INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’
As I stepped from the train at Euston Station, on a warm late afternoon, August 4th 1973, the unsolicited thought ‘I’m home’ sprang into my head. Hundreds of people milled around as I made my way to the Underground, and headed for the recently opened Victoria Line. I immediately loved the bustle of it all, and something else, the anonymity. I had been so used for years, living in small Northern towns, to being noticed by those I seemed to outrage, shock or simply amuse. With my hair down a back covered by my mum’s blouses and jacket castoffs, I’d been the local effeminate skinny queen, mentally batting away cries of “get yer ‘air cut, Dorothy!” as I’d walked from my house to the pub. I’d ignored grins and smirks as I’d settled on the bus home from college or a friend’s house, or overheard a kid ask his mum “was that a boy or a girl??”. I’d learnt to look beyond those people, knowing that one day I would no longer be living near them, putting up with them, pretending they didn’t exist. I would be gone and they would be left behind. I’d longed for the day when I found a larger, more exciting world which accepted me.
As I strode through the tube system, hopping from train to train with my little suitcase and record player, settling finally on the Eastbound Central Line, it was even better than I’d imagined. Not only did no-one look mockingly at me, in fact no-one looked at anyone. It was A to B priorities that swept everyone along, how people around them looked was of no importance to these city dwellers. What also struck me was how great everyone looked, so different, individual, all dressed in ways which would have made the idiots who’d name-called me for years back home stop dead in their tracks. They would have stared unbelievingly and probably shouted something derogatory, feeling everso clever as they’d yobbed it across the road. Now, here in this amazing hub of society to which, after less than an hour, I already belonged, no-one shouted anything, we were all as one, assured in our own worlds of isolated, anonymous uniqueness.
As I arrived at Peter and Ann’s lovely red-brick Edwardian semi in Epping and rang the bell, I sensed not only a new beginning but that a road ahead was already being cleared for me. I looked forward to chatting with Peter that evening, over dinner and a glass of wine, about the career path he had planned for me, arranging discussions and a deal with the head honchos at Polydor. However, after five minutes and three more rings of the bell, when no-one came to the door, those plans I’d been hatching were going up in smoke. I thought at first I may have the wrong day. I searched my memory for my last conversation with Peter, when we’d agreed I would arrive today at around this time. Trying not to worry, I settled on a wooden bench in the front garden, enjoying the late sunshine and the scent from the honeysuckle weaving its way round the trellis behind me.
As I read an old NME I’d brought with me for the journey, a car flew past with its radio blasting out Gary Glitter’s ‘I’m The Leader of The Gang’ which had gone to No.1 that week. I was once again filled with the excitement of the possibility that soon I would be making my own mark on the pop charts. An hour later, as I re-read an interview with David Bowie about his recent ‘retirement’ from live shows, I heard a car pull up outside the house. The doors opened and four children piled noisily out, shouting their heads off and rowing with each other as they flew through the gate. When they saw me, the noise stopped and as one they screeched to a halt. Eight little eyes stared from four huddled little figures, and as I stood up to greet them their eyes widened even more, slowly following me up from my worn plimsolls to my billowing hair.
Standing at the front of the group was a girl of about twelve, behind her a slightly younger boy and hiding behind him were two much younger boys, about four or five years old, who peered suspiciously from behind their older brother. The girl seemed to make a decision and stepped forward, stretching out her hand:
“Hello,” she said, “you must be Jon.”
As I was shaking her hand, and about to ask her name, a heavily pregnant Ann struggled through the huddle of little boys, carrying several bags of shopping. I rushed forward to help her and took what she indicated was the heaviest bag and a couple of others which looked ready to fall on the floor.
“Hello!” she said, as brightly as she could while obviously exhausted. “I hope you haven’t been waiting long. I had to pick up the kids and go shopping, Peter called to say he’d be late at work.”
With his mum’s obvious acceptance of this stranger called Jon in his garden, one of the younger boys pushed through, and, hand extended, declared, “I’m Matty!”
I bent down to shake his hand which prompted the other boys to join in. Their sister just tutted:
“Leave Jon alone! He must be exhausted!”
“Yes, you must,” Ann said to me, “Come in and sit down.”
