Look Back In Kindness


Watching Get Carter also reminded me that I have this: A note playwright/actor John Osborne wrote to my Dad and put inside the copy of his autobiography he gave him (and I now have).


If you can’t read his writing this is what it says:

Dear John,
You said you’d read the article — here’s the book. Many thanks for all your kindness and help when I went ‘tramp’ in July 1980.

Cantos [?] Christi,
Yours,
John

I have no idea what “when I went ‘tramp’” means but knowing about Osborne — violent temper, five marriages, heavy drinker — I imagine he was on his arse for some reason.

Though Osborne is excellent in his small part as the crime boss Cyril Kinnear in Get Carter he is, of course, better known as a playwright, particularly for Look Back In Anger and The Entertainer, and is credited with revolutionizing British theatre in the 1950s. Regular readers of this blog will know that my Dad worked in the theatre which is how he would have met him.

I studied Look Back In Anger for my English A-Level which, funnily enough, I took in 1980 around the time he was going “tramp” — if I’d known my old man knew Osborne that well then and that he owed him a favour I’d have asked to get him to help me with the exam.

Download: Look Back In Anger – David Bowie (mp3)

UPDATE: Thanks to keen handwriting analysis by Martin in the comments he make have written “twang” and not “tramp” which makes even less sense to me.

My Dad’s 8-Tracks (Again)


Originally posted January 2008

A lot of you probably recognize the blond bird in the middle of this photo as Britt Ekland: actress, sex symbol, Bond girl and former main squeeze of Peter Sellers and Rod Stewart. Some of you might know that the guy on the left is actor/director Lionel Jeffries, best known for his roles in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Railway Children. But who’s the bloke on the right grinning like he’s the happiest person in the world at that moment? That’s my old man, that is.

The picture was taken in 1972 on the set of a movie called “Baxter!” that Jeffries was directing and my old man had a bit part in it. In the 60s and early 70s Dad was a London taxi driver with dreams of being an actor, and one day he picked up Jeffries in his cab. The two got chatting and my old man told him he was an aspiring actor so Jeffries offered him a part in his new film — playing a taxi driver. If you’ve never heard of “Baxter!” that’s because it was a flop and sank without trace when it came out, it’s never even been out on video far as I know. I’ve only ever seen it once and if you blink you’ll miss my Dad and his one line of dialogue (he picks up Britt in his cab and says something like “Cheers, love” when she tells him to keep the change.) It wasn’t much but still, he was in a movie with Britt Ekland — not bad for a cab driver from Shepherd’s Bush. Unlike me he preferred blonds which partly explains his huge grin in the photo.

After this brush with fame Dad bought himself an old Rover P4 which he called Baxter. It was a beautiful car, tan exterior with cream leather seats and an 8-track player which was the latest in high-fidelity mod cons back then. Of all the albums my Dad had on 8-track the one that most reminds me of that car is Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key of Life, especially the track “Joy Inside My Tears.” It was never my favourite on the album, it followed the ridiculously catchy “Isn’t She Lovely” and always seemed such a downer after that — it sounds like it was recorded at the wrong speed and sort of plods along like it’s all woozy on cough medicine. But there’s something hypnotic about it and when I hear it now it’s that foggy and muggy warmth which reminds me of sitting in that car on a cold day with the windows misted up, having a day out with my Dad which usually involved a lunch of egg and chips with a banana milkshake and going to the pictures.

Download: Joy Inside My Tears – Stevie Wonder (mp3)

The acting thing didn’t work out for my Dad, after the movie he had small parts in television commercials for The Sun newspaper and Slimcea bread but that was all far as I remember. He did far better behind the scenes though and became a Stage Manager at the National Theatre in London where he had a very successful career — his first boss was Lawrence Olivier and he counted many famous actors and writers among his friends. He even got to meet the Queen, not too shabby.

My Dad’s Records


My old man was quite the cool dude in his youth, wearing sharp suits and listening to Frank Sinatra, Dave Brubeck, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. But just as his marriage didn’t survive the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s, his old taste in music didn’t either, by the 1970s he’d dropped all that square stuff and was listening to adult-oriented soft rock like James Taylor, Paul Simon, and The Eagles. He’d also grown a beard and wore his hair longer so he looked like a mellow Californian soft-rocker too.


