INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
‘A WARDROBE DREAMS’
This newfound self-belief that I was ‘a talent’ seemed to alter my personality. Having discovered myself in my music I developed a new assertiveness. It transformed me from an unsure gangly young lad, aware he was different but not of what that would mean in the future, into someone very certain of his place in the world. In my head, I had become A Star. Basically, ambition took over. Not only ambition but a belief that my dreams would come true. Which meant that anyone who did not view me as different in a positive way was, in my youthfully arrogant opinion, ‘wrong’.
I think timing was important too. Just as The Beatles lost their family-friendly Mop Top image and became more anti-Establishment in both their dress and their collective attitude, I fell in love with them. I read every interview I could find with any member of the group and took what they said as Gospel. Their rather off-the-cuff and often badly-thought-out views on drugs, religion, authority, society, you name it, what The Fabs thought and said became the template for my life at the age of fifteen.
I began to reject all forms of conformity. The previously studious, bespectacled, obedient lad turned into a self-opinionated burgeoning hippie. By 1969 I had grown my hair to my shoulders and replaced my square tortoiseshell plastic-rimmed glasses with John Lennon metal round jobbies. I began spouting extremely naive views, to anyone who was unwise enough to stop and ask me how I was doing, on reincarnation and The Meaning Of Life, absorbed mainly from what George Harrison had said in Disc & Music Echo.
At school, I pinned slogans to the Events notice-board such as ‘Peace Not War!’, ‘Grow Your Hair For Peace!’ and ‘Talking ’Bout A Revolution!’, most of them pinched from the constantly sloganeering John and Yoko. As each of my garish home-made posters was ripped down by a tutting teacher, I pinned up another. Badly designed and poorly executed pieces of simplistic propaganda, they were daubs of reds and greens and lots of exclamation marks. Nevertheless, they got me noticed, which was my intention. I became the self-anointed School Rebel which acquired for me a certain amount of kudos with some of the other pupils, while pee’ing off many more who believed it would, in the end, reflect badly on them.
For me it was a natural progression towards stardom and fame. For the school it meant that the previously admired ‘talented lad’ was now a ‘pain in the arse’ who needed taking down a peg or two. This newly acquired overbearing confidence also coincided with studying for my ‘O’ levels, which caused great concern amongst those teachers who thought I had a real chance of good results in the forthcoming June exams. I had no such great hopes. My positions in the Top 20 class rankings had plummeted from a regular fourth or fifth in my first three years at the school, to a lowly nineteenth by the end of my fourth year. Something, the teachers decided, had to be done.
At first it was a few man-to-man chats with the Headmaster. He’d sit me down in his pipe-smelling book-lined office and with great respect (which I then totally disrespected) try to cajole me into “behaving” and “getting your head down to some proper work.” I would try and explain why I was acting up so much and what my long-term intentions were, but he’d just shake his head and ask me what my parents thought. The fact was, I hadn’t given that any consideration at all.
In my final pep-talk with him, he had another go at making me see sense:
“Howard,” he began, sitting next to me and adopting an affectionate uncle’s tone of voice. “All this malarkey and really unacceptable behaviour is not only shaming your parents but is creating a lot of unrest amongst the pupils. It has to stop.”
“But sir,” I explained as though to a child, “young people have to make a stand and change the world. That is why we are here. To right the wrongs our elders have created.”
With a sigh and a definite smirk, the Head stood, walked round and looked down at me patiently, laying a fatherly hand on my shoulder:
“Howard. We all want to make the world a better place. We all think at your age that we can do better. I was a bit of a rebel myself in my time.” He allowed himself a nostalgic tip of the head. “The truth is, you are a good student, you are well-liked here, but you are not doing yourself any favours with this disruptive behaviour. What I want to know is, where did it come from? You were such a good boy.”
Sighing impatiently and crossing my legs as if preparing for a TV interview with Robin Day, I began a diatribe about peace and love and the after-life. I was in good form today, I thought, and prattled on like a male Germaine Greer preaching to a roomful of perceived dimwits. I crossed the other leg and had just launched into my theories of the uselessness of the Roman Catholic Church when his patience snapped. With a threat that “any further nonsense like this will result in me having to speak to your parents” I was sent packing.