As she opened the door and I followed her through to the large kitchen which smelled of fresh baking, her children careered past us, throwing down satchels and bags, kicking off shoes. Matty jumped in front of me:
“I’m four, Carl’s five, Jake’s eleven and Sophie’s twelve and a half!”
“Twelve and three-quarters, actually,” Sophie said.
Undeterred, Matty continued: “How old are you, Jon?”.
“I’m twenty,” I replied, to which there was a quick huddle and whisper amongst the boys.
“Younger than daddy then?” Jake said.
“Everyone’s younger than daddy!” Sophie said and everyone, including me and Ann laughed.
As her mother busied away emptying her bags into various cupboards, Sophie asked me if I would like some tea. I had never known a twelve year old like her, asking if I preferred Earl Grey, Jasmine or “common-or-garden PG Tips?”. I’d only heard such well-spoken tones from children in 1950s British films. “Jasmine tea, please,” I replied, to which Sophie danced round the table and chimed,
“He wants Jasmine tea! How delightful, mummy! He can stay!”
Ann gave me a look as if to say, ‘well, you’ve scored highly!’ and began preparations for dinner.
“You play the piano, don’t you?” Jake said, purposefully opening the lid of an upright in the corner of the dining room which led directly into the kitchen.
“Oh please play for us!” Sophie cried, doing a perfect ballet pirouette in front of me.
“Yes!” all the kids shouted as one, “Jon’s going to play for us!”
Ann smiled over at me with an expression that said, “Only if you want to.”
I went and sat down and did a recently-written song, ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’, which got a “You are, Jon!” from Carl when I announced its title.
“Do another one!” Matty shouted as I came to the end, and he came and sat next to me on the piano stool, humming ‘Flash just flew by my window’ to himself.
I gave them ‘Family Man’, which made them all laugh when I sang the ‘she’s got a double belly and she’s got a double chin/she watches lotsa telly and she drinks a lotta gin’ line. For days afterwards one of them would be singing it to themself around the house.
Peter arrived later that evening looking tired but happily surrounded by his four children, who excitedly gave him a detailed account of what we’d had for dinner and offering interrupted overlapping tales of my short impromptu performance.
“He’s very good!” Sophie told him.
“I know,” Peter replied, smiling over at me.
Ann stroked Peter’s face very affectionately and said,
“Have you had any luck with John’s tape, darling?”
It felt more like a prompt to let me know what was happening, rather than an enquiry based on ignorance.
“I want to discuss that with Jon tomorrow evening,” Peter replied, giving his wife a knowing glance. Then looking at me, “I’m playing a gig tomorrow night. Would you like to join me for an evening of medieval song?”
“As long as I’m not expected to join in!”
“Oh do!!” the kids all shouted.
I just shook my head at Peter, who winked back.
As I lay in bed that night, I decided I couldn’t stay in this house for very long. Lovely though Peter and Ann and their children were, I actually had no idea they had any kids when I’d agreed to come down and stay with them. No mention had been made of their large – and soon to be extended again – family when I’d spoken to Peter on the phone. I naively had imagined the couple as just the two of them living a Bohemian London life together, travelling from gig to gig watching Polydor artists perform, a kind of ‘music biz’ version of Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash.
The piano, being in the dining room-cum-playroom, would be the centre of the hustle and bustle of family life. Ann obviously loved cooking, baking, and pottering in her gorgeous huge kitchen which was open to where the piano stood, so the idea of any privacy as I worked on songs was out of the question. I’ve always needed total isolation to write songs, where I can sit on my own for hours, trying ideas out over and over again, getting things wrong, re-doing sections of songs, playing a new composition ad nauseum until it’s wedged firmly in my head. It was likely either I would drive Ann mad or I would go slowly crazy trying to compete with the noise and chaos of a truly happy household rushing around me. There was also another baby on the way within a couple of months, which would make the situation, as far as I was concerned, completely untenable. I adored this intelligent and classy family, certainly the nicest I’d ever met, and if I had been merely a guest staying for a short vacation, it would have been delightful to get to know them much better. But I simply could not live with them if I was to stay focused and forge ahead with my plans to write enough songs for an album and get a record deal. The next evening made up my mind once and for all that I had to find myself a flat of my own.
