Friday, 27 September 2013

Gypsies, tramps & thieves

I left school at eighteen with two E grade A levels in English lit and history and vague ideas of becoming a journalist. I wrote vague letters to my local papers like the Islington Gazette and the St Pancras Chronicle and I got vaguer replies declining the offer of my services. 

Then I applied for a year-long pre-entry course at Harlow College run by the National Council for the Training of Journalists. After filling in a very long application form, I was invited, along with thirty other hopefuls, to attend one of the selection days that involved several written tests to determine the extent of my literacy and an interview with five solemn-looking tutors. The tests were pretty straightforward but I knew I’d blown the interview when one of the tutors asked me if I liked music.

‘Yes. Modern music.’ I meant pop. Never knew why I said ‘modern’.

‘Oh, early twentieth century music?’ he enquired. He looked interested.

‘Er, yes.’ Never knew why I said that either. The next question was the killer.

‘Who’s your favourite composer?’

I had to think fast. I’d never heard the term ‘modern music’ in a classical context. Who did I know who might be an exponent of ‘modern music’?

It came to me in a flash – of course, the composer featured at the start of the Blood Sweat & Tears album. French − wrote, what was it? − ‘Trois Gymnopedies’! That’s it! And the composer’s name was, that’s it! Erik, Erik…

‘Erik Sartre,’ I replied confidently.

‘You mean Erik Satie,’ he said.

‘Yes. Satie. My favourite composer. Yes.’ Not only ignorant, but a liar too.

Ten days later the rejection slip eased through my letterbox. Maybe journalism wasn’t for me.

I then applied for a year-long creative-writing course at Watford College that was supposed to lead to a career as an advertising copywriter. They sent me a test paper, which involved questions like, ‘Describe a colour to a person who has been blind since birth’ and ‘Write a short play about a cat and a dustbin.’

I had a go and sent it off. That Saturday I got a call at home from the principal of the college, who told me they loved the stuff I’d written and I’d better start thinking about arranging my student grant. I just had to attend the college for a quick interview that, judging by his attitude, was a formality.

Went down three days later, screwed up the interview by not being able to string two coherent sentences together and no doubt convinced them all (five again) that the paper they’d received from me was actually written by someone else who understood plain English.

Ten days later the rejection slip eased through my letterbox. Maybe advertising wasn’t for me.

So I blamed the Applejacks and signed on. Money wasn’t really a worry. I lived at home with my mum and dad, who both worked. They liked having me around. It’s easy to be a bum in the city when you’ve gotta mum, so I became one. Bum, not mum.

And then a woman who worked at the local labour exchange where I signed on, took a shine to me in a strictly motherly way. I told her casually one signing-on day that I’d once harboured dreams of becoming a journalist. She remembered, and when a job came in for a trainee court reporter she rang me.

‘Are you interested? It’s at Great Marlborough Street Magistrates’ Court in Soho. Right next door to the London Palladium. Just pop down there tomorrow for an interview.’

Shit! What was the point? I’d only fail.

‘I don’t know if I can do tomorrow. Actually, I don’t think it’s for me. I’ll leave it for now.’

‘I thought you dreamed of becoming a journalist? Whatever it is you’re doing tomorrow at four- thirty pm, cancel it and head down there. A Mr Len Almond will be waiting to see you. He runs the Almond press agency and his office is in the courthouse. He sounds like a decent bloke. Go for it.’

She was my guardian angel.

I met Len in an empty Court Two. He was about sixty, glasses, double-breasted Dad’s Army brown suit with a white pinstripe, impressive head of wavy dark grey hair. Five foot two eyes of blue, He was all of Dickens’s nice guys rolled into one.

We sat on the deserted solicitors’ benches and after we’d chatted for five minutes, he offered me the job.

So, in the autumn of 1971, Len, four laddish reporters and I, now nineteen, covered Great Marlborough Street and Marylebone Magistrates’ Courts in the West End. The heartbeat of the agency was the tiny nineteenth-century office that backed onto the gaoler’s office in Marlborough Street courthouse. Its stained green walls housed three wooden desks and chairs, a similar number of typewriters from the roaring twenties, and a young shit-kickin’ enthusiasm that wriggled through the cigarette smoke and plucked intros from thin air.

