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”.

Messages from the Other Side

I hadn’t seen Alison for quite a while but we had stayed in touch over the years. In was 1982 and she was back from Tokyo or Beirut or Damascus, or wherever. For someone who had to resit her A levels, she was heading for a distinguished academic career, which was more than I was. Her parents had acquired a place in Blighty for when they would eventually leave Bahrain and she invited me over for a few days. It was a big terraced house in Preston Drove, a little bit out of Brighton. She had swapped the octagonal pebble glasses for contact lenses and you could see her pretty face and big brown eyes.

Next door lived a gent in his 60s called James Hay-Kellie, who invited us round for a drink. Aly seemed a bit wary but we went anyway. It was one of the most bizarre evenings of my life. Kellie liked to talk, particularly to me; Aly had probably heard it all before. He claimed to have known “The King”, as he referred to him (Edward VIII /David/Duke of Windsor, not Elvis), and “that little tart Wallis Simpson”. Kellie was a yogi and medium whose powers, as Alison noted, seemed to increase as he got stuck into his homemade pear wine. But those powers were unsettling.

“I can see a street sign. Plaza del Sol, in Madrid,” he said, sipping from his murky glass.
“Puerta del Sol?”
“You are standing outside a church. Your name is… Estrada. You are going to the New World but… you will drown on the way. But next time you will go by air because it is the Age of Aquarius not the Age of Pisces and all will be well because you are an Aquarian. But beware of the South American girls because they all have syphilis.”

I’d always fancied being a conquistador, though Estrada is a common enough name. He then asked me a few questions, such as did I speak Spanish or Portuguese? (Both, and pretty well too, because I’d studied them for my degree.) Could Aly have mentioned it by accident and not remembered? In retrospect that seems possible. And my “Aquarian” birthday? (I was born on 14 February.) How the hell could he have known that? I did go to the New World: to Cuba in the 1990s, and to Mexico more recently. And I travelled by aeroplane, of course, and made it home safely.

I wouldn’t say you were a womaniser but…

“There are three women in your life. The truest has brown hair and blue eyes.” He was right to guess that brown-eyed Alison and I were never going to be an item again. There was one lass who fitted his description, such as it was, though that relationship seemed to have run its course. Anyway, it was small beer after the Estrada revelation.

You are a deep thinker, too deep for your own good

He showed me a crucifix he claimed to have found on the Drove, on which Christ was shown crucified upside-down. It had been dropped by a band of satanists on the run, hundreds of years ago. Then he moved into his Indian mode and gave me a mantra to meditate upon. Then he explained how I could clear the phlegm from my nasal passages by inhaling saltwater. I think that would be called bathos in Europe… but maybe not in India. He seemed to be running through his repertoire. It was entertaining, not to say exhausting for all of us.

It’s important to bear in mind that Kellie was not a professional medium (at least not in my case). He claimed he was getting his information from an Indian spirit he called Sadhu. Was he showing off to me? He clearly had always been an exhibitionist, as this photograph shows. Perhaps he could just not help himself?

* * *

I turned round and saw an old man behind me talking but the sound was very muffled. Then I realised I was going deaf. Instead of leaving I followed the woman to the front of the class. Suddenly I knew only she could help me, although I didn’t know if it was her fault that I couldn’t hear in the first place. I heard myself (horrid sound, I knew I was shouting in a desperate voice) say “what’s wrong with me?” She drew on a piece of paper. “Is it like a high whine? A distant motor-bike,” she wrote. I nodded. “Will it go away?” She wrote “blood circulation motor noise” on the paper, then suddenly I could hear again. I turned round and everyone had left. I said “So it will come and go like that?” She said “No. The next time it happens it will be for good”. I said, “But I love music!”

It was late 1983. I was keeping a diary, and now and again I scribbled down a description of my dreams as soon as I woke up. This is, word for word, what I wrote at the time. I was inclined to see it as a metaphor for some emotional turmoil I was going through – which I usually was.

Maybe it was a premonition instead. In those far-off days I didn’t have tinnitus, but I do now. It disappeared for a short time but soon returned, and every day I wish I could be rid of it.

Does any of this make me believe in the paranormal and suchlike? Frankly, no. But I thought I’d get it off my chest.

