Once upon a time – the first chapter of my new book
Once upon a time, fairly long ago, but not far away, it was a foggy Winter day. To be precise, this was Monday December 14 1964, and I was born at 5.20 in the morning, the location being Aldershot Hospital, in Hampshire. I was the first child of Phillip and Jill Godsell, who had set up home in Fleet, a quiet town five miles from Aldershot. Dad was a civil servant, working at the National Gas Turbine Establishment, part of the Ministry of Defence. A Labour government had recently taken office, led by Harold Wilson as Prime Minister. The Beatles were at number one in the singles chart, with I Feel Fine – featuring feedback introduction, courtesy of a deliberate error by John Lennon.
My mother, who may be biased, has often recalled I was a lovely baby, who did not cry much. I was baptised at Christ Church, in Crookham (a village adjoining Fleet), on February 14 1965, but have since converted from the Church of England to atheism. Mum noted progress in a Baby Book, from which it appears I was a slow starter. I did not begin to crawl until the age of 11 months, and stood up for the first time five days after my first birthday. A few months later, I learned how to walk, taking the first steps without help on April 7 1966. During the Summer, mum, dad, and I went on holiday at Paignton, in Devon. I learned how to kick a football at around the time England won the 1966 World Cup, beating West Germany 4-2 in the Final, at Wembley. My parents vaguely recall that I watched the match live on television, sat with my father. I was only 19 months old (or should that be young?) at the time. Within a few years, I became aware of the enormity of England’s success in winning the competition. I was destined – 24 years after the 1966 tournament – to publish a book entitled The World Cup. An extract from that volume will appear in a subsequent chapter of the current work.
On February 14 1967 mum gave birth to another son, named Mark. I do not retain any memory of my brother as a baby, but have been told I was fond of him. In mum’s record, my first response to stories arrived at the age of two and a half years, which means mid-1967. Strikes me as surprisingly late, considering my subsequent fascination with stories. In the Summer of 1968, mum, dad, Mark, and I had our first holiday together, visiting a caravan site at Rockley Sands, in Dorset. Mark and I were unwell during the holiday, and my being sick in the caravan one evening is my earliest definite memory – not an ideal starting point. In 1969 our family had a caravan holiday at Selsey Bill, in West Sussex. Drives around southern England often took us along “George Carriageway”, this being my name for dual carriageway, which I thought was built by a man named George. Another favourite phrase was “cold wind”, something I would say when looking out of windows on Winter days. I have few specific memories of my early years, back in the 1960s, but recollect a happy time. I often wonder what would happen if we could only connect the past and the present.
I joined Gally Hill Infants School, in Crookham, at the start of 1970, aged five. There was an anxious start, with tears in the first few days. I felt a lot of worry at school, despite being a good learner, struggling to integrate – I remember collective lunchtimes being daunting. I was often picked upon by one of the boys, a bully who was older than me. At the same time I was befriended by a girl in my class, named Nicola, who attempted to guard me from threats of violence. Many times in my life, I have looked upon females as protectors. I attended the school, which combined solid Victorian buildings with modern prefabricated classrooms, for two and a half years. It felt a rather gloomy place. On the brighter side, I enjoyed Friday afternoon breaks, wandering around the playground alone, looking forward to the weekend, and the comforting surroundings of home.
A few months after I began school, we had a holiday at Brean Sands, near Weston-super-Mare, in Somerset, being based in a Pontin’s camp. This was part of a series of extended family holidays. Mum, dad, Mark, and myself generally went on holiday with my mother’s parents, Ernest and Dorothy Collings, plus my mother’s sister Sally, her husband Neville, and their sons Stephen, Gary, and Martin. The visit to Brean Sands was repeated in both 1971 and 1972, following which there was a holiday at another Pontin’s site, located at Camber Sands, in East Sussex, during 1973.
In the Autumn of 1972, I moved to Crookham County Junior School, known as Sandy Lane, after a nearby road. In the first year I was unsettled by my teacher, Mrs Stark. She was a pleasant woman, but could be stern, and reduced me to tears on several occasions. Another source of anxiety was inability to tie my shoelaces, until I received patient lessons from a girl named Carol. Mrs Stark said I was the cleverest boy in her class, and remarked that I never gave up trying to achieve things. Perseverance is a quality I have retained.
