The Slow Dances

It didn’t do to get to the club until late, so we went to the local pub for drinks before taking the bus into the West End.

You had to be eighteen of course, whether to buy drinks in the pub or be allowed into the club later. We were only fifteen, but wearing smart suits and ties, having well-polished shoes, no doorman ever turned us away.

On a Saturday night, we spent everything we had. That meant walking home later, and spending the week at school with no money. There was a charge at the door of the club, and drinks were twice as expensive in there. So you didn’t offer to buy drinks for any girl, you got your first drink and hung onto if for as long as possible.

The music was good, played by a DJ in a booth at the back. The dance floor was very small, and most of the clubbers were crammed around the sides, or waiting to buy drinks at the bar. Ninety-nine percent of those actually dancing were girls of course. Boys like us waited, biding our time for the slow dances later.

My best mate had already deserted me, but that was okay. He had chatted up an older girl whilst buying our first drink, and for the past hour he had been with her in the corridor that led to the toilets. They were snogging like their lives depended on it. His lips would be bruised on Sunday.

I had spotted her dancing with her mate, and she had turned and smiled at me. On point with the fashions, she looked great in her Mary Quant style mini-dress and white tights. Her short dark hair was the same colour as her huge false eyelashes, and her eyes were the sort that look wide open and smiley. She had left her shoes under the table where they were sitting, and her shoulder bag swung from side to side as she was dancing.

Her mate looked out of place. Tall, frizzy hair, and a flowery-patterned dress that I guessed her mum had made for her. But I wasn’t judging. After all, we were out of place. Two boys from the wrong side of the river, using our smart suits to pretend we were older and more confident than we were.

Less then thirty feet away across the dance floor, I could see the Mary Quant girl looking at me as I leaned against the wall trying desperately to appear cool. She had a drink with a straw, and every time she reached across for it, she looked over at me. The fourth time, she smiled, and I smiled back. Then she said something to her friend, who turned to look at me, then nodded.

This was my chance, the slow dances would start soon, and I would walk over and ask her to dance.

When the lights dimmed and the first record came on, I didn’t rush over. No point appearing to be too eager. Wait for the second one, then stroll across and hold out my right hand. As the second one started, I straightened up, put down my empty glass, and moved one step forward.

Too late.

He swept in from the side, and scooped her up onto the dance floor. At least five years older than me, and as smooth as silk. Her arms went around his neck, and I knew I had missed my moment.

Fifty-Five years later, I still sometimes wonder how her life turned out.


One of my earliest memories of writing is of compiling lists. Ever since I wrote my first present list for Santa, and watched as it came out of the chimney after being burned on the fire, I have been a person who makes lists.

When I was old enough to realise that there was no Santa, I would still make a list, for the attention of my parents. I would turn down the corners of pages in my Mum’s catalogue, then leave a list in the front with my toys of preference listed in order.

Then when I was at senior school, and started to get home-work, I would write myself a list of what needed to be done by Sunday night, and tick off each subject as it was completed.

Becoming a shopper resulted in the making of numerous lists too. I would research things like cars, and make a list of my chosen models, intending to test drive each one before deciding which to buy. For everyday grocery shopping, I wrote out a paper list, and stuck to it as I wandered around the shop. That is something I still do to this day. In fact, I wrote out a shopping list for the supermarket shop tomorrow, earlier today.

Buying presents for others meant making lists. I would add the name, and write next to that what I intended to get them, or had already bought. Once the things had been purchased, I would strike through the name, to remind myself it had been done. The same applied to Christmas cards, with incredibly long lists of names in the days when I used to send out well over one hundred cards.

The advance of technology means that not so many people write lists anymore. But there are millions of them online. Lists of Top Tens, lists of things people hate, and just as many about what they love. I have an Amazon Wish list, something to remind me of films or books I might want to purchase someday, although I have not yet succumbed to having lists on my mobile phone, or on memo pages on the computer..

