Nine Handy Trouble-saving Opera Hacks

Do you ever think there’s a little too much drama in opera? Here I offer a few suggestions as to how the participants could save themselves a bit of trouble.

Radames to Aida: “I’m sorry darling, but you know I can’t discuss army business.”
Don José to Micaëla : “Oh yes, Carmen’s hot alright, but she’s crazy.  Will you marry me?”

 

Soldier to Desdemona: “Madam, you dropped your handkerchief.”

 

Cavaradossi to Angelotti: “Sorry mate, you’re not hiding down my well.”
Violetta to Alfredo: “No worries, I’ve had my BCG.”
Calaf to Ping, Pang and Pong: “…and if I get them wrong?…OK, I think I’ll pass.”
Butterfly to Pinkerton: “Marry you? Do you think I was born yesterday?”

 

Rigoletto
Gilda to Rigoletto: “You’re right Daddy, he’s a ratbag.  Let’s go home.”

 

La Boheme HD
Mimi: “Ah, there are the matches!”

Please feel free to suggest more in comments.

Passing Back the Wisdom

kitchen

It was a competition organised by the local bookshop. “Knowing what you know now, write a letter using exactly 100 words to yourself at the age of sixteen.”  That might be fun, thought Nick.  Surely it was only fair to give the boy the benefit of his experience?

Nick felt contented as he stacked the dishwasher and sipped the last of his beer.  Jenny had cooked a very tasty curry, and the dinner table had vibrated with the happy, lively banter of their two daughters. Business had gone well today: he still enjoyed it, but was planning to retire perhaps in five years’ time, when the girls were both off to uni, so that he and Jenny could do more travelling. They could certainly afford it, and Nick wanted to retire, he liked to say, while he could still put his socks on without sitting down.

What would he say in this letter? His first instincts were commercial: find some ancient horse racing results and tell himself to put twenty pounds on an accumulator, and then reinvest the winnings in Wal-Mart. But if his younger self acquired huge wealth through a stroke of luck, would that really make for a good life?  Nick had worked for everything he had, and that made him feel good about it.

Of course he had made mistakes in his life – who hasn’t?  But none that were irretrievable, or had led to lasting damage. Nick had learned some caution and humility from those mistakes: surely he shouldn’t deprive the lad of those crucial learning opportunities?  Ok, it didn’t work out well early on when he had trained with a firm of accountants, but he had been able to use his experience there to get the job from which he built his City career: put the boy off accountancy and his future might not work out so well.

He took the coffees into the lounge and kept half an eye on a high-school drama. Good-looking and preppy American boys and girls filled the screen, while he tried to picture himself at age sixteen in the lower sixth. Immersed in A-levels, struggling with the maths. Socially awkward, and immature for his age. No girlfriend in sight: he had attended a boys’ grammar school, and the only girls he even knew had been his brother’s girlfriends. Often a lonely boy. A boy who worked hard, mostly, who desperately wanted to succeed, and who beat himself up when he failed: a boy who knew he was loved by his Mum and Dad, but also felt that their love was guaranteed, and that love could mean little if it wasn’t earned.

Nick weighed his middle-aged contentment against his memory of the anxious, stressed-out kid, and he wanted to give the lad a hug, to tell him everything would work out fine. Getting tired, he decided to get something written down before bed. He cast around for some paper and pulled out the Disney Aladdin Genie Magic Notebook from the bookshelf where it had sat ignored for ten years.

Dear 1973 Nick

I know things seem tough for you now, but trust me, it’s going to be all right. You will go to a good university, then find a job that you love, and be well rewarded for it. You will find love with a wonderful woman, and have lovely children. You will live in a big, comfortable house in the countryside, and you will be happy.

Don’t be so hard on yourself when you fail at something. Take plenty of time to do the things that you enjoy, relax more. You worry too much.

I promise you it will be all right. Hang in there kid.

from 2011 Nick

He counted the words – 111. Did a contraction count as one word or two? No matter, he could trim it on the way home from work tomorrow.  The leisurely rhythm of the Metropolitan Line could be conducive to creativity.  He carefully pulled the page from the book and slotted it into his briefcase.

He slipped into bed and kissed Jenny goodnight, and soon fell asleep, next to her warm body.

 

Nick woke up alone. It was 10 am. He stumbled as he stepped off the edge of the mattress on to the rough floor, and put his foot into cold pizza sitting on a cardboard box. A naked light bulb hung in the corridor. He relieved himself, mostly into the toilet. Something moved him to look in the mirror. Nothing there to surprise him: three or four days of stubble, the long greasy hair, the belly hanging over his sagging pyjama bottoms. He saw self-pity in the drink-ravaged eyes. Suddenly he heard himself hissing at the face in the mirror.

“Why did you lie to me? You promised it would be all right! You fucking promised me!”

The Rolling Stones, O2 Arena, 25 November 2012

mick

2012 was a good year for London. The Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, and millions defied awful weather to celebrate with street parties, and to watch the royal procession down the Thames. And of course London became the first city to host the modern Olympics for a third time: again the weather was no friend, but for a few weeks in August, London welcomed all nations. In those innocent pre-Brexit days, the city seemed like the capital of the world, a vibrant, open and cosmopolitan place, hosting the biggest party ever, presided over by Bolt and Farah. Tickets sold out for Olympics and Paralympics alike, and while there were outstanding British successes – most famously on “Super Saturday” – the venues were filled with knowledgeable and enthusiastic fans, happy to applaud excellence from all parts of the globe. Although there might have been less applause for the Russian competitors, had we known then what we know now.

