Chapter 12

INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE 

CHAPTER TWELVE 

‘3 Years (I’m Gonna Make It)’ 

On the hottest day of the year in August 1973, I sat on a thankfully almost empty train headed out of Manchester Piccadilly station bound for London Euston. I’d finally decided to make a go of it and leave home in the hope of finding a record company who believed, as much as I did, that I had something to offer as a singer-songwriter. The previous three years had proved to me that I could perform successfully and build up a following. The response I’d been getting, wherever I played, suggested that, with promotion and a record label’s vision, my music could work outside of the relatively small world of Manchester area folk clubs.

I had no illusions, however, that getting a record deal would be easy. I knew I had talent, but was also aware it wouldn’t be a doddle persuading a record label to take me on. I just needed a break…and a couple of months earlier it looked like I’d had one, which had led to me taking this train journey to a new life, and what turned out to be the beginning of a new career…

***

…One evening in May, I was performing at a folk club on the outskirts of Manchester. The packed room had listened to the songs I banged out on a delightfully out of tune upright piano. As I’d stepped off the stage to enthusiastic applause and went to the bar for my free drink, a smiling bearded chap in glasses and, I noticed, a very good suit, walked up to me and, shaking my hand, said,

“Hello. My name’s Peter. I’d just like to say how much I enjoyed your music tonight.”

Behind him stood a lady who reminded me a little of a dark-haired Joni Mitchell. Peter put his hand round her waist, beaming at her and gently brought her forward.

“This is my wife Ann,” he said, obviously completely in love with her, and as she told me in a beautifully husky southern counties voice,

“We utterly loved your music,” I fully understood why.

Peter continued to radiate adoration in her direction, then he turned to me and said,

“I work for Polydor Records.”

I actually felt my eyes light up as I thanked them both for their compliments. He must have seen that as he quickly added, “I’m nothing to do with A & R! I work in international marketing.” He handed me a business card. “But I am sure someone at the label will love what you do, if they could hear it.”

I was half-expecting him to offer to arrange an audition for me at the label’s offices but instead he said,

“Ann and I are going back to London tomorrow, but what if I came back in a couple of weekends’ time, brought my tape recorder and recorded some of your songs to play to them?”

I enthusiastically agreed that would be great, and, with the plan for me to call Peter when I had somewhere arranged to do the recording, they left.

On the bus home, the glow of potential discovery faded as the black cloud of ‘where the hell am I going to find somewhere for Peter to record my songs?’ descended. It was a friend who lived in the same village as me who came to the rescue:

“Ramsbottom Town Hall has a civic room with a grand piano,” he told me. “My dad works there. I’ll ask him. You may be able to rent it for an afternoon.”

Sure enough, a couple of weeks later I sat at the newly-tuned Steinway grand piano and sang my songs into Peter’s mike as he taped each one of my performances, smiling delightedly and giving me the silent thumbs-up and an encouraging nod of the head. We recorded about ten songs, then Peter packed the machine away, put the reel-to-reel, which he patted like a favourite pet, into his bag and, with a promise that he’d be in touch, he said farewell.

“You write fucking fantastic songs,” he said, as he went smiling off to his four-wheel-drive in the car park. I walked home feeling like I’d just passed an audition.

I was further encouraged when he called me a couple of days later to say he’d listened to the tape, was extremely pleased with how it sounded, and signed off by saying that whenever I wanted to, I was welcome to go and stay with him and Ann at their house in Epping, as he was sure I would need to be in London very soon.

***

Lying in bed a few mornings later, listening to my mum chatting over the backyard fence to our next-door neighbour, Iris, about how “Howard’s been discovered by a record chap in London”, I was mulling over travelling down there. More to the point, how I was going to pay for it and the weeks I would need to feed myself before being signed to Polydor. Peter had offered me a place to stay but I couldn’t expect him to keep me while I was there, and surely I’d have to eventually find a flat to rent. I needed to build up some savings. Certainly the earnings I got, cash in hand, from folk gigs paid for a couple of beers and the train or bus home, but there was nothing left to add to a London Expenses piggy bank.

“Go and sign on,” my mum suggested an hour later, as I explained my dilemma, munching on toast and jam and sipping a nice strong cup of tea she’d made me. “If it’s only for a few weeks that should help you save up for London.”