Sixty years of making lists, and sticking to them, may make me sound very organised, and rather obsessive. The truth is, the opposite is true. If I don’t have lists, I forget things, it’s as easy as that. I found myself in a shop last week with a tiny list, jotted down on a small post-it-note. All that was on it were the words ‘Milk’, Bread’, and ‘Wine’. Surely, anyone could remember just three things?

I promise you, without that list, I would have forgotten something.

Let me know if you make lists. You can even list your lists, if you want to. 🙂

Saturday Stuff

I woke up this morning with my head full of stuff. Some days, I am left wondering where it all comes from. Memories, films, old TV shows. Snippets of decades-old conversations, faces of people that I recognise but can’t remember their names. It’s all tumbling around in my brain, like clothes in a washing machine.

I try to do things to focus on. Read a book on my Tablet, type up a couple of blog posts, and check emails. But it is to no avail, as those random thoughts and visions are refusing to go away. It is a very long time since I ever experimented with any hallucinogenic drugs, but it feels a lot like that uncontrollable experience. Perception of noise is increased, until everyday conversation and background sounds become like some sort of orchestral crescendo.

One way of coping is to try to compartmentalise all this ‘stuff’. Get it into categories, remove the ones easily dealt with, and confront the rest. Otherwise, the rest of the day is going to be lived in some strange dream-like state, looking at one thing, but seeing something else.

I am beginning to wonder if this is actually the true meaning of insanity.

Not forgotten

My Mum died on the 14th of March, 2012. Five years ago today.

I have written a lot about her on this blog, and have previously marked this anniversary of her death. I wasn’t going to do the same again today for some reason, but then I changed my mind. I don’t want her memory to be forgotten. Though I will never forget her, her life, and awful death, needs to be mentioned, if only once a year.

By her own reckoning, she was an ‘ordinary woman’. A Londoner, born into a working-class family, she left school aged just 14, to start work. Her youth was ruined by the Second World War. Long years spent terrified of the bombing, hiding in shelters, and having to cope with the loss of friends and neighbours lost in the destruction, or when fighting overseas in the services.

Despite all that, she got on with life. She married, raised me, and continued to be part of her large extended family too. She was a loyal wife, a devoted aunt and sister, a good cousin and caring neighbour. Above all, she was a wonderful Mum, who would do anything for her son. She also supported many charities, and loved her pets too.

The last years of her life were marred by illness, and problems with her sight. That final stay in hospital, receiving no treatment under the ‘Liverpool Care Pathway’, was one of the hardest things I have ever had to witness. Yet through it all, she only worried about me. My future, my happiness, my health. Never her own.

Violet Anne Johnson, 1924-2012. Never forgotten.

Chatting to Elton John

I was in the middle of a long chat with Elton John, the singer and songwriter. We were both smartly dressed, and possibly at an exhibition, or very civilised party. He was holding a glass of mineral water with a slice of lemon in it. I could clearly see the sparkling effervescence inside the glass. I was leaning against a column, explaining to him why he was never as good in his later career, as he was on his first ever record release. I was trying not to look at his strange false hair, to pretend that I hadn’t noticed the outlandish wig. Then I woke up.

What is it about dreams?

I don’t care that much for Elton John. I have nothing against him specifically, but rarely think about him. I do actually consider his first album to be his best, but other than that, this dream has nothing to explain it. I have never met Elton John, and I am highly unlikely ever to do so. And I am sure that if I ever did meet him, I would not be so impolite as to criticise his body of work. So why that dream? And why last night in particular?

It is claimed that we do not remember most of our dreams, and that those that are the most vivid, and the easiest to recall, occur just before waking. I can accept these claims, as I have no way of refuting them. But I do remember a lot of dreams, sometimes in minute detail. Most are easy to explain of course. Remembering my Mum, recollecting events from past jobs, marriages, even accidents. I have written a post about these before, and how I am often driving, and usually lost. But some defy all explanation, involving fantastic, impossible situations. Meeting people who are long dead, spending what seems like weeks, traversing a forbidding continent. Perhaps piloting aircraft, riding a fast horse, or swimming in stormy seas with whales. All of these have featured in my dreams.

