Archive for Bob’s Bits And Bobs
Back in 2009, when I was blogging my 1984 Diary every day, I wrote very affectionately about a winter shopping trip to Stockton-on-Tees, and the pilgrimages that my scrawny, parka-clad 12-year-old self would make to Topsoft… a fabulous 1980s computer shop packed to the rafters with bleeping, flashing ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s. Impossibly exciting visits to this tiny, backstreet mecca became a weekly ritual throughout my teenage years, and I’d spend hours crammed into a corner of the shop, jostling through the inevitable (and equally parka-clad) crowd to catch my first glimpse of Underwurlde or Dun Darach or (ahem) Jack The Nipper 2 – Coconut Capers.
It was an incredibly exciting time to be a teenage boy, and we felt like pioneers of this new gaming technology… despite my Dad’s constant protestations that ‘it’s just little bloody men jumping about – turn it off, we’re watching Just Good Friends’. There was something thrillingly DIY about the computing industry in those days… games were written by teenage boys in their bedrooms, and sold from tiny stores in narrow back alleys to OTHER teenage boys who just might be inspired to give this ‘programming’ lark a go themselves. And so places like Topsoft became more than just shops… they were social gathering spots, hubs of the nascent gaming community, and places where 12-year-olds like me – with a slightly unhealthy interest in Z80 Machine Code programming and the sensual qualities of the Kempston Joystick – could take refuge from the bleakness of 1980s reality and lose ourselves in a world where our major concern in life was crossing the Banyan Tree in Jet Set Willy.
Brilliantly, months after I’d written that entry, it was discovered by Steve Williams – the manager of Topsoft throughout those halcyon years! You can read the whole article, along with Steve’s message, here…
I was thrilled, and Steve and I e-mailed each other for a few months, swapping memories of those giddy years when he would attempt to run a viable business, and I would hinder him as much as possible by playing Glider Rider 128K in the corner all afternoon without putting a single penny across the counter. He was even foolish enough to send me an official Evening Gazette picture of himself and his Topsoft team, back in the day! Steve – admirably refusing to pull the traditional, deadpan ‘Gazette Face’ – is second from the left…
(Note for hardcore Topsoft fans – this is the second, bigger version of Topsoft, not the one down my beloved alleyway!)
Steve told me that the original, tiny Topsoft had recently been converted into a rather nice-looking tearoom. And so, when we met for the first time last week, guess where we went for a cuppa…? (Anyone who said ‘Starbucks’ can sit in the corner of the room facing the wall, and isn’t allowed to play Sabre Wulf until they’re TRULY sorry)
And then, for the first time in well over 20 years, we strode purposefully through the door…
Huge thanks to the ladies from Angela’s Tearoom, who couldn’t have been more helpful and who – I can testify – make a very fine cup of tea as well. They were even happy for us to wander upstairs so Steve could enjoy a giddy rush of nostalgia looking around his old stock room…
And yes, one of those days I WILL make a blog video that doesn’t start with the words ‘Right, here we are…’ In the meantime, I hope this ignites a few misty-eyed memories for anyone who ever cracked a smile while frantically waggling a Kempston Joystick in front of Daley Thompson’s Decathlon (and I’ll never forget my Mum’s expression when she caught myself and Andrew Harding enjoying a spot of mutual waggling in the Summer of 1986). I’m nearly forty now, but – for one chilly December morning last week – I was thirteen again, watching the title screen of Fairlight through a steamed-up shop window and hoping beyond hope that it would be under our tree on Christmas morning…*
Earlier today, someone arrived at this blog after googling for the phrase ‘muffled fart’. This made me laugh so hard that I had to stare at a stern-looking picture of Mr Baxter from Grange Hill for ten minutes just to compose myself, and even then I found my mind wandering to similarly juvenile pursuits. And so, for your delectation and delight, please find below…
THE TOP 10 MOST PATHETICALLY UNINTENTIONALLY FUNNY THINGS OF MY 1980s CHILDHOOD
1. Fanny By Gaslight
Michael Sadleir’s original 1940 novel is a searing depiction of the exploitation of women in Victorian London, and the BBC’s four-part adaptation was a highlight of the 1981 Autumn TV schedules. A highlight, that is, providing you were a nine-year-old boy reduced to hysterical laughter, rolling around the front room floor with a cushion clutched to your stomach every time a trailer popped up after the closing credits to Hi-De-Hi. ‘Fanny!!! Ha – ha – ha! By… Gaslight…! Titter! Guffaw! Oh god, stop it…!’ (I’d still be silently chortling and accidentally breaking wind during Points of View)
2. Le Coq Sportif
When Spurs completed a brace of FA Cup Final victories in 1981 and 1982, was it the silky skills of Richard Villa and Osvaldo Ardiles that captured the imagination of a generation of schoolboys? No. It was the side-splitting nature of their French shirt manufacturer, providing endless ammunition with which to goad the weak-willed school saps that had sided with these cheeky Cockernee knees-up merchants, despite never having travelled further south than Northallerton in their short, pitiful little lives. ‘You know that Ricky Villa? Eh? He IS le coq sportif. Geddit? He’s a cock who does sport…’
3. ‘In Case Of Fire, Strike Knob Hard’
The standard instruction on the side of EVERY publicly-housed fire extinguisher during the 1970s and 80s, including those at the front of buses… leading to much hilarity during school excursions, as Phil ’Slackie’ Slack would inevitably shout ’FIRE! FIRE! Quick, follow the instructions…’ and Stephen Mason would dutifully respond with a swift punch to Christopher Herbert’s knackers. Before, naturally, sniffing his fingers and attempting to insert the resultant whiffy digits into Herbert’s own permanently dilated nostrils.
