In the summer of 2002, four years or so into my sobriety, I was throwing myself into volunteering as part of my plan to reinvigorate the life I had left in idle for so long. Health-wise, career-wise, and in many other aspects things were not just back up to speed but positively bursting through the light barrier. However, despite signing up to several dating agencies both online and old school, I remained resolutely single. There had been dates but no-one sparked anything inside me.
Then John Mitchell, one of my Toc H friends, asked me to help out at the Aga Khan Partnership walk in Hyde Park. I agreed and a few days before the event travelled to the Aga Khan Foundation in London for a briefing. Outside, milling about on the pavement before we went in, I met a number of fellow Toc H volunteers; some I knew previously some I didn’t. There was one in particular I didn’t know and felt I wanted to. Tall and thin, she was bouncing around outside on nicotine and nervous energy.
And then we went in. I hadn’t noticed the hearing aid in her ear – perhaps she only put it in as we got inside – but I did notice her stroll up to the organisers desk demanding to know why they didn’t have a hearing aid loop in place. Feisty too! My eyebrows raised, at least metaphorically. Her name, I discovered, was Hazel Schofield and she had spent her working life supporting people with disabilities, a subject close to my heart. This was looking interesting.
On the Sunday of the walk, I arrived in Hyde Park early and went to see my friend Jo who was organising the volunteers. Essentially we were safety marshals manning road crossings whilst several thousand young Muslims walked to raise money for various good causes. I asked Jo to pair me up with Hazel and she obliged, thus I got to spend a summer Sunday getting to know this woman who both attracted and interested me. However, we weren’t very far into the day when Hazel came out to me as a Lesbian. I’ll be honest, at first I thought she had picked up on the fact I was interested in her and was letting me down gently, but when the photos of her current girlfriend came out, I realised she was being honest.
Despite my disappointment we not only became friends but Hazel agreed to help me lead a project I was planning for adults with learning disabilities. So over that winter we met a few times both in London (Hazel lived in Brixton) and at my flat in the mill at Roydon. Come April, and the holiday to Devon, we knew each other quite well and had an almost flirtatious liaison, safe in the knowledge that nothing awkward like a serious relationship was ever going to come out of it! Except on the penultimate night of the holiday – it did! Hazel, responding to confusing and overwhelming feelings she had been having, well, jumped my bones!
From that April day in 2003, we have had the most wonderful life together, but that first year or so was a high. Because back then Hazel was well and fit. More importantly, she was independent. That was important to me. I didn’t want a relationship where we were tied at the hip nor anything resembling what I thought of as a ‘standard’ relationship. We were ten years apart in age, had different tastes in many things yet had a highly similar in outlook in life. Liberal, open-minded, and favouring the unconventional, everything was rosy…and the sex was pretty awesome too. The drunk and dyke were doing OK.
Then Hazel got bronchitis. It never went away. Well, the bronchitis did but she was left exhausted. Something was up. She had changed jobs and worked mostly from home but eventually even that had to go. She needed to rest lots. Even brushing her teeth took it out of her. Thankfully I had health insurance through work and we were able to get her to see various specialists in reasonably quick succession. The only way we could deal with this mysterious illness was to get other serious problems eliminated. With my insurance we could be passed from one consultant to the next without too much delay. Even so it took a year before we arrived at the National M.E. Centre in Romford and got a diagnosis.
I won’t take up paragraphs here writing about how Hazel and my existence has been affected since. Most of you know us; you know how it affects everything we do (or don’t do). What I want to do is make clear how quickly one person’s life can change so quickly and so enormously. Of course, I write this against a backdrop of Covid 19 so there are others out there who have felt the cold hand of a virus on their backs and if your life has been affected by this then I wish you well.
We have probably been less affected than many. We don’t have a busy social life so haven’t had to cancel many engagements. A holiday postponed sure but otherwise mostly health and medical trips cancelled or postponed.
And when this is all over, and the pubs and parks are full again, we will be going back to our settled, slightly self-isolating, carefully regimented lives. And we will still count our blessings because we know there are others with M.E. who are totally bedbound, shuttered behind drawn curtains, and wasting away because of this ghastly bloody illness that still has no cure. So when Covid 19 is a fading memory, please don’t forget about us.
A blog about well-known people of my acquaint – how very Christopher Biggins of me. I admit that I thought twice about this article before I started it. After all, ‘name-dropping’ to this degree can come over as a bit arrogant can’t it? Not that I claim to be the friend of celebrities. These are just luminaries that I happen to have met along my journey through life. Surely everyone does? And ‘met’ is a very loose term too; mind you, so is celebrity although it’s a darn sight looser these days than it was when I were a lad!
So who was the first person of renown that invaded my personal space? I’m not sure I remember. Some boxer opened the Goffs Oak Fete one year. Billy Walker I think but I was just a kid in the crowd, waving at someone I didn’t know from Adam as he drove past in an open top car surrounded by Carnival Queens and Princesses.
Maybe it was at a different procession; as a Sea Cadet I was lining the route of the Battle of the Flowers in Jersey (no not single-handedly, I was still slim in those days). One of the dancer’s on the Seaside Special float was gesticulating her requirement for a bottle opener. Being well-prepared I had one hanging on my lanyard and indicated that I could oblige. She jumped of the float and gratefully came over and allowed me to remove the cap of her beer bottle. I expect she was quite famous.
But we have to fast forward to November 1981 for the first real contact with a true public figure. This was my oft written about meeting with Tim Rice that led to my tenure as Editorial Associate with GRRR Books. Tim was my gateway celebrity! Before long I was meeting well known personalities most days. I could handle it. My fellow GRRR book associates Mike Read and Paul Gambaccini were regular fixes of course but there were others. I bumped into several Radio 1 DJs when running errands for Mick Read (Andy Peebles was dead dull). For the first few months I worked in a garret in Wardour Street and Annie Ivel (David Bowie’s one-time publicist) used to come in from time to time. It might have been for a nap as there was a small bedroom at the back of the attic – I kid you not!
Then we moved to Shaftesbury Avenue and the coming together of all Tim’s various business ventures. Here, entering the door to reception in the morning I would often meet the publisher Leo Cooper (Husband of Jilly). We had taken over his old offices and he used to come and get his post. OK, a C-lister but another very nice man. I also used to pass the late Terry Jones on the stairs quite often as he was a director of Pavilion Books, a publishing firm Tim was involved with. As I have said in previous blogs, he was incredibly shy. I was also a very unworldly 19 year old so we just exchanged an indecipherable grunt and the merest nod of our heads as we passed.
I’m only going to skip through many of the next names as the stories have all come up before. In the late summer of 1982 I started office sharing with Tim’s new PA. She had just come off being the Stage Manager on Cats which made her a teeny bit famous in showbiz terms. Of course, Judy Craymer went on to become very well-known and very, very wealthy. Hey doll, lends us a tenner.
One afternoon in the summer of 1982 an old friend of Judy’s came looking for her. Judy wasn’t in but Sarah Brightman and I spent a lovely hour or two chewing the fat. She didn’t mention she had the hots for Andrew though so that came as a surprise the following year.
And speaking of Andrew Lloyd Webber – no I never met him. Between you and me, him and Tim weren’t really talking at that time. I did meet Tim’s squeeze, Elaine Paige a few times though. I also met his wife Jane but thankfully never at the same time.
A few others called in at the offices on various occasions. Notably Benny and Bjorn when Tim was writing Chess with them. I met them briefly (It was all a bit Swedish chefs – much nodding of heads and Hellu Benny und Bjurn. Fery nice-a tu meet yuou. I can be such a dickhead sometimes). This was also Judy’s first fateful meeting with them. Less well known but a truly delightful man was Stephen Oliver who wrote with Tim the only Rice musical I have actually been too, namely Blondel (Very good too). Oh, and there was also the one I didn’t meet. Judy and her co-conspirator Fay were setting up a blind date for me and Bonnie Langford. For some reason it didn’t come off but that could have changed my life forever…..or not.