The medieval banquet was in full swing as, feeling just a little uncomfortable, I watched rowdy couples at long wooden tables heckling Peter and his minstrel troupe, as, dressed in tunics, feathers and pantaloons, they sang and played their Elizabethan hearts out. Their audience of executives and their expensively bejewelled wives ate lots of meat, drank huge tankards of beer, and laughed heartily as wolf-whistled bosomy barmaids coped admirably with tweaked bums and tickled chins. Wondering why I’d agreed to come, I longed to be on the drive back to Peter’s house.
He hadn’t brought up my tape at all as we’d made our way there, sticking to light conversation about his family, his forthcoming baby and the gig ahead of him. I’d been too fearful of what he might say to broach the subject, so sat simmering away to myself as overfed, overindulged businessmen fantasised openly and noisily about bedding one of the ‘beer maidens’.
Finally, as we were getting back in the car to head home, and I complimented Peter on how he’d cheerily sailed above the raucous behaviour of his god-awful audience, he laughed and said,
“But now, to your music.”
As he drove on my heart began to sink. He told me, in a very stalled and stuttered way, how he still loved what I did, and believed someone out there would recognise my talent, and make it happen for me, but,
“Sadly, that won’t be me.”
Relieved that the car was relatively dark, save for occasional street lights which bathed us momentarily in a dim yellow glow, I listened in silence as he explained that none of the A & R people at Polydor had liked the tape,
“In fact one of them said he couldn’t understand what I saw in you.”
His voice became a blur as he went on to say that the pop scene had changed a lot in recent months, with less singer-songwriters hitting it big, and more out-and-out bubblegum and MOR artists selling records.
“Look at the charts now, Barry Blue, Peters & Lee, Donny Osmond, The Carpenters, First Choice. Even Al Martino and Perry Como are making a comeback! Record labels want hot pants and hooks it seems to me. Talent and individuality are out, for the time being anyway. I don’t want to say this, but you may have missed the boat, unless you change your writing style, or unless you are extremely patient.”
I reminded him what he’d said to me just three months earlier, ‘you write fucking fantastic songs’, which prompted a deep sigh from behind the steering wheel:
“I still think that, but last week, I went off-piste and played your tape to a couple of friends of mine from other majors, and they had exactly the same reaction as my Polydor colleagues – ‘what the hell are you bothering with this bloke for?’. It’s very depressing, but I had to tell you, you have to know what you’ll be up against.”
His final comment suggested something else. That I was on my own now. As we reached his house and he parked the car in the drive he confirmed that:
“The truth is, Jon, I can’t help you. I love what you do, but I can’t convince the people I know of your huge talent. As far as I’m concerned, you are now free to go and find someone else who believes as much as I do, someone who can get you that deal. I’m so sorry. For you, and for me.”
Feeling like a bus had hit me, but feeling more sorry for Peter, who had steeled himself to tell me this, I tried an unconvincing smile and shook his hand:
“Thanks for trying anyway,” I mumbled, and got out of the car, my legs just a little shaky beneath me as we crept into the silent house of happy sleeping children. Peter offered me a coffee but I declined, unsure what I could find to say at this point, and went up to bed. I awoke a little while later and heard a mumbled conversation in the bedroom along the landing, imagining Peter telling Ann what he’d told me. It sounded very sombre and matched my rather doomy mood as I fell back to sleep.
As I rose for breakfast the next morning, Peter long gone off to work, Ann out shopping with the toddlers, the older kids at school, I browsed the ads section of their Evening Standard, found ‘Flats To Let’, and rang a few.
I spent days traipsing round London looking at flats, my heart sinking at each one as I saw a queue of other interested potential rentees. They were lined up and down streets, winding up staircases, crowded round packed lifts, and snaking for what seemed miles round blocks of apartments. I would get back to Epping every disheartening evening with no flat, aching feet and a dull sense that this was going to be a hopeless search. I couldn’t believe so many people were looking for accommodation, and wondered how most of them ever found somewhere to live.
Then, one morning, in another scouring of Flats To Rent ads, I noticed one which said ‘Only gay men need apply’, which could have sounded a little dodgy but I was intrigued enough to ring the number. A jolly-voiced chap answered, introduced himself as Roger, immediately checked I was gay and then explained that he didn’t want any “straights bringing back palone trade, dear, bras and knickers on the floor every morning, jubes bouncing by me ricicles as I read me paper, ugh!! Only omi-palones in my lattie, darling!”. With more Camp Polari than a Julian and Sandy sketch, some of which lost me completely, he agreed I could go to view the house in East Twickenham about eight that evening.
