One of the questions that continually arose from my editor, my writing group and several other friends who reviewed the manuscripts of my novelette Walking Backwards for Christmas: a Tale of Woe from Soggyhall or its upcoming full-length sequel The Bluebottle Boys was “What is a Teddy Boy?” This set of articles is my humble attempt to answer this question.
For those of you who’ve come to this site from a search engine, or from some other place other than my novelette, are wondering who in blazes Reggie and Uncle Roddy are, and why you should care, a brief explanation is in order.
Reggie Stone is the eight-year-old hero protagonist of this novelette and, as he gets older, a series of novelettes and novels to come, all told by Reggie’s 24-year-old self (for reasons that will become clearer as the novels progress). Roderick “Uncle Roddy” Borland is Reggie’s mother’s (substantially) younger brother, and Reggie’s favourite uncle, who was a Teddy Boy between 1952 and 1958, or roughly from when Reggie was a baby until he was six years old.
One additional fact which is referenced in passing is that Solihull (where much of the story takes place) was bombed three times (that I know of) during the Second World War.
Reggie’s grandfather in the novelette briefly recounts the first of these, on 19 November 1940, when Uncle Roddy himself was eight years old. I will leave it to you whether the bombings (and any resulting PTSD) had and/or continue to have any bearing on Uncle Roddy’s psyche during his time as a Teddy Boy.
Why should you care, if you haven’t come here by way of the novelette? Maybe you shouldn’t – but you might find the stories to your liking: Check them out. If not, at least you know who they are. This was intended for everyone’s education and
edification in any event. I’ve at least leveled the proverbial playing field for all
concerned. With that, my sense of duty is satisfied here, we can now proceed to the articles themselves.
Any one of the young men in this picture could be Uncle Roddy (though I give the edge
to the smiling gent with the horn rims, dressed in the Mississippi River Gambler’s outfit a la Bret
Maverick). They’re about the right age to be him: Early twenties, a bit older than an average Ted
– and the styles seem to date from the early days of the trend – around the early 1950s.
It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize them straightening their clothes, never changing expressions, a second later, maybe laughing lightly, perhaps two or three lighting cigarettes, as they all coolly saunter off into the Solihull night – or is it Wolverhampton – or Birmingham – or Swindon – or Essex – or London – or Liverpool – or Aberdeen – or heaven knows where else in the U.K. I can recall female relatives dressed like the women in the photo, and one or two others in the series, although exactly when I can’t say, having been a toddler at the time; sadly, none are around now for me to talk to about these days.
That’s the problem, when you talk about the phenomenon after all these years. People die
or lose their memory; you pick up the information where you can, but sometimes it gets difficult
to separate the facts from the legends. Misconceptions build, until even sources who should have
been better informed repeat them.
For example, it’s common to say that the phenomenon started in south and east London, and slowly made its way through the rest of the country. Actually photos (like some of the ones to follow) and newspaper accounts of the time don’t bear this out. Another misconception, common on both sides of the pond, is that the Teddy Boys arose out of rock’n’roll in the mid- 1950s, and have essentially American roots.
Not so. It is true that, perhaps, more than any other portion of British youth culture, Teddy Boys embraced rock music quickly when it arrived in the U.K. in the mid 1950s and it became a significant part of their lives and lifestyle. But Teddy Boys and Judies are rooted in the early 1950s. Depending upon their level of education or sophistication, they were into jazz or skiffle, sometimes both, sometimes neither (at least in the early days, some preferred dance all music). Bits of Americana were certainly incorporated into the look from the start, but its core was essentially British. Where did it all come from? How did it get its start? We’ll get into that in part 2.