30 September 2016
This is my fort.
It’s one of the best ever presents I got as a young boy before the greatness of every present was determined by whether I could somehow convert it into a football playing game, à la my matchbox cars and Star Wars action figures.
My parents gave it to me for my fourth birthday. (The hairstyle incidentally would not change for another five years.) I remember the morning of that birthday and it’s not just me being my usual anal self here. This specific memory is important to the denouement of this recollection. At some point I had jumped into bed with my dad, something I would be more familiar with during the marital bed sharing era of ’87-89, but that morning my mum had left early for her cleaning job and my dad would babysit us during the day before going to work as a waiter at Simpson’s on the Strand in the afternoons and evenings.
The fort was waiting for me under the chest of drawers on the left of this picture. Most probably, if my dad was involved, it would have been unwrapped. As listeners of my 2014 Advent Calendar podcast might recall, there was the unwrapped Christmas of ’76, when loads of toys were left under the tree, all unwrapped, which rather killed the visual somewhat. My dad wasn’t big on wrapping things.
I can timestamp this picture because the fort was for my fourth birthday and this bedsit is our first one. This was number 41 Mayflower, the home of Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline in the 1890s, one of the lead investigators on the notorious Whitechapel murders. That wasn’t something I learned until late ’89 when one of my first big writing projects saw me land a Ripper project. Anyway, back to the timestamping thing. Within six months of receiving this present, we moved across the road to number 48 Mayflower, the last house on the street, after my aunt, uncle and cousins moved to Brixton. I didn’t start school until I was in that second house.
We would stay at number 48 until the desperately sad events of 2000 and 2002. The day we moved was a Sunday in October ’76. My dad annoyed my mum that day by not helping us move, albeit the move was only across the road, and my mum felt some karma in that my dad broke his ankle that day keeping goal for his amateur team of Spanish ex-pats, the west London-based Hogar Español, named after the establishment where Republicans held anti-Franco meetings in the 30s and 40s . That game called time on my dad’s football career and my early memories of life at 48 Mayflower involve my dad on crutches.
I vividly remember that the thing I helped carry across the road was the fort. It was my absolute pride and joy and over the next few years, always an early riser, I would remember sticking many of my toy cowboys and soldiers, familiar to most guys of my generation, and playing with them in the fort before going to school.
The fort was thrown out at some point in the mid-eighties. My dad was always on my case about getting rid of toys owing to the lack of space in the house, and much to my regret, this would lead to a couple of hundred Subbuteo teams being given away around Christmas ’88.
The thing I remember most about this fort though is a story that I was always aware of, via my dad, but one where I didn’t have too many specifics. My dad kept a diary. Not religiously, but he always had one and there were years where every day would have some entry. Three or four lines in his sometimes-ineligible scrawl for each day. I knew growing up that one late night after finishing work my dad had been attacked by a number of men, though I can’t recall the location of the attack, only that he had successfully fought them off in as much as it’s possible for one man to fight off multiple attackers. If it had been near the house, it wouldn’t have been unusual as there were a spate of similar attacks on immigrants in the area when I was growing up. Anyway, the point is, I knew the story.
But one day, long after my dad’s disappearance, I was searching through some of his belongings that I have with me and came across my dad’s diary for 1976, the year I was given the fort. All in Spanish, I flicked through the pages, aware that it was somewhat intrusive and given he was something of a Sam from Cheers with the ladies, I didn’t want to read anything that might cause me some anguish.
I turned to the week of my birthday.
And there it was.
An entry for the day before my birthday.
He had been attacked that night.
The one I had grown up hearing vague details about.
The night before my birthday.
I couldn’t get that out of my head.
I instantly tried to recall what I could remember of the morning I was in bed with my dad before excitedly leaving the marital bed to see my fort for the first time. Was there anything about his face or facial expressions I could remember from that morning that I might’ve been aware was different from his usual demeanour? Was it possible any change might register with a 4-year-old?
I’ve never been able to recall whether anything was different about my dad the morning of my birthday. He must’ve been in total shock that day, and perhaps, given he worked nights, even worrying whether something like that could happen again and yet he never showed that to me. He helped me have one of the best birthdays I ever had. Of course though, discovering that diary entry three decades later very much changed my memories of what had long been a special birthday for me.
Footnote: The trophy and shield behind me were awarded to my dad in the early seventies for his goalkeeping performances, and remain with me, albeit in a battered state from my many moves post 2000.
29 September 2016
In Christmas 1980, my dad bought me a Grifter. A Raleigh bike that was a big rival to the popular pre-BMX era Chopper at the time. The Grifter was royal blue and came, I think, with four gears, red, blue, yellow and green. I remember it being very heavy. I could never carry it down the three flights of stairs without any help from my parents.
The bike was arguably the most ill thought out Christmas present I ever got. A present it’s quite possible our relationship never fully recovered from. It was, I’m certain now, a deliberate move on my dad’s part to get me to be more active and attack the laziness he perceived I’d inherited from my mum’s side of the family.
I remember in the run up to that Christmas going to a Halfords with my dad, possibly in Clapham Junction SW11 and it dawning on me that he was going to buy me a bike. I thought, “This isn’t good.” I never wanted a bike. More than three decades on, I can say there has not been a single year where I’ve wanted a bike. I don’t like being on the road. I have no road sense whatsoever.
And by Boxing Day 1980, it had quickly become apparent that me learning how to ride the bike would be no fun at all.
My dad would run behind the bike, holding the saddle. There were no trailer wheels. This is how it was going to be. U-turns were practised at the top of our road. We got to the top and we went right back down again. I lost count of the number of times I came crashing down off the bike.
My friends laughed.
I found it very hard.
Spring came. And I still didn’t know how to ride the bike. My dad was still jogging behind the bike, holding onto the saddle. Often in a pair of tight, sky blue athletic shorts. No shirt. Topless. A man, with a hairy chest and a mullet, sweating alongside a boy with dated 70s hair, struggling along on a bike he never wanted.
Until one April evening, with my birthday fast approaching, we cycled down through Tregothnan Road, running right across the bottom of Mayflower, when my bike suddenly felt lighter, almost like it was about to take off.
I could hear my dad behind me, only he sounded like he was way behind me this time.
“YOU DID IT DANNY. YOU DID IT!”
I glanced back to see my dad, arms aloft in the air, smiling in a way I’d rarely seen him smile.
In a way I’d never see him smile again.
FOUR long months of painful, hard work had finally come to fruition. At last, I could ride a bike.
It didn’t change my life. I was utterly under whelmed by the experience. I rarely rode the bike again.
28 September 2016
It was the spring of ’84. I was in the first year of Secondary school and I have to say, having come from a junior school in which there was just 120 pupils with one class per year, I was feeling lost and overwhelmed in a big new school of 1100 pupils. I was though finally beginning to settle in. There were only two other kids from my St Mary’s in my class which meant there was no real opportunity for me to fall into a clique, and I was soon making new friends.
The spring of ’84 was when, as far as I’m aware, trainers went big time. I have no real awareness of them having been a big thing in my life before ’84, though old family photos show me wearing a pair of Adidas Samba as early as ’81 on a trip to the west country, but it wouldn’t have been a big thing for me. To be fair, trainers were never a massive thing for me, but by ’84, I was acutely aware that I was in real danger of falling behind my new classmates when it came to fashionable footwear.
It was high tops in particular that were in that year and which I think helped catapult trainers to where they are today. The kids were wearing Adidas, Diadora Borgs with their iconic gold logo, the early Nikes and the one pair of trainers that really did interest me that year, the Hi-Tec High Tops which were just ghost white but whose white logos classmates were colouring in. To this day, I don’t know how they coloured them in. I know there were offshoots of those early Hi-Tecs where the logo was red, but the kids with the originals were mostly taking it upon themselves to colour their logos in that year. All except that is one classmate who in the early noughties would briefly gain notoriety when he appeared on an episode of Roger Cook on ITV, legging it from the burly reporter after being accused of some misdemeanour or other. I sat near him in class and never failed to be captivated by the simple beauty of his high tops.
I had, a few months earlier, the Monday after the goalless first every Merseyside (Milk) Cup Final between Liverpool and Everton at Wembley (if you’ll permit me to rear my anal football side for a moment), debuted a pair of size 4 Nike Blazer High Tops with a red swoosh, but they had been too small for me, and worse still, having turned up at the school with them ‘unchristened’, I found a kid in the year above, who twenty years later would sign for Liverpool, taking great delight in treading on them. I could barely function that day after that incident. To see him sign for Liverpool twenty years later really cheesed me off.
After the Blazer affair, my mum was reluctant, understandably, to shell out yet more hard earned cash on a new pair of trainers for me and I was forced to wear a pair of little known brand Zephyr which had Velcro straps (laces were still a problem for me) and which were bought from one of the sundry shoe shops that populated Clapham High Street well into the nineties.
