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Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Dashing Brylcreemed Heroes of Our Youth

There was possibly a time and a place at which the beaming smile of Denis Charles Scott Compton bearing down upon me might not have seemed so incongruous. But now that it does so, from a pinboard above my desk, is rather eerie. The more so because Compton’s face, in front of which his lilywhite hand thrusts forward a jar of Brylcreem, is on a Thai postcard.
Compton's Brylcreem ad, August 1954
I have no idea how recognisable a jar of Brylcreem might be in Thailand these days, or whether it’s still made and sold, there or anywhere else. I haven’t laid eyes on a jar myself since I was a stripling, and even then it was some years since I had once made the horrible mistake of using the stuff, a mix of beeswax, mineral oil and water. Not that the thought of wanting to look like Denis Compton had not entered my otherwise Brylcreem-free head. Compton was, in the 1950s, the face of Brylcreem, and his handsome image was used by the company because he was, throughout the large red splodges that marked the British Empire on our atlases, a hero, a man whose opinion of hair gel was to be respected. This impression, I happen to know, extended to one of the remotest outposts of the Empire, the speck of a sawmilling settlement called Mikonui in New Zealand, where a young cricket tragic argued with his mother Alice about his right to idolise an Englishman, quite possibly a Protestant to boot.
Keith Miller was also in a Brylcreem advert
Denis Compton played both Test cricket and war-time international soccer for England. More to the point, for me at least, he played for my beloved Arsenal. Australia had its equivalent in Keith Ross “Nugget” Miller, a World War II RAAF pilot who was also both a Test cricketer and a footballer (of the indigenous code) of note: Miller played for St Kilda and was selected to wear the “Big V” (as a Victorian state team representative). Miller cut so dashing a figure that nobody seemed to doubt for one moment the story that he had once discussed Ugandan affairs with Princess Margaret, the Queen’s late gin-sodden sister. It was Miller who the great English music critic and cricket writer Sir Neville Cardus described as “the Australian in excelsis”. Not so highly regarded Australians prefer to remember Miller for his cavalier captaincy, whenever New South Wales was foolhardy enough to appoint him captain, and for his barked resp0nse when someone was foolhardy enough to ask him if he ever felt pressure to perform. "Pressure on a cricket field?" Miller snarled. "Pressure is having a f***ing Messerschmidt up yer arse!"
Compton and Miller were foremost among that body of men who, in the post-war era, were set as examples to us all. In a time when no private telephone conversations of public figures were intercepted and reported, when no sporting heroes were charged with drunken behaviour or wife beating, and the world judged their idols purely by what they did on the screen or the field, these were the men we youngsters aspired to be. They were quite evidently fit, healthy, active, clean-living, multi-skilled and, above all else, handsome - even if with a tad too much Brylcreem in their hair. We might not have wanted to feed our adolescent acne with beeswax or mineral oil, but we did want to look as sharp and cleancut as a Compton or a Miller. The illogical notion that this might make us good footballers, or cricketers, was not too far off either.
Compton and Miller were not just the acne-free faces of Brylcreem. They were mates, too. Indeed, it was seen as a sure sign of a well-balanced, healthy society that rivals and fierce competitors could still be mates - a point upon which my friend tried vainly to convince his Catholic mother, Alice - and tell jokes at one another’s expense. Miller never let Compton forget that, when play between Australian and British services teams in Calcutta during the war was stopped by a pro-independence riot, a protester said to Compton, 94 not out and belting Miller all over the ground, “Mr Compton, you are a very good player, but you must stop now!”
A long way from Lubbock, Texas, in London in April 1958 cricketers meet The Crickets. From left, Joe B. Mauldin, cricketer Godfrey Evans, Buddy Holly, Denis Compton and drummer Jerry Allison (who had a hit as “Ivan” with Johnny O’Keefe’s Real Wild Child, later recorded by Iggy Popp, as heard on Rage). 
