I was a teenage Walton Hopper
Was the Walton Hop really a paedophile’s paradise? Ex-Hopper Mick Hume in The Times (London).
The world now knows the Walton Hop as, in the words of one tabloid headline, the ‘disco of sordid shame’. The pop impresario Jonathan King, now serving a seven-year sentence for sex offences against teenage boys, was said to have picked up victims there in the 1970s and 80s.
Now, as part of the same investigation centred on the Walton Hop, Surrey Police have arrested the TV presenter Matthew Kelly and the former Bay City Rollers manager Tam Paton over what police called ‘historic’ allegations of underage sex. Both have been released on bail and have issued denials. Other celebrities are rumoured to be under investigation for what they might have got up to at the Hop 30 years ago.
This Walton Hop sounds a terrible place – a sleazy paedophiles’ playpen dressed up as a disco, where boys and girls were ‘groomed’ for sexual abuse. Strange thing is, that’s not how some of us remember it.
From the late 1950s until 1990, the Hop was held every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday night at a small theatre called the Playhouse in the Surrey backwater of Walton-on-Thames. On Saturdays, during its mid-Seventies heyday, what seemed like the entire teenage population of the little town where I grew up would board the bus to Walton and join the queue.
Aged about 15, I could not wait to finish my Saturday job humping sacks of potatoes at a greengrocer’s, and rush home to put on my white Brutus bags (they were a type of trousers, by the way), two-tone wedges (shoes) and imitation Crombie (a coat). In Seventies suburban Surrey, the Hop – I went there between 1974 and 1975 – was the most exciting place on our dull little planet: a disco for teenagers with no teacher or vicar patrolling the dancefloor. The Hop had been ‘Britain’s first disco’, and every night the first record played was still the Fifties classic At the Hop by Danny and the Juniors. At the sound of its piano intro, little gangs of second-generation Teddy boys would appear from nowhere to bop and jive. Then the flashing stage lights would go up, revealing the Hop’s greatest claim to Seventies cool: two black DJs, at twin turntables, telling us in mock transatlantic accents to ‘hold on to those doooor tick-ets’ (for the raffle) and that we were going ‘right through till 12 o’clock’. Wild.
Those DJs were a pretty radical breakthrough at a time when racism in Surrey was not so much accepted as obligatory. They won the crowd over (‘These two are all right, it’s the rest of ’em’) by playing, amid all the usual pappy pop, rare American soul imports. And an age before karaoke, there were the Hop’s miming contests, for which kids would get up on stage and mouth along to anything from Elvis to the Three Degrees. The winner was usually Jimmy Pursey, later the lead singer of Sham 69.
Contrary to its media image today, for most of us the Hop was a fairly innocent place. It was not licensed to sell alcohol, and nobody we knew smoked dope or dropped pills. If you were lucky you might get a surreptitious pint of light and bitter in a nearby pub garden.
Despite a dancefloor packed with hormone-driven kids, sex was almost as scarce as drugs. On top of the usual teenage awkwardness, boys had the problem of trying to pick up girls who were wearing a tartan cloth cap or tam-o’-shanter, at least three tartan scarves, a denim jacket covered in badges declaring ‘I love Les/Woody’, hoisted-up, tartan-trimmed jeans and Dr Marten boots. This was the uniform of the Bay City Rollers fan, as teenage Britain toiled under the tyranny that was ‘Rollermania’.
One Saturday night, when our gang was, as usual, standing around at the front trying to look like little hard men, three real-life Bay City Rollers walked on stage. Within seconds we were trampled by screaming hordes of tartan teens in a latter-day Charge of the Clans. An hour later, as a small group of us walked away, grumbling about the ‘Bay Shitty Wankers’, an American station wagon pulled up. ‘Can we give you a lift, boys?’
asked one of the men inside, directing his question at Bruce Payne, the striking blond star of local school plays who went on to be a Hollywood actor. No thanks, said Bruce, we’re all right. We were young lads and it was raining hard. But we weren’t that bloody wet.
This brings us to the retrospective shockhorror headlines about a homosexual Mafia preying on kids at the Hop. Thirty years ago everybody there knew that a backstage scene involving older gay men existed. The owner, Deniz Corday, was an unmistakably camp queen who collected famous friends and young men around his flat and in the wings of the Playhouse. A mate of mine called Roger, an aggressively heterosexual young man who became the first of my friends to lose his virginity, was hired by Corday to run errands around the Hop. I can still see his pained face when Deniz shouted at him, in front of a cackling crowd: ‘Roger, go down town and get me some Vaseline!’ It was apparently required for a DIY plumbing repair.
Corday himself – ‘a silly, fluffy man’ as Jimmy Pursey puts it – always seemed harmless enough. It was well known that those teenagers to whom he took a shine were invited backstage to sit around with such ‘stars’ as Jonathan King, sipping whisky in their Coke. What might have happened after that, we could only have guessed – if we could have been bothered to. It was clear, however, that the lads involved were not bullied into having a drink or a ride in a big car. Nor could they have been left in much doubt about the preferences of Cordez’s friends. The trial evidence showed that the teenagers whom King was convicted of abusing (whom he had not met at the Hop) all visited him or went off with him again afterwards, some several times. None of them told him ‘No’ or ‘Stop’.
I suppose it is possible to see how even a geek like King could pass as glamorous to some in that swamp of Surrey banality. As for the rest of us, we knew something about that scene, but it didn’t affect our night out. We didn’t care. We just avoided the hangers-on in the wings, and got on with standing about on the dancefloor.
This was not because we held any liberal views on gay rights. In that pre-Punk moment, the morality of Surrey youth had not changed much since the time when Teds ruled the earth. The only reason we were not ‘homophobic’ was because we had never heard the word. To be ‘queer’ was just about the worst thing imaginable. Anything that strayed from the narrow norm – hair length, clothes, whatever – was a suspect sign of homosexuality.
We preferred our perversions straight – at least two of the local hard lads ended up with convictions for public flashing. But however backward attitudes may have been, we did not suffer the obsession with sexual abuse that seems to grip these more enlightened times. We did not believe there were paedophiles around every corner, and we did not care what a few old queens and their little friends got up to. We thought we could look after ourselves.
Nor did our parents believe that adolescents were delicate flowers to be protected like toddlers. Nobody’s daddy collected them from the Hop, although it was miles to walk home if you missed the last bus. Whatever its other problems, Seventies society seemed to take a more robust attitude to its children. There was not the same morbid fascination with finding abuse and underage sex that seems to afflict so many today. And there was not the same notion that a bad experience – such as, say, accepting a lift home from the wrong man – must ruin the rest of your life.
Don’t misunderstand me: I have no sympathy for sleazebags like Jonathan King. The specific allegations against him concerning the Walton Hop were never put to the jury. But it would be hard for anybody seriously to argue that King is an innocent man.
However, the King case and the ongoing police investigations raise some troubling questions. Most importantly – why now? Why did it take the accusers 30 years to tell the police? And why has it become such a priority to investigate old incidents that nobody complained of or tried to cover up, if they actually happened?
That must have less to do with the events of the 1970s than with the culture of the early twenty-first century. In some ways our more liberal, relaxed times appear more uptight and paranoid. We are obsessed with seeing abuse everywhere, and searching morbidly for the roots of present problems buried in our past – sometimes so deeply that we didn’t even realise they were there.
Then again, maybe I am just looking back at the 70s through those rose-tinted spectacles. We all know that time can alter the way we view events. I certainly would not want to see anybody sent to jail solely on the strength of my version of who may have done what to whom, where and when, all those years ago.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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