And chatting to a 68 year old pop music legend from Pinner.

Recollections of youth (2)

When I was aged eight, in 1960, we moved to a new home, less than a mile from our old one. It was a newly-built maisonette ( a flat with an additional upper floor) and owned by the local authority, so my parents would be renting it. I could still attend the same school, and many of my family lived within walking distance. My memories of where we lived before this are less clear, though I know that we shared a house with my aunt and uncle. This also meant that I lived with my slightly older female cousin, someone I always regarded as the sister I never had. I am sure that they lived upstairs, and we lived on the ground floor. I could check the details of course, but these posts are about my memories, and what I have retained, not those of others who may or may not have much better recall. I have no mental picture of my bedroom there, or any other room for that matter; and few actual memories of events in a place where I lived for some years.

Our move to the new flat is a very different matter. I can remember a great deal about that place. I lived there until just after my fifteenth birthday, and little of what happened there has escaped me. Perhaps this was because we were the first tenants there, or it might be that it seemed very smart to me, and somewhere desirable to live. We had a shed as well, called a bike shed, though at the time we had no bikes. It was used for storage, and I did eventually get a bike to put in it. The key for this small lock-up was very large. It reminded me of the keys that I had seen in old films. I can still see that key clearly, fifty-four years later. Although the block was low-level, with only a ground and first floor, we also had a rubbish chute. I thought this was incredibly modern, and I enjoyed the novelty of putting small bags of rubbish into it, and closing the large metal door. There was a small ‘whoosh’ sound, as it fell into the large bin below.

We also had a small balcony, though we didn’t sit out on it. Mum got some plant containers to put on the railing, and I remember geraniums being planted. It still had one coal fire, in the living room, but it had a gas igniter, which made lighting it very easy. There was a coal-cupboard inside the hallway, and the coal was delivered into it through a hatch on the outside. I can vividly remember the smell, when the cupboard was opened. Coal has such a distinctive smell. The bathroom was heated by an electric fire, mounted on the wall above the door. It glowed very red when lit, and took a long time to warm up the room. The toilet was separate, something I have always considered to be a very sensible arrangement.
My parents decided to go with the latest fashions for furniture and decoration. I don’t remember the wallpaper, but the furnishings were all ‘G-Plan.’ This was the real deal in 1960. Expensive, cutting edge style, and like nothing we had ever had before. We even had ‘room dividers’, large display shelving units used to give a two-room feel to the one living room. They were so well-made, I was still using one in 1977, when I first married. There was also a swivel and recline chair, with large ‘wings’, and wheeled feet. It felt very ‘executive’ to sit in, and was always considered to be Dad’s chair. Like the room dividers, it eventually found its way into other places we lived in, and made it to my first marital home too.

Remembering feelings rather than things is very different. This new home provided me with a larger bedroom. I was allowed to choose how it was decorated. I chose one wall in a wallpaper that was a photo of bamboo. It gave the room a ‘jungle’ feel, and seemed very exotic to my young eyes. This new bedroom was to become my personal sanctuary. It was somewhere to escape from my parents’ disintegrating relationship, by immersing myself into a world of books and imagination. Part of me has always remained in that room, studying, and thinking. I had my own record player, an old Dansette Autochanger. Playing my favourite records, over and over, until I could recite all the lyrics, and anticipate every change in the beat. At that time, they were records of songs from the decades before I was born, giving me a love for the crooners, jazz musicians, and even the big ballad singers of the day. Kay Starr, Frankie Laine, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Mario Lanza, Crosby and Sinatra; they were all in there, together with the newly-arrived Blues singers, records made many years before, just gaining popularity in the UK. Within a few short years, these would be replaced by the pop records of my youth, but I never lost my love for the other music.

