I’ve read a lot about so-called ‘Mods’ and I’ve talked over and around the phenomenon with younger friends who didn’t experience it – and those who thought they might have done, but almost certainly didn’t.  For example, when in the 1990s Paul Weller had a flat in the same Hyde Park block that I lived in we had a word about it.  Despite languishing under the moniker ‘Modfather’ he couldn’t be its father or even a modernist, he’s simply too young and anyway modernism is now everywhere.  Only those hitting seventy and who emerged from London’s late-fifties suburbs could have fathered it.

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I was born in early March 1946.  This means I was twenty in 1966.  Subtracting four years makes me 16 in 1962.  At sixteen most kids are sharply aware of what is going on around them.  I lived in Bromley, a southern suburb of London officially part of Kent but which, even then, was held in the capital’s gravitational field.  Being a mere 20-minutes by train from Charing Cross, which disgorged its passengers almost directly into Soho, Bromley was both physically close yet culturally distant from London’s West End..

 

But even disregarding the pull of the capital Bromley in the 1950s had several significant features of its own.  The first was a store called Dunns.  Its owner, the dandyish Geoffrey Dunn, drove a pre-war Bugatti Typ-57 and was a pioneer purveyor of modern continental design.  Since the mid-fifties, long before Terence Conran had been heard of, his Gropius-style three-story shop designed by Bertram Carter in the Market Square had stocked Charles Eames’ and Scandinavian furniture along with hand blown glass vases, Italian lamps, calico blinds and French linen tablecloths.  Soft modern jazz lilted through speakers from up-to-the-minute German hi-fi sets.  In 1960 it was probably the coolest place to hang out on Saturdays.  The second was the Bromley Court Hotel.  During the 1950s it had dedicated its dance floor and stage to Friday and Saturday night jazz ‘stomps’.  This venue would place Bromley on the early Rhythm & Blues circuit.  The third was Bromley School of Art (closed in 1959) that specialised in fine art.  A school friend of mine had an older sister called Ann who studied painting and printmaking there.  In 1956 she could be seen around Bromley wearing berets, shaggy polo neck sweaters, red ‘chicken slacks’ and ballet shoes.  She was a beatnik and at the age of nine I thought she was wonderfully weird.  So even then, if you looked for it – and I did – Bromley had a slightly arty twist to its shuffling ordinariness. 

 

Escaping the ordinariness would become the main mission for me, and many of my contemporaries.

 

Luckily I had a big extended family spread throughout London with plenty of relatively young aunts and uncles.  One was Uncle Jimmy, who was in the RAF and married to my mother’s ditzy older sister, Betty.  Jimmy had been a wartime Hurricane pilot shot down twice thus earning him a DFC and bar.  As a result he had one eye and a bullet hole in his back and now lived post-war life with a buccaneering couldn’t-give-a-damn spirit that I loved.  In 1959 he was a wing commander posted to Saint-Germaine-en-Laye just outside Paris at post-war NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE).  In 1960 my parents put me on the Golden Arrow at Victoria Station for the journey to Paris to stay with them.  The deal agreed by my parents was that Jimmy and Betty would show me Paris. 

 

I was picked up in their jet-age Citroen DS19 and swept into louche cocktail bars, La Coupole, the Moulin Rouge, the glittering American Drug Store on the Champs-Elysees with Fats Domino records on its jukebox and gazed at the snappily dressed Gauloises-smoking Parisians looking cool around town in their strangely hip corrugated deux chevaux.  Unlike Betty and Jimmy my family wasn’t cool.  My parents were perfectly nice potato-eating pre-war people bent on saving and making do ‘just in case’, but as a skilled engineer and good administrator my dad ran a big ‘main dealer’ garage, so at least we had access to enviable cars like faux-Detroit Vauxhalls and the Italian designed Vanguards of the day.