The opening and closing ceremonies were of course a big part of the fun, and the Rolling Stones were notable absentees. Presumably they were invited, but Mick Jagger has a record of avoiding what he sees as “high risk” gigs where the Stones don’t have control or set the agenda – for example he chose to contribute a video with David Bowie to Live Aid rather than risking the Stones at a gig where they could only play for twenty minutes, and might be outshone by another band on the day.

rolling stones london

But 2012 marked the 50-year anniversary of the birth of the Rolling Stones, and something had to be done. So they announced a couple of gigs at the O2, to go on sale at 9 am, just twenty-three days before the first gig. It was a working day, but a quiet one, so I was able to log on before 9 and begin the frustrating business of trying to buy a couple of tickets. My colleague Chris put his faster reactions at my service, and joined the chase. To my indignation, work intervened and I became embroiled in a long phone call: but meanwhile Chris continued the search. Before long he drew my attention to his screen, where he at last had the offer of two floor tickets – more than I had wanted to pay, but I was getting desperate. I beckoned the “buy” trading gesture, and they were mine.

Stones ticket001

The price was exorbitant, but if I’d wanted I could have seen a tribute band for much less – there’s only one Rolling Stones. I get that. But what really grated was the additional £30 “Service Charge”. What the fuck? We have grown used to having to pay for things that were once free (or at least no extra charge – hold baggage on flights springs to mind). For me the test of fairness is whether you can avoid the charge if you choose. But you can’t go to the gig without buying a ticket, so it’s just bullshit and greed.

Ah, the Stones. Unquestionably the greatest rock’n’roll band of all time. No-one else can match them for authenticity, for appetite, for longevity, most of all for excitement. I was a latecomer to their party: I loved the Beatles of course, but the Stones seemed too dirty and threatening to a polite pre-teen boy. But Rob and I bought a pre-owned copy of Beggars Banquet, and it was rarely off our turntable about 1970. Street Fighting Man, Sympathy for the Devil, Jigsaw Puzzle, the sly, lecherous Stray Cat Blues, and the rare Keith Richards vocal on Salt of the Earth…amazing tracks. I was fascinated too by the gatefold sleeve, with the elegant cursive invitation on the outside opening to reveal the louche, depraved feast within.

beggars banquet

My wife reckoned she had ticked off the Stones when we saw them at Wembley Arena in 2003, where the Darkness playing a deafening support set. So Rob was the obvious choice to invite, and I met him off the Eurostar at St Pancras early on Sunday evening, had dinner and made our way to the O2.

Soon the lights went down, and the arena was filled with drummers filing into position surrounding the floor. The rhythm pulsed in our ears and we looked at each other: for one moment we were sixteen and thirteen again. The Stones were coming!

The band took the stage with a driving version of “I Wanna Be Your Man”, a rare acknowledgement of the helping hand they had from the Beatles early in their career – the story goes that McCartney and Lennon knocked it up in a corner of the room while Jagger and Richards looked on in awe. I took the choice as a promise that they would reach right back to the beginning of those fifty years. And the next three numbers also came from their first few years: Get Off Of My Cloud, It’s All Over Now and Paint It Black.

Jagger was 69 years old, and made no concessions to his age, capering around the stage like a man half his age, but there were moments of unintentional comedy: Get Off Of My Cloud came across as a crotchety old gent telling kids to get off of his lawn.  But he had some fine banter: “It’s taken us fifty years to get from Dartford to Greenwich” and a cheeky teasing line about the ticket prices, “How are you doing in the cheap seats?”

The playing was loose and energetic. Mary J. Blige joined Jagger for Gimme Shelter, which was fine – although Florence Welch’s turn at the next gig was much more exciting, when she went toe to toe with him, right in his face. Jeff Beck appeared for a bluesy Going Down. My premonition that this series could mark the band’s final gigs – although happily to prove wrong – seemed to be confirmed by cameos from former Stones Bill Wyman (It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll and Honky Tonk Women) and Mick Taylor (Midnight Rambler). Towards the end of the set Keith Richards took over vocal duties for a couple of numbers, and large numbers of fans headed for the loos or the bars.

Jagger returned and the show wound to a climax with Brown Sugar and Sympathy for the Devil. While we cheered for an encore, the excitement mounted as we made out a gospel choir gathering onstage in the gloom. That had to mean You Can’t Always Get What You Want! They finished off with an electrifying Jumpin’ Jack Flash, with Keith Richards pounding out the famous riff: that has never been my favourite Stones song, but since hearing this the song brings me out in goose bumps.

The show was supposed to end with (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, but a late start meant that we were now up against the venue curfew: playing another number would have incurred a hefty fine on the band. With Jagger in charge, that was never going to happen. To compensate, here is a professional quality clip of their storming performance from Glastonbury the following summer, where that epic riff churns on forever.  Just the bow at the end gives me the shivers. Back in the O2, we may not have had Satisfaction. But we certainly had satisfaction.