The dinner ladies were on strike at the time and so us kids would head out to Clapham Common, whose Southside was just a couple of minutes from our school. There we would have packed lunches or portions of chips before having a kick about. By then, I had become familiar with the term ‘bastards’ a term that was being frequently applied to my little-known trainers. Technically, my classmates were incorrect. Zephyr were a brand. Just not well known and admittedly at just £4.99, they were not highly prized by my peers. At home my dad would implore the important of being an individual and doing your own thing, which I was more than happy to do, just not in a pair of £4.99 trainers.
I was going home often upset by the stick my Velcro strapped trainers were taking but my mum was not budging. We were always struggling, especially with my dad often out of work and it was going to take something momentous for me to get a new pair of trainers that gave me parity with my classmates.
As the dinner strike drew to a close and we saw out one of our final lunchtimes on Clapham Common, that muck-heavy green space that my dad regularly took me to as a kid and which to this day haunts me, I inadvertently walked into a big steaming pile of dog mess. The Zephyrs were a write off. I can’t recall, given how strict I am these days in terms of not wearing shoes indoors, how I took those fallen bastard shoes into the house but I think it was that same evening that my mum took me up Clapham High Street and into Clapham Sports which had opened just before the Spain ’82 World Cup. There, for £15, I was kitted out in a pair of Adidas Hot Shots, unlike anything I'd ever worn before, albeit Hot Shot Low much to my disappointment as I did crave the high tops most of my peers were wearing.
They were easily the best trainers I’d had to that point, but I remember within the week, that white leather had got drenched in the rain and they never quite felt the same again.
As I say, past that point, trainers were never of huge interest to me, so long as I didn’t slip far enough behind my peers for my footwear to be singled out again by cruel kids. Except that is for one pair of high tops that appeared in the shop window of the large new sports shop that had opened that spring on the high street, edging towards Clapham North, Tracks. The shop still stands today, albeit under a different name and these days specialises in bikes. 30 plus years ago, it was already displaying its main interest was in the cycling world but they still stocked others sports accessories including trainers, and one morning I spotted a pair of trainers new to me that went by the name of Ascot Diamond High. I have tried to google a picture of them but haven’t come up with anything except images of horseracing. I only vaguely remember them. They were white leather, black trim and might’ve also had a little red in them but they were beautiful enough for me to stop at that shop window every morning in the summer of ’84 wondering how on earth I was going to raise the £35 they cost.
In the end, I did manage to find the money, but that went on the ZX 48k Spectrum.
However, that’s a B.E.E.F for another day.
27 September 2016
There were a number of kids in my classes during my early school years who, even as children, the rest of us wondered how on earth they were in our class. They were different either physically or in the way that they behaved. One boy in particular was seen as very eccentric and that was just by the parents, though they did reserve a great deal of affection for him.
This kid, whose parents were Spanish, went by the moniker of ‘Galletita’.
The name was actually given to him by my aunt, Spanish Kanu. Galletita was the only son of the local Avon Lady who would visit Spanish Kanu regularly on the Angell Town Estate in Brixton, southwest London in the late seventies, early eighties and every time he visited with his mum, he would say to my aunt, “Me das una galletita?”
Can I have a biscuit?
The Biscuit began to get something of a reputation in the Spanish community and in the summer of ’78, as I looked forward to my final year at my infants’ school, my mum told me the Biscuit was joining St Mary’s. I vividly remember telling a classmate that first morning at school that the new kid being introduced to our class was known as ‘Galletita’, and translated it for the classmate, one of the loudest kids in our class.
He was amused.
“Biscuit,” he said to himself. And smiled.
The name stuck.
My bad, as the fond for an Americanism British kids would say nearly three decades later.
I can’t remember too much about Biscuit that first year, but by the time we transferred to the all-boys junior school site of St Mary’s in Clapham, Biscuit was beginning to cause problems for one or two of our teachers, notably our music teacher. By then, Biscuit’s Avon Lady mum was coming round to our bedsit in Clapham North a lot and had become very good friends with my mum. I still have a present she gave me for my First Holy Communion, some more iconography from my days when I wanted to be a priest. I remember her visits rather well but I don’t really recall Biscuit’s presence at the flat. But I certainly remember his behaviour at school.
He was seen as a lovable eccentric and we as a class were rather fond of him. He was very small for his age and had a big mop of black hair cut into a bowl shape, which looking back and given his dad’s baldness, was hair that he would’ve most likely lost before he reached his thirties. And he had this walk. This really brisk, bouncy walk, almost a prowl really, and that’s what I remember most about him. And how happy he always was. But the walk was a problem for our music teacher.
One morning, the Biscuit turned up late for music and just breezed right in without apologising to our music teacher. Biscuit just took his seat, smiling his beautiful smile, only for our music teacher to pull him up on his entrance and demand that he go back out the door and make a more low-key entrance coupled with an apology for being late. The Biscuit was somewhat puzzled as he got up and sought confirmation from Mr Music Teacher that he was to leave the class and then come in again.
“YES!” Our Music teacher screamed.
Out stepped the Biscuit, returning just moments later with the same walk.
The same wonderful smile.
Out he went again moments later and back in he came.
Our music teacher couldn’t cope.
It was the walk.
The walk, it seems clear to me looking back, was acceptable to my music teacher if the Biscuit arrived to class on time. But if late, as he frequently was, the extrovert nature of the walk needed to be scaled back. He couldn’t be walking in like that as if being late didn’t matter.
I don’t know how many times The Biscuit had to go back in and out of the music class that morning. I do remember though that it was the only time I saw him look distressed. He didn’t understand what was happening.
The Biscuit left the school before we started the second year, the school finally having identified him as a Special Needs kid.
We missed him.
I don’t think I ever saw a happier classmate.
I never saw him again. As the years passed, I would hear the odd story about him or his parents, who I remember being told at some point in the mid-to-late nineties had passed away. The last I heard of him was I think that he was in Spain but I don’t know more than that.
The Biscuit is highly unlikely to remember any of us kids who were with him in his old school, but we remember him and that walk because he really stood out. Yes, he shouldn’t have been at our school in the first place. Yes, he was different. But we were all the better for having him around for a couple of years because he really was a lovable character with a good heart.
You can read more of my work in my book here: goo.gl/QXTEOP
26 September 2016
In my first year or two at school in the late seventies, I had a thing about dinosaurs. In Middle Infants, we had done a project on them, the highlight of which was a trip to the Natural History Museum. I have very vague memories of encountering a dinosaur skeleton for the first time and being in the kind of awe I would later reserve for my favourite ever Liverpool footballer, John Barnes.
Even earlier than that, a kid at school who had started at St Mary's in Clapham the same morning as me and who was probably the most unreliable kid in the class (and is these days one of the few old school street drinkers left in the borough that hasn’t been pushed out by the gentrification), had promised to swap one of his plastic dinosaur T-Rex's for something of mine. I can't recall what I gave him, only that he kept me waiting for weeks to receive the dinosaur. It was my first ever swap and quite probably because of this early exposure to how swaps can go very wrong, I have never been keen on swaps.
As mentioned elsewhere on B.E.E.F, all my schooling was in Catholic schools in southwest London, the first of which, St Mary's, was as Catholic as it got. The headmistress at the time, a former convent schoolgirl, could be terrifying. I remember her tight curly hair, always kept short, long skirts that stopped just above what appeared to be white tight-clad ankles, and a mole just above her top lip. I was often on her good side, but there is one occasion that absolutely dwarfs every other memory I have of her and ultimately killed that very early fascination I had for dinosaurs.
The school was mixed sex, until the ages of seven, at which point the boys would move to an all-boys junior school of the same name just five minutes around the corner. It was a strange way to operate and at some point in the late eighties, that would change, and the boys would attend the same junior site as the girls as my old school building made way for flats.
My cousin, older than me by a few months, had started at St Mary’s in the autumn term, whilst I, a spring baby, didn't join until after Christmas, so he tended to look out for me. Always popular with the girls, my cousin had built a friendship with these girls in the top junior class, which at first wasn't a problem. At some point however, something changed and an edict was issued where it was made clear to all the kids in the school that the infants could not mix with the juniors at playtime. Given we all shared the same (very large) playground, this was not an easy thing for teachers to police, but the playground was divvied up into two and us infants were instructed to play on the furthest side of the playground at all times.
One morning, my cousin and I had either forgotten this completely or chosen to forget it as two of the junior girls my cousin was friends with made a real fuss of us. I have very vague memories of the headmistress blitzing her way through the bigger junior kids to confront the four of us, where she proceeded to tear several strips of us before frogmarching the four of us to her office at the back of the school where the original school building still stood.
