The other night I watched the new DVD release of Help! (how do you punctuate this without making it sound like you are shouting the whole sentence--editor types, please advise). The movie has its ups and downs. I loved watching the Beatles run around England to the sound of their own music, but it was hard to take the rest of the soundtrack. Still, it's really magical how the Beatles (this version) can still inspire a feeling of childlike innocence in me, and one element in Help! that is not in their first feature length film, A Hard Days Night, is color. The vibrancy of the English streets added to a feeling of deep familiarity that I couldn't put my finger on. Then I thought about it, this was the England I knew as a kid.
Well not quite. The film first played in theaters in 1965. (I think, but please go easy on me if I'm off by a year, I've been doing research for the better part of a week and I really don't want to verify one more fact right now.) My parents first hauled their newly completed crew to England--all four children--five years later, in the summer of 1969. I was 2.
When do we start remembering things? Well, I suppose I will never know for sure when my brain filed its first memory, but I believe at least one of them was on this trip in 1969. We were in London, and I was either with my cousins or my sisters. My father held me on his shoulders while I stared at the largest, most elaborate lego display I could have imagined--it may have been my first introduction to them. (later, legos would take over my room, and you would have to be careful not step on them during a late-night trip to the bathroom). And I also imagine a grey blur of streets and taxis, with a bright candy-apple colored double-decker bus grinding by from time-to-time spewing diesel fumes.
I vaguely remember a chocolate mousse in the shape of a rabbit that my aunt's cook, companion, and all-time-champion spoiler of children made. I have conflicting feelings on whether I actually remember this, or if it was mythologized by my sisters between this trip and the trip we took in 1972. I might just imagine that I remember it. I do know that by the time I got back in '72 I was very interested in experiencing the chocolate mousse rabbit again. This is when the chocolate addiction was born.
Those are the two memories that I may or may not have of England in 1969. If I had been aware what was going on with the Beatles and the rest of the world at that time I might not have been so ready to grow up.
I can even relate the trip in '72 to the imagery of Help! Seven years after the film's release, the child-appeal of this country, which seemed like one big toy to me, was still everywhere. There were still double-decker buses and Union Jacks far and wide, life-sized on the street and tiny versions in sweet-shops. The Americans have never really figured out how to mix milk and chocolate, but the British have this technique down to a science, and I'm sure, although I can't really remember, that much of the trip was spent pleading with our parents for sweets. What made it worse was that my cousin supplied vending-machines to all the local pubs and had a garage filled with Cadbury products that we couldn't touch.
I definitely remember smashing my finger in the garden gate that summer. I want to say I shrieked, but I don't recall, I just remember the children around me looking very distraught, like they might run away and abandon me. My finger turned dark red with little black spots on it. One thing I do know, moments earlier an adult had said "mind you don't smash your finger in the garden gate."
There was also a rumor, embellished fully by my sisters, that one of the hotels we stayed in was haunted. We knew this to be true because my oldest sister said she had seen the end of the toilet paper roll swishing back and forth in a ghostly manner. We were appropriately terrified for the rest of the night.
Castles, knights, tanks, toy-soldiers, the changing of the guard, lukewarm tea which was mostly milk and sugar, bangers and mash and BOAC, they all fortified my one-fourth English blood. But the orange juice was horrible.
I’m very glad that Help! made me remember this version of England. The Beatles, right after Beatlemania and right before the summer-of-love, projected a childlike enthusiasm which allowed us then, as it does now, to laugh and discover.
Just don’t smash your finger in the garden gate.