Band-leader and clarinettist Acker Bilk died on 2nd November so I have brought forward this post inspired by ‘Stranger on the Shore’, easily his most famous and successful composition.
Stranger on the Shore was a massively successful single, a US No. 1 and UK No. 2, the biggest selling single of 1962 and incredibly the biggest selling instrumental single of all time. Shortly after release, it became a TV theme. Despite a long career in ‘trad jazz’, for a large swathe of the general public, ‘Stranger on the Shore’ became virtually synonymous with Acker Bilk.
The familiar unfamiliar
The title Stranger on the Shore, with its hints of a far away, longed for romantic encounter, evokes an exotic landscape of palm fringed beaches lapped by gentle waves, a dream of romantic freedom. Yet the landscape it conjures for me is altogether more mundane yet, in its way, just as potently ‘other’ and far more poignant – 60s London suburban rooftops with their growing proliferation of TV aerials tuning into a new commercial world of individual aspiration, choice and affluence.
When Stranger on the Shore was released in 1961, Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister at the helm of an aristocratic Conservative administration which seemed to have outlived its usefulness and felt increasingly estranged from the new world dawning all around (even with his jolly ‘You’ve never had it so good’ of a few years earlier it seemed as if he was hastening his own demise). A new world of freedom, egalitarianism and emancipation lay ahead and the TV aerials were already turning towards it, tuning into it and, most significantly, picking up on how these values could be translated into longings for consumer goods. The outer suburbs of Associated Rediffusion – London’s weekday ITV station from 1955-64 – were perhaps where these aspirations most eagerly took root.
As a child in the early 70s, I used to visit friends of my parents in Totteridge on the outer fringes of north London. By climbing onto the solid porcelain toilet of their 1930s semi, I could just about see through the upstairs window the rooftops with their patterned ranks of TV aerials disappearing into the distance on a gently undulating curve. Something about this view fascinated me and the memory of it still does.
Barbara and Don had a daughter who had died of a brain tumour at the age of twelve in 1962. Her bedroom was kept just as it always was, immaculately dust free and tidy with its floppy marionettes and shelves of Bunty and Girls Crystal annuals, all of which stopped abruptly at 1963, a year which, for Annette, never came. When adult conversation downstairs became too dull for me, I retreated to this little room, sat cross-legged on the floor and spent an hour or two leafing through the books and annuals as if to gain a sense of who this little girl had been and how my life might link with hers. I knew nothing about her from her parents as her name was rarely if ever mentioned, as to do so would have evoked too much of the painful circumstances of her final weeks. A sense of closeness across time grew over many visits spanning more than ten years and then perhaps slipped away a little as I entered the teen years which Annette had never enjoyed. The severity of that 1963 cut-off date seemed all the more poignant as I was born the following year. We were born into adjoining eras and yet, in this room, it felt as if there was a kind of continuity between us.
I also linked ‘my’ rooftop aerial view with the 50s/early 60s world that Annette would have grown up in, asking myself whether she too might have peeped out of that upper window to wonder upon the view a decade or more earlier. The view then would have contained far fewer aerials and probably more smoking chimneys. But that is almost the point. As the home fires stopped burning, so the television aerials appeared. The television replaced the hearth as the focal point of people’s living rooms.
A child apart
Annette’s books and annuals offered other clues to her life. They were like the remnants of an age which related to mine and yet felt very different. There was the question of our opposite genders, of course, but as boys’ comics with their wars and football had never held much appeal for me, these tales of secrecy, sorcery and intrigue were far more interesting (some of the girlish comic capers perhaps rather less so). The annuals and books gave me a sense that perhaps boys and girls lived more separate lives in 1962 than in my own time, their interests more strictly bound by tradition or what we now call ‘gender stereotypes’. The boys and girls in the annuals even looked more markedly different from each other. They were also middle class in a slightly shrill sort of way, overtly aspiring to upper middle class patterns of dress, speech, behaviour and interests.
But the more fundamental differences were about the nature of childhood itself. Those girlish jolly japes seemed carefree, innocent, even slightly naïve but they were also guided by moral rectitude and notions of Christian character, notions which themselves were handed down in diluted form from earlier eras still. My own childhood still held with these traditional values – the inherent rightness and ‘goodness’ of children free to play out-of-doors, children deferring to adult authority and a childhood governed by an overall notion of ‘decency’ – but my sense of identity was also connecting to a new world which was more modish, manipulative, exciting, colourful, overtly pleasure seeking, moulded around individual tastes and attitudes and which was simply younger or – to use a far more recent phrase – more child-friendly, less dependent on adult mediation. This was the world of pop culture and television, particularly children’s ITV (long before it was branded as such), Look-in and modern gadgets such as my cassette recorder which allowed me to create whole worlds. These all served to build a specifically modern ‘young’ world which also offered a kind of pre-entry into the adult world but crucially not via adults.
