Now I’m 64

“What popular song includes the following in its lyric: losing my hair, Valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine, 64 and Wight?” If you don’t know the answer, there’s really no hope for you. Would you Adam and Eve it? That day, for me, has finally arrived.

Once you’re the far side of 25 it’s difficult to distinguish one birthday from the next unless they have a “special” status. My 20th (14 February 1975) was one I do remember. I was scheduled to have a Portuguese tutorial at King’s College in London, Prof Tom Earle having taken a sabbatical. I would take the 190 bus to Victoria in the morning, read out my essay, see a few people I knew, then get the bus back to Oxford.

I’d written a decent enough essay. My tutorial ended with a birthday glass of sherry, courtesy of Prof Luís de Sousa Rebelo. We agreed the date of my next tutorial, which turned out to be the date of the Moorgate Tube Disaster. Then I met a couple of old friends from the Wirral who were studying Medicine at King’s, and we had a pint or two.

One theory (and the one I prefer) is that Valentine’s Day is celebrated on 14 February because it was believed to be the day on which the birds start to sing (i.e. the first day of spring), which might indeed be the case south of Rome. In Britain, of course, it’s the middle of winter, though any sort of weather is possible. As I write, it is indeed springlike in Herne Hill.

But it was dark, cold and beginning to snow when the 190 pulled into Gloucester Green. Alison was supposed to be coming down from Durham that evening, so it was my intention not to “overdo” it, although I’d planned to lead my mates on a pub crawl through East Oxford. The weather was worsening, and I was going down with a cold and feeling a bit rough. But the show must go on.

We set off up the Iffley and down the Cowley before docking, four hours later, at the Kashmir for the inevitable Chicken Vindaloo. Somewhere on this Ulyssian itinerary I cut my hand (the details are conveniently hazy). Leaving the others to deal with the bill, and with most of a toilet roll wrapped round my hand as a bandage, I ran all the way to the Radcliffe Infirmary where, after a long wait, I was stitched up by a doctor who looked younger than me. It didn’t look as picturesque as this at 10pm on a February night.

At about 11:30pm, now sober, I made it back to my rooms in Back Quad to find the rest of the crew throwing darts and polishing off my Queen’s College Ruby Port. There was no sign of Aly. But there was a message at the Porter’s Lodge saying she’d arrive at 1pm (i.e. the following afternoon). How disappointing. I fell into bed… after what seemed like a couple of hours there was a knock on the door. I turned the knob with my left hand, half-asleep, wiping my nose on the bandage. There stood someone who had sent me a billet doux, only a year before, saying, “I did not believe such happiness were possible!”.

So where were you?

“I spent all night at St Aldate’s police station as the college door was locked.” My brain struggled to compute. 
“But I thought you were coming at 1pm?” 
“No, 1am. Five hours ago!” The idiot porter Pickavance had taken down her message wrong. I showed her the note.
“Anyway I’m going back to Durham as soon as I’ve had a couple of hours sleep.” And despite my pleas to stay until Sunday, that’s what she did.

That evening, with a streaming nose, a bandaged and throbbing right hand, the remains of a hangover, and thoroughly depressed, I tried to put it all right with a gallon of Hook Norton at Balliol’s Lindsay Bar. The barmen, Dick and Horace, thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. I staggered back to Queen’s Beer Cellar, bouncing off the walls of New College Lane, but I was too far gone to be served. It is hard to imagine how drunk a student has to get to be refused service at his own college bar. My darts mentor, Mike Tracy, had to put me to bed. 

I couldn’t stop crying

A week or so later the penny dropped: my true love and I were finished. Indeed she wrote a letter to make sure I’d understood (at least she had the kindness to wait until Valentine’s Day was over); but we were to remain good friends. Of course we would! There were to be no more “my darling” communications. But I got over it, eventually, and – amazingly – we have remained friends until this day.

Here’s a One For The Wall recording from a few weeks ago. We’re rehearsing a new song of Bernard’s called “Guiding Hand”.

Right Time, Right Place?

It was Valencia, summer 1972: my first time in Spain (it now seems odd that I had already sat my Spanish A Level). I was on a three-week language course organised by Liverpool Poly, as it then was, and there were school students from all across the UK. One was at Eton, another was from Ilford; they were both equally exotic to me. Spain was a very different country back in the day: patrolled by armed police and rather poor and backward in my eyes. Despite Valencia being a major city you had the impression you were the first foreigner they’d ever come across. Exciting but scary.

