Out Now!

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Bribing girls to see the Beatles

There were lesser Gods, in Liverpool: The Big Three, Rory Storm, The Searchers, Billy J Kramer, The Swinging Blue Jeans (My daughter invariably squirms with my rendition of Hippy Hippy Shake) and even smaller Gods, some as small as the ‘Hideaways’ who once performed at Mable Fletcher Technical College. They had their own logo, but that was all.

Mabel Fletcher attracted all kinds. Roger McGough, the Liverpool poet taught there for a time. He was a gifted teacher, and his poetry’s ok, too.

It also attracted a strange pregnant woman. She sat in the Common Room, at the far end, and people drifted by her, some touching her stomach. A few candles and a touch of incense it could have been Lourdes. The bell went, and I drifted off to make some sausage rolls.

Later rumors spread like rats in a Take-Away. She was carrying a Beatle baby; it was John Lennon’s, Paul’s, others swore blind Ringo or George was the father. All of us who had not touched the holy stomach felt vaguely cheated, though many years later I comfort myself it was probably the window cleaners.

Some now like to demystify the Beatles, refer to them laughingly as the first Boy Band. They were more than that, but were they ‘manufactured’?

It was my last day at the college and I was wandering around the Common Room - strangely empty without the pregnant woman. There was a waste bin there though, and in it was a large poster advertising the Beatles.
Printed in large red letters on a white background, it was advertising a Beatles Concert at the Locarno Ballroom in Liverpool. It went something like this.




Tickets 3/6d,
Free Gifts for the first 300 girls

Note the free gifts for the first 300 girls (boys always lose out) A clear case of priming the pump - bribing girls to see the Beatles!

I’d missed the holy stomach but what was in the bin made for a nice souvenir. And that was all it was. You need to remember the Beatles were only big in Liverpool then. No one else in Britain had heard of them. Two months later they had taken over the world and over the years I held on to that poster in my various moves from Liverpool to Swansea, Aberystwyth, and then Newport. And over the years it became steadily more battered and creased.

At the back of my mind I thought it would make a nice heirloom for Thomas and Frances. (…yeah, well, like my Dad trying to sell me Bing Crosby) But the paper was creased and yellowing, there were little tears, each growing bigger as every year passed.

Then my guardian angel intervened.

In the paper I saw an advert offering best prices for Beatles memorabilia. There was also a phone number and a man from Chorley answered. I described my poster and he nearly bit my hand off. Send me a photo. And I did.

Two days later, he phoned back and in a soft Chorley accent he traced every little crease and fold, from top to bottom, then said he'd be there the following day, having to purchase some Beatle contracts from a hall in Bristol first.

Sure enough, the following evening there was a knock on the door and in he walked, pockets bulging with money. The poster was laid bare on the table. It looked wrinkled and sad beneath the glare of a light bulb, like a raddled old woman.

He rubbed its corners and nodded. 'The real thing' he said. 'There's lots of fakes about'. Then he pulled out wads of money and gave me £2000.

When it was done and dusted I asked him how much he'd sell it for - 'possibly £3000 maybe a bit less - he stared pointedly at the tears and creases.

Anyway we lost our bit of history, but to be honest it was decaying fast and we didn't have the wherewithall to preserve it. I’d been cheated out of a Bob Dylan ticket at Mabel Fletchers but learnt a lesson. Life is what you make - or salvage from dust bins.

Monday, 26 November 2007

The Cavern Club

It’s hard to describe the Cavern, the original Cavern, without saying what’s already been said. You descended into blackness, the air hot and solid with sound, difficult to breathe.

Halfway down the stairs your body would vibrate, your heart and lungs tremble. You didn’t so much hear the music as disintegrate into it. And then, framed by arches of sweating brick, you saw the stage, how tiny it was. You sweated in the Cavern. You were in heaven. And the Beatles were its Gods.

Liverpool then was the centre of the universe - according to Alan Ginsberg, and who am I to argue? The Liverpool Echo was swamped with requests from all over the world for Liverpool pen friends.

There was a fetching pen and ink drawing of an ecstatic American teenager, concocted, I imagine over a pint or two by the Echo’s resident artist, but she did for me. Her name was Debbie Baird, and she came from Texas, and letters ensued.

She was also rich, her father owned bakeries - and she was coming to Liverpool. I panicked when I got the letter. We’ll have to get some coffee, I said. Americans like coffee. I was fifteen with the sophistication of a newt.

Debbie was big and blonde with a peaches and cream complexion, and a raw Texan twang I’d only previously heard in Westerns.

I took her to the Cavern, warning her that most of the big bands had gone, but there was a ‘name’ group on that night - The Chants. I didn’t think to tell her they were black.

I still have shivers at the memory of that night. We walked down the steps into the cellar. It was hot and sweaty. The music was loud. Then a raw Texan voice cut across the darkness. 'Christ, they're black!"

No arguing with that.

This was my first brush with pre Civil Rights America. The British of course were more civilised. We thought we were superior to everyone. It was a comfortable feeling.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Abattoir Nights

Days actually, well in fact one day. To be precise a morning. It was enough. St. Bonaventure’s had taken me on a visit to Bootle Gasworks. Mable Fletcher Tech College took us to an abattoir.

I read somewhere that Hannibal, before crossing the Alps, had to cross the River Rhone with a bunch of reluctant elephants. His solution was to build rafts, each holding three elephants - one female to every two males - the principle being that the female would have a calming effect. Makes you wonder what we’re paying modern psychiatrists all the money for.