 

Set List

I Wanna Be Your Man
Get Off of My Cloud
It’s All Over Now
Paint It Black
It’s All Over Now
Paint It Black
Gimme Shelter (with Mary J. Blige)
Wild Horses
All Down the Line
Going Down (with Jeff Beck)
Out of Control
One More Shot
Doom and Gloom
It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It) (with Bill Wyman)
Honky Tonk Women (with Bill Wyman)
Before They Make Me Run (Keith Richards on lead vocals)
Happy (Keith Richards on lead vocals)
Midnight Rambler (with Mick Taylor)
Miss You
Start Me Up
Tumbling Dice
Brown Sugar
Sympathy for the Devil

Encore:
You Can’t Always Get What You Want (with the London Youth Choir)
Jumpin’ Jack Flash

Basil Murray Savage 1910-1994

mr-savage-wfs-0001

You don’t usually remember much about the kids in the year above you at school: any interaction tends to be fleeting, unless, for example, you’re good enough to play in the school football team a year early.  But I remember Andrew Skinner, or should I say, Skinner! because that was how I usually heard his name, being shouted by an angry teacher.  He was frequently in trouble, but to me he seemed wild rather than malicious.  More than fifty years after we were schoolmates in primary school, I know much more about him.

I recently wrote a piece called Teacher’s Pet, gentle nostalgia about my time at Watford Field School, including recollections of my fourth year teacher Mr Savage, who taught me in 1966-67.  Ten year olds have only the vaguest idea of the age of adults: he was clearly older than my Dad and younger than my grandfathers.  In fact he was 56 years old when he taught me.  He was heavily built, an imposing physical presence for ten year olds.  He had been at the school forever – back in 1939 he was recorded as a schoolmaster, living in Queens Road, Watford.

I painted him as old fashioned, strict, inclined to corporal punishment, but quirky and in some ways likeable.  Of course this view was coloured by my personal relationship with him: I was good at my lessons, hardworking and hated getting into trouble, and I generally liked him – enough even to come back with a friend to visit his class once or twice after starting at Watford Grammar School.  But not everyone had my habit of obedience, or got the answers right.

Savage signature001

After Teacher’s Pet appeared in the Watford Memories Facebook page, some former pupils offered a very different view of him.

“Being lifted off the bench by your ear, your hair forcibly rubbed the wrong way, a blackboard compasses needle being rapidly stabbed between your widespread fingers and the Chinese burn on your wrist weren’t something I can say I enjoyed. Not forgetting the table tennis bat.  I was frequently clipped around the head or ear for really doing nothing other than glancing away when he was talking or patrolling. On the occasion he grabbed my wrist and struck me across my knuckles with the edge of a wooden ruler I vowed I wasn’t going back to school. I feigned illness for a few days but my father twigged and got the whole story out of me. Parents’ evening was coming up and on the night he put on his full RAF uniform and peaked cap and took me with him. He was 6 feet tall, athletic and a Warrant Officer. As a one time Flight Sergeant and drill instructor he knew how to stand tall and direct his voice. At the time of the appointment he asked the teacher certain questions – along the lines of 1. Does my son attend school regularly? 2. Is he on time? 3. Does he behave? 4. Does he try his best? And 5. Is he polite? Mr Savage replied (and I remember this very clearly) in soft appeasing tones a positive yes to each question. My dad stood up to his full height and said. “If my son misbehaves then by all means punish in a way that is appropriate but”- and he leant forward and put his forefinger on the nose of the teacher – ” should you again strike him for no reason there will be a hole in that wall behind you … formed by you passing through it”. And with that took my arm and led me away straight to Mr Colman in order to inform him of what he had just said to Mr Savage. At the age of eleven, my respect and sense of awe of my dad went sky high.”

Savage’s behaviour here fits the stereotype of a bully who is, at heart, a coward.  Another story confirms his tendency to arbitrary acts of violence:

“Mr Savage could be very nice and smiley and almost purred when he was in a good mood such as on a school coach trip to Cheddar Gorge that I was on. He came up to me and started stroking my right ear whilst saying he remembered my older brother (who had been in his class 5 years before).  I didn’t feel comfortable with him doing this but kept quiet. When I joined his class the next term I soon realised that he easily became flustered and irritated when there was any behaviour that he disliked, as there was with two or three of the boys. He went very red and called out to whichever miscreant to come up to the front of the class and would say “bend over boy” before hitting him on the backside with one of his several bats depending on the seriousness of the misdemeanour – a table tennis bat for the first offence and then larger instruments like a rounders bat up to a cricket bat for really serious transgressions.

I didn’t want any of the above to happen to me so I didn’t play up at all. However I suffered a very unpleasant episode when I arrived for school one morning. Mr Savage came up to me very obviously flustered and red in the face. He asked me “where is so and so?”  I can’t remember who he was asking for. While I thought about it he started hitting me around the head with his hand which was very unpleasant. This only stopped when he realised I did not know about the person he was talking about. He hurried off to approach someone else. This incident really shook me and I told my mum about it when I got home. She was all for going to see the headmaster, Mr Colman, the next day but I asked her not to as I did not want Mr Savage to take it out on me for reporting him, so she reluctantly agreed not to go into school.”

From a female perspective:

“He was evil. The bat wasn’t only for the boys. He didn’t care what he used.  The board rubber used to fly across the classroom.”