“Come and have a bijou buvare with me, it’ll be bona!”, Roger signed off, with a delighted giggle.
I walked from Richmond station, past rather elegant restaurants and High Fashion clothes shops, over the bridge which straddled the river and enjoyed the fabulous view of the exquisite houses along it.
“One day…” I thought.
Feeling quite enchanted by the place, I found Roger’s little Victorian terrace tucked down a side street near the tree-lined towpath, and thought how charming it looked. I was initially surprised to see that there was no-one else there to view it but guessed Roger’s catchment of potential lodgers, especially after talking to them on the phone, was quite limited. After the first ring of the doorbell, I heard much moving around inside, little shrieks and huffs and puffs, giggles and whoops, and clattering of what sounded like furniture being pushed into place. I could see a small figure through the stained glass rushing to the door and with a grand opening and a beaming smile:
“Hello! I’m Roger! You must be Jon!”
He was a tiny little man of about forty with wet shoulder-length hair which dripped onto an odd one-piece corduroy outfit, topped and tailed with a little green scarf draped over one shoulder and burgundy satin slippers.
“Come in! Vada the lattie, darling! Excuse the riah! I’ve just washed it! And, by the way, it’s not a switch! It’s all mine!”
He flitted and fluttered about the hallway as I followed him into a long corridor, where walls were lined with photos and framed posters of him in younger years, many of them showing him performing and posing in drag with his double-act partner. ‘Two Much – Are Too Much!’ one of the posters declared, with both rather beautiful young men lifting their Roaring ’20s-style skirts provocatively and pouting heavily lipsticked mouths at the camera.
“Oh yes!” Roger cried, as I studied each picture wandering along behind him. “We were very much in demand, Gladys and I! Glad was a crimper by day, hoofer by night!” He let out an ear-piercing shriek and pointed at one of the posters. “She looked gorgeous in slap, don’t you think? And vada those lallies, dear!! Pins to die for! God rest her soul. The gin got her in the end.”
Not sure whether to laugh or offer solace, I followed him as he skipped through to a large sitting room, full of a kind of decayed grandeur. Heavy velvet-swathed curtains, plush dark green carpets covered by exotic, threadbare rugs, on which several rather worn chaise-longues were dotted around. It resembled a period Victoriana film set, complete with a huge Steinway Grand which stood centre stage. Roger stood aside, sweeping his arm dramatically around as I wandered in, making little gasps of delight as my eye was caught by different little touches.
“You obviously love old things, dear. So I’m in with a chance!”
He shrieked again, clasped his invisible pearls and sailed by me in a gust of Paco Rabane:
“Enough nostalgia for one evening, dear!” he declared and ran to a door leading off the sitting-room. “And the boudoir!” He threw open the door. “This would be yours, if you decided to take it, of course! Mustn’t be presumptuous, must we??”
He giggled and watched me take the room in:
“It needs a lick of paint but it’s very comfortable! Are you handy, dear?”
It was a dark, once again heavily decorated room, with massive beaded lamps on the bedside tables which stood each side of a Kingsize mahogany bed. An ornately brocaded bedspread was set off with fussily crocheted pillowcases and a rather creepy Victorian doll staring at me.
“Oh don’t mind Belinda. She’s my mother’s pride and joy, been here for decades. A bit like mother!!”. He saw my face, and banged my arm with more of a punch than I would have expected. “Oh! Now, don’t worry your pretty little eek! Mama doesn’t live here any longer, she’s in a living-assisted flat in Sheen. Darling woman but has no idea I’m gay! She’d be horrified!”
‘Then she must be blind’ I thought but continued to follow Roger round the house, making suitably approving noises as he showed me every room like a tour guide, providing me with a potted history of how their decoration and furnishing came about. When we got to the bathroom which had not been altered since the 1930s, he clasped his face and exhaled loudly:
“Did you read about that poor boy who broke his neck trying to give himself a blow-job under the sink?!”
Apparently, as Roger told it, he’d wedged himself down there and was in the process of self-fallating when his neck snapped. Roger shrieked with mirth as he recounted the story, which he’d read in the News Of The World a few days earlier.
“At least he died happy!” he cried, and swished out to the kitchen, asking me if I wanted a cup of tea. “I only have Typhoo, dear, nanti all that foreign muck!”
