pete's blog / autobiography

Martin Bailey mobailey at
Fri Mar 9 15:35:04 CST 2007

JOELTLE515 asked:
> just curious, since I haven't been able to get into pete's blog, has he
> posted anything more of his autobiography since the "prologue"?

You asked for it.



I was born 19 May 1945. In the late summer of 1946 I can dimly remember
sitting on a beach in bright sunshine. There was the scent of people around
me. Sea-air, sand, a light wind, sunshine. Suddenly my parents rode up on
two horses, sprayed sand everywhere like Arabs, waved happily and then rode
off again. I was about fifteen months old. I made a decision then not to
live in reality. I didn’t like it at all.

All my great grandparents and their children saw the horrors of The Great
War first hand or at home. There is a natural fear that sends young lovers
into each other’s arms when the world appears to be at an end. My father’s
parents Horace and Dorothy performed in Concert Party shows. They gave their
revels a break to conceive my father, and while the abominable war raged my
father Clifford Blandford Townshend was born on 28 January 1917. As a
teenager my father chose a rebellious path. He was in a band while still
attending Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith in 1932. At my father chose
the world of the Bottle-Party. These gatherings were a uniquely unnecessary
English imitation of the American Prohibition Speakeasy (1920—1933).
Prohibition was never imposed in the UK at all. He started to play at these
bawdy parties while still at school and got into serious trouble over it.
Smoking was the universal fashion of the time. Something had to cut through
the resultant haze. Sophistication, glamour and light-heartedness obscured
an underlying fear of death, war, and extinction. The big issues were hidden
in both clouds of cigarette smoke and truly innovative popular music. Sex
was—as ever—the ingredient that best seemed to calm the anxious heart. It
was hidden behind the cultivated elegance of men in evening dress.

Posted by Pete Townshend at 10:06 PM 9 comments


My maternal grandmother Emma married Maurice Dennis an Anglo-Irishman from
Cork, but wasn’t keen on her Christian name and adopted the nickname ‘Denny’
. My mother was born 3 November 1923. She was named after Denny’s mother
Betty who had been born in 1884, into the Toby family of ‘tinkers’, her
father was politely described by Registrars as a ‘Horsekeeper’. She had in
fact been a gypsy girl, a tiny woman with a powerful personality who sold
oddments from a little cart she pushed around the villages of Kent. In 1899
she met there and fell in love with James William Hindley, the son of a
Blacksmith, and had no qualms about setting about using her ‘gypsy powers’
to steal her intended husband from his then wife. James deserted his three
children by the marriage. His new mistress Betty Toby was fifteen years old.
It was from this strange and enigmatic little creature that Denny, and my
mother, claimed to have inherited psychic powers. Denny said she could put
curses on people.

Denny continued her father’s tradition and left Maurice in 1934. They had
been married eleven years. She simply disappeared. With two children to look
after the bereft young man moved in with his mother Ellen bringing his two
children. My mother Betty was ten, her brother Maurice Jr. was eight. Betty
became a contributor to the running of the house, and fell directly under
her Irish grandmother’s influence. Ellen would downplay her Irish roots. Yet
she often held nostalgic late-night drinking parties at which my mother was
sometimes expected to wake from her sleep to sing and dance on the table as
her grandmother’s tipsy Irish men-friends looked up at the pretty young
girl. When my mother first described this kind of scene I wondered why the
men couldn’t hang out at the pub in the time-honoured manner of homesick
Irish immigrants. Later I learned the reason. Ellen’s cousin was Michael
Collins, and his visits to London were secret and dangerous. This was
probably another reason Ellen wanted my mother to hide her Irish heritage.

Posted by Pete Townshend at 10:05 PM 9 comments


My parents were twenty and thirteen in 1937 when war started to threaten. In
1939 war was declared against Germany. My father enlisted in the RAF in
1940. My mother falsified her age to enlist in the same service as soon as
she could in 1941, she was in fact only sixteen. In the RAF, my father
played in various small bands and groups to entertain his colleagues. This
was part of his duties. My mother drove a truck and sang in some of the
bands. The way the RAF treated popular music was quite extraordinary.
Musicians were encouraged and supported, and the morale value of popular
music was readily acknowledged, even by those high in command.