Savage’s conduct with the girls in his charge did not go unnoticed by school authorities at the time:

“After complaints about the way he treated girls he was given a boys only class for a few years until it was forgotten. It was like priests just being moved to another parish where they could start abusing again.”

Yet most agree that Savage was an effective teacher by some criteria. Success was measured by how many of his pupils went on to the local grammar schools: in earlier years through the eleven-plus exam, later through his continuous assessment reports.  My parents certainly thought highly of him.  He was thorough, hardworking and methodical, but fear was an important part of his armoury.  Some former pupils have spoken in his support, albeit usually in qualified terms.  One of the girls he taught commented:

“I remember Mr Savage well and didn’t particularly like it when he went for your ear lobe and gave it a rub but I seriously don’t think he meant it in an abusive way. It was a game of ‘quick get away, he’s got me’ and we all used to laugh. It was always in the open. I was at Watford Fields during the 60’s and have many happy memories. Sure, we tried to avoid Savage wherever possible but back then it was ‘normal’ to get punished for misbehaving, my brother was one of these but it hasn’t caused him any sort of anxiety, we just took it as normal. I was tapped on the bottom a couple of times by Savage in a ‘playful’ way, but I was only ten so had no knowledge of any sort of sexual misbehaviour. In hindsight I can see that it was highly inappropriate but I have laughed about this with several former pupils over the years.”

A boy he taught said this:

“I was in Mr Savage’s class 4B and never had a problem with him apart from getting the bat across the backside and having the chalk duster thrown at you if you were misbehaving. He went out of the class room one day so we took the opportunity to break his wooden bat in half, he was furious but never did find out who did it. I don’t recall anyone having an issue with him, he was strict but most teachers were back then.

The most glowing report of him comes from a boy who Savage taught while still in his thirties:

“Yes, I was a Savage victim. Savage by name and nature but by God he got results and I not only remember him, but his ruler and every detail of his button nose and glasses…and he had a class of fifty pupils.  He taught me to observe and love live and to take an interest in whatever. I still remember most of the poems that we were obliged to learn by him and that was in 1949. I got a scholarship to Watford Boys Grammar and from there bigger and better things. I thank Savage for most of my education. I learnt more in that one year that has lasted me a lifetime, and I am now 82.”

 

Teacher’s Pet was intended as a light-hearted piece.  It was the truth through my eyes, but it wasn’t the whole truth.  I omitted the story of my worst experience of Savage, which still troubles me, and which I have previously shared with just one person.  But if Andrew Skinner has the courage to tell his story, it shouldn’t be so difficult for me.

One afternoon Mr Savage was called out of class.  He set the class some reading, and as I was one of his favourites, and regarded as reliable, he instructed me to write down the names of any children who spoke while he was gone.  Of course, we were lively kids, and after a couple of minutes there was already quite a hubbub.  I set about my task diligently, perhaps vengefully, recording friends and foes alike, annoyed that the “authority” I had been given was being ignored.  There were nearly fifty in the class, and so many were now talking that I struggled to keep up and became flustered.  Little Robespierre that I was, I took the instruction literally: one well behaved and good natured boy, whom I counted among my friends, politely asked whether he was on the list.  Well he was now.

When the noise had built to a crescendo, the door suddenly opened and Savage strode back into the classroom.  He took the list from me, and called the names from it one by one – I think this included the girls – and made each kid – bad and good – bend over, and hit them on the backside with what I recall as an outsize table tennis bat.

Soon after he had finished, the bell rang for afternoon break, and a sombre class filed out into the playground.  I stood on my own in a corner, horrified at what I had wrought, unable to face my friends.  One or two kids did approach me, though – the louder ones, hardened by habitual punishment, to ask why I’d failed to put them on the list.

If anyone held a grudge, it didn’t last for more than a day or so, but the memory stayed with me.  So much that in the age of social media, I made contact with one of the victims – the one who had asked if he was on the list – and apologised.  He had no recollection of the incident, but I have found it harder to forget.

 

The tone of gentle nostalgia in Teacher’s Pet struck an especially false note for Andrew Skinner.  He commented:

“I am glad he didn’t harm you. Fifty four years later and I am still suffering from the damage that man did to me.”

Skinner is autistic but was diagnosed only recently.  In the 1960s when he was at primary school, autistic behaviour was not widely understood, and was not distinguished from misconduct.  Many teachers thought the remedy was a good beating.  Skinner describes one experience in vivid terms:

“Mr Savage lost his temper with me and launched an assault. He slapped me around the head, body and backside until I blacked out and lost consciousness from the pain. I came round in a pool of my own urine and dragged myself to my desk as he continued to beat me. My life was effectively destroyed by that man.  My life and self-respect died that day.”

The trigger for this assault was astonishingly trivial.  Another boy had knocked the blackboard off its easel – clumsily rather than deliberately – as the class filed back in after lunch, and Savage blamed Skinner.  The punishment was inappropriate for an accidental offence and it was given to the wrong person, but most damagingly it was hugely excessive. Only recently has Skinner found some closure for this trauma:

“I made a report to the police over fifty years after the horrendous abuse took place. I spoke to a specialist historic abuse team who were very sympathetic and they took a statement. They came back to me and told me that they could find no trace of him still being alive and at that time they had not received any other complaints. It was good to be listened to. This along with the comments made here (Facebook) by other victims helps with a sense of validation.”

