That summer of love

Sheelagh was 16. She wore pumps and a ponytail, which she shook to this new music, rock 'n' roll. Philip was 14, and more conservative. One record by Buddy Holly changed everything. A memoir of first love, by Philip Norman. Illustration by Stephen Parkes

The September of 1957 was a hot and noisy one in the Isle of Wight's Victorian seaside resorts. I spent it mainly pushing a slop trolley around my father's self-service cafeteria at the end of Ryde Pier, the second- longest pier in Britain. At that time, the only rhythms in my head came from the records we played as background music - Mantovani and his Orchestra; the aged Charlie Kunz's piano medleys of vaudeville songs like "Shine on Harvest Moon". I can still hear them in their sequence, tinkly and sentimental, almost lost against the clash of cutlery, the clatter of trays, the distant loudspeaker-boom of my father's voice inviting holidaymakers to forsake the sunshine for the shadows and doubtful pleasures of his establishment:

"Try today's two-shilling special hot lunch or salad in the self-service cafeteria on the ground floor. The entrance is on the tramway station. Make certain of your meal in comfort before you leave the pier..."

I was 14 years old, and a more than usually abject specimen of late Fifties British adolescence. Picture a youth with water-slicked hair and bowed shoulders, wearing a grubby white coat, black Rayon "drainpipe" trousers, slightly mildewed, black lace-up shoes. Imagine the profoundest possible ignorance about everything going on in the outside world, combined with utter lack of animation, expectation or hope. We none of us know how unhappy we are until we have something to compare it with. For me, in those days, misery was seamless and horizonless; I thought that was how it felt to be alive.

You might think it a curious condition for a seaside showman's son, raised among penny-arcades, roller-skating rinks, sun-deck cafes and grand carnival dances. But my father was a seaside showman somewhat out of the ordinary. A former squadron leader in the Royal Air Force, addicted to gentlemanly pursuits like shooting and fly-fishing, he had come to the Isle of Wight seeking the quick fortune that allured so many ex-servicemen after the Second World War. As that quick fortune stubbornly eluded him, summer after summer, so did his hatred of his business, and of his customers, proportionately increase.

To my father, all pleasure, style and grace had ended with the 1930s. His was not the present, proletarian world of beer and candy floss, but a vanished elegiac one of Oxford bags, "Bullnose" Morris cars and schoolboy high jinks in the officers' mess. His favourite tense was the past historic: how things "used to" be. From the age of nine or so, and especially since my parents' bitter and messy divorce, the same thought had visited me constantly. Everything worthwhile was over, and I'd missed it all. From here on, there was nothing to look forward to but ever-deepening anti- climax. The passage of time itself seemed to be getting slower, and some day soon must wind down to a complete stop.

That summer of 1957, I fell in love for the very first time. It seemed wholly typical of me that first love, far from being the elevating thing I had imagined, should bring still more extravagant plunges into despondency.

Her name was Sheila, spelt in the Irish way, "Sheelagh". She worked in the cafeteria's wash-up, where at intervals I unloaded my slop trolley's cargo of dirty plates and cutlery. She was a tiny girl with large brown eyes that protruded slightly, and lustrous mousy hair worn in a newly modish ponytail. There was something else, too, which I had not noticed until it was emphatically pointed out by my barmen and waiter colleagues. Tiny Sheelagh had the substantial, low-slung bust of a mature woman many times her height and weight. It was as if her wrap-around overall concealed a third arm, supported in a sling or pinned in a straitjacket.

Sheelagh was 16, an awesome two years senior. For all her childlike appearance, she seemed intimidatingly grown-up, with a knowledge of the world that painfully exposed my foggy, introverted ignorance. She had seen all the latest Hollywood films, like The King and I, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, and was an attentive reader of glamour and gossip papers like Reveille and Weekend Mail. Her conversation was studded with topical film star names which until then I'd barely registered - Tab Hunter, Russ Tamblyn, Sal Mineo, John Saxon and James Dean, whose death in a car crash the previous year had made him superlatively famous and fascinating.