For the next twenty minutes, as we sipped our tea and nibbled on rather delicious biscuits his mother had made, Roger nattered away about himself. Finally, he grabbed my arm and cried:
“Oh! Hark at this old queen! All me, me, me! Tell me about yourself, darling! Just why does a Northern young man like you come to a soiled old city like London?”
When I told him I was a pianist-singer he cut me off in mid-sentence and clapped his hands:
“My dear! You must play for me!!”
He took my hand and led me, like a maître’d would a new starlet, through the door and to the piano.
“Bona!” he cried. “Un peu de musica!!”
As I tinkled out a few warm-up chords he got out two wine glasses from his mother-of-pearl inlaid drinks cabinet and filled them from his cut-glass decanter. Placing one on the piano for me, he clinked his against it.
“The last time someone played on this old thing,” he trilled, “he had a heart attack and was rushed to hospital!” With an ear-splitting hoot he settled himself on one of the chaise-longues behind me. “The poor queen survived, but she wouldn’t tinkle my ivories ever again!”
I smiled at him, he fluttered his eyelashes and adopted a ‘listening intently’ pose. I wasn’t sure what to play for him but decided on something dramatic, it seemed to suit the room. I belted out ‘Kid In A Big World’, and as I whispered the final “Take care…” Roger yelled out:
“Fantabulosa! Oh! My dear! I am in bits!! That was totally marvelloso! Did you write that yourself?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Wonderful! Play me another! This is utterly fortuni!! Mother would adore you!”
And so, as I played, he poured me several glasses of wine and finally moved to the piano, where he stood watching my hands and smiling at me indulgently during each number. I decided to end my recital with ‘Werewolves’.
“Bravo!” he cried as I finished. “That one is SO sensuous, my dear! All that flesh!” Then, he looked at his watch. “Well! Can you believe it? Doesn’t time fly when you’re having a ball!! It’s more than likely you’ve missed your train home, my boy!”
I looked at the Grandfather clock in the corner. It was eleven o’clock. I couldn’t believe I’d been playing for two hours. Roger purred at me and said,
“So why not stay here for the night? You can try out the bed!”
As it turned out, it was his bed I tried out, and, to my surprise, he was extremely impressive between the sheets.
The next morning, he brought me a cup of tea and tickled my nose.
“You thought it would be tootsie trade, didn’t you, love? Bread and bread!!”
Not sure quite what he meant I sat up and sipped my tea.
“People think I’m such a camp old queen,” he continued, “but I am a tiger in bed!”
He growled loudly, and ran off to take a shower
“Brekkie in half an hour!” he called out from the corridor.
Later that morning, we munched on granary toast and honey and lots of pots of tea, as Roger regaled me with more outrageous stories he’d either read about or heard “on the queer-vine”. Without warning he changed the subject:
“You do know that if we do begin to date, you can’t live here.”
I looked puzzled. I hadn’t considered sleeping with him again. But he took my expression as disappointment:
“Oh! There’ll always be room at the inn for you, darling, you’ll always be welcome to stay…but only for one night.” He started rummaging through his diary, and continued to twitter away. “I’m a butterfly when it comes to sex, you see, dear, pollinating whoever I can whenever I can, cartes and dish at least three times a week. But if you lived here, and watched me dragging back dolly omis, one after the other, you may get jealous and bash my head in! I wouldn’t want to end up like that poor Joe Orton.” He stabbed his pen at a date in his diary. “How’s next Monday?”
At the door, we agreed – or rather he told me – that I would ring him over the weekend to confirm our next rendezvous. He stepped out of the house ahead of me, looked around the street, ushered me out as quickly as he could and very formally and firmly shook my hand. I went to peck him on the cheek but he held me in my place with a definite straightened arm. In a voice lowered by at least an octave, he bellowed,
“Well, thank you for coming round, Jon. You’ve been most helpful.”
As he waved me off and dashed back inside, he poked his head through an almost closed door.
“Call me!” he mouthed, miming a phone dial.
I never did.
