Top of the Sixties
  by David Ayres

Holland Park Press
First Collection

"Certain things never change. Your parents will always be alive and you will never leave school. I didn’t believe I would have to start shaving and I would always be part of the 'younger generation'. "

Reviewed by Sue Haigh

Those intimations of immortality never quite go away for us, do they? I mean, heck, I still see myself as part of that generation which puzzles, irritates and terrifies a decade of parents and employers in David Ayres's collection, Top of the Sixties. I am one of those 1960s grammar school girls who pop up here, years ahead of the women's movement, seriously heading for distant universities and future fights for equality, but who, for the moment, are hiding their brain-power under bee-hive hair-dos, a Park Drive filter-tip fug and a devil-may-care attitude to sex (which may or may not happen in these pre-Pill times).

Ayres's stories aren't driven by memories of those heralds of social change, the Beatles and The Stones (Fret is the only story where the main protagonist is a young aspiring rock star, who finally bows to the pressures of common sense and finds success in an entirely different field.) These well-told tales are set in the Midlands of England, far enough away from the rumoured iniquities of London for life to remain overshadowed by the remembered gloom of the Fifties, but near enough for the odd whiff of something more exciting (and probably illegal) to come drifting in on the breeze. The naughtiness of the young Mick Jagger (how is it that he still manages to look just as naughty in ageing knighthood, when the rest of us have long since given up on bad?) creeps into the consciousness of the a new generation, but only on the periphery of its life.

Ayres returns to an era when everything was more innocent. Imagine (or, in my case, remember) at time when blackberries were something your mum made jam with; when telephones were installed in red kiosks half a mile away from your house; when the internet, mobile phones, computers, CDs, DVDs, Facebook, Twitter, Kindles - those things which have woven themselves into the very fabric of the lives of the young today – were still decades away, a dim gleam in the unborn eyes of future scientists and entrepreneurs. But was it really so innocent? The bawdy joshing of the 14-year-old Elvis look-alike delivery boy by the local estate housewives in A Sack of Spuds would probably have social workers rushing to his aid today. And that university lecturer in The Drama Queen? The story, told in the form of letters (remember those old-fashioned hand written messages?), of his relationship with the manipulative schoolgirl, Viv, would be enough to sell every copy of The News of the World twice over.

Ayres's portrayals of the inhabitants of this Midlands backwater are often touching and sympathetic with a fair dollop of nostalgia folded into the mixture, a sort of Heimweh for a shower-free world where perfume was the only deodorant; when teenage boys read the Eagle and made Airfix models; when only the poorest women worked; when Old Spice filled the air; when barbers embarrassed young clients by offering them ‘something for the week-end, sir'; when same-sex sex, (delicately suggested in Awakening and Wetton Mill) let alone marriage was an inadmissable offence. If young Keith Golders's parents are hard on him in A Sack of Spuds, it's because life has been hard on them. In Ayres's world everyone knows where their boundaries should be and political correctness is far away in the future. Sex is still safe, too, often taking place only in the pubescent fantasies of naïve young men on the cusp of adulthood. Those ambitious grammar school girls are altogether more knowing, more deliberately provocative, in this era before girls and boys became pals. The aptly-named Cherry in Latin Girl knows about kissing and tongues, about rubber johnnies and blowing smoke rings; in the end, it's she who dumps the over-cautious Glyn because he hasn't "done it" yet.

Many routes lead to the broad horizon of adulthood. Alistair, the scruffy young teacher, smartens up and joins the human race in Alistair's Triumph; in Baz to the Slaughter Baz confronts death in the abattoir and wonders about his own mortality; Keith Golders looks back on his Elvis days and graduates from university in A Gift of Lilies; Cherry rejects a going-nowhere shack-up in favour of her academic ambitions. Out of the Box examines the inner struggles of the teenage David, distraught at an impending house-move and the prospect of having to leave the safe womb of his childhood bedroom; but unexpected vistas open up in his life when Tania appears…; Quinny, the Romany boy, teaches his temporary classmate, Raymond, the real meaning of education:
My place in life is to move with the seasons and to learn to understand this world. I don't have much call for money, but I can make money if I need it. What about you, Ray? What do you want to be?
What is Raymond being educated for at the local comprehensive? Does anybody care?

Ayres's dialogue is excellent in the Keith Golders stories which begin and end the collection (I would love to have seen more stories closely linked in the same way); but Latin Girl and Alistair's Triumph, amongst other pieces, seem to have been written at a different time in his career. Here, the language searches for that vibrancy allows characters to step out into full limelight.

Nevertheless, Ayres creates a strong sense of place (although I occasionally felt lists of ‘Sixties things' intruded). These stories are deeply rooted in a society he knows, a society in evolution, rather than revolution. No anti-Vietnam war protesters here, no CND marchers; Ayres's folk are parents scarred and worried by the deprivations of the Second World War, whilst their offspring move determinedly, if naively, upwards through free university education, reminding those of our age and background (one we hardly dared admit to at the ivy-league universities where we somehow ended up) of the importance of that educational freedom in changing our world. Let's hope the present-day politicians who decide the future of this and the next generation will remember it, too.

Read an excerpt from a story from this collection on Holland Park Press

Writer, editor and reviewer Sue Haigh has written a début novel, Missing Words, a Scottish short story collection, The Snow Lazarus (supported by the Scottish Book Trust), a bilingual children’s book, Stories from a Cave, and two radio plays. She lives in a cave house in France.
Sue's other Short Reviews: "Women Aloud" audiobook

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A former language teacher, pilot and rock guitarist, David Ayres claims to be influenced by Flaubert, Thomas Mann, H G Wells and Thomas Hardy. He lives in Lichfield, Staffordshire. He has published several novels, including, The Called and the Chosen (Lichfield Press) and A Minor Relationship (Minerva Press).

Read an interview with David Ayres