I Was A Teenage Toyah Fan 1: From Afar

I was always a bit of a late developer.

Whilst all the other boys at school were sneaking porn mags into class under their jumpers, I couldn't quite see the appeal of the airbrushed mannequins contained therein. I disliked the way they prised their nether regions open with gynecological expertise whilst wearing expressions that made them look simultaneously half-asleep and nauseous.

My peers said this was because I was a "bender" or a "pervert". But it wasn't. As mentioned in an earlier entry, for some unknown reason I simply found a very different kind of woman attractive. Furthermore, for me it was about fancying the girl to start with.  It was about getting to know them, hanging out with them, talking to them. Maybe getting a snog. Then who knows?  The short cut to views of genitalia offered by these magazines seemed to miss the point completely.

It was at the bitter end of the nineteen-seventies.  I'd admired these scary punk girls from afar for a little while now, but as a small spotty geek into Doctor Who, Blake's 7 and Star Wars I would have had absolutely no idea about how to go about getting any kind of girlfriend, let alone a punky one.  I didn't yet have a popstar idol either.  Like many boys of my age Kate Bush's Babooshka video had made me feel all hot and bothered but, despite the fact that I liked some of her songs, Kate just didn't do it for me.

It was a very different time and there was far less entertainment around. No-one had a video yet, there were only three channels and you just had to make do with what was on. As a result you often ended up watching any old rubbish.  So it was that on 2 December 1979 I found myself watching Shoestring, the show starring Trevor Eve as a private detective who worked for a local radio station. It was one of those shows that was always on a Sunday evening with all the associated depression involved; there was now nothing else between now and being back at school bar sleep. Often you hadn't done your homework, but it was too late. Even the man with the moustache investigating crime couldn't take your mind off the inevitable horror of the week ahead.

The previous day I'd watched The Doctor grapple with the Mandrels, today Eddie Shoestring was looking for a missing beauty queen. Personally I thought the punk girl Toola in the story was far more attractive and interesting than the woman who'd disappeared.  Striking and angry, somehow familiar looking. If I ever have a girlfriend, I thought, I'd like her to be like that.  I enjoyed her music as well (she was the singer in a band which was part of the plot).

I had no idea that the band was real and didn't have the wit to check the cast list at the end.  With no videos and no internet that was it.  She'd gone.

A new decade dawned, the futuristic sounding Eighties. I turned 15 and continued to have a thoroughly miserable time at school. During the summer holidays I took to wandering around the local area looking in the record shops, in particular Harum Records in Muswell Hill Broadway.  I still wasn't sure what kind of music I liked, but they had a lot of interesting looking punk records in there. At first I thought the section in 7" singles labelled INDIE was something to do with Indian music but soon realised it stood for Independent as in record labels.

And what was this? Sheep Farming in Barnet? A hand written sticker said that it was music from the BBC TV series Shoestring, the sleeve itself said that it was a Safari Alternative Play Record, a seven inch single playing at 33RPM with a further printed sticker claiming "ALTERNATIVE PLAY: 6 tracks 20 minutes max price £1.50".

But far more importantly, there on the sleeve was Toola. Or rather Toyah as I could now see her real name was (was that Russian? I wondered at the time). I bought it of course and there was a certain illicit thrill doing so. Part of it was "ooh, look at you, buying indie records", but most of it was because I'd bought a record and I liked the girl. I was simultaneously embarrassed and excited by the fact.

Naturally I couldn't tell anyone for precisely this reason. I hid the record in my bedroom and only played it when I was alone in the house.

Nowadays of course I'd have known everything there was about her in an instant, but hard as it is to imagine now, there was no internet back then.  Would I have to wait for fate to toss me another morsel by chance? Who knew how long that would take? Until then Toyah Willcox, which was her full name, was a mystery to me.

Determined to find out more, I returned to Harum Records. Now I knew what to look for and where to look. It turned out that Toyah had a handful of records out; in particular an LP which appealed to my interest in the darker side of life, The Blue Meaning.  It had what looked like a haunted house on the cover.