The small amount of money I’d saved was fast running out, so I decided to look for a temp job. I walked into Alfred Marks Bureau in Oxford Street and half an hour later had secured one, at Telephone Rentals in Knightsbridge. In those days there were temp jobs galore, which suited me down to the ground. There was no commitment, no expectations of working out a career path with the company, I would just go in each day, do the job in hand, clerical stuff, filing, filling in forms, and then, at the end of each week, go home with a welcome £16 in my pocket. Around the same time I also found a flat, though it took a couple of weeks to finally be offered a room there.
I’d gone straight from work to a ’60s block of flats in Shoot-Up-Hill in Kilburn, and queued as usual with a crowd of other hopefuls up the stairs to the 6th floor. It was like an audition, as two bright young things stood in the doorway and interviewed each person for a few minutes, quickly showed them round and, thanking them for coming, moved onto the next person in the queue. I finally made it to the front, was introduced to Phillipa – “call me Phil” which she’d said to everyone in front of me – and her room-mate Diane – “Di will do” – who both seemed very excited when I told them I was a singer-songwriter.
“Bry!” Phil called out into the flat and told the large chap in his forties who emerged, “Jon here is a singer! Just like you!”
“Oh hi!” Bry said, “What kind of singer?”
“Singer-songwriter,” I replied.
I could hear the woman behind me in the queue starting to get fidgety and mumbling, “Oh get on with it.”
“Really!” Bry said, ignoring her. “I’m Brian Keith, from Plastic Penny.”
I remembered the group’s hit single from 1968, ‘Everything I Am’, a cover of an old Box Tops song, and although much broader round the beam since those Top of The Pops appearances five years earlier, he was still recognisable. I mentioned that the band had featured Nigel Olsson on drums and Paul Raymond, who had later replaced Christine Perfect-McVie in Chicken Shack. Brian’s face lit up.
“And weren’t you the lead vocalist on The Congregation’s hit as well?” I asked, recalling a Radio 1 DJ saying he had once been with Plastic Penny.
“Yes! I was! ‘Softly Whispering I Love You’. Big hit! Wow! You’re a knowledgeable guy!”
He led me into the flat and showed me three large-sized rooms, a compact kitchen, no-frills bathroom and a minute bedroom right at the end of the corridor. There was just enough room for a single bed and a very thin wardrobe.
“This would be your room,” Brian said, “It’s not much but we spend most of the time in Phil and Di’s room of an evening. It’s a friendly place, Jon. Nice people.”
The rent was £8 a week, which left me with the same amount for food and the tube. It was do-able, especially as I had begun earning the occasional £10 playing the odd gig at folk clubs Peter had told me about.
I gave Brian my number, shook his hand and smiled at Phil and Di, who were chatting to the woman who had been in the queue behind me. Phil waved as I left and, above the woman’s head, shouted,
“We’ll def be in touch, Jon!”
The following evening, sure enough, Phil rang me. However, it was to say that, although they had decided to rent the room “to a fab clothes designer called Kerry”, there would be another room coming available very soon and they would like me to take it.
A couple of weeks later, that room came available and after a fairly emotional farewell to Ann, and with Sophie, Jake, Carl and Matty squeezed into the back seat, Peter drove me to the station and dropped me off with a big hug.
“I am so sorry it didn’t work out, you know, me getting you a deal and everything,” he murmured into my shoulder.
At which point Matty burst into tears and hugged my legs.
“Don’t leave, Jon!” he cried, which set off the other three kids. Peter gently extricated Matty off my legs, and told his children that I would come and see them soon. That seemed to calm them, more hugs followed and, finally, they waved me off, like a family saying goodbye to a son off on travels far away. I was very touched but knew that this was the right decision.
The Kilburn flat was perfect, even though I actually had the tiny room at the end of the apartment I had originally viewed. Kerry, the clothes designer, had simply moved out of that room and into one of the bigger rooms, after it too had been vacated by someone I hadn’t met when I was there a couple of weeks earlier. My four flatmates were fun to be around. Phil, swanning round the flat in silk kimonos and satin slippers, usually painting her nails and telling us that she’d had an ‘excel’ day, was ‘def’ going places, and destined for a ‘tremen’ career. She was training to be a beautician and never looked less than perfect; Di favoured ‘comfy jamas’, as she called them, in the evening, and power-dress suits by day. She tended to listen more than talk, tipping her head to one side as you told her or the room something. She was studying law, and possessed that quiet confidence which made one immediately trust her; Kerry, an American-looking thickly-mustachioed handsome chap with eyes that twinkled as you spoke, liked to smoke ‘weed’ and often could be heard singing appallingly out of tune in his room to King Crimson records; and Brian, our pop star landlord, the daddy of the group. He collected the rents every Monday evening, and would regale anyone listening with his tales of appearing on Top Of The Pops and touring Europe in the late ‘60s.