My father had been a close friend of John Noakes during the 1950s, when they served in the Royal Air Force. In 1972, with my brother and I regular viewers of BBC’s Blue Peter, dad wrote to John Noakes, seeking a reunion. One day a neighbour told us that John had arrived looking for dad, while we had been out, and left his telephone number. Dad called John, and our family met up with the Noakes family at their home. We encountered Shep, the Blue Peter dog, looked after by John, but there was not any sign of sticky-back plastic. Mark expected to meet Peter Purves and Valerie Singleton, and was surprised the three Blue Peter presenters did not live together. Following this, John and his son made a return visit to us at Fleet. This was my first brush with celebrity, and I learned that John Noakes was basically an ordinary bloke, despite having found national fame. Meeting John sticks in my mind as a great childhood experience, and a story I still enjoy re-telling – here’s one I did earlier (could not resist that).
Dad represented the RAF at youth level football, with the opposition in one match being the Wolverhampton Wanderers youth team, featuring Ron Flowers. Within a few years, Flowers was a part of a Wolves team that won the Football League, and appeared in the fledgling European Cup. Flowers was also an England international, playing in the 1962 World Cup finals. My father enjoyed being an amateur player, for Bemerton Heath (in Salisbury) and Fleet Spurs. I developed into a football fanatic, and followed Manchester United, enthralled by dad’s stories of watching the “Busby Babes”, a team decimated in 1958 by the Munich air crash, which caused the deaths of eight players. Manchester United became the first English club to win the European Cup, a feat achieved in 1968, but the team, starring George Best, rapidly declined during the next few years. England were also losing their way. At the 1970 World Cup finals, played in Mexico, England were beaten 3-2 by West Germany, after extra time, in the Quarter Finals. The 1974 World Cup saw England eliminated in the qualifiers for the first time, as they lost 2-0 away to Poland, and were held to a 1-1 draw in the return match, at Wembley. I watched live television coverage of both games, played during 1973, being gripped by the drama of the World Cup. Another early football memory is mum and dad allowing me to stay up later than usual, at the age of seven, to watch the first half of the 1972 European Cup Final, live on television. When I went to bed, the match was goalless, but Ajax went on to beat Internazionale 2-0, with a pair of goals from Johan Cruyff. Subsequently a golden era for English clubs saw the trophy being taken in seven out of eight seasons, by Liverpool (1977, 1978, 1981, and 1984), Nottingham Forest (1979 and 1980), and Aston Villa (1982). As an adult, I would write about this, and much more, in the book Europe United: A History of the European Cup / Champions League.
The Easter holiday of 1973 included a visit to Stonehenge. I remember being captivated by the aura of Stonehenge, with the ancient stones sat in quiet isolation, holding thousands of years of memory. This was a wonderful survival into the modern era of our earliest past. I felt the power of history, something which still holds my imagination. Sometimes stories develop, and expand, over a long period of time. Fully 35 years after the first visit to Stonehenge, a piece about the place would form the opening chapter of my book Legends of British History, published in 2008. There will be some material from the book later in this chronicle. The trip to Stonehenge occurred during a weekend with granny and granddad, at their home in Salisbury. Mum, dad, Mark, and I frequently visited granny and granddad, and retain happy memories. There was tea-time, with lots of cakes, followed by our eating suppers of crusty bread with cheese and pickle, before retiring to beds where the sheets and blankets had been tucked in very tightly by granny. In the sitting room, a large clock ticked solidly, and chimed each hour. Displayed in a bookcase below the clock, granddad had a collection of books, mostly history and novels, some of which I read. Alice Rattue, my great grandmother, was a lively character, and I recall visits to her home in Green Croft Street, in Salisbury, the street in which she lived for most of her life. Always seeming to wear grey pleated skirts, Alice swore quite a bit as she recounted disputes with a next door neighbour. Although illiterate, Alice was able to write her name. Alice had been born in 1892, a few months after William Gladstone became Prime Minister for the fourth time, and died during the first of the two 1974 General Election campaigns. The February 1974 Election led to Labour regaining power, nearly four years after losing to the Conservatives.
I attended my first football match on February 17 1974, joining dad and friends in seeing Aldershot draw 3-3 with Southend United, in the Third Division. During May, dad took me to Wembley Stadium, and we saw England beat Northern Ireland 1-0, in the British Championship – this was exciting, although the atmosphere was not all it could have been, with the crowd far below full capacity. A few weeks later, I was thrilled by the World Cup finals, despite the absence of England. West Germany, the host nation, beat the Netherlands 2-1 in the Final. The following year, dad, Neville, Stephen, and I went to a European Championship game, seeing England beat Cyprus 5-0, with Malcolm MacDonald (sometimes “Supermac”) scoring all five goals – four of them from headers.