We were led up a very narrow staircase that on the few occasions I went up it, always gave me a bad case of vertigo. In the First Year of junior school, we were regularly taken to the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank and I remember the vertigo always striking as we crossed the walkways. This staircase leading up to the Headmistress’s office was the first instance I can recall of the vertigo rearing its ugly head.
As we were in the office, seeing the girls and my cousin being admonished by the headmistress, it became apparent to me, as much as I could understand it being only six, that being the youngest of the four, I was being cut some slack. I had, the headmistress said, been dragged into this. Terrified, I wasn’t going to argue.
I went home that day feeling extremely upset by the day’s events but I remember feeling unable to tell my mum. In later years, I would also find myself keeping my misdemeanours and lengthy absences from school from my parents, and this was perhaps where that began. I think the event itself had occurred towards the end of the school term or half term, and I say this because I recall a trip to the old Bon Marche store in Brixton, just ten minutes down the road from Mayflower, within a day or two of that incident and more specifically, that this trip into the heart of SW9 took place on a weekday morning.
My mum was always generous when it came to buying my sibling and I toys, and Bon Marche was our favourite shop. I amassed most of my Star Wars action figures collection from there and just a minute before Bon Marche, on Ferndale Road, stood the legendary Frank Johnson sport shop that back in the day used to sell everything Subbuteo.
This particular day, I chose not to ask for yet another Subbuteo team or add to my burgeoning collection of Star Wars action figures who four years later would embark on the first ever season of Star Wars football. I instead chose a packet of plastic dinosaur figures similar to the ones in the picture below. Moreover, I thought nothing of it, until I got home.
Opening the dinosaurs in our front room, I found myself slowly overwhelmed by feelings of a deep sadness all linked to that trip to the headmistress and began to cry. Over the next few weeks and months, every time I attempted to play with those dinosaurs, the reaction was the same. Even a few years later, that feeling whenever I happened upon the dinosaurs, that day was still there and within a year or two of starting secondary, I had felt compelled to rid myself of the dinosaurs.
My cousin and I never again spoke to those junior girls again. Occasionally we would run into one another somewhere in the school and at those moments, we’d all feel embarrassed by the mutual recollection of that awful morning.
23 September 2016
This is my Jesus statue.
I got the statue for my seventh birthday. I think Spanish Kanu bought it for me. As she still reminds me, when I was very young, I wanted to be a priest. That wish to join the priesthood was at its height as I turned seven, when with my First Communion just a month away, I received a combination of Subbuteo accessories and religious iconography presents.
The Jesus statue, from its very first night at Mayflower, was placed atop a rather rickety chest of drawers that was in the bedroom for our entire 24-year stay there and the statue was constantly falling off whenever a set of drawers were opened. In fact, I remember the nose getting chipped on the very first night and getting considerable grief for it. I was always very good at looking after stuff so it came as something of a disappointment to my mum that I would damage the Jesus statue of all things. It's not lost on me either, given the number of nose jobs I had (on the NHS) that the first thing I broke on the Jesus statue was the nose.
I went to Catholic schools until I was sixteen. I didn't knowingly meet a Church of England kid until early 1989. I lived in a Catholic bubble with many other immigrant children in seventies/eighties Clapham. My primary school, St Mary's, had very close ties with the Catholic St Mary's church. The church was actually joined onto the school building, and the church shop at the top of St Alphonsus Road, an otherwise grotty road full of the squats that were common in southwest London in the late seventies/early eighties, was always selling some iconography that I wanted.
By the time I was nine or ten, the desire to become a priest had vanished. I'm not sure I would've made an exceptional priest anyway. I base that on two years of doing stand up that showed me on many a night that I was too introverted to work a crowd properly. However, since I was four-years-old, I have continued to say my prayers every night. In the second half of my life, I have often wondered whether that is because I still retain my faith or whether it's some sort of superstition or perhaps some mild form of Tourettes. What I can say is that I always make sure I use those few minutes to remember and have a good thought for those big people in my life that have passed on.
As for the Jesus statue, He's still with me.
22 September 2016
This is me.
Once upon a time.
This photo is forty years old and I do remember it being taken.
I was still in my nursery, upstairs in St John's Parrish Hall on Clapham Road in Stockwell, less than five minutes from the street I grew up on. The hall was recently knocked down to make way for yet more LUXURY flats, of course. Southwest London these days doesn't seem to build any other kind of flats.
I remember the jumper. It itched like hell as most 70s clothing seemed to, and I didn't like wearing it. Before the decade was out, I packed in wearing yellow after my mum sent me out to play in our street with my friends in a yellow Micky Mouse T-shirt with moving eyes that quickly become engulfed by flies. Given my phobia of anything with wings, I was never going to wear yellow again (except for the Liverpool 1981-84 away strip, I should add).
The pose I suppose is pretty much me. There is very little about life or people that impresses me and I think that was a trait evident early on. But I struck this pose here in this picture because, and I genuinly recall this, the photographer was the same man who had taken the nursery pictures the previous year, and I remembered that the first time he had taken my picture, he had told me to "watch out for the birdies". I hadn't forgotten that. So when he told me a year on to again "watch out for the birdies", a year wiser, I wasn't swallowing his nonsense and that explains the look here.
The hairstyle would pretty much remain in place long after it had ceased being fashionable. My dad didn't want me looking like every other boy with a short back and sides. Tired of being mistaken for a girl, in July '81 , I finally took matters into my own hands and had my old barber Andy give me a short back and sides. My dad wasn't happy.
That story is recalled here in a two-part 2015 Daniel Ruiz Tizon is Available podcast special with Andy the barber, when he finally retired after 50 years of cutting hair. goo.gl/nboJtW
21 September 2016
She may not be around anymore, but as I make my way into the final third of my life, I’ve not forgotten the promise I made my mum in the late eighties. It's a promise that continues to haunt me.
It was the summer of ’89. A summer that coincided with the belated arrival of body hair. I was always a late developer. But in ’89, the body hair finally arrived; chest hair, leg hair, HAIR, just hair, and there might be young men reading this, laughing, wondering who the hell has chest hair now? Well, back in the 70s and 80s, so many men were hirsute. There were hardly any tattoos around, except among the violent, and no one was shaving their body hair so their ink could be better seen. It was a more innocent time. A time when Liverpool were still just about winning things. Mike Tyson was striking fear into the hearts of both opponents and fans. The Tim Burton Batman film had come out. Dallas was dying, Mandela was soon to be released, and Thatcher, “The Politician Granny with her high ideals” was a year or so away from finally falling.
This change in my body coincided with the release of Tears For Fears’ much delayed “Seeds of Love” album and a growing curiosity on my part in a band with a much changed sound that up until then, I must confess to often confusing with Wham owing to them being another duo loved by besotted girls. As my mum held a full length mirror behind me so I could get a better look at my new man's body, we’d sing the title track, with my mum taking on Curt Smith’s falsetto backing vocals. As we put in a performance that arguably eclipsed the band’s lip synched performance of the same song on Wogan that summer, we both marvelled at my long overdue arrival as a man, at least in the physical sense. The world, I told my mum as I prepared to leave the flat to head to the communal loo, felt like it was mine for the taking. And typically, I got carried away with the moment.
As my proud mum held that mirror to the back of my legs, I told her, well it was more of a vow actually – like the kind of vow the young Bruce Wayne made to avenge his parents’ murder, like that, less dramatic, but in the vow category, definitely a vow – I told her I’d have made my fortune and be retired by 22. That five years from now, we’d be sat in some village watching cricket. I have no idea why I suggested cricket. To this day, despite being born close to The Oval, I don’t like cricket. Maybe I liked the idea of us watching cricket. It was so quintessentially English and uncomfortable with my Mediterranean roots as a kid, I was desperate to be English.
Whatever it was, there was no basis for me making such a confident prediction. Beyond writing comic strips, which were all the rage back then on the back of that Batman film, there was no real plan. In retrospect, making such a promise from a bedsit, while sharing a bathroom with 13 other people, was too big an ask. I should’ve maybe said to my mum “30” rather than 22. There were friends living in four bedroom houses who weren’t making those same promises to their mum. I should’ve looked at that.
I remember when I turned 21, I recalled the vow. It was the elephant in the room. I was thinking, maybe I ought to approach my mum, see if we could negotiate an extension on the vow. Go for 30. More realistic.
I never did.
My mum, to her credit, never brought it up.
20 September 2016
This is the ‘Hairy Hustler’, one of the most famous Matchbox Superfast cars that kids of my generation are likely to have owned or known someone who owned one. And in the world of car football, the Hairy Hustler was Mark Chamberlain, a red and orange marauding, highly technical winger who played for my older cousin’s cup specialists Sparta. Chamberlain cost me the 1983 League and Cup double when he destroyed the right flank of my Mayflower side, no mean feat when you consider that team of Shilton, Platini, Souness, Golac, Zico, Villa ©, Case, Rummennigge, Schuster, Dalglish and Pele/Archibald, was my finest ever team and quite probably the finest to ever grace car football in its thirteen years. Chamberlain though was no ordinary player and has a legitimate claim to being the greatest ever car, Matchbox or Corgi, that car football ever saw.