With a theme tune that still sounds like one of those cheery Ringo Starr songs from a latter-day Beatles album, ITV’s late 1970s adaptation of The Famous Five provided a generation of well-reared kiddies with a regular dose of wholesome pre-war rural adventure… smugglers coves, mysterious moors, fearsome pirates and lashings and lashings and lashings of ginger beer. But it was those opening titles that provided a classic pre-pubescant chortle as one of our heroes slipped and fell into a sparkling lagoon, only to be freeze-framed in mid-plunge and have his name super-imposed over his startled face… ‘DICK’. NB For added schoolboy snigger value, the show also played host to Aunt Fanny and Billycock Farm.
5. ‘I Was Cold, I Was Naked, Were You There?’
Poor Mrs Mulhern must have had the patience of a saint. Given that she was charged with educating a hundred or so eight-year-old idiots who would collapse into lung-bursting hysterics at the merest mention of ‘Fanny By Gaslight’ or ‘Le Coq Sportif’, selecting hymns to enrich our spiritual lives during morning assembly must have been a lyrical minefield. Suffice to say, the inspirational ‘When I Needed A Neighbour’ slipped through the barbed wire fences, and – at EVERY SINGLE INSTANCE of the line transcribed above being sung - a wave of hilarity would spread like an atomic shockwave through the male contingent of Levendale Primary School. If – as frequently happened – the massed, stifled giggles were accompanied by a well-timed Stephen Mason fart, then the resulting fall-out could be explosive enough to require Christopher Herbert’s knob being struck hard yet again. And again. And again.
6. ‘Round Yon Virgin’
See above, but with added Christmassy chortles. I have a sneaky feeling this particular line was eventually dropped from Levendale Primary School’s official rendition of ‘Silent Night’, after Mrs Mulhern’s eyesight was seriously threatened by the repeated, despairing rolling of the eyes she went through every single sodding December.
7. Einar Aas
Experienced Norwegian international Einar Aas was doubtless treated with solemn respect by football fans in his native Scandinavia, but a 1981 transfer to Nottingham Forest cemented his legendary status amongst a legion of giggling, eight-year-old pillocks who would crease up with tear-stained cheeks every time his immortal Panini Sticker rose to the top of the playground pile. ‘Got… got… got… need… need… oh… ah-ha ha… ha ha ha… yak yak yak yak ha ha ha yak snigger snigger snigger snigger chortle… HA HA HA HA HA…’ Thanks, Cloughie. NB If I was eight years old in 2011, the prospect of Andrei Arshavin playing for Arsenal might actually make me physically explode.
8. Chilly Willy
On TV, he was a cartoon penguin in a woolly hat and mittens. In our filthy, fevered imaginations, he… wasn’t.
9. Sexagesima Sunday
Almost every child of the 1980s received a WH Smiths Desk Diary for Christmas at least once during the decade, although obviously only the most chronically anally retentive of us actually managed to write in the damn thing for 365 days running (see every blog entry for 2009). A select handful made it to early February though, at which point they’d inevitably be confronted by the prospect of ‘Sexagesima Sunday’, neatly inscribed in italics beneath the date itself. Apparently it’s an important Roman Catholic holiday, and not – as Gareth ‘Gazzie’ Jones once solemnly informed me – ‘the day on which you have to have sex with a geezer’.