So in late summer of ’82 we started organising a big party to publicise the launch of our new book. Initially my ‘meeting’ superstar invitees was done over the phone as they called into RSVP their invitations. Benny Hill was the most memorable – he made Terry Jones seem gregarious. I remember Mike Read taking Eve Graham’s (New Seekers) call. To this day I like to believe she thinks Mick is my secretary. Mike D’Abo was another decent chap. I may have met him in the flesh at one of Tim’s cricket club dos at the Ivy (Just dropped that in!) but I can’t actually remember.
And so to the party. The first ‘famous’ bod I met that night also became a personal friend for a few years. None other than the legendary Buster Meikle, formerly of Unit 4+2. Maggie (More infamous than famous) and I met him at Cuffley station and escorted him to the party as a special guest. Regular readers will know that we didn’t return with him as planned as sometime towards the end of the party he wandered off and fell asleep in a recording booth somewhere deep in Abbey Road studios.
For the full roll call of well-known people at this fabulous party see previous blogs. Better still have a peek at Maggie’s signed copy of the book. The only ones I spent quality time talking to were Linda McCartney and Johnny Logan. I also had that run-in with Andy Summers I have previously mentioned and I was quite taken with Billy Fury and Ronnie Lane, both in very poor state of health but determined to be there. Less said about Stiff Pilchard the better but a quick mention for Demis Roussos, Paul McCartney, Sting, a bloke out of the Royal Scots Dragoon guards and one of the little girls who sang on There’s No-one Quite Like Grandma. Ricky Valance (who brought his lawyer and threatened to sue us for something we wrote about him), George Martin……….the list goes on.
So the 196 Shaftesbury Avenue Christmas party a few weeks later paled into insignificance really and all I have for you is Paul Jones – who charmed and held a captive audience including me, in the tiny kitchenette in the basement, and Michael Parkinson who bored the tits off me at the bar.
On my pub crawls around the area I met my second well-known boxer namely John Conteh. Unlike the public friendly Billy Walker, Conteh was standing on a pub table, drunk as a skunk and preaching about the wrath of God or some such drivel. I understand he’s been sober for years now – good lad! I shared a tube carriage with Geoffrey Palmer and stood behind Marc Almond in the till queue at the Virgin Megastore. I was trying to see what he had bought and he made a point of turning his back on me. It’s OK Marc, that doesn’t put you in the same class as Stiff Pilchard.
And then my days on the fringes of showbiz ended and I was thrown back into the hinterland of Hertfordshire. My next brushes with those who had had or were having their Warholian 15 minutes would come as I served them on the forecourt of Cuffley Motors. I recently mentioned the imposing figure of Bernard Bresslaw who got out of the car to pay and towered over 6’2” me. I was actually a little in awe of him. Not for his roles in the Carry On films but because he once played an Ice Warrior in Dr Who!
Frank Bruno came in one day and as I also said recently, insisted in thrusting a signed photo at me even though I didn’t really want it. His manager Terry Lawless also came in at least once and Frank Warren several times.
Other garage regulars were Shogun customers like Dave Peacock out of Chas and Dave (Another genuinely diamond geezer) and several Spurs footballers who lived nearby. Ally Dick was always in although it was normally the offy where I bumped into Gary Mabbutt.
Local residents who had a modicum of fame and were garage regulars included photographer Leslie Bryce, famous for his collection of shots of the Beatles; and a former dancer turned choreographer Nigel Lythgoe. He and his wife both came in the garage and also had kids at the Youth Club. In all honesty I was more interested in Bonnie as she had once appeared in the film To Sir With Love, an all-time favourite of mine. I recall Nigel liked a drink but that’s enough of that. Oh, he later became quite well-known for some or other TV shows.
After three years at the garage I headed back to publishing and as editor and writer for Spiral Scratch and Music Collector, I interviewed some class acts. Well, they may not mean much to you but Don Crane (The Downliners Sect), Twink (Pink Fairies and tons of other bands), and Robert Lloyd (The Prefects) meant a lot to me. I finally landed a PiL interview and waited for them to call me and tell me when I was going to meet Lydon. Instead I spent a dull hour in a West End hotel with Allan Diaz, who had just arrived in the band from Sun Ra or some other jazz-funk mob. He cycled to the hotel and drank orange juice. He was not impressed by my Marlboro Red and several pints of Guinness style of interviewing. I didn’t even run the feature it was so boring. One day I’ll steel myself and listen to the tapes.
Thankfully the Godfathers were more receptive to my methods and after running through their entire set for me in the rehearsal room we retired to a pub in the Holloway Road for the interview and few beers. Wednesday’s Children were OK and the Macc Lads fibbed throughout, as was their style. They were doing fake news way before it was trendy.
Post Scratch and post sobriety, my life began to take a slightly less abnormal course. In the years since I recall few celebrity encounters. Several MPs in my charity work, none nearly so honest and hard-working as Sir Norman Lamb. Last week I met his successor – Duncan Baker – he has his work cut out to achieve anything close to what Norman did in North Norfolk. There, that was very diplomatic of me.
I was a steward at the Holt Festival one year and had to tell off Roger Lloyd-Pack (Trigger) for trying to go somewhere he shouldn’t. Generally Norfolk is quite low key about its stars. We have a few live here but we keep quiet about it. One who resides in the county for part of the year is the Queen but it was at her London home that I met her and her old man when I was invited to a reception for the Year of the Volunteer. She was OK, we had a brief chat about Toc H and Tubby Clayton but that day will more be remembered for Phillip elbowing me in the ribs!!
Finally the one I have been trying not to mention now was the chap I got to a Toc H party in Cuffley one year. He was the only famous person I got to pose with me and have a photo taken. Sadly his name rhymes with Vimmy Ravel!
So apart from Buster, who was a drinking buddy for several years, and those that I worked with for a while, most of these famous people were just ships passing in the night. It’s the rest of you that mean something to me. Some of you I’ve known for 50 odd years and some are more recent acquaintances but you’re the ones that really matter. Friendship trumps fame every time. Love ya.
Having stepped away from work for a career break in 2017 the fates conspired and a few things happened in my life in short succession to give me pause for thought. Some health issues (Percy Pancreas followed swiftly by Cedric ‘Pseudo’ Cyst); the fact I turned 55 and could access my pension pot; and the fact that I love not ‘working for the man’*, all helped me reach the decision to officially retire. In doing so I have revitalised my writing career, albeit for fun and not funds thus far, which has been a thing of great joy.
*An inaccurate turn of phrase as many of my bosses have been women over the years!
This blog is one of those outlets for my reinvigorated scripting and my official retirement seems like an excellent opportunity to revisit what I believe is known as a portfolio career. So no stone unturned, this is my working life from start to finish (Future events notwithstanding)
I suppose it began with Mr Davis (Cecil behind his back). Somehow or other our Environmental Studies teacher seemed to land the job of Careers Advisor. And what fun those infrequent lessons were in the mid-70s. I have two abiding memories. The first was that there existed the role of Plastic Mastic Asphalt Spreader. Years later, when working for a Civil Engineering Contractor (It’s coming later!) I searched vainly for someone who owned that job and had I found them I would have begged a business card from them and had it framed above my desk. Alas, throughout the kingdom of Tarmac, I found the wondrous smell of tar but not a sniff of a Plastic Mastic Asphalt Spreader.
The second memory of careers was a film about a postman. I quite liked the look of that and for a while it was my intention to be one. Little did I know that this would actually come to pass – albeit briefly – but again, it’s coming later.