My cousin was 5-6 years older than the rest of us in the league. As he moved towards his late teens, with his body developing and his hands getting bigger and obscuring the Subbuteo goals used for car football, the rest of the league moved to push him into using a clothes peg for his goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, a pink jeep that was probably the best keeper in car football. The rest of played with our keepers unencumbered by having to use clothes pegs, but this meant that as we held onto our goalkeepers when facing shots on goal, the Subbuteo balls could get trapped in our hands and as we moved into our secondary school years, we began to give away more penalties. And it was penalties that would cost me the 1983 FA Cup Final, probably the best game of car football I was ever involved in.
My Clapham North-based Mayflower team were strong favourites for the cup, though Sparta had been the only team to beat them in the league, at Sparta’s, as Mayflower raced towards their second title. In truth, both games that season were played in Brixton as Sparta’s manager, who would be married within 5 years, became a little self-conscious about being seen playing football - with cars - against boys. Despite my team’s status as favourites to lift the cup, I do remember feeling quite nervous on the day of the final, more nervous than I had ever felt for any game, before or in later years, despite already having won two league titles by ’83.
Mayflower and Sparta had been expected to meet in the League Cup Final in the spring of ’83, which I had arranged to have played at a neutral venue across the road from my house where family friends had a brilliant Wembley-like carpet that I felt made it ideal for a big game. Approaching his 17th birthday, my cousin flipped when he found out the venue for the game and made it clear he would not be playing at this neutral venue were he to reach the final. Maybe this unsettled him as his Sparta team tumbled out early in the competition, but so did the other big names, my Mayflower and my other cousin’s long ball merchants and 1982 league champions, Marston, all failing to make the semi-finals. The final was contested by perennial strugglers, Mayflower Rovers and Non-League sensations, Kings United ’83, who three years later would add Car Football’s first league and cup double to the 1983 League Cup they comfortably secured against Rovers.
Sparta were an ageing team that had been rebuilt in the summer of ’82 after my cousin rescinded on his decision to quit car football now that he was shaving. Having given his cars away to the rest of the league, he had to build a new team from the matchbox and Hot Wheels cars left in his collection, and the bulk of his cars were from the late sixties and early seventies. Unlike his younger brother and the rest of the league, again, perhaps conscious of his age, the Sparta supremo would not buy new cars that could step in and give his team fresh impetus, and perhaps that counted against him in the league.
The FA Cup final was on Sparta’s home turf, a narrow, deep green pitch, pockmarked if I remember rightly from one of the legs of the bed in the room. It was a venue that had grown more intimidating to me since my cousins had got one of Brixton’s most ferocious dogs in Christmas ’82. Knowing I wasn’t great with animals, my aunt had bought a special gate to keep the dog out of whatever room I was in whenever I went round, but this still left me somewhat uneasy on my weekly visits.
The final went wrong for me pretty early. The right flank of my team, Schuster and Platini, could not cope with Chamberlain that day, and his destructive and mazy runs led directly to two penalties for Sparta after the ball got trapped twice in my hands. The spot kicks were expertly despatched by Sparta midfielder Arnold Muhren who had also done for Mayflower in the league win over the eventual champions.
The second half saw my Mayflower team desperately try to fight their way back into the game and was one of the finest performances I ever put together in car football. Halfway through the second half (each half was twenty minutes long), my central midfielder, a jeep call Jimmy Case, thumped home a superb goal from just inside the Sparta half. Case would later that summer move to Sparta in a swap deal with Sparta’s captain Terry McDermott, a deal it’s fair to see that proved to be much better for Sparta.
With minutes left, I remember Case coming close to grabbing a second to take the game into extra time, but it was not to be. I still remember that it took me a few days to shake off that disappointment.
The two sides met again in August ‘83’s Charity Shield, with Mayflower running out 4-2 winners. The following year, before my cousin retired from car football, a decision he would not reverse for eight years, the teams met in the FA Cup Final once more where Sparta once again triumphed, though I don’t remember the score of that final.
The Car Football FA Cup would always elude my brilliant Mayflower team.
19 September 2016
As already covered on B.E.E.F, I was a late developer. My growth spurt didn’t come until the spring of ’89, just weeks before my first shave. I’ve been pretty slow with just about everything. Except podcasting maybe. I was on the ball with that fairly early. And coffee. No one in my age group got to coffee before I did.
I remember spending a great deal of time with a close friend of mine throughout the eighties. We were pretty evenly matched height wise – he might’ve just been that little bit taller than me for most of the decade though I would eventually dwarf him. In terms of body hair, he was way ahead of me, and he made sure everybody knew about his body’s rapid journey towards manhood, eventually being banned by our local pool in Clapham in the summer of ‘86 for doing the backstroke with his swimming locker wristband encircled around his penis.
For some reason, and I have to say, I found this strange (and it’s worth noting here that my friend was very competitive), while he lacked passion for many of the things he was good at, if you were good at something, my friend would do his best to try it and be better than you at it. And rather annoyingly, he was extremely good at most things. It was a trait in him I was never comfortable with. Whatever I was good at, he had to try it and do his best to make sure he was better at it than I was. He could never just let me be better at him at anything.
There were moments during the mid-eighties where if there was any doubt I was as tall as him, he would bring his parents into the debate and much to my surprise, and I should say disappointment, they would bring have us line up against one another, back to back, and measure us. This was not something I ever saw my own parents do and I would often leave my friend’s house a little dispirited after his parents had once again declared their kid was still half an inch taller than me. It wasn’t that I disputed their verdict. I was just disappointed they had to carry this tale of the tape out, especially when I was aware that my friend was taller than me as we stumbled our way through our adolescent years. And I think they knew it too, which begs the question, why did they put me through that?
They led me to believe that I had a “short neck” and that that was where I was coming unstuck against my friend in this tale of the tape. I didn’t understand why his parents felt the need to get involved. Had I been in their shoes, I wouldn’t have done this thing. I think I have enough about me to think, what’s the point of this? If I confirm this kid is shorter than my kid, this shorter kid goes home feeling a little worthless. I’m pleased to say when my Imaginary Son has bought friends over, we’ve never had a tale of the tape.
By the time of my growth spurt in ’89, the friendship was slowly dying. We were at the age where we were meeting and making new friends at college, often the friends that will supersede the childhood friends. You hit 16, 17, you start building friendships around shared interests rather than proximity to your home. It’s sad but true. But these tale of the tape episodes never quite left me and I longed for an opportunity to turn up at my friend’s house, my growth spurt clear, and demand one last tale of the tape be carried out by the parents.
It took me a few years before I returned to that house, my childhood friend having rapidly built himself a massive social circle at college that saw me relegated to a footnote in his childhood. By then, the height difference was so clear, that my efforts to revive that friendship had come to nothing. His parents never again measured us.
16 September 2016
This is the bottom of Atherfold Road, SW9 in London, that joins up onto Mayflower, the road I spent most of my life living in. Atherfold, as mentioned on my 7 September post, remains the most muck ridden road I have ever walked through, but this end was a little cleaner and we used to play football here from the late seventies through to the mid-eighties. This wall here (see above) never had this waste material plastic storage bin, nor the lamp post during my time. Both were added after I left Mayflower in the summer of 2000, and perhaps it was deliberate on Lambeth Council's part to place both here as the neighbours on both corner houses regularly complained of footballs being kicked against their wall. As an adult now, I can fully understand why they would.
I remember the girl, a bit older than me, and the mum that lived here. They were also southern European, though I can't recall from where, and they had a little white Yorkshire Terrier. There used to be goal posts chalked onto this wall that preceded my time 'between the sticks' here that have long been washed off.
While this road's muck will haunt me forever, it also makes me very nostalgic as two of my greatest friends lived on this road and I have very warm memories of visiting them daily right through to the mid-nineties. It's a time of my life I miss very much. Things could be difficult at home and I think having that escape route on my doorstep helped a lot. But even the way things were at home, I have comfortably concluded that as much as I am hating growing old, I really am glad that I grew up when I did rather than growing up now in the unremitting glare of the digital age. I think I was part of the last generation to play out on the streets and even though by the time I went to secondary school video games were coming in, they were never for me.
I remember as I kept goal by that wall, one of my friends would often try and curl shots past me from the pavement on Mayflower Road, regularly lobbing the ball over a car or two, even when the owners of those cars had come out to remonstrate with him. We were reularly told off by neighbours and the local bobby who would police our roads on his bike. I still remember his very red face and greying curly hair.
