Memories of 1960s Bristol

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Subjects: Modern History (Post World War II), Radical Bristol
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I came to Bristol from Newport in South Wales in August 1962 when I was 12 years old. I had been brought up there and my family came from the Pontypool area.  I had once been to Bristol Zoo on a school trip and spent a family holiday in a small caravan at Portishead, both times coming by trail under the Severn. I had also been on a school day trip by steamer from Cardiff Docks to Weston-super-mare when I was about 10. My family moved to Bristol because he had become a Methodist minister, getting out of the coal mining of generations. The “Tanners” had actually come from the declining Bristol coalfield in the early 1800s to find work in South Wales, marrying into local Welsh families. I lived in Bristol until 1968 when I went to university in Nottingham, and, as my parents also moved to Scotland at the same time, I have rarely returned.

I hated Bristol for some time, missing friends and seeing little attraction to a big city rather than the familiar world of a small town like Newport. It didn’t help that I arrived on my first day at my new school, Cotham Grammar School, in short trousers. After all, no one in Newport wore long trousers to school until the third year. Of course, in sophisticated Bristol I was the only one. Ashamed and humiliated, I had not made a good start. On top of that I remember a conversation in a local shop as two women, in the queue in front of me, discussed the disadvantages of the proposed Severn Bridge. “All those Welsh are going to come over here and fill all our shops,” said one. Then the other weighed up the positives; “…  but we can go over and see that nice Tinter..rrr…n Chapel.” I kept my mouth shut and started to work on changing my accent. I even became a supporter of Bristol Rovers, going regularly to their home games.

I lived off Coldharbour Road on the edge of Redland in a “church house”, cold but spacious. Opposite was a C of E church which I remember for the arrival on Sunday mornings of an old 1940s Rolls Royce driven by a uniformed chauffeur. It was Carey’s Grant’s mum. He was a native of Bristol, living now in Hollywood and this was his treat for his elderly mother who lived about two streets away in a normal semi. That was as close as I got to show biz.

I got in the habit of walking for hours across the Downs, going over to Clifton Gorge and the Bridge. I never went to the Zoo but did stop to listen to the speakers at Speakers’ Corner on the Downs near the top of Black Boy Hill. Increasingly this became the destination as I found that I agreed with the speakers from the Communist Party and C.N.D.  On several occasions I remember arriving at Speakers Corner to find a burnt-out bus shelter. I was told that fascists had attempted to speak, and it had turned violent. Thinking about it now I am uncertain how this led to the burning of the bus shelter, but it conjured up interesting possibilities.

Our next door neighbour, an adult, was a keen member of C.N.D. and my elder brother, four years older than me, became involved in some events. I remember him getting up early to join a vigil at Bristol Prison in Horfield to protest at the hanging of a prisoner. It was felt that I was too young to go along.

However, my political views were formed more profoundly by living in a household which talked politics. My father was a strong Labour supporter, formed in 1920s and 1930s South Wales. I grew up with stories about miners’ demonstrations and strikes. My grand-dad said that Churchill ordered the shooting of miners at Tonypandy. My dad was only able attend university in Cardiff because of a grant given him by the “Fed”, the South Wales miners’ union. My grandmother was brave enough to go and ask Mr Jenkins the local Fed Agent Arthur Jenkins for a grant to cover the daily bus fare, since her husband was an unemployed miner. (This was Roy Jenkins’ dad, though not “stuck up” like Roy became. As they said, “He takes after his mother”).  The course had been in languages, a good preparation for being a minister he was told, and he was lucky to visit Germany, especially as it was paid for by a student who had to drop out of the trip. This student had been told not to go as he was a Jew and it was 1938. Swastikas flew and my dad knew all about Dachau and argued with his hosts in Munich and in an air raid shelter during a “practice.” His Methodism was socially aware, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King as role models. By the late 60s he was reading Liberation Theology. I was brought up in a household that talked about social inequality, international events and opposing racism. Nigerian students had been lodgers in our house in Newport between 1956 and 1960 and I was very aware of the importance of the fight for independence. Stories of Ceylon from my mother, who was born there in 1916, talks by visiting missionaries and collecting for Christian Aid all opened a window to a wider world that I was to want to explore. I also became a Methodist as many past generations had done and a socially active Christianity was to inform my thinking through my teenage years.