Her initially good idea collapsed in my mind into a frightening possibility:

“What if they find me a job?” I asked, wide-eyed with horror.

Mum looked me up and down, at my split-ended hair floating around my skinny shoulders and down my back, at my paint-covered jeans and second-hand ill-fitting cheesecloth shirt, at plimsolls which had given up the thought of ever being washed, indeed contemplating falling to pieces as we spoke. She smiled at me as one would at an abandoned puppy, and said,

“They won’t, son. Don’t worry your head about that.”

***

The lady behind the counter at the local DHSS office also eyed me up and down, but lacking the same maternal affection, as she adjusted her Mary Whitehouse glasses to get a better look. She actually tutted as she stared at me. On her ample bosom, a plastic badge displayed her embossed name, the wholly inaccurately playful ‘Babs’.

“Fill this in,” she barked, sliding a multi-layered green/pink/white form across her counter, retrieving her hand quickly as though terrified I might touch her. “Then bring it back to me and I’ll assess you.”

Trying, and failing, to avoid her disgusted glare I went over to a shelf which ran around one side of the room and realised I hadn’t brought a pen. There was the glued-on plastic base and rather dirty frayed string for one, but no pen. I went back to the counter and was met by Babs’ proffered hand holding out a Biro for me.

“You might as well fill it in here,” she said, then as though bestowing a huge favour, “I’m not busy.”

I wanted to feel grateful, but just didn’t. She watched me fill in the first box, making sure I could actually spell my name, then everytime I came to the next question, she peered over her glasses and made an odd humming noise. I inwardly gloated at her obvious disappointment as I returned the completed form, sliding it across her counter like a challenge.

As she read it through very slowly she exercised her long red-varnished nails, like talons prepared for the kill. Occasionally she looked up at me, pulled a face, sniffed, and then read on. Finally, at the box which had asked ‘Qualities Possessed For Possible Work Available’ she read my answer twice, guffawed to herself and looked up at me, her over-red lips staining her teeth as she snarled:

“Singer-Songwriter?? What use will that be?” She patted her hairdo a la Mrs Slocombe, and snorted rather unattractively.

“It’s what I do,” I replied.

“So why are you signing on?”

“So I can save some money to go to London. I already have a record company interested in me,” I said, stretching the truth just a little.

She took off her glasses and leaned on the counter, exercising her jaw:

“So! You have no intention of working?”

“Oh yes, if you found something, but nothing permanent. I’ll be going to London within a few weeks. As soon as possible.”

She contemptuously drew her head into her shoulders, stamped the form with three loud bangs, and handed me back my pink copy. She told me to come back at 9 o’clock the following day, to sign on and collect my £12 weekly benefit pay.

“Nine prompt!” she ordered as I thanked her and left.

For two weeks, I duly signed on, collected my £12 in a little brown envelope from ‘Jack’ the cashier, a kindly old soul with an always grease-stained tie and an off-white shirt with sweat marks under the arms. They seemed to be the only ones he possessed. I’d go home and put my ‘earnings’ in a cardboard box on my dresser marked ‘London Money’, which with a few quid I had left over from folk club fees, already stood at £31. My train fare to the Big City, in fact. Great. The plan was coming together.

Then, on the third week, as I stood at the cash desk waiting for my money from ‘Jack’, ‘Babs’ saw me, marched forward and whispered something to him. He mumbled a “Righty-ho then” and respectfully moved aside for her.

“You have an interview for a job,” she told me triumphantly.

“Doing what?” I asked, as witheringly as I could muster above shaking knees.

“It’s at a paper-packing factory, across the road from where you live as it happens, so you won’t have a problem getting there on time.”

She passed me a handwritten note with the disdain of a nouveau riche tipping a doorman. In her unsurprisingly childlike handwriting, it had the company name and address.

“They’re waiting to see you now. Ask for Mr Redman.” She turned and nodded at ‘Jack’, who almost tugged his forelock at her, rushed forward and handed me my envelope. With a sympathetic glance he mouthed ‘Good luck.’

***

Mr Redman sat opposite me, showing off good strong arms, rather inviting thighs and a lovely sideways smile. He looked at me in a ‘what the hell have they sent me this time?’ kind of way, raising his eyebrows as I told him, with absolute honesty, that anything I took, whatever it was, would only be temporary. He read the form again, as if to find a reason, any reason, why he should employ me.