Keeping goal here, I would often see my dad walking home from work, weighed down by various tins of paints and sometimes even his ladder. Like me, he never had a car. He would talk to me in Spanish, naturally, which always embarrassed me in front of my friends, who would often ask why it was the Spanish spoke so fast.
This picture above is the 'opposing goal'. That wall looked completely different to the wall on the opposite corner and I remember it always seemed to suffer from damp. In the summer of '80, I remember keeping goal by that wall and putting in a brilliant performance against older kids. There was building work going on in the road at the time, as explained elsewhere on B.E.E.F and I went home covered in sand.
I have a story about that particular house from the summer of '81 that might not be funny now, but always made me chuckle as a kid. That summer, myself and my friends (at this point, I was only hanging out with one of the Atherfold kids and the other kid in this group was a Sicilian kid who lived on my road) would always congregate on this corner. It was a brilliant summer for me. I was loving Primary school and in July, my mum, sibling and I would be going to Spain for the first time in 5 years and would thankfully be escaping that summer's Royal Wedding. Even as a boy, I was an arch Republican.
Our group had taken to giving one another fruit-based nicknames that year. I had pushed for 'strawberry' when my friends were trying to call me 'orange' because I'd had enough of the whole Spanish satsuma/orange gags that would continue throughout the eighties. I can't recall what we called my friend on Atherfold, but the Sicilian kid, something of an eccentric and the eldest of the group, was given the name 'Carrot' because to nine-year-olds, the carrot for some reason was associated with being dim.
The Sicilian kid walked with something of a limp and would acquire cult status a year later during the notorious match between my Clapham Lions team and the much older Camberwell Brazilians, a story for another night. So the limp meant 'Carrot' couldn't get around the pitch/road quickly but packed something of a ferocious shot and that early evening, his striking of the ball against that wall so aggravated the people living here that a bearded ginger haired man stormed out of the building to give us a severe dressing down. Myself and my Atherfold friend took note. We knew football was over for a few days at least. This man was really screaming at us and we were not going to give any backchat. For some reason, this was all going over Carrot's head and carrying on playing, he struck another fierce shot against the man's wall. The man pulled Carrot up by his collar and screamed at him, "Are you thick son?"
At this point, Atherfold and I chimed in, "He is, as it goes."
Ignoring us, the bearded man continued screaming at a by then red-faced Carrot. "You do that again, I'll give you a clip around the ear." I can still see Carrot's face going a deep purple as the man yelled at him.
We returned a few nights later. The bearded man remained in that building for another few years at least, and I'd see him from time to time but our paths would never again cross.
It's hard to believe now, given my numerous OCDs, that I actually used to dive on these pavements as a kid knowing the easiest way to impress both friends and some of the kids in the area I didn't know was by showing what a fine keeper I was as a kid.
I'm glad I lived those days. Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. You often forget the worst aspects of the past and edit your memories into something they never quite were. Aware of that, I try to remember both the good and the bad. Yes, home life could be difficult but I also, certainly until I went to secondary school, had a really enjoyable childhood, and the truth is once I left these streets, I never really came close to finding another place that really felt like home. After 24 years in one home, I have in the 16 years since, never spent more than two and a half years in the same place. What I had in these streets was something I've been looking for ever since.
You can read more of my work in my book here: goo.gl/QXTEOP
15 September 2016
In the summer of 1991, my dad effectively downed tools, confirming his status as an eccentric loner. A talented painter, he refused to work for anyone, becoming embroiled instead in the type of hopeless, unwinnable battles that I’d emulate in later years. Inevitable defeats that would stoke the fire in our bellies and help us feel alive.
His anxieties shaped me.
They became my anxieties.
His battles with landlords and bosses became my battles.
He was a typically easily slighted Spaniard, capable of running multiple feuds at any one time, full of over the top expressive hand gestures. He was hard to live with, and later in life, he cut an increasingly ridiculous figure. He’d peel onions inside bread bags with holes cut into the side to accommodate his large goalkeeping hands, whilst donning industrial goggles to stop himself from crying. His fridge looked like a Jean-Michel Basquiat piece, with big English words written on its doors in crayon as he continued his admirable 30-year battle to get to grips with the English language.
He'd invite me down to his bedsit for dinner and the meal was never close to being ready. The idea was he would talk me through every stage of his preparing the meal. I can't say I was thrilled, particularly, as recorded here before, my dad could talk. There was too the occasion he invited my sibling down for dinner but he was such a hoarder that on that particular evening, there was too much clutter in his room for him to be able to open his door properly, and my sibling had to wait outside his room while he passed the meal to them in stages for them to eat back at our flat. You couldn't make it up. Everyone who knew my dad has a story about him.
Our GP, who locked horns with my dad on a regular basis, once had his head in his hands as I walked in, having mistakenly thought he was seeing my dad. His relief when he realised he wasn't, was immense. We often talk about my dad when he tries to pigeonhole me as a difficult person and hypochondriac and I find myself moved to remind him of my dad. And we then agree that yes, while I am like my dad, I'm still not quite like my dad. And that's because I'm aware of the many mistakes he made, many of which I myself have made, and I am constantly trying to veer off any path I suspect he may have trodden. It's a constant battle to escape the past.
In his final years, following my mum's passing, my dad would turn up at my aunt’s, asking if you could clean her oven, even though Spanish Kanu's hygiene OCDs meant that oven was never, to the naked eye at least, unclean. My dad though was the Guardiola of oven cleaning. He elevated the cleaning to new heights. He’d bring with him an assortment of different sized hammers and screw drivers and chip away for hours at any long established, barely discernible grease, often staying there for hours, while my aunt and uncle sat in the front room.
And yet he could be good company. Maybe I was too young to appreciate that. You take people in your life for granted, making that clichéd mistake of not fully appreciating them when they're around. I'd like to have had dinner with my dad now, as the guy I went onto become, armed with as many shortcomings as the next person; albeit this time, I'd like to have had dinner without having to watch him prepare every stage of that meal accompanied by a lengthy breakdown of what he was doing.
14 September 2016
I dreamt of my dad last night. He was standing behind me, praising my well angled sideburns as I typed away an early script on my Amstrad 9512. We were both wearing our C & A pastel coloured cardigans which we bought in ’86, so the dream chronology was a little out of kilter. The Amstrad didn’t arrive at the bedsit until the summer of ’90.
Though saying that, it’s quite possible my dad and I were still wearing the C & A ’86 wardrobe.
We could both drag out a look for seasons.
Still, it was good to get the sideburn praise, even if it was just a dream.
All praise counts.
13 September 2016
I’ve never, as detailed elsewhere on this new blog, been a big animal lover. That’s not to say I hate them. Again, as covered in earlier posts, I know I’m going to my unmarked grave having never visited a zoo. Seeing animals in captivity has never seemed right to me. My coldness towards animals/pets I think is a combination of fear, ocds/hygiene issues and an awareness of the sheer amount of time and cost that goes into keeping pets.
I can totally see how the introduction of a pet into a family home can teach kids how to love and feel responsible for a living thing. Indeed, there have been times when I have seriously contemplated getting a little dog for my Imaginary Son before dismissing the idea after visualising that dog walking through all sorts of muck on the road that it would then bring into the flat.
I have only once been close to a dog, a lovely Yorkshire terrier that was in this haunted house in southwest London I was staying in, a story I have previously told on my radio show. It was a sickly dog that couldn’t go out so it would actually do its business inside the house, and it’s hard to believe now that I got so used to this and was so ridden with anxieties by the strange happenings in the house that I would just walk in and pick up whatever the dog had left on the floor with a tissue. The hauntings overrode the INDOOR DOG MUCK.
You’ll understand then, having outlined my coolness towards animals, that the presence of rodents sends me running for the hills. Apparently when I was a toddler, my parents found a white mouse crawling all over me as I took an afternoon nap. I have no recollection of that, but I do remember that our second bedsit, just across the road, where we lived for 24 years, was periodically overrun by mice.
There are three incidents though that I will briefly cover here. The first was in February 1990. My then beloved Liverpool were heading for the last of their eighteen league titles. Italia ’90 was just months away. I was finally poised to pass my GCSE’s at the third time of asking, while my parents were getting a divorce, my dad having cited their significant height difference in the divorce proceedings. Madchester was on its way. I was enjoying the start of this new decade even though in later years I would come to think the late eighties was as good as it got for me.