Many of my happiest childhood memories stem from holidays in the sun, at Goodrington, a village adjoining Paignton. Mum’s extended family visited Goodrington in each year from 1974 to 1980. On the first of these trips we stayed in a cramped boarding house, owned by a grumpy couple, which did not live up to an enticing name, Paradise Lodge. In subsequent years we based ourselves in the comfortable Goodrington Lodge Hotel. We became friendly with the family, named White, who owned the hotel, and several other regular visitors. The hotel was a short walk from Goodrington Sands, the two parts of which are known as the “morning beach” and “afternoon beach” respectively in our family. We used to rent a beach hut at the southern end, which had soft sand, and base ourselves there in the mornings. We would move to the northern part of the beach, with compacted sand, in the afternoon – to enjoy swimming, making giant sandcastles, and playing tennis. The tide comes in fully on the “afternoon beach” so in practice it could not always have been used – but I have the recollection of many afternoons on that beach rather than the opposite. On Wednesday evenings there was a regular disco at the hotel, hosted by the manager, John White, who endeared himself to young and old alike by inadvertently introducing records by Showaddywaddy as performances from Showaddyshowaddy – seemed even more of a tongue-twister. The discos were preceded by cricket matches in the neighbouring park, with our family being joined by other guests. The games got rather competitive, from my perspective – there were arguments about the rules, plus displays of frustration with opponents and team-mates alike.
Cricket was a sport I followed with interest, including attendance at a few Hampshire matches. During 1974, I saw part of a County Championship game, in which Hampshire (the previous season’s champions) beat Worcestershire (who went on to win the title this year) by an innings. The trip was organised by Neville, who was a keen cricketer, playing for Droxford, a picturesque village near Hambledon, “the Cradle of Cricket”. In 1977 Fleet was the scene of a benefit game for Barry Richards, the brilliant South African batsman who played for Hampshire. An injury prevented Richards from playing that day, but I was able to get him to autograph my copy of the benefit brochure. The progress of the England team featured in excellent BBC coverage, with television pictures being complemented by Test Match Special on the wireless – the word dad used for radio.
Dad was my hero as I grew up, with his offbeat sense of humour, and enthusiasms, being a great influence. Mum was the more practical, and steady, member of the family. Mum was also, as dad often remarked, an excellent cook. My parents grew a variety of fruit and vegetables in the back garden. I had lovely moments on Summer afternoons, sat in the garden, eating blackcurrants or strawberries, and watching butterflies flit among the flowers and plants. Each year we travelled to Cheltenham, the home town of the Godsell family, for the August bank holiday weekend, staying with Yvonne, a sister of dad, her husband David, and their daughter Elaine. Dad and David took Mark, Elaine, and I on visits to Pittville Park, with another cousin, Linda. I recall boat trips, with my poor steering rendering return to the perimeter of the lake problematic. On one occasion, reaching an island, I rapidly hopped onto land, whereupon Linda tried to do likewise, but fell into shallow water, and had to wade ashore. We would also visit my dad’s parents, Christopher and Phyllis (nee Cook-Cove). It was saddening to see Christopher, my grandfather, suffer very poor health for several years, leading to his death on March 19 1976.
I made my first journey abroad at Whitsun in 1976, joining a junior school trip to France. We stayed at Dieppe, and visited other sites in Normandy, including Fecamp and Rouen. In September I became a pupil at Court Moor Secondary School, where my mother was a member of the kitchen staff. Dad continued to work at the NGTE, with his role including the testing of Concorde engines. I developed an interest in family history, which was initially to last for a couple of years. Uncle David drew up a family tree of the Godsells, which prompted me to produce an equivalent chart covering my mother’s family. Ernest and Dorothy, my grandparents, provided information, some of which we found in a Family Bible, printed way back in 1877. The genealogical notes in the Bible opened with the marriage of William Pillar and Bessie Collins, at Dawlish, in Devon, during 1883. They were the parents of Alice, who was in turn the mother of Ernest.