I contacted Skinner to ask his permission to tell his story.  He summarised his view of Savage:

“It is true that he could be charming, inspirational, funny and that he got results. He was also a petty tyrant who ruled by fear.  He regularly casually struck students around the head, seemed to take pleasure in hitting both boys and girls with his bat and occasionally completely lost control and launched attacks like the one I suffered.”

As Skinner went on to Watford Grammar School, ironically Savage may have regarded him as one of his “successes”.  At the age of 64, Skinner is now a 7th dan black belt kick-boxer teaching 15 classes a week, and his Facebook page shows a good life and a happy family.   So I gently questioned his assertion that Savage had destroyed his life.  This was his response:

“The experience had far reaching, some permanent impacts. My self-confidence and self-esteem were shattered and there was an impact on my sexuality and ability to make and maintain relationships. I still have nightmares and have had periods of clinical depression and anxiety. I really only started addressing it a couple of years ago when I had a very late diagnosis of ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) which made sense of a lot of other experiences. Yes I have had two successful careers and am very lucky in my second marriage. I have seen the world and enjoyed some great experiences. This has been despite the experience.”

Skinner seems to have received little parental support.  In response to the story above which concerns the RAF father, he posted

“I wish I had a dad like yours. If I had complained to my father even after he beat me unconscious I would have been in more trouble for getting in trouble at school.”

His parents’ perspective may have been to welcome the school’s help in curbing what they saw as the bad behaviour of their son.

Former pupils’ recollections of Savage fall into three broad categories.  There are those who did not (often) get on the wrong side of him, and perhaps look back on him tolerantly – although in my case, he still left his mark.  There are those who frequently behaved badly, but recognise that their bad behaviour was a choice: they knew what the likely punishment was and accepted that they “had it coming”, and that it was “the way things were done in those days”.

But the third category is where the damage was done, in cases where children felt there was injustice, perhaps because Savage hit them when they had not misbehaved, or merely for getting an answer wrong, or where there was extreme violence.  In Skinner’s case his autism meant he was not able to modify his behaviour – perhaps distraction, staring or an expression of confusion being mistaken for insolence – and he was severely punished for something outside his control.

Corporal punishment was widespread at the time, particularly at more traditional schools, and it may be that most children suffered no lasting damage from proportionate discipline – if seen as just, by contemporary standards.  But where injustice is perceived, or the punishment is excessive, it creates a grievance which can cast a long and dark shadow.

Savage has been dead for twenty-six years, and has been put on trial on Facebook with no chance of reply.  We should not judge him for his failure to recognise autism – very few did back then.  His teaching methods – when kept within reasonable limits – were effective, and not unusual by the standards of the 1960s.  And we don’t know whether he might himself have been the victim of violence in his childhood, or traumatic wartime experiences.  But he has had his supporters in this debate, and none has denied that he regularly hit children or that they feared him: meanwhile others have confirmed the extreme severity of his punishments.   His repeated bullying of children, and the awful violence of his attacks when he lost his temper – these are difficult to forgive, and for some, impossible.

Of course Andrew would always have had to try to manage his autism, but his traumatic and violent memories – caused by the absence of diagnosis and by Savage’s temper – mean that it has taken most of a lifetime to rebuild his self-esteem and his life from zero.  With ongoing therapy, it is still a work in progress.

savage grave

(Thanks to Andy Skinner for allowing me to tell his story, and to a former classmate for the photo of Savage.)

Paddington Bear and the Cholesterol Bath

It started with Paddington 2. That film inspired Debbie to make many jars of delicious marmalade from the carton of Seville oranges she unexpectedly acquired in Waitrose.

Hitherto breakfast at Edwards Towers had been a snatched, casual meal: a bowl of Weetabix before my run, or Shreddies afterwards, cereal in bed as a weekend treat: or when still at work, scone fed into my mouth with eyes on my screens as I logged in, scrutinising my emails for anything remotely interesting, or discussing the day ahead or the weekend past with my colleague.

The making of the marmalade has changed everything. The table is set, orange juice is poured, porridge and toast are prepared, and the cafetière is reached down into service. Breakfast is becoming ever more formal. Come back in a couple of months and you’ll find me sporting whiskers and a white napkin while a rosy-cheeked maid serves me my kippers, eggs and tomatoes under a silver cloche, and my butler hands me a freshly ironed copy of The Times, from which I emerge occasionally to offer comments like “Trouble brewing in the Baltics, m’dear.”

This new routine is very pleasant, of course, but it represents change, and change can be difficult for me. Just ask the lovely fellow who worked at Moorgate Buttery. So set were my habits that I acquired the nickname “Brown Scone and Orange Juice” – he would spot me in the distance picking my way round the Crossrail works, and have my breakfast lined up on the counter as I walked in. I sometimes wonder whether retirement might have been a mistake, if the price of leisure is forgoing that sort of service.

When the plucky Buttery was eventually consumed by the building site I had to devise a new breakfast regime, just as I was reaching the age where I felt that nothing should, ever, change again. It was a difficult few months. I must have been unbearable, and if you’re reading this Chris, I’m sorry.