Dashing name, too: Roland Beamont
Healthily friendly, if somewhat more risky rivalry extended to the skies above us. Sixty-three years ago, English and Australian flying aces were vying for east-west Atlantic crossing records in English Electric Canberra bombers. These men were very much in that group of childhood heroes, too – awfully good-looking chaps, and so full of daring-do.
One such was Roland Prosper “Bee” Beamont, who in August 1952 became the first pilot to make a double crossing of the Atlantic in a jet, flying the Canberra B.5 VX185 from Aldergrove in Northern Ireland to Gander in Newfoundland and back in 10 hours, three minutes. A year earlier, Beamont had attempted to break Arthur Edward Callard’s 1951 record, also set in a Canberra, of flying from Aldergrove to Gander, 3300km, in four hours, 37 minutes.
A Biggles-like Arthur Callard, left, in Cairns in 1964
In those much simpler days, we were all pretty crazy about the capabilities of the Canberra, a wonder to behold. In 1953, the “Last Great Air Race” was held, 19,800km from London to Christchurch, New Zealand. So we actually got to see the Canberra, flying over all the  towns and hamlets of New Zealand, along with the futuristic, delta-winged Vulcan. The race was won by a Canberra, flown by Roland Louise Ernest “Monty” Burton. He reached Christchurch in 23 hours, 51 minutes, including 83 minutes groundtime, which meant an average speed of 879km/h. Burton beat by 41 minutes an Australian-built Canberra, flown by an Australian pilot, Peter Frank Raw, of Melbourne.
Peter Frank Raw
Those were the days of real heroes, of being able to look up to men of flesh and blood, with shining Brylcreem-covered heads. No need of images of a Biggles from the pages of a book, no surreal animated figure on a computer screen. Our heroes were tangible, in that we knew they actually existed, and were almost touchable. And, as far as we knew, thoroughly decent blokes with it.
Biggles never really delivered for me; I wasn't really into fiction back then. Still, for all my lasting admiration for Compton & Co, the only one of these living, breathing childhood heroes I later got to meet was Miller, and by then he was anything but the debonair man-about-town. Years of right royal revelry had exacted its toll. My one brush with Brylcreem, too, had left me less than enchanted, much less enchanting.
It happened with I was seven. I came home from school one day to find 2/6 on the kitchen table with a note telling me to go into town and get my hair cut. One or two days a week in summer I was a sort of latchkey kid, as my mother would be out playing in some genteel sporting event. As my hair was mussed, I made the stupid mistake of trying to settle it down a little - in advance of it being cut; not with water, but by applying a fistful of my father's Brylcreem. Poor Percy Nelson, the barber (and my first editor's older brother), had a Dickens of a job washing it out before he could start clipping. As I sat through this necessary procedure, I keep looking at a full front page of the Wellington Saturday Evening Post that was cellotaped to a long mirror. The page was taken up by a photograph of a short, plump, balding footballer (no need of Brylcreem for him!) being chaired off by his teammates from Wembley Stadium in London. A lack of Brylcreem aside, he was clearly no Adonis, no Compton or Miller. "Who is that man?" I asked Percy's dad Alwyn. "That's Ces Mountford," said Alwyn, "the world's best rugby player." "Why is he on your mirror?" "I used to cut his hair when he was your age," said the barber. "He came from here." Instantly, Cecil Ralph Mountford became one of my heroes, too, and another I was to come to know in later life. 
The very front-page photo
The photograph was taken after Mountford, with a Lance Todd Medal-winning performance, had led Wigan to beat Barrow in the rugby league Challenge Cup final on May 5, 1951. My memories of first seeing the photo, four years later on the mirror of a barber shop 10,000 miles from Wembley Stadium, and of how I felt when its relevance was explained to me, came flooding back today, six decades on, when I walked into a second-hand book shop in Canberra. In a box marked "sporting memorabilia", I found the match programme for the 1951 Challenge Cup final.
And beside it was a Brylcreem postcard. Wow, now that's truly eerie!


Richard P said...

Love the antechinus!

Taylor Harbin said...

Great story and a great new design for the blog!