I played in a couple of reserve team football matches for Court Moor. In February 1977 pupils and staff went to see England play the Netherlands. The Dutch masters gave a brilliant display and won 2-0, inspired by Johan Cruyff, who later described this as the best performance of his career. On another school outing to Wembley, we saw England beat Northern Ireland 1-0, in the British Championship, during May 1978. That years World Cup finals were held in Argentina, but England were not there, having been eliminated in the qualifiers by Italy, on goal difference. Argentina beat the Netherlands 3-1, after extra time, in a bad-tempered, and dramatic, Final – on a pitch littered by an amazing ticker-tape (actually strips of toilet roll) greeting from the home crowd. Two members of Argentina’s squad, Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, joined Tottenham Hotspur a few weeks later. In September, I saw Villa play for Tottenham, when they drew 1-1 away to Aldershot, in a testimonial match.
I attended filming of an episode of Are You Being Served? at a BBC studio in London, during November 1978. With mum having obtained dozens of tickets, a coach trip was organised, with mum, dad, Mark, and I being joined by lots of friends. It was fascinating to see how the programme was made. Prior to filming, we found ourselves in a studio corridor, alongside Wendy Richard and Penny Irving, who were dressed up as Miss Brahms and Miss Bakewell respectively. Dad exchanged hellos with Wendy and Penny. As a curious teenager, suddenly catching sight of a prominent pair of ladies from the exciting world of television, I was left in silent admiration.
Having previously gained a place in the junior school’s chess team, I represented Court Moor at that game. My place in the Court Moor team was secured by a good position in a school chess tournament in the latter part of 1978. I became rather obsessive about chess at this time, with enthusiasm turning to stress about my performance in the competition. My GP referred me to a paediatrician, who prescribed a course of Valium. I took Valium for a few weeks, did not feel any better, got worried about being on the medication, and stopped taking it. I was wrapped up in wider anxieties, about school work and my future. For some reason, which I did not really understand, I was lonely during the latter part of my time at Court Moor. Having been outgoing and popular, I became rather introverted, and was suddenly lacking in real friends. I was a bit of an oddball, who did not fit in, and suffered some bullying.
In May 1979 a General Election was won by the Conservative Party, with Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister. I wrote about this grim event in the book A History of the Conservative Party, published a decade later – and will recycle some of that material in a little while. I felt the outgoing Labour government, in which Jim Callaghan replaced Harold Wilson as Prime Minister (during 1976), performed fairly well. The Labour government’s position unravelled during the “Winter of Discontent”, as the effects of industrial disputes were exacerbated by severe weather through the Winter of 1978-79. Long afterwards I can still recall (picture this) myself walking home from the centre of Fleet, on a cold day in February 1979, with lots of snow on the ground. I had just bought Blondie’s Parallel Lines LP, this being the start of a record collection, which grew rapidly in the next few years. Besides Blondie (fronted by Debbie Harry, an adorable illusion), my initial favourite artists included Elvis Costello (lyricist of genius), and the Sex Pistols (leaders of Britain’s punk rock movement). In August 1979, I bought Because the Night by Patti Smith, a passionate love song that had been a major hit on its release the previous year. I also purchased discs by Buddy Holly, tragically killed in an air crash back in 1959, at the age of just 22. With a great admiration for the Beatles, I became interested in John Lennon’s solo records. The senseless murder of Lennon, in December 1980, left millions of people around the world with feelings of immense sadness.
I acquired several records by Bruce Springsteen during 1980, starting with the Born to Run single. Next I bought Bruce’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, a remarkable album, released two years earlier, portraying a life in which struggle is combined with optimism. On May 30 1981, as an excited 16 year old, I attended a concert by Bruce and the E Street Band, at Wembley Arena, which lasted nearly three hours. The highlight was Because the Night, a song Bruce recorded for Darkness on the Edge of Town, but decided not to use. A tape of the song had been passed to Patti Smith, working on Easter – an album with an alluring cover picture of Patti – at the same studio complex as Bruce. The intermediary was Jimmy Iovine, multi-tasking (or multi-tracking) as engineer on Bruce’s album and producer of Patti’s record. With Bruce’s approval, Patti penned changes to the lyrics. Bruce performed Because the Night in concert with his set of words, but had not released his version as a record. I learned from Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, a biography by Dave Marsh, that a legendary track, The Promise, intended for the Darkness album, had also been omitted, and wondered when I might get to hear the song.
Our family had a seventh successive Summer holiday at Goodrington in 1980. Some members wanted a change, but the only problem I could see (or feel) was some hard potatoes, served at dinner in the hotel restaurant. Walking through the reception of the Goodrington Lodge one evening, I overheard John White on the telephone, complaining to the supplier that the potatoes would not go soft when boiled, which meant residents were not eating them. John had raised this with a delivery man, who said the hotelier was going soft in the head.