Our 70s visits to Barbara and Don were punctuated by time honoured middle class rituals such as a glass of sherry for my parents upon arrival, a generous roast lunch with all the trimmings followed by gooseberry pie and oceans of double cream (I well remember the enveloping steamy warmth of the dining room, a steam suffused with pungent smells of meat juices and boiled brussel sprouts, water streaming down the windows on a winter’s day – it always seemed to be cold in Totteridge). There would be Doctor Who for me before tea and a round of ‘Spin Quiz’ on an evening. My parents made sure they congratulated Barbara and Don on any newly displayed ballroom dancing trophies which might have appeared since our last visit. These rituals were largely surviving remnants from a previous era, the 50s perhaps, formalities governing informal occasions, guaranteeing their smooth running and the comfort of all concerned. Few if any of them would hold true now, not even the gathering around a table for lunch, let alone the food served.
Having revisited Totteridge again recently, by far the most apparent change since the 70s is the number of front gardens which have surrendered to tarmac so as to accommodate a second or even third car. The houses, many saddled with overlarge PVC window frames and regulation white front doors, look like reproduction vernacular facades, divorced from their locale, isolated in a sea of tarmac. When those estates were built in the 30s on the fields of the very outer fringes of London, they would have been informed by the desires of London’s growing middle-classes to escape the city for the spaces and (hopelessly tamed) pastoralism of the outer suburbs, to literally cultivate a life there. Even something of the garden city movement would have nourished this ethos. Is it too fanciful to imagine a husband tending to a front garden early on a summer’s evening after work? Without their gardens, these quintessentially 30s suburban dwellings seem bereft, denied their romance. That the garden has become a car park says much about our love affair with speed, individualism and convenience, themselves very ‘60s’ attributes.
Just as the TV aerials of the 50s/60s/70s supplanted the ‘home fires burning’ of the 1930s, so in 2014 with the loss of a suburban bucolic idyll, there is also a conspicuous gain – the accumulation of mushroom-like satellite dishes adorning pebble-dashed exteriors. Forty years on, the forces of modernisation have turned once again – locale, ‘home and hearth’ and community have been supplanted by the desire for greater material comfort, convenience and entertainment in the home, supplied by multichannel global forces.
The proud Rediffusion adastral of the mid 50s-early 60s which first bore witness to that very process now seems like a hopelessly quaint relic compared to the corporate armour of Sky TV (though AR did rebrand itself as the more hip ‘Rediffusion, London’ in 1964).
So what I hear when I listen to Stranger on the Shore, is the last sleep of the suburbs before they awoke to the pop culture world of the Beatles and then to the avalanche of pop culture which followed. Annette, in 1962, connected very much to the old communitarian world of rotary club raffles, church bazaars and ballroom dancing trophies. She also had a foretaste of a new world but never saw its flowering. There is a contentedness to ‘Stranger on the Shore’, a contentedness bordering on complacency, perhaps, as nobody hearing it at the time could have anticipated what change was just around the corner. In retrospect, that immediately pre-Beatles period seems like a kind of artificial lull between the clarion call of late 50s rock and roll and the explosion of 60s mass pop culture from 1963.
The very sleepiness of the song I oddly link via some obfuscated word association with 1971’s Sleepy Shores, also a television theme and hit single and a similarly emollient piece expressing a quiet wistfulness but under a quite different set of circumstances.
In May 1969, the crew of Apollo 10 took Stranger on the Shore on their mission to the moon. The tune was included on a cassette tape used in the command module of the Apollo spacecraft. The song’s title would have given it a new significance in outer space but its essential homeliness renders it inseparable from the familiar yet alien landscape of TV aerials above suburban streets, symbols of a new age about to begin. ‘Stranger on the Shore’ was the sound of that old age, still basking in its last Sunday afternoon sleepiness – Sunday school, the family roast lunch, Family Favourites.
Around 1976, I had added an Acker Bilk compilation to my record collection, perhaps inspired by a friend who was having clarinet lessons. The record was one of those ‘Golden Hour of’-type affairs with an overlarge airbrushed blue and purple ‘Acker Bilk’ logo which was perforated into the sleeve and therefore gradually worked away with frequent playings. ‘Stranger on the Shore’ didn’t feature on it, suggesting that Acker wanted to move away from his behemoth a decade on. Instead the record was full of clarinet-led reworkings of vaguely contemporary hits like ‘Without You’ and ‘Feelings’, the kind of pop music rendered MOR which my parents could tolerate.
The clarinet covers are long forgotten but still the peculiar but unique resonance of Stranger on the Shore lives on.