As the end of school grew closer and I had to make some serious choices, I rejected postman and looked at other avenues. I had decided that I was done with education and didn’t want to go to university so devised a cunning plan that would enable me to get a degree and be paid for it doing it. And so, already a Sea Cadet, I applied to join the Royal Navy on its Officer Training course. I think I’ve mentioned this before so I won’t dwell but I passed my entrance exam and was awarded a place, only to have it snatched away from me the Summer I left school when Mrs T. made some defence cuts. What I don’t normally bother saying is that I fucked up my A’ Levels through a combination of arrogance and hedonism and probably wouldn’t have got in anyway.
So then it was a quick visit to UCCA, a 2.5 day tenure at Kingston Polytechnic, then a massive change of tack into the world of rock’n’roll. But wait, I have skipped a vital bit. What about that child labour I was forced into? Well, there was no chimney cleaning nor picking up pins from under dangerous machinery. In fact my first job was a subcontracted paper round from my sister. Simon Beeton and I took our trusty go-kart (An amazing bit of kit made by my dad of which sadly no picture seems to survive) and loaded it to the gunwales with the local free newspaper. We distributed that paper all over Goffs Oak, bending several pram wheels along the way, and all for a few pennies that my sister had already claimed her commission from.
Many of my friends had Saturday jobs from their earliest teens but I waited until I was nearly 16 before giving up my Saturday pleasures. I remember precisely when I had my interview at the Co-op because it was Cup Final Day 1979. I started the following week as the butcher’s boy. I think I have written about this before so I’ll just say that I actually liked that job! I was there precisely two years because my last day was Cup Final Day 1981. A much more memorable cup final of course!
I was made redundant from the Co-op (The first redundancy, but not the last) and since I was going on holiday with my mates that summer, a replacement job was urgently needed. Thanks to Lee Phillpotts, I jumped the waiting list at Sainsbury and got a Friday night/Saturday job at the Waltham Cross store alongside half my mates. That helped my gather the folding stuff for a wonderful week in Hemsby with the gang and when I got back, it was more ‘old boys’ networking’ when my mum got me in Tesco’s Cheese and Bacon Warehouse for a few weeks before starting poly. That was an eye-opener. When I read about the abuse, wolf-whistles, and general sexism that women face on a daily basis, I allow myself a wry smile, simply because when a shy, retiring 18 year old male is sent into the pit of she-wolves that is the bacon-boning department, I have some sympathy with your torment. Thankfully I was only there for six weeks. Not because of the PTSD I suffered from the boners but rather that eating all the bits we trimmed off the blocks of cheese was giving me nightmares.
And so to poly – see above – and thence, on resigning my course, to the local Wavy Line where I had the pleasure of working alongside Dawn (Also my next door neighbour) and Elsie for a few weeks. In the meantime, having had to rethink my career choices I was writing to every record company and recording studio in the business. I even wrote to Guinness who published the Book of British Hit Singles – the UK chart bible. I got a standard-ish reply saying they were just the publishers but would pass my letter on to the team who actually compiled the books. And then, in November 1981, I got a phone call at home from a lady saying that she “had Tim Rice on the phone for me”.
A week later I had been for an interview with Tim and was starting working for him in a little garret room above his agent’s office in Wardour Street. I was Editorial Associate at GRRR Books and the 18 year old shy-boy from the relative Hicksville of Hertfordshire, was transported into a world of wonder and showbiz. For the next 3 three and a bit years – despite a blossoming drink problem – I spent half my time plotting chart positions on graph paper and the other half on a wide variety of name-dropping, showbizzy type activities. These included sharing an office with the woman who would go on to create the phenomenon that is Mamma Mia; setting up a baby monitor as a primitive interoffice intercom with a record executive just back from running Arista in LA; pretending to be impressed when one of my colleagues sashayed proudly around the office with Limahl on his arm as his new boyfriend; spent a lovely afternoon chatting to Sarah Brightman when she dropped in to see someone who wasn’t in, and a far less lovely afternoon serving Michael Parkinson alcohol at an office party whilst he droned on about cricket! I met lovely people like Paul Jones and Stephen Oliver, and slightly strange people like the incredible shy Terry Jones. Then there was that party at Abbey Road…but I’ve written about that before https://stevesmith.home.blog/2019/02/21/abbey-road/. In fact I’ve written about a lot of this before so let’s just say, all things must pass.
In 1985 I was made redundant for the second time but luckily Guinness picked me up quite quickly to write a book for them and for a year I had a reasonable weekly income but when that book was published and I persuaded Penguin to publish my next, as yet unwritten tome, I need to earn something whilst I was assembling it. This is how I came to spend the lead up to Christmas one year in the sorting office at Enfield doing one of the most mind-numbingly dull jobs it has ever been my misfortune to partake in. If you were missing some cards at Christmas 1986, I apologise but once you have stuffed your 6000th letter into one of three dozen pigeon holes, you sometimes get a bit sloppy. The only, single consolation of that entire miserable career was the day they let me go out as a postman. I arrived at Waltham Cross sorting office as instructed and the postman whom I was assisting explained my route. He also made it very clear that I was not to get back before noon because if I did they would expect him to do the same every week. I nodded enthusiastically though not as enthusiastic as once I realised the route was basically the High Street from the Queen Eleanor Cross to the Vine public house. Arriving at the pub shortly after they opened at 11, I dropped their post on the bar, ordered a pint of Guinness and made sure I stayed there until well after noon so as not to get my postman friend in trouble. Unfortunately, the following day I was back sorting.
Just after Christmas, my mum was in Cuffley when she spotted a sign at Cuffley Motors for a forecourt attendant. It didn’t sound like the career opportunity I was waiting for but I thought I’d better make an effort. Clearly I made too much of an effort because I got the job. Of course, it turned out to be a life-changer in many ways as my oppo on the other shift was one Richard Gentle who was solely responsible for turning me into a better human being. He hooked me into youth club work and thus started my still continuing engagement in volunteering. It was also a great job in so many ways. I’m not always the most sociable of person, but on the forecourt of the garage I made so many new friends, not to mention a slew of celebrities passing by to get petrol. Most notable were Bernard Bresslaw – my how huge that man was – and Frank Bruno, who insisted on giving me an autographed photo even though I didn’t really want one!
What was most noticeable though was how people treated me. For the first few months, several were quite abrupt and abrasive. I was clearly only fit for servitude. Then my second book – Bits and Pieces – was published and I did a big display at the garage. Now I was a writer clearly only doing the job until the royalty cheques cleared and attitudes changed markedly!
For all that I enjoyed that job it was not where I wanted to be and in late 1989 I sent an article to Spiral Scratch magazine (A feature on Nick Lowe if you are interested) and the publisher/editor asked me up to Cambridge for an interview. A week or so later (I was never one for long notice periods) I was Editorial Assistant and by the time the following month’s issue rolled around, he’d made me editor. Not only that but a few weeks later he decided to launch a second title and made me editor of that too. Talk about trial by fire! It was a fun job marred only by two things 1) Shit pay (Story of my life thus far) and 2) Publisher dodgier than the dodgiest dodgy person. So after 20 months, I could take his duplicitousness no more and walked along with my then co-editor and our graphic designer. I shouldn’t indulge in schadenfreude but a couple of issues later both titles folded and I didn’t shed any tears.
After Scratch there was a period of freelancing that involved writing lots of entries for rock encyclopaedias for pennies, and an interesting three month spell at Music Master which involved me spending a lot of time in reggae shops (I’ll explain one day). However, I was fast approaching 30 and I had often said if I wasn’t earning a decent living from writing by then, I’d do something different.