 

In those days boroughs around London had distinct characters and cultures.  Bromley was solid, conservative and family oriented.  In the late 1950s the town was full of lower middle class baby boom kids of my age.  Like many of my friends I was mediocre at school and hopeless at exams.  In 1957 I failed the vindictive 11-Plus and was duly dumped in a Secondary Modern School: a big tough Catholic institution in Orpington where other boys from Dartford, Bexley Heath, Pett’s Wood, Eltham and Bromley mingled.  It might sound fanciful now, but the subtle cultural differences between these outlying boroughs seemed quite exotic as we described to one another the various things and places they contained (Bromley, with its own football and cricket team seemed to hold some inexplicable magic for these other boys).  Each borough would eventually breed it’s own version of ‘Mod’. 

 

Many boys had older brothers or sisters who had already started buying 45rpm records to play on their suitcase-sized record players.  Some wore still-rare denim jeans or maybe went to the cinema on their own and I would watch them in the summer as Johnny and the Hurricanes wafted from their record players while they joshed and flirted at the various local swimming baths.  By the time I was 13 these fleeting images of a teenage life heralded the first stirrings of something that wasn’t altogether easy to describe, but which felt exciting and new.  Its carefree style offered an apparent alternative to the gloomy post-war world that surrounded me like the dark-stained oak furniture in my parents flat, the endless dance band music on the BBC Light Programme at the weekends, the smell of stewed tea in cafes, the sooty air, the entire patch-up-and-make-do emptiness of suburban British life.

 

But there was something even more deeply American that intrigued me and which seemed completely new and exotic.  Occasionally I would baby-sit for another aunt and uncle who lived in Bromley.  John was my father’s youngest brother who was still in his twenties and newly married to a French-speaking student called Marlene.  They were completely different.  John had a 250cc German Zundapp motorcycle with a red saddle that he’d ridden back from studying French in Paris and he’d also brought back French long-playing records by the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.  Once they had left for the evening I would play Pyramid, Django, Trinkle Trinkle and Billy’s Bounce on their Philips radiogram.  The abstract cool of these disjointed sounds seemed wholly un-British – an imagined soundtrack of an unattainable trans-Atlantic lifestyle.

 

Since I was four-years-old our family had lived in various addresses along one of the main roads into Bromley.  After the war the rows of large detached four-storey Victorian houses behind leafy front gardens had mostly been divided into spacious rented flats and we occupied one of them about three-minutes walk from Bromley Market Square.  Next door was a house identical to ours but converted into a cheap hotel owned by an Italian ex-prisoner of war called Mr Arpino.  His teenage sons still lived in Italy and he often talked about them over the garden fence to my parents.  Then, one morning in 1955, two Lambretta LD150 motor scooters appeared in the hotel’s front garden: a blue-and-white one and a red-and-white one. 

 

I was nine years old and had never seen a real Italian motor scooter before.  What intrigued me was the jet-age detailing: the chubby aeroplane-type white-walled wheels, the curved footboards with pale grey moulded rubber mats, the cream handlebar grips, the dinky aluminium castings and the cheerfully glossy colours.  Added to this the scooters had actually been ridden to Bromley from Turin by his sons: even at my age I knew that was an epic feat even by car.  His sons’ neat Americanesque scooters seemed to symbolise escape.  Mr Arpino’s boys had short dark hair and wore pastel-coloured knitted shirts with cream slacks and soft, cinnamon-coloured suede shoes.  These utterly foreign combinations I noted, and for several days drew careful pictures of it all, creating my own versions on paper.  Unlike the blank wall of academic subjects, I had always been a natural when it came to art and anything involving drawing or making things felt easy and fluid to me.  By then keeping drawing books of stuff that I liked had become a bit of a passion – pages full of imagined submarines, cars, guns…and now scooters and clothes.

