by John Leo Waters
Well, where to begin? I suppose the best place to start anything is at the beginning. So here we go...
I was born in late 1948 in Archway, North London, the eldest of three boys. My parents were Irish, working class and we lived in rented rooms above a shop. Money was tight and both my parents worked. We were not poor in that we never went hungry but had little in the way of spare money and times were pretty tough. Like so many others in post war years we had the usual luxuries – outside toilet, no hot water, tin bath – Oh the joys of twentieth century living!
The area I grew up in was pretty rough. We lived off the Holloway Road which was a lively place on a Saturday night. Countless Irish pubs would disgorge their contents of big drunken Irishmen onto the street where ‘the fight’ would break out. Lots of ‘rolling up of sleeves’, ‘throwing down of caps’ and ‘squaring up’ before huge roundhouse punches would be delivered. They took so long to land that there was almost time to pop for a pint and get back before they arrived!
I attended a local Catholic junior school run by nuns which was a fairly happy environment (I still have the imprint of headmistress Sister Aggie’s hand on the cheek of my backside!) and then went on to St. Aloysius College in Hornsey, a prestigious school run by a religious teaching order.
It was around the turn of the decade and the world was changing. Post war teenagers were starting to find their feet and question a lifestyle that involved ‘making do’. The dreaded ‘national service’ had been resigned to the history books and Rock and Roll had arrived. The High Street shops were starting to cater to a whole new teenage market. Against this background I suddenly found myself plunged into a world of draconian discipline. The brothers ruled with a rod (or should I say cane!) of iron. Religion was thrust down our throats and while most teenagers were running around in winklepickers we were parading down the Holloway Road in vivid red blazers with pale green piping (to say nothing of the red and green cap!).
I was not enamoured with Latin, the finer points of Shakespeare and classical music left me cold. Inevitably, perhaps the lure of the streets became much more attractive than a stuffy classroom. I seemed to spend most of the time I was in school standing outside the headmasters’ office awaiting his wrath to descend upon me (in the form of a particularly long thin bamboo cane!). Eventually common sense dictated that it might suit my situation a little better if I withdrew from school and went out to work - in other words leave or be expelled!!
So at fifteen, I found myself free of the shackles of a stifling education system. The world was my oyster? Not quite!
The Swinging Sixties
London in the early sixties could be a pretty intimidating place. The Notting Hill riots were still fresh in the minds of a lot of people. Large areas of North, East and South London were under the control of ruthless criminal gangs such as the Krays and Richardsons. Many areas were policed by teenage gangs and the Archway was no different.
The Archway ‘Mob’ was a loose group of perhaps 80 young tearaways. We guarded the borders of our ‘manor’ tenaciously. We were surrounded by bigger gangs such as the Highbury mob, the Mars and the Somers Town gang who were all sworn enemies. Skirmishes were frequent and occasionally full scale incursions would take place. Weapons of choice were hammers, knives and razors. To be caught on another ‘manor’ meant a beating at very least. Evenings would be spent hanging around the tube station or in one of our local cafés. These cafes were always Cypriot owned and a prerequisite were a juke box, a pin ball machine and football table.
The Mod movement had taken hold by this time. A gradual process at first with its origins in the jazz clubs of the early sixties it had slowly built up momentum as the burgeoning ‘baby boomer’ generation came of age.
Countless thousands of young teenagers nurtured on a diet of inane ‘popular’ music were becoming aware of a new type of music originating in the black ghettoes of Chicago, Memphis, Detroit and New Orleans in the USA. It is difficult to determine the exact point of entry chosen by this new music. Certainly there is some credence to the theory that black US servicemen introduced many to this phenomenon in the more enlightened clubs of the capital and the same can be said of visiting seamen in cities such as Liverpool.
