Like many children in London’s immediate post-war years I sought refuge in a fantasy world. Not uncommonly for the age, my own alter ego was a cowboy. More uncommonly, it has remained with me to this day. Even now, more than half a century later, I can still recall that evening in 1949 when Gene Autrey’s Wild West Show came to the Olympia in London and I secretly assumed my second identity as the fastest gun in the West. In a lull between an Indian attack on a stagecoach and some target shooting by a lady in buckskins, Mr Autrey made an announcement. A gun-belt and six-shooter would be given to the boy on whom a revolving spotlight came to rest. I still cannot think of many things that I have ever wanted more than that gun-belt as the searchlight circled the venue, but in what proved to be a grim pattern for my future, the spotlight failed to rest on me.
From that night, wearing a pair of rubber Wellington boots with spurs, plastic chaps, check shirt, cowboy hat, holster and cap pistol, I would ride the lonely ranges and ghost towns of London’s bomb-sites. As time went by my costume and arsenal improved. My father’s Sam Browne was surgically altered to produce a more substantial gun rig and bartering on the bomb sites produced a collection of .303 shell cases for added authenticity to the cartridge belt. A putty knife from my father’s tool-box doubled as my Bowie knife and my guns became more realistic as the toy armaments industry improved its products. Today, except in America, you would be hard pressed to find the quality of toy replica Peacemakers and Navy Colts that I, and my gunslinger friends, carried in the late 1940s.
I was not alone as I rode the gritty canyons of South London. Whole posses of kids, each jealously guarding his chosen identity, would kill, be killed and be instantly reborn in the never-ending battle against Indians, cattle barons, corrupt railroad magnates and anyone in a black hat, On Saturday mornings, armed to the teeth, we would gallop to the local cinema for a feast of Western movies. There, occasionally dodging shots from the pistol packing kids in the rows behind, I got to know Johnny Mack Brown, Buster Crabbe, Lash Larue, Roy Rogers, William Boyd, Buck Jones and Tom Mix of the white horse and the silver spinning guns.
No Christmas stocking was complete without my Buffalo Bill Annual, no week went by without the latest Hopalong Cassidy comic. No Western movie went unseen. And there were a lot to see. In 1949 there were 97 western films to digest and in 1950 the number rose to 130, a peak year after which there was a steady decline as the western moved to the smaller screen, where, in 1955 there were no less than 23 series dedicated to the West. No small wonder my eduction suffered. I still re-watch all those old westerns but half the pleasure is now trying to remember the more intense enjoyment experienced when I first saw them.
I was pleased to find, on my first day at Prep School, that an enlightened Head Master had named the various groups or “houses” into which the students were divided after certain Indian tribes. I was less pleased to find I was an Objibwa as I knew this tribe from the Western Great Lakes Region to be farmers and gatherers and allies of the French. My request for a transfer to the more dashing and romantic Deerfeet was rejected. As an Indian I was puny from post-war under-nourishment and known as “Sand in the Face”
But it was the cowboys I loved most of all. The long pull on the whiskey jug for breakfast; the hat kept on in the bath tub and the amazing capacity of the cowboy’s saddlebags, which could hold a frying pan, tin plate and cup, coffee, chewing baccy, jerky, whiskey, ammunition, a bag of coin, as well as new hat, frock coat and silk waistcoat for visiting Kitty at the Long Branch.
Inevitably I fell in love. I knew Calamity Jane was really Wild Bill’s girl but nevertheless I wrote to Doris Day, her current screen persona, and received a signed photo of Doris from her Burbank studio. That was really the extent of our affair. Many years later, while driving through Beverley Hills, I passed her house, but it was all too late.
I was untroubled by the often historical inaccuracy of the films. The fact that Indians were palefaces with make-up did not concern me. This situation was changed overnight by the legendary Sam Goldwyn who was reported as saying to his Casting Director “You need Indians?…You can get them right from the reservoir”.
It was not until many years later that I was to see the real West and the reality the myth had become. From the town centre of Taos in New Mexico I took a mini bus to my hotel on the outskirts and found myself sitting next to a native American. “Where to, Charlie?” said the driver. “Take me to the reservation” said Charlie from under his blanket, and after a short drive we arrived in the middle of a Pueblo. The dwellings or hogans, as they are called, were the same windowless adobe huts with entry via the roof I had seen in my Buffalo Bill Annuals, the only change being the odd television aerial sprouting from a roof. Wondering how they kept the rain out, I reached inside my jacket to feel the comforting presence of my pearl-handled Derringer, snug in its shoulder holster. I need not have worried. My former enemies, who had left some of my best mates scalped, castrated and staked out in the desert to die, now seemed bored and lifeless.
None of my three wives shared my passion for cowboys although my second wife did show some interest in Lash Larue and would, on occasion, agree to do the housework wearing only a pair of black leather chaps. The heroes of today’s post-Pokemon children are Space Explorers, swallowing a pill for dinner and popping into a chaste Perspex coffin for a night’s sleep.
I know it will not be long before a faster gun comes to town and I shall be forced to decide whether to hand in my badge and hang up my guns and make a decent woman out of Kitty at the Long Branch, or marry that new schoolma’m from back East. But I think I’ll just drift South and end my days mowing down scores of endlessly expendable, pyjama-clad Mexicans until the inevitable conclusion. Watched by Rosita, my unfaithful but beautiful Mexican spitfire, I will die in a hail of bullets in some adobe cantina. But, as a suddenly repentant Rosita cradles my bloody head in her lap, begging me to tell her where the gold is hidden, I will think of the worse fate that awaits my alter ego, shuffling along with his walking frame in some retirement village. I know he will be thinking, as he sits watching Dancing with the Stars, of the philosophical words of the greatest cowboy of them all “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees”.