 

Because of this, in late 1960 the art teacher in the war zone that passed for my secondary school suggested I attend life drawing evening classes at nearby Sidcup School of Art to help me gain at least one O-level – in art.  After talking to my mother he enrolled me.  It would cost the bus fare from Bromley to Sidcup and my father thought it was a waste of money.  Age fifteen and wearing his old navy blue crew neck fishing jumper and a pair of canvas work trousers dyed a patchy terracotta (the closest I could get to that half remembered beatnik look) I turned up to join a bunch of about twenty boisterous art students around an elderly naked man in a sitting pose to draw for 90-minutes while an alcoholic tutor called Mr Stone tottered around the easels to guide us.  Despite the obvious drink problem Stone’s sharp advice would be eye opening, but even more astonishing were the first and second year students attending the class.  Throughout the two sessions there was a hum of jokey conversation.  Some wore carefully faded jeans, plaid shirts or tight grey tee shirts: one had a zippered bomber jacket.  Several wore suede ankle boots and bright socks.  The girls chewed gum and had darkly made-up eyes: hair cropped Jean Seberg-style or piled high with long necks accentuated by beads.  One scruffier student carried a guitar (it would turn out to be Keith Richard).  These were definitely not beatniks – they were sharply groomed.  All talked in a jittery, punchy style swapping ironic jokes while they scrubbed crackly charcoal on rough cartridge paper.  During the ten-minute breaks for a change of pose I would sit and watch them.  Like Mr Arpino’s Italian sons they seemed foreign, almost alien: their posture, clothes and off-hand manners didn’t fit Britain’s complaining negativity.  They stood out and seemed powered by something optimistic beyond the grey monotony of the suburbs.

 

My spidery outline drawings were utterly different to the students’ bold, black graphics.  The slurring Mr Stone put me right: “First, imagine the scaffolding inside the muscles to get the posture right”, he pointed to a battered skeleton hanging in the corner of the studio.  “Now look hard at the model’s muscle mass and measure the shapes they make.  But don’t draw the model; draw the void-shapes between the model’s body and the background.  Let the model emerge from the void-shapes as you draw.”  It was the reverse of what I thought drawing was – don’t look at the object: look into and behind it: what shapes it makes: see the hidden detail – the structure.  In order to draw like this I had to analyse so hard and measure the tiny nuances of the body so carefully that my eyes hurt and by the end of the lessons I was aware of being as exhilarated and jumpy as the other students.  I was elated by the result.  It wasn’t a picture: it was a blocky graphic simulacrum of what I had seen.  By the end of the term I had also learned to mimic some of the students’ affectations – their loping postures, dynamic hand gestures and statement-based conversation.  I started to pick-up on their ideas and styles while at the same time realising I had opened a secret door into a world where the visual mattered and the detail and origin of those visuals mattered even more.

 

Pinned to notice boards scattered along the 1930s white painted corridors in the art school were asymmetrically designed posters for jazz concerts, postcard invitations to art galleries in a place called Brook Street and dry-mounted examples of third-year students’ graphic work featuring book jackets and press ads.  It became clear from overheard conversations that everyone’s target was to get into somewhere called  ‘the college’.  This turned out to be shorthand for The Royal College of Art, a place I’d never heard of.  But it seemed to have something in common with the piles of magazines in Sidcup’s canteen: chunky Swiss publications called Graphis.  This exotic European magazine turned out to be a portal into the language that Mr Stone had been pushing me to understand, the one that powered the students on their quest to the college.  That language was called ‘design’ – an utterly different vision from the shabby conformity of Britain’s recently abandoned ration-book commerce and an obvious link to those very un-British products in Dunns.  Among Graphis’s beautifully printed reproductions of Polish and Czech posters, picture essays on Italian coffee machines, Swiss signage and German packaging were monographs on strange foreign-sounding artists like Paul Klee, Kurt Schwitters, Moholy Nage, Deiter Rams, Mies van der Rohe and various American painters with German-sounding names.  This was (apparently) the continent’s clean, sharp, post-war modernist future and now I wanted it to be mine.  My dad’s old nemesis, Europe, was now cool.  Against this, Britain’s smoggy, lowest-common-denominator culture felt dead.

