Hosting a blog site –which is really my website, – where humour is prevalent and many articles are spoofs, it’s hard to switch off when something serious happens, or when you just want to do a blog. You will see “proper” blogs on here, but the overall presentation is supposed to be light-hearted.
Today I’m writing to say that my wonderful Mum, Elaine Batt, died of cancer at 11am on Sunday 16th June, and can no longer pour happiness and goodwill into the lives of all around her. Her death came only a day after I was honoured with an LVO – rather surprisingly and wonderfully. I’m so glad that my mum was able to be aware of that when I told her the day before she died, while she was fading slowly. I had already told her that I was writing a song about her, as a special commission for the then forthcoming celebration concerts at Buckingham Palace for the 60th anniversary of the Coronation, to be sung by Katie Melua . The song, while describing my Mum, obliquely and indirectly references Her Majesty – making the point that a strong supportive maternal figure can be an incredible force. Coincidentally my mum was nearly 88 – so just the same age as The Queen. The song is called “I Will Be There”. Mum was going to be in the audience for that – but now, sadly won’t “Be There” other than in the way expressed in the song .
As a bit of extra insight into the character, personality and talents of my remarkable mother, I’d like to reproduce a couple of excerpts from my autobiography-in-progress. One excerpt is about my early life and a little about my parents. The second excerpt is about the madness of the Wombles and the role she played in their success. It’s rather a long read!
Meanwhile, it’s goodbye to my great mum. I wish everyone could have had a mum like her!
PS. Before I post those excerpts, here’s my Mum’s most recent Facebook entry (about 3 weeks before she died):
“My mind is full of gratitude, and that is the only good word I can think of, because I am so pleased and grateful to all my lovely and wonderful children and their children, and of course great grandchildren, whose lovely messages have kept me happy with all these strange events turning up…
I intend to write to everybody of course, and will do so as soon as it’s possible! I must tell you how it truthfully feels to be the queen of this wonderful family of mine, and of course, we mustn’t forget good old Don as he also had something to do with it, because he really was fantastic!”
DRAFT EXCERPT 1
My life began in Southampton sixty-four years ago in 1949. My Dad was Norman Frederick (“Don”) Batt, my mum was Elaine Jennings, and two more different people you couldn’t hope to meet. He was an ex- wartime army officer (but stayed in the TA after the war), – athlete, mechanical, electrical, professional civil engineer. Brilliant man, died fifteen years ago, and I miss him every day. Always did his own electrical and plumbing work, hell of a temper, great sense of humour. She was a dotty, wacky, former athletic PE and art teacher with a superb theatrical streak and the ability to make fantastic toys, clothes, dressing up outfits and eventually, Womble costumes. From this odd couple, I learned to be whoever I am.
We lived, the six of us, happily for the most part in many different towns as Dad got different jobs in local government. Having finished the war as a twenty-four-year-old acting Major in charge of the clearing and cleaning up of Tobruk harbour, he took a contrastingly humble civilian job for 250 quid a year as a junior assistant in the Civil Engineer’s Department at Southampton, for Hampshire County Council. He and Mum were married at the Southampton Civic Centre Registry Office. They didn’t waste time before starting a family. I suppose most people were just grateful to have survived the war. There wasn’t much time or money for luxuries. Ration books and the wartime mentality of frugality prevailed. My dad was a motor car nut, and his Dad and his two uncles had an Esso garage in Totton, near Southampton. Their sisters – my Dad’s aunts – ran the general store. I don’t think they were wealthy, just made a living, but a good, solid, village mafia they seemed to be. It didn’t help Mum and Dad though, – they never seemed to have much money. To this day, there is still a bus stop called Batt’s Corner in Totton, just near where the old general store stood.
My brother John was the first to arrive, and I followed him two years later. I was born where we all lived, – In a small extension to a house that had been bombed and rebuilt, at Gordon Avenue in the district of Shirley. Six months later we were on the road again, and moved to York, where Dad had moved up to be a slightly less junior assistant. Dick was born there, two years after me. Two years later we were back down South again, in Eastbourne, where presumably Dad was a tiny bit less junior still, (but still quite junior) and Paula, our only sister, joined us. I remember waving from the car to my mum at the hospital window, from the car, parked opposite the hospital, just after Paula was born. Children didn’t get to visit national health maternity wards in those days.