I’d been there all of two days before I fell for a Northern Irish girl. I noticed a pretty blonde during our morning breaks at the university, but couldn’t think up an excuse to start a conservation. One night at a fiesta, I and the other lads I was with ran into a bevy of girls we recognised as fellow students on the course and, under the pressure of the moment, I came out with “Would you like to join our group?” It was excruciating, even at the time, but I had learned from experience that if you didn’t ask, you didn’t get. The Irish girls came over to say hello, and I started talking to Jan before anyone else could get in.

Audentes fortuna iuvat

A couple of days later we invited them over to the university residence we boys were billeted in. Jan and I saw each other every day (since we were in the same class) and in the evenings we talked about our different lives, which made me realise that I probably knew more about what was going on in Spain than in Ireland.

All too soon we were on the plane back to Blighty. When we arrived at Heathrow her boyfriend Ronnie (who had long hair and a moustache, and was obviously older than me) was waiting to collect her, and off they went on holiday. I knew I would never go to see her. I couldn’t afford it, and in any case my parents would not have let me. Belfast was on the news every night, and what was happening was invariably frightening.

Jan and I corresponded for about 18 months. I went to Oxford and she went to Trinity College Dublin to study French and English. Her letters were very articulate and entertaining, and she was mature for her age – unlike me. She struck me as being tough and resilient; above all, she was a realist. She was from a Catholic family – in the course of writing one letter she heard that an acquaintance had been shot dead: “There will certainly be reprisals. It’s obviously not safe to go out any more.” What a thing for a 17-year-old girl to put in a letter. Yet for many young people all over the world (including parts of our own country even today) that is reality. Sadly, I now think, we lost touch… because I stopped writing. I can’t even remember her surname or address, apart from the fact that she lived in Holywood, Co. Down. I have one very bad photo of her, taken at Valencia Airport. Stylish, but note the stubbed out fag-end.

***

As a middle-aged Cambodian gentleman said to Anne and me exactly a year ago, “You were born at the right time in the right place, but for me it was just the opposite”. That he survived the Khmer Rouge is almost miraculous. Jan was unlucky to grow up at the height of the Troubles, but on the plus side she attended a good school and had two loving parents who were obviously well off. I had it much easier; as long as you avoided being beaten senseless by a gang of skinheads from the Woodchurch Estate, nothing terrible was going to happen to you in Birkenhead. Almost everybody from my school went on to university, and that was in the early 70s when less than 6% of school-leavers did! Life was set out before me on a plate.

With all the teen stabbings going on in London and elsewhere, I’ve been thinking about how fortunate I was as child. It’s easy to congratulate yourself on your achievements or – even worse – look down on those who haven’t done so well in life, as if it were all their fault. A little bit of humility is no bad thing but here, as so often, I rarely practise what I preach.

Ageing Rocker

I’d had enough of working for a living so I moved back to Oxford to be with my girlfriend. I joined Bernard’s band, together with my old schoolmate Andrew and our fellow housemate Wiff and a young drummer from New College called Paul. Then we added a female singer, a posh-sounding blonde called Jo, with a wonderful soprano voice. One For The Wall practised three of Bern’s songs and entered the Melody Maker Folk/Rock Contest in Oxford. Every other act was a parody of the Sex Pistols. We did not excel. The sound system was so basic, with no monitors, that I wrote to complain and we got a re-run at London’s City Polytechnic. (Jo later told me that one of the judges was Howard Goodall.) And we won! I remember driving back that night in Andy’s Mini up the M40 in the fog. It’s always a great feeling to win something.

Those silly love song lines have filled my head and turned my mind

One For The Wall progressed to the Melody Maker final in July at the Marquee Club. It was a filthy, sweaty dive in Wardour Street… but a legendary and iconic dive. The competition was won by Splodgenessabounds, who presently had a Top Ten hit with the epoch-defining “Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please”. Bern’s finely crafted, dramatic songs never stood much chance. But then again, maybe we just weren’t much good. Nevertheless, for the first and only time in my life, I briefly considered a career as a professional musician. Why not? It wasn’t that I had anything else to do, apart from chugging away at my thesis. And though I couldn’t read music or even play an instrument very well, the required standard didn’t seem to be very high. But I didn’t take that route after all. I went back to my boring thesis.