Breakfast is a variable feast, at its best when you take a break in a hotel or B&B in Britain. Being no chef, I approach this from the perspective of the gourmet, or, at least, the glutton. On the first morning, I can never resist the full English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish/Cornish etc. Usually you will be elsewhere for lunch and often will choose to dine in a different restaurant, so breakfast is critical to your assessment of the hospitality. Large hotels too often leave you to forage amongst dried up slivers of bacon, congealed scrambled eggs and greasy lukewarm frankfurters. Posh hotels will sometimes plate up a breakfast for you which in theory has all the ingredients, but where they are not, as it were, talking to each other: egg, sausage, bacon, tomato and mushrooms isolated like strangers at an awkward party.

But the real treats are to be found at smaller inns and B&Bs, where a hearty plateful is the norm, with the constituents in joyful harmony. My list of core ingredients would include sausage, bacon, fried egg, fried tomato and mushrooms, while welcome additions would be baked beans, fried bread, and black pudding. Hash browns are a transatlantic addition, but can be allowed. Tinned plum tomatoes are not: they are a cooking ingredient. Not everyone likes baked beans in the mix, and they will often be served in a pot: “Free the beans” is the cry as I tip them out to join the team on the plate.

Essential accompaniments include fresh orange juice (not that pasteurised muck), toast and marmalade (a full English – although very filling – contains few carbohydrates, so you must pay attention to fuelling yourself properly) and coffee refilled to order.

The most delicious and awe-inspiring cooked breakfast I have eaten was at Redgate Smithy B&B formerly run by my friend and schoolmate Clive. The full Cornish was a wonder to behold, and can still sometimes be viewed on satellite images.  I had to call on my marathon endurance skills to finish it, but did I give up? No sir, I did not. It certainly repaid the effort.

Of course, some private houses serve an excellent cooked breakfast: my brother Rob’s famous Cholesterol Bath, often served as a farewell meal, springs to mind. If we care about our health, this should not become a regular habit. But I’ll leave you with the thought that Field Marshal Montgomery was said to have polished off a full English every morning during his North Africa campaign – a possible origin of the phrase “the full monty” – and he lived to be eighty-eight.

Teacher’s Pet

Watford Field 1A
Watford Field Junior School, class 1A with Mrs Stanton, 1963/64

Everyone knew who Jacobs was. He was tall for an 11-year old, and he was black, and as one of just two black kids in our school he stood out. Whether he was actually a troublemaker I couldn’t say – I was in 2A and he was in 4B – but Mr Savage (yes, that was his name) certainly thought he was. So Mr Savage made straight for him when he saw a ruckus developing in the playground.

“Who started this? Jacobs, was it you?”
“Not I, sir.”
“Don’t say not I, Jacobs. Not me!”

I had already embarked on a lifetime journey of pedantry, and sensed that an injustice had been done. But I didn’t get involved: I was Mr Savage’s favourite, and there was no reason to put that at risk.

With hindsight that status conferred doubtful benefits. Savage had a peculiar gesture which he reserved for his favourite boys: he made a V shape with the forefinger and middle finger of his right hand, which he slid down over the top of my ear after I’d given a correct answer, saying “Arr, Edwarrds” in his Cornish burr. That might not have got him arrested, even these days, but certainly it felt strange.

By the time I reached Mr Savage’s class, 4A, I was also favoured, presumably due to my small stature, when he sought to demonstrate the technique for dividing by a fraction. He put me on a seat, bent down to seize my ankles and dangled me in the air. “Turn upside down and multiply!” he said. He didn’t act out the multiplication. “I should really be doing this to Gillian Bone” he said, referring to a bright but talkative girl repeating her final year in primary school, “but it wouldn’t be allowed”. No sir, it wouldn’t.

He could be fun, though. Sometimes in the summer term, probably after he had completed the continuous assessment reports which would largely determine our secondary schools – and perhaps set our courses for life – he would announce that as the sun was shining, we were going to have a game of cricket in the playground. We would file out of mid-morning lessons and take turns to bowl, and to bat at a spring-loaded wicket on a wooden base, sitting on the tarmac. The ball must have got up quite high, but I don’t remember any casualties. I can’t recall, though, whether the girls took part in this activity, and now I wonder if they might have been still in the classroom, getting an early briefing on the facts of life.

Mr Savage was a disciplinarian, and sometimes used what looked like an oversized table tennis bat on unruly boys – and sometimes girls – to keep order. At the time he probably felt, like most of his contemporaries, that corporal punishment was a crucial part of his armoury – he had a class of nearly fifty. Meanwhile Mr McDonald ruled 4B in military style – when you reached the fourth year, there was no escape, it was one or the other.

I started at Watford Field Junior School in September 1963, having attended Oaklands Avenue Infants’ School – a tranquil little place nestling in pleasant Oxhey suburbia, with kindly lady teachers, just two classes, mostly well behaved pupils and plenty of grass and trees. Watford Field was altogether more mixed, situated near the centre of town, with a tarmac playground.

On my first morning I was ill at ease. But at break time on my first day my brother – three years older – came over to where I was tentatively playing with friends from infants’ school and introduced me to some of his big friends, who ran around and played games with us for a while. I felt honoured and protected.