 

As September approached I had to decide whether to try for a permanent place at Sidcup Art School or get a job.  My mother and father agued about it and in the end my dad relented on art school on condition that I got a Saturday job that would pay for the bus fares from Bromley to Sidcup.  It was just the sort of petty condition he loved applying.  A worse condition was the new art school entrance exam established for 1962.  I would need a GCE A-Level in Art and two other O-level grades.  I had passed O-Level in Art and in Technical & Engineering Drawing.  This wasn’t really good enough, but I was told that if I passed A-Level Art I might get in on merit.  Applying what I had learned from life drawing I got the grade, and after a rambling interview with Sidcup’s head, Mr Jago, managed to get accepted.

 

Turning up in September 1961 for the first term I felt pre-embedded in the culture of the place and quite cocky about being a proper art student at last.  Throughout the summer I had practiced walking, talking and behaving like the second and third year students I had seen in the life classes.  The problem was my appearance: what the older students referred to as ‘the look’.  If my dad was mean about bus fares he was positively hostile to all but the most solid clothes and shoes.  He had ridiculed the Arpino’s sons as ‘probably homo’; regarded the Americans he had fought alongside in the war as ‘hopelessly soft’, and the French as untrustworthy, largely because in keeping with his sweeping generalisations, they wore shoes without laces.  The fact that his eldest son had started to ape all three must have been an ominous sign of moral collapse.  Worse still, he had always insisted on choosing oversized clothes that I would ‘grow into’.  But with secret help from my mother I managed to arrive on my first day at Sidcup in a pair of Lone Star jeans, a green crew-neck jumper and some cheap Italian basket weave shoes bought at Bromley’s open market.  As my father had predicted based on his experience with Italian-built wartime trucks captured in the desert, the ‘wop’ shoes fell apart after a fortnight.

 

The cohort I joined in the first year was disappointingly un-cool.  The new examination had favoured more academic students with O-Levels in Maths, Science and English, whereas the art school intakes before 1962 had apparently strolled in on artistic merit.  The difference was immediately obvious to me, although I suspect I had a chip on my shoulder about this.  Only three of the girls had any style and the males were – to a man – plain or just scruffy.  For me the big quest in that first week was to find the source of the cool look many of the second and third-year students displayed.

 

It didn’t take long.  Two tutors had it, galvanising my growing belief that the key to all this was Europe’s take on American imagery.  One was Michael Tyzack.  He arrived somewhat later in the term dressed in a sharply bohemian style with pressed Levis, ox-blood loafers and black polo neck lambs wool sweaters.  He taught us lithography, but was a painter of such extraordinary precision that his work looked more like car coachwork than acrylic on canvas.  In fact he used pin-striper’s masking tape to achieve the razor-like edges between the coloured strips that marked out his big abstracts.  But the thing that made him special was his love of modern jazz.  His studio was always awash with the sound of rare American Blue Note recordings and at lunchtime he played a trumpet in the cool West Coast manner of Chet Baker.

 

The other tutor who turned up on our first Tuesday was the young Paul Huxley: also an abstract painter just back from a scholarship year in New York.  He lectured us on colour theory as he strolled up and down the studio in that arty loping gait that I’d pretty much managed to copy.  A Tab Hunter lookalike, he wore slim pale grey slacks short enough to reveal a couple of inches of red sock above his soft bull-hide saw-tooth-soled chukka boots.  His shirts were pale blue cotton button-down Oxfords with a smaller button on the back of the collar beneath unstructured blue-and-white-striped seersucker jackets.  His blond hair was inch-cropped and sparkled in the sun.

 

Both men seemed touched by something mysteriously magical that even the coolest students couldn’t match.  Leaving aside the style of their transatlantic paintings, where on Earth would I find these clothes – that look?  As far as I could tell – it had something to do with abstract painting.

 

American painters of the New York school were sometimes featured in Graphis.  One who stood out was Jasper Johns.  His relatively recent flag and target paintings echoed the all-American Levis, tee shirts and puffer jackets that he wore to paint them: no smocks or splashed oils anywhere.  In one issue the magazine printed a series small black and white frames of him painting his flags on the floor of his Manhattan studio and the pictures of him crouching as he worked in his Alpha Industries flight jacket revealed white Converse All Star basketball boots with stripes around the sides of the soles.  I noted these unattainable details with more passion than the paintings. 

