Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Taking Candy From a Dog - An Evocative & Heartwarming Autobiographical Novel by Vic Templar

Vic Templar, the author of "Taking Candy From A Dog" might be better known to music fans as Ian Greensmith. Ian is a Writer, Drummer, Vibraphonist, Gardener and retired Cricketer whose favourite writers include Alan Silitoe, Graham Greene and Keith Waterhouse. This is his sixth book since the first was published in 1987 and Billy Childish’s Hangman Books have published three of them. Ian was a mainstay of the Medway 'scene', drumming with The Dentists and then Armitage Shanks and Ye Ascoyne D’Ascoynes along with Bob Collins. More recently he has played with The Sine Waves and the superb Nuevo Ramon 5 (the story of which is well worth checking out) and has just released a debut single with The Dirty Contacts on State Records. He now lives near Hastings where he runs the regular Fratcave club events and the yearly Beatwave Weekenders with Justin Ellis. 

The book opens in the present day with our hero rummaging around in his Dad’s loft searching in vain for Luke, a long-lost monkey sock puppet. The search evokes memories of a contented childhood and we are spirited away back in time to Chatham, Kent in the late 60's and placed right in the heart of the Smith family. Is this an autobiography, a novel or a metaphorical tale of a man searching for those idyllic days of childhood? I guess it is a bit of each. What I do know is that "Taking Candy From A Dog" is a heart-warming portrait of a ‘normal’ family from the late 60's to the mid-70’s. I put normal in inverted commas there as I can really relate to this book and I always considered myself fairly normal! There are no great dramas or hardships in the young Ian Smith's life but the beauty in the writing is to keep us entertained by the evocative vignettes and lovingly described characters that surround him. So, where does Luke the monkey come in? Luke is a well travelled woollen sock puppet with a nice line in sardonic humour. Each chapter is interrupted by his sarcastic take on events as seen through his (button) eyes and this adds a nice touch of world-weary cynicism to Ian's cheerful reminiscing. Luke explains about his creation and early life in San Francisco and how he ended up in a family home in the Medway. Along the way he drops in some withering put-downs and observations on his new English owners. These owners are Ian and his younger sister Kes. Ian's world revolves around Football, particularly Chatham, Gillingham and George Best. He loves Sure Shot Hockey, Subbuteo, Airfix Models and I-Spy books. 

The writing style perfectly encapsulates the era and many familiar brand names from my own youth spring from the pages. The Six Million Dollar Man on TV, drinking Tizer and R. White’s Lemonade and reading Sweeney annuals. There’s celery and Primula and paste sandwiches for tea. Ian observes all the adults around him, his family and their various friends. The men wear beige slacks and tan shoes and drink beer. “Lager is seen as Continental and treated with suspicion”. They have tattoos of “hearts, anchors, snakes or the bust of a raven-haired woman” and their cars “smell of leather and cigars”. The women wear Crimplene and nylon and discuss whether Pontins in Bognor Regis is better than Butlins. Throughout the book there are amusing Billy Liar style fantasy sequences in which Ian sets off on a road trip to Manchester for tea with George Best and later appears on the Michael Parkinson chat show. We move on to 1977, it’s the Queen’s Jubilee and the seismic rumblings of Punk Rock start to make waves in Ian's world. Suddenly, his older cousin Lee cuts his hair short and gets hold of a copy of the Sex Pistols “God Save The Queen”. Ian is desperate to hear what all the fuss is about but Lee makes him wait until one day when the whole family are sitting around together having their tea. Lee puts the black shiny plastic disc on the Ferguson record player, places the needle down and unleashes all that venomous sound and fury. Finally, the wait is over for Ian. “This is it. The record begins. The guitars and drums and then Johnny Rotten starts screaming. My life changes. It sounds like the Charge of The Light Brigade. It sounds like World War I. It sounds like Krakatoa. It sounds wonderful. Grandad says “Bloody Hellfire”, Nan says “What’s he singing?” and Mum says “What a load of bollocks!” Jack and Kes start singing “No fuchsias, no fuchsias, no fuchsias for you”. Life will never be the same again. 

Indeed, there are after-school fisticuffs, girls and parties and attempts at forming bands. There is a superb chapter on a quest of Holy Grail proportions trying to track down a copy of Buzzcocks “Spiral Scratch” on the day of release as advertised in the NME. Those were the days when buying records involved an actual physical journey and Ian traipses from record store to record store in vain. Hastings, Tunbridge Wells, Margate, Maidstone, no luck. Finally, it takes an elderly and unlikely shop assistant in Hythe to tell him that the release date had actually been delayed. Ian struggles with the various fashions and youth cults of the time and tries to cultivate his own ‘look’. Inspired somewhat by The Fall’s Mark E Smith he decides on ‘eccentric’ but ends up looking like Percy Thrower with Tweed jackets, bri-nylon shirts and woollen cardigans with leather buttons. There is a bittersweet tone to the last few chapters but I guess that just reflects the reality of getting older. Family bereavements, leaving school and having to deal with becoming an adult. Thatcher closing down the Dockyard. “400 years of Chatham history flushed down the pan overnight”. Jobs are either lost or people are relocated to start new careers. Close-knit communities drift apart. There is a big clear out for the move. It’s time to say goodbye to childhood trivialities as once loved toys are consigned to the local Cub Scout jumble sale. It is a poignant moment. His sister’s dolls and teddy bears are next and she picks up Luke and hesitates, looking at the black plastic bag destined for the sale and then back again at Luke… So what happened to Luke? Did the adult Ian ever find it up in his Dad’s loft or did the tatty sock puppet end up on a trestle table at the Cub Scout’s hut. Maybe it was picked up for a few pence and spirited away on another adventure. I am not telling. You will just have to buy the book to find out.

The Author (2nd left) with the Nuevo Ramon 5 - Photo Retro Man Blog
Taking Candy From a Dog by Vic Templar is published by Blackheath Books and available from their web-site. For more information on this year's Beatwave Weekender please check out their Facebook page. You can read a report on last year's Beatwave in the Blog archive here and a review of The Dirty Contacts at the Lexington here. Please click on the highlighted links throughout the feature for more info on the mentioned events and bands.

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