Memoir: Back to Schooldays …

… as Graham Parker used to sing, back in ’76, around about the time I exchanged chalk and a metaphorical mortar board for an electronic typewriter and an equally metaphorical Colt .45. A decade earlier, it was late night listening to John Peel, the Beatles and Otis Blue, and I was living in the centre of Nottingham – Castle Boulevard – and driving out each day across the Erewash to teach in Heanor. To be more precise, Langley Mill. The post in which  I describe meeting up again with two former pupils from that school and that time has aroused more interest than most.

Since that meeting, one of the pair, Mel Cox, has written about his memories of those days and, with his permission, I’d like to quote from his letter here:

Although lots of us in 216 were ordinary young adolescent kids at the time, just becoming aware of the opposite sex, pop culture, and the swinging 60’s we were undoubtedly still products of the austere 1950’s.

But then along comes this brilliant teacher, whose class is a safe place to be, and who listens to our opinions. He gives us a confidence and self-esteem. He introduces us to modern poems and stories in understandable language. He gets us to want to act in class dramas, and puts on ‘Androcles and the Lion’ and ‘The Business of Good Government’ as whole school plays. He publishes school magazines with our creative work in them. He organises poetry evenings, and sends off for us for copies of the class bible ‘The Mersey Sound’. He takes us on trips to the theatre, and marks our folders in enviable green-ink calligraphy.

Not only that, he plays us ’Lovely Rita’ ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘A day in the Life’ and ‘Silence is Golden’ in form time. To parochial working class Derbyshire kids, whose parents all shopped at the Co-op, here was someone who looked like something out of Carnaby Street (or the Bird Cage at least). Corduroy Jacket, PVC mac, flowered shirt, knitted tie and Chelsea boots. We sort of revered him, though we’d never have admitted it. And he was ours you see, and that was really the coolest thing.

I still remember the day almost all of the class left Aldercar in July’67 to go to Heanor Grammar School, and I know that he was leaving that day too. The very last night of term a busload of us went to see ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Nottingham Playhouse. Back at school everyone was saying their goodbyes, some for the summer, some for good. I was choked. The whole 216 adventure had ended, and as form captain he gave me this bitter-sweet memento, ‘Paroles’, by Jacques Prévert.

I felt that the clocks should have been stopped, and that school would never be any fun again.

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Memoir: Thomas Harvey 1906 – 1984

My dad died thirty years ago today …

Early JBH.IMG

Sunsets

“Grandad looks like John Wayne,”
my daughter said, pirouetting away.

In the westerns I wrote he filled in corners –
the stage coach driver, the friendly sheriff
with spreading paunch and bowed back,
his holstered gun never drawn in anger,
yet stubborn as a mule when the chips were down.

In photographs he holds me high above
his head like a talisman: pride bright
in his blue eyes I could never fulfil.

Writing, he stands between my sentences:
bits of a life that catch like grit in the mouth.
Once I ran, sobbing, after him until, reaching
down, he swung me, safe, in his arms.

He stands in all the doorways of my childhood.
Stands for my meanness, my grudging thanks,
those shifts of direction which push him
further and further behind.

Driving home to visit I’d passed him
on the road before I realised, stooped
and suddenly slow, one leg turned sideways,
an old man I’d failed to recognise.

Laughter and meaning clogged thick in his lungs:
they moved him to a private room and fitted
a green mask fast over his face; each breath
rattled dry stones along the bed of his throat,
his mouth peeled back and back
until it disappeared.

Yet a week or so before he died,
the old smile alive for a moment in his eyes,
he beckoned the prettiest nurse and as
she bent to catch his words,
nuzzled the hard plastic of his mask
against her face to steal a kiss:
an act of imagination great
as any John Wayne ever made.

Early JBH.IMG_0005 2

Apples

My father is dying.
Scent of apples from the night stand.
I reach out my hand and rest one
hard against my face; he taught me
to tell the real thing from the fake:
hold it close beside the ear and shake.
A genuine Cox, the seeds will rattle
loose inside their case.
You see. He told me
and I swallowed every word by rote.
Five cotton towns of Lancashire,
five woollen towns, four rivers
that flow into the Wash – Witham,
Welland, Nen and Great Ouse.
Once learned, never forgotten.

My father is dying.
He died nine years ago this June.
They phoned from the hospital with the news.
His face a cask once used
for storing living things.
A cup of tea, grown cold and orange,
on the stand beside the bed.
Fingernails like horn, unclipped.
Though dead, my father is still dying.
Oh, slowly, sure and slow as the long fall of rain.
I reach out again for the apple
bright and sharp,
safe inside the hollow of my mouth.