 

Three students had managed to mimic this jet-age look.  One was a third-year graphics student called Dave Chaston, another was a second year, Paul Chave.  A third called Brian Boyle had gone way out with a pale gold American drip-dry suit, knitted tie and Gant button-down shirt.  Somehow these students (who seemed to have plenty of money) had found somewhere that sold ‘the look’, but for us first year students – all probationary for the first six months and therefore forced to work really hard – the source remained secret.

 

My father had been brought up in pre-war Bermondsey and during the late fifties and early sixties we’d often drive there through its bombed-out streets to see members of our extended family.  He loved markets so we’d sometimes stop-off at Lewisham or occasionally cross the river to Redchurch Street (then a market) in search of eels, winkles, crab and fresh celery for supper.  On winter afternoons the East End stalls were lit by Tilley lamps and among the cheap crockery and vegetables, one trader – I think it was in Brick Lane –sold clothes ‘diverted’ from American military PX stores under a hand painted sign: ‘Genuine American Imports’.  It was here in early 1962 that I first saw under the baleful light of the lamps stiff new Levi jeans folded in stacks on a stall.  I knew by now that it was essential to get a size bigger so they could be shrunk to fit, but they were expensive and being with my father meant there was no chance to buy them even if I’d been able to afford a pair.  The location was noted, although I’ve forgotten it now, and that small piece of detailed knowledge gave me a bit of kudos when talking with fellow art students.  It was events like this – spotting stuff – that heralded a definite change.  A subculture was developing around products, their design and their availability. 

 

Attending art school and living at home with mum and dad, brother and sister was a life of double identity.  I had to do humdrum chores for my half-a-crown week’s spending money and on Saturday mornings I earned ten-shillings serving customers in an old-fashioned open-fronted hardware shop.  I didn’t mind: it was a financial necessity.  All my old school friends had started full-time employment in banks or offices, usually making tea, doing the post and filing paperwork.  Some worked in their parents’ shops in various high streets and a couple of the prettier girls got jobs serving customers in Dunns.  Almost all hated it, but they had money to spend and for this they could be envied.  In the early 1960s, with Britain’s hire purchase schemes in full swing and import controls lifted, these fellow teenagers could buy things (if they could find them) that I could only dream of.  But news of what to buy travelled slowly so that ideas and trends evolved snail-like over many months. 

 

Apart from Dunns, another place in Bromley where opinions and ideas were exchanged was an Italian coffee bar called Angelino’s that had opened in the high street during late 1960.  By 1963 it had become a popular Sunday morning gathering place when the rest of the high street was closed.  The working kids that turned up in slim-fitting suits or jackets and slacks had often put down deposits on now forgotten small Italian motorcycles and scooters with names like Moto Rumi, Itom and AerMacchi and they would line them up against the kerb outside.  At this time there was no division between riders of motorcycles, mopeds and scooters – or at least not European ones.  It was the machines’ colourful continental cool that the riders celebrated – a cool I had glimpsed eight years earlier with Mr Arpino’s sons and later during my stay in Paris.  Along with the chrome swirls of the espresso machine and the owner’s operatic accent there was something quite different about this sunny world where art students and working kids gathered and where obscure foreign detail slowly came to matter to us all.  For example, in 1961 Alfa Romeo had started to export cars to Britain and a year later a friend’s father bought a blocky, buff-coloured Giulia.  It was immediately noticed that the badge on its bonnet said Alfa Romeo Milano.  The word ‘Milano’ cast Alfas as a cool brand, while almost anything French was cool.  Also cool, once they started to be worn, was the red selvedge cotton on the leg seam of Levis, always displayed with a tiny turn-up – an essential detail that was cool.  The roll of a button-down collar would soon matter, and in turn the curl of the collar would make anything but Brooks Brothers shirts un-cool.  The Vibram logo on the sole of a pair of French shoes once deemed cool would also matter.  Soon every brand detail would be studied and either rejected as un-cool or by agreement classed as cool, but because the only transmission of what was and what was not cool moved by word-of-mouth, consensus was extremely slow to coalesce and more often than not, by the time it had become accepted as cool, something else would be replacing it – one month it was round shoe laces that were cool, the next it would be flat laces, so that by mid-1963 the first signs of an arty movement that celebrated obscure and usually foreign detail had taken root across all classes of kids who met to share ideas.

