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Monday, 28 April 2008

The Plastic Scouser.

Liverpool was heavily bombed during the war and I grew up amongst old craters and more carparks than cars. In the 1960's planners conceived of building metropolis and other fine buildings were knocked down to be replaced by the tawdry. Mercifully they ran out of money or it might have been worse. These are the buildings that stayed in my memory when I left for University, ultimately becoming that most despised of creatures, 'the plastic scouser' or perhaps in my case 'the virtual scouser'. Buildings are too often taken for granted, but they shape the mind.

The Walker Art Gallery where I learnt to like paintings. Alongside it is the Central Library where I learnt to be a student.

St. Georges Hall. Who needs Athens?

Lime St. Station. Another building I once took for granted.

The Liverpool ferry

One of Liverpool's many mysterious lanes.

My time in Liverpool was coming to an end. My A levels approached and with it the possibility (though I still doubted it) of University. I checked out Sussex and opted for Swansea.

The rest now lay in Revision and I spent days in bed, reading and re-reading, occasionally drinking the tea my mother brought up. What I didn’t know about Paradise Lost books IV and IX, and Othello wasn’t worth knowing. English Economic and Social History 1750 to 1930 was in the bag. Even the British Constitution, a deadly dull subject, had been swallowed and digested. So keen was I to succeed, I even paid money to see an amateur production of Othello in the Neptune theatre.
That turned out to be a call beyond duty. Othello was a blacked-up white man in a dressing gown. He was also very small, smaller than Iago. Moreover he lacked stage craft so that in key scenes he was often at the wrong end of the stage. To make things worse his voice was high and gave a new meaning to camp.
When he came out with:

Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop and big wars
That make ambition virtue! Oh farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit stirring drum….Pride, pomp, and circumstances of glorious war!

Well, the audience laughed.

The coup de grace came when, goaded by Iago’s hints that Desdemona was unfaithful, he turned on his tormenter. Unfortunately he was at the wrong end of the stage so he was forced to run across the boards, almost tripping over his dressing gown. Stage directions indicate Othello grabs Iago’s throat. Our man had to leap for it and barely made it. His line:

“Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore…Or by the worth of my eternal soul, thou hadst been better born a dog than answer my waked wrath!”
was delivered in a squeaky pant.

Yes I was ready for my A levels.

They came and went, and I waited. Meanwhile Swansea sent me information on accommodation and asked me to make an informed decision. Informed decision!!! How the hell did I know? When I compare our journeys up and down the country checking out universities and accommodation for my son, the contrast is painful. We traveled from Oxford to Durham, Bristol to Nottingham making copious notes on departments and the size of residential bedrooms.

In my case it was a matter of spending a wet Saturday afternoon looking at brochures. The halls of residence looked nice. But which one? Whatever choice you made had to come with a reason. There was only one that vaguely stood out because it boasted ‘a world famous rhododendron garden.’ I’d never seen one of those, so I chose it, citing as my reason, ‘their world famous rhododendron garden.’ Not a good enough reason as it turned out. I ended up in a most peculiar place.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Prince Rupert

My history lessons in school were strangely skewed. I was told by a gentle nun called Sister Kevin that God had cursed Henry V111. Somewhere along the way I learnt that King John was a good old thing because he granted Liverpool a Charter in 1207, turning a fishing village into a town. And further down along the line my innate Royalist sympathies were confused by the stories of Print Rupert’s Tower.

Prince Rupert's Tower, or The Roundhouse, is an old Bridewell or lock-up that is still located on Everton Brow, in Netherfield Road, Everton, Liverpool. It is used on the crest of Everton F.C.. Also going by the nicknames "Stewbum's Palace" or the "Stone Jug
It was built in 1787, and was used to incarcerate wrong-doers until they could be hauled before the magistrate the following morning. The story I was told was that it was from this hill that Rupert looked down upon Liverpool. The cottage he stayed in was situated nearby.