In the folk and jazz clubs of London early pioneers such as Chris Barber, Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner were initiating young would be R&B musicians into their magic circle. At the same time Radio Luxembourg began transmitting specifically to this new teenage audience often featuring R&B tracks. By 1963 this revolution in popular music had really taken hold. London was home to countless ‘R&B’ groups and many had started to make some headway into the British charts. The Rolling Stones, Animals, Kinks and the Beatles were all making news and relied heavily on R&B and the infant ‘Soul’ music for most of their repertoire.
The Archway mob embraced this new form of music totally. Raised on a diet of ‘Two Way Family Favourites’ and ‘Workers Playtime’ this new musical form was like manna from heaven. Listening to the Stones and Animals versions of American R&B was fine but it did not take long before we were hunting out the original versions of their covers.
Our eyes were opened to a whole new world of exciting music – Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, exotic names playing raw Blues. We pestered staff in the local Broadmeads or Co-op to order in this new music.
The emphasis began to shift slowly from the earthier R&B to the new sound that was coming out of Memphis and Detroit – Soul music. This was music we could relate to. Brought up in a poor working class environment, we were constantly reminded that we were ‘second class citizens’. The signs in lodging houses ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Pets’ were prevalent. Holloway Road may not have been Watts or Harlem but there were parallels. I believe it was Bob Geldof who said the Irish in the 50’s and 60’s were the ‘blacks of Europe’.
At the same time the powers that be running the clubs in Soho realized that here was a new market waiting to be tapped into. Almost overnight the West End of London was awash with clubs catering to this new audience. The music revolution was not the only major upheaval taking place. It was not enough to be ‘in the know’ as far as musical trends were concerned; we had to look the part also. The new ‘Mods’ felt the need to make a statement with regard to the way they looked.
This new movement took its inspiration from the sharp dressing stars of modern jazz and the Ivy League colleges of the USA. Hipster jeans, tab collar shirts, Fred Perry tops, hush puppies, desert boots, loafers and perhaps the most iconic of Mod accoutrements – the mohair suit. Sourcing clothing was difficult initially. Good tailors were few and far between (all suits had to be hand made!). We were lucky in that Aubrey Morris had a shop at Highbury Corner. A small shop that was almost unnoticeable on a small parade, but to those in the know – this was the place to go! A tiny shop piled high with wonderful colourful bales of cloth. A selection of mohair that could not be surpassed and in Aubrey Morris a true artist worthy of such a classic material.
A suit would take at least a month from initial measurement through two fittings to final completion. Every garment was a labour of love. I never knew anybody to have a complaint about an item of clothing made by Aubrey Morris. Not that Aubrey was shy about singing his own praises!! He was forever telling us of his esteemed clientele and would regale us with tales about several pop singers including Chris Farlowe along with several members of the Kray firm using his services.
Of course, we took all his tales with a pinch of salt. However a couple of years ago I was talking to Chris Farlowe and asked if he had ever heard of Aubrey Morris. Chris immediately went into a soliloquy about a silver grey Tonik suit he had made there! Then again, only six months ago, I was out in Sharm El Sheik and got talking to a chap from Blackburn, who was a bit of a ‘character’, and while talking about tailors the name of Aubrey Morris came up. His eyes glazed over and he related a story of how he was doing some work for a well respected East End family back in the sixties and he mentioned to one of them that he needed a ‘good suit’. He was directed to Aubrey Morris and so impressed was he with the results that he commissioned Aubrey and his son to travel up to Blackburn with some bolts of mohair one weekend where they were met in a local hostelry by the chap with half a dozen friends. They were promptly measured up and Aubrey went back to London. He repeated the process some weeks later for fittings and then the suits were handed over on completion!
Every suit was different in that the finer details would be personally tailored to customers’ demands. The angle and number of pockets, number of buttons on the cuff, length of vent (always a centre vent!) colour and type of lining, width and length of lapel, buttonhole, number of buttons on jacket and trouser width and length (just touching the shoe!), type of rear pocket, was a ticket pocket required, pleats and of course the colour and type of material – all were discussed at length before any decision was arrived at.
