Soundtrack to my School Days

Lisa Power MBE


I got into Croydon High School in the first year that there were no interviews for girls applying for the assisted place scholarships. I probably wouldn’t have got in if there had been, as my accent was all wrong. My mother had been refused a place, as her mother ran a pub. During my time at school I hung out with the other misfits. I didn’t understand why I didn’t fit in then; I was just an ugly duckling. My friends and I would huddle around the radio at lunchtimes and listen to Radio One, which started in 1967, and the very silly comedy show, I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again.


1966, Paperback Writer by The Beatles

I used to swim a lot at the Croydon Baths and was very keen on it till I hit puberty. I remember ploughing up and down the pool to Paperback Writer – they played the hit parade in some sessions there. Paperback Writer is a lesser known Beatles song – it didn’t appear on any Beatles album. I also remember after swimming, I’d be treated to a sixpence (approx. 2½p) cup of chicken “bouillon” soup. Croydon Baths in those days still had slipper baths – for people that didn’t have baths in their own homes – so there’d be the pool entrance and a separate one for people going to the slipper baths for a private bath.


1967, Respect/Save Me by Aretha Franklin (Double-A side)

There was a stall in West Croydon that sold second hand ex-juke box singles, with oversized holes in the middle, so you couldn’t play them on a regular record player unless you had an adapter. I did, so it meant I could buy these singles more cheaply. And I bought this one by Aretha Franklin without even knowing who she was. I don’t know why I chose it, but it became really important to me.

Many years later I flew over to New York to see her (I knew she’d never come to the UK as she had a phobia of flying). It was the weekend of Whitney Houston’s funeral, so I was worried she might not be able to do the concert, as she was Whitney Houston’s godmother. But she did the gig instead, and brought a gay black pastor with her to preach to the crowd which we all knew was making a point.


1968, Walk on Gilded Splinters by Dr John

Walk on Gilded Splinters has a weird, New Orleans voodoo feel about it – and it’s a song I’ve been listening to ever since I first discovered it. I’ve been to New Orleans too, and have a set of vintage Mardi Gras beads which I wear. I became fascinated by voodoo and witchcraft, which came together with my love of medieval history. I was reading 1600s witchcraft texts, too. Incidentally, Keith Thomas’ classic book Religion and the Decline of Magic, which I read at school, is also one of Hilary Mantel’s favourite books – she was a schoolgirl at the same time.


1969, I Heard it through the Grapevine, by Marvin Gaye

I was listening to a lot of Motown and Stax—music that came out of the Blues, which I discovered much later. I Heard it Through the Grapevine became “my song” later at Lancaster University, when I was part of the alternative scene and had just come out. We used to go to Quack Disco, which was mostly gay run and held at the Catholic Club (who were clearly more interested in our money than our sins). I’d always hit the dance floor when I Heard it Through the Grapevine came on.


1971, Maggie May, by Rod Stewart

There was a shop in Croydon called Bus Stop Boutique – just at top of the North End shopping street – where I bought my first black velvet suit. I remember, it was quite Elizabethan-looking, with a peplum jacket. I still love velvet suits. Maggie May was playing in the store, and I remember it all very clearly. I got to see Rod Stewart when he and The Small Faces played The Greyhound, the pub my grandmother had run decades earlier.


Croydon High School alumna, Lisa Power MBE, is a lifelong, highly influential social activist, co-founding the social justice and equality group Stonewall. As Secretary-General of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, she was the first out LGBT person to speak on LGBT rights at the UN in New York. She subsequently became Policy Director of the Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity. She is currently a Trustee of Queer Britain, the forthcoming LGBT+ museum, and Chair of the global HIV Justice Network. She was awarded an MBE in 2011 for services to sexual health and the LGBT community.