Mods: Shaping the Memories of a Generation

It is always gratifying when an archive can provide useful information to researchers. Sometimes a member of the public finds a recording of a relative and is able to hear that person’s voice again, or for the first time. This doesn’t happen often, but it is nice when it does. Rarely does the discovery of a relative’s recording lead to a huge, successful exhibition in Leicester’s main museum, but that is what happened with a recording made with John ‘Jelly’ Nixon. Colin Hyde tells the story of how it happened.

John ‘Jelly’ Nixon courtesy of Joe Nixon

A couple of years after the East Midlands Oral History Archive (EMOHA) started in 2001, I recorded a short series of interviews with members of the public about being a teenager in the 1950s and 1960s. My project only stretched to a dozen or so recordings, and only recorded one or two women, so was a partial project at best; but the recordings with the men were all interesting and highlighted the diverse experiences of teenagers from the early 1950s through to the end of the 1960s, a period of great change.

There were some good stories about sex and drugs (mostly, the lack of) and rock and roll, and some of my favourite moments were memories of everyday life that went against the usual popular memories of the swinging sixties. Nick Gavin couldn’t see the attraction of the Beatles, while Graham Marvin recalled buying a pint of beer for his dad with his first pay packet as a favourite moment.

One of the stand-out recordings was a three-hour interview with John Nixon. I had been told by several people that if I wanted memories of Leicester’s music scene John was the person to ask, so I had a chat with him and arranged a couple of visits. John was a musician and we recorded the interview in his attic surrounded by musical kit, which worked well for me as I played in a band and was vaguely aware of who was who on the local scene.

As promised by those who recommended him, John was a terrific interviewee. He had been one of the ‘Faces’ of the Leicester Mod scene and had progressed through all that was fashionable through the 1960s into the 1970s. He had a great stock of stories and was open to being asked about them in detail. By the end of the recording I felt I had a really good idea of the ‘Mod’ life and the transition to the more long-haired West-coast-of-America influenced later-1960s (regretfully, we didn’t go on to talk about the 1970s in any detail).

I wrote a brief piece about the project for EMOHA’s news bulletin and moved onto other projects. A few years later I started to teach an undergraduate course on post-war Leicester and used a large number of quotes from the recording with John to illustrate the attitudes of fashionable teenagers in the 1960s. In fact, over the next few years John helpfully agreed for the occasional student to record him; the student always had a good experience and it was a great introduction to the world of oral history for them.

Over the following years I occasionally saw John socially and playing in bands in Leicester – he sometimes played with friends of mine – and it was with great sorrow that I learnt he had the cancer that eventually saw him die in 2017.

It was around then that Shaun Knapp published ‘High Flying Around. Memories of the 1960s Leicester Music Scene’, a book about both ‘Legay’, a Leicester band of the 1960s that Shaun’s brother had played in, and the broader Leicester music scene. As part of the research for this book, Shaun became fascinated by the Mod scene and decided he wanted to do some more work on this. I introduced Shaun to the recording I had made with John Nixon and this became an inspiration for his next project. As Shaun says, “For me, the Mods book just wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for that recording.” John had also recorded some radio interviews with the Leicester-born writer and radio producer William English, so there was a lot of material to work with.

In the meantime, I had also provided a copy of the recording to John’s son, Joe Nixon. Joe and Shaun teamed up to create an exhibition that would build on Shaun’s book, ‘Mods. Two City Connection’. The book and the exhibition both looked at the Mod scenes in Leicester and Nottingham. The project also linked up with local arts organisation Soft Touch, so that young people would be able to engage with the story. Leicester City Council agreed that this would be the main summer exhibition at New Walk Museum in 2019.

The exhibition, ‘Mods – Shaping a Generation’, was a huge success both artistically and financially. It contributed £1.75 million to the local economy through day visitors and short break visitors. Just over 35,000 visitors came from nine different countries and the project was awarded a tourism award. Joanna Jones, Leicester City Council’s Head of Arts, Museums, Festivals and Events said: “This stunning and immersive exhibition showcased Mods’ fashion, music, film and design. It was hugely popular and it was fantastic for us to welcome many people who had not previously visited New Walk Museum.” The success of the project has led to plans for an exhibition about Punk rock. You can read more about the project on the Shaping a Generation website. To quote Shaun again, “All this from one recording…”

The reason I have written this brief description of a long process is that it highlights a couple of important features of regional archives. The interview with John Nixon is often specifically about Leicester, and this is a valuable corrective to the London-centric stories of youth culture that are so often presented in books, television and film. When you think of well-known representations of the ‘swinging sixties’, which towns and cities do you associate them with? Usually, not Leicester or Nottingham.

John’s detailed personal memories of the people, places, and events he witnessed enable us to cross-reference and compare with other sources. They provide a valuable historical source that helps us to analyse the 1960s in greater depth

The listener has to be very careful when evaluating memories of periods that have been heavily covered by the media. Quite apart from genuine confusions of memory, in some of the interviews I carried out you can almost hear people repeating the voices of the TV documentaries about the swinging sixties, coming out with the usual phrases, clichés even, about the period. This is bound to happen. Mainly, though, given time, encouragement, and a little prod here and there, people are able to reflect critically on their memories. For example, John’s detailed personal memories of the people, places, and events he witnessed enable us to cross-reference and compare with other sources. They provide a valuable historical source that helps us to analyse the 1960s in greater depth than would otherwise be possible.

The other point is also about being local. The reason that John Nixon’s recording could be so useful was because the EMOHA has been supported by the University of Leicester for the best part of 20 years and has an established presence in Leicester and the region. Also, it follows a tradition of oral history in Leicestershire going back to the early 1980s. The networks that have been fostered during this time have enabled interested people, like Shaun Knapp and Joe Nixon, to find the Archive and access information. Although it is not unheard of, it is unusual for a single recording to inspire a large and successful exhibition. From one family listening to the voice of a deceased relative in the privacy of their home to recordings being used in major exhibitions, the potential exists for any one of the many hundreds of recordings in the EMOHA  – and sound archives more broadly – to be used in any number of imaginative, inspirational ways.

You may be interested in this podcast

The Red Suede Jacket | Bob Hughes remembers the 1960s in Leicester in this podcast recorded in The Modena Cafe in Leicester. ‘The red suede jacket became a fixation for me; worn in the 1960s by John ‘Jelly’ Nixon – the jacket became emblematic of that period.’  

Colin Hyde manages the Midlands Hub of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project for the British Library at the University of Leicester.

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