Half way through my first year, my family moved from leafy Oxhey, one mile from school, to leafier Chorleywood, six miles away. Me being such a swot, Mrs Stanton, usually undemonstrative, was aghast when I told her about the move, until I reassured her that I would be remaining at the school: our mother worked in South Oxhey, and was able to drive us to and from school each day. But living so far from school certainly made play dates more difficult.

In the playground, the default activity was football, but bouncy balls weren’t allowed: classroom windows overlooked the playground, as did the back windows of the houses in Tucker Street. So a short cut to popularity was to have your mum or grandma sew up a nice tight ball out of your dad’s old socks, and there would be a few days of high quality football (using the markings of the netball court) before the ball became ragged and limp. Some kids would game the rules and put a tennis ball in the middle, but anything bouncing too high would soon be confiscated.

I dreaded the cold weather: while the other boys whizzed around on lethal ice “slides” I would stamp my feet and shiver, just counting the interminable minutes until we were allowed back in the building.

Supervised sports were conducted on the eponymous Field, and one time Mr McDonald was trying to lick the football team into shape when Watford FC manager Ken Furphy rocked up and took a turn. If he was scouting for the youth team, he was disappointed. “You could drive a bus through that defence” was his comment. Furphy had children at the school, Susan and Keith, likeable kids with none of the swagger which might have come from having such a famous dad. Ron Rollitt, secretary at Watford FC also had twin boys at the school, Michael and David, among my friends in class.

My football career was mixed: despite my size I was good enough to be on the fringes of the school team, and was proud to put on the light and dark blue hooped WFS shirt. We had a run of three fixtures in six days: just before the first of them we were confined by rain to the classroom at lunchtime. Someone threw a paper dart in my direction which I ducked with such vigour that I cut my forehead open on the desk. Blood was pouring from the wound, and after being patched up I was driven by the headmaster Mr Colman in his white sports car to Watford Peace, where the injury required several stitches. When the excitement of all this attention had worn off, I was devastated to be missing three games, just when I had become a regular selection. Mr McDonald showed his kinder side by allowing me to attend the third match as a linesman.

In my second year I managed to lose my football boots. I can’t remember how, but I must have felt responsible, because I raised no objection when Mum and Dad told me to replace them cheaply from the secondhand pool run by one of the teachers. So at lunchtime with heavy heart I went to see Miss M, a woman of Rosa Klebb demeanour, who brought out a dusty box of horrible, uncomfortable looking old boots, more Dixie Dean than Bobby Charlton. I couldn’t bring myself to try any on. The rejection must have stung Miss M: at morning assembly next day there was a pointed announcement about boys refusing “perfectly good boots”. I wasn’t named, but I’m sure anyone watching would have noticed me turning bright red. When I told Mum and Dad about this humiliation, they relented and agreed to buy me a new pair.

A better football memory was from a Saturday morning match: chosen to take a free kick, I booted the heavy, wet leather ball hopefully in the general direction of the mob in the penalty box, but nobody got a touch and it trickled inside the far post. I couldn’t pretend it was planned that way, but hey, a goal is a goal.

I was also fond of cricket, and was batting in a supervised after-school game on the field when a girl from the year above me came in to bat at the other end. Sceptical comments were silenced when she faced her first ball and whacked it to the boundary. We developed a good understanding between the wickets and put on about forty runs together. I was thrilled to be in a successful partnership with a girl.

Rik
What Alan Bennett has described as “a fully developed ability not quite to enjoy myself”

The old school was old school: seven eights are fifty-six, rods poles and perches, πr squared, how many stamps 5/8ths of an inch x 9/16ths of an inch will be needed to cover the walls of a room this big by that big with windows yay big. The A-stream teachers were solid, and I remember Mrs Stanton, Mrs Gregory and Mrs Otter with respect and affection. But there was also Mr H who “taught” 3B: he took us for handwork, and it emerged that besides struggling with discipline, he struggled with simple arithmetic. I exchanged looks with Tony Johnson, my main rival in our fortnightly tests, and we said a silent prayer for the children of 3B.

Some fifteen years after I left the school my mum saw in the Watford Observer that Mrs Stanton was retiring, and that former pupils were invited to the party in her honour. I went along and showed her my photo. She must have taught over 600 children since I was in her class, so I wasn’t expecting her to recognise me, and she didn’t. But she pointed straight to the worst behaved boy in the class. “Karl something. I remember him.”

 

David Bowie, Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park, 24 December 1972

I saw him first, sort of. After Bowie’s hit in 1969 with Space Oddity, he chose a song called The Prettiest Star as his follow-up, featuring Marc Bolan – months before T.Rex broke through to huge success with Ride a White Swan – on guitar. Apparently the recording session had gone well until Bolan’s wife June told Bowie “Marc is too good for you, to be playing on this record.” Despite airplay on the Kenny Everett Show (where I heard it), it is said to have sold fewer than 800 copies. Space Oddity had been opportunistically released to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing, and Bowie was still seen as a novelty act. Strange to think that for nearly three years he was a one-hit wonder. But I thought, and think The Prettiest Star is a beautiful plaintive love song, much enhanced by Bolan’s fluid, wailing guitar. (A brittle, metallic version was later to appear on Aladdin Sane) So before you could say K.WEST I had ordered a precious copy from Strawberry Fields in Rickmansworth.