Near the end of the war, my father ended up in an important RAF orchestra
that had been recruited from enlisted men who had been members of well-known
bands. During the war the band was known as the RAF Dance Orchestra. Later,
the Squadronaires. Vic Bellerby writes in some Decca reissue sleeve-notes:
‘In the early days, the blitz gave life an uncertainty which the band shared
to the full. Once, while playing at Bristol, a bomb blasted them out of the
hall and they finished the night by dragging out victims from shattered
houses’. My mother remembers that night.

My parents married 16 April 1944 in Pontypool, South Wales where they were
stationed. My father was by then a Lance Corporal. They lodged at 61, Tolley
View, Penygarn, and my mother calculates that it is there I was conceived.
In photographs my young parents seem very happy, almost radiant. I was born
in West London in Nazareth House, which was then an annexe of the West
Middlesex Hospital. It is still standing beside the River Thames at
Isleworth, near an old Ferry crossing point, and until recently was being
used as convent. My mother and I were taken from the hospital to Horace and
Dot’s flat in Ealing Common, but my father was away performing to the
conquering troops in Germany. He was on stage when a motor cycle messenger
shouted ‘It’s a boy!’ from the footlights.

Posted by Pete Townshend at 10:04 PM 10 comments


We moved to Acton, to the ground floor of Twenty-two Whitehall Gardens when
I was still a baby. The house had been war damaged, the roof blown off,
several houses in the same terrace completely destroyed. The upper tenants,
a Jewish couple Mr and Mrs Cass, were temporarily moved out while it was
rebuilt. The Cass family were diamonds in every sense, and we loved them.
Our flat had a bathroom without a toilet, there was a toilet out in the
yard. Divided laterally into two these rather narrow houses, which look
quite modest from the street, were built deeply into their plots and
provided adequate room for two families. I slept in the old dining room,
which was not dedicated to my sole use. I had no sense of privacy, nor of
any right to develop one. Once installed at Whitehall Gardens my mother had
to stop singing, something I think she regretted. She worked to help run the
Squadronaires’ office, based at the Rabin theatrical agency in Piccadilly

My parents often took me on the Squadronaires’ tour bus where I was in the
company of young musicians. I came to love their easy attitude to life. I
also realised that, in general, musicians usually drank a lot. There was
sometimes a crate of beer on the bus, but always several at the ‘digs’ after
the ‘gigs’. I often looked after the empties on such occasions. I wondered
at the time why simply handing a grown man a bottle of beer would illicit
such affection. The young men in the band were fashionable and a bit
dangerous. My father played clarinet and saxophones. I always knew he was
special in his own genre, that he was respected and held in high esteem by
his fellows. His morning practice seemed to me to be magical, even alchemic,
in its complexity. In pop today we use simpler language—he was fast.

Posted by Pete Townshend at 10:03 PM 5 comments


In the post-war years the Squadronaires secured long engagements as a
resident orchestra at Butlin’s Holiday Camps. The Holiday Camp was a
peculiar British institution; nothing like it ever appeared in the USA or
Europe. I remember the first summer in 1947 quite well, for me there was
sunshine, colour, good friends and fun. We were in an immediate post-war
period; people were either in shock or euphoria. The philosophy at Butlins
was simple: the occupants were treated in a slightly militaristic manner and
necessarily bullied into the full enjoyment of their holiday time. Ken
Russell’s depiction of these times in his film of ‘Tommy’ looks overdone,
but it is not.

The Squadronaires had a secret whistle developed to track down band members
lost among the happy camping hoi polloi. At a decidedly early age I came
into contact with the average British ‘punter’, and I have always had an
instinctive understanding about what entertains people. I learned to look
down a little on those ordinary folk, the ‘customers’ who were to indirectly
pay for my keep. When I go to a concert in which I am not performing, I
always feel a little lost in the masses. In an audience I feel as though I
am in the wrong place. We returned to Butlins for three long summers from
1947-1949. Things must have been fairly depressing for the male teenager in
those days, and for young people in general, there was still conscription,
but at Butlins there was escape.

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