I was given an ancient typewriter by my Mum, which she had sourced from her office job. It was very large, and most impressive. It had red and black ribbons, and could type a stencil too. The carriage was enormous, and the sound of the keys was like a machine-gun. I learned how to use the QWERTY keyboard, and to type at a reasonable pace, so as not to jam up the keys into a metallic tangle. I typed ideas mostly, as school work had to be handwritten then. I also had a double bed, as I was given my parents’ very old one, when they got a modern divan. It had a dent in the middle, like an old swayback horse, and I loved to snuggle into that dent. In my small wardrobe, I kept my most treasured possessions. I had a bayonet from the war, and a Gurkha knife, called a Kukhri. Both of these were mementos from my Dad’s time in the Army. I also had his Warrant Officer leather wristband, and an album of small black and white photos he had taken during his years in India. My toy soldiers, wooden fort, and plastic castle, all had pride of place, even after I stopped playing with them. The large reference books; maps and atlases, flags of the world, dictionaries and bible stories, together with my collected comics and old newspapers, were tended carefully, and always treasured. I still have some of those books.

My memories of the hours spent alone in this room are mostly good ones. I never feared loneliness, and when I felt the need, I could always go outside, and see if other kids my age were out doing something. But I liked my room. I knew every inch of it, from the candlewick bedspread that I habitually plucked at, to the stuffed head of a tiger, shot by my Dad in India, that roared down at me from the top of the wardrobe, seemingly emerging from the bamboo on the wallpaper. And even as I sit typing this, I can still feel that dent in my bed.

Recollections of youth (1)

My first real memory is a hazy one. I am lying on my back, and a dark-haired girl is waving tight plaits in front of my face. She is laughing, and I definitely like her. From there, it jumps to my first day at school. I am five years old, and my Mum is trying to get me to leave her side, to go off with a kindly lady teacher. I am afraid, though not crying, and I want Mum to stay with me. Low chairs, strange kids, and coat-hooks almost at ground level. There is a play-tent in the corner of the room, small desks fill the middle of the space, and it is all very quiet. For a while.

Not long after, we moved a short distance across the borough, and I had to go to a different school. I can recall most of what went on there, as by that time, I was almost seven years old. In between that first memory, and being able to remember almost everything since, there was a significant gap. Of course, I have never forgotten when I almost drowned; something I have written about previously. There are fleeting moments where I can clearly see my grandparents. My stern maternal grandfather, stroking an old black dog, sitting in front of a fire in the kitchen area. My grandmother, hands covered in flour, her body concealed under a huge apron. Childhood illnesses; feeling hot, covered in itchy spots, unable to sleep. Mum covering me in cold Calamine Lotion, supposed to soothe me, but making me cry out in shock from its freezing touch. I was bitten by a dog, as I tried to stroke it. It was lying asleep outside the shop of its owner, on a baking hot summer afternoon. I do not remember the pain of the bite, just the surprise that the animal was unfriendly, and the blood all over my hand.

The times that I was injured or hurt are still very fresh in my memory. Helping my Dad to wash the car one afternoon, he failed to see that my hand was in the door frame as he slammed it shut. If I think hard enough, I can bring back that moment of terror, looking at my trapped fingers, screaming with shock and pain. Out driving in the car with Mum and Dad, on the way back from a nice afternoon out somewhere. On a main road in Kent, we are involved in an accident with a large motorcycle. I can still hear the noise as he hit us, and my Mum’s scream. I could hardly see above the window, so the other details are unclear. My Dad was shouting though, and telling me to stay in the car. It is becoming obvious that pain and problems seem to take precedence where memory is concerned.

However, I have countless memories that do not involve either of these, so the last statement does not hold true. More to the point, why do I have these snapshots of memory? Why don’t I just remember it all, in great detail? That is the crux of the matter, and the whole point of this post. Where do the ‘other’ memories go? I wish that I knew. I want them all back, to retrieve them, as if on an accessible hard drive. This will have to become a series of posts, exploring the strange nature of memory: how it sometimes lets you down, and how it provides joy in recollection. I need to think about it. A lot.