By the spring of ’90, I was into the first 6 months of what would turn out to be an 11-year stint in a z-bed which I would pull out every night in our front room, having escaped the marital bed I’d been sharing with my dad since the spring of ‘87. The Age of Enlightenment was well underway at Mayflower, a VHS recorder having arrived in the bedsit in September ’89, along with our first duvets via Morley’s in Brixton, southwest London. The house phone would finally arrive in September 1990. But let’s stick with February ’90. I recall waking up that morning to see a mouse shooting for the far corner of the room, right behind me. I was out of bed in an instant to find my sibling outside in the hallway, casually remarking they’d seen the mouse going up our stairs earlier. I didn’t understand how they could be so laid back about it. I knew right away I couldn’t sleep in that room.
For the next couple of nights, a friend who lived around the corner had put me up in his older sister’s bedroom. She had moved out a year or two earlier and the room was free. Later in the week, I knew I had to go back home and I remember holding onto a broom while my dad carefully pulled all our furniture and boxes (we were hoarders) from their positions as we sought the mouse. Quite what I thought the broom would achieve, I don’t know. We never saw the mouse again.
Ten years later, February, again. 2000. I’ll cover this one briefly as I’ve talkedabout it at length in episode 5 of The Letter. My mum had passed away abruptly, in that same room, nine days earlier. The funeral had taken place the following Friday and the weekend was just strange. When you bury a loved one, that’s when real life starts again. The theatre show is over. The mourners have gone. You’ve got to deal with it. It was the appearance of a mouse two nights after the funeral, the Sunday, that broke me. That was just one thing too many for me. A rodent was not going to take my mum’s place. The mouse disappeared behind the gas fire, disconnected by British Gas after they deemed it unsafe and would never be seen again.
The following day my dad came round and went about sealing every gap in the room with a combination of netting, broken glass and cement. Banned from the house by my mum, he was a real trooper for me when my mum died and I think he used the mouse as a reason for being able to come back to the house. But we needed him. And he needed us. Maybe the mouse brought us all back together.
Despite my dad riding to the rescue, I had spent the next few nights staying at my then girlfriend’s in North London before returning back to the bedsit as I felt it unfair to leave my sibling alone. We’d just lost our mum. We now had a rodent problem. My place was there.
Summer 2003. I was living in north London after a spell on the other side of the world, and struggling with north London. I had taken an overpriced studio that was a mess. I knew something was wrong with accommodation in London but it would take the media another decade before they began talking about the housing situation in the capital. I had a friend I used to knock about with a lot at the time. We’d gone to the Spanish consulate school together when we were kids and she was quite a formidable character. We would argue a great deal and in the end we had one argument too many.
I wasn’t much of a gent I suppose, and whenever she stayed over at my bedsit, I would pull out the sofa bed for her and let her sleep on that while I slept in the double bed like a king. One night, when she wasn’t there, I had gone into the kitchen after waking up. I kept the light off as I didn't even have any blinds up on that window and I felt something run over my bare feet. All night I didn’t sleep, desperately scrambling for reasons to convince myself it wasn’t a mouse.
Some weeks later, it was a Saturday evening. I was at home, bored, on the sofa, watching TV. It was just after seven. I started hearing some scratching. I was growing uneasy. Not long after, I finally saw it. A small brown mouse with big ears, looking like Jerry. I looked at Jerry. Jerry looked at me. And that was it. Within ten minutes, I had hurriedly packed a bag that included my badminton racket and vacated the flat. I never lived there again and ended up going to court with the landlords. I went to stay with my friend who, much like my sibling had casually remarked thirteen years earlier how they had sighted the mouse, told me they had heard the mouse every night they had slept on the sofa. I couldn’t understand how she had never told me. We argued all over again. Her argument was that I must’ve known I had a mouse and she was cheesed off that I had kept this from her. I reasoned that I had suspected I had a mouse, but hadn’t seen any clear proof. If I had, I would’ve fled the place earlier.
Like the great Frank Costanza, my favourite ever sitcom character, once said: “I will not tolerate infestation.”
12 September 2016
My dad had an unusual signature, full of loops and flourishes. A show boater signature really, the equivalent of an early Portuguese Ronaldo, full of ineffective feints and stopovers with no end product.
Signatures were a big thing for my dad. As well as his goalkeeping skills, a good signature was something you wanted to pass down to me, and in the spring of ’79, in addition to all the other training and drills taking up my time after school, he began teaching me how sign my name in the run up to getting my first ever Spanish passport. Every night after school, just before the goalkeeper training (The fire drills only happened at the weekend. I think my dad felt if we did them every day, the impact of what we were training for might be diminished), I had my signature training. My dad couldn’t show anybody how to do something without training being involved.
I’d never written my name as Daniel before. I was always Danny. So I had to get used to writing my name in a different way. That was the first thing to get to grips with, but it was the loops I struggled with mostly. My dad wanted me to open with a big loop on the D.
Every evening, if the rain wasn’t coming through our kitchen roof, we’d be sat at our small, rickety red 1960s retro Fornica kitchen diner table, going through my signature with one of my dad’s pens. He’d lose his temper, grab the pen from me, and once again take the opportunity to show off his signature which came to about five names. In Spain, you also take your mum’s name. My dad’s maternal surname was De La Mano. Translated, it means ‘Of the Hand’. I like that. I like it a lot. Problem was in this country, every time my dad got a letter full naming him, they’d get the Mano wrong and type ‘Mono’, which means monkey in Spanish. Every time my dad received one of these letters addressed to Mr of the Monkey, that was it. He’d be wound up for the rest of the day and we knew to leave him alone. I’d come home, see he wasn’t talking, and I’d look at my mum and she’d tell me quietly, “He got one of those Mr Monkey letters today.”
Anyway, I eventually got to grips with the signature and we rolled up at the Spanish Consulate one warm Saturday morning in May ’79. The whole family went. It was a big thing. My dad and I were overconfident in my new signature, if anything. I remember my dad sitting me on his lap as I was presented with my first ever Spanish passport – dark green covers, I think, and the excitement on his face as I took the pen – I remember that too. Problem was, I fell apart, much as I would do on the stage during my brief stand up career decades later. I signed into the photograph. The whole thing went wrong from the first loop. My D was too big. My dad, ashen faced, didn’t talk to me for days. It was like he’d received a hundred Mr Monkey letters all on the same morning.
The signature was a big thing for my dad. A good pen mattered. He was always seeking out new pens. New ways to give his signature that little 0.1% per cent advantage. We had journals at secondary school, little pocket red books which our parents had to sign every week. It was too small to accommodate all his names, so he had to drop the monkey part and just sign his first two names, but my dad still put everything into that signature.
Now I didn’t do well at school. When you’re all sleeping in the same room, chances are your school grades aren’t going to be good. Throw in two years in the mid-eighties of sharing the marital bed with my dad as their marriage finally fell apart, plus the second of my nose jobs, and that’ll help you understand why my GCSE’s were an unmitigated disaster.
My dad never really looked at the reports or notes from teachers that appeared in the journal. It was all about his signature. For five years, every Monday, the day after signing my journal, he’d ask me, without fail, if my form tutor had acknowledged his signature. For almost five years, I had nothing to tell him. The signature wasn’t being acknowledged. It would rile my dad.
”No lo comprendo. Donde van a ver esa clase de firma. No es una firma normal.”
“I don’t understand,” he’d say. “Where else are they going to see that kind of signature? It’s an unusual signature.”
And it was, to be fair. But no one cared. My dad and I would be shacked up in the marital bed, late at night, the conversation switching from the incredible transformation in John Barnes since his move to Liverpool from Watford in the summer of ’87, to how he was now tracking back and doing his share of the defensive work, back to his signature. It was always about his signature. “Tu maestra no ha dicho nada de la firma?”
“Your teacher. She’s said nothing about the signature?”
“De verdad, no lo comprendo. “
“Honestly, I don’t understand it.”
“Te quieres cayar ya,” my mum would say from the lower bunk bed, just half a foot away from us and our marital bed.
We’d had the same form tutor for five years. My dad couldn’t see how in five years, she’d never expressed any curiosity in his signature. He felt it was only once I left school and she began to teach another bunch of kids that seeing no other parents signature that came close to matching my dad’s, that she’d finally realise the greateness she’d been seeing for five years.
I admired my dad’s endless hope that one day his unusual signature would be praised by my form tutor. It never happened. The signature was overlooked time and again. But he never gave up. He kept going. A little like me with my writing career.
9 September 2016
Sammy and Shirley were my beloved terrapins. I didn't do too good with pets. I'm not an animal lover, never was, but I've always had a curiosity about anything that can live both on land and in water. And so it was that spurred on by that curiosity for the aquatic, I bought my terrappins from Clapham market in the spring of 82, a couple of decades before that stretch of southwest London went all wanky.
All was going well until I saw an item on Blue Peter in what would've been the autumn of that year, where they were boxing up George for the winter. Now here's the thing. George was a tortoise. I got confused and assumed the same applied to terrapins and I stuck Sammy and Shirley in a big matchbox. Minus food and water. Now at this point I’m thinking how did my parents just let a kid do that? No one questioned me. No one asked where the terrapins were.
