Out Now!

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Cold bacon and chips

The tree and railway embankment remain. Just me that's moved on. In Summer the foliage was dense.

Aargh! The park is still there, but the swings have gone! Just a grey patch of asphalt left. Curs!

The tree overhanging the swing is still there though. The sky is much the same, too.

There’s a time when you sense childhood ending, a tide is ebbing and you feel suddenly bare, exposed; a bit like when you wake up cold in the morning and snuggle deeper under the duvet, knowing it’s time to get up, but not wanting too. I remember two distinct phases, one unconscious, a desperate rear-guard action, the other quiet acceptance on a swing, in a park about to close.

The desperate rear-guard action period was a realisation that despite reading all the Hardy Boys books, the odd Nancy Drew, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, Biggles, Fu Manchu, The Saint, James Bond and every Edger Wallace book ever written, I had never caught a crook or been embroiled in an international spy ring.

I went into over-drive, making a small tree house (well a cardboard screen actually) in a tree on the railway embankment. It overlooked the bus stop and, on a higher branch,a scrap merchant’s yard that had to be nefarious. To move Descartes on, just a little bit, ‘I want, therefore it is’.

My dad obliged by sewing me a small canvas bag, which I attached to my belt - a utility pouch - Tarzan meets Batman. Instead of neat gizmo’s I had carefully selected stones; now all I needed were targets. There are some villainous looking pedestrians out there - especially when you’re looking for them. Little did they realise their narrow escape as my Descartes principle battled against a growing caution - perhaps the first signs of adult maturity. Cold winds were blowing.

The moment of acceptance came on late Tuesday afternoon. There would be bacon and chips for tea, and I was drifting listlessly on a swing. The park was empty, the sky was grey and darkening, and I suddenly realised that soon I’d be too old to be doing this. Grown-ups didn’t go on swings; it was against the law, or something. I wanted to stay on it for as long as I could, even if I ended up eating cold bacon and chips.

I realised there were things I would never do again, people I would never see. I thought back on Penny Charters - the nurse when we played doctors and nurses, and for whom there was always a queue to be sick; her sister Carol, lean and rangy, the ultimate tomboy; I thought of Steven Davies, the embryonic stud and his younger brother Alan, who first introduced to me the ultimate ‘foody’ food: salmon paste sandwiches with pickled onions. It had to be white bread, fresh and thinly cut. I thought of Billy Shaw, the chemist’s son, who showed me what really counted in games involving toy soldiers: will and imagination. Across the terracotta plains of his paved backyard, the forests and jungles of a thin strip of garden, the buttes of up-turned flower pots, we played cowboys and Indians, Gi’s and Japs, Tommies and Huns, and I invariably lost because Billy knew how to change the rules, and I didn’t. (The great secret in life)

Only speaking of rules - it was well past my tea - and my bacon was cold. A fact as certain as the moon in the sky. Changing the rules would come later.

This marks an end to my childhood.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Dancing In My Socks

My first record. This is the image, the record I've lost.

Dancing in my socks
Crazy like a fox
Cos baby, I’m a little too tall for you

Dancing Dancing ( hushed male back-up, earnest and sycophantic)

When I put my shoes on,
Then I put the blues on
Cos baby I’m just to tall for you,
You are my dream-boat….mercifully I’ve forgotten the rest. What’s frightening is that I remember so much. The power of first records, eh? The other side was ‘Daddyo.’ The artist Bonny Lou. I loved her voice, the first American I’d ever heard. The first American girl. There was a brash sexuality to it, a lubricious squeak to her ‘Daddyo’ that made me play the record again and again. But what about the lyrics to ‘Dancing In My Socks’? Pure wistful lunacy. My other first records - four in all - were all peculiarly sad.

The theme tune to the film Exodus - horrendous.
Red River Rock by Johnny and the Hurricanes, - less sad but mechanistic and boring.
Tom Dooley No comment.
And Big Bad John ("He stood six foot six and weighed two forty-five") No, I’m not going to frighten myself and see how much of that I can remember.
I was going to buy the Davy Crocket song, but mercifully the money ran out, and I knew the words anyway, sad, sad boy.

It was that time in your life when you knew you were supposed to buy records but you didn’t know what…and there was nothing to buy - not in the outer nebulae of Aintree.

It was the lull before the storm. That period of quiet before the Beatles and all that followed. There was an expectancy, a sense of something just waiting to happen. You could smell it in the air, in the way people talked. Liverpool was in ferment, but in the meantime I had ‘Daddyo’ and ‘Big Bad John’, and I lived in a house with old 78’s and artists like Dennis Lotus, Anne Sheridan, Alma Coogan, Ruby Murrey - music for the war-weary. Liverpool was about to explode. I had another year to wait.

In the meantime, there was the school trip - not the annual daytrip to Southport - but a real ‘holiday’: A week in a renovated air-force barrack close to Romney Marsh. It was my last year in school and my parents found the money. I had never been on holiday before. We never had the money. This was a time when Butlins Holiday Camps were sweeping the nation, beguiling us all with blue sky posters, men in red coats and white smiles, sand the colour of custard and everything shining in a bright plastic gloss. Butlins, next best thing to heaven - and affordable, except for us. It was the way of things.

There’s a word for it now: the sound track of your lives. The coach trip was long and remains a fabulous memory, long winding lanes and trees that hid a hundred highwaymen, and overlaying everything, Frank Ifield’s ‘I remember you’, alternating with Bobby Vee and the Ventures ‘The Night has a Thousand Eyes.’ And then we saw our destination.

