2017 was a poignant year for me. It was 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality and 50 years since the death of one of my heroes, Leicester’s own trailblazing and subversive playwright Joe Orton. It was also the year that my father John Nixon passed away from Pancreatic Cancer, aged 69.
At the funeral, I got chatting to one of Dad’s oldest friends, Pete Townsend. Who? No, not Roger Daltrey’s guitar-smashing sidekick, but brother-in-law of Sue Townsend, the biggest selling author of the 1980s and creator of Britain’s spottiest and most intellectual adolescent, Adrian Mole.
Through our emotionally charged lager-induced ramblings we realised we’d independently embarked on projects about illustrious Leicester folk. What’s more, it struck us that there were many influential Leicester creatives who’d emerged from the cultural and social revolution of the 1960s. Painters, writers, musicians, photographers – a profusion of struggling artists coming together in what seems to have been a cultural melting pot.
Pete’s project actually began alongside Sue Townsend but had sadly faded before her untimely death in 2014. In a not too dissimilar process to me they’d kicked-off by collating a list of enigmatic, and some obscure Leicestrians (or whatever is our fair city’s official collective noun…Leicestercians, Leicesterites; I’ve never been sure?). The roll-call included the likes of CP Snow, Colin Wilson, Joe Orton, Bryan Organ and Graham Chapman. The names were whittled down into an impressive roster of 1960s creatives who’d left their indelible marks on the city.
I wasn’t around in the swinging sixties, but Dad was a raconteur who waxed lyrical about the virtues of this fascinating period, so I’d always felt an affinity. He’d said the creative tension in Leicester at this time was palpable. As a creative person myself I wanted to find out more, so I began researching for a proposed documentary idea I’d had.
I’d always found it extraordinary that a group of my Dad’s friends and contemporaries from Leicester in the sixties went on to achieve remarkable successes in their respective creative fields, including:
Some of these names may not be on everyone’s radar in the same way that Daniel Lambert or King Richard III are ingrained in Leicester’s psyche, but in my mind their individual creative talents deserve to be promoted – at least on a local level.
I wanted to find out how these creatives from little old Leicester were able to make their mark. Admittedly some of them didn’t make it big until the 70s or 80s, however they all cut their teeth in the 60s inspired by the creative explosion of the time. They had their grounding in their home town. They were ‘made in Leicester.’
One of the oldest and most historic cities in the UK, in 1936 The Bureau of Statistics identified the industrial powerhouse Leicester as the second richest city in Europe. With a booming economy primarily via the success of hosiery and shoe manufacturing, the city’s slogan was ‘Leicester clothes the world.’ By the end of World War II, the city was starting to change, but the 1960s was the decade that transformed Leicester, socially and economically. The war had changed people’s attitudes, they were now more carefree, and although a provincial city, there was a futuristic vision for Leicester.
Where once you were expected to follow your parents into factories or white collar jobs, there was now a fresh sense of opportunity and a rejection of the norm. The first teenage generation free from national service had a new found freedom; sexually, socially and creatively. Leicester was only 100 miles away from London, the epicentre of this global revolution, and this ideology was seeping through.
Leicester was buzzing with these cool rebellious kids who would ultimately be coined by the media as Mods. Some of them were progressive stylists, modernists and entrepreneurs, and it’s become clear that some of them didn’t want to be labeled. Retrospectively some of them don’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Mod stereotype either: the scooter riding, beach fighting, pill popping, Parka wearing tribe. This perception is one which we’re raising in the project, whilst also highlighting the creativity and individuality these young people were displaying. In fact, some of the content that has cropped up is far more revealing than anything that can be seen in Quadrophenia.
2017 was also a seminal year for me. In August that year, only a few weeks into my research, I was contacted by social history author Shaun Knapp. I was familiar with Shaun’s work as I’d just finished reading his captivating book about the sixties music scene in Leicester – High Flying Around.
Whilst researching his new book Shaun had listened to Dad’s archive recordings that he’d carried out back in 2003 with The East Midlands Oral History Archive (EMOHA). This is was an initiative set up in 1983 to record people from Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland reflecting on their life history, helping to conserve valuable memories.
Dad’s name had been put forward to the Manager of EMOHA, Colin Hyde, as he recalls: “I first met John Nixon, who’s often known as ‘Jelly’, in the early 2000s and it was because I wanted to record memories of being a teenager in post-war Leicester and Jelly was so well known as being one of the gurus of the local music scene from the early sixties onwards. Everyone said “oh you’ve got to go and talk to him, he knows everything. So I did go and talk to him and I recorded his memories over a couple of visits for quite a few hours. He did know everything and he was just this great source of information about loads of different aspects of youth culture through the 1960s.”
With his love of Modern Jazz and his obsession with style, Dad and his friends were at the inception of the original Mod subculture. He was a DJ at the all night club Burlesque, a musician, a dancer and he regularly frequented the legendary Leicester club The ll Rondo in Silver Street, where he met bands like The Who when they were on the cusp of greatness. It was around this time his nickname ‘Jelly’ was born, which would last his lifetime, though later abbreviated to ‘Jel’. Along with his close friends Jack and Steph, Dad had developed a prominence around the city and a reputation for mercurial behaviour in Nottingham, London and other cities. They had just the right level of attitude to be quintessential ‘faces’ on the scene. Later in life, Dad talked about the sixties a lot but this was his heyday in one of the most revolutionary eras of modern history.