A final barked order as I left of “and get your hair cut!” ensured that, as I strode off down the corridor past a Physics Labful of craning necks and staring eyes, I became even more determined that I would do things my way. The road ahead was clear. The one behind me littered with the mistakes of predecessors. It felt good to be so right about everything. ‘Change It!’ became my new mantra which I thereafter pinned up daily on the noticeboard.
One of the things I decided to change was my school attire. Dark blue blazer, white shirt, yellow and dark blue striped tie, black Terylene trousers and black shoes were “So boring, man!”, as I’d moan to school pals on the walk home. At weekends, I’d taken to visiting The Toggery clothes shop in Bury Centre. With its array of flowered shirts and ties, striped hipsters and garish tie-dye scarves I’d try several combinations out, wafting in front of the mirror knowing I could only afford one. With its links to The Hollies, who apparently had a share in the shop, one regularly brushed shoulders with other dedicated followers of fashion. A school friend told me she’d seen Graham Nash coming out of there one Saturday afternoon, so I’d browse the merchandise for hours in the hope of bumping into him. By early ’69, with Nash relocated to L.A. and his place in the group taken by Terry Sylvester, I had to hope that the less cool Allan Clarke or Tony Hicks may walk in. It never happened.
One Monday morning, I swanned out of the house in my latest outfit of purple dotted roll-neck shirt – with the Velcro seal at the back which sounded like your head was ripping off when you undid it – and golden brown trousers which shimmered like a sunset as I walked. A bright yellow Paisley floor-length scarf brushed mauve shoes which were neatly set off by canary yellow socks.
My mum took one look at me as I reached the front door:
“You’re not going to school like that, are you?” she said.
I told her that, yes, I was.
“Well, I expect you back home by lunchtime.”
“I’m not coming home for lunch.”
“Oh, I think you probably are!”
I walked through the school gates and was met by wolf whistles which were meant to embarrass me. Instead, I preened from within.
“Jonesey!” one boy hollered. “You going to a fancy dress party?”
I waved rather royally and went straight to the fifth form common room, usually a welcoming sanctuary where we listened to Radio 1 and chatted about what we were going to do with our lives after ‘O’ Levels.
I did a little twirl as friends stood and admired. Less impressed lads just sniggered:
“You know who’s coming this morning, don’t you?” one of them said, nudging his pals.
My friends nodded at me and looked worried.
“The Bishop!” the boy bellowed.
“You’re going to be for it!” another lad said as he pushed past me.
My friends nodded at me again and looked even more worried.
As the fading strains of “Jonesey’s in the shithouse!” echoed round the corridor walls I inwardly, reluctantly, agreed with them. My friends’ thin smiles and poorly disguised fear seemed to confirm it.
In Assembly, I stood near the back and tried to look as inconspicuous as I could. My brave purple and gold fashion statement was turning into a ‘wish I hadn’t done this’ moment. I was thinking through how I could perhaps sneak out with an excuse that I felt sick, when the doors at the back of the hall swung open and in walked the beaming, slightly flushed Headmaster. Obviously excited about the thrill and pride of this magic career moment, he was puffed up like a randy cockatoo and seemed not to have noticed dandy old me hiding behind a rather large boy I’d strategically placed myself next to.
My relief quickly evaporated when in sailed the Bishop, radiant in – Oh No!! – purple and gold! A canary yellow sash hung on for dear life round his ample waist, the whole shimmering ensemble topped off with a purple and gold satin creation which bobbed from side to side on his huge wobbling head. Stately as a galleon, he glanced benignly at his youthful flock who all stood to attention and stared respectfully. Sadly for me, some of the pupils were not only staring at the Bishop, their eyes kept moving off rather too purposefully to where I was hiding. As his eyes followed theirs, I hunched my shoulders, lost about two inches in height and prayed for mercy. It was no use. His eyes fell on me and his cheeks sucked in air. His golden sash strained at the waist while his enormous hat bobbed about even more dangerously. I tried a smile as if to say, “Oh look! We twinned our outfits!” but he looked ready to explode. As I squirmed under his gaze he took a deep breath, regained his composure and floated off like someone on wheels to the front of the Hall. I saw him lean towards the Headmaster and whisper something. The two men looked in my direction and the Head nodded. A boy in front of me murmured “Jonesey’s for it now,” but any sniggers that followed were drowned out by a booming “Let us pray!”. The Bishop roared out the Lord’s Prayer ending with the sonorous “And deliver us from Evil!”, accompanied by a resolute glare at me.