When discussing any of these, Sheelagh's rather prim exterior would dissolve. The prominent brown eyes would bulge even further; a hand would be laid on the impressive bust to still the fluttering heart beneath; the pursed little mouth would utter a lovelorn sigh of "Tab!" (or "Russ!" or "John!" or "Sal!"). She talked endlessly, not only about the films they had made but about their cars, their clothes, their favourite foods, their possible true life involvement with the leading ladies they kissed on-screen. On the latter subject, her tone became calmly proprietorial, as if it could be only a matter of time before Tab (or Sal or Russ or John), tired of glossy Hollywood starlets and realised that his true happiness lay with her.

For a 14-year-old swain, never before exposed to feminine wiles, those demonstrations of Sheelagh's were devastating. She liked John Saxon better than me. She liked Sal Mineo better than me. She even liked James Dean, someone dead, better than me. While she to me was a miracle of delicacy and mystery, I to her was the merest second-best substitute and stop-gap. It turned out that she had meticulously planned her whole future, marriage, childbirth and domestic life in a sunlit, paradisiacal clime which clearly was nowhere near the Isle of Wight, with an imaginary partner bearing no resemblance to me. She talked about it all the time in words formalised into an incantation: "I want a long white house and a long white car. And when I have a little boy, I'm going to name him Ashley."

The greatest cultural gulf between us, and source of insecurity for me, was Rock and Roll music. Sheelagh, of course, bore no resemblance to the wild "Teddy girls", whom cinema newsreels occasionally showed whirling and cavorting to the horrendous new sounds. Even so, the merest mention of Elvis Presley or "Britain's First Rock `n' Roller" Tommy Steele, sent her into a miniaturised version of the same madness. She would stop dead in her tracks, bow her pony-tailed head, cross her arms over her bust, stamp her little feet in their flat white pumps, and utter low, rhythmic moans of "Oo! Oo! Oo! Oo! Oo!" while I stood helplessly by, riven with disgust at my failure to be comparably attractive or exciting.

I myself knew nothing about rock 'n' roll, and wanted to know nothing. It was an obsession of the working-class masses who streamed down the pier to Ryde's beaches and pubs each summer day. It had nothing to do with boys like me who attended private schools, played rugby rather than football and wore blazers displaying mottoes in Latin. I accepted the adult view of it as just another ludicrous but passing American fad. Soon, even its most demented enthusiasts would realise the whole thing was a cynical confidence trick; that rock 'n' roll performers like Elvis Presley couldn't really sing and only pretended to play the guitars that had become their essential props.

I waited impatiently for this revelation to dawn on Sheelagh. But, instead, more and more rock 'n' rollers kept coming along to turn her head, both American originals and our hurried domestic imitations - Pat Boone, Paul Anka, Charlie Gracie, Russ Hamilton, Michael Holliday, the Most Brothers: "England's answer to the Everly Brothers".

"There are some new ones," she announced one overcast September morning as we walked to work down the half-mile of pier planks, accompanied by her best friend, Diane White.

My first love spoke with a slightly softened "r" that I was already having to struggle quite hard not to mimic to myself.

"They're called the Cwickets. They've got a gweat wecord out called `That'll Be The Day'."

Even to so unsporty an English boy as I was in 1957, the word "cricket" was redolent of Test matches at Lord's and Headingley far more than the nocturnal buzzing of tropical climates. I had no idea who these Crickets might be or what they did. Their plurality made my heart sink; not one but several new rivals for Sheelagh's attention.

In that subtle way she had developed of fanning my possessive agony, she began to run through the record's lyrics with her friend Diane.

"When cupid shot his... something. He shot it at your heart.' What wymes with heart?"

"Dart?"

"That's it. `When cupid shot his dart... He shot it at your heart.' What wymes with `heart'?"

"Fart?" suggested Diane, sending them both off into peals of laughter.