So I went to college, got a City and Guilds in Information technology, and became the IT Manager of a multi-million pound international Civil Engineering company. And in a way it happened that quickly. Thing is I ‘got’ computers. It was almost as if they had been waiting for me to come across them. At college, my classmates called me ‘Professor’ because I could explain things better than the tutors. So when I saw an advert for someone to write and deliver an IT training course at Fitzpatrick Contractors, I took a punt. The combination of writing experience and IT knowledge clearly worked as Steve Fitzpatrick, son of the owner, took me on. Three months later and he and his father fell out one too many times and Steve left to work with his wife in her high-end property leasing business and took me with him. Once I realised his promises of me developing their IT strategy actually meant answering the phone to people whose gas oven wasn’t working, I went back to Fitzpatrick. Just like that actually. Steve said to go back and carry on submitting invoices (I was still freelance at the time) and it worked. The training had been abandoned by now so I just became the second person in the IT team working for a whizz kid who spent most of his time on this thing called the World Wide Web. Given that this was 1994 there were only a few thousand sites and 80% of them were porn! Anyway, soon after my return Andy gets a job earning zillions with a Russian bank, and suddenly I’m the IT Manager.
To cut a long story short, I landed the role just as IT was breaking big in the industry and I took my one-man IT department to a 21 person, ground-breaking ICT team. It helped that I got sober somewhere in the middle of it all. Shortly after coming out of rehab I was made Chief Technology Officer and for the better part of a decade I actually earned silly money.
As I said somewhere earlier, all things must pass. In 2003 the Fitzpatricks – with whom I was very close – sold us off to a Dutch conglomerate and the following year Hazel got ME, so in 2005 I thought fuck it, and resigned. That’s when we decided to move to Norfolk too.
Our first summer in Norfolk was spent pleasurably unemployed. I was still adjusting to life as a carer and was benefitting from a healthy redundancy negotiated from Fitz’s. Eventually though I need to work and by now I was a veteran volunteer in the charity sector and fancied the idea of working full-time there. I knew the money would be somewhat different from what I had been used too but frankly – lovely and useful though money is – it has never been my prime motivator. And then just as I was despairing of being able to break into a different sector professionally, the director of Toc H asked me to lunch. I’d known Toc H for 20 years at that point and whilst I knew it was a shadow of its former self, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity of ‘going on staff’. Well, it was an interesting 18 months until redundancy number – sorry lost count – came along. Thankfully it was flagged up sometime in advance and I’d managed to arrange things so I finished work Thursday, had a long weekend in Belgium for Carnival 2007 and started my new job with the Vinvolved Team on the Tuesday. Thus four years of helping young people getting involved in volunteering – good; having Voluntary Norfolk as parent team/employer – not so much! As the Vinvolved funding neared its end VNs CEO announced that there would always be a place for the V-team at Voluntary Norfolk. March 2011 – made redundant again!
And so finally, after six frustrating months of unemployment (No healthy redundancy package this time) I was once again summoned by a charity CEO to discuss a few paid hours work a week. From the telephone conversation it was going to be so few hours that I planned to tell Helen I’d give them to her for free as a volunteer rather than bugger around with my Jobseeker’s Allowance. I left said meeting with a full-time job as Development Manager for the rapidly growing and prestigious Work Skills unit at About With Friends. I’d spend the next six years of my life there and without a shadow of doubt it was my all-time favourite place of work. Sure there were stresses. Ironically one of the arguments I made to myself about taking a drop in salary when moving into the charity sector is that responsibilities and pressures would be much less. Sorry, did I say less, how foolish of me. My role in that environment, especially later as I became a Safeguarding lead, was 10 times more pressured than anything I had done before. And there was the usual shit to deal with that you get in any organisation. But where else do you get meet some of the nicest clients in the world, take them abroad to places like Turkey, Menorca, Corfu and Wales (OK, I got the short-straw that year). Where else do you see adults with learning disabilities transform into outgoing, confident media stars, presenters and……well anything they wanted to be. So yes, when I got the opportunity to retire, I took it but I still go back to AWF as a volunteer and will do so for years to come no doubt.
You see the secret of a good career is to make sure you do something you love, and if you don’t, then do something about it!
I recently published an old childhood photo on facebook to which a friend commented “Your photos are, ‘Siri, show me a 1960s childhood’.” She was quite right and once again I count my blessings that my dad was such a keen photographer to capture so many instances of our childhood. The photo in question was a Christmas one of my sister and I with two of our cousins and it set me thinking about my childhood Christmases. I’m sure I’ve touched on them before but today let’s focus this blog entirely on them. This is a 1960s Christmas!
Next week, on Christmas Day, our guest list will consist of me, Hazel, my sister, Hazel’s mum and Bonnie (the dog). We wouldn’t even fill the kitchen of the house I grew up in Goffs Oak (and it wasn’t a big kitchen). Back then, in the late sixties and early seventies, you couldn’t move in the kitchen for wine-drinking women (very rarely men) helping or hindering my mother with the cooking and/or washing up. The living room would be filled to bursting point including the settee at one end stuffed with a…..what is the collective noun for grannies and great aunts? There would probably be a card school going in the hallway and, unless it was teeming with rain, there would be one or two chatting, drinking and smoking in the garden – not that any of those pastimes were banned from the house.
Christmas dinner would be a minimum of eight somehow stuffed round an average sized table in an average sized room festooned with paper streamers from Woolworths and with strings of cards hanging down the walls. However Boxing Day was our big entertainment when more than 20 family members and friends crammed into to our three bedroom semi-detached for a sumptuous buffet (Cold except for the new potatoes).
Often, one or two of the non-local rellies would stay the night, and one memorable year when the Americans were in town we actually had 13 people staying. My sister, me and my cousin were topped and tailed in a single bed in my sister’s bedroom (A box room – nothing more) and the adults were crammed in the remaining beds, on the one settee we owned, or on loungers erected anywhere a lounger would fit. And I reckon we could have still squeezed in Joseph and Mary if they had shown up.
And those American rellies always brought a touch of exoticism to our Christmases! Regardless of whether they were over or not (And I only recall them coming over once at Christmas) we received a box of presents from them every year. I remember well when, in late November, a huge cardboard box covered in strange stamps and customs labels turned up at our door. Come Christmas morning the contents would have been removed and scattered under the tree with the rest of our goodies.
Now you have to remember that they were very different times. I have just filled Hazel’s stocking for this year and it probably contains more presents than we got in total back in the sixties. We may well have scrutinised the toy pages of mum’s catalogues from the day they arrived – and we had three, Freemans, Trafford and Grattan – but a biro scribble next to the Daleks board game didn’t mean we would get it.
What we got was a stocking the moment we got up, whilst mum was cooking a full English including kidneys. Inside the stocking would be a net bag filled with chocolate coins in either gold or silver foil wrappers that actually opened quite easily; a satsuma or two; Matey Bubble Bath; some pens, pencils or crayons; and perhaps a small game. Plastic toys were just starting to push wooden ones out of the limelight and we might get one of those games where you had to get the ball-bearings into little holes. In fact I can’t remember any other games!
There would be a second, separate stocking comprising a bit of shaped cardboard with a net attached containing small samples every chocolate bar Nestles or Cadburys or Mars produced (about six different types if you were lucky).
After breakfast it would be time for our main presents. There was no mad scramble. Dad would pass them out one at a time carefully reading the name tags and waiting for one to be opened before the next was delivered. Sometimes mum could even be persuaded to leave the turkey cooking unattended and come through to watch, not that she would open her own at that point.
For me, in those days, the main present would normally be some Lego and perhaps a Matchbox motor or a Viewmaster Reel, a gift costing a few shillings. Even an Action Man was out of my parents’ reach back then and a bike….well that was a pipe-dream and a half! We didn’t fell at all hard done by though and cherished everything. Auntie Jean would spoil us rotten too and then there would be at least one annual each, sometimes too. For my sister it was usually Blue Peter and we had pretty much a complete set until not so many years ago. For me it may have been one of the comic annuals; Dandy, Beano, or Whizzer and Chips until about 1970 when the Doctor Who Annual became my annual of choice. Later, when dad was earning a bit more, I got a Scalextric set. Simple figure of eight but it had been on my list for years. Now I could save up and get the banked track pieces and a working starter!