Prayers over, Bishop gone, I slipped out at the back of the Hall surrounded by a protective melée of pupils from which I soon broke off and found an empty classroom. I settled down into the welcome silence and immersed myself in revising French Essays. Apart from the occasional wanderer who stared in and wandered off again I was blissfully alone.
Suddenly, the door flew open and a palpable energy of contained anger flooded into the room. The Deputy Head stood stock still and just stared, taking in the offending outfit which had seemed such a good idea earlier in the day. I felt, rather than bedecked in glorious multi-colour splendour, like someone had stripped me naked.
The Deputy Head was a man we seldom saw except when taking Woodwork classes. As I hadn’t had the pleasure of those sawdust-smelling hours of tedium for some time, I’d forgotten how he’d always made me laugh by pronouncing ‘foyer’ “fwayay”, ‘cup’ “curp”, ‘come’ “carm” and pursing his lips rather seductively as he spoke in his bizarre ‘posh-Northern’.
“Carm with me!” he ordered. But this time, I wasn’t laughing.
He silently and solemnly marched me down the corridor, knocked on the Head’s door and led me in. The Headmaster stood with his back to me, staring out of his window at the playing fields in the distance. The delicious smell of freshly cut grass wafted in which momentarily cheered me. But only for a moment.
There began a five-minute rant, and though I saw his mouth moving and watched his reddening face perspire, I inwardly heard ‘Give Peace A Chance.’ With very little response from me except a shrugged shoulder and a bored look up to his tobacco-stained ceiling, the Head stepped towards me and grabbed hold of my Prefect’s badge.
“You won’t be needing that anymore!” he yelled and ripped it off my chest.
I was just about to protest at the hole he’d created in my gorgeous new sweater when the Deputy Head handed me a letter addressed to my parents.
“Goow haoume nowww!” he ordered in his mangled excuse for English, “Give that to your marther and calm back within one aarrr dressed in your schoooool youniform!”
As I left, he added, “And leeeave by the fwayay!”
I began to shake as I ran to the bus stop, and it wasn’t from laughing.
“Thought so,” my mum said as I trudged through the front door.
“This is for you,” I replied, handing her the letter and going upstairs to change.
Mum was waiting for me when I came back down:
“Well, you’ve done it now, son,” she said, waving the letter at me. “They want to see your dad and me tomorrow morning to – ” she glanced down at the letter and read it out, “- ‘to discuss the future of your son at this school.’ Well done, Howard. I hope you’re pleased with yourself!”
“You’re a very lucky boy,” Dad said to me as he and Mum left the Headmaster’s office.
“I’m not being expelled?” I asked, rather incredulous.
“Oh yes, you’re being expelled.” He held up a hand to stop me responding. “You are being expelled, but not until after you’ve taken your ‘O’ levels.”
“I don’t know how you do it, son,” Mum said. “In spite of everything you’ve done the Headmaster seems to really like you. He was genuinely upset at what’s happened, but feels he has no choice.”
“Should I go and thank him?” I asked, moving off to the Head’s door.
“No!” Dad grabbed hold of my arm. “I wouldn’t do that.”
“You are to come back with us,” Mum explained. “You’ll revise at home from now on, and only come back into the school to take your exams. Unofficially, you are no longer a pupil at this school, it will only become official once you’ve sat your ‘O’ Levels.”
The drive home seemed very long and very silent. Once there, Mum put the kettle on while Dad stood quite still in the middle of the kitchen. As I went upstairs I saw the two of them hug each other. In my room, I took off my satchel, set out my study books on the bed and burst into tears.