A Week Away

I last published a post on the 23rd of this month. It has only just occurred to me that I haven’t written anything for a week, I have had a week away from blogging, and I can’t think why. It wasn’t intentional, and not due to lack of inspiration. I would like to say that I have been writing great articles for other blogs, or avidly catching up with the blogs that I follow. But I can’t, because I haven’t.  Perhaps I have been writing up lots of drafts, fine-tuning works of potential excellence? No, haven’t done that either.

I might have been reading instead, getting back to all those half-started books; delving once more into the pleasures of literature, and the written word. Films, that’s it. I must surely have been watching lots of great films, ready to write good reviews about them? No, can’t get credit for either of those, as I have not read a single book, or watched one DVD. It’s a little worrying, wracking my brain, to recall exactly what I have been doing for the past seven days. Maybe I should begin to keep a diary, jot down things of note on a daily basis, to serve as a reminder. I could even do this electronically, on a blog or something.

But then I would have to have written something every day, and I have just had seven days without writing anything.

I am sure that you can begin to see my dilemma. I am having trouble remembering what I did for some of the last seven days. Is it any wonder that suspects get confused about their whereabouts, when questioned by the police? We have all seen it in TV shows and films. They approach someone, and ask something like, ‘Where were you on 23rd April, between 6pm and midnight?  The suspect rarely remembers. If they do, it seems suspicious, both to the police in the programme, and to the viewer. I used to think that this was far-fetched. I was sure that I would be able to tell the police where I was, certain of it in fact. I now sympathise a great deal more with those characters. Where the hell was I, and what was I doing?

Of course, it is not a complete blur, I don’t have amnesia. I took Ollie out every day, for one thing. And I remember the weekend well enough, as I went for a long walk on Saturday, and we had a roast beef dinner on Sunday. I can recall the TV shows and programmes that we watched too, as well as a couple of telephone calls received. On Monday and Tuesday, I did some volunteering for the Fire Brigade, at a hotel near Norwich Airport. But as a week, it hasn’t seemed to have any focus, it didn’t pass smoothly, or flow as expected. In short, it just didn’t feel like a week usually does. It has felt like I have been away, and returned from somewhere.

Except that I haven’t.


Bermondsey summers

What is it about memory, that makes us remember summers as being better in our youth? Ask most people about the weather, and they will almost always agree that the summer was better when they were young.

Six weeks of unbroken sun, school holidays spent outside, with perhaps the occasional thundery shower, that helped to clear the air. Given that this might span a time period from 1958, to 1998, it cannot really have any basis in fact. Although I do not have the real statistics to hand, (and cannot be bothered to look them up) I am sure that we didn’t always have fabulous summers, with weeks of Mediterranean heat, and unbroken blue skies. So why is it that this is how I remember them?

Before we moved to Kent, when I was fifteen years old, I spent my summers on the streets of Bermondsey, a South London district, close to the River Thames. There may have been a two-week family holiday, usually to Cornwall, and there were also weekends in Essex, staying at my Nan’s caravan, but mostly, it was ‘playing out’ with mates.

This was sometimes on the still-present bomb sites, derelict areas caused by wartime raids, and often near my Nan’s house, where we played various games on the pavements, and in the roads. We might also venture into Southwark Park, where there was a good play area, with a climbing net over a sandpit, and a large roundabout. In the other direction, the smaller St James’s park boasted an unusual slide, with a closed-in top, resembling a wooden fort.

I might also wander down to the river, where the busy docks were then still working flat out, and look at the huge cargo ships, spinning cranes, and passing river traffic. This might involve slipping past the Dock Police, who were supposed to stop us going in, or just going to Cherry Garden pier, with direct access to the riverside, where we could play at low tide. Once out, we rarely returned home until the agreed deadline; if we needed to pee, we did it up a tree, and we had our pocket money, for any drinks or snacks that we wanted.

The most enduring memory, whether false or not, is of good weather that enabled us to play, however and whenever we wanted. We played cricket, with pieces of wood, and any ball we could find. Football of course, with old boxes for goalposts, and if there were not enough of us to make up teams, then it was up against a wall, or one in goal, with the ‘three goals and in’ rule applying. We would always assume the identity of the star players of the day, and would argue, until allowed to keep our choice. The playmates were generally neighbours, and any other kids who just happened to be hanging about, as we rarely ventured outside our world, the small borough that was Bermondsey.