As an opinionated young man into The Jam and Joy Division I was very disdainful of the “hippie rubbish” my Dad liked and knew that the older stuff he liked was far cooler. He used to have a party at his house every summer and at one of them I put his old Getz/Gilberto album on the stereo only to come back into the room a little while later to find that he’d taken it off and put on Hotel California instead. I was appalled and tried to explain to him just how naff he was being but I suppose it’s the job of your parents to embarrass you.

The record that reminds me most of my old man is Steve Winwood’s 1980 album Arc of a Diver which he played all the time, especially the opening track “While You See a Chance” which would set him off grooving around his living room in a very Dad-like way (I dance like that myself now). That synth intro always washes over me like a Proustian wave bringing back memories of parties at his house in my 20s, thinking I was very grown-up drinking Scotch and Ginger Ale, talking about movies with my Dad, and smoking joints with my Uncle Peter.

I can’t say I loved the album at the time but I didn’t leave the room muttering snottily when he put it on either because Winwood had one of the best white-soul voices the UK has ever produced and the synths on it made it sound fairly modern. The title track is very good too in a jazzy-soul way with lyrics by the great English eccentric Viv Stanshall.

My Dad was in his 40s around this time which is younger than I am now, and I must admit that I do enjoy the occasional Paul Simon or Fleetwood Mac record myself these days, a lot more than I ever play Joy Division. I still think Stan Getz is cooler than The Eagles though.

Download: While You See A Chance – Steve Winwood (mp3)
Download: Arc of a Diver – Steve Winwood (mp3)
Buy: Arc of a Diver

Poor, but happy


Whenever my daughter throws a tantrum because we won’t buy her some new thing that she absolutely, desperately, please please please, must have, I find myself coming on all Four Yorkshiremen and giving her the “you don’t know how lucky you are” speech which I’m sure she finds as eye-rolling as I did when my mum gave it to me. If I whined about not getting something, or was just insufficiently grateful for what I already had, my mum would play the “World War II” card, telling me how she only got an orange for Christmas when she was a kid, had to eat powdered eggs, and had bombs dropped on her by Nazis — which is hard to top really, Hitler trumps a new Action Man every time.

But even if I didn’t grow up during the Blitz my childhood wasn’t without its own relative hardships either, and I don’t mean only having a black and white telly (though, you know, we didn’t get a colour TV until I was 16).

I was about seven when my dad ran away from home to join the theatre, leaving my mother to raise two kids on her own (to be fair to my dad he did carry on paying the rent). This was in the late 60s when there weren’t exactly a lot of jobs for women that paid enough to raise a family, so my mum really struggled to keep us fed and clothed and pay the bills.

Money was tight enough for my mother to burst into desperate, angry tears one time when I lost a brand new pair of shoes (my only “good” ones), and at the beginning I think she borrowed money from a loan shark because one of my earliest memories is of this man coming to our flat every Friday night and mum giving him money which he entered into a little book. Some Fridays she wouldn’t have the money to pay so we had to pretend to be out – lights out, telly off, keep quiet — when he knocked on the door. We often did that on Saturday mornings when the milkman came knocking to get his money too.

The term “single-parent family” didn’t exist in those days, instead I came from what was called a “broken home.” My sister and I hated that phrase because it made our situation seem so grim and damaged, conjuring up images of deprived “Latchkey” kids letting themselves into cold, dingy flats where they’d heat up a tin of baked beans for tea and wait for their stressed-out parent to come home from work and slap them around a bit before bedtime. Divorce and separation are much more common now but we were the only kids we knew in our situation, and “broken home” was a label with a real stigma to it which made us feel as if we could being taken into care at any minute.

I’ve had friends ask me if I’d rather have grown up in a two-parent family but I have no idea what that would be like so they might as well ask me if I’d rather have grown up on a planet with two moons — it was just the way things were and I didn’t ever lie awake at night wishing my dad would come back. Obviously there were things I missed out on, but on the positive side I learned to cook and clean for myself at an early age (on a school camping trip and at college I was stunned how inept my peers were at basic culinary skills) and it has never occurred to me that women shouldn’t or couldn’t do the same jobs as men for the same money, so being raised by my mother made me a feminist (the chicks dig that, you know). It also made me a big believer in school uniforms because I know what it’s like to go to school without the latest trendy gear.