Anyway, this principle proved true on our visit to the slaughtering house. The boys showing a certain raucous callousness which in effect hid our discomfort, and the girls, afraid of retreating into a stereotypical ‘girlishness’, biting their lips, sometimes turning away as blood spattered a little too close.

I don’t know really what was worse, the clanging of metal gates, the smell of blood and fear, men coarsened by habit, their shouts echoing over the dying. On balance I think it was in the eyes of the animals.

We stood alongside a long and narrow metal pen filled with cattle squashed in single file. There was no escape for them and they knew what was happening. At the far end was a man with a stun gun, which in theory was quick and painless. The process was simple: stun, hook on to an overhead conveyor belt, which in turn led to where they were skinned and dismembered. They were still writhing and twitching as they passed overhead, each on a strong metal hook. ‘Just their nervous systems girls and boys. They’re all dead.’ Great.

We stood watching these animals, distancing ourselves with varying degrees of success. It was their eyes - anger, fear, dull acceptance - there was no single expression. Sometimes a cow would go wild and try to shoulder down the walls on either side, but with no space, there was no momentum - only the relentless push from the other cows behind.

Pigs however were killed a little more humanly, not so much from mercy, more pragmatism. We learnt that a frightened pig releases amino acids which give their meat a sour taste. I thought of south sea cannibals eating their ‘long pig’, and whether we released amino acids when scared, whether missionaries had sour meat.

Anyway, I digress. These fortunate pigs were allowed to run between a man’s legs whereupon what looked like ear-phones were placed over its head. Instead of Bruce Springsteen they got an electric shock, and before they knew what had happened they were pushed into a giant vat of boiling water.

Kosher killing we were assured was pretty painless. The chickens didn’t look to happy though.

As ‘day-outs’ went, it wasn’t the best.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Sticking hands up chickens.

It was a mean-spirited time, especially in catering. Profit and loss was geared to 4 oz portions. Industrial strainers lined counters so tea-slops could be saved and recycled, and waiters were pimply faced boys with attitude or else elderly men with roaming hands. I was one of them - a pimply faced boy - and I hated it, the thin white jackets, the obsequious stoop, that first open day at Mabel Fletcher where we glided over wooden floors presenting bemused parents with Vol au vents.

Cooking was better, solid, real and sometimes dangerous. I learnt not to sit on a cast iron cooking range - even at the end of a long afternoon when they should have been cool. They weren’t and I leapt into the air like a cartoon cat. I learnt not to put my hands into newly introduced microwaves - whether in retrieving food, or out of curiosity, sometimes bravado from those who held them in contempt as not amounting to much, certainly not cooking - hands and microwaves here are interchangable.

These early microwaves didn’t amount to much - in terms of safety but they turned hands an interesting shade of pink. I learnt that sticking hands up a newly dead chicken could be fun, but that foretelling the future from its entrails was not so simple. I learnt how to skin fish, cook Sole Veronique and Ouef Florentine. I learnt how to speak French so long as it knew it’s place - a menu card.

I learnt that Cooking was not for me, but still I persevered. I learnt about square pegs in round holes, and round pegs in round ones and made a friend in Michael Adams. Mike was a natural, a gifted chef and one of the funniest people I've ever met. A round peg in a round hole. It's something he denies, making the point that there was little else going for him, and that in those days you just stuck at things. Many cooks do that, but Mike ended up as personal chef to the Duke of Westminster and moved on to other aristocratic households. I ended up as a teacher, and like him stuck with it.

That’s the best thing I learnt at Mabel Fletcher, that you could make a friend and talk to him forty years later as if it was yesterday.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Readers he had his way with me

The day I started Catering College, the bus ran over a dog. It should have told me something. There’d been many false starts in my choice of career. Hartley’s jam factory exuded its daily lure of hot strawberries. Further down the road was the Crisp factory, and once, the only career lesson we ever had, the class was taken to Bootle Gasworks. I still remember the thick gooey brightly coloured paint on metal handrails, the clang of feet on metal steps, and the smell of dust and gas. And yet, I knew what I wanted to do.

I wanted to go to sea, like my dad. I wanted to spend long hours on the deck at night staring at sea and sky, and descend into the boiler room when it got too cold and drink very hot chocolate. I had it all worked out.

Only my Dad was adamant. If I went to sea, I had to have a trade. He must have looked at me and wept - this fresh-faced shortsighted boy - must have thought of crews he had sailed with over the years, time lost in the South China seas, the kind of life I’d have to expect.

I spent a week or two convinced I’d be a radio officer, until Morse code eventually wore me down; and then it came: the answer, combining my two great obsessions, a life at sea, and food.

I’d be a ship’s cook.

Hence my presence on a bus that ran down a dog.

Mabel Fletcher Technical College taught hairdressers and cooks, and gradually it dawned on me I had made a mistake, only it was now too late. My blue checked trousers had been bought, along with two white tunics and a tall chef’s hat, which, however long or hard you starched it, always flopped down.

A lot of my memories of Mabel Fletcher are lost in a blur of kitchen knives and steam, but I remember this. Mr Radcliffe, a liberal studies tutor with black glasses and a blue striped shirt pestered me every day for a month. I had something he wanted. A Bob Dylan ticket, no, more than that, The Bob Dylan ticket. It was the year Dylan went electric and he was playing in Manchester. And I had a ticket. He pursued me for weeks, Radcliffe not Bob. Kept raising his price, until eventually, dear readers I… succumbed and he had his way with me for a £10 note. I’d sold a piece of history for a £10 note and have regretted it ever since.

Not to worry though. I acquired another piece of history in Mabel Fletcher, and many years later sold it for £2000.