10. Frank Bough
I’m reliably informed by my London-raised friends (some of whom even defiantly wore Le Coq Sportif football kits as Spurs-loving children) that the verb ‘to boff’ was rigidly defined in their Middle Band Playground Dictionary as an act of sexual congress performed by two consenting adults, either of whom may even be cold, naked or – indeed - ’round yon virgin’ at the time. Such decadent behaviour had yet to reach Teesside by 1982, though. As far as we were concerned, to ‘boff’ was to release a trump, a trouser cough; to pump, to let one drop. In short, any appearance of Nationwide’s genial Frank Bough on TV was the cue for raucous, raspberry-blowing hilarity, usually accompanied by a raised pre-pubescent buttock.
In fact, thinking about it, a ‘Frank Bough’ is pretty much just the opposite end of the flatulence spectrum to the muffled fart, which brings us nicely full circle. Found that funny, did you? Well maybe it’s time you took a long hard look at yourself. Or perhaps you’d like to explain the joke to Mr Baxter…
Han: ‘She may not look much kid, but she’s got it where it counts. On top of Bob Fischer’s sideboard’
Luke: ‘It was the sideboard I was talking about…’
Another little nugget transcribed from my radio archives, this time from March 2007. I was thrilled to interview Fred Aylward, who spent almost ten years as Les, the bald-headed, lab-coated henchman to Vic Reeves. Les worked his way from pub backroom appearances to TV stardom with Vic Reeves Big Night Out and ultimately Les Lives, his own series on BBC2. He loved the spirit level, but had a strange and inordinate fear of chives. Fred hung up the lab coat in 1996 and now lives in South London.
Am I right in thinking you’re working as an artist these days, Fred?
Yeah, art and design is my background, really. I went to Goldsmith’s College and all that.
So what are you working on at the moment?
At the moment it’s a set of celebrity dinner plates with the likes of Fanny Craddock on there. Do you remember Fanny?
(Laughs) Well, she’s on there. I suppose there’s a comedy that runs through all my artwork, it’s all little cartoony things.
Presumably you exhibit as well, then?
Yes, I’m working towards a show later this year, in South-East London.
So how did you first get involved with Vic and Bob if you came from an arty background? Did you go to see their live show and get roped in?
No, I was there before Bob. Me and Vic – let’s call him Vic, otherwise it gets confusing, he’s known as Jim and all sorts of other things…
And Rod as well…?
Rod too, and in fact when I met him he was called ‘Chin’ but that’s another story! Anyway Vic and I shared the same day job, doing art and drama workshops with kids and old people. So that’s how we met, and then he started doing Vic Reeves as a twenty minute stand-up in some local cabaret venues. That was when he was possibly going to be called Craig Wildfowl, but he went with Vic Reeves in the end. This was in 1986, about a year before he met Bob.
So were you doing bits onstage with him at that point?
Yes, but not as Les. I was onstage as Pam Ayres, with a sort of cut-out mask. I was a Dalek at one point, and I was also a quick change mime artist – that’s what Vic billed me as. I changed from being a hippy into a skinhead under strobe lighting.
So had you ever performed onstage before all of this came about?
Before I met him I got up at a place called the Africa Centre with a megaphone, and read four really earnest poems about the starving in Africa. That was my stage debut, standing on a chair with a loudhailer.
I take this wasn’t part of a comedy night?
Oh no, we were raising money for charity! This was pre-Live Aid actually, about 1984.
So where did the character of Les come from?
We were doing stuff at Winston’s in Deptford, which is a tiny wine bar, then it moved to the Goldsmith’s Tavern, and I found myself clearing up – putting wigs in boxes and generally helping out backstage. So by the time it got to the Albany Empire, which was a proper theatre as opposed to just a pub backroom, he said ‘Look, we’re going to need a stage manager, do you want to do it as a character?’ And he said bring your white coat along… because I was an art technician at a school.
Right, so the lab coat was actually yours?
Yeah, but I said ‘I don’t wear a lab coat, I wear a navy blue apron’. And he said ‘Just get a white coat from the lab department, and you’ll be called Les’. So there I was… it was just a case of having a character come on and clear up.
And there must have been a time during that when you couldn’t walk down the street without being recognised?
Well I was working in a school, can you imagine?! For the first TV series for Channel 4 I took every Friday off to do the filming, but I didn’t tell anyone. We just didn’t know whether it would be a success or not. Fortunately the series went out during the summer holidays so I didn’t have to confront the kids, but when I went back in September, I was going around nodding saying ‘Yes, it’s me…’
Did they bring spirit levels and chives in to taunt you?
