Thursday, 5 June 2014

William Shaw and his House of Knives

© Ellen Shaw
Today’s guest blog is by William Shaw.  He started his writing career on the long-defunct punk magazine ZigZag and has written about popular culture and subcultures for titles from The Observer to The New York Times.  As a contributing editor at Details magazine he went on the road with new age travellers, infiltrated the American neo-Nazi rock music scene and spent a month living as a stone age man in the Utah desert.

I was eight when the Beatles came to our town.

It’s hard to remember how massive The Beatles were.  No group has ever had so total a grip on popular culture as they did in the mid-1960s.  The idea that they were coming to our small Devon town, where I had grown up with my grandmother, was ridiculous.

Teignmouth in South Devon was a small backwater still caught somewhere in the early 1950s - like so much of Britain at the time.  It was Morrissey’s archetypal seaside town where every day was like Sunday.  These were towns in which exuberant children were still punished with rulers on the palm or worse, where unmarried mothers were an outrage and in which homosexuality was a bizarre practice to be mocked.  If a black person arrived in Teignmouth, you were welcome to stare.  Even the mods didn’t bother with Teignmouth.  Everyone who lived in the town seemed impossibly old.

But the rumour was that the greatest pop band in history had booked into the biggest, poshest hotel in Teignmouth, The Royal.  It was ridiculous.  Absurd.  But, in spite of that, it seemed to be true because my sister, 17 at the time, even borrowed a chambermaid’s uniform and tried, unsuccessfully, to hide in a cupboard in the hotel, in an effort to see them.

We lived on the other side of the estuary.  The following morning after their arrival we rowed across the water, and sure enough, about two hundred people had gathered on The Den, outside the hotel, craning necks.  And there parked outside was a large yellow and blue Bedford Panorama coach.  And on the side was painted MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR.  I was amazed.  The Gods had come to town.  My schoolmate Richard patted Paul McCartney’s dog.  And then they drove away again.

In my books, A Song from Dead Lips and A House of Knives, I wanted to capture that sense of the sixties that I remember.

Sure it was fab and groovy, but only if you were in the right place at the right time.  For most people in Britain, the sixties weren’t swinging at all.  Old attitudes still prevailed.  Britain was still tough place, impoverished by two world wars.  For Breen, as for most of us, the thrilling, colourful, subversive era we now remember as

Though only just in his early 30s, Detective Sergeant Breen is a man of that post-war era.  He was raised in an era of Nazi bombs and rationing, when all men were expected to go into National Service.  These were men who shined their shoes on Sundays, acted as if they were middle aged by their mid-twenties, like a bit of jazz and who expected to have a steady career in the same job until retirement.  For Breen, as for most of us, the thrilling, colourful, subversive era we now remember as The Sixties was out of reach.  Even in London, the swinging sixties, was still only the pre sever of a small, fairly exclusive coterie of people who hung out at the Scotch of St James or on the King’s Road.

His sidekick is only a decade younger but it could be a lifetime.  This was a time when the generation gap was as real as the Berlin wall.  Like my sisters, she WPC Tozer had listened to The Beatles’ records in her bedroom on her mono record player and had absorbed the cultural shock of the new as easily as a child drinks milk.  Over the next few years, the generations who “got it” and those who didn’t, would stare at each other with mutual incomprehension.  Just as DS Breen and WPC Tozer do.
Despite the groovy gloss we’ve given them, I think most of us would find the sixties a foreign country.  The pop culture that decade produced has changed all of us, though it took decades for that to happen.  If the police I depict are racist, sexist, homophobic, and boorish, that’s because I like to think we’ve come a long way since then.  Well, most of us.

The Royal Hotel isn’t there anymore.  It was demolished and replaced by flats.  To my astonishment, Teignmouth even produced its own rock gods, Muse.  I try not to hold it against the place, though.

You can find more information about William Shaw and his work on his website.  You can also follow him on Twitter @william1shaw and on Facebook.

A House of Knives by William Shaw is out on 12 June, £18.99 (Quercus)

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