It’s not like I had my own room.
We lived in a bedsit.
The terrapin tank was empty.
But no one asked.
Six months later and the Blue Peter crew were bringing George out of hibernation and I suddenly remembered Sammy and Shirley. I thought maybe I ought to see how they are. It wasn't a good scene. They looked like the shrivelled up female astronaut, Lieutenant Stewart, at the start of the original Planet of the Apes. Six months into their mission, the crew had placed themselves into a state of suspended animation, in preparation for the Liberty 1's long voyage. While they slept, the Liberty 1 passed through a Hasslein Curve in space and found itself thrown forward several thousand years. Stewart's stasis pod malfunctioned and an air leak caused her to die in her sleep. When Charlton Heston's Taylor and the others finally awakened over twenty centuries later, they found the remains of Stewart's withered body in the pod.
That's what it was like for me finding Sammy and Shirley.
Except it wasn't the 40th century.
It was the spring of 1983.
33 years later, and that moment still haunts me.
One of many.
8 September 2016
The 10th of September always reminds me of a kid I went to infants and primary school with, the middle son of Irish immigrants who holed themselves up, as many did, in Clapham, southwest London, and who would, as the eighties arrived, acquire the nickname ‘Spud’.
Spud was born on the 10th September 1971. Blonde and freckly, he was the oldest kid in the year, a status he held for the full seven years we schooled together, as well as always being one of the shortest boys in the class. Being the oldest kid in the year always held a mystical status and I’m sure as much as the world has changed, that’s still the case in schools these days. To a mid-spring kid like me, the fact that Spud was always celebrating his birthday a full eight months before me might as well have made him five years older than me.
I think it was that status as the class elder statesman that allowed Spud to get away with much of his behaviour. He would appropriate the latest kids showing any sign of popularity among their peers and acquire them for his entourage, a bit like mid-90s Elton John with Take That, before quietly dropping them and moving onto the next popular kid.
I was always in and out of favour with Spud. In September 1980, just days after proclaiming me the hardest tackler in our football team, Spud quietly dropped me from an invitation to go to Windsor Safari Park to celebrate his ninth birthday. That’s the closest I ever came to visiting any kind of zoo. Having never been to a zoo to this day, I’m actually pleased that happened. While not an animal lover, I have never had any desire to see caged animals, though at the time I was hugely disappointed to be dropped from the Safari visit, not so much because of the opportunity to see the animals, but because it was Spud’s birthday and it meant something to be invited to his birthday. Given that on the final day of the summer term the previous school year I had chosen Spud to play Subbuteo (I had brought my favourite game to the school that day, the teams I brought with me being the Man Utd home and Liverpool away), I felt hard done by.
There was another kid in the class, also of Irish extraction, whose initials spelt out SOS. SOS was a nice kid. The tallest in the class. He idolised Spud throughout primary school, but was regularly treated with such disdain by the most inexplicably popular kid in our class. To be fair, it wasn’t just the kids that seemed to be bewitched by Spud. The teachers loved him too, especially the teachers who took us un the second and third years (1980-82).
The thing that really sealed it for me with Spud though, the pinnacle of my disappointment with this kid, came in the spring of ’83. By the following September, we would finally go our separate ways, electing to go to different Catholic secondary schools, and perhaps it was knowing that after seven years together, it was all coming to an end, that our on-off friendship enjoyed one final flourish. After several visits to Spud’s council house just off Clapham High Street, he came to my bedsit and I pulled out all the stops to entertain him, knowing full well if the visit came up short, it would be all around the school when we got back to St Mary’s Juniors.
We must’ve been playing with my Star Wars action figures because at the end of his visit, Spud asked to borrow my Han Solo (the original Star Wars film doll with the black waistcoat and the red stripe down black trousers) and a Hoth Storm Trooper. I don’t like lending stuff to this day, something probably not unrelated to that day, but it was Spud. You didn’t say “no”. By then I had set up my Star Wars football league as I sought more than Subbuteo could give me. I wanted to build teams. I didn’t want the identikit miniature figures that came with Subbuteo. I wanted to be able to look at a figure and say, “Okay, Hammerhead, that’s a defender. This one, Snaggletooth, he can play off the front man.” So I was loath to lose two players. Solo was captaining cup specialists X-Wing, while the rather stocky figure of Hoth Trooper was keeping goal for, well, Hoth, who had won the Division 2 title in the inaugural 1982-83 season.
It was the February half term I think as Spud had come over on a week day. We agreed he would return the action figures when school started up again. The following Monday, Spud handed back a chocolate covered Hoth Trooper, explaining his year-old brother had got hold of him. I wasn’t impressed. When I borrowed stuff, people always got back exactly what I had taken. But all this was soon overshadowed that there was no Han Solo, arguably the finest Star Wars footballer of the early 80s (the league would run until 2000, played behind a then girlfriend’s back).
I didn’t understand how he could lose something that he had borrowed. To this day, I don’t think I have ever done that. It was the final disappointment of that hot-cold friendship that had begun in January ’77 when my first ever teacher at St Mary’s infants in Clapham had asked Spud to look after me on my first morning.
The ’83-84 Star Wars football season resumed with Han Solo still missing from the X-Wing line up. More anal Star Wars fans will know the specifics of what happened with the action figures at that time, but I know there was some sort of changeover from the original makers, it might’ve been Kenner, to another manufacturer, and the original Han Solo doll was pretty much scarce all over London.
It was not until the 23d of December 1984, a Sunday, one of the greatest days of my young life, when ahead of a Christmas party at my friend’s dad’s pub in Clapham North later that day, my mum had taken my sibling and I to East Street market off Walworth Road on the 45, that I managed to find a Han Solo action figure and X-Wing got their missing captain back. Okay, it wasn’t the original Han Solo, and the new manufacturers had given him a larger head, but you know, it was as good as things were going to get. The search was over.
In the spring of ’85, I saw Spud for the last time, as we were both attending Sunday school ahead of our confirmations. I hadn’t seen him for two years and I was struck by how kids from our old school who had switched to the same secondary as Spud, now treated the long-time St Mary’s God. They would play punch him, grab him in a headlock. The awe of old was no longer there. One old classmate even invited me to punch Spud (I declined). It seemed Spud’s move to the big boys’ school had diminished him somewhat.
I never saw him again after that.
33 years on though, I still remember how he lost my Han Solo.
Footnote: Hoth Trooper kept goal for Hoth in their 1986 FA Cup Final win, the chocolate stains of ’83 still evident.
7 September 2016
This photo of my dad was taken by me in the summer of 1980 as we made our way back from watching The Empire Strikes Back, the only one of the original Star Wars trilogy that I truly loved. It was taken in Atherfold Road, in Clapham North, southwest London, which as the decade progressed, became the most dog muck ridden road I have ever known and was behind my reputation locally for walking in the road, rather than on the pavement. I was always getting stick from drivers for that and from neighbours.
At this point in the picture, as you might detect from the boarded up window to my dad’s right, and the sand on the road, Atherfold, at the time mainly comprising of council stock, was going through a two-year refurbishing process and was pretty much a building site for that period. It meant many tenants had to move houses on the same street. Sometimes they moved next door, or sometimes a few doors away. Sometimes they moved across the road. Just by the green vehicle on the right of the picture, a great childhood friend originally lived at number 21 but the council moved his family next door to number 23 in the summer of ’81. I helped them move, though at such a young age, I’m sure my impact on the move itself was negligible.
At the bottom of Atherfold, by my own childhood road Mayflower, we would play street football pretty much every night of the week in the summer, with goalposts chalked onto the walls. I would imagine this was pretty standard all across the country at the time. It was a different world where even lazy kids like me were physically active on a regular basis. I would never be one for the video games which within a couple of years would become all the rage.
It’s not a great picture of my dad and it’s not easy to tell he’s slightly cheesed off in the shot. There is a bouffant, make no mistake. Like many men of the period, my dad’s seventies hair crossed over into the eighties and like many guys, my dad made the mistake of favouring a brush over a comb. The green towel top I remember rather well. A year later, he would kit me out in my own green towel top from C & A (my dad loved C & A) which my sibling would vomit on as we completed a ninety-minute car journey from Malaga to Puente Mayorga in Spain’s deep south on a blisteringly hot July day.
Imagine wearing a towel top in ridiculous heat.
Now imagine vomit on that same top.
I never wore a towel top after that day.
By the time of going to see The Empire Strikes Back, I’d already read a full comic book adaptation of the film, bought from the old three-floored Woolworths in Victoria, central London and I loved it. My dad had reluctantly agreed to take me. We weren’t big cinema lovers in our family. It’s not to say I don’t enjoy films. I do. I just don’t enjoy cinemas. I never have. Having to sit somewhere surrounded by people for a set time. It’s a little too close to the exam conditions that constantly broke me in my academic years and this means I rarely get to see films the way they’re meant to be seen.
