I turned 18, and my cohort had been given a proper welcome to adulthood prize. Political enfranchisement – nice one son. The UK became the first democracy to lower the voting age from 21 to 18. My mates and I were now the youngest voters in the world, technically. We’d have to wait another three years for the next general election, when we’d all be 21 anyway. Still, it was the wind-up that mattered.

For there was no greater reason to celebrate our suffrage than the torment of the boomerphobes, who in those days were a couple of generations up from us rather than a couple down. Giving the vote to teenagers was as dangerous as giving it to homosexuals, commies, hippies, republicans or black people – they assumed we were all in cahoots, all as bad as one another. I’d contributed little to Hitler’s defeat, having been born eight years after the end of the Second World War. I had not suffered through post-war austerity or rationing. What right did I have to skew politics away from the joyless demographic of old bastards smelling of body odour and furniture polish? I can still see my uncle Tom’s purpling furious face, writhing like a Francis Bacon painting, after I’d ventured a teenage opinion on The Bomb. Opinion itself was a transgression. ‘What the hell do YOU know about how the world works? You’re a BOY!’ he roared, sounding exactly like my Dad and silencing our end of the pub.

Every cultural advance we made, the bastards would pull a revenge move. We had Pick Of The Pops, the Top 20 radio countdown on at Sunday teatime, the charts stuffed with our impertinent music. Then afterwards, as if an Iron Curtain had descended upon the evening, the horrific Sing Something Simple, a weekly anthology of music for the jilted, baffled, miserable generation. It turned your blood to ice. A Sunday night dread soundtrack: close-harmony singing accompanied by a forlorn and sinister accordion. They had to have it on, all the parents, in every home in the land, just to put us in our place. It didn’t matter if you couldn’t hear it, that you’d moved out of earshot, it somehow found you.

I can still remember pissed family gatherings where we’d all half-heartedly sing ‘ter-wenty-one today, ter-wenty-one today, he’s got the key of the door, never been twenty-one before…’ Then a sudden diminuendo, as only those relatives in touch with the 19th Century could remember the next verse and they were asleep in the corner nursing a port and lemon. Anyway, in 1971, coming of age was not about enhancing life with your parents, however exciting the frisson of your own house key. It was more about getting away than getting older. It felt like that was how it was for everyone I knew: hit 18, look for an exit route, put as much distance between you and your parents as you could. For most of us, there was none of this contemporary generational cosiness. Your dad wasn’t your mate. He was an adversary, a first-level boss.

Wherever you went you could always find manual work and somewhere cheap to live. I got 50p an hour doing hard night shifts at a bakery. When I started as a junior reporter in Durham in 1973, I was pulling in a half-decent £19 a week. The first place we bought was a house in a former colliery village. Bleak, but also only 500 quid. Banks – and even some local authorities – were keen to lend.

On paper, 1971 looks a bit dull. But life wasn’t boring if you were 18. There were only three TV channels and quite a lot of time was spent walking round to people’s houses with a friend just to see if another friend was in. There was a lot of sitting around doing nothing, playing cards, talking. I don’t remember a high-­octane adolescence but I don’t remember being bored either. Drugs were cheap, booze was cheap, everyone seemed to be up for a laugh. I remember a high-speed belt through Soho on a Volkswagen roof-rack, and actually thinking ‘you must remember this when you’re older. This being alive shit…’ Ah, Soho. An isolated oasis of sad filth in those days. The only porn we had access to was in softcore magazines and our own primitive imaginations. Yes, there were those explicit postcards handed round at secondary school that one time like a game of pass the parcel – oh fuck, the music’s stopped, here’s the headmaster and his cane, whose desk are they in? – but everyone in my nerdy-muso quadrant of the universe was pretty clueless.

Two things hit my generation of young adults in a spectacular collision: sex and feminism. It would be impossible to overstate the effect that Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch had on those of us who were inclined towards sex and, almost as passionately, towards sex equality. That book modernised my brain. ‘Women’s liberation is by definition men’s liberation’ as we used to tell one another solemnly. I can still remember the moment I got to the bit where, after a funny and scathing review of semen, she said that if women were expected to give blowjobs, men should be prepared to taste their menstrual blood. Believe me, that categorised us pretty definitively: boys who would, boys who wouldn’t.

‘Have you read Eunuch?’ became a shibboleth for a type. Readers were attracted to bookworms, odds-on you’d both say yes to equality and bingo – let the consensual rummaging begin. For those of us coming of age between ‘71 and ‘74, casual sex was like offering someone one of your fags. We were footloose and child-free. Precautions were taken, rules of consent were understood, relationships were open, snogging and partial sex was everywhere. Wordlessly, under a blanket with a complete stranger on a packed overnight coach from London to the north, I recall.

That coming of age slipped so seamlessly from 21 to 18 had as much to do with licensed premises as political empowerment. You went out on your 18th birthday to get hammered in the boozers you’d been drinking in since you were 15. I’d like to report that 1971 was a decent year musically (it wasn’t) but pub jukeboxes were half-stuffed with records from the golden pop epoch of 1963–68 anyway. We did have Rod Stewart’s Maggie May which, like Fairytale Of New York years later, became a sort of folk hymn. There was Stoned Love, the best single the Supremes ever did without Diana Ross, or with her come to think of it. T. Rex were massive. I’d been dismissive, preferring Marc Bolan’s earlier acoustic stuff actually, until I saw them at one of the festivals (we all went to four or five a year) and realised they were the best live band in the country. The Stones were ploughing on despite a general misgiving that they were getting a bit old for all this in their late 20s. Unfortunately for Essex pubs, 1971 was also the year of Double Barrel by Dave and Ansell Collins, a reggae smash hit with a bassline so powerful that after about 30 seconds on its first play it took out the jukebox speakers in the Traveller’s Joy, Rayleigh. I was there, it was tragic and hilarious. A jukebox designed to play rock and roll very firmly in the treble register, it collapsed, unable to cope. A new age was coming, and it was going to burst the old one’s eardrums.

For a shimmering moment, with Thatcher and punk and AIDS and the internet yet to appear, we guzzled and fumbled in our little glade of freedom, hedonistic innocents lost in lust, our hearts soaring, our clothes reeking of Benson and Hedges, unaware of the grim, judgmental world to come.

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