 

Michael Tyzack read Downbeat magazine.  In the early sixties it was a rare and expensive American publication devoted to jazz and he’d snip out pictures he liked and pin them to his studio wall.  One was of West Coast saxophonist Gerry Mulligan standing in profile with his oversized baritone sax.  He was dressed like Paul Huxley but his short slacks revealed Clark’s desert boots.  It looked really cool.

 

In 1963 Clarks sold desert boots for 29/6d.  A shop in Bromley high street that stocked Clarks school shoes could get them, although they had slightly thinner crepe soles than the US export versions (a detail quickly spotted by the gimlet-eyed art students).  Saving for a few weeks, desert boots were something cool I could afford and get – and they didn’t fall apart.  Desert boots quickly became commonplace throughout art school.  Coupled to parallel-cut trousers they added to that lean loafing gait now laughed at by my dad (Ironically he had worn desert boots himself at El Alamein: hence the name, but always referred to them as ‘brothel creepers’).  The critical thing was to keep them fresh and clean.  Anything scuffed or stained was regarded as sloppy, so it was quickly discovered that Ajax scouring powder and a damp toothbrush could revive the bull hide suede to an even whiter grey than the originals.  Red laces (sometimes flat, sometimes round) were also a fad.

 

Late in 1963 we heard that Sidcup School of Art was to be amalgamated with Beckenham Art School to become Ravensbourne College of Design & Technology located in a brand new Corbusier-style building on Bromley Common (It was from here that David Bowie would emerge).  A separate photography, film and animation vocational group would be sited in the old Edwardian technical school in Bromley town, a stone’s throw from Bromley’s original school of art.  I opted for photography and animation, but for now Sidcup remained vibrant with its sunny 1920’s façade and front lawn a place for guitar jam sessions and amplified record playing. 

 

For some time there had been a style of slow jive stomp dancing that had crossed over from the lingering fifties craze for traditional jazz, particularly among the girls, and to dance this a slow rolling rhythm was essential (Imagine New Orleans funeral processions).  Britain’s recently created pop charts were full of gimmicky ‘twist’ tunes, but a guitar-playing student called Roy Barker brought in a rare Howilin’ Wolf LP and a particular track got played again and again: ‘How Many More Years’.  It had the right beat for the stomp dance and very quickly an entire style of guitar blues took hold of the student group.  It would peak with Tommy Tucker’s rhythm-and-blues hit ‘High Heel Sneakers’ and these uncharted records opened the door to another drive for originality, detail and uniqueness.  Within months it was no good just having the record, it had to be on the original American label, and it would be essential to know about its pedigree and who was playing what on it.  Just like the details on clothes the quest for obscure information and originality became an insane race in pursuit of trivia that would be elevated to ‘gold dust’ (the modernist term for valuable) as the stories about provenances were retold and embellished with yet more facts.  Everything suffered from this obsession with detail.  The inevitable consequence was that things without detail weren’t cool, whereas obscure difficult-to-find detail was cool.  It was becoming a sort of madness.

 

In the summer of 1963 a local Bromley friend who was studying at the technical college told me that he’d heard of a shop in Shaftesbury Avenue selling American clothes.  His name was Paul Scorer and he said it was called Austins.  Shortly afterwards, one Saturday afternoon when I had finished working in the hardware shop, we both took a train to Charing Cross and walked up to Austins.  I had saved most of my money, but when we got there almost everything was beyond my budget.  It had seersucker jackets, soft herringbone sports jackets with hook vents and patch pockets, Levis, ox-blood Corfam loafers, crisp khaki chinos, washable suits, button down roll-collar shirts, cream raglan-sleeve raincoats – almost everything.  Clearly this was the place, or at least one place where the look could be bought.  On the way back we detoured through Carnaby Street.  It seemed quite drab, but there were a few guys hanging around dressed in dark suits and suede shoes with bouffant-style hair-dos.  They obviously weren’t art students, but they were pretty exotic.  They would turn out to be Mods.

