Top of the Sixties is a fourteen-story collection, much of which – one suspects – is highly autobiographical. The young band member, who makes a decision to abandon his guitar-playing dreams in favour of a more mainstream day-job kind of life, could easily be imagined as the author himself. We can see ourselves here too, and recognize the consequences of the life-choices we have made and continue to make.
These are primarily tales of firsts: the responsibilities and perks of a job; the stress and wonder of young love; the confusion of burgeoning sexuality; the search for identity; the growing understanding of human nature and interaction.
I enjoyed the circular nature of some of the tales (in fact the collection itself is circular). ‘Something for the Weekend’ is a humorous look at the literal way a youth tries to make sense of an adult world of double entendre. Amidst the odours of cigar smoke and Brylcreem, a youngster is oblivious to the subtle jokes of the men perusing the sports pages while waiting for a haircut. “A boy of eleven, sitting in a high chair, having his hair cut, is an easy target” (91). It is years later before Leon – now with a “rakish” style in no need of a barber’s attention – understands why “something for the weekend” was a phrase that made the barber-shop men erupt with laughter.
The dialogue occasionally faltered. I found myself thinking that a certain piece of information would have been better served through background narrative rather than dialogue and sometimes vice versa. For example, in ‘Wetton Mill’ John says to his friend Neil: “You know I don’t believe in God and neither do you. We could go up to Derbyshire. We’ve talked about it but never done it.” (103). In this exchange “you know I don’t believe in God” and “we could go up to Derbyshire” sit well as dialogue but the fact that Neil doesn’t believe in God either and that the boys had talked about going to Derbyshire but hadn’t done so, would have read easier as narrative.
Sometimes too, a character’s voice is slightly off-kilter. When David’s brother calls him a “berk” and his experiment “stupid” (‘Out of the Box’) it clicks but, in the next exchange when he says “Of course I know what it is, it’s Dad’s pipe tobacco, you strange boy” (134), it misses the mark. Did brothers in the sixties call each other “strange boy”? I know my brothers were much more creative with their come-backs so I wasn’t quite convinced.
These foibles aside, there is much to enjoy in this collection, particularly if you lived through the sixties. Cigarettes abound as they did at the time and are generally referred to by brand (Keith spies “a large biscuit tin full of packs of ten Senior Service untipped”; Edna “relit a stub of Capstan and inhaled deeply”; Bazz “could josh with the older men and puff on a Park Drive”). The Rolling Stones, The Who, John Lennon and Elvis Presley all get a look-in. It’s a world of BSA motorcycles, consumptive poets and expertly shaped quiffs.
While many of the stories are light and fun, Ayres knows how to serve up substance when he wants to. Barry Enoch is a pensioner with a distaste for bacon in ‘Baz to the Slaughter’. He recalls the part of his youthful innocence that disappeared in the blood-stained concrete surrounds of the abattoirs.
It wasn’t just the padded callipers, on the beasts’ necks, delivering the death-shock and bringing them like a sack of spuds to the ground; it wasn’t just the squealing that sounded like murdered children and drowned every other sound; it wasn’t even the upside-down carcasses that splashed their life-blood all over the white tiled killing floor. The final straw had been the acrid stink of the hair being singed off the carcases with blowlamps. (77)
Ayres conjures some great visuals. Consider Mick the drummer in ‘Fret’:
He seemed to bear a grudge against his semi-circular array of skins. Mick would swivel on his stool as he laid into his kit from one end to the other, the sweat dripping from the end of his nose and the muscles in his arms billowing like mainsails (114)
A sense of private space has always been an important extension of personality for me and I thought of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own as I read of a boy surveying his room, concerned over the wrench that a family move would create for him in ‘Out of the Box’.
Ridiculous, he said to himself, that such a tiny space should have such enormous importance for him. But it did. Here were his test tubes and chemistry set […] Here was his atlas of the world with red biro lines across the oceans and continents […] Here was the essential David, the complete David, the David unavailable for his friends to see. (128)
‘A Gift of Lilies’ is the final story in the collection, in which university student Keith bumps into his old employer, easily recognizable from ‘A Sack of Spuds’ (the first story). Bart Davies, now in his seventies, is about to propose to his occasional lover Lorna. As Davies is purchasing a bunch of lilies, Lorna is reminiscing with a friend about the time Bart bought her lilies: “They smell clean, they smell of the future”. (162)
These stories are set in London in a simpler time, a time of greater innocence, and yet much of what Ayres has to say about youthful exuberance, teenage angst and finding ones place in the world are universal. Top of the Sixties transcends the lines of geography, generation and gender and men of a certain age, in particular, are likely to see something of themselves between the pages.
Ayres, David. Top of the Sixties, Holland Park Press, London, 2011.
Purchase through the Holland Park Press website