Although I was living in Bristol in 1963, I have no memory of the “bus boycott” though I was very aware of racism in the city. The black community mainly lived in the poor area of St Pauls and in the mid-60s, maybe in 1965 or 1966, there was a change in education policy so that more local children began to attend Cotham Grammar School, including black pupils. I remember comments being made by teachers to us, the older pupils, that “standards are going down” and what I saw as derogatory comments about black children. Yet Cotham was not the “top class” school it claimed. After all it came well behind Bristol Grammar School and Clifton College in the pecking order and was a state school.  (Maybe that’s unfair as the school did produce some high-flying scientists in its time.)

I did have a life out of school, mainly in and around the local Youth Club. It provided opportunities to “hang-out”, play current pop music, go on hiking weekends in the Mendips and Wye Valley, and meet girls. I went on camping holidays with a group of friends to Weston super Mare and Devon.   Weston in 1967 was a “battle ground” between Mods and Rockers and we stayed carefully neutral, instead just chasing girls and drinking too much.

As I went into the 6th form in 1965, at 15, in a sort of fast track group. I remember being told that since a small number of us had not studied Latin we must do a crash course to get “O” level in order to qualify for a university. The Latin teacher was to prepare four of us for the examination. My main memory was that he was a big fan of Enoch Powell, who he regularly quoted, both as a respected Classics scholar and for his reactionary politics. I remember regularly arguing with him about Powell, who I saw as a right-wing bigot and “the enemy”. However, I did scrape through the examination although I found later that it wasn’t needed after all to get into university by 1967.

Clearly my politics were already formed by then. I remember a discussion that a student teacher was having with my older brother and his friends outside the classroom. They were in the sixth form, maybe 18 years old, so I was about 14. I joined in with their discussion making clear that I disagreed with the student teacher and saying what I thought. The student teacher exclaimed that I was “a Marxist”. I hadn’t been aware of this before, but it motivated me to read the old copy of Lenin’s State and Revolution from my dad’s bookcase (he disagreed with Lenin) and The Communist Manifesto from my brother’s collection. Both made a lot of sense to me. But it was the world events taking place through those years that influenced my political development most profoundly. The civil rights struggle in the U.S.A., events in Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, Cuba,  the Vietnam War, the Cold War and events behind the Iron Curtain, especially those in Czechoslovakia since my father went there in about 1965 to an international Christian conference and we then hosted several Czech visitors. They were all talked about at home and I absorbed them as I went through those years. Of course, all of this would come together in 1968 as I was about to leave Bristol; the assassination of Martin Luther King and the riots across the U.S.A., the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the Prague Spring. I strongly remember how I returned to Bristol in the summer of 1968, after travelling alone in Europe and experiencing the May events in Paris first-hand, with my head spinning and finding that my old friends just weren’t interested. It was time to move on.

Bristol did offer a lot as I grew older.  There were lots of students, with the University and Redland Teacher Training College just down the road. We rented a room to students from there and they introduced me to different experiences. I remember one who played good music, especially early Bob Dylan, and this affected my musical interests. Another read books like Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex. When she was out, I thumbed through it to read the “sexy” bits but found none. However, it made names like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre familiar as I grew older so that I looked out for them and read the books with more attention.

Books mattered to me, something I probably inherited from my Pontypool grandfather and dad, who both used to “have their head in a book again”. I was a regular visitor to the library on Whiteladies Road, and the main library next to the Cathedral when I got older. I got most of my reading from libraries although I began to visit book shops, like the one on the top of Park Road to browse if not buy.  I remember excitement when I found Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and wanted to tell everyone about at my youth club, in about 1965 or 1966. The club leader looked at me with a bored expression. He’d read it in the 1950s, he said.

I also borrowed books from a small locked bookcase at my school, full of history books. Non-one else seemed interested, but I discovered historians like C.V Wedgwood and got into the detail of 16th and 17th history.

As for “culture”. I think Bristol was full of it in the ‘60’s but it took a while for a teenager to experience it. I do remember being bowled over by hearing Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring”, played by a music teacher at Cotham School but otherwise classics were not heard, other than short pieces played by my mother on an old piano, and no visits to the Colston Hall, although my brother went there to see Peggy Lee in 1963.