Moscow in the Dark

October 1979: I was still, or again, (depending on which way you looked at it) studying at The Queen’s College Oxford. The college offered me the exalted and ridiculous-sounding position of Vir Probatus (Junior Dean) if I abandoned the slum that was 41 Bullingdon Road and moved into James Stirling’s (in)famous Florey Building on St Clement’s. As I’d have the biggest room in the building, rent-free and with a free phone line to boot, it was a no-brainer. And the underfloor heating and huge windows offered an excellent environment for cultivating aromatic, jagged-leafed plants. I’d lived there as an undergraduate, so the building itself did not come as a shock. Much has been written about its shortcomings so I’ll move on…

One of the mature students at the Florey was Denis, who was writing a DPhil on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina manuscripts. He was amusing, kind and very urbane, and became like an uncle to me. There wasn’t much he did not know, in particular about human nature. He had two teenage children by his first wife and a little boy by his second wife, who taught History of Art at the University of Essex. (Later they created an author called Natalya Lowndes and wrote a series of novels together.) Denis and I spent many an hour in the poky-cosy Half Moon in St Clement’s, at that time managed, if that is the right word, by the Leaves brothers. Regular patrons included Steve, owner of Winston’s, the night club next door, and Pat, manager of the Private (i.e. dirty mags and videos) Shop in Cowley Road. It had real ale, no fruit machine or jukebox, and hosted live music on Sunday afternoons.

October 1982: I’d moved on to a flat in Temple Cowley but Denis, my regular drinking partner, was still at the Florey. He needed to do a week’s research in Moscow libraries, and the cheapest and easiest way of doing it was to book an Intourist package, which meant sharing a room. Never having been to Russia, I was happy to tag along. A couple of years earlier the BBC had launched a series called Russian Language and People. It boasted a fantastically beautiful brunette presenter called Tanya Feifer and a fantastically beautiful blonde interviewer called Tatyana Vedeneyeva. (By one of life’s strange coincidences, another presenter, Edward Ochagavia, is a near neighbour of mine in Herne Hill.) Into each episode was inserted a snippet of the tacky love story До свидания, лето with Victor the ordinary-looking taxi driver and a fantastically beautiful student, Olga.

It was early November, and snowing in a picturesque way, when we cleared passport control. My visa was numbered 007, but I didn’t think it was a good idea to make a joke of it. Just grimly stare ahead. At last we arrived at our shabby hotel, a few minutes’ walk from Red Square. The next evening I went on my own to the Bolshoi Ballet: something most Muscovites could never afford to do. The plan was to meet Denis afterwards at his friends’ flat. I hailed a taxi at the Palace of Congresses, indicating the address Denis had written out neatly in Russian. Victor grunted and I got in, trying to make small talk in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish …  to no avail. There didn’t seem much point trying Portuguese, Latin or Greek. I stuck with the few words of Russian I’d learned. He didn’t want my roubles and I had no dollars, so I paid with a BiC pen. 

Хорошо, спасибо, До свидания!

I found myself in an ill-lit street of run-down tenements, like the half-remembered Glasgow of my childhood. I climbed the staircase in trepidation; what would happen when someone opened the door? What if Denis wasn’t there or I’d come to the wrong place? But Denis did come to the door. In the little flat were a middle-aged couple and a girl of about 20. She was slim with long dark hair like Tanya and, I couldn’t help but notice, very pretty. Everyone was smoking black Georgian cigarettes. I took a chair, and a large Столи́чная was poured for me. So began an interminable evening of music, “conversation” and toasting. Their favourite record was “The Sideboard Song” by Chas and Dave, which Denis had brought with him on his last trip. Perhaps the A-side, “Rabbit”, was played out. I contributed “Things We Said Today” by The Beatles, on a very bad, untunable guitar. More beer and vodka and picked cucumbers. More songs.

Luckily for me the pretty girl, Katya, was fluent in Spanish. Uncle Yuri would tell a joke and everyone would laugh; so did I, out of politeness. Denis would explain it to me in English and I’d laugh again. Katya would then ask me in Spanish what he’d said. I would explain it to her and she’d translate for her mother. She’d tell Denis, in Russian, who would then tell me, in English, that he’d said something quite different. One joke could keep us going for 20 minutes. When they did get through, the Russian jokes were good: they exhibited a bitter sarcasm that we Britons found familiar.

What we didn’t know was that more or less as we’d touched down at Sheremetyovo airport, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was giving up the ghost. Soon the city-centre was in lock-down. It was snowing hard; the Kremlin was shut, the national museums were shut, and taxis could not get across town. The USSR was in mourning and all you got on the radio and TV was Chopin and Beethoven. We were moved out of our characterful old hotel with its tea-ladies and into a soulless one near the VDNH exhibition centre. Every available room in central Moscow would be needed for the dignitaries coming to pay their respects. We were on a full board deal, but most evenings Denis and I took the metro to the flat, bringing food we’d bought for hard currency at the Beriozka. The two grateful women cooked for us. In the afternoons Katya showed me the sights, and we trudged through the snow, rain and gloom for hours on end. She really was very attractive, if a bit skinny — probably because she wasn’t getting much to eat. I kissed her once, in Spanish.

Obviously Katya and I would never meet again

Except that a couple of years later Katya managed to get a job in Riga as a translator, then met and married a solid Englishman called Smith, and made her escape to London. News of her arrival filtered through to me. One evening they joined us for dinner round the kitchen table in Brixton. Then she lost her aura of mystery and I lost her address.

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.

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.