And then there were those American presents. They weren’t particularly expensive gifts but the important thing is that they weren’t yet available in the UK. I remember having Yo-yos that lit up when Yo-ed or Yo-Yo-ed or whatever it is you do with a Yo-yo. Our family were playing Yahtzee long before it became a trendy dinner party entertainment in the UK and we also have a great cross between Bingo and Newmarket called Pokeno which I’m not sure is even sold in the UK to this day. I also remember getting games like the one where you use a magnet to move iron filings around and give a man a beard or haircut. These little gifts from across the pond delighted us because they seemed so futuristic.
So by late morning as dad was putting the discarded wrapping paper into an old potato sack (Carefully smoothing out and saving the bits big enough to be reused) we were happily playing without our small but much appreciated pile of gifts. Dad meanwhile was putting the bottle of Old Spice we had bought him in the bathroom cabinet, next to the one we bought him for his birthday and the one….well you get the picture. And mum, well I’m sure she liked her Terry’s Chocolate Orange because she always ate it.
I don’t mean to get all dewy-eyed and nostalgic but, with everything that is happening in the world right now, what I wouldn’t give to have one of those 1960s Christmases once again!
When it comes to the argument about eBooks or the real thing, I’m a straight down the middle kinda guy. I wouldn’t be without my Amazon Fire, stacked with more books than any person – even a trained librarian – can carry. All my regular reading, be it fiction or non-fiction, is on Kindle (Chris Difford’s autobiography my present tome).
I was in at the cutting edge of eBooks too. Or at least I tried to be. Back in the late nineties I bought a Rocket eBook reader from Noble and Barnes in the States but when it arrived it was the low memory version for export markets and not the top of the range reader I expected. A long transatlantic email battle ensued before I got my money back. Then five minutes later the world was flooded with eBook readers and I’ve been a Kindle man ever since.
However, there are occasions when only the real thing will do. Particularly books that rely on illustrations (A couple of excellent, recent books on Great Yarmouth’s town wall spring to mind). I was going to say any vintage book should be paper-based too but actually, that wouldn’t be true. I spend a lot of time at archive.org where thousands of ancient, hoary old reference books have been digitised and saved for eternity (well as long as the format can be read) and can be accessed for free. This is the online equivalent of a well-stocked reference library, fully searchable thanks to the OCR process, and fully accessible from the comfort of your own study.
Behind me in the study though are shelves groaning with books, my two main collections (obsessions) being Toc H and Norfolk. I also have a reasonable London assemblage particularly volumes dealing with underground London. There’s a fairly impressive lesbian literature section and a scrum of travel books mostly relating to places either Hazel or I have been together or separately. My rock book collection, which once filled an entire wall of my bedroom, is now severely depleted and I retain only the rarest or most personally precious digests. And, yes, that does mean the one’s with my own name emblazoned on them as my ego is in need of massage as much as the next man’s.
I’ll be honest with you though, apart from books which I have written or contributed too, I don’t often find myself emotionally attached to individual titles. Notable exceptions would be my copy the Big Blue book, the AA bible, signed by all those I was in rehab with. And I wouldn’t have minded keeping the copy of the hand-written and illustrated George Harrison lyrics book thing I once reviewed. I daren’t even Google how much it would be worth. But generally, it’s what’s between the covers that I prize. And that’s why, in most circumstances, I care not whether it is digital ink or the real thing.
I was brought up in a household where reading books was the norm. Well, my for mum, nan and sister anyway. Dad was more of a magazine man (The Hertfordshire Countryside, Photographic magazines etc). I was enrolled in the library as soon as I could read. Back then it was a little hut on Cuffley Hill that had been the estate office when all the houses in that area were built. I remember the children’s section was in small raised bit at the back. In those days my chosen reading materials were Thomas the Tank Engine and Dr Seuss, the latter at least partly explaining my later obsession with surreal humour.
By the time the library had grown up and moved to its current location, so had I. Now my taste in literature meant I was always trying the find the dirty bits in Confessions of a Taxi Driver, or working my way through the Nick Carter series (A kind of adult James Bond). But I denigrate myself unfairly because titivation was just one motivation. I normally had four books borrowed from the library at all times (When they put the allowance up to six at a time I was ecstatic). I read anything and everything.
It wasn’t just the library either. Mum belonged to the Companion Book Club and every month we got a new book come through the post. These filled the hall, and eventually the loft, and the range of authors was as broad as it was long. Through these books I discovered authors who remain favourites with me today: Victor Canning, Alistair MacLean, and Neville Shute to name but three.
And what of classic literature. I’m sure I have regaled you previously with tales of my battles with Miss Mitchell as we dissected works of art. I much preferred to read and enjoy than try to impart meaning on the author’s behalf. It did mean though, that we looked at some of the classics, if you regard Shakespeare, Dickens, and John Wyndham as classics. Me, I’ve also thought Shakespeare a little overrated – good stories but drowned in flowery prose; Dickens is OK but Wyndham’s work is best interpreted on screen (At least one of my good friends has just fainted on reading this paragraph).
Classics for me were those that my rock’n’roll heroes used to reference so I was reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, On The Road, and Absolute Beginners (And the even better City of Spades). Also Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby but we should talk about what the hippies were doing to their scrotums in a separate blog!
I also tried Ulysses. Forty years later I have still not got past page 32 despite numerous attempts. It was this experience that made me decide life is too short to try and read books just because one feels one ought too. Thus Catch 22, Of Mice And Men, The Great Gatsby, and Moby Dick remain as unread as Ulysses and I won’t lose any sleep over that.
So as I end my own writings, I ought to try and leave you with an all-time favourite. It’s difficult because books, like music and art, are mood dependent. Some days only a Chris Ryan or Clive Cussler will cut the mustard whilst on other days an autobiography of someone in at the birth of punk is what floats my boat. However, if you pressurise me to make a choice then I’ll have to go with one I’ve read a dozen times or more. If I were a producer or director I’d have made a film of it years ago. Indeed the film rights were sold to Warner Brothers for $1m way back in the early seventies and yet it remains unfilmed. We are talking about James Michener’s The Drifters, an epic journey through the lives of six diverse young people travelling through Europe and Africa during the hippie era. Each has their own reason for being there and……well, read it for yourself. And it doesn’t matter if you download it for your Kindle, buy the book from an online retailer or a high street shop, or borrow it from a library or a mate. It’s what’s between the pages that matters!
I’m here again and I’m taking you back to Belgium. This in anticipation of my long-awaited return to Flanders next week. I must confess, it is two years since my last visit and I am prepared to eat as many waffles as you insist on for my penance.
So looking back at previous blogs I have written about my Flemish jaunts, I see I promised to tell about theme parks. Then this week on facebook I shared a post about a parade of Geese. It becomes clear then, that I must try and illustrate, if not explain, the Belgian sense of humour which I very much appreciate.
Now on a personal level, you would think that we are miles apart since when a group of Brits and group of Belgies get together at a Toc H event, we often confuse them with our sarky malarkey. However, on a regional or even national level, the Belgian sense of the absurd aligns very well with my comedy suckling on Monty Python, the Goons, and Blackadder.
The Flemish (and I have no doubt the Walloons) love a good old fashioned and slightly surreal pastime. The Ganzenfanfare (Goose fanfare) appears to involve a man dressed an ancient military uniform carrying a large staff and leading a parade of geese. In the rear playing drums is an equally bizarrely dressed fellow.
. Now, this just describes the one I saw on facebook marching through the rural lanes near Wijtschate. I’m sure there are many variations and I shall be looking out for them when we arrive.