My dad only ever took us to the cinema three times. The first occasion was to see Pete’s Dragon. That would’ve been around ’78 maybe. The second time was the first Christopher Reeve Superman film on a Saturday in April ’79. While not a Superman fan, I remember this well because on our way home, we stopped off at a newsagent and my dad picked up the evening paper. There was one in London at the time but I can’t remember what it was called. I’m not sure if The Evening News ran on Saturdays, but I remember clearly the result of the Liverpool v Man Utd FA Cup semi-final, memorable to me because both sides wore their away strips in the game (Liverpool in yellow for the first time) and I’m very anal about that kind of thing. I remember it too because it was the first time I’d ever seen a result ending in 2-2. It stood out.
My dad did not enjoy The Empire Strikes Back. I can’t recall at what point of the journey home he said it, but I do recall excitedly asking him if he’d enjoyed the film.
“Fue una mierda,” said my dad.
It was shit.
I was taken aback. Looking back, it surprises me that my dad didn’t have it in him to pretend to a young boy that he had enjoyed something that had so thrilled his son. But that was my dad. He always had to tell it like it was.
He never took us to the cinema again and to this day, there remains a whole bunch of cult eighties films I have never seen, such as Ghostbusters, Gremlins, to name but two, and which I must own up to never being desperate to see when the VHS recorder finally arrived in our home in late ’89.
6 September 2016
Back in the day, my dad's default housewarming gift was the TOILET BRUSH.
My dad never quite grasped that some new couples weren't ready to have their relationship fast tracked by such a gift. They wanted their relationships to retain their mystery and perhaps felt the presence of a brush in their bathroom would allude to a very specific act.
My dad though believed the toilet brush, as ugly a visual as it was, represented their best hope of retaining that mystery. His reputation for defaulting to the TOILET BRUSH gift was such that new couples came to fear moving in together. I recall one friend desperately trying to get bathroom comfortable with their new partner ahead of moving in together. They knew my dad was ready and waiting with the brush. I could’ve sworn that one or two couples even put off moving in together because they feared my dad’s gift and that the delay in setting up a home together eventually did for them.
"You can't not have a toilet brush in the bathroom," my dad used to say.
When a friend asked me to get word to my dad not to present him and his girlfriend with a toilet brush ahead of their moving in together, my dad was aghast.
"When he looks inside his bowl and sees a mess, and he's locked into a tenancy agreement, he'll wish they'd got the toilet brush."
A couple of days after my friend moved in with his girlfriend, my dad called me to ask if I’d seen the flat.
“Yes,” I told him.
“You see their bathroom?”
I knew where this was going. I confirmed that I had been shown around the entire place, including the bathroom.
“They’re really doing this without the toilet brush?”
The conversation went on for at least fifteen minutes, which was very short for my dad. Even though it was gone past ten in the evening, I had a feeling we weren’t done. Sure enough, by the time Paxman was introducing the night’s stories on Newsnight, my dad had called again.
“They’ve been in that new flat now for what, a couple of days?”
“So unless they’ve trained their bodies to go during work hours and used the loos at their jobs, they’re in that loo without a toilet brush.”
“It’s not for everyone, dad.”
“Oh, you think the toilet brush is a bad thing, do you?”
I explained I had no strong feelings on it either way. “They’ve chosen to do this without the toilet brush, dad. What you going to do? You going to force the brush on them?”
“Some things you just need in the house,” my dad said. “Like the rope of hope” This was the rope my dad bought from Bon Marche in Brixton in the late seventies after two young girls on our road died in a house fire one Saturday night. House fires were common back then and our whole building had faulty wiring, something which always had my dad feeling anxious and on our landlord’s back. The rope was too short to get us safely down from our second floor flat in the event of a fire, but this never stopped my dad from putting us through fire drills. We’d get to the window, and then he stopped, as if realising the futility of it. But he needed the rope in the house. It made him feel less anxious. The toilet brush was the same. Yes, it’s not a great visual, my dad said. But you’re better off having it. They key to a strong relationship he always felt was a clean toilet bowl. With a clean bowl, every couple stood half a chance.
5 September 2016
I was one of those kids who'd stress over the summer about what the new school term would bring.
Where you would stand in the new classroom hierarchy.
What new teachers you would have.
And so on.
I was a late developer. No surprises there. The growth spurt didn't come until after I left school quietly and with the disastrous exam grades that lend their name to this blog. I was never going to go to the school with friends to find out my results. I knew what was coming. Though I like to think that not being the self-congratulatory type, even if I had anticipated good grades, I still wouldn’t have been one of these kids heading back to school to get their results when the postman was delivering them anyway. Those kids- you know the type, seen hugging one another over their results on the News at Ten - will always push my easily pushed buttons.
Thirty summers ago, I didn't grow an inch. I went back to school to find myself among the shortest kids in the class. The lack of teenage height concerned my dad, a tall man. An amateur keeper, something which carried far more prestige in Spain, my dad was familiar with the Peter Shilton story. Shilton, the legendary England keeper, had famously hung from banisters to stretch his arms. My dad had got the Shilton backstory wrong though, thinking Shilton hung from the banisters to stretch his whole body and consequently felt that if I hung from the banisters in the communal hallway, I too would grow. Familiar with the Shilton story myself, I always felt the great keeper's arms were disproportionately long. I limited my time on the banisters. I didn't want overly long arms.
Fast forward a year. The summer of '87, and my dad lost it during a live schoolboys England v Scotland game on ITV. The kids were my age but twice my size. My dad looked at them and then at me. "I don't understand why you're so ****ing small," he said. The disappointment I saw in his face that day is something I’ve never forgotten and I do my best to ensure my Imaginary Son never sees the same expression on me.
The growth spurt finally came in the spring of '89.
7 inches in 3 weeks.
It was very painful.
Not to mention awkward as by then I was in the final months of a two-year spell of sharing the marital bed with my dad after my parents’ marriage finally collapsed.
While my dad welcomed the growth on my part, he struggled with having less space in bed and I suspect he was relieved to see me transfer over to the z-bed in September ’89 that would be my bed for the next 11 years.
2 September 2016
Six years of being a teetotaller have been completely undermined by my habitual self-medicating. “Is there anything you’re not taking?” Asks my GP who’s seen my hypochondria escalate over the last four decades.
This same doctor was also my late dad’s GP for 30 years. I was thinking about this at my latest appointment. This GP might well be “top trumping” our physiques, comparing me to my dad when I was his age. My dad was a keep fit fanatic, so it’s unlikely I would top too many categories if our doctor were carrying out a body parts head to head.
Prior to my current bouffant, I might best my dad in the hair category. Like a lot of men of his generation, my dad hung onto his 70s hair well into the next decade and beyond.
In terms of likeability, I think my doctor prefers me to my dad. Theirs was quite a troubled relationship that reached its low point when after suggesting my dad curtail his visits, my dad responded, “Where am I supposed to go if I’m not well, a vets?”
Sometimes, if I know I’m seeing my GP again, I’ll step up the weights, just to try and bridge the muscular gap that probably exists between my dad and I at similar ages. Naturally, I don’t expect my GP to say, “Hey, you are/ you are not/ more muscular than your dad,” but the thought might cross his mind and hey, we all like a compliment.
1 September 2016
As the introverted son of a raconteur, I learned the art of killing off a conversation from dealing with my dad. He just didn’t stop talking. An awkward, at times shy man, my dad nevertheless loved to talk and once he got to know someone, that was it. He would go full-on Peter Ustinov. I always wanted to get back to a book or whatever game of Subbuteo/Car Football/Star Wars football I was playing on our front room floor, and there were many times in my young life when I wondered if these lengthy exchanges with my dad would ever end.
My dad knew I was no talker. I don’t know if this meant he sought to extend our conversations deliberately, irritated that he was that I often chose to live in my own little bubble and preferred that world to conversing with him. He used to pull me up a lot on what he felt was my poor eye contact. He would suspend our one-sided conversations and demand to know why I was looking at his hair. I don’t think I ever knowingly chose to look at my dad’s hair but I can’t dismiss that I was doing this because it’s something that seems to have carried over into middle age. My friend, the Space Daddy, often terminates our exchanges, insisting I tell him why I’m looking at his hair rather than at him when he’s talking and every time he does, I remember my dad’s frustration with my poor conversational skills.
Of course, missing him as much as I do, I would give everything to be able to have the opportunity to have a prolonged communication with him now, and I certainly wouldn’t be grappling to find that opportunity, any opportunity, to end our conversation. But it’s almost certain I would still be pulled up for looking at my dad’s hair. While the small talk skills are much improved, the eye contact remains poor.