Cool and Angry

Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote:

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. Travel for travel’s sake. And to write about it afterwards, if only the public will be so condescending as to read.”

I’m no Stevenson, but it’s true that escaping from daily routines into unfamiliar territory does create writing opportunities. I mean, if I were to write repeatedly along the lines of, “Today I vacuumed upstairs, and then cleaned the loo” – well, I know what it would do to my readership figures. If, on the other hand, I told people about a tearaway Tenby pensioner on a souped up mobility scooter, or a man chasing a chihuahua in Chichester – well, people might want to read more.

My earliest recollection of travel, from the 50s and 60s, is family holidays in the West Country. We often stayed in a Tintagel B&B – dear old Mrs Hooper, she made lovely jam tarts. I remember as much about the seven-hour journeys on minor roads, five of us hot and bothered in an Austin A40, as I do about the places we went.

At 17, self-determined escapism took over as I became cool and angry. I no longer wanted to be at school, and grabbed every opportunity not to be. In the space of a year I went from something of a ‘golden boy’ destined for Oxbridge to a pupil who “constantly refused to be roused, led or driven”.

For me, but not many others, this was great. Instead of attending 8.45 register, which I likened to a prisoner of war roll call, I’d be on my way to the Dyke Road Café to enjoy much-deserved thick tea and a Wills Woodbine fag (unfiltered) which the be-slippered Gladys sold singly at a penny a time. My accomplice, Pete Blanch, and I could be cool and angry together, and only repair to school when we felt ready.

The teacher taking the register was Mr Pratt. Today that name would make him a sitting duck, but the word prat as a put-down was not as commonly used then as it is now. Instead, he was known as Nolly, a play on the alcoholic beverage called Noilly Prat. This was intellectual grammar school humour at its finest. Bring back grammar schools, I say, so that more of us can be intellectually humorous. Yes – follow the lead of ex-grammar school Theresa May. She’s a bundle of laughs.

“… cocktails have exotic names like Shag on the Beach …”

Noilly Prat was one of those drinks like Martini and Dubonnet in vogue at the time. Nowadays it’s shots or cocktails. Shots come in tiny glasses I’d happily buy as egg cups in my local kitchen shop. The suspiciously-coloured contents, with names like Raspberry Ripple or Choc Mint, presumably taste like medicine, going by the speed at which young people knock them back and their screwed-up faces afterwards.

Cocktails are much more sophisticated. They come with exotic names like Three Times a Night, A Good Shag and Shag on the Beach. Or at least that’s what I heard young people offering each other when I inadvertently stumbled into a music bar the last time I was in Torremolinos, believing from the giant neon sign THROB and the rhythmic pulse from within that’d I’d finally found the heart clinic I’d been reading about in a magazine on the flight over.

About the same time as the Tintagel trips I’d had my first drinking encounter. One Saturday night when my parents were ensconced in the living room with Grandma and Grandpa watching the Billy Cotton Band Show (“Wakey Wakey!” for the initiated) I conducted an experiment in the dining room next door, taking great swigs from each bottle in the sideboard to see what this drinking thing was all about. After all, they were always at it and seemed very happy in consequence.

I remember becoming very flu-like and unable to stand properly, and braved interrupting Billy Cotton to tell mum I felt poorly. She soon spotted the cause, and like any good mum helped me through a dreadful few hours.

Another favourite escape from the tedium of education was nearby Seven Dials, a busy roundabout with seven exits. To me this exuded life in a way that school didn’t. Where exactly was the Corona Drinks truck going? What number bus would arrive next, where would it stop and what was its destination?

One of the seven roads led to Brighton Railway Station, a place of great bustle and excitement where, with steam hanging on alongside electric trains, I’d once spent many an hour with my Ian Allan book of Southern Locomotives.

A second road led past the wonderful but now-defunct Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital, where I’d had a kidney operation as a young boy. My consultant, Mr Laust, was a household name for years, such had been my parents’ understandable concern for me at the time.

“Mr Laust – what a wonderful man. We owe him so much.”

This was true, though I suppose that ten years later, as a cool and angry young man, it didn’t cut quite the same ice rolled out time after time in front of visiting uncles and aunts.

Another road led to the intellectual school for girls, Brighton and Hove High School. Swapping my Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School scarf for Pauline Dove’s High School one was to prove one of many factors that in themselves didn’t amount to much but strung together made a watertight case for my expulsion – in the school’s eyes anyway.