Whilst looking for such a spectacle, I may well come across a long line of old men sitting on stools in front of a cage. These are men engaged in vinkenzetting or vinkensportt (Finch sitting or finch sport). Here each man has brought his most loquacious chaffinch. One of his opponents will be sat in front of the cage counting every time the bird chirps and cutting a notch in a stick. The most chirpacious bird wins (Look it up, Wikipedia even has a page about it now).
I have yet to see anyone playing the other great Flemish sport of Popinjay which involves firing a crossbow bolt at a stuffed parrot perched on top of a tall pole. There was a shop in Poperinge that sold the crossbows but I never saw them fired in anger. Interestingly the Flemish Weavers brought Popinjay to the UK and there are traces of it all in East Anglia, certainly in Great Yarmouth. Mind you, at the risk of being clubbed to death with a lump of willow, I should tell you that the Flemish Weavers also brought Cricket to this country!
However, if making your own pastimes is too much like hard work then why not go to a place where all the work is done for you. Bellewaerde is a fairly traditional theme park in very pleasant surroundings (Although like most of the area they were once a muddy battlefield) but there is another park 40 minutes away aimed at young children. Today it is called Plopsaland De Panne and is one of a chain of Plopsa-things. Plopsa is, I think, a cartoon gnome of some description but I notice that the website is still covered in little cartoon bees. This is relevant because when I first went to Plopsaland 30 years ago, it was known as Meli Park and was dedicated to honey. Yes, a theme park dedicated to honey! I might have appreciated it more but I was more concerned with the fact that as a park aimed at youngsters, it was impossible to get a beer anywhere, You’d have thought they would have had some honey mead or something.
One of things I most remember about Meli Park were the dancing fountains (which for all I know are still part of Plopsaland). I have seen similar things many times since but I’m pretty sure that was the first time I had seen them. As a jet of water arced across a lake and splashed into the water, a new jet rose from that very point and curved away to a different part of the lake. This was repeated several times until the jet returned to whence it began and then the journey began again. For all the world it looked as if a single jet was worming it’s way around the lake. I was very impressed!
But then the continental Europeans do sculptures of this nature very well indeed. My favourite sits in a roundabout on the outskirts of Ieper and has done for many a year. It is a tap that spouts water and appears magically suspended in mid-air. It is more impressive than the giant hop on the outskirts of Poperinge but spotting that did at least mean we were only a few minutes from our destination.
So this has been a quick look at the Flemish psyche. Perhaps I shall have more to say after my eagerly anticipated return next week. But for now that’s it, to which you might reply helaas pindakaas (Which roughly translates as unfortunate peanut butter) but is a Flemish expression for ‘that’s a shame’.
Firstly I should apologise for the break in transmission. After romping through 50 posts in about three months, I suddenly hit a blog wall after my father’s day post. I’ll now be making an effort to post a bit more frequently again but perhaps not as regularly as I started off.
My thoughts these past two weeks have been around funerals as I help to plan one for my dear departed friend Dougie (See Queen Bitch on April 11th for more about the Dougster). These were once such grim and depressing affairs that as a child I was always excluded. I cannot even remember my grandad’s funeral taking place. I remember well the afternoon he died (A Sunday in September 1971) as we were enjoying a late summer’s day in the garden. The funeral, I guess, happened soon after but I cannot even recall the gathering of the clans at nan’s house – which was just a few doors away from ours – or any sort of wake. I do know that there was no question of me attending.
Likewise, in 1975 my beloved great auntie Flo died. I certainly recall when the news arrived. We were all upset for this was the aunt we spent every summer holiday with and she was associated with joy and relaxation. I remember putting the dog’s cushion on the window sill and burying my face into whilst the tears streamed down my face. My mum was devastated too as Flo was like her other mother, having lived with her for part of the war. And I do remember when my parents headed to Norfolk for her funeral, and I held a slight resentment I was forbidden to go with them.
In fact you would have to fast forward until around the early to mid-eighties when I first went to a funeral. I was thrown in at the deep end too as it was a full-blown catholic burial. Mrs Murphy was the mother of my friends Malachy and Sandra and she died far too young. I dug out my suit, probably not used since leaving the sixth form a few years earlier, and borrowed my dad’s black tie. I then endured an hour long service in the little Catholic church in Cheshunt before heading off to the cemetery to stand around the grave and watch the coffin be lowered into the ground. I believe it was a wet and gloomy day. Indeed it was everything the clichéd film and television funerals would have us believe a funeral should be like. It was actually the one and only time I have been to a burial. Needless to say the wake afterwards was all that should be expected of such a thing and the burgeoning alcoholic in me kept pace with the large Irish contingent around me.
The next few funerals were for elderly family members and, though cremations, were generally traditional with the mourners in black, shedloads of flowers and much grief. A few moments stand-out such as when my great uncle, a former DI in the Metropolitan police, was being driven down Canning Road where he lived, a number of officers from Blackstock Road station appeared on the back door in uniform and saluted the hearse as it passed. And as we drove through North London’s busy streets, my uncle who was driving us in his car and was a former Military Police driver, calmly pulled out at every junction and held the traffic until the cortege passed. This was the eighties and not a single horn was sounded or an angry voice raised. In fact bus drivers removed their hats. I dread to think what might happen today if the same thing was tried.
And that was how things progressed through the 80s and 90s. The funerals I attended remained traditional although perhaps brightened by the prospect of meeting rellies not seen a while. The after service parties at least seemed to get lighter and more fun. For me, I suppose the turning point came in 2001 with the funeral of Richard Gentle, my friend and mentor. I guess this would have been the first funeral I attended in sobriety too which may have altered my thinking dramatically. Nevertheless, despite a fairly traditional religious service, it was attended by an estimated 650 people. As the eulogies demonstrated, these people were here to pour out their love for Richard and to celebrate his life more than mourn his death. The party at the community centre afterwards was filled with laughter as people shared their Richard stories. This instilled a change in me.
Of course, you cannot impress your own notions on everyone else’s funerals. My militant atheism must be throttled back if the lamented guest of honour kept their faith. When my dad died in 2009 we – with my mum’s blessing – kept the service simple. Importantly we did away with hymns for there is nothing more depressing than the mumbled refrain of half a dozen mourners singing gleefully whilst the rest just join in at the chorus or mime throughout. Far better to sit and listen whilst the experts sing and my sister and I took great pains in choosing the music. I still smile when I remember us leaving the chapel to the joyful cheer of Louis Armstrong singing Red Sails in the Sunset.
Eight years later, when my mum followed my dad, we dispensed with the last vestiges of tradition. Although still in a crematoria chapel it was in the bright, fresh and newly opened Cromer crematorium. We asked everyone to come dressed in colours and leave the black at home. I led the service myself as I saw no point in some vicar or even a humanist celebrant talking about my mum if when they had never met her whilst she was alive. I tried to keep the eulogy tinged with merriment and drowned in love. Mum didn’t love music with the passion that dad did but we still chose songs that mattered too her. I think it went well and was respectful of my mum whilst a world apart from the funerals she was used to attending.
At least with our own funeral plans Hazel and I can do just as we please. In fact we have. One secret dread of ours that we should depart together in some freakish accident and whoever landed the responsibility of organising our farewell would send us off with half a dozen hymns and that bloody passage about God having lot of rooms (Apologies if I offend my religious friends here). So we have sorted ours. Planned, paid for and all written down (Obvs we don’t have the dates yet but as I do I’ll update the folder). We have a plot in Colney Wood green cemetery where our ashes will be planted without a headstone. It overlooks a pond though why I am particularly concerned about where I spend eternity is a bit moot as I shall be nothing but dust by then. And the celebration in the hall at the Greenacres site will be dominated by music (Spoiler alert – if you wish to be surprised when you attend my farewell party, stop reading now). My ashes – preburned in private – will enter to the sound of Horslips’ Daybreak. I was going to use Trouble With A Capital T but since this has been my ringtone for the last 15 years or so I felt the celebration might be interrupted as people search for my mobile. Then part way through you get to watch a slide show of photos to a soundtrack of Freebird (All 9 minutes 10 seconds of it) and air guitars are to be encouraged. Finally, as you follow my ashes up to the woods for planting, you will be entertained by I Shall Be Released; the Tom Robinson Band version, probably the greatest Dylan cover of all-time.
