Tropical City Disks - 3
My parents moved around a lot: my mother's job, as a nurse, was portable but my father's, as he climbed a slippery pole as a road transport engineer, meant that we had to move every two to three years. It's strange to realise that that pattern became very ingrained into me and I, and my poor family, moved quite often, even though there was no imperative to do so. These days, living high in the sky overlooking the skyline of Kuala Lumpur, I've realised that, later this year, I'll have lived in the same flat for 14 years. I've never even lived in the same town for more than five years before, I don't think, and even then there would be two or three houses.
We lived in three houses in and around Birmingham before I was seven. I've been trying to find them on a website that scans the roads and I've found them all, but I can't remember which house in the road was where my grandmother lived. Looking back, I now realise that, from time to time, we would find ourselves camping somewhere because getting a job and starting it was a much quicker process than finding a new house and, once we started owning our houses, that process became even more complicated and longer.
In April 1968, we moved from Chesterfield back to Stockton and, again, we were given a council house as a temporary measure. My father's job was much bigger. Several towns had been amalgamated to create a new administrative area carved out of County Durham and the North Riding of Yorkshire. It had two principle geographical features: the Cleveland Hills and The River Tees. The Tees was the area's lifeline for the heavy industries of shipbuilding and bridge-building from where the North East of England's heavy engineering spanned the world. Later, there would be the death-knell of those industries with much blame flying around but that's another story. All the bus companies were joined into one, called Cleveland Transit. But even though there was, right outside the door of his previous depot in Stockton the actual ticket office from which the first ever passenger rail ticket was sold, it was buses that moved most people about. Later, too, local politics would change the name of the area to Cleveland but it didn't stick and everyone still spoke of Teesside because we had been very proud of what it had done. I recently read somewhere that it might be changed back after decades of resistance to "Cleveland."
Anyway, my parents were on the lookout for a house to buy, making the mistake that this was to be the last move for a while and so the Council house was supposed to be temporary but we arrived late in the afternoon to find a man on the doorstep apologising profusely. He had, he said, come to leave the keys for us, under the mat as arranged, but when he arrived he found that the house wasn't finished. So, because there was no phone connected and mobile phones weren't even the stuff of science fiction, he had waited for us so that he could tell us the alternative arrangements he had put in place at very short notice. The first thing was to send all our furniture away into storage until the house was ready. We were taken to another house, in a part of the growing estate where there were no other houses. That, too, wasn't finished. But it had some furniture, intended to show the house off to give prospective tenants an idea of what it would look like. But it had nothing practical. It didn't even have a kettle. Or a front path. Then night fell and he realised it had no electricity. He said he would sort it out and half-an-hour or so later he came back with someone with a screwdriver and a length of wire and from then we were not so much on the grid as on the street-lighting circuit. Obviously we couldn't cook and we ate fish and chips every night for about a week until our own house was ready. I was sure I could smell fish and chips oozing out of my pores.
We didn't have a TV - that was in storage - but we had a radio and on Saturday we listened to Cliff Richard win the Eurovision Song Contest singing Congratulations, a tremendous sing-a-long song that is my third pick.
But although the song reminds me of all that fun, that we sang it to my father for his great new job, that we laughed about the fact were were stealing (we didn't know the proper word is "abstracting") electricity from the street lights, that is not the memory of those few days that is my strongest. That is walking into the kitchen the following evening and hearing that treacherous radio's sombre announcement that Jim Clark, then the most successful British racing driver had died when his Lotus had left the track in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim. I clearly remember being frozen to the spot, tears welling up, as for the first time I came to realise that idols are mortal. I was thirteen years old.
There have been others idols, notably, of course, Ronnie Peterson, Ayrton Senna and Graham Hill (although he didn't die racing), Jenson Button who's retirement was almost like a death to me but I'm glad he retired rather than continue to race a car that remains the bottom-feeder of the pack. And of course, I'm pleased he retired physically, if not emotionally, intact. There have been lots of musicians and, many people will not be surprised to know, Lord Denning (with whom I have a love-hate relationship). There's one author: Terry Pratchett, a man who most Americans will never get to fully appreciate because his publishing company "translates" his books into American for their market, losing much of the subtlety of the original English.
But it was Jim Clark, the sounds of Congratulations still swirling around my head from less than 24 hours before, that introduced me to the death of someone I really would have liked to emulate and to be like.
And so, almost with a sense of irony and bathos (or is it pathos: I get the two muddled), my third song is Cliff Richard singing "Congratulations."