“… Blanch never got caught, the little shit …”

Here’s the thing – Blanch never got caught. It was always me. Blanch boxed clever, sometimes registering with Nolly Pratt before joining me for a cuppa, and sometimes getting his amenable mum to phone him in sick before handing him the cash for a bus direct to the café. He wanted to tag along all right, and reap the kudos. And don’t get me wrong, he was okay as an accomplice. But apart from one memorable bike ride he never really initiated anything. And never got caught, the little shit.

Late one evening Blanch pointed at a dirty old motorbike and said:

“Look – it’s a Triumph Bonneville! Let’s ’ave it!”

After glancing round furtively, we hopped on and headed away from his dark and dead Rottingdean estate towards the bright lights. Whenever Blanch accelerated I hurtled backwards on pillion, trying to hang on to something, anything.  A cool and angry young man would never grasp the boy in front, and there was no frame to grab at the rear, so my poor legs were left to do all the gripping. We roared along the seafront road, and before reaching Brighton, reckoning that word of the bike’s disappearance might soon get round, parked it neatly kerbside in Marine Drive before sauntering into the town centre for a late coffee. That was the only time I’ve ridden pillion; somehow it held no further appeal.

The summer after I was given permanent school leave, Blanch and I hitch-hiked to Malmö in Sweden. Hitching was popular in those days, and relatively safe. I thumbed lifts for almost a decade, and apart from a cleric in West Germany whose conversation turned quickly to small boys, and a dapper old man in a Jag near Reigate who wasn’t entirely sure where to find the gear lever, I was never troubled. You’d see queues of young people at every roundabout and slip-road, and though there’d be long periods of waiting you’d eventually get to your destination. It might not be the place you first planned – but that’s the unpredictability of travelling!

“… philately wasn’t cool and angry … losing virginity was…”

Ostensibly Blanch and I were in pursuit of two Swedish birds we’d befriended at the Starlight Rooms, a pleasantly gloomy basement club in a charmingly grubby Brighton back street. Still looking to lose my virginity, the only thing I actually lost was my stamp collection, which I’d taken Ingrid’s dad as a present after she told me he was a keen collector. I suppose I thought if I took him the stamps then I could take Ingrid. A small price, since philately was not for the cool and angry, whereas losing virginity was. It was of course a matter of days before Ingrid and I lost touch, leaving me feeling a little foolish.

When Blanch and I started arguing I hitched home separately, never to see him again. Some time afterwards I heard he’d got heavily into drugs. Serves him right, the little shit. I suppose I should be grateful he helped point me to the school exit, but it would’ve been nice if just once it had been him, not me, being hauled into the headmaster’s office.

After three terms of misdemeanour, on a day when I’d not only been spotted hanging around the Seven Dials again but was wearing an alien scarf, I received my ultimate summons. On this occasion, instead of heading for the cane rack Mr Brogden simply said:

“Costello, I don’t want you here any more. Goodbye.”

Understandably, my parents weren’t impressed, although they’d no doubt been kept informed of my wrongdoings and had witnessed their own share of ‘cool and angry’ at home.

“Look at it this way,” I said. “I can now go to the Dyke Road Café or the Seven Dials all day, and no-one will mind.”

Which for some considerable time I’m sure I did.

 

Copyright © Paul Costello October 2016

www.paulcostello.me

 

Being Alan Bennett

Me as Alan Bennett

Me as Alan Bennett

This morning I became Alan Bennett. It wasn’t a chance event but a mystery prize from one of those television game shows where the right answer sets off a klaxon and you win a pampering weekend for two in a Nottinghamshire spa – or in my case A Day as Alan Bennett.

The activating pill which lasts twenty four hours looked much like a paracetamol but with an A on it, and a smaller one with B would deactivate the process should I want to call it off.

It’s not every day one expects to behave in ways other than those one has grown used to and are comfortable with, and my new persona was soon put to the test by our postman Richard who has delivered to the neighbourhood for as long as I remember, his youthful appearance suggesting he can barely have been out of shorts when he first started, if indeed he ever has been, going by the Post Office variety he wears come snow or shine.

‘Sign there please,’ he said, holding out the electronic gadget.

‘Just here?’ I asked.

It must have been the soft Yorkshire accent that triggered his reaction, the bundle of letters destined for numbers seven to fifteen and neatly secured with a strong elastic band falling from his grasp.

‘You’re, you’re …’ he spluttered.

Not wishing to disappoint him one way or the other I nodded reassuringly and invited him to have as good a day as he’d offered me. It seemed only polite to linger on the doorstep and reciprocate his thumbs-up gesture as he turned from time to time to catch a further glance before disappearing round the corner eager no doubt to tell others of his discovery.