And so to the funeral that has set me thinking about funerals. Later this week I will meet with his niece to plan Dougie’s send-off. My extravagant ideas will have to be tempered a little bit to ensure all parties are happy with the service but I will make certain that the funniest, sometimes campest, cheekiest, loveliest man I knew gets a suitable send off. No spoilers here though. You will have to be there in person!
My old man, not that I ever called him that – he was dad from as far back as I remember – was a quiet and gentle soul. In all the years I was lucky enough to have him I only ever saw him and mum having a proper row once, and his ire was rarely raised. Twice I caused him physical pain. Once when I wrapped a comb so tightly in his hair that it had to be cut out and once when I was sat on his shoulders pretending to be a TV cameraman and I twisted his ears until they bled. Both times I got a slap round the back of my legs…..by mum!
I guess I caused him emotional pain too but he never complained. Not about my drinking, my financial problems, my unemployment, nothing! He supported me, silently and solidly throughout.
He caused me some emotional pain too. I was a worrier and young me would start to fret if he was so much as 10 minutes late home from work. He left Brent Cross at 5pm and would always be home at 6pm. If it got to 6.10pm I would be standing in the street waiting and if I heard the wail of a siren in the distance, my tummy would melt. I preferred it when he cycled from Websters in Waltham Cross and I would go and meet him in the alleyway. It was weird when he left a bottle-washing machinery factory for a swimwear one!
You could really set your watch by my dad. He had a discipline too ingrained to have been put there by his seven years in the navy; he must have been born with it. It was most notable on a Sunday when he left the house at 11.50 to walk down to the Wheelwrights to arrive a minute after the doors opened. To be waiting for the door to be unlocked would be uncouth (I did it a million times) and to arrive too late would throw out his schedule. Two pints then leave for home arriving at 1.15pm as Sunday lunch was served. I inherited his time-keeping – much to Hazel’s chagrin – but not his discipline, not an ounce of it!
His navy career was one we were all proud off. Being too young for the Second World War, he signed up in 1947 and did a seven year stretch that saw him fighting in Korea. He travelled the world, the Far East mostly, and crossed the line several times. We grew up looking at countless photos he took whilst travelling and handled countless objects he brought back, mostly from Hong Kong. A beautiful puzzle box and a set of carved Chinese figures remain favourites to this day. He spoke of his time in the navy and in later years he joined the HMS Kenya reunion group and travelled to events in Derby to meet his old shipmates. We heard how he acquired a new suitcase when the Swiftsure collided with another ship. I’m sure he blamed the yanks for that but Wikipedia tells me it was HMS Diamond. It was in 1953 shortly after the Fleet Review which my dad was proud to have taken part in. So, yes he talked about his navy days but it was always positive and glamorous. When he died we found some simple diaries he had kept. There were no long entries, he was as taciturn in his writing as he was in his speech but they showed us another side of his navy days. He counted the number of shells the ship fired each night onto Inchon, and made it clear he would rather be somewhere else entirely. We never heard him talk like that but seeing his fears exposed like that made him all the more human to me.
And he was a most human man. Sure, when I was growing up he was superhuman. He was my dad who could do anything. He made stuff, he fixed stuff, he superimposed me playing golf with Dougal in his darkroom ‘photoshop’, he taught me, he took me places and he loved me unconditionally. It was sad to see how the modern world frustrated him in later years. He moved from film cameras to digital cameras but my attempts to teach him to use the PC to manipulate them failed. In this case, child was not father to the man.
Thank heavens though for his photography. This blog and my facebook page would not be nearly so interesting without his countless photographs to illuminate my words. Through them he lives on though he would live on in my heart if there was nothing physical left to remind me. I miss him every day but it’s only on days like his birthday and father’s day that I stop and reflect like this but I promise you dad, not a single day goes by where your influence doesn’t influence my actions. Love you xx
I have touched on youth club stuff in past blogs including some of our trips to Belgium but I haven’t done it nearly enough justice yet. I was involved in Cuffley Youth Club from 1987 until I moved to Norfolk in 2005. It was an incredibly turbulent time for me that saw reaching the depths of my drinking and then my recovery. In 2001 I lost my mentor and friend Richard; the person who got me involved in the first place and without whom the club would have stayed mothballed. Thus it was a massively important period of my life. Today I want to take a look at some more aspects of my time at the youth club – happy and sad. It’s all a bit random.
We did many things to try and a) Raise Funds, and b) Make more use of the facilities. Some were more successful than others. My own personal failure was promoting a band there. It came about after Richard acquired a jukebox. I donated a load of my old and duplicate singles to fill it. That was interesting in itself as I had to drill out the centres so they would fit a jukebox spindle. My holes were off-centre in several causing a weird and annoying ‘wow’ when they played. Anyway, it quickly became clear that our young people had a taste for sixties music and as I was at the time in contact with a band called the Wheels (A reformed genuine sixties band from Northern Ireland), I thought it would be a good idea to get them to play at the club. When I suggested it to our members they agreed. Well, that was all OK until they learnt that they would have to buy tickets. On the night I had two paying customers (Friends of mine, nothing to do with the youth club). Losses were increased by me drowning my sorrows in Vodka at the bar I had put myself in charge of. The band didn’t mind, they got paid, and my two paying customers had a whale of a time.
It lost the club a couple of hundred pounds but Richard didn’t criticise me. Mind you, he couldn’t really. He had his own financial disaster too! It happened in the late eighties. I walked into the office one day and Richard announced that we were having a Wild West Day. Somehow or other he had discovered this re-enactment group that could be hired to come and put on demonstration gunfights, lassoing etc etc. It sounded OK and we went ahead. Well, it turned out it was an organisational nightmare. Lots of people and horses to handle; bureaucracy and red tape to untangle (They had firearms, that though they fired blanks still needed police clearance). And then, it must have clashed with something else in the area plus the weather was shite. The turnout was low and we lost a small fortune.
The fun though started in the evening. We were letting the group stay in the centre as part of the deal and after the show finished they began their party. It was all rebel flags and songs and lots of white lightning. For the uninitiated, white lightning is what they call their home-distilled poteen made from potatoes or something. Whatever it was it was lethal. I should know, I had enough of it and it damn near killed me. That group pretty much took over our centre that night and whilst Richard was having kittens, I rather enjoyed myself. I recall the evening ended with a flag raising ceremony performed against a soundtrack of Mickey Newbury’s American Trilogy (or it might have been Elvis’ version who knows). I was a very drunk Rebel for one night only. How we got the centre clear for Aerobics the next morning I’ll never know.
Ah yes, Michelle’s Sunday morning aerobics class. What fun that caused. The problem is the hall was split into many separate rooms and they were often booked out to different groups but people sometimes expected to have the whole centre to themselves. Michelle was often perturbed to find a group of Toc H volunteers in sleeping bags all around her as she set up her steps. And we were bastards too. We’d wait for all these get fit fanatics to start their warm up and then we would start frying bacon for sandwiches in the kitchen and ensuring it wafted throughout the building.
Now I said this was random, so let’s go off somewhere, and not Belgium this time. My records tell me it was April 1996 but I could have worked this out anyway as THE record of the week was Don’t Look Back In Anger by Oasis. The destination was Little Canada near Ryde on the Isle of Wight. An activity camp (masquerading as a Prisoner of War camp) where we landed with a minibus load of young people.