My “culture” was pop music. We had no record player so my music was radio (“Saturday Club”, Radio Luxemburg, and Steve Race’s “Jazz Record Request”, as my dad listened to it every Saturday as he lay in the bath), and television (“Ready Steady, Go”, Top of the Pops”). I also heard pop at my youth club or on friends’ record players. By 15 and 16, I was going to local dances, usually in church halls or school halls. The music was from local bands or D. J.s playing pop, Rhythm and Blues and Soul, but to be honest, the focus was on the girls who were there. I missed the early appearances of the Stones, the Who and others at the Corn Exchange. I did go a few times but only got to hear second rate bands as I remember. I did go once to Top Rank in Broadmead and saw a brilliant performance by the young Stevie Wonder.  By the time I was in the sixth form I was also becoming exposed to other kinds of music, from Otis Reading ( “Otis Lives” was written up in big letters on a school wall after his death in 1967) as well as music my friends were listening to like the Incredible String Band. But like everyone else, or most anyway, a new Beatles L.P. was the biggest event, as we gathered at a friend’s house to hear an LP like “Sergeant Pepper” again and again.

I got into folk music in the sixth form years, after my introduction from the Redland College student, and went to the Troubadour Club in Clifton to hear people like John Renbourn and Bert Jansch or local performers. My friend Gavin James, a brilliant guitarist, would sometimes perform there.

Cinema was very important to me and I got in the habit of going whenever I could. I went to one in Henleaze ( kids got in free if a friend opened the fire doors), to one on Whiteladies Road and occasionally to one  on Gloucester Road  ( where you tried to stay clear of men in raincoats and watch out for fleas). I remember seeing films like “Billy Budd”, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, “The Knack” and Morgan: a suitable case for treatment”, among many more.

I discovered theatres when I went into the sixth form. Before that I had been to a few pantomimes, when we were taken by a lady at the church for a Christmas treat, but it was now to be “real” theatre. We got free tickets, (or where they just cheap?), for “the gods” at the 18th century building of the Old Vic. It was magical to sit up by the ceiling and see plays like Brecht’s “Caucasian Chalk Circle”, John Arden’s “Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance”, plays by Shaw or Shakespeare Plays directed by Tyrone Guthrie.  I ended up applying to go to Nottingham University partly because of the city’s good reputation for theatre, with John Neville running Nottingham Playhouse. Unfortunately, he had gone by the time I arrived there in 1968. I never recovered that thrill of going to the Old Vic.

I left school at 17, after doing A levels. I had worked at a Wimpey Bar and delivered paper for years but now I was intent on saving enough money to travel. I got a job at a hotel, one of the Berni Inns, near the bottom of Whiteladies Road. Here I worked as a night porter.  I slept in the day and evenings and went out in the evening, usually to Clifton, drinking in the basement bar of the Portland or drinking rough cider at the Coronation Tap.

But what I wanted to do was to see the world and once I had saved up £50 I left to discover it, not waiting for any of my friends to join me as they were still doing exams at school or were on apprenticeships,. In March 1968 I left Bristol to hitch-hike around Europe and wouldn’t return until three months later in June that year. Effectively I had left Bristol behind.  When I returned, despite spending time working at Avonmouth Docks and continuing with a “normal” social life, my head had moved from Bristol. I was gone by late August and wouldn’t return for many years.


1 Comment

  1. I stumbled on your article while searching for my old Bristol school. Your article threw up many memories for me and I enjoyed reading it. My brother and I also came over from Wales but not until 1964. My brother attended Cotham and I went to Fairfield. We were RAF (not Welsh by birth) but had been based in Wales for 4 years so both had Welsh accents. We found Bristol daunting after a kindly quiet Welsh Market town. Also the schools were so much bigger and unwelcoming. After having a school coach in Wales the mammoth journey of walking, 2 bus journeys or more walking was quite The whole move was quite a culture shock. I was teased about my Welsh accent and quickly realised that the Welsh were not favourites of Bristolians. That is much better now of course. Like you I started to alter my accent. Bristol itself was overwhelming with big buildings and noisy traffic etc. Like you we lived in a road off Coldharbour Road and the upside was having the Downs close by and Cary Grant’s Aunty lived opposite us! And lots of swimming pools and cinemas. I wonder if the Church you mentioned was St Albans.
    We stayed until 6th form and visited many of the places you mentioned and used to study at the Central library. The ice rink and Little Theatre were favourites.
    My children and grandchildren are now Bristolians and Bristol City supporters!

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