"No, `part'. When cupid shot his dart... he shot it at your heart." I realised that the words were being used to cut further ground from under my feet "...And if we ever part and I leave I you."

I knew without even hearing them that I hated this record called "That'll Be The Day" and these "new ones", The Crickets. When I went to Sheelagh's house that following Sunday afternoon, I was dismayed to learn that she'd bought a copy and was intent on playing it for me.

This duly happened in a tiny council house kitchenette, looking out on to open fields. I remember that as I prepared to listen, my chief sensation - stronger even than puppy love - was the familiar one of gnawing guilt. How could I be dallying selfishly here with a girl when I should be supporting my father's heroic efforts to keep bankruptcy at bay on the pier head?

Sheelagh slipped the new-fangled, small unbreakable disc on to the turntable of her Dansette portable record-player, then she and her friend Diane joined hands and started to jive. This was a practice still considered almost indecent, and I was mortified to see how good Sheelagh was at it. She took the girl's much more complicated part, twirling at the end of Diane's outstretched arm, rotating and then expertly catching Diane's hand again, her ponytail swinging to and fro, white pumps scuffing loudly on the coconut mat. From time to time, she glanced across at me in a vaguely challenging way and murmured the refrain that was so apt a comment on my quest for her undivided heart: "That'll be the day. Oo-oo! That'll be the day..."

Despite my pose of sulky indifference, there were things about the song I could not help noticing. The sound of the electric guitar - a concept still as exotic as thermo-nuclear fission - was more piercingly metallic than I'd ever heard before. In particular, that twanging, down-spiralling introduction, the utter distillation of rock 'n' roll mayhem, fascinated me in ways I could not understand. The voice, by contrast, was low and reined back, eschewing all its later tricks of phrasing and inflection, barely separable from the blurry chorus of "Oohs" and "Aahs". It struck me even then as perhaps not so very hard to imitate. And the name on the record-label, Coral, struck an obscure chord of glamour and elegance.

Lead singers in rock 'n' roll groups used not to be identified by name unless it was part of the billing, as with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. There was thus a mild novelty in hearing radio disc jockeys give The Crickets' vocalist separate mention as "Buddy Holly". Though nowhere near as bizarre a name as Elvis Presley, it still seemed curious, with that ungainly double "y": the "Buddy" as American as dungarees and drugstores, the "Holly" so English, red-berried and prickly. No further details were forthcoming, however, not even when "That'll Be The Day" went to number one in the Top 20. I didn't know - and the voice gave no clue - whether Buddy Holly was white like Presley and Bill Haley, or black like Fats Domino and Little Richard.

My first sight of him, like that first sound of him, I also owe to Sheelagh. Arriving at her house a few Sundays later, I found her and Diane poring over the sleeve of a long-playing record called The Chirping Crickets.

Against an unnaturally blue sky, stood four figures in pale grey suits, white shirts and red ties, supporting between them the bodies of two brownish electric guitars. I guessed, correctly, that Buddy Holly must be second one from the right - the tallest one with the longest neck and the widest and toothiest grin, who wore glasses with the same pattern of not very smart half-frames as my own.

To make up for the glasses, his suit was by far the smartest of the four, the line of his shoulder the most natural, the set of his white shirt and thin red tie the most elegant. His coat had two pocket-flaps, one above the other, a detail normally associated with classic English hacking jackets. I realised that a rock 'n' roller need not necessarily be a wild Technicolor freak, but could be clean-cut, smart, understated, even tidy. Though I had never met him, and never would, Buddy Holly told me something in that moment. He told me I hadn't missed everything as I'd always thought; that the Fifties were not becalmed in time and winding slowly down to a stop. There was a future ahead - one which I had as much claim on as anyone else, and which promised to be every bit as exciting as my father had found the officers' mess at Upper Heyford. I knew I wouldn't be happy until I wore a suit like that, and I possessed a guitar, flat and two- horned like that, and could play the heavenly back-spiralling metallic intro to "That'll Be The Day". It was the moment I came alive. And I owe it to Sheelagh.

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