Here I am forty years later with a thoroughly middle-class life and two kids who are already more familiar with flying on planes and eating out in restaurants than I was in my 20s so I guess things have turned out OK. Having a daughter whose idea of deprivation is not being able to play on our iPad must count as a success of sorts, I wouldn’t ever want her to have to learn how to avoid the milkman.

Download: Poor Boy – Nick Drake (mp3)

The Sadness


Some days I’m really, really bothered by the fact that these two aren’t around to see their grandchildren. Most days actually.

Download: Motherless Child – O.V. Wright (mp3)

Every picture tells a story


After my mother died my sister gave me a pile of old family photos to scan, among them this one of my mother (left) and her three younger sisters outside their Shepherd’s Bush council flat — the same flat my gran still lived in when I was a kid and didn’t leave until the early 70s when my grandfather died. I know exactly when the photo was taken because some helpful person (my grandmother I think judging by the handwriting) has written “Coronation Day” on the back which would make it Tuesday the 2nd of June, 1953 and my mother a mere 18 years old (though I think she looked younger when she was in her 30s). She’d already left school and was working at that point, despite getting several O-levels she didn’t stay on for A-levels because the family needed the extra wage, something I think she always regretted.

My mum told me that she watched the Coronation on television like 20 million other Brits but whether it was their own set or a neighbours I can’t remember. Coronation Day was a holiday (in typical English “holiday” fashion it rained all day) and with their pearl necklaces the eldest three all look a bit dressed up to go somewhere, it could have been a street party or maybe just because they were having their photo taken, though it wouldn’t surprise me if it was because they were going to “see” the Queen on television and thought they should put on their “best” for such an important occasion. As it was a Tuesday I assume my mother wouldn’t have gone out that evening but come the weekend you might have found her dancing at the Hammersmith Palais where, in those pre-rock and roll days, the music was provided by live big bands led by the likes of Billy Cotton and Joe Loss.

The Hammersmith Palais was also where she met my dad about 6 years later who, I imagine, at the time looked something like he does in this photo.


That’s my old man on the left with three of his mates (he also had three brothers) and I don’t know when this was taken but judging by the suits I’d place it sometime in the 1950s too. The thing I’ve always loved about this picture is how suave my dad looks, he seems so much more put-together and debonair than the others, his suit just that bit fancier and well-tailored and he’s even holding his drink rather rakishly. Back then he was known as a bit of a fancy-pants and was nicknamed “Duke” because he always wore suits with a red lining, an indication perhaps that after he married my mother he wouldn’t be satisfied being a cab driver and would eventually make for the sophisticated bright lights of the theatre.

It’s always strange seeing photos of your parents as teenagers (and yourself too) and old photos of people you know are unavoidably poignant and suffused with a sort of innocence because you can see their future and they can’t, and not just in the long-term. Like the characters in Mad Men they don’t know that the 1960s are coming to smash the conventions and assumptions they’ve been living by and in my parents case they happened just a little too late, being married with two kids by the time The Beatles’ first record came out. Who knows what would have happened if my mother didn’t have to leave school to get a job at 16 and share a little council flat bedroom with three sisters until she got married, or my dad discovered what he really wanted to do with his life before then?

But then I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this.

Download: Photograph – Ringo Starr (mp3)

Blame It On Caine


The only time I remember my Dad talking to me about why he left my mother and us he blamed Michael Caine. He said that a working class lad like himself was raised to think that there was a certain path your life would take: school, work, marriage, kids. So he did all that like he thought he was supposed to and by 1962 at the age of 25 he was a cab driver with a wife and two kids living in a crumbling council flat in Fulham. But then the Swinging Sixties happened and along came a new generation of stars in movies, music and the arts like Caine who were from the same working class background as my Dad and didn’t following the old, class-defined rules. Suddenly the possibility of a different kind of life appeared, just because you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth you didn’t have to be a cab driver, you could be an actor, a singer, a painter, a photographer — anything you wanted. So my old man ran away to join the theatre, hoping to become the next Michael Caine. That’s how he attempted to explain it to me anyway, personally I thought it sounded a little like self-justifying bullshit, but I don’t know how I’d feel if I found myself with a wife and two kids with an itch I’d been told I couldn’t scratch and society suddenly moved the goalposts on me like that.