When we were in Eastbourne, I guess I must have been about four, and there was a seafront with a pier and everything. In fact I remember there was always a little red speedboat moored to the pier, and the lamp posts had crowns and flowers left over from the Coronation of the Queen in 1953. I wasn’t at school yet, so used to spend afternoons with my mum, on the promenade by the sea. There was a bloke called Uncle Bertie (his real name was Bertram Otto) – who used to do Punch and Judy and magic tricks on the seafront. I worshipped him. It must have been my first experience of show business. I clearly remember insisting on making a plasticine pot for him (I must have known he needed one) – and taking it to the front of the stage, thrusting it into his hands and then running off, too scared that he might talk to me.
My first day at school was in Eastbourne. Hanging in the cloakroom at our current house are two photographs, one of my wife Julianne aged about eight in school uniform, and the other of me, taken on the first day at junior school, aged five. I look quite happy –even cheeky – in the picture, sporting a ridiculous combination of tartan shirt and striped tie. I know my Mum made all my clothes in those days (every stitch) so it can’t have been my own fashion sense that prevailed in that picture, but there must be some uncanny link forward from that photo, because people say it pre-empted my entire attitude to, and taste in clothes. I never know whether to take it as a compliment or not. Probably not.
Apparently I cried and had to be taken out of school on that first day. I do remember the daunting experience of all the new things. The smell of the floor wax, the “bigness” of everything, the feeling of being lost and frightened. I also remember a few days later not being allowed to leave the classroom to go for a wee, and the inevitable feeling of the piss running down my legs, out of my grey shorts, over my socks and shoes and into the aisle between the desks in the classroom. I remember the humiliation of the teacher coming up and slapping my legs really hard, in front of the whole class for pissing on the floor.
When I was five my Mum and Dad made me a fantastic puppet theatre and some magic tricks, including a top hat with a false bottom in it, from which I could produce a rabbit, even though it was only a stuffed pink soft toy one. They were such great parents, staying up all night to make us things like that. I suppose it must have been the spark that was lit by Uncle Bertie on the seafront that led them to think I would like puppets and magic. I jumped at it, and gave shows to all the neighbours. I even took the stuff into school and gave a show to my class. I don’t think it was the class where I had pissed on the floor; it must have been the year after that. There was a script for the puppet show, which came with it. I don’t know how it had a script with it, because they made the theatre themselves. Maybe they wrote the script. Anyway, it said “Enter Punch”, “Enter Judy”, “Enter Scaramouche” and other such stage directions. I didn’t know you just had to obey the stage directions, I thought you had to read them out, so I’d yell out “Enter Punch!” and then I’d make him enter. Then I’d say the lines. I suppose it gave it a certain something.
I had a little money box when I was about seven. It was shaped like a red post box, with a slot for the coins. This made me aware that post boxes were, clearly, for putting money in. So every week for about six weeks, when I passed the local red post box in the street, I would put my sixpence pocket money into the real, big post box, to save it. I could just reach the slot. When my mum found out, she told me that you only put money in toy post boxes, not real ones, but by then I’d posted six weeks’ pocket money. What kind of kid does that? I must have been uniquely naïve.
The Womble single was released in 1973 to a roar of apathy. I had tried to get an appointment with Clive Selwood, CBS’s marketing director, but I wasn’t an artist or the manager of an artist so why would he give me any time? Actually, technically I was an artist on the label, because I had sung the vocals on the Womble Song, but it didn’t get me through Selwood’s door. Why weren’t CBS interested in trying to help me make this record a hit? Later I was told that Dan Loggins had picked up the deal only because it might give the company some spin-off sales by association with the programme, – but at that time I was convinced that I could make it into a hit. How could I convince them? Then I realised that record companies want to sign artists, not projects. They want to meet someone who is the artist. They want to say they know that artist, they worked with him or them. So I rang my mother, – she who had made all the fancy dress costumes when we were kids, she who was whacky and energetic, she who had a sense of fun and joy. “Could you make me a Womble costume?” I asked her.
The following week, wearing an ingenious costume which had two inflatable beach balls (one at the front, one at the back) to create custom-made adjustable fatness for the wearer, and a face made from a rolled up plastic washing up mat and a black-painted ping-pong ball for a nose, I presented myself, unannounced, outside the office of Dick Asher, the managing director.