“It says here you’re a songwriter, Howard.”

“Yes. I am.”

He smiled that gorgeous lopsided smile.

“Are you any good?”

“Yes. I am,” I smiled back, and nodded at him confidently.

“Excellent. Glad to hear it, son. Because there is no way in hell you can work here.”

I wasn’t sure whether to feel pleased or disappointed. I was rather enjoying his company.

“You are an obviously intelligent chap,” he continued, winning me over even further. “And quite frankly, most of the blokes here have got just about one brain that works between them. You wouldn’t survive a day here, son, you’d go mad.”

He stood up to signal the interview was over and extended an enormous hand, which enveloped mine as I shook it.

“Let me know when you’re on Top of The Pops!” he said, offering me, for the last time, that smile.

***

The next morning, when I told ‘Babs’ how my interview had gone she looked horrified, her badge bouncing up and down like a labelled baby on her bosom as she did an odd little dance of frustration:

“Why did you tell him you won’t be staying?”

“Because it’s the truth. I always tell the truth.”

Drawing herself up and shimmying her shoulders like Norman Evans, she said:

“Good luck with that for the rest of your life!”

With a ‘never mind’ shrug I was about to turn and leave, when she held up her hand to stop me:

“No, no. Don’t go.” Propping her glasses firmly on the end of her nose and  licking her finger, she drew out a piece of paper from a pile of stuff she’d been going through when I’d arrived. “I have another job for you! And it’s a temporary position.”

“As what?”

She thrust the piece of paper into my hand:

“A postman! It’s all there. Ask for Mr Hodge. Tell him Babs says hello.”

I sat opposite the rumpled Mr Hodge as he rolled up a rather thin lumpy fag and explained what being a postman entailed. It didn’t take long. When he asked me why I wanted to become a postman, with that long up and down study I was used to by now, I told him my now rote story, that I was going to London to get a record deal in a few weeks and needed to save some money for the trip. He lit up and puffed on his roll-up, blowing out a cigarette-reeking breath.

“You a singer then?” he spat out a bit of tobacco.

“And a pianist.”

“Are you now? What do you sing?”

“My own songs. I’m a songwriter.”

He chuckled and began cackling out, ‘ave you got a loight boy?’ and then, rather unnecessarily, with another spit, said, “The Singing Postman!”

I was trying my best to look mirthful when he looked round me and shouted, “Ralph! Come ‘ere!”

A rather overweight chap, a couple of years older than me, appeared, sweating and puffing as he approached us.

“Yes boss?”

“Take our Singing Postman to his work station and show him the ropes. He won’t be here long, so don’t go into too much detail.”

“Right boss!” Ralph replied cheerily and flicked his thumb ahead of him. I took it as a ‘Follow me’ and duly did so, realising that in his wake wafted the most ghastly dirty-knickers smell. He stopped in front of various pigeon-holes full of mail. “You’ll be stationed here,” he said, pointing at them. “Next to me.” I tried to look pleased.

For the next ten minutes, he showed me how mail was sorted, all the while throwing, with great but smelly aplomb, various letters into their numerical narrow pigeon-holes. As he did so, breathing an odd shit-smelling odour in my direction, he said, “You like tennis?”

Trying to imagine this stinking heap of gasping flab in a changing room, and quickly eradicating the image from my mind, I told him I watched it on TV, but, as emphatically as I could, that I didn’t play.

“No, neither do I. But that Chrissie Evert, eh? Wouldn’t mind knocking my balls her way!” Another terrible vision was created as he nudged and leered at me. I think I actually winced. “Ah!” he winked. “I suppose you prefer John Newcombe?” He smiled a rather surprisingly lovely smile and I felt myself blushing up. “Thought so. Each to his own. Ok! We start dead on 5.30 in the morning. Be here on time, the boss hates late-comers.”

My alarm went off at 5 a.m. and, wondering where my head was, I wandered to the bathroom and prepared for my first day of work. I sprayed myself from head to toe with cologne as a safety shield against Ralph’s B.O. and traipsed off wearily for the first job I’d had in my life. The dawn chorus sounded much more excited about the beginning of the day than I felt.