That summer, we went to Belgium for two weeks, visiting Ghent and Bruges. It was my first holiday abroad and my first time on an aeroplane. For the trip out I wore my new John Sebastian sunglasses, a polka dot cravat, rainbow-coloured cheesecloth shirt and my shimmery golden trousers finished off with maroon leather sandals. As we stood at the check-in desk I tried out my latest pose which I’d practiced in the mirror for about a week. It was the Lennon look, breathing in through the nose and showing one’s two front teeth. I looked around nonchalantly, expecting someone to ask for my autograph. No-one did.
Once landed and settled into our hotel I wandered down to the cosy little bar and asked the barman, “Quelle heure est’il?” and was thrilled when he replied, “Deux heures, mon ami.” I’d just had my ‘O’ level results and achieved Grade Two in French. Along with Art History it was my only really good grade but I was happy. I’d just been accepted into Accrington College of Further Education to study Fine Art and ‘A’ Level French. As I sat with my cafe au lait and listened to Jacques Brel on the radio, life seemed very good.
Later that evening I walked with my parents through the little cobbled streets of Bruges. Mum looked great in turquoise cut-off slacks and white blouson, her emerald green cardigan thrown across her shoulders. Dad held her hand and seemed at peace with the world, having no idea that, in just five years’ time, he would lose his ‘Bren’. He did seem to treasure that time with her and I would imagine it stayed with him for a long time after she’d passed away.
A clear memory of that holiday is the delicious smell from the Waffle kiosks which floated on the air. The vendor would top them off with a thin spread of mustard and they were utterly delicious. I also loved the bitter-sweet taste of strong espressos in wood-panelled coffee bars full of the noise of excited chatter and the smell of Gauloises cigarettes. Everyone looked so chic. It all seemed very exotic. Cafe Culture, which had not yet hit the North of England, was in full swing there and everything seemed to me like a movie scene. Most of what I’d encountered on holiday before were packed seafront chip shops in Blackpool, everyone crowded in to escape the rain which streamed down steamed-up windows. We’d eat cod, chips and peas washed down with stewed tea and the pungent smell of B.O. escaping from wet pac-a-macs.
One afternoon, while my parents slept off a particularly large lunch, I popped into a cafe near the hotel and, as I sipped my espresso, I noticed a young girl sitting in the window across the room. She stared out at the passers-by with a kind of half-smile on her face, reminding me of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. A song came into my head and I quickly wrote down the lyrics which were pouring out of the ether onto my paper napkin. I sang the melody to myself over and over as I rushed back to the hotel, spread out my notes on the bed and spent the afternoon developing what became ‘Blue Lady’.
It was my first observational song, and the earliest of my compositions which I still perform today. I’d never written about anyone else before, my previous songwriting attempts all being plaintive love songs about how I felt, what I’d gone through, the angst of youth, etc. This one was different. Once I got home a few days later I sat at the piano and finished it, recording a rough demo on my clapped-out Grundig. In 2006, I found that demo in a dusty pile of reel-to-reels I’d carried around from house to house for almost forty years. A few months later, I performed it at The Briton’s Protection in Manchester. The show was recorded and became my live album ‘In The Room Upstairs’.
‘Blue Lady’ always takes me back to that little cafe in Bruges and the Audrey Hepburn look-alike who inspired it:
Lost in your loss
Your mirror reflects
What a broken heart cost
Tomorrow’s the longest day away
Lost in the night
Your angels of mercy
Have all taken flight
And left you with nothing left to say
Time after time
You spent day after day
Simply loving the way that you lived
Letting love slip away
Nothing to prove
The stars are your witness
Your alibi moon
Is sailing from dawn before the day
Known coast to coast
You wait in the sunset
For those you liked most
But sometimes the best of time’s delayed
Something for nothing’s worth nothing at all
All the moments you treasured are torn letters
Piled in the hall
Look in his eyes
Where past is receding
Your future arrives
There’ll always be someone’s brighter day
Make every moment
A memory that you want to last
Make every movement
A message whose bottle you’ve cast*
copyright John Howard 1969
*Featured on the 2007 album ‘In The Room Upstairs – Live at The Briton’s Protection’