Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Stretch Out And Wait

A funny thing happened on our way to school this morning. It’s not often I can write that. 
I'd found an old cassette tape in the garage with 'The Smiths at G-Mex' written on the case. My eldest took out the cassette and shook it - like a little maraca. She then threw it to one side and tried to put the case into the car’s cassette player. She didn't believe me when I told her that I was actually at the concert in question and that it was in an old railway station.
‘You can hear me in the background.’
‘No you can’t.’
She indulged me as I sang along to ‘Stretch Out And Wait’ – she even improvised a lovely backing vocal.
Then a voice interrupted the songs. It was a pithy Morrissey aside:
‘Thank you. I hope…. the pressure….. of actually having to stand on your own two feet isn’t… too painful.’
The way in which the last few words were emphasised gave the impression that he really wasn’t having the best of days.
‘He does sound a bit cross Dad. Maybe his train was late. Maybe that’s why he had to ‘stretch out and wait'…?’
I can remember watching the gig and looking up at the roof of the building with a glow of nostalgia. It had been the old central railway station and as a 12 year old I’d found my way to the apex and turned the hands on the clock for a dare before being chased away by a security man. I told Aurora this story.

‘No you didn’t’

I had taped the concert from the radio in 1986. I didn’t try and explain this concept to my daughter – expecting another confused or negative response. Then the adverts from 1986 came on. You could get a Mini Metro for under 3 thousand pounds at Borough Garage in Bury.
‘Can we get one Dad?’

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


‘Did he wave? I think he waved….’

Maude’s steering suffered a little as she did a double-take while passing the shop-front.

The girls persisted with their rendition of a Queen classic – stamping their feet and clapping to a perfectly wrong tempo:

‘We will, we will ROCK YOU!’

I was in the back with Aurora – as she took her hairband off and head-banged a little.

‘Casta, bet you can’t do this while you’re singing?’

‘Anyway’, I asked, ‘what does a wave from the man who runs the village chip-shop signify – that you’ve arrived, that you’re ‘in’? Or do you just want extra batter scraps on your next chip supper?’

Aurora found that my thigh delivered a resounding beat when she slapped it:

‘You got mud on your face, you big butthead!’

‘It’s ‘disgrace’ – that’s rude and it doesn’t rhyme’.

‘I waved’, said Maude, ‘because I like to get along with people.’

The girls stopped singing for a moment and chortled a little. I urged Aurora to start up again and offered my thigh.

‘I don’t know why you’ve all gone quiet. I do prefer to get along with people – it’s nice to be nice.’
Casta began to improvise:

‘We will, we will rocky rock you!’

‘Anyway, you of all people should keep in with local businessmen – you might get a job. No point in tweeting the few arts people you didn’t directly offend every now and again – they’re no use to you.’

‘I know that, but when I said I’d taken a laminated cv into the chip-shop last week, I was joking.’

Thursday, October 10, 2013


‘He’s a lovely lad. He’ll do anything for you.’

My mother remains very fond of Bernard – he mows her lawn and collects her daily paper. Bernard and his mother live next door. Bernard and his mother already lived next door when my family arrived on a Friday the 13th in late 1968.

Bernard hasn’t lived at home all of his life. He went out into the world and met people and did stuff. Bernard always ‘liked a drink’.

Up the hill from my parents’ house is a terrace of shabby shops called ‘The Parade’. The first shop is a Chinese takeaway. Like most Chinese takeaways in Manchester it has always maintained a menu of ‘English Dishes’: meat & potato pies, steak & kidney puddings, chips etc. For the benefit of his English clientele, the owner called himself ‘Steve’.

When I was in my early teens my Dad would send me up to ‘Steve’ to get chip suppers on a Saturday night. I was in that limbo between childhood and being old enough to go out. Bernard was frequently in the queue. He was older than me and was most definitely going out. Steve’s was on the walk home from ‘out’.

‘I’ll have the works Steve. Something with chicken, whatever you recommend. The kind of thing you eat with your family. With Egg-fried rice. Oh, and a coke.’

Bernard would know everyone in the takeaway and would ask about the wellbeing of all the family members of each and every one of them. It was a well-known Saturday night routine and it would then move into a valedictory phase.

‘Brilliant Steve! Eh, am I ready for that!’

Steve liked Bernard. Everybody liked Bernard. Steve would hand over the bag of food and smile with Bernard while everybody around was also smiling with Bernard. Then Bernard would turn towards the door and say to Steve what everybody knew that Bernard was about to say to Steve.