There were other English actors at the time who came from similar backgrounds — Albert Finney, Tom Courtney, Terence Stamp — but none of them had the same iconic status that Caine attained with roles like Alfie Elkins, Harry Palmer, Charlie Croker, and Jack Carter which established him as the embodiment of 60s English cool, the good-looking lad from Rotherhithe with the birds and smart suits who even made glasses look sharp. And it wasn’t just my Dad, at some point in his life hasn’t every bloke wanted to be Alfie?

Download: Alfie – Cher (mp3)
Download: Get Carter (Main Theme) – Roy Budd (mp3)


Before I was old enough for “Alfie” and “Get Carter” my own formative memory of Caine revolved around the 1967 movie “Billion Dollar Brain” which was the third in the Harry Palmer series. I first saw it on telly when I was a kid and it’s just the sort of colourful spy romp that would get stuck in a young boy’s head with it’s rather comic-booky, bizarre plot involving a talking super computer, eggs full of deadly viruses, a crazy Texas oilman with a private army, and a sexy Russian spy (played by the heavenly Francoise Dorleac who was Catherine Deneuve’s older sister and sadly died in a car crash just after the film was finished.) With the lurid direction of barmy old Ken Russell it’s like a James Bond movie on drugs and nothing like the first two Palmer films which were rather dour, gritty affairs, almost like kitchen sink spy movies. Most critics hated it but I still think it’s terrific and I’m a lot older now. It also has great opening titles and the theme music by Richard Rodney Bennett is just gorgeous.

Download: Billion Dollar Brain (Main Theme) – Richard Rodney Bennett (mp3)

(Apparently it was Michael Caine’s birthday last week which had nothing to do with me writing this post. Just one of those weird coincidences.)

My Dad’s 8-Tracks


A lot of you probably recognize the blond bird in the middle of this photo as Britt Ekland: actress, sex symbol, Bond girl and former main squeeze of Peter Sellers and Rod Stewart. Some of you might know that the guy on the left is actor/director Lionel Jeffries, best known for his roles in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Railway Children. But who’s the bloke on the right grinning like he’s the happiest person in the world at that moment? That’s my old man, that is.

The picture was taken in 1972 on the set of a movie called “Baxter!” that Jeffries was directing and my old man had a bit part in it. In the 60s and early 70s Dad was a London taxi driver with dreams of being an actor and one day he picked up Jeffries in his cab, the two got chatting and my old man told him he was an aspiring actor so Jeffries offered him a part in his new film — playing a taxi driver. If you’ve never heard of “Baxter!” that’s because it was a flop and sank without trace when it came out, it’s never even been out on video far as I know. I’ve only ever seen it once and if you blink you’ll miss my Dad and his one line of dialogue (he picks up Britt in his cab and says something like “Cheers, love” when she tells him to keep the change.) It wasn’t much but still, he was in a movie with Britt Ekland — not bad for a cab driver from Shepherd’s Bush. Unlike me he preferred blonds which partly explains his huge grin in the photo.

After this brush with fame Dad bought himself an old Rover P4 which he called Baxter. It was a beautiful car, tan exterior with cream leather seats and an 8-track player which was the latest in high-fidelity mod cons back then. Of all the albums my Dad had on 8-track the one that most reminds me of that car is Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In The Key of Life”, especially the track “Joy Inside My Tears.” It was never my favourite on the album, it followed the ridiculously catchy “Isn’t She Lovely” and always seemed such a downer after that — it sounds like it was recorded at the wrong speed and sort of plods along like it’s all woozy on cough medicine. But there’s something hypnotic about it and when I hear it now it’s that foggy and muggy warmth which reminds me of sitting in that car on a cold day with the windows misted up, having a day out with my Dad which usually involved a lunch of egg and chips with a banana milkshake and going to the pictures.

Download: Joy Inside My Tears – Stevie Wonder (mp3)

The acting thing didn’t work out for my Dad, after the movie he had parts in television commercials for The Sun newspaper and Slimcea bread but that was all far as I remember. He did far better behind the scenes though and became a Stage Manager at the National Theatre in London where he had a very successful career (his first boss was Lawrence Olivier and he counted many famous actors and writers among his friends. He even got to meet the Queen, not too shabby) until he retired.

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The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com

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