Being boys (there were rarely girls, except sisters who had to be looked after) we liked to play at war. Although the Second World War was fresh to us, and we still had the evidence in the bomb-sites, we did not restrict ourselves. We also liked to pretend to be knights in armour, using all sorts of adapted implements and household items to simulate medieval attire. We would go to the local ‘shop that sold everything’, and buy garden canes, one long, and many short. They were affordable with our small amounts of pocket money, and with some old string obtained from anywhere, they magically transformed into bows and arrows. With these, we could be the English archers at Agincourt (we had all seen Henry V), or just as easily become fierce Apache warriors, opposing the U.S. Cavalry.

Toy guns, discussed at length in another post, would be prized in these conflicts, and those not lucky enough to have one made do with suitably shaped pieces of wood or metal. At times, there could be as many as thirty of us on each side; one group defending an area, the other attacking with screams and whoops. These battles were not without their casualties. Stones and bricks were often thrown, and the large numbers of flying ‘arrows’ also caused eye injuries. Even if you survived the skirmish, you could be sure of scraped knees, scuffed shoes, and torn clothing. Nobody got an ambulance though, or a trip to the hospital. You went home, to get Germolene on your scrapes, and a telling off for spoiling your clothes. Before getting out again, as soon as possible, to rejoin the fray.

I can still feel the heat, even now. The pavements felt uncomfortably hot when you sat down. Dogs dozed outside houses, grumpy if approached. Ants were everywhere, and sometimes, huge numbers of winged ants would emerge, their desire to fly off sparked by the increasing temperature. You were always thirsty. The parks had water fountains, operated by pushing a plunger, and then you had to try to drink from it, craning your head awkwardly. Older fountains had large metal cups, attached by chains. They were probably unhygienic, but the water always tasted fresh from them.

If all else failed, you would knock on any door, and ask for a drink of water, from a complete stranger. It was never denied, as it was a very different world then. If you had money, you could buy a drink, or better still, an Ice Pole or a Jubbly. Ice Poles were long tubes of frozen, flavoured water, encased in a polythene shell. You bit off the top, and pushed the pole up as you ate it. Jubblies were even better, but cost 3d. They resembled a pyramid, and were really frozen solid. They contained a tasty orange ice, and were in a waxy cardboard container. Peeling off one corner, the Jubbly would appear, and could be slid in and out, as required. Even in the full heat of summer, they would last a long time, and were a great refreshment.

When I moved to the new maisonette in Bermondsey, aged eight, we had communal gardens. These became my new playground. With the other kids from the flats, of all ages, we would play in the wartime air-raid shelters, on the older estate opposite. As we had a ground and first floor, we would leap from the stairwell halfway up, pretending to be parachutists at Arnhem. With earth and grass to include in our games, we would dig out tiny trenches, and place our toy soldiers in them. We even poured water into them, to simulate the mud we had seen in the films. A good game like this could involve up to six kids, with a few hundred toy soldiers, in an impressive trench network that we kept going for days, if not weeks, on end.

When I got a bike, a whole new world of summer play opened up for me. We would cruise around in large numbers, pretending to be fighter planes, attacking each other with loud machine-gun noises, covering a good few miles each day. Other times, we would ‘obtain’ broom handles, and stage elaborate jousting contests, slavishly following all the rules, just as we had seen in the films. Pedalling rapidly towards each other, we fearlessly clashed our broom handle ‘lances’; if someone fell off their bike, the other boy would get off also, and continue the contest with wooden swords. And it was still hot, always hot.

This was pretty much how it carried on, until I became too old for play, and started to read, or listen to music in my bedroom instead. By the time we moved to Kent, I had stopped noticing the heat of the summers, but I vividly remember the open doors, to let in air, and the sound of the younger kids, out playing until past 9pm, enjoying the warmth.

Nothing will persuade me that those summers are a myth, or just a rose-tinted memory.