 

‘Mod’ was a term that had been around the art school world for years – it mostly referred to those well scrubbed jazz-fan-students I had first noticed in the life drawing classes with Chuck Yeager ‘college boy’ haircuts: sharper-looking than everyone else with their edgy behavioural characteristics – but the term finally made headlines in 1964 when groups of scooter-riding kids hit coastal towns and started rioting.  They called themselves Mods, which was of course different from being called ‘Mod’.

 

What seemed to have happened was that ‘the look’ that art students had gone in search of during the early sixties had triggered an alert among their wage-earning peers in places like Hackney and Lewisham that a certain approach to life and certain stuff associated with it was cool. 

 

To art students cool wasn’t the English tab-collar, Chelsea boot-wearing, narrow tie style of the sharp dresser that distinguished cash-rich East End youngsters, but the hip attachment to European influences including American jazz which was a big part of Scandinavian and French culture in the late fifties.  Being neat and cool had rapidly become a counter-cultural movement among art students, a colourful way of life that set itself against, not just urban greyness, but also the sloppy-Joe existential gloom and negativity of beatniks.  Ironically only the salaried kids could afford to fully indulge in it.  Much of the material detail that the art students had identified was simply beyond their own financial (or often geographical) reach.  In effect, the working kids became the carriers of the art students’ fantasies.  It couldn’t last.  Within months (and it was that quick) the working kids adapted it to suit a very non-intellectual street-wise version of the lifestyle.  By early 1964 Mod was nothing to do with jazz or French clothes and everything to do with baked-beans-on-toast and punch-ups: an inward-looking, rather xenophobic, anti-greaser gang culture that would continue to morph, first into the skinheads, then punk, northern soul and eventually acid raves. 

 

Meanwhile art students in 1964, driven by the atrocities of the Vietnam War, quickly politicised themselves, turning against the American consumerism they had celebrated, while the new Mods dived into its new British manifestation to gorge themselves on trash in Carnaby Street’s burgeoning boutiques.  These working class kids crowded into clubs to hear groups like the Downliners Sect, the Pretty Things, Alexis Korner and the High Numbers (later The Who) playing tin-pan-alley versions of the same American R&B material that the art students had unearthed.  Then something strange happened.  The working class kids’ culture completely submerged its art school origins to become a home grown cultural force in its own right.  Mod became entirely British.

 

In 1964 an exhibition at the Tate rounded it all off by bringing to the UK for the first time the original painting and sculpture that had triggered the whole thing.  It was called the 54-64 Exhibition: a ten-year retrospective of American art including Jasper Johns’ targets and flags.  I went to see it in the summer of 1964.  The magic dream-distance that had existed between the reality and the myth was now closed – we could almost touch the work we had idolised through Graphis.  This was the real thing and it felt oddly old fashioned compared with the new multi-cultural frenzy on London’s streets with its West Indian Blue Beat music, increasingly eccentric fashion and crackling squadrons of glittering Vespas.

 

The appearance of red, white and blue roundels, Korean War M51 parkas and mirror-bedecked scooters – hollow echoes of East Coast pop-art and West Coast customising culture – were now anthropologically scrutinised by the very same art students who had uncovered the original versions three years earlier.  This distinctly British modernism was even celebrated in Ark, the Royal College of Art’s house magazine, when in early 1964 it published an article about Eddie Grimstead’s scooter customising business in East London and on its cover showed a pair of the All Star basketball shoes I had spotted in Graphis in 1962. 

 

In less than three years, the obsessive rush to deconstruct everything in search of that elusive cool detail had come full circle.  British street-youth culture’s irreverent take on pop iconography and rare underground music came to the fore and morphed into a completely new form of Mod, emerging as the harbinger of the hard-edged consumerism that would drive the British economy for the rest of the century.

 

In 1966 I graduated to the Royal College of Art, sold my Italian scooter and bought a German motorcycle.