Who shall I say it is?” asked his bemused secretary, maybe thinking I was one of his American bosses playing a joke. “Just say it’s Orinoco Womble” I said. Dick came out of his office and fell about laughing. The visit was a huge success. He took me down to see Clive Selwood and the promotion team, and all the girls in the secretarial area (yes it was like that in those days) gathered round to hug me and have pictures taken. The “Wombles” were born on that day. Suddenly CBS had an act, an artist. Suddenly I had their attention.
With Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in charge, Britain was in the grip of powerful and aggressive unions. In 1973, Arthur Scargill was organising the miners’ strike, there was an energy shortage, and businesses were operating on a three day week because of it. There was a shortage of raw material to make vinyl for records. There were other strikes such as a garbage collectors’ strike which left the streets reeking and unhealthy. We were seriously worried about this, from our selfish point of view. Even if we could persuade the public that the record was a hit, in a financial depression, they might have the Wombles record on their list of priorities. And if they did, was there enough vinyl to press enough to make it a hit, because you need coal to make vinyl?
Now that I had a Womble costume, I decided not to waste it, and indeed to wear it ALL DAY LONG every day, wherever I went. I wore it on the train, the tube, in taxis. I wore it on unannounced trips to Birmingham and Manchester. I walked without invitation, past the receptionists and into the on-air studios of regional radio stations. I stood behind Jimmy Saville on Top Of The Pops and waved to try to get on camera. At every town I visited, a hundred or so records would be sold that day in that town. I figured that if I went to a town a day, I’d sell a hundred records a day, and CBS would notice this sales pattern back at HQ. And that is exactly what happened. Five hundred records a week was a signal. It wasn’t enough to get you into the top thirty but it was action that a record company could not ignore. Tony Blackburn began playing the record on his influential Radio One breakfast show, because he liked it’s “silliness”, not having a clue what it was about. Paddy Fleming, the Head of TV promotions for CBS – a wonderful man who had seen much action in the RAF in the war, and who had ditched into the English Channel at least once, rang me one day. “I’ve been speaking to Robin Nash, producer of Top Of The Pops”, said Paddy, “and he wants to know, is there just ONE Womble, or a whole group?”
“Oh, there’s a whole group”, I lied. “There’s a drummer. A guitarist,
“Great!” said Paddy. “You’re on Top Of The Pops the day after tomorrow”.
This placed me in a position , shall we say, somewhere between Heaven and Hell. My “band” was going to be on Top Of The Pops – (everybody’s dream, particularly after five years of trying to have a successful record), and yet I didn’t have three other band members or any other costumes, and literally thirty-six hours before I had to have a band together, rehearsed and costumed.
It was time for another call to my Mum. “Any chance of three more costumes in one day?”. My Dad, brothers and sister rallied round and helped making the costumes in an overnight session of manic sewing and gluing at my parents’ house in Bracknell, and I rang three pals who I knew had a band, one of whom was 22 year old Andy Renton, the drummer of “That Lady’s Twins”, my group at school. They turned up at the BBC TV Centre on the day, tried on the costumes and we rehearsed in the dressing room. Suddenly we were called to the stage and it was happening.
That week, knowing the impact the show would have, I arrived on the doorstep of CBS records very early on the Tuesday morning. Tuesday was chart day, -the day you found out whether you were in the chart, and at what position. At ten o’clock, pacing the . promotion team’s office, I learned that we had entered the chart at number 36! This was sensational, in the days when you entered low and climbed slowly. Radio would pick the record up now, other things would start happening. I ordered a crate of champagne to be delivered and distributed throughout the building. This was huge for me, the first hit I’d ever had, the beginning of something, whatever it was, that I was going to keep going rather than let drop.
As I descended the stairs of the CBS offices, I ran into Dan Loggins coming up. “Mike,” he said, “Don’t be too disappointed if it drops next week, – it probably will”. He had signed it as a novelty, and to him it was a novelty. I knew it was a hit. “Don’t worry, I said. It’s going to be a big hit”. He forced a sympathetic, almost pitiful smile. It was the first time I learned the lesson about the way record companies work. You often have to drag them, kicking and screaming, against their will, towards success. It happened many times later in my career, as I shall relate. The next week we were at 22, the following week number 12 and finally reached number 4 in the UK charts.