There were three neighbourhoods I knew intimately as a small child. Firstly, my own tiny corner of Yarm. This medieval Teesside town lies on the fringes of rural North Yorkshire, and our ramshackle house was surrounded by an alluring wilderness of wheat fields and copses. Then there were the streets surrounding my Gran’s bungalow in Acklam, a suburb of Middlesbrough with its freshly-built 1960s estates of pebble-dash bungalows and quiet, leafy cul-de-sacs.
And then, perhaps most intimately of all, there was Luke Skywalker’s home planet, the arid desert world Tatooine.
I was besotted with Tatooine. Since seeing Star Wars three times as a five-year-old (once at the Stockton Classic cinema with my Dad, then twice at the Middlesbrough Odeon with my Mum and Uncle Trevor respectively) this sun-baked backwater had become my dream holiday destination. Its towns and landmarks were as vivid in my imagination as the houses and bungalows of my real-life existence: there was Anchorhead with its Tosche Station; Mos Eisley with its cantina; the Jundland Wastes (“not to be travelled lightly”); the Lars homestead, and the safe haven of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s windswept desert hovel. I stared blankly through the front room window and I visited them all.
The love affair was cemented in the long summer holiday of 1979. Now aged six, I was a voracious reader of Marvel’s Star Wars Weekly, its insanely inventive comic strip providing a weekly fix of brand new adventures for Luke, Leia, Han Solo and their associated cosmic dramatis personae. In Issue 73, dated 18th July 1979, the unthinkable happened. Luke returned to Tatooine, on a mission to recruit new pilots for the rebellion. He wistfully visited the burnt-out husk of his childhood farm, met his old friends Fixer and Camie, and uncovered a dastardly Empire plot to transform the planet into a frozen ice world. The plot meandered and drifted delightfully across the weeks that followed, only ending as the first September mists began to gather on chilly Teesside mornings, and the dreaded “back to school” signs appeared in the local Woolworths. And, although I invariably read each comic on my Gran’s tiny coffee table in Acklam, my soul was in the Dune Sea, bullseyeing womp-rats from a patched-up landspeeder.
At the same time, back in Yarm, my builder Dad was still working hard to renovate the cobweb-strewn Victorian house we’d bought almost derelict in the summer of 1976. Three years later, an extension was in progress: a large kitchen and a much-needed spare bedroom. This meant, of course, that our garden and driveway had effectively become a building site. Scattered everywhere were bricks, breezeblocks, alarmingly exposed sheets of asbestos and – most excitingly of all – piles of deliriously accessible sand.
The results were inevitable.
I can’t remember taking these pictures, but I do remember – pardon me – the Hidden Fortress itself. Han and Chewie’s hideout is bolstered by twigs from the garden, their tiny Millennium Falcon hidden in the shadow of Luke’s hastily parked-up landspeeder. The stormtroopers have clearly arrived in Darth Vader’s equally undersized TIE Fighter, its grey wing just about visible in the bottom right-hand corner of the first photo. And the second picture, presumably intended as a dramatic portrait of Luke Skywalker gazing wistfully towards a moody Teesside sunset, has been stymied by my inherited family trait of rendering at least 50% of our photographic subjects headless. But, if nothing else, it captures a precious moment in time: an otherwise forgotten 1979 day when my lifelong ineptness at mastering any remotely practical skill was immortalised forever.
My treasured collection of Star Wars toys continued to expand until the early 1980s. I was never happier than when imagining new adventures for them on a coffee table cleared of placemats and chipped builder’s mugs… a feeling I’m still not sure I’ve ever surpassed for sheer, carefree escapism. I kept them all in a pale, cloth bag with a drawstring, donated by my Gran as the collection began to gather momentum. I still have it, and when I hold the fabric against my face I am almost overwhelmed with sadness for the loss of my six-year-old self, and for the immersion I found in the characters and landscapes of my favourite film. A feeling that I never want to fade… and so the bag is kept at the back of a stuffed spare room cupboard, barely seen and only fleetingly handled. I want it untouched by the humdrum of the 21st century: the everyday dreariness of adult life would only erode its power to transport. It should remain forever steeped in the potent magic of 1979.
The Dark Room is a collaborative effort. If anyone wants to contribute their own childhood photos from the era, I would be utterly delighted – please drop me a line using the “Contact” link at the top of the page. Thanks so much.
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