I didn't have a lot of money in those days, so it took me while to save up the £4.99 for the album, but save up I did, and it joined the other record in its hiding place.   I played it whenever I could and it probably played a major part in the formation of my fledgling musical taste.

Back then if you wanted to know what was on all three TV channels you had to buy both the Radio Times for the BBC and TV Times for ITV.  In our house we never had the TV Times; for a start as a BBC employee my dad got the Radio Times free and the received wisdom was that ITV was rubbish.  This meant that it was purely by chance that in late December I happened to catch the second half of a whole documentary about Toyah on ITV. This piqued my curiosity even more as did the article about her in Smash Hits that came out at around the same time.  It turned out that this fascinating and bewitching woman who spoke with a punk accent was an actress as well (to be honest, the Shoestring appearance should have given me a clue). But how could ever I get to meet her? Oh it was hopeless...

Early 1981.  Out of the blue (and fortunately whilst I was alone in the room), Toyah unexpectedly appeared on Top of the Pops on Thursday evening singing a new song: "The big question mark in history is in a mystery". Well that's what I thought she was saying at first.

Suddenly she was everywhere. A copy of The Hot Press with her on the cover joined my clandestine collection. She was in the top ten. She started appearing on Saturday morning children's TV which was often the only place outside TOTP that you got to see any bands.  The Toyah fever sweeping the land combined with my burgeoning interest to form a fully fledged obsession.  I convinced myself that I was in love. When the news came that she was to appear on Ask Aspel I wrote in to the BBC asking for a signed photograph.

A problem I had hitherto been unaware of reared its ugly head, the loose association of Fuckers at my school. The Fuckers was a private name I'd given a certain type of boy. Tall early developers, they wore their ties loose with their top shirt button defiantly undone.  They also delighted in tormenting me with merciless punches that astonished me with their strength and, perhaps surprisingly, vicious hard pinches.  The problem was that they liked Toyah too, and when they discovered my crush persecuted me mercilessly, saying I wasn't good enough to like her.

I'd show them. I wasn't sure how, but I would.

A signed photograph arrived.  I held in my hands something that had once been in her hands.  I put it on my wall hidden behind my signed Tom Baker poster.  A new single, I Want To Be Free came out followed by more Top of the Pops appearances and an album Anthem with a science fictiony cover.  I spent an afternoon tapping out a letter to Toyah on an old second hand typewriter (I was selfconscious about my messy handwriting even then).  I remember that I included a new Toyah logo I'd been designing, but the letter itself was no doubt over the top and embarrassing; I'm sure I did something mortifying therein like pledging my undying love...  However I still posted it, care of her record company.

That was the thing you see. I was in the grip of an unhealthy obsession and had fixated on one person, someone unaware of me, but someone whose work was providing me with much needed solace during an unpleasant time.

Some time later a letter arrived with my name and address written in large, unusual handwriting.  As I opened it, I had no idea who it was from.
Dear Chris

Thank you for your lovely letter which is one of the most flattering I have read for ages.  Thanks also for the logo design, I have stuck it on the wall of my work room, I always fill the walls with inspirational things.

My (or should I say our) new single is out on 18th September. It's called Thunder in the Mountains. I hope you like it.

lots of love

PS I bet your writting isn't as bad as MINE.
It felt like the best day of my life.

Coming soon, part two:
In which I go to see Toyah play live and finally get to meet her.


Mark said…
blimey. That sounds brilliant. All I got in the 80s was a signed foto by Marilyn and he turned out to be bi-polar and not very focused on his career! Toyah is way cooler )as I believe the kids are saying nowadays?) I can't wait for part two. thanks.
Upstart Thunder said…
That is so cool.
Why did you feel you had to hide your obsession though?
Catmachine said…
The hiding of it was partly because I "liked the girl" - I go into this a bit more at the start of part two...
Anonymous said…
Great story - evocative. I too was a Toyah fan. That fragile flower of high tech whimsy! Stole my heart far as Australia. When did I first see her? Uurgh rock wars? -Ian

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