Well I’d actually resigned by that point so I only had three weeks to work! And then we went on our first tour, around the North-East and so on – the college tour. It was all really fast, one minute Bob was a solicitor and I was working in a school, the next we were off on tour…
I did see you on that first tour, and you played at the old Newcastle Polytechnic Student Union. And I swear it’s one of the most tense things I’ve ever seen onstage… you came on as Les, and you cleared up between two sketches, and while you were there the phone rang on Vic’s desk…
Oh, yeah! (Laughs)
…and it just rang and rang, and this went on for about five minutes! And people were shouting ‘Answer it Les!’ and it just never seemed to end. And then it just stopped… I swear I almost fainted with the tension. It was sensational… it must have been like being with a rock band on tour?
It was just all so fast. Can you imagine, one minute you’ve got a full-time job and you’re just doing it as a laugh, and then you’re suddenly hurtled into the limelight. It was just like a car accelerating really fast. And then it crashed!
How did it come to an end? Vic and Bob moved to the BBC didn’t they, and you didn’t go with them…
I got a phone call from The Sun actually, asking how I felt about them going to the BBC. And that was the first I’d heard of it, so I wished them luck and then I got offered ‘Les Lives’ about the same time. We’d tried to get it on Channel 4, but they weren’t really interested once Vic and Bob had fled. So we did it on BBC2 in the end, as part of DEF II. And my career doing Les by myself began then, in 1992. We did the Riverside in Newcastle as part of their birthday celebration, myself and a guy called Peter Brook. We just did this half hour act between us, which was Les outside the Big Night Out.
So when was the last Les gig?
Glastonbury in 1995 was one of the last. I had a show called ‘Les Live’ by that point, which was an hour long…
Which isn’t bad going for a character that doesn’t speak!
(Laughs) Yeah, although it had other characters from Les Lives in it as well, including Peter playing the ukulele. It was a fairly musical comedy act – I suppose it had to be with no dialogue! And just before Glastonbury I did a day’s shooting at Pinewood Studio for the Today newspaper, and that was the highlight of everything for me – being driven to Pinewood for a day’s filming! The paper’s folded now - nothing to do with me, I hope – but, you know… Pinewood was the home of the Carry On films and all that. It was fantastic.
The Big Night Out DVD came out in 2006, and you did a revival of the show for one night only to launch it…
Yeah, we did it in the old Raymond Revue Bar in Soho. I wasn’t going to do it because I was down in Cornwall, but Vic’s wife Nancy nagged me into it, so I came back and did a guest appearance as Les. It was a thirty-minute Big Night Out I suppose.
And I imagine the cream of British comedy were there to watch…?
They were, yes! Lapping at our feet! (laughs).
Do you miss it? Or are you happy working on your artwork these days?
I get sort of… (pauses) when we did that one-off, I thought maybe there might be some interest in doing more live stuff, but I’ve not heard anything. I don’t know if Bob and Vic are up for it, they might just want to move on. But I never say never. The white coat is here on a coat hanger, I’m actually looking at it as we speak!
You’ve still got it, brilliant!
There are about half a dozen, actually, we went through them so quickly. Can you imagine how dirty they get when you’re rolling around on the floor every night?
Has it still got the biros in the top pocket?
Yeah, and the spirit level… I’ve got all of it!
So what form does most of your artwork take? Are we talking painting, sculptures or something else?
I do ceramics. I had an exhibition called Sex Pots, which was sort of rude teapots and things… that was good. And I do portraits now in watercolour, cartoony things. People like Madonna with a Viking helmet on. And the Queen meeting Marilyn Manson, and they’re both wearing matching corgi print coats.
You need to set up a website so we can see all of this…
I do… and to get some of these bits of film on there, there’s a nice Glastonbury film somewhere.
What? Is this a great lost Les film?
Yes… and there’s actually a lost Big Night Out which I’m trying to track down. It was made by two film-maker friends of ours, and I think Vic and Bob have probably forgotten about it. This was in about 1987, at a place called The Venue in New Cross, and we played upstairs in a little bar. That would be a great long-lost treasure, I think.
It’ll be in a dusty box in someone’s attic somewhere…
Yes, probably mine!
