My mum and dad didn’t talk about politics much – I was introduced to socialism by my maternal grandad – a retired railwayman, and a socialist to his fingertips. He was fiercely devoted to Nye Bevan, the man who fought to get the NHS established. And the other source of that kind of education was the Daily Mirror which landed on the doormat every morning.
In those days it was a Labour paper through and through and the boldness of headlines and the easy to read news stories helped to reinforce grandad’s lessons. But of course it had dramatic stories as well, like the one on the right about rock star Eddie Cochran’s death at an Easter weekend where another 30 people died across the UK in car accidents.
And then there were the cartoon strips, like Andy Capp (left) with his mixture of misogyny, laconic observation and laziness, and the chisel jawed Garth who battled various villains throughout the world and many different chronological eras.
But my favourite was a relatively late arrival around sixty years ago. It featured the lives of a group of urban kids and their dog The stories are set in the fairly drab fictional town of Croynge (sometimes spelled Crunge), which is apparently a mixture of Croydon and Penge. Back then I knew nothing about the geography of South London and I would have had no idea where those places were.
It was written (and latterly drawn) by Maurice Dodd until his death in 2005. Looking at the strips now there’s a nostalgic, out-of-time feeling to them, harking back to the thirties perhaps, and not really relating to the lives of kids in the early 1960s. I suppose liked them for the same reason that I liked the stories in the Beano about the Bash Street Kids and Lord Snooty, or even The Famous Five.
There were four main characters: Marlon, good hearted but gormless, Maisie the proto-feminist, and Wellington the intellectual of the group, who lived in a disused railway carriage with Boot his scruffy Old English sheepdog.
Their adventures take place in a largely adult free world, and (as far as I remember) have an inconsequential, dreamlike quality which is best exemplified by their yearly visit to the seaside. They always appeared in the summer holidays, which has probably help fixed the story of the Eyeballs in the Sky in my memory.
Every year, when the four ‘kid’ characters arrived in the seaside resort of St Moribund’s, Boot would look in on the the crabs in one of the rockpool. These crabs eagerly awaited this annual appearance of a phenomenon they referred to as ‘the Eyeballs in the Sky’ because all they ever saw of Boot were his eyes and nose.
There was always a lot of bickering between the crabs, some of whom saw the arrival of the eyeballs as a ‘sign’, and others who dismissed the whole manifestation as a fantasy. By the time the storyline ended after a couple of weeks Boot would stroll away from the pool leaving a crab ‘pooliverse’ in a state of chaos.
I discovered – when I started writing this piece – that there’s a big internet fanbase for this surreal cartoon strip, and it’s helped refocus the memory of my interest in it. I didn’t know that a tv cartoon series had been made in the 1970s, but I can’t believe it would have had the gentle anarchy and surreal quality of the original strip.
The Daily Mirror continued to come through my parents’ door through the sixties and early seventies. They still never talked about politics, but on a visit towards the end of the seventies when I was heavily involved in Labour party politics we found Dad reading the Daily Mail. By then we were reading the Guardian of course. and identifying with the cartoon strip about middle-class family life written by Posy Simmons. So I lost touch with the saga of the Eyeballs in the Sky. But no doubt somewhere in some parallel universe of childhood, Wellington, Maisie, Marlon and Boot are still on their way to St Moribund and the rockpool crabs are gearing themselves up for the next manifestation.
Let’s hope so.