We would all spend evenings in either Phil and Diane’s large room, which had once been the flat’s sitting-room, or in Brian’s equally large room, listening to records and drinking wine. It was the closest I had come to that art college fraternity feeling I’d enjoyed in the early ‘70s, where I was part of a group of ambitious young people who spent wonderful endless hours talking about how we were going to change the world. Kerry would sometimes bring home his designs, one-off’s which had been rejected by his tutors, but which I loved and would model, with much hooting and cat-calling, for my flatmates and then, without really asking, take them over as mine.
“When you become a pop star,” Kerry used to say, “I’ll design your stage clothes!”
We both knew that would never happen but it was a fun dream to have.
One evening, Brian came into my room and asked me if he could come and see me at my next gig. I’d done an open mic session at The Troubadour in Earl’s Court a few evenings earlier and they had asked me back to perform a proper set the next weekend.
“We’ll all come to see you,” Brian said.
Sure enough, they were all there, smiling away at me as I sat at the battered old upright piano and did about six numbers. The place was full and my set went down well. Phil actually stood up and shouted “Bravo!”, which got Kerry on his feet to do the same. The guy who ran the club came up to me as I was leaving and asked me if I would be interested in doing a Guest Night, when I would basically top the bill and get paid. Of course, I said yes.
“That was great, Jon!” Brian told me outside. “There’s a guy I want you to meet. He’s the Head of Chappell Music. I think he’ll love your stuff.”
As we went home by cab, going through St. John’s Wood on the way to Kilburn, we passed Abbey Road Studios. I’d only travelled to Kilburn by Tube before so my eyes were on stalks:
“Wow!” I said, staring out of the window. “Abbey Road! And oh my God, the actual zebra crossing!”
“You could be recording there one day!” Brian said to me, enjoying the wonder on my face.
A few nights later, I went with Brian, Kerry and Phil to a club called Hatchett’s in Oxford Street to see a band Brian was helping get a deal. Phil quickly got off with the drummer and disappeared after their first set and Kerry began chatting up one of the girls behind the bar.
“Alone at last!” Brian said laughing, just as a rather smart-looking older chap, and an equally nicely-dressed lady, wandered through the door and waved at us. As they came over to our table, Brian introduced them to me as “Stuart Reid, from Chappell Music, and his wife, Patsy”. I guessed Stuart was in his fifties, Patsy a little younger. They both smiled broadly at me and asked Brian and I if they could join us. As Stuart began asking Brian about the band they’d come to see, Patsy chatted easily with me about London, how I found living there, and how my music was going. She had a very caring way about her, seeming genuinely interested in what I was telling her, as I rabbited on about myself for about ten minutes. As the band arrived on stage for their second set and were tuning up, Stuart said to me,
“Brian tells me you’re a singer, Jon,”
He had such an energy in his voice, an enthusiasm which I would have expected from a man half his age.
“He also writes his own songs,” Brian interjected.
“Really? Are you playing anywhere soon, Jon?”
I told him I had a guest evening at the Troubadour the next weekend and asked him if he fancied coming along.
“We’d love to!” Patsy answered for him.
“Yes! We’ll see you there. What time?”
“I’ll be going on about nine o’clock.”
Happily, the club was full as I sat between Stuart and Patsy watching the first couple of acts. As a particularly intense folk singer sitting crouched over his guitar finished his final, rather tortured song, Stuart leaned towards me and said,
“Well, I hope you’re better than this guy, Jon.”
“I am, Stuart,” I replied, evincing a huge smile and a wink at Patsy.
The club’s manager introduced me and I went to the piano and launched straight into ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’. I looked over at Stuart and he was positively beaming at me. Patsy smiled in a way I soon got used to, a protective love seemed to literally pour from her in my direction, it was almost tangible. I performed eight songs, finishing with ‘Kid In A Big World’. The place burst into applause and as I did a little bow at the piano, the manager came forward, shook my hand delightedly and gave me a beer.
Stuart and Patsy were already making a move to leave but came over to me and told me how much they’d loved my set.