…and I say, it’s alright. For anyone who grew up in front of the TV in the 1970s and 80s (hands up everyone… one, two, three, four… Simon, is your hand up or not? Oh, I see. No you can’t, you’ll have to wait. You should have gone before the start of assembly) will remember Wilf. Yes, the genial Yorkshire inventor with the extraodinary ginger moustache who graced the likes of Vision On, Jigsaw and Eureka with an array of bizarre and frequently dangerous-looking contraptions. After all, how is it possible not to love the creator of the ‘Apocalypse Cow’ which, as Wilf himself says, ‘replaced the earlier, less effective, Cow Clap Frisbees’?
About a year ago, my friend Wez (star of Chapters 2, 5 and 10 of ‘Wiffle Lever To Full!’) took, for reasons that have long since been wiped from my brain, a train journey from Huddersfield to Bradford and idled away the journey reading a discarded copy of the Huddersfield Examiner. He was so enamoured with Wilf Lunn’s colum in said periodical that he brought it back home for me to read. This is it, here…
Inspired, I decided – uncharacteristically – to spend the rest of the afternoon in the spare room office, slumped in front of the computer spending money I didn’t have. I know! Who’d have thought it? I immediately ordered a copy of Wilf’s childhood memoir ’My Best Cellar’ from his website, and then set about finding that adaptation of the old Abbott and Costello sketch mentioned in the Huddersfield Examiner. And sure enough, it’s here…
(I assume this is from Jigsaw, as that’s certainly Adrian Hedley under one of the surgeons’ masks. At least while he was messing about with Abbot and Costello he wasn’t sending the nation’s children into paroxyms of fear from beneath his… brrr… Noseybonk head)
A few days later, Wilf’s book arrived in the post, and I found myself lost in this splendidly surreal evocation of a bygone age, couched throughout in Wilf’s extraordinary gift for language and an eye for the gruesomely odd that all-but-confirmed my longstanding suspicions that he and Vivan Stanshall were created together in some classified War Office genetic experiment deep beneath the Houses of Parliament before being forcibly exiled to opposite ends of the country, never to meet again. Except they did, but that’s a story for another blog entry…
Anyway, as I read on, my thoughts began to coalesce into a dark and fevered plan. What we needed, obviously, was a night with Wilf Lunn in a small room on Teesside, so that Wez and I (and anyone else prepared to cough up a few quid) could have the pleasure of his company for a couple of hours. Luckily, I have the ear of a local arts promoter. Yes, I keep it in a jam-jar at the side of the bed. Ho ho! Knackers, and – indeed – arse. No, Luke Harding, proprieter of the splendid Waiting Room vegetarian restaurant and bohemian hangout, was utterly taken with the idea… and, predictably enough, left me to organise all the fiddly bits.
And so it came to pass that, on Sunday 30th January 2011, Wilf Lunn came to The Waiting Room and made a little bit of our collective childhoods bubble to the surface on a chilly Teesside evening. I was so excited I gave a rare outing to the stripy mod blazer I’d bought on Carnaby Street with the final instalment of my ‘Wiffle Lever’ advance in October 2008. And felt surprisingly honoured when Wilf chose to shower it in shaving foam as the climax to his Apocalypse Cow demonstration. Amazingly, I managed to capture some sensational action footage of this, but you’ll have to be quick on the draw…
Wilf was superb company, and a fascinating speaker, and I’ll treasure his recollections of Rolf Harris’ trouser destruction, James Mason’s bell collection (pingers or dingers, though? Ah, you had to be there) and the long-term career benefits of putting bicycles into bottles. And we rounded off with a small explosion… the least we’d expect from a man who once burnt off the hair (and moustache) on one side of his head minutes before a live TV appearance, and was hurriedly patched up with spare bits of barnet from round the back, frantically glued into place by a cussing producer.
This – brace yourself – is the Hen Grenade…
Thanks to Wilf for coming up, and to everyone who popped along on the night! And that foam-covered stripy blazer in full…
Hello! It’s not too late to say ‘Happy New Year’, is it? I was desperate to get it in before the end of January. And no, that’s not a Richard Keys quote.
Anyway, after a pitiful showing in 2010, I’m determined to put a bit more stuff on this blog during the twelve months of human existance that government scientists are already calling ’2011′. I’ve made some extraordinary discoveries in the loft recently, so expect a few more ‘Nuggets…’ to come your way very soon, and my Uncle Trevor – recurring star of the now ancient historical document ‘Wiffle Lever To Full!’ - amazingly managed to repair an ailing hard drive containing thousands of my old radio interviews, so I’ll be transcribing some more Wiffle-friendly chats with a flurry of childhood TV heroes.