Ralph looked mightily impressed as I walked in dead on 5.30. He shouted across the room,

“That’s a fiver you owe me, Brian!”

A five pound note rolled up with an elastic band shot over my head and was unexpectedly nimbly caught by the still reeking Ralph. Bath night had obviously not been last night.

He watched me as unobtrusively as he could as I began sorting the mail and, in fact, when one got used to the smell, he was quite a nice chap. Very helpful when I had a query, and always showing me, with great attention to detail, how to bundle up letters at just the right point so the elastic wouldn’t snap, and then how to shove them, in the correct order, into a rather large sack behind me.

Just before six o’clock, with the sack full to bursting, reminding me of childhood Christmases, when my sister and I used to wake up to pillow cases stuffed with toys, I stood and waited. Ralph looked at me, then at the sack, then back at me.

“What you waiting for, mate?” he asked.

“You.”

“Why?”

“You’re coming with me, aren’t you? It’s my first day.”

Ralph stared at me with twinkling eyes and whistled to the ceiling:

“No, mate, I’m not! You’re on your own.”

The horror of my morning ahead was still hitting me as he lifted the bag with a heaving grunt, tossed it manfully above his head, and dumped its lead weight onto my shoulder. I thought my legs were going to buckle under me. Somehow, and without screaming in agony, I managed to stay upright.

“Grab hold!” he cried, pulling the strap into my hand. “All yours!” Giving me the thumbs-up as I clung for dear life to the strap, he said, “First bus goes at 6.15 from Rammy to Longsight, which…” he glanced at his watch, “…is in about ten minutes. Should take you about an hour and a half to walk the round and get back here to sort your second post. See you back here at eight!”

As I trudged out wondering if I’d make it to the bus stop, I saw the boss wink over at Ralph then nod at me.

“Don’t get lost,” he murmured with a chuckle, the strains of “’ave you got a loight, boy?” following me out.

After a ten minute bus ride to Holcombe Hill and a near disaster as I was getting off, the bag almost falling off my shoulder and pulling me off the platform into the gutter, my first stop-off with the mail was a recently-built parade of shops. I’d got out my first bundle of mail on the bus so felt rather pleased with my foresight as I searched for a letter box at the first shop, ‘Cornucopia – A World of Household Dreams’. The door was one of those new all-glass things, and try as I might I couldn’t see where the letterbox was. I peered through into the unlit shop to see if anyone had arrived early, but apart from extremely stylish long-backed metal chairs, lots of glass and chrome shelving units and tall twisted multi-coloured vases from which gold spray-painted ferns were attempting to escape, there was no sign of life.

‘Maybe I’ll do this later at the end of my round’ I was thinking when I finally – and wished I hadn’t – spotted the letterbox. It was right at the bottom of the door, fitted into the only apparent piece of wood in the whole thing, and camouflaged beautifully by someone having painted it the same colour as the wood. I got down on my haunches to post the wodge of mail through and, just as I was retrieving my hand, I felt the weight of the mailbag start to pull me backwards. In panic I tried to grab a parking sign pole near me but just scraped my hand on it as, in horrifying slow motion, I continued to fall. My legs slipped from under me as the bag landed finally and firmly on the pavement, with me above it, helplessly kicking my legs in the air like a marooned tortoise. Try as I might, flailing this way and that, I could not get up. I tried to heave the strap from off my shoulder but it was trapped under the bag. Finally, I lay there with not a soul around and visions of still being there when the shop owners arrived to start their day. I had another go at more flailing, cursing and kicking my legs about, until I gave up, inwardly dying, dreading the next two hours, when…

“You need some help, mate?”

A figure stood above me, silhouetted against a golden street light, his hand reaching down. It felt almost biblical.

I gratefully grabbed hold of his hand and he pulled me onto my side, got hold of the strap and heaved the bag off my shoulder onto the ground. As I struggled back up and dusted myself down, I saw that my Good Samaritan was a boy of about thirteen.

“I’m just starting my paper round,” he laughed. “Good job, eh?”

Embarrassed but extremely grateful, I thanked him profusely then, even more embarrassing, realised I knew him. He used to live a few doors from us in Bury. He was a small kid then but, apart from being about four foot taller, looked more or less the same. I was hoping he hadn’t recognised me and, so as to hide my face with my hair, bent down to heave the bag back onto my shoulder, planning a quick exit once upright.