‘Pay you Monday Steve, alright?’

I once met Bernard on the street on a summer evening. He had a drink taken and was inclined, therefore, to shake my hand for many minutes.

‘How are you?
How’s your Mum?
How's your Dad?
How's your sisters?
I love your lot you know….
All of you!
You’ve always been brilliant neighbours.

Bernard continued to shake my hand with vigour. He was none too steady on his feet and was using me as a means of support as he swayed. From a distance it probably looked like a spontaneous spot of dancing to give thanks for a balmy summer evening. Close up, it was a bit nauseating.

‘John, though. I’ve got a question. A REALLY IMPORTANT QUESTION…’

Bernard paused for thought. He continued swaying while looking at his flip flops. Having gathered his thoughts after a minute or so of deep contemplation, his face rose to look intensely into mine. His hand gripped mine with renewed fervour. I began to expect a question of considerable import – something like:

‘Are we all really dead and is Fallowfield actually HELL!!?
‘Do you think I should tell someone about that murder I did, by accident, in Withington, in 1978?’

Then the actual question came and came as some surprise.

‘John……..What time is it?’

I was quite relieved and could sense that I would soon be able to go on my way.

‘It’s nine o’clock, Bernard.’

Bernard looked very startled. I was hopeful that he’d been reminded of an urgent appointment and would let go of my hand. Bernard’s face then changed from its previous bonhomie to the kind of confusion that can only strike a man who has been drinking very heavily for an indeterminate length of time.


I held his hand for a little longer.

‘Yes Bernard, nine o’clock at night.’

My mother stood at her window recently admiring her hanging baskets and chatting to my sister. A black cab pulled up next door and out hopped a properly shaved Bernard in a snappy suit.

‘God bless him,’ Mother smiled, ‘he’s turned over a new leaf. Lovely lad... do anything for you.’

‘Mum…’. My sister’s tone was a little flatter and less optimistic.

'He hasn't got any shoes and socks on.'

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Good Morning Durham

I was behind a tinted glass screen in the public gallery and it made everyone in court look a little bit tanned – apart from the elevated judge and the defendant, both of whom could be seen over the top.

The first defendant was a portly man of about 35. He had availed himself of his employer’s company credit card and he had committed fraud to the tune of 18 thousand pounds. The Clerk of the Court read out the charge and recited the entire long number from the credit card concerned. I was surprised by this excessive detail and half expected her to ask the defendant for the expiry date and 3 digit security code before the case continued.  

The portly man did a very convincing contrite face and was bailed.

A long pause ensued. I was getting used to the long pauses in court – they afforded the barristers and judge the time to catch up on their reading. They were ripping through their list at some rate and had scratched out a couple of cases for non-attendance or lack of substance. The pauses also gave the clerk and the stenographer the chance to quietly chat on a little:

‘Chilly over that side isn’t it. I’m right under the heater here, I’m boiling.’

The video link was then switched on.

'Good morning Durham,' said the Clerk.

On screen was an empty office chair in a brightly lit room. After a short while the voice of an unseen speaker responded.

‘Good morning Newcastle.’

‘Could we have Bradley Gilmartin please?’

After another long pause:

‘He’ll be with you directly.’

The judge and barrister were busy reminding themselves of the details of Bradley’s case and today's charge against him – that of ‘dwelling burglary’.

Some stirring could be heard in Durham. Bradley appeared and sat. He looked gaunt and scared. He stared agog into the webcam and confirmed his name. He was about 17 years old. Bradley’s brief informed the judge that Bradley intended to contest the charge. 

‘I would advise that the evidence is pretty compelling,’ noted the judge.

The judge went on to ask the barrister if he had fully advised his client, whose trainer prints were found at the scene of the crime, of the consequence of a not guilty plea i.e. a trial.

Bradley’s defender replied that his client fully understood – as his client was ‘no stranger to the workings of the judicial system’. Wry smiles were exchanged. The judge stopped just short of a titter. Bradley was, I reckoned, very much a stranger to:

·         Fresh vegetables
·         Sunlight
·         Further Education
·         Good Luck

The judge agreed a pre-trial date with all those in the room in Newcastle and then told Bradley to hold the date – a Wednesday in early January. I hoped that Bradley might create another lengthy pause and produce a pocket diary or an i-phone:

‘Well, let me just have a quick look at that week. I’ve got a round of golf on the Tuesday and my book club on the Thursday night. Think I do have a window on Wednesday morning, before the matinee at the Theatre Royal….’

Bradley just nodded. The Clerk switched Bradley off.