One night, at about half past 10, Hilary rang. My landlady had already gone to bed. I kept my voice down but the damage had been done. The following day Mrs H announced that she hadn’t had a wink of sleep all night and she was going to put a lock on the phone. I pointed out that this wasn’t going to help, as I’d been answering a call, not making one. Anyway, I was sorry and I’d make sure it didn’t happen again. The old bag went ahead anyway and fitted the stupid lock. Over the next couple of weeks I was told, more than once, that I was the most selfish, inconsiderate person she knew. On one occasion I put tap water, rather than de-ionised water, in her iron, thus risking a major environmental incident. I’m surprised Panorama didn’t run a special on it. Not that she’d ever mentioned it before; I was just expected to know.
The penny dropped: I’d overstayed my welcome. I ventured from Hornchurch into Romford in search of a flat to rent, and found one I could just afford. For good measure I treated myself to a leather jacket at the market. I duly moved into a maisonette in Gidea Park, which I shared with another young man called Doug. He was a chemistry graduate who worked for Berger Paints and drove a Ford Capri. We had a bedroom each, and a spare, a kitchenette, bathroom and a decent-sized living room with a swirly carpet.
My new best mate at work, Barry – a cheeky chappie with a moustache, a perm and (yes) a Ford Capri – drove me back to Elmhurst Drive so I could collect my post. There wasn’t any, apparently. I knew Hilary had written at least once from Oxford and I was sure the old bag was lying. I could forgive her almost anything but that. I gave her a hard stare and walked back to the car.
* * *
In February my boss at the Travel Club sent me on a short educational trip to the Algarve. It was a treat to get a free winter holiday, even if I would be going on my own. The company had a resident rep who bore the aristocratic handle of Manuel de Castro. Previously, he had been a milkman in Leeds. He referred to every Algarvian businessman as “a bloody peasant” – and not in a nice way. His demure, pretty wife worked at the Hotel Alvor, a magnificent establishment. Manuel was what used to be called “a ladies’ man”. He boasted of having squired every stewardess on TAP’s books… except for one whose photo appeared in our winter brochure. She had a small mole on her left cheek. Yorkshire’s Don Juan had sworn a solemn oath to track her down and add her to his little black book.
After two years of meeting 707s flying in and out of Faro and taking at least one speculative flight to Funchal, the mystery woman continued to elude him, and it was becoming an obsession.
Manuel took his educational duties seriously, trying – and failing – to set me up with a buxom middle-aged housewife from a Mancunian hen party. I already had a beautiful 21-year-old girlfriend, so wasn’t terribly keen. However he failed to warn me about the manager of the Sol e Mar, a confirmed bachelor, who had worked for some years at the Adelphi in Liverpool. We chatted for an hour or two about the old country. After treating me to an excellent dinner he invited me to stay the night, as he had a few empty rooms. I’d put away far too much Dão and bagaceira – suddenly I thought I could see his game and panicked. I said até logo and staggered off into the night to look for my Mini. Somehow I found my way from Albufeira back to my apartment at Praia d’Oura. I took a mind-clearing dip in the freezing Atlantic.
Back at Travel Club HQ in Upminster, my birthday had come round yet again. Barry sent me a witty card, which he had personalised with some verses of his own. They began:
Bloody Nora! He’s 23
Fresh from university
His mind is full of birds and ale
It’s enough to make a xxxxxx black man pale
Mere doggerel, dashed off at his busy desk?
Not so! A close textual analysis reveals multiple layers of rich semanticity.
With his opening words the poet calls upon his muse for inspiration, thus “setting out his stall”, as he might put it, in the epic mode. But here the Classical convention is given fresh life. Who is the dread Nora he apostrophises? No gentle nymph, she. A Celtic warrior queen? A Hindu demiurge, decorated by the skulls of her victims, like Kali? (I scoured The Golden Bough, but without success.)
After the caesura, we come to the subject of the work. Arma virumque cano: but of whom does he sing? Was not Alexander but 23 when he conquered the world? The hero is in the prime of life. He is not just aged 23; he is 23. Here the poet evokes the Pythagoreans. We have arrived at the crucial moment in this young man’s life. In the third line his profile is filled out, as it were. He is “fresh”, original, vibrant, vigorous: a man of action. But a man of learning notwithstanding. “University” is a typically brilliant play on words. He is universal: an Everyman.
We now proceed to the essence of the hero. “Birds and ale”: what bathos! And yet… “birds” – the fair sex, obviously, in the vernacular of our age, but also his winged thoughts, like eagles, soaring high above us. As for “ale”: a clue that this Sindbad, this Vasco, this Aeneas, this Ulysses de nos jours, is no Mediterranean hero but an Anglo-Saxon, an heir to Beowulf. Then again, will “birds and ale” be his hamartia? Is the seer warning of premature decline and extinction?
Finally we come to the fourth line: a mere cliché, perhaps, or casual racism? Something far more subtle! This awkward phrase with its ludic pentimento challenges our taboos but also invites us to consider the transformational powers of our scholar-warrior-king-magus. As the lame shall walk, so shall men change the colour of their skin. A firm nod to the Messianic tradition.
Not since The Four Quartets has such talent lit up the literary world
With admirable economy, this new Earl of Essex – or shall we call him the Il Duca di Capri? – claims his throne in the most exalted company: Dante, Spenser, Ariosto, Góngora, Camões and (dare I utter his name?) the divine Virgil himself. Ars est celare artem. Neither Carol Ann Duffy nor Andrew Motion has equalled the Parnassian ambition of this opening stanza. Moreover, it both scans and rhymes. If only he’d had a crack at Poet Laureate! What could Barry have done with such material as the Royal Menopause?
In Tudor Ave, the purpose of our unallocated third bedroom became apparent when the landlord (never before seen) rolled up in the small hours with a floozy. It transpired that it was his midweek love nest. The flat reeked of Aramis. I doubt that his missus was aware of how their investment property was being employed. During the working week Barry, who was in his 30s, used to take me to see our co-worker Sue, a teenage blonde with big pointy tits, perform in local pubs. Nothing like that! She was a talented singer who was trying to break into show business.
Love ageless and evergreen…
Barry used to complain about Sue’s unreasonable sexual demands — ironically or not, I wasn’t sure.
Doug was often working late or staying at his equally shy girlfriend’s flat, so I had the place to myself most evenings. We didn’t have a telly. I wasn’t much of a cook, although I thought I was fairly enterprising. I got by on a diet of grilled sausages with tinned tomatoes, cheese on toast with tinned tomatoes, and chicken casserole (inc. tinned tomatoes) with overcooked rice. Dessert might be digestive biscuits with chopped stem ginger, or ice cream with tinned pineapple. It was still a lot better than I’d got at school. There was the occasional “Ruby Murray” in Upminster or Romford.
Delia Smith was waiting in the wings…