“Howard?” he said, as I rose back up, “You’re Howard Jones, aren’t you?”

“Yep. That’s me,” I reluctantly admitted.

“Your sister used to babysit me and my sisters.” The years piled on me as his youthful smile beamed at the rising sun.

“Marcus, isn’t it?” I asked, trying to sound as though I’d just realised who he was. “Do you live round here now?”

“Yes. I live across the road from here.” He pointed to a large red-brick detached house, a shiny green Land Rover parked in the driveway. “We moved here about five years ago.”

“Well, I’m very glad you did!”

He looked at me in a way that reminded me of his mother. It was that quiet confidence which is immediately apparent in people with ‘good breeding’ and private education. It’s always both fascinated and eluded me.

***

Marcus’s parents, Sadie and Simon, were the ‘groovy couple’ on our brand new housing estate in Bury, moving in with their young family when we did at the end of 1960. She was quite small and very skinny, with an olive complexion and always beautifully dressed. Her long dark hair either fell around her shoulders or was tied up loosely with a silk scarf, in that casual but artistic way only film stars and models knew how to do properly. She had one of those laughing voices, and threw her head back with a smile like Audrey Hepburn when she greeted you. Her accent was posh Northern, not put-on posh a la Thora Hird, it actually signalled her background, entirely, very coolly, natural.

Her languidly lanky husband always drove the latest Land Rover, upgrading it annually. He wore a waxed green jacket over crisp white cotton shirts, perfectly fitted Levi jeans, and Burberry scarf cravats, which he tied with a cheeky little nautical knot. He drove to work each morning waving at the neighbours like a Squire acknowledging his serfs.

Sadie and Simon were the first people I’d known who wore sunglasses on cloudy days. They were officially the hippest people I’d ever met. Many of our neighbours disagreed, but never to their faces:

“Ideas above her station, that one,” I heard grumpy Mr Sykes next door saying to his wife, just minutes after they’d cried out a cheery, “Good morning Sadie! Lovely day!!” across the back garden.

She’d waved back like Jackie Kennedy from the steps of the White House. Even hanging the washing out looked glamorous when Sadie did it.

Other than babysitting their three porcelain doll children, my sister and her best friend Pam sometimes used to visit Sadie at weekends, while Simon was at the office. I would envy their jolly ’60s get-togethers listening to The Rolling Stones, looking at back copies of Vogue and talking about film stars. Sadie would occasionally give Sue a silk blouse or a trendy haute couture sweater as an extra thank you gift for the babysitting. My sister would come home on a Sunday evening, catwalk the gift for us, and in a dreamy mist of teenage-girl-crush, tell us all how ‘Fab’ and ‘With-it’ Sadie was.

“She has a dishwasher!” Sue once told my mum, who looked at Dad meaningfully, who looked back at Mum with a ‘No, we’re not’ look on his face.

They’d moved from the Greenhill Estate in the late ‘60s, about the same time we did. My sister by then was married with her own kids and had lost touch with Sadie, so I had no idea where they’d gone until this chance ‘meeting’ with Marcus. I asked him to give his parents my best, thanked him again for coming along when he did, and waved goodbye. The next time I posted any mail for Cornucopia, I took the bag off my shoulder first!

***

One afternoon, I got a call from The Bury Times. I wasn’t sure how they found out about me or got my phone number, but the chap from the paper, Terry, told me he’d like to do a piece on me. He sounded highly amused that I was known locally as The Singing Postman, a fact I hadn’t given him in our short conversation. It was then I realised who had called him.

“How would today be for you,” Terry enquired, “if I came to your place with a photographer, and did the interview?”

I hadn’t acquiesced to being interviewed but thought ‘Why not?’.

Terry was very pleasant, a small, stocky man with piercing blue eyes and an odd habit of giggling nervously whenever he asked me a question. I wondered naively if he was star-struck, but it was just his way. He asked some innocuous questions about how long I’d been a songwriter and my recording ambitions and, oddly, whether doing my post round helped inspire me:

“You know, meeting so many people each day on your rounds, does it give you ideas for songs?”

