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The Silver age

What bliss it was to be a child in 1977

2 June 2012

2:00 PM

2 June 2012

2:00 PM

I was ten years old during the Silver Jubilee in 1977. That perfect, daft summer formed and cemented my view of the country I live in, and still makes me feel a wave of unconditional affection every time I think back to it.

Social historians seem almost contractually obliged to present England during that time as a tatty, shambolic, declining realm, a dreary windswept concrete shopping precinct where everything was brown and orange. But that is not what we ten-year-olds saw. We saw the vivid bright green of Slime (a fashionable novelty toy then) and the mellow purple of our Chopper bikes and the thrilling scarlet from our LED digital watches. And in the summer of 1977, there was a ubiquity of red, white and blue. Streets, shops, schools, the Blue Peter studio — even Smiths crisp packets. It coloured everything.

Certainly there were elements of the Silver Jubilee that were frayed around the edges. Gauche, even. But it was sincere. In 1977, we were pre-postmodern. The national celebrations — the Queen wearing floral hats like those favoured by her adoring old-lady subjects as she performed walk­abouts in small towns — very often had the extemporised atmosphere of a local tombola event. That’s what made it so very special. It wasn’t sleek but we meant it.

And it was amazing to be ten years old at that time. In my west London primary school playground in 1977, here is what we knew about the Queen, fragments of knowledge gleaned from listening to parents and grandparents. We absolutely knew that every Saturday afternoon, she would watch the wrestling on ITV’s World Of Sport. We knew that Buckingham Palace was so big that sometimes when the Queen was walking around it, she forgot where her bedroom was. We knew that It Must Be Awful To Be The Queen, All Those People Looking At You, She Deserves Every Penny (this we had learned from our grandmothers). We knew that she smoked cigarettes, and probably preferred Benson & Hedges because the packet was gold. We knew why she always wore gloves: it was in case an assassin disguised as an ambassador kissed her hand with poison lipstick and gave her the Black Death.

But for us ten-year-olds, the Silver Jubilee wasn’t simply about Her Majesty. It was about the fascinating spectacle of grown-ups setting out to have organised fun, and being cheerful about being British, instead of droning on about the nation going to the dogs. It was about teachers and parents and other authority figures wearing Union flag plastic bowler hats, a style pioneered by Maggie Philbin from BBC’s Swap Shop. After five minutes, you could see their heads sweating. It was about all the parents in our street taking part in three-legged races and welly-throwing bouts. It was about that slightly surreal fancy dress competition in our school playground where one girl was dressed as a giant 50 pence piece and one boy went puzzlingly off-message by dressing up as a black hole (i.e. shuffling around wrapped in a black duvet). We saw all this on the television too: children and grown-ups having the same fun, all over the country. It was gripping because it seemed — and was — so genuine.

It was still possible, then, to feel patriotic without sounding like Colonel Blimp. One of our more traditionalist schoolteachers, who played the piano in assembly, took the tune of ‘Sumer Is Icumen In’ and appended new lyrics, to do with pride, England, patriotism, and red, white and blue. Now it might seem sinister. Then, it just felt natural.

And the sheer naivety of the commercialism was, to a ten-year-old, utterly irresistible. Even now, my mouth is watering at the memory of Findus Silver Jubilee Mousses — raspberry and peach flavour. (Incidentally, if ten-year-old me could see all the healthy modern yogurts packed with real fruit, he would retch.) Biscuits, beans, bubble bath — everything was Jubileed up, but in such an absurdly amateur way that you couldn’t accuse anyone of cashing in. Who was the mastermind behind ‘Jubilade’, a Co-op offering which was ‘strawberry flavour’? I would like to shake his hand.

There were more eccentric novelties too. London Transport painted some buses silver. In our area, it was the number 52. Not only that: they put carpets inside. Lord knows why. But we schoolkids waited with grim determination at those bus-stops, letting the common red buses go by in the hope that a rare silver one would turn the corner.

We were all given a free commemorative mug in school; unlike some of the gaudy 1977 vintage efforts you still find in Oxfam shops to this day, featuring frankly shocking paintings of the Queen, the mugs given out in my west London primary school were illustrated in tasteful, restrained monochrome. I wonder if there were regional differences in national souvenir mug allocation? Do you see where I’m going here?

The television was blissfully, unselfconsciously rubbish. There was a pre-Jubilee It’s A Knockout — Truro vs Dartford, people dressed in giant beefeater costumes trying to run up greased slopes. There was Jubilee At The Big Top. And a Jubilee variety show at the London Palladium. Comedians such as Mike Yarwood and Tom O’Connor provided pleasantly bland chortles. In Are You Being Served, Mrs Slocombe’s bloomers were red, white and blue. On Blue Peter, meanwhile — the Golden Quartet of Purves, Noakes, Singleton, Judd — the earnest talk was of the lighting of hill-top beacons.

Our comics in those days were largely in black and white with occasional slabs of spot colour. In Silver Jubilee week, however, they were printed in red, white and blue — the characters of Whizzer and Chips and Whoopee! all had slightly over-deferential Jubilee adventures. The most fashionable journal at that time was Krazy. We regarded The Dandy as deeply lame.

We had also been hearing — via the grapevine of older siblings and Frank Bough on Nationwide — about a certain pop record which was The Most Disgusting Pop Record Ever Made and which was banned by the BBC. Even the name of the pop group was rude, and could not be uttered in front of parents. The word ‘sex’ in those days was rarely heard before 9p.m.; to have it yoked to ‘pistols’ was astoundingly shocking.

Since that time, all we seem to have heard is the dreary anecdotes of fans who were excited teenagers at that time and who imagine that this was a pivotal pop-cultural moment. Can I just say: many of us ten-year-olds did not think the idea of ‘God Save The Queen’ either clever or funny. In fact, I don’t think I even heard the song until about 1983.

In 1977, everyone went around telling us that we would remember this time always. I am thrilled to say that they were right.

Sinclair McKay’s latest book is Ramble On: the story of our love for walking Britain (Fourth Estate).

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