I have been rambling on about 1979. It’s now 40 years since we first got together and the band is still going (though we did take a 33-year break). Three members are now grandparents. Andy lives in Exeter, Jo and I are (by chance) near each other in south London and Bern’s still in Oxford. Life has certainly changed. So why bother driving hundreds of miles every month or so to spend two days cooped up in a studio?

The music is the obvious reason – Bernard has not lost his touch as a composer – and even though I am never going to find fame or fortune as a musician it is still a lot of fun. But for me, at any rate, it is as much about being part of a team. There is something special about that, and now I’ve “retired” it is something I would very much miss. Maybe other people are happy to be always working on their own. I can do that too, but the team ethos is something different. Here’s a studio rehearsal of “Planet of Our Dreams”. Jo: vocal; Bernard: piano and vocal; Andrew: bass; Colin: guitar.

The Microclimate of Staffordshire

Thursday afternoons at Birkenhead School were for playing at soldiers. Everyone was more or less obliged to join the Combined Cadet Force. We were fortunate, or perhaps unfortunate, to have a genuine, high-ranking ex-soldier as our CO: Lt. Col. Arthur N. Green (AKA The Ang).

Dad’s Army was one of the most popular programmes at the time. Walking to and from school dressed like a squaddie, when you clearly weren’t one, was almost as embarrassing as wearing a school cap the rest of the week. There were compensations: we got the opportunity to handle and fire weapons. There was an indoor rifle range across the road at the Chetwynd TA Centre, where we were taught one end of a Lee-Enfield from the other by Sergeant Major McLaughlin, known to all as “Fang” for his distinctive dentition. “Strip a rifle? You lot couldn’t strip a woman!” A little harsh on 16-year-olds… while demonstrating a rather old-fashioned attitude to the fair sex.

Every year there was a CCF summer camp. You had to give up a week of your holidays. I was under no illusions that it would be enjoyable. But if you got certain activities out of the way, you wouldn’t have to do them in term-time; plus, you got privileges in the Cadre – most obviously, a red beret and a uniform that almost fitted. If you had a girlfriend, real or imaginary, who might see you on your way home, such things had a value.

So it was off by coach to Blackshaw Moor (near Leek). It was late June, but you could have fooled me. It seemed like a godforsaken place at any season of the year. There were 30 of us, enough to make up two platoons and occupy two huts. There was no-one in my hut in whose company I would have chosen to spend longer than five minutes. There was blanket-boxing, Blanco and Brasso, square-bashing and PT, rifle-stripping and machine-gun practice, and field-craft and orienteering. 

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

One of the more demanding tasks we were set was a “night op”. This necessitated crawling across a field by moonlight, and labouring uphill through a wood to a hurricane lamp where two “NCOs” would be waiting. They were to give each of us upon our arrival (theoretically in pairs) a scrap of paper. These fragments, when assembled, were supposed to form a map or password… or something like that, I forget the details. We were taken to recce the site in the afternoon; the field was generously carpeted with cowpats, which I looked forward to leopard-crawling through in the dark. 

As night fell we returned to the field of action in two Bedford three-tonners. I began crawling through the cowpats, then ghost-walked successfully to the hurricane lamp in the wood. Not too bad; now for the return leg. Having lost my other half, I worked out a laborious way of returning via the dry-stone walls and fences of the field boundaries. It would take ages, but at least I’d eventually be heading in the right direction. I was cold, despite my long-johns, and it was starting to rain. I gave up trying to move stealthily; it took far too long. The “officers” tossed thunder-flashes at us to simulate artillery bombardment; it was genuinely scary.

Predictable, the exercise soon degenerated into a shambles. Some lads lost their sense of direction and headed away from the target, rather than towards it. When I eventually made it back to the Bedford I was surprised to see that I was only the fifth or sixth from our platoon to complete the task. Come midnight, whistles and flares signalled the end of the farce. Boys emerged from the gloom, limping. One had a broken arm, another a sprained ankle, others cuts to their heads, like extras from The Longest Day. Those of us who didn’t have to make a visit to North Staffs Royal Infirmary got a mug of cocoa and a lie-in. 