In 1643 Parliamentarians had taken control of Liverpool which in turn controlled the vital supply route to Ireland. This was a case for Prince Rupert!
In 1664 he stormed and captured Stockport in a single day (May 25th ) then stormed Bolton on May 28th That town fell in under two hours and Rupert slaughtered all its inhabitants. Puritan resistance wavered. In Preston the Mayor invited him to a banquet and Rupert placed him under arrest by way of thanks or perhaps because he didn’t like the food. By the sixth of June he was marching on Liverpool defended by Colonel John Moore. Rupert was confident having already declared that a parcel of boys could take Liverpool. Five days later and at the loss of 1500 men, he gained the city.

In my small, childish mind I had visions of the dark prince brooding on Everton brow looking down on the city…the charges…and streets washed with blood. Who was I to support? I never did find out.

But one thing for sure, I didn’t like Henry VIII, which was ironic because many years later I was sitting in the cold of Liverpool’s Central Station – still warmer than outside – staring into his small piggy eyes and turning the pages of A.F Pollard’s book on Henry VIII.

It was the first day of my course at the Liverpool Institute of Further Education and I was an hour early. Don’t ask me why. No idea. Probably buses. So I ploughed through pages I barely understood, and then walked up the hill for enrollment. A year later I had my GCE O levels, but still didn’t like Henry VIII. I’d also lost my excuse for being at the Institute and delaying my re entry into catering. To my great relief teachers at the Institute, for all their vaunted cynicism, (I learnt much later that cynicism often hides idealism) wrote a letters to my parents saying that I should stay on at all costs, that I would fly through my A levels and that in a year’s time I could be at University. Gratified and because they believed in their son, they agreed and so my life was changed. On that same day an application form for trainee management at a Lyon’s Corner House arrived. I still remember tearing it up with glee.

These years were the happiest of my life up until then because I learnt that anything can be achieved through ambition and struggle, that success was possible. Something I’d never believed until then. All my years since have been happy because it’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten and so yes, maybe it’s time to make a decision, time to take sides. Gulp. I’m with the dark prince charging down into Liverpool my feathery hat and flowing locks making up for the bloodshed that follows.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Musical adventures

It takes a worried man, to sing a worried song,
It takes a worried man, to sing a worried song.
It takes a worried man, to sing a worried song.
I’m singing now, but I won’t be singing long.

Josh White’s album,( we called them LPs) Empty Bed Blues occupied wet Sunday afternoons as I tried to figure out the chords and growled along on a black, second hand guitar. The chords were as easy as the words, but I never quite managed to synchronize the strumming with the halting, tortured howl. Never mind, it was a step up from ‘Little Brown jug’ on the mandolin.

I was into the blues and even tried to like Jazz, borrowing some Thelonious Monk from Dave Galashan: 'Brilliant Corners' and 'Monk’s Dream,' as I remember. I didn’t enjoy them very much but pretended otherwise. Credibility was more important than truth – important in teaching and politics and for the terminally insecure.

Reasons to be insecure. No 1. (Sounds like an Ian Dury record)
The only autograph I ever acquired or even queued up for during the height of the Liverpool explosion was that of the Applejacks, and they came from Birmingham. If you Google them now they compete with a well known brand of cereal. Even then I knew to keep quiet about it, and talked instead about Thelonious Monk.

Then came John Mayall, the British Blues Boom, and the National Jazz and Blues Festivals at Reading. Credibility restored, though not without some hiccups. The first time, we trudged through grey drizzle onto a grey field about ten o’clock at night. We put up our very small children’s tent and settled into the dampness. Early the following morning we heard the puzzled drawls of those cooler than us.

‘Where did that come from?’

‘What is it?’

‘I think it’s a tent’.

We waited until the voices had gone and cautiously peeked out. Our white children’s tent was lost in a sea of pavilions, like a dinghy bobbing amongst the Spanish Armada.

At one of these festivals, a friend got us entrance to a great Jacobean house that had been commandeered by some very wealthy hippies. We were guided from room to room by someone half stoned who spoke in reverential tones.

‘This is the beer room’ and the door opened to reveal a bunch of Anglo-Saxon look-alikes solemnly quaffing beer.