I sat on the press bench every day from ten am until four pm with a one-hour break for lunch that I spent writing up the notes I’d taken in the morning session. I covered every case so shorthand was essential and I studied it three nights a week at Pitman’s Secretarial College in Russell Square. The reports were mailed to all the relevant local papers because the offenders’ full addresses were read out in open court.

I sent shame through the post but Len, who completed The Times crossword every morning on the Bakerloo Line between Kilburn Park and Edgware Road, insisted it was a public duty.

If I thought the case had more than just local interest, I’d slip out of court, ring up the features’ desks of every national paper and try to sell them the story. I then had to write it up in the style of the paper ordering it, phone it over to the copy desks, then go back to court to catch some more humiliation and degradation.

I went home on the tube every night with a headful of gypsies, tramps and thieves and the odd perverted accountant thrown in for good measure. One guy, who was in his early thirties and lived with his wife and two children in stockbroker Surrey, was caught jerking off while ogling the Carnaby Street boutique babes through shop windows in broad daylight. Now that’s what I call a nineteenth nervous breakdown.

Another accountant got absolutely pissed in the West End one Friday night, met a woman in the street and was later spotted by an eagle-eyed copper shagging her under a bush near the bandstand in Hyde Park.

The next morning, when they stood together in the dock, the accountant, who was no more than twenty-four, turned and stared at the woman whose body he’d ravaged the previous night. I shall never forget to my dying day the look of horror on his face. She was a seventy-eight year-old hag in a filthy brown overcoat and bright green nylon socks that had more holes than Blackburn, Lancashire, revealing terminal varicose veins. Her thin, matted white hair fell across her grubby, wrinkled face and strands dangled on the dried snot that covered her top lip. She had barely a tooth in her head.

The night before he’d seen Julie Christie in a river of Red Barrel. The morning after he caught a vision of hell and I doubt he ever recovered.

I quit the job in the summer of ‘73.  I was well and truly armed – 120wpm shorthand, a nose for a story, a master of the intro.

But I was also in love with Dina, a Greek goddess I met at shorthand classes. When she returned to Cyprus, I quit the job and went on a 2,000 mile trek in a beaten-up Ford Consul to that island paradise of where, to this day, it’s still easy to trace the tracks of my tears. But that’s another story in another book. As you three guys know…

After that ill-fated trip – the first time I’d ever ventured abroad – life in ‘73 London at home with my mum and dad was just too mundane, too achingly trivial, too Sing Something Simple.

My tiger feet pounced out the door and into the gun-metal grey Hillman Imp I’d bought for thirty-eight quid at a car auction in dodgy South London. After my successful bid I went to check out the car and almost collapsed when, upon opening the bonnet, I discovered there was no engine. ‘The engine’s in the boot, mate,’ said one of the dealers and laughed hysterically.

The engine in the boot took me to Gloucester where I started work as a trainee reporter on the Citizen evening newspaper around the time Fred and Ginger were dancing on the corpses of teenage girls down the Cromwell Road. I lived for a while in a converted barn on a farm in the heart of the Cotswolds, just around the corner from the Woolpack in Slad, the pub in Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie.     

I spent just over two years in Gloucester, two very happy years in which I acquired the art of interviewing, the knack of living alone, the desire to get to the front of a club queue and a lifelong addiction to freebies.

In ‘74 and ‘75, Tracy’s and the much larger Mecca-owned Tiffany’s, were the only guys standing in the shadows of  the city’s magnificent cathedral after eleven pm. Outside both venues on Friday and Saturday nights the West Country cider soul boys would gather, the velocity and spirit of Wigan Casino coursing through their pill-stained veins. Tracy’s would occasionally feature a top-notch live act − we’re talking Edwin Starr, KC and the Sunshine Band, and sad sweet dreamers Sweet Sensation − because the punters just loved to groove, their huge baggies billowing on the lager-sticky dance floor where their feet spun at the speed of light.

I moved back to London at Christmas ‘75 in search of a ‘glittering career’ and blagged a job on the South-East London Mercury as the entertainment editor.

© Barry Cain 2013


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