But Rob was the true fan. He had spent many Saturday nights that year with his friends Nigel, Jill and Steve, pursuing Ziggy Stardust around Dunstable, Aylesbury, Hemel Hempstead and divers other places to your writer unknown – this was, they think, the sixth time he and Nigel had seen Bowie. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Hunky Dory had taken a pounding on our turntable in the previous six months, and I loved what I heard: sharp, edgy rock songs mixed with quirky slower songs, flavoured by this exotic androgynous creature. Can little brother tag along, please?

Our evening didn’t get off to the best start. Rob had put a dent in the Daf on the way back from Watford, and had to square that with Dad. But my spirits were high: it was Christmas Eve – I was still young enough to find that wildly exciting – our cousin Jonathan was staying with us over Christmas, and we were going to see David Bowie.

Bowie had just spent nearly three months touring the US with the Spiders from Mars. In his absence Ziggy Stardust sold strongly, fans were beginning to seek out his earlier albums and his reputation was soaring. The Jean Genie, recorded in New York City two months earlier, had just been released and was flying up the charts. After an amazing year there was a huge buzz around his triumphant return to London, to play the prestigious Rainbow Theatre at the start of a short British tour.

The Rainbow, as it appeared the following year, besieged by Osmonds fans

It being Christmas Eve, Bowie asked the audience to bring in toys – his father, who had died three years earlier, had been a public relations officer for Dr Barnardo’s childrens’ homes. Rob stepped up and bought a toy, which was added to the huge pile in the foyer, and a whole lorry-load was reportedly distributed to grateful children the following morning.

Rob’s ticket. Retained it was.

(Returning, if I may, to the vexed question of ticket prices, you might remember that it was 75p to see Led Zeppelin at Wembley Empire Pool thirteen months earlier. Of course £2 was still astonishingly cheap to see a legend like Bowie breaking through, but even allowing for the prevailing 7% inflation rate, this seems quite a step up, considering Led Zep’s huge established reputation. By now, rock music fans were starting to earn grown up money, and the spectacular rise to modern ticket prices was tentatively underway.) Sorry.  Anyway…

There was no show on 23 December – The Rainbow was unavailable

Possibly because of the incident with the Daf, we arrived late, and the show had got off to an unpromising start. Stealers Wheel (featuring Gerry Rafferty) gave us no clue to how soon they would break through with the Dylanesque cowbell classic and radio perennial, Stuck in the Middle with You, or to the songwriting talent that gave us the sublime Baker Street. It was just an aural battering.

But things picked up when at last they stopped playing, and by the time the lights went down again some in the audience were near hysterical. After playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – perhaps a cheeky nod to Elvis’s opening with Also Sprach Zarathustra – the band launched into the Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together (shortly to appear on Aladdin Sane), followed by a pulsating rendition of their regular opener Hang on to Yourself (seen here at the Hammersmith Odeon the following year). The set was fast, tight and electrifying, and Bowie surfed the wave of adulation.

NME writer Charles Shaar Murray reported the frenzied audience reception. “Just for the record, they’ve started screaming at David Bowie,” he wrote. “At the Rainbow on Christmas Eve young girls were reaching out for our hero’s supple limbs and squealing in the customary manner. Whether it’s Bowiemania or Ziggymania or a combination of the two is not yet apparent.”

Earlier Ziggy Stardust gigs had included an acoustic set in the middle, but that had gone. Murray wrote: “That American tour has really honed the Spiders to perfection. The show is tougher, flashier and more manic than it’s ever been before.”

The set included tracks from four different Bowie albums, from The Man Who Sold the World through to Aladdin Sane. The message was clear: if you were a true fan, you had to get them all. I was fascinated by the strobe lighting during Mick Ronson’s solo during The Width of a Circle, and stunned by the pitch at which Bowie kept the audience for the whole show.

I remarked to Rob and Jonathan that as well as being an exciting performer, he seemed like a nice guy. They weren’t so sure. Perhaps I had mistaken his knowing, satisfied grin – at having his audience where we wanted them – for affability. As always with Bowie, there was an element of calculation, his careful choreography mocking the usual spontaneity and wildness of Rock’n’roll. The show wound up to its climax with The Jean Genie and Suffragette City, but it was the melodrama of Rock’n’Roll Suicide (seen here, again Hammersmith Odeon footage) that stirred the audience to frenzy. Bowie prowled the stage screaming “Gimme your hands…cause you’re wonderful” – written for this very purpose – reaching out his healing hands to fans like the god he had become that night.

Here is the set list from that fantastic evening:

Ode to Joy (Beethoven)
Let’s Spend the Night Together
Hang on to Yourself
Ziggy Stardust
Changes
The Supermen
Life on Mars?
Five Years
The Width of a Circle
John, I’m Only Dancing
Moonage Daydream
The Jean Genie
Suffragette City
Rock’n’Roll Suicide

Someone was bold enough to smuggle in their cassette recorder that night, because here, believe it or not, is an audio of the entire set.  Never mind the quality (which is terrible), let’s just celebrate the fact that it exists.

When we went back into the cold night air, Jonathan and I were surprised to see Gerry Rafferty crossing the road in the opposite direction, headed for the Rainbow – presumably to pick up his stuff. Perhaps he preferred going to the pub to seeing the headline act. Mate, you can get a drink any night of the week.