In the meantime, I’ve been slowly adding to my collection of vintage Star Wars figures. Dedicated followers of this rubbish will remember that, in 1986, I flogged my entire collection to a travelling toy collector who advertised her services in the classified section of the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette. She gave me fifteen pounds for the entire, planet-sized collection after my Mum sagely assured me that ‘no-one’s interested in Star Wars any more’.
Amazingly, though, these are two hardy survivors of my original collection that somehow slipped through the net… Han Solo on his trusty Tauntaun, pictured riding bravely across the fearsome Ice Patio of Yarm during a recent cold snap.
‘Of course,’ he continues, ‘Artoo has been known to be wrong. From time to time’.
As has my Mum, obviously. I forgive, but I never forget.
More Suburban Star Wars pictures to follow.
Those of you who stuck with this blog throughout the whole of last year are probably still emotionally scarred by the relentless day-by-day reliving of my 1984 Diary, and I think some of you are still receiving counselling after inadvertantly catching a glimpse of the opening titles to Robin Of Sherwood.
But hey – it was brilliant fun, and one of the lovely things about the whole strange adventure was the way that several of my old 1984 chums – grizzled veterans of Levendale Primary School to a man and, less frequently, a woman – chanced upon these ramblings and decided to get in touch to say hello.
However, one old friend that seemed to have vanished from this mortal plane of existance (leaving behind just a smoking pair of Start-Rite trainers and an unwound TDK D90 containing a dodgy copy of Manic Miner) was James ‘Placie’ Place. In the hazy, sepia-tinted summer of 1984, Placie was a good mate of mine, and featured regularly in my diary. Here he is, aged 11, posing shamelessly on a school trip to York on Monday 16th July 1984…
And you can read about a few of our exploits in this entry here…
Like me and all of my contemporaries, Placie made the terrifying journey to Conyers secondary school in September 1984. But, within a couple of years, his family had upped sticks and moved to some exotic, far-flung realm of the Commonwealth (Leicestershire) and I never saw or heard from him again. And, as I’ve pointed out on here before, back in the 1980s that was – quite simply – the Natural Order of The Universe. Kids came and went from your school, and that was life… any attempt to ‘stay in touch, hey, we can even write, like proper pen-pals’ was a sign of pitiful feebleness likely to see you branded – brace yourselves – a ‘bloody big nancy’. And that was just from Mr Ledgerwood.
And then, in February this year, I got an e-mail that made my heart leap, my nerves jangle and ’James Place has commented on your blog’. WHHATTTTTTT? True though, and it’s on this entry here…
For the next few months, a flurry of e-mails zipped back and forth between us. We talked, naturally, about the same weighty matters that occupy the minds of 37-year-old men the world over. The Commodore 64 version of Sabre Wulf, whether to aim for ’Mission’ or ‘World Dom’ when playing Risk during the summer holidays, and the rainy afternoon on Conyers playing field in Winter 1985 when the entire class received a mass order mark from Mr Nielson for - in Mr Place’s own words - ’a truly piss poor performance’.
And – get this! – he also revealed that he’d moved back to the North-East in 1992 and was now resident in Northallerton, a mere ten minutes train ride away from our old stamping grounds! (Not that we ever did much stamping when we were kids. ‘Slouching Grounds’ is probably more accurate, or even ‘Kicking Clumps Of White Dog Shit At Christopher Herbert Grounds’)
And so it came to pass (I really need Charlton Heston to read this bit) that, on Saturday 3rd July 2010, JAMES PLACE RETURNED TO YARM. A date in NO WAY selected to coincide with Levendale Primary School summer fete, enabling us to gain full access to our old alma mater and have a good snoop around the classrooms while reminiscing idly about pink custard, sliced volleys over Mr Strike’s bungalow and the day that Philip Slack told the entire Middle Band that a tarantula had escaped from the local zoo and was loose amongst the coats in the cloakroom outside the boy’s bogs (twenty minutes of blind panic and frantic recitals of the Lord’s Prayer ensued before Mr Millward pointed out, sagely, that Teesside doesn’t actually have a zoo. I was halfway through ‘Forgive us our trespassers’ in front of Mrs Parker’s cupboard when the all-clear came. I had to hurriedly pretend I’d been looking for my R2D2 rubber on the floor).