Shaun explained that he’d also been energised by Dad’s passionate and detailed recordings and wanted to use the material as a catalyst to develop his new book about the Mod scene in Leicester and Nottingham. I agreed to meet with Shaun and we immediately hit it off.
We exchanged ideas and realised the potential for a wider project. By combining our expertise perhaps we could develop an ambitious programme encompassing Shaun’s book, my documentary, and an exhibition highlighting the untold story of the Leicester and Nottingham Mod scene based around his work. We pitched to New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, they loved it and Shaping a Generation was born.
We also felt there was scope to involve young creatives from today to help bring this story to life. We approached local charity Soft Touch Arts who use creativity as a tool to help change the lives of disadvantaged young people. The design agency I co-founded, Arch Creative, had been working closely with Soft Touch Art’s Director Chris Wigmore for the last five years. I knew that Chris shared a passion for the sixties and that the creative facets that typified the Mod subculture (fashion, music, photography, art and design) reflect the activities that Soft Touch Arts use so successfully. Chris shared our vision, and set about developing a comprehensive programme incorporating creative workshops for their young people which would culminate in a separate exhibition entitled Modified.
To make this all a reality we would of course need some funding. Chris and fellow Soft Touch Director Sally Norman put together a fantastic pitch based around intergenerational communities coming together and outlining the heritage at risk and several months later we found out we were successful with our application. Emily Knight, the Grants Officer from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, explains:
“We are thrilled that with money from the National Lottery we are able to support this innovating and exciting project. Nottingham and Leicester had a fascinating mod scene and this project is the perfect opportunity to explore and celebrate this!”
The initial idea has snowballed, now incorporating a fringe festival called REVIVE which is happening over the three weekends in June and involving most of Leicester’s most prominent venues. We’re thankful that new business initiative Bid Leicester is also supporting the project with their inaugural sponsorship.
Personally speaking the project has evolved into voyage of discovery. I’ve learned a lot more about Dad and for the first time listened to his recordings, which has been a cathartic process.
I’ve been particularly enlightened by the comments being shared on the Facebook group and the interesting characters that I’ve met. One of Dad’s old friends William English introduced me to the highly respected fashion stylist Roger K Burton. In turn this has led to Roger bringing his extensive collection of original Mod clothing to the exhibition, including many of the costumes featured in the cult movie Quadrophenia.
Shaun introduced me to Alan Fletcher, story consultant on Quadrophenia and writer of the novel of the same name, and we’ve enjoyed developing some film interviews with him working alongside young people from Soft Touch Arts, DeMontfort University and Leicester College. There was an element of serendipity when we realised that 2019 was the 40th anniversary of the film Quadrophenia and we’d already managed to attract two key figures from this iconic movie. I met up with Sue Townsend’s eldest son Sean (who helped inspire Adrian Mole). He gave me some photos of Sue in the sixties, looking striking in her continental Modernist attire. We’re delighted to be able to highlight her story within the project. Sean also contributed to our successful Heritage Lottery Fund application:
“The organisers are including Sue Townsend as a Leicester participant in the ‘bohemian’, city-centre coffee bar culture of the early 60’s, which led to so much of the later cultural explosion known as modernism. Sue left home at 15, and was certain that she would never have become a writer without this surrogate family and ideas factory. It’s a fascinating era that fostered social mobility and the promotion of talent regardless of class or region, which is becoming harder and harder to achieve for the current generation.”
I’ve also been lucky enough to photograph many of the original Mods as part of the Mods 19:64 exhibition. We’ve been visiting some of their old haunts in Leicester and Nottingham and interviewing some key characters for a series of short films. Some of these faces I’d already known through Dad, but Shaun Knapp has introduced me to many more who are featured in his new book Mods: Two City Connection. They’ve been friendly subjects who are excited to be involved and share their stories. I’ve been privileged to have some sneak-peaks from Shaun’s book, it makes for a fascinating read and I can’t wait to read the finished version and learn even more about them and their lives.
I knew Pete was ill but it still came as a shock when he died of cancer in August 2018. He was a great supporter of this project and I’d been in regular contact with him until a few weeks before he passed away. He was writing a piece for Shaun’s book at the time, which remains unfinished, however Shaun has managed to collate some insightful excerpts. I know that Pete was excited to be included as part of Shaun’s book and the wider project so I’m pleased we’re able to include something. This is one of the main reasons why capturing these thoughts, memories and stories is imperative now before it’s too late. The work that is being achieved via Shaun’s book, the exhibitions and the films is an extension of the recordings that Colin Hyde and his team at EMOHA have created. We’re preserving this material for posterity and as a legacy for all of the characters involved.
‘Once a Mod, always a Mod’ is a mantra which Dad followed. He made sure he dressed in style and was always immaculately turned out until the end. If he was able to hang on for another six months Dad would have met up with Shaun instead and would have loved the opportunity to be involved in all of this. I’m grateful that Shaun contacted me, I’m proud of what we’ve all achieved so far and I’m thankful to all of the original Mods, Soft Touch Arts, The Heritage Lottery Fund, Bid Leicester and all of the sponsors who have helped bring our vision to life.