The ‘renovated’ barracks were damp, the blankets coarse and thin. The rooms smelt of stew and the breakfast bacon was rancid - old world war II stock - I’m sure of it, but acceptable if covered with enough tomato. It wasn’t Butlins.
But it was enough, the memories remain good, cricket matches where I actually hit the ball, the immensity of Romney marsh, and the mysteries of the Dymchurch steam railway. Why in God’s name did we go there?

Saturday, 13 October 2007


‘I announce the devil and all his works and pomps his Irish godmother said at his christening. I remember him making an Errol Flynn leap from the Power - station (read the Sheriff of Nottingham’s castle) on to an asbestos-roofed shed ten feet below, crashing through that another ten feet, and being caught and cuffed by the haulier whose yard it was.

Did my brother want to look like this?

Or perhaps this?

The picture above is my brother, now a pioneer in stress engineering and carbon fibre technology. Forty odd years ago he was in the front room (we called it the parlour) practising his scales on a black piano. Me and my mum and dad were in the backroom. It was just before lunch and both parents were content, enjoying the music and proud of their son. The next minute the door burst open and Tony rushed through carrying a cardboard box. A second later he’d hurtled through the kitchen and was in the backyard, when there was a knock on the front door. It was the police.

They caught Tony trying to flush twelve jars of brylcreem down the outside toilet. Panic is a wondrous thing.

So were the Liverpool police, at least Detective Ruddock. He knew it for what it was, a piece of schoolboy bravado, one step up from scrunching apples off a neighbour’s tree. But twelve jars of brylcreem? Luckily this was at a time when police, most anybody, had leeway to make commonsense judgements (more about that later) My brother was given a good talking to and told to report to the police-station every Saturday at 1 pm for a month. Nothing was written down, no record made and the incident was done.

Not for our mum and dad however. Apples…brylcreem…where would it end? Tony was in with a bad lot. Something would have to be done. It was a courageous decision I never ever appreciated until I had children of my own. Let me explain.

Tony had passed the 11+ and was at a Grammar School, the less than prestigious Everard Avenue - but Grammar school never the less - gateway to opportunity and who knows - University - those places of duffle-coats and long stripy scarves. To withdraw him from school and so save him from a life of crime…They pondered long and hard, and eventually the letter was sent. A few weeks later Tony started work as an apprentice at Howsons ship-yards….and so began an erratic career that led to the top. Life is strange and full of accidents, decisions leading on to consequences never expected. It was the 1960’s a time of opportunity and blue skies. (Grey in Liverpool)

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Ruth Aldiss

The hall where we had our school dancing lesson

My first experience of girls was at a dancing lesson arranged by the nuns of The Blessed Sacrament and held in a room at Park Lane adjacent to the Church. One dancing lesson would suffice, they thought, to see us through the rest of our lives. Within the hour, we would learn the Fox Trot and perhaps the Waltz.

That evening I was scrubbed and polished. The following day I sat alongside thirty or more other boys, reluctant, afraid but nicely turned out. Facing us were thirty or more girls in long dresses. I was facing the Freeman twins. I didn’t know which one I danced with then, and I don’t know now, but her hands and shoulders were damp with sweat, hers and mine, and we jerked this way and that in a miasma of stale air and soap. Fear and Loathing in Walton Vale would never make it as Film. Flash dancing it wasn’t.

My second experience was Ruth Aldiss, though she didn’t know it, and I never told her. It was lust and love all rolled into one. I put away my Fred Perry Racquet. When I sat next to her I was the Bunsen burner. She had honey blonde hair, the most beautiful lips and I tingled all over whenever she was near. I was only fourteen.

It was an English lesson, presided over by Mr Musker. He was an elegant gentleman who wore green tweed and cavalry twill trousers. His moustache was neatly clipped and so was his voice. He had the appearance of a Hollywood English gentleman, elegant, urbane, and fond of the cane. It was Free Composition, ie write what you like. I was writing a story about a man falling from a plane and discovering his parachute wouldn’t open. I remember the story for only one reason. Ruth Aldiss was bending over me…wanting to know what was going to happen next. Her head was close to mine. From that moment on, I wanted to write. Nothing since has equalled that moment in all my various scribbles, nor will it, whether in terms of financial reward, publishing deal, or general world acclaim. Unless Ruth Aldiss now heads a major publisher…

Nemesis fell like an axe.

“Keyton. You’re talking.”

So was the rest of the class, but examples had to be made. A lesson learnt from World War 11 and every other war, and a fixture now in every school. Mr. Musker took no prisoners. Eight of us were chosen. Two thousand lines to be handed in the following day. I was up until eleven pm and got as far as 1600 when I finally gave up.

“Just hand them in,” my mother said. “He’ll never count them.”

First lesson was Music, which mostly consisted of singing ‘The Ash Tree’ or the occasionally shanty. Mr Brophy was an enthusiastic Yorkshire man with a love of Kathleen Ferrier and English folksongs. He had a red face and a beaky nose, and white hair that rose in the air with his hands as he conducted our singing. Only I couldn’t sing that day. I was thinking of Ruth Aldiss, thinking of the cane. Pleasure and pain.

He’ll never count them. Some words have their own peculiar fragrance of doom. They were counted and found wanting, and I stood in line with the other boys and had six thwacks of the cane on both hands. She was watching and I tried for a swagger. He noticed. His lips tightened. So did mine when the cane came down. My hands were red and tingling so fiercely, I didn’t think of Ruth Aldiss for the rest of the day.

Six weeks later we both left school. I went to a catering college. Someone told me she worked in an office somewhere in Liverpool and got the train from Orrell Station every morning. I took my courage in both hands and carried it as far as Platform 2. I recognised her at once, as beautiful as ever but now sophisticated in a bright pink coat. Girls grow faster than boys, and I knew it was no good. The train came early that day and in a moment she was gone. Life is full of lost chances but you can’t pass that wisdom on.