It was 24 years since since Placie and I had last met, but - amazingly – we clicked so quickly back into the old rapport that it was a matter of minutes before we were reviving our 1984 plans to organise an all-night ghosthunting stake-out in the old railwayman’s hut at the top of Snaith’s Field. If Christopher Herbert had walked past, we’d undoubtedly have kicked a clump of white dog shit over him, just for old time’s sake. Within five minutes we were back on our old playing field, possibly taking slightly TOO long to wonder whether the sight of two 37-year-old men filming each other at a school fete made us look, well… just a little bit dodgy…
And yes, as far as Levendale Primary School is concerned, Mr Place and myself are indeed now civil partners. ‘Are you a family?’ asked the nice man collecting the entrance money on the desk in our old school reception. ‘It’s £1.50 each, but only £2 if you buy a family ticket between you’.
‘Yes we are’, said James, clearly a man with an eye for a bargain. And yes, he put my name down on the signing-in form, just in case things kicked off over the tombola stall. Mind you, with such a heavy police presence, a contre-temps over the PTA raffle seemed a fairly unlikely possibility (Notice the helicopter in the above clip! Nothing as exciting as that ever happened in 1984. The nearest we ever got was pulling our parkas over our heads and walking like giant, zombie bats into the Force 10 hurricane blowing in from Enterpen Close).
It was both amazing and surprisingly intimidating being back inside the school. So much of it is utterly unchanged, and we instantly reverted back to our 11-year-old selves, striding purposefully around the hall, cloakrooms and fields with barely a second glance to get our bearings. And yet all the self-consciousness of pre-teen childhood returned as well… as James says on the video, we felt a bit unnerved being back inside the school, as if – at any moment – a twelve-foot Mr Hirst was going to loom over the top of the library shelves and bellow at us for smearing mud over the Fourth Years’ crepe mosaic of the Tomb of Tutankhamun.
And you know what? This is without a doubt the most utterly predictable thing I’ve EVER written on this blog (and blimey, there’s some stiff competition) but the whole school was just TINY on the inside. Classrooms that – in my mind – were great, sprawling cathedrals of learning now seemed barely big enough to contain a pile of Nina Bawden novels and a BBC Micro computer on a trolley. Still, the hall at least is clearly Grade 2 listed… it hasn’t changed in the slightest since 1984…
You can see the legendary PE ’apparatus’ on the back wall there (with a few remnants of Gareth ‘Gazzie’ Jones’ tattered fingers still smeared liberally across the top of the sliding rope) and the school dinner serving hatch where a gleeful Doug Simpson once attempted to explain the mysterious of sexual intercourse to me as a sour-faced Mrs Gallon slammed a solid lump of goulash into our plastic trays.
And, on the far side of the hall, the location for my triumphant Christmas 1983 performance as Good King Wenceslas, ‘last looking out’ over a sea of parents in acrilyc cardigans on ’the feast of Stephen Mason’.
Brilliant to see you again anyway, Mr Place, and – needless to say – we spent the rest of the day (and night) in a succession of Yarm’s finest pubs (and a couple of rubbish ones as well) before attempting one final assault on the old railwayman’s hut at the top of Snaith’s Field. Sadly, neither of us can remember whether it was ‘Mission’ or ‘World Dom’ we were aiming for, but - whatever it was – it seemed to have scared the ghosts away.
And the hut, for that matter. But such is life.
Death!!! Explosions!!! Sexual depravity!!! None of these things feature whatsoever in the next few paragraphs, it’s just the customary nostalgia-obsessed rambling, but I thought at least that might grab your attention after a few months away from regular blog duties. My absence has been down to a tumultuous six months of domestic upheaval, emotional trauma and some pretty hardcore wallpapering, with the occasional SMALL explosion thrown in for good measure. Anyway, we’ve got some catching up to do.
Regular followers of this nonsense (and hello to both of you) might remember me mentioning, during several sessions of intense regressive therapy, a 1981 school excursion to this place…
Yes, High Force. A bloody big waterfall (as I believe it’s described in this quarter’s edition of the National Trust newsletter) located at the murky source of the River Tees before the Asda shopping trolleys, empty Carlsberg cans and floppy rubber johnnies kick into play about three miles west of Portrack.
In October 1981 – when I was eight – I joined the official Levendale Primary School expedition to this scenic, awe-inspiring death trap, my parents having signed the customary ‘Loco Parentis’ form (which Stephen Mason ALWAYS insisted meant your parents had given their permission for you to travel on a steam train) and packed me off with a blinding white egg sandwich stuffed into an airtight Empire Strikes Back lunchbox, expertly timed to reach dangerous ‘eggy whiffer’ critical mass just as our Compass Royston coach passed through Barnard Castle. The resulting build-up of farty, salad cream-fuelled fumes were enough to remove the eyebrows of any unsuspecting child careless enough to open it in a confined area. I think Christopher Herbet’s crab paste doorstep, shouldered by Geoff Capes into a tiny rectangle of pickle-stained tupperware nearly three decades ago, is still surrounded by sandbags and kept under armed guard by the Green Howards in a cordoned-off area somewhere on the outskirts of Cotherstone.