Keen to exploit my new identity I thought it a good idea to travel into town to show myself off, as it were. Walking to the bus stop into low winter sun reminded me of the West End stage or playing a Talking Head under the bright lights of a BBC studio. I found passers-by staring at me for longer than one normally dares, and if I looked round after they’d gone by they too were glancing back, much as you do if you like the look of a person and want a further viewing without being too apparent.

The bus driver too seemed baffled, happy that the photograph on my pass matched the face in front of him but unable I imagine to read the name without glasses.

‘Mind if I join you?’ I asked an elderly lady with a kind face and blue hair.

The intake of breath down the bus would have graced a reputable community choir such was its exact unison, and the usual hubbub of unintentionally malicious gossip and exchanges of medical diagnosis quickly died down. The lady with whom I’d sat went into a sort of trance, like a pheasant in front of a moving vehicle unsure where to go or what to do, her eyes glossing over and protruding in a way they might not have done since her more productive days.

‘Aren’t you, aren’t you …’ she stammered.

I nodded.

From across the aisle and two rows back another woman who apparently thought she knew better called out,

‘You’re whatisname, aren’t you? On the telly.’

I glanced round with a celebrity smile.

‘Alan Partridge!’ a man shouted from one of the rear seats in a way that, were one to have a conversation with him, there might be many points of disagreement. I nodded and shook my head like a toy dog on the back shelf of a car, neither denying nor acknowledging his claim. No-one was quite able to put their finger on who I was despite the bold initials A.B. on the cover of the notebook in which I jotted reminders.

Once inside the bus terminus it was no easy matter forcing my way through huddles of mesmerized shoppers.

‘I don’t think it is Alan Partridge,’ said one voice.

‘Sugar,’ said another.

‘Shall we follow him?’ said what sounded like the man from the back of the bus, upon which I scurried through the exit thinking it imprudent to encourage stalking even though it might provide handy material for a play.

With the novelty of celebrity wearing off I bought a woollen hat, rendering the stallholder unusually speechless, and with the removal of my spectacles and a large upturned collar thereby gained some degree of anonymity.

Browsing Waterstones shelves, my appearance provoking sideways glances as if I were a commercial spy for a rival book chain or was about to pocket some paperbacks, I became curious about a panting noise beside me, and found a young woman barely four foot in height jumping up and down, hands above her head as if performing a fitness exercise. Had she not been gasping I’d have had little notion she was there.

‘Are you all right?’ I asked, causing the usual turn of heads.

‘I’m trying to reach that book,’ she said, pointing to a shelf at least twice her height. ‘The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.’

‘Good choice,’ I said, feeling somewhat relieved that the book appeared more important than any hunch that the author was present. Much as I was tempted to offer my signature I decided there was more to be had from staying incognito and watching her pore over the sleeve, and that to sign it on the premise of a one-day passport would not in any case be quite in the spirit of the arrangement.

With the books shelved alphabetically from the top and Bennett positioned poorly out of reach, I wondered if I should stay on to help others of this height who might call in for my books between now and closing, which would in turn help towards my royalties – at least mine for the time being.

In the event I found a quiet bench by the river to review my notes, before ordering a much needed hot chocolate in a side street cafe offering sufficient privacy for me to remove my hat and coat. Perched at a narrow eating bar the kind of which is widely used by cafes to make the best of their seating and which usually offer a view of the street or occasionally a wall with local paintings for sale I was disturbed by a lady whose debilitated state reminded me of Miss Shepherd, the lady in the van.

‘Have you been waiting long?’ she said, presumably meaning the hot chocolate that hadn’t yet arrived.

Mindful of Miss Shepherd it looked as though this lady, who’d levered herself onto the stool next to me, did not herself have long to wait, leading me perhaps unfairly to reply,

‘Eighty-one years. How about you?’

‘That’s a long time for a drink and a biscuit, dear,’ she said, playing me at my own game. ‘You’re Alan Bennett aren’t you?’

‘Only for the day,’ I said, ‘but I’m really enjoying it.’

‘Oh that’s good dear. It’s nice being someone else sometimes.’

Late in the evening with my story almost complete and bed looming I considered staying as Alan Bennett overnight since the prize had been for a full day. The thought of delving into his dreams and learning his night customs was tempting, but in the event I felt it more respectful to leave that side of things for him alone to know. I finished writing while the A was still working, swallowed the B and went to bed.

*

Me

Me

 

I bumped into the postman on his rounds earlier today.

‘Hello Richard – nice and mild.’

‘Morning Paul,’ he called out cheerfully – as he went on his way.

 

 

Copyright © Paul Costello December 2015

Paul Costello – Writer       Website: www.paulcostello.me       Twitter: @PaulCostello8