The wonderful feeling as I tried on my new two piece petrol blue three ply Tonik mohair suit – the particular attention to detail and the hand stitched finish – perfection. Of course the rest of the accoutrements were just as important. A new white tab collar shirt from Harry Fenton with a pale blue tie and silkie for the top pocket. Perhaps a pair of loafers – black, of course and some blue socks (never white!) would complete the look.
It was not always practical to wear a ‘whistle’ so other more casual outfits were popular. Wrangler or Levi jeans with a Fred Perry top and a pair of hush Puppies or Desert Boots were my favourites for ‘knocking about’. I had a beautiful Prince of Wales check jacket made by Aubrey Morris which really looked the business with jeans.
Fashions came and went. At one stage overcoats were very popular. The Crombie by Dormeuil was the real deal but due to the cost most young mods purchased readily available copies. A trilby with a narrow brim often completed the’look’.
I can remember buying an extremely expensive sky blue denim jacket ‘up west’. Three buttons with a 14 inch centre vent – it was the bees knees. I wore it to a club that night and by morning it was ruined!! Cigarette burns, ingrained dirt and God knows what else consigned it to the bin!! Another style faux pas that I remember was the fashion for wearing a roll neck jumper under a plaid ‘work style’ shirt. As wearing a jumper under a shirt was both expensive and uncomfortable Marks and Spencer had the brilliant idea of stocking a small roll neck that finished at the chest. It simply pulled over ones head – no sleeves – a bit like a breastplate. Excellent idea until I had to go to hospital one night and had to remove my shirt revealing this small piece of ‘rollneck’ jumper sitting on my shoulders! The two young nurses thought it was hilarious!
Of course keeping abreast of the changing styles was a problem. A decent suit would cost around 25 guineas and most young lads would be lucky if they were earning a fiver a week! Almost inevitably the only alternative to young street arabs like us was to turn to more nefarious means to accrue monies. The cost of keeping up with this new found life style was beyond most of us. Clothes, clubs and records – all cost money, so we turned to crime. That is not to say all gang members were criminals (only 99 %!).
We had many ways of making money – some turned to burglary, others to robbery and others to less dangerous occupations. At one stage I was employed to keep ‘doggo’ for street vendors selling Pop art jewellery on Oxford St. This was a nice easy ‘earner’. I simply kept an eye out for ‘Old Bill’ whilst my mate sold the goods out of a suitcase. We met up with our Guv’nor every morning in a café in Soho. He would dole out the material – mainly cuff links, ear rings etc – from the back of his van and off we would go. We were on commission and if caught the worst the seller could expect was a small fine. The only problem was that the material might be confiscated and in that case the debt had to be repaid and the gentleman we were working for was not the type to accept excuses!
Another little scam we had going was working as casual labour for a well known removal company. We had a friend working in the office who would inform us when there might be a lucrative job due. We would queue up outside in the morning and make sure we were picked for the right trip. The pay was 50 bob a day (£2.50 in modern money) but the pay was of little consequence. One of the better jobs was moving a small workshop to West London. They specialized in silver plating ladies dressing table sets (all quality stuff). We made a nice killing on that particular job!! We were never too greedy though as one had to be careful or we might get no more work!
We had all kinds of schemes going – another one was Record Vouchers. A young lady I knew worked in the record department of a well known electrical shop and she would supply us with large books of vouchers. We travelled all over London exchanging vouchers for Lp’s which we had on order from customers at half price. That lasted for a couple of months until the unfortunate young lady got the sack! Of course a lot of the shenanigans we got up to were much more serious such as smash and grabs (the London smog had its advantages!) and shop breaking...
John is very kindly sharing this tale of his very eventfull Mod years. In the next part he will be talking about the clubs, the drugs and his continuing brushes with the law...
The work is the copyright of John Leo Waters. The views expressed are purely those of the author and are not attributable to any other person or institution.