1. I managed to eat almost half my Orange Club biscuit before Stephen Mason grabbed the remainder, shouted ‘ACHTUNG, SCHWEINHUNT!!!!!!’ and lobbed it, hand-grenade style, into the cascading waters below.
2. Each member of our school party was – and there’s no easy way of putting this – taken to the brink of the waterfall by two of our teachers, and ‘encouraged’ to lean over the edge of this sheer, slippery precipice to ‘admire the glory of nature (whether you like it or not)’ with our arms loosely restrained by said teachers to prevent us from plunging, screaming, 120 feet down the jagged cliff face into the roaring, foaming rapids beneath.
We established on this blog last year that one of these teachers was all-round good egg, top bloke and upstanding pillar of the community Mr Hirst, entirely unpeturbed by the prospect of his sensational David Bowie quiff being ruffled by the foam-dotted backdraft (and the odd floppy rubber johnny) from the violent River Tees. I’d long since suspected that the other teacher was his long-term partner-in-crime Mr Millward, but when I met the genial Mr M last year, he denied everything (although, in all honesty, it took a pair of thumbscrews and the threat of Christopher Herbert’s crab paste doorstep to get to admit that he’d ever been a teacher at all)
So I’m now wondering if my long-suffering form teacher Mrs Moore was the other guilty party? Whatever, enough waffling… inbetween the emotional trauma and wallpapering this summer, I went back to High Force and made an uncannily accurate reconstruction of this traumatic formative experience…
Alright, I admit it. Put the crab paste doorstep away. Even as a worldly-wise 37-year-old who can eat a brace of Orange Club biscuits in his own freshly-wallpapered house at his own leisure, I was still decidedly nervy at being allowed to wander idly around the top of such a dangerous-looking precipice. So imagine how I felt, at the age of eight, when I was frogmarched to the the slippery rocks tentatively filmed in the below video, and given a closer look at the glory of nature than I’d ever previously deemed necessary…
In retrospect, I’m only amazed that I didn’t make the 35-mile journey back to Yarm rocking gently back and forth like a shattered Vietnam veteran (‘You don’t know, maaan… you weren’t there….’) and squelching uncomfortably in heavily-soiled Marks and Spencers school trousers. Although I suppose the latter might have come as light relief from the still-overpowering whiff of egg sandwiches and crab paste doorsteps on the bus. Still, it was nice to go back and discover that High Force is still as terrifying and downright dangerous as it as ever was, relatively unscathed by the wagging finger of Health and Safety. Although I’m sure this little nugget of public information wasn’t available for our perusal back in 1981…
TRANSLATION: ‘YOU MIGHT WELL DIE UP HERE AND IF YOU DO, IT’S YOUR OWN STUPID FAULT’. Nothing about throwing half-eaten Orange Club biscuits off the top of the waterfall, though… so, reluctantly, I’ve had to shelve the impending Fischer vs Mason legal action.
A cheeky request, as I know you’re nice people… me and my friend Wez (as featured in at least three chapters of ‘Wiffle Lever!’) are walking the Cleveland Way this week. It’s a 110 mile walk across the North Yorkshire Moors and down the coastline, and we’re trying to do it in five days solid. Neither of us have done anything like this before, so it’s a bit of a challenge for us both! (Especially as Wez has dodgy knees)
Don’t suppose any of you would be kind enough to chuck a couple of quid to either or both of these noble causes? We’d be very grateful!
I’ve set up a Just Giving page for each charity. It’d be nice to raise a similar sum for both charities, so if you’re not bothered which one you donate to, then pick the one that looks like it needs topping up a bit!
Thanks so much for this… setting off first thing tomorrow, wish us luck!
…a bit crap at updating this really, haven’t I? Sorry I vanished, it’s been a strange and hectic and slightly traumatic few months. I’ll be back properly soon, and I have exclusive footage of my first meeting with my former Levendale Primary School friend James ‘Placie’ Place in over 24 years. We were standing in a field when a police helicopter suddenly landed fifty yards away, and I spent a couple of minutes genuinely wondering if he might be on the run.
In the meantime, here’s Neville Wanless to wish you all a heartfelt goodnight. Don’t forget to turn your PCs off before you go to bed.