“Oh, Jon!” Patsy said, hugging herself, her eyes welling up.
“Bring Jon to my office on Monday at twelve, Brian,” Stuart instructed my landlord. “We’ll have lunch and talk things over.”
It was hard to keep the excitement out of my voice and instead feign sickness, as I rang my boss at Telephone Rentals on Monday morning to tell him I was feeling rather ill and wouldn’t be coming in today.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked, rather angrily.
“I’m feeling rather light-headed,” I told him, completely truthfully.
Brian and I met Stuart and Patsy at a lovely Austrian restaurant in St Christopher Place, off Oxford Street. It was the poshest eaterie I had ever been to. As we walked in, Stuart dashed forward and shook my hand warmly, sitting me next to Patsy at the table and ordering me a drink:
“You were drinking vodka and tonic at Hatchett’s the other night, Jon. Is that ok for you?”
Indeed it was, and helped along by several glasses of beautifully dry chilled white wine which followed, I listened in a dream as Stuart praised my performance at the Troubadour and how he saw me as “The Next Noel Coward!”.
As he chatted away enthusiastically, a gorgeous mustachioed thick-set man came rushing over to our table and shook my hand.
“Friedrich!” Stuart cried at him, “This is Jon Howard I was telling you about!”
Friedrich gripped my hand firmly and beamed at me.
“Welcome to my restaurant, Jon!” he said, patting me on the back. “Stuart has told me all about you!”. His beam grew even broader as an extremely handsome young woman rushed out from the back of the restaurant to join him:
“Jon!” he said, “Please meet my wife, Sascha!”
Fantasy over, I shook Sascha’s hand warmly, and sat down as they both suggested some “exquisite dishes” from the menu.
“They’re not joking, Jon,” Patsy murmured into my ear, “The food here is fantastic.”
I chose a chicken dish in a goulash sauce with sauté potatoes – after Patsy had told me what sauté potatoes were – and settled down to listen to Stuart’s extremely exciting plans for my career.
“You are a star, Jon,” he told the table, Patsy and Brian nodding in agreement. “You radiate something extremely special when you are performing, and I am going to make sure the whole world gets to hear the music of Jon Howard!”
I remember little else about the lunch. My head began to swim with the wine and the compliments, which flowed in equal measure.
After lunch, from which I’d sobered up with the help of several black coffees Patsy had ordered for me, we walked up Oxford Street and into Hanover Square, Stuart and Brian pointing out various landmarks to me, Patsy smiling benignly as I looked in wonder at yet another architectural or historical wonder. We followed Stuart as he strode into Chappell Music’s headquarters and up the wide sweeping staircase like a twenty-year old, and led us into his huge office, which opened out into an even larger room where sat the most beautiful white grand piano.
“You are welcome to come and play that anytime, Jon,” Stuart declared.
“Anytime,” Patsy murmured in agreement.
“Isn’t this great, Jon?!” Brian said, looking at me like a father might at a successful son after he’d won a part in a movie.
Stuart clapped his hands:
“Now! To business!”
He sat down and motioned for us to do likewise, passing a document to me across his desk which I could see was a contract.
“It’s a very simple management agreement, Jon,” Stuart explained as I looked at it, “basically, if you’re not happy with us, or vice versa, we just –“ and he mimed tearing it up. “I want to be involved with you, Jon, I want to make you a star, I believe you will be, we all do!” He looked around the room and, as if on cue, Brian and Patsy murmured their agreement.
I noticed that my name had been spelt ‘John Howard’ on the first page of the contract, and was just about to correct that when Stuart wrote the name down on a pad in front of him, admiring it like a work of art:
“Such a great name, so very British!” he said, his eyes sparkling at us. “John Howard, Noel Coward, could be one and the same!!”
He stood, we stood, and he shook my hand firmly:
“John! Welcome to our family! We’re going to have a lot of fun, I can promise you that!!”
“Come to dinner at our house this evening,” Patsy said, putting her hand on my arm. “I don’t want this day to end!”
As Brian and I left for the tube station and back to Kilburn, he slapped me on the back and said,
“Well, John, this is it! Stuart will do his best to make you a star. I hope you’re ready!”
‘Oh yes I am,’ I said to myself, ‘I have been for years.’
Copyright John Howard 2016