Memoir: Looking Back

After a couple of more crowded, slightly hectic sessions, last Friday night at Derby Waterstone’s was a relaxed affair; twenty, twenty-five or so people seated in a curve of chairs three or four rows deep; I’d read a couple of extracts from the new novel, a poem too, taking questions and talking as it went along. How come, one of the men at the back asked, you came to Nottingham, and I explained that having just trained as a teacher, along with some friends I was looking for a cheaper city to live and work in than London. This was back in the mid-60s: some things don’t change all that much. We found somewhere to live in Nottingham, I explained, but not jobs, so we all ended up teaching outside the city. Well, the questioner said, you taught me. Where, I asked, knocked out of my stride. Heanor Aldercar, he said – you taught both of us – indicating the man sitting next to him.

Heanor Aldercar Secondary School, Langley Mill, Notts. I taught there for three years, leaving in the summer of 1967.

I’m struggling a little to come to terms with this while Mel – that’s who they are, Mel and Dave – while Mel is telling everyone of the time I came into their English class with the record player and got them to listen to this new album by the Beatles, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And now he’s holding up a small square book that I recognise straight off as the City Lights edition of Prevért’s little sequence of poems called Paroles. ‘You gave me this,’ Mel says. ‘Look, your name’s in it.’

Forty seven years ago.

When the more formal part of the evening is done with they come over for a chat. As soon as he gets close I can recognise Mel’s boyhood face not quite hidden in the middle-aged one he has now: Mel is Melvyn  Cox – I can’t place Dave, and I apologise for this, but Melvyn, yes. And he’s brought another book with him, Penguin Modern Poets No. 10: The Mersey Sound. You got us all to buy these, you remember? It’s his name he shows me inside the cover this time, along with the date.

We talk for another five or ten minutes, no more: the shop staff are waiting to clear up and I have a train to catch. Time enough to learn that in what they describe as a pretty rough school I did all right – and to learn my nickname at the time – Slim Jim – it could have been a lot worse. I tell them when I’m next reading in the area and Mel says he might just come along. We shake hands and they’re on their way. That book, I think, that little book of poems, he’s kept it forty seven years. I’m moved almost beyond words; moved in a way that, beyond the facts of what’s happened, I’m finding difficult to explain.The shop manageress offers me a glass of wine. And then I’m thinking about it all the way back down to London on the train.

What I was able to do, once home, was dig out some photographs, just a few, of one of the classes I taught at Heanor Aldercar – and, although I can’t be absolutely certain, I think that’s Melvyn Cox in the bottom one, the lad in the back row, sitting up straight and staring straight ahead.

Heanor Aldercar School

Heanor Aldercar School

Heanor Aldercar School

Heanor Aldercar School

Heanor

Heanor Aldercar School

Before writing this post, I dug out a message I had from another former pupil at the same school who contacted me in 2008. I hope he won’t mind me quoting some of what he said :

Dear John

You turned my life around … At the time we met I was off the rails (but) you put me back on them. Tom Cooke (the headmaster) had me down as a loser which I was before you.  … I am now retired from the Fire Brigade after 34 years, reaching the post of Divisional Officer … As well as teaching me English you believed in me and taught me about social history and so much more. I have a lot to thank you for. Hope you are OK.

One of the particular things he remembered from those English classes was a 19th century folk song, Blackleg Miner, and I’m thinking of the appropriateness that finds that song and its sentiments near the beginning of my working life and how I’m ending another line of work with a book about the Miners’ Strike.

Thinking also that if I were beginning my career as a teacher of English and Drama now I would never have the freedom I had then to choose what we would read and listen to, study and enjoy, and to choose it  a way that merged my students’ developing interests and enthusiasms with my own.

 

Memoir: Tony Burns

Burns 2 - 4.IMGBurns 1

 

My friend, Tony Burns, has died. After a short time in a hospice in north London, he died in his sleep on Friday.

Anyone present at book launches or readings I gave in the London area over the past couple of decades will remember Tony, accompanied by just guitar and bass, embellishing the occasion with jazz saxophone playing of the highest order. It was always my favourite part of the evening.