It was to be a week – well 5 days anyway – of archery, raft building, and general outdoorsery. The reason I compare it to a POW camp is that our accommodation was in wooden dorms around the campsite and, at meal time, the rules said that we were to assemble neatly outside our cabins and wait for a member of staff (Appropriately garbed in company t-shirt and the correct colours) to collect us and march us up to the canteen in an orderly file. Now if you don’t know Richard Gentle you might be saying, so what? If you do know Richard then you can imagine how this petty officialdom went down. At mealtimes, CYC assembled outside our cabin and then ambled, sauntered, and generally mooched our way to the canteen and despite the protests of mini-dictators in company t-shirts and the correct colours, we went and got our food and sat down and ate it. No-one died, no-one went hungry and anarchy did not subsume Little Canada. Aside from that we had a great week.
But life at a community, a family, like the youth club cannot be all sunshine and rainbows. We had upsets and issues in spades but mostly they were minor dramas. One however was not at all minor.
In January 1991 Natalie, a beautiful and much loved 15 year old member of our club, was killed in a terrible car crash. I won’t dig up the exact circumstances again but I want to try and explain the impact it had on the whole club. Of course Nat’s family and friends were devastated but the grief flooded the whole centre. Even those who barely knew her were dragged down into a dark, dark place. Richard and his co-workers – including me a little bit – did what we could but it was a difficult, difficult time. Then someone, maybe Richard, I just don’t remember, suggested we plant a tree in her memory. It went in just by the side of the building and it seemed to make such a difference. I know I spent many times round there chatting to Natalie and I didn’t know her all that well. I don’t know if it’s still there. I choose to think it is!
Well I can’t leave my random memories of the youth club on such a sad note so I’m just going to finish with a few happy thoughts. To the once young people of CYC who are now perhaps mums and dads and generally grown up, who remembers the opening of the skateboard park; Nipper and Sarah our first cleaners; getting shouted at for climbing on the centre roof; the day we had a funfair in the car park; carnivals; sponsored walks; sixties nights; holidays in the UK and in Belgium; the pantos and shows; Teresa and her dogs (our second cleaner); fashion shows; Fiona in the office; Richard driving round the manor; Richard and his favoured expressions; Richard when he did an impersonation of…..um, I’m stopping now before I get into trouble.
My love affair with all things Irish probably started with Dana or maybe it was our Val Doonican Greatest Hits album. Either way it continued with Sandra Murphy, Horslips and draft Guinness. Well any Guinness actually. I mean I even worked on the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles and at proof-reading time I worked from Guinness Publishing’s Enfield base. There was a crate of bottled Guinness in every office, I kid you not! You just helped yourself. Of course they weren’t anticipating me and they had to remind me that most people only had one bottle a day at most!
It was inevitable that I would visit the Emerald Isle sooner rather than later, and we chose St Patrick’s Day 1989 and Dublin. There were a crowd of us – Mal, Tradge, Ann, Jane all spring to mind. It was my first ever flight (Helicopter trip whilst in the Sea Cadets notwithstanding) and we stayed in a B&B at 11 Upper Gardiner Street. How the hell do details like the address stick in my mind? Google Earth shows me it’s still a guest house now but the road name is Gardiner Street Upper. My memory is wrong, or they changed it – who cares?
So what were my first impressions of Ireland; of Dublin. Well as we walked down O’Connell street toward the Liffey I was more struck by how similar it was to other cities. Full of shops and people. I wish I had spent a little more time searching out the history but I guess I was ready for a drink. That first night we found a fairly ordinary pub by the river although even an ordinary pub in Ireland is quite lively on the eve of St Patrick’s Day!
And the next day was that celebration. As we arrived at the bars late morning they were already heaving. As well as Guinness, there was green lager in abundance. We had a stroll through Trinity College but soon found a place to watch the parade. My word, that is some parade. Later I would stand and watch Ommegang in Belgium where the procession of wooden crosses seems to have no end but Ommegang couldn’t hold a (votive) candle to the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin. I’m not even convinced there were many people actually from Ireland in it. Pipes and Drum bands from Chicago, New York, Boston, Buffalo, Pittsburgh………………….I had to check that the same bands weren’t just walking round the block and passing us a dozen times. Eventually, and I mean after about two hours, we slunk away and let the parade keep marching passed without us.
Conserving beer space for the evening, I took to drinking Jamesons and lemonade. Of course, I was given something resembling Tizer which I learned was what passed for lemonade in these parts. To get the stuff I knew, one had to ask for white lemonade. Of course, most people thought it was disgraceful I asked for lemonade of any kind.
After freshening up we set out to find a pub for our evening revelry. Knowing that the pubs on the main drag would be almost impossible to enter on such a night, we headed off down the side streets of Grafton Street and walked in circles until we heard a driving beat coming from a pub with room enough for us. It was a grand choice. Although most pubs were hosting traditional fiddle and bodrhan bands that night, we found one of the best covers bands I recall seeing. REM, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Dylan, the Stones etc. I remember having a damned good evening. Well, I think I remember having a damned good evening.
On Saturday we added a bit of culture to our lives and visited a museum. I remember little about the visit except crawling through a tunnel for some reason and standing stock still in the gallery with my arms by my side being a Post Impressionist (Thank you, I’m here all week). I think we had tea in Bewleys afterwards. We could be so cultured when we tried.
I honestly don’t recall where we went on the Saturday night though I do recall eating steaks in some basement café. Mal and I ordered ours ‘blue’ as we had never done so before. I swear mine mooed when the waiter brought it in.
Sunday was a chill out morning before we caught our flight home in the late afternoon. We arrived at a large hotel type pub just as the doors opened at 12noon. The barmen had been busy pre-pouring Guinness and a dozen or more pints stood waiting on the bar. Sunlight streamed down from a skylight, showing up all the dust particles in the air and illuminating the pool of Guinness glasses like a spotlight. Man, I loved that country all the more for our lovely break.
Strangely, the next time I went to Ireland I was freshly sober. It was also the one and only time in my life I went on a ‘Singles’ holiday. We had gone to Galway and were staying in Murray’s Hotel overlooking the bay. All very nice and no complaints there. And the trips we did around the Connemara were lovely, cementing my love for this country. The group though, oh the group. I suppose it was fairly evenly mixed in a slightly inevitable but not very gay friendly way and I quickly made the acquaintance of a small but select group of women roughly near my age since most of the women were closer to 90 than they were 21. And, hanging around with Cheryl, Tracey and a couple of others I got a small and brief idea of the sort of attention they had to ward off from all the single men in the group. OK, OK, I know I was one of the single men looking for some female company but I think I behaved with a little more decorum than some of them! And then, on the Saturday night they shipped us all off to Lisdoonvarna for the famous matchmaking festival. The girls and I, and we were joined by another nice guy whose name I forget, spent the entire evening avoiding both the men from our party (Who were popping up in the crowd like Meerkats, looking for Tracey in particular) and the myriad unmarried farmers who had rolled into town for the festival. It was funny….but it was also incredibly sad.
Well I didn’t get a girlfriend that trip but at least I got a new friend in Cheryl for several years though the next time I landed in the Emerald Isle I was very much single. I went to Cork and as I was earning good money this time, stayed in a posh hotel on the cliffs at Ballycotton. I dined alone each evening with the attentive service of my own waitress (There were very few people staying at the hotel) and drove around in the day visiting wherever I fancied. It may sound lonely and sad but in fact it was one of the most reflective periods of my life and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Finally – for now – the next time I went to Ireland I was no longer single and went with Hazel and some good friends (Kate and Andy). We flew into Limerick and headed north to a country house hotel near a lough, somewhere. And it was glorious. And writing all this has made me yearn to return. Perhaps one day soon we shall.