‘And this is the cannabis room.’ Here the curtains were closed and little could be seem through the thick aromatic haze.

We went from room to room; I vaguely remember an 'acid room,' vaguely hoped there might be a sex room.

Finally we came to a door at the end of a long paneled corridor.
‘And this is the quiet room…for those who just want to be quiet.’ There was nobody in it, but I was impressed by those responsible who seemed to have thought of everything. The rich are different to us, even when stoned.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Minster Minerals and the Little Red Book

My very first job was a paper round which paid me 7 /- 6d a week. Following a gentle hint from my dad I gave it to my mum for housekeeping in continuance of a long working class tradition. Both were pleased by the gesture, but mercifully it was returned.

After that, especially during my student years the part time job became paramount. I’ve worked delivering bread for ‘Mothers Pride’ bakeries and still remember the warm and sweet yeasty smell of the ovens and the diesel fumes of the vans, their engines running on dark winter mornings. I’ve queued for summer jobs at the Corona lemonade factory someway down Hall lane but the queues were always too long and I always got there too late.

The job which paid most money and which nearly destroyed my mind was the night shift in a bottling factory. Minster Minerals. I was put in charge of the capping machine which stood below a very large clock. The shift was 10 pm to 6 am, and my job was to refill the capping container when ever it ran low. This basically involved standing there, gazing from clock to capping machine and back again. The conveyer clinked and a thousand bottles passed; the caps in the transparent capper jiggled and slowly subsided like sand in an hour glass…The second hand ticked…You are feeling sleepy…sleepy…. It was crash course in self hypnosis – only when that happened the capping machine ran empty and hundreds of un-capped bottles passed on a conveyor belt that couldn’t be stopped.

The foreman screamed and you ran backwards and forwards in panic, taking off the uncapped bottles and re-filling the capping machine as fast as you could. Then back to the tick of the clock and a brain slowly dying.

There was one other person there with a worse job. Quality control. He had to sit by the side of the conveyor belt, scrutinizing each bottle as it passed, watching out for foreign bodies or a level of liquid that was more or less than it should be. He went quietly mad, putting in foreign bodies to give his job meaning. Cockroaches, wood-lice, some he even pissed in.

At last the foreman took pity on me. He put me in charge of a small forklift truck but this promotion ended when I ran over my own foot… Or was it me? Maybe Stephen King had once worked in Minster Minerals and shortly afterwards wrote Christine.
But the money was good, for those days, and I met interesting people. I met Tim, a casual teacher who worked when he needed money and spent the rest of the time wine-making and brewing beer, which he stored beneath the stairs. I met a Chinese student called Andy who was enamored of Mao tse Tung, and who handed round these little red books.

It was the height of the Cultural Revolution and about that time a Chinese Ship had berthed in Liverpool docks. It caused a great stir amongst the Dockers. The ship was festooned with banners and flags, its crew on all decks, singing and waving their books like handkerchiefs. The great proletarian revolution had arrived, much to the surprise of the Liverpool docker. ‘Daft twats’ said with amusement, seemed the prevailing view.

Not really Liverpool's style.

Shortly afterwards the little red book began to circulate, discarded by contemptuous Dockers. I have one still as a curiosity. I probably also have a file in British security by virtue of this Chinese student whose name I can't quite believe was Andy. He told me you could get white leather bound copies of the works of Chairman Mao by writing to the Chinese embassy. I looked at the capping machine.

“I’m not spending my money on that!”

“No, they give them away if you’re poor.”

Hmm… A Homer Simpson moment.

The Keyton acquisitive gene took over. And I duly wrote my begging letter stressing my poverty and my undying admiration for the Great Helmsman. They didn’t seem that impressed, sending me another copy of the little red book. No doubt they learnt about my well paid job in Minster Minerals.

Post script
All jobs have their drawbacks. My friend Geoff Fimister had a job cleaning out the sugar tunnels in Tate and Lyles. When he emerged after a shift his hair was four times bigger framing his face in Afro-Candy-floss. Still, better than teaching.