I first met Tony Burns when we were in our mid- to late-teens, introduced to him by a school friend, Jim Galvin, who lived in the same street. We hung out together in the local park, visited the same jazz clubs; played, on occasion, for the same soccer team. When Tony decided he was going to learn to play the saxophone, I opted to join him on drums. At first we practiced in his bedroom, me playing brushes across the top of an old suitcase, Tony with the real thing; later, when I had a full kit, we used to hire a room over a pub in Kentish Town on Sunday afternoons – the pub landlord found it hard to believe two people could make that much noise.

After college, I moved away to teach, Tony took up tailoring – and was to work in Saville Row – and we fell largely out of touch; once or twice, on a visit down to London, I saw him playing – excellently – at a pub in Covent Garden but little more.

He was still playing alto sax then, alto and baritone; the alto showing the influence of one of his early heroes, Paul Desmond, the baritone carrying shades of another, Gerry Mulligan. Later, he almost exclusively played tenor and if you closed your eyes it was Stan Getz you were hearing.

It wasn’t until the late ’80s and I was living in London again that we began to spend time together more regularly: listening to jazz – the Gillespiana big band at the King’s Head in Crouch End was a favourite – and, on occasions, playing and performing together at poetry and jazz evenings at the Troubador and elsewhere – reading aside, my task was to supply minimal percussion on bongoes, watching out in trepidation for the moment when he might throw me a four bar break.

More recently still, Tony had a residency at a pub in north London, near the Archway, and on a couple of occasions – knowing I had a full set of drums once more at my disposal – my daughter’s – and having exhausted the list of deps in his little black book, he asked me if I would come along and sit in. They were – for me – some of the most pleasurable times I can remember. I kept my head down, kept time, and when – just occasionally – Tony gave me a quick look of approval, it made my evening.

That won’t happen again. But I know, whenever I’m listening to Getz, or Desmond, or Mulligan, there’ll be a moment when I’ll close my eyes and see Tony playing.

Burns 3 - 4.IMG_0001

Memoir: The Fishmonger’s Arms

Sometimes you inadvertently walk into a piece of your long distant past and it stops your breath like a large hand pressed hard against the heart.

There I was, Friday last, walking along a stretch of Wood Green High Road – north from the tube station – that I doubt I’d walked along in over fifty years, and there in front of me, on the corner of Trinity Road and the High Road, was The Fishmonger’s Arms, now, the exterior of the building largely unchanged, the local police station, but then home of the jazz club run through the 50s and 60s by Art and Vi Saunders in the adjacent Bourne Hall, where my friends and I spent so many Sunday nights listening to various jazz outfits of the period, in particular the Alex Welsh Band.

It was where we went to listen to the music, drink, dance – by which, of course, I mean jive – and meet girls. Though the only communication, the dancing itself aside, was usually little more than an outstretched hand and a terse, “Dance?”, and then at the end of the number, of you were lucky, a quick little nod of thanks from the girl before she returned to her friends.

To catch something of the atmosphere, take a look at Karel Reisz’s and Tony Richardson’s short early film, Momma Don’t Allow, featuring the Chris Barber Band and filmed at the club in 1956.

And for more information, memories and discussion take a look at the always interesting Sandy Brown Jazz web site, run by Ian Maund.

We loved the Welsh band for the sparkling joy and intensity of the music they played – back then a bright Condon-style dixieland that would later, with changes of personnel,  morph into mainstream and swing – and for the way they always seemed to be enjoying themselves on stage. Alex with his clipped cornet/trumpet phrasing and instantly recognisable vocals; the edgy vibrato of Archie Semple’s Pee Wee Russell-influenced clarinet; Roy Crimmins’ trombone – Crimmins whom we ‘adopted’ as our favourite member of the front line, frequently buying him a pint of bitter when we bought our own.

Drummer, Lennie Hastings, in every sense at the heart of things, would frequently finish off one of his four bar drum breaks by jumping up and shouting ‘Ooyah-ooyah!”, sticks held high above his head, and could also be prevailed upon, to our naive delight, to roll his trousers above the knee, insert a false monocle and transform himself into Herr Lennie Hastings, singing Auf Wiedersehen, My Dear and Ein, Zwei, Solfe – One, Two, Drink Up in cod German.

Why exactly we stopped going I’m not sure. Some of us went off to university, I suppose, others drifted into jobs, drifted away; steady girl friends failed to share our enthusiasms; engagements, careeers, marriage, mortgages, children beckoned.

I last saw Alex Welsh, clearly a sick man, leading a band at a club in Nottingham in the early 1980s. Not so long after that evening, he was dead at the age of just 52.