* * *

Two years passed… My mate Paul and I had read in the NME about the inaugural Buxton Rock Festival, which had hosted Steppenwolf, Wishbone Ash, Vinegar Joe and Family. Curved Air were also on the bill – but Sonja Kristina didn’t fancy singing in the freezing cold at 3am. Buxton was the North’s premier festival (in fact, it was the only one north of Reading). We decided to go to the second festival, so one Saturday morning in July 1973, together with Ray who worked at NatWest and owned an MG 1300, we set off full of enthusiasm.

What genius had decided to hold an open-air event in the area with the highest rainfall in England? We should have known what to expect from that CCF summer camp (as the two sites were only about 15 miles apart). The moorland site was exposed and cold, and it began to rain as soon as we got there. I remember seeing Canned Heat (we should have brought some), Edgar Broughton, Medicine Head and Alex Harvey, who gave a stirring rendition of “Saint Anthony”. 

Oh the temptations, oh the sensations

One band I was looking forward to seeing was the Groundhogs – but they refused to perform, as did Roy Wood. The entire audience, and some of the acts, were intimidated by a gang of Hell’s Angels who wandered about demanding money with menaces. Chuck Berry was headlining; we caught glimpses of him through the polythene sheet under which we were all huddling.

We spent almost as long trying to free the car from the mud as we did watching the bands. John Peel, MC on the day, wrote later that campaign medals should have been struck. We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.


The Joy of Essex, 1978

One night, at about half past 10, Hilary rang. Mrs H had already gone to bed. I kept my voice down but the damage had been done. The following day my landlady 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 really 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.

capri

The penny dropped: I’d overstayed my welcome. I ventured into Romford the first chance I got to look for 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 work colleague and new best mate 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 Hil had written at least once 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 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 name 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 and 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 conquests. 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 busty middle-aged housewife from a Mancunian hen party. 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 needed 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 thus:

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 a no  Mediterranean hero but, rather, an Anglo-Saxon, the heir to Beowulf. Then again, will “birds and ale” find him out: his hamartia? Is the seer warning of premature decline and extinction?

Finally we come to the fourth line: a mere cliché, 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 T.S. Eliot has such talent lit up the literary world. With admirable economy, this new Earl of Essex – or shall we call him the Duke of 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 thirties, used to take me to see our fellow office-worker Sue, a teenage blonde with 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.

Thor’s Stone

Thor’s Stone is known to everyone who lives, or has lived, on the Wirral.

thors stone

It is a big lump of sandstone on Thurstaston Common, from where there are superb views of the Dee and across the Mersey. You are very aware that you are standing on a peninsula: in one direction is Point of Ayr and Holywell (an ancient pilgrimage site) in North Wales; when you turn to the north you can easily make out Blackpool Tower (also a pilgrimage site but never holy), 40-odd miles away.

Probably the association with Thor is a myth and of ingenious Victorian etymology. Probably it has nothing do so with “Torstein’s homestead”, or whatever the real derivation of Thurstaston may be. But it is still a special place within the very special frontier zone of the Wirral. As a child I climbed it, as you simply had to do. At primary school we tried to measure its height by trigonometry and came up with a ludicrous result. In my childhood memory it was high and intimidating.

I had not been there for over 50 years, though my parents still live just a few miles away. Returning this summer I was surprised to find that it still looked high and intimidating. There is no easy route up. You could easily slip and hurt yourself. Parents and older children showed little children where to put their feet. But you could still slip and hurt yourself. In the end I couldn’t quite bring myself to climb up to the top. I excused myself – wrong shoes, I wasn’t dressed for it – but it still felt a bit pathetic. It is hardly the North Face of the Eiger.

* * *

In southern Mexico there is a well-known and well-visited ruined Mayan city called Palenque. It has one of the few tall pyramids which you are still allowed to climb, despite the pile of bleeding and broken tourists at its base. You may already know, or deduce, that the sensible way to climb the high steps is sideways, zigzagging your way to the summit. It’s easier on the knees, and it is very hot out there.

DSC00890.JPG

You eventually get to the platform at the top, catch your breath, and look out over the site. You are in a jungle clearing. You self-congratulate, swig from your water bottle and take your photos, which are, of course, just the same as everyone else’s. From the platform you can’t see your sweaty co-tourists making your way to the summit – until you walk right to the edge and peer straight down.

The views are wonderful – much better than you would think. It would be easy to say, “You go up on your own. I’ll just stay here. I can’t be bothered”.