The fact was, most people were in bed on my first round and at work by the time I delivered their second post. But he was thrilled by my anecdote about a lovely old lady, who would regularly invite me in when I was delivering her mail and give me a cup of tea. As she’d poured from her lovely Clarice Cliff teapot into matching cups, her sitting room full of the delicate scents of lavender water and face powder, she’d chat away about her late husband and her daughter who lived in Australia.

“I hope to go and visit her one day,” she’d say mistily, staring at the photo of her only child, who she hadn’t seen for ten years.

She was thrilled when I mentioned her beautiful roses, which looked particularly colourful one morning as she led me into the house.

“Ronald loved his roses,” she’d replied beaming at me, reminiscing about their life together as she boiled the kettle and set out the tray.

She would always finish our conversations with enquiries about when I was leaving for London. My reply was always virtually the same, but, with each visit, as the remaining time before I left got less, she would become increasingly excited for me, clapping her tiny hands and saying, “Good boy!”.

On my final visit to her, as we said our last goodbyes, she pulled my head down and kissed me on the cheek. “I wish I was coming with you,” she’d whispered. “I wish you were too,” I’d replied. For a moment, as her eyes sparkled up at me, her age fell away and she was a bright young thing with her whole life ahead of her. “Be wonderful!” she’d said, holding her hands together as if in prayer. “For me. You darling boy.”

His interview, and my story, over, Terry snapped his notebook shut and asked me to pose at the piano, “with your back to the photographer, turn round over your shoulder and smile.” Two photos were taken, then Terry asked for one more.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Mmm!” I replied, as the camera flashed.

The following weekend, my pursed lips, raised eyebrows and inane expression as I’d ‘Mmmmed!’ to Terry, looking like someone had goosed me, sat embarrassingly on the paper’s front page, beside the headline: ‘Don’t Look So Surprised, Jon! – Our Singing Postman Has Success In The Bag!’

It’s one of the few press clippings I didn’t keep.

***

“I never thought you’d stick at this,” Mum told me one day, as I blissed out on my aching feet soaking in the warm salt water she’d put in a bowl for me. “You’ve gone up in my estimation, son. A great deal.”

I was just thinking how funny it was that sticking at a postman’s job for a few weeks was more impressive than three years packing out folk clubs with my music, when the phone rang. I heard Mum say to the caller,

“He’s just drying his feet. He won’t be a moment.” She popped her head into the lounge and mouthed, ‘It’s Peter!’

“Been treading grapes?” Peter joked as I took the phone.

“Long story!” I replied.

“I’d love to hear it! And on that subject, Ann and I were wondering when you were planning to make the move to London?”

Imagining that was a hint that he had good news, I suggested the first week of August, in two week’s time.

“Perfect!” Peter said.

“Oh!” my mum said when I told her.

“You suggested it’s what I should do, mum.”

“Yes. It is. It is. Yes.”

“This is it!” I said, hugging her.

“Yes. It is. Yes,” she murmured into my shoulder.

***

To my surprise, on my last day at the post office, I was given a farewell card by Mr Hodge and a copy of the just-released T.Rex album, ‘The Slider’.

“Something to remember us by,” Ralph said, as everyone smiled at me and wished me the best of luck.

“We’ll miss you!” the boss said, “It’s been good having someone a bit different around. Brightened the place up!”

“Hear! Hear!” said Ralph, sounding just a little emotional. He even smelled rather nice for a change.

Enjoying the round of applause, I thanked them all, feeling rather touched they’d remembered me saying how much I loved Marc Bolan, and went home to begin packing for my journey the next day. As I reached our house, Enid, an elderly neighbour who lived a few doors down from us called out to me:

“I hear you’re going to London!”

“Yes!” I replied brightly.

“Pah! London! Full of robbers and scoundrels!”

I laughed. She didn’t.

“You be careful down there. They’ll have the shirt off your back!”

I almost replied, “I hope someone does!” but thought better of it.

A few days later, I was waving at my mum and dad as they stood on the steps of our little cottage watching the bus taking me off on my new adventure. I had no idea what lay ahead, but I was determined to do my best to make my dreams come true. Dreams that had started three years earlier after my first gig at Accrington College in March 1970.

Finally, this was it. No going back now.

***

This chapter copyright John Howard 2016

(Some of the names of people featured in this chapter have been changed)