In which John Wayne and Norman Wisdom portray Jesus' father, Mr Gibbs' military experiences influence Alvin's ethics and how some rolling stones flattened his infatuation with some black and white beatles...
species of character defect compels an individual to pursue a vocation entailing appearing on a public stage before large groups of people for the purposes of obtaining approval, while being painfully aware of the real possibility of receiving indifference or derision instead? Whatever this category of emotional dysfunction is clinically termed, I confess that I was stricken with a virulent strain of it from a fairly early age.
At Infant School, aged five, I managed to finesse my form teacher into awarding me the top male role in the Christmas nativity play. Despite the satisfaction of thrashing the competition to play Joseph, my developing Messiah Complex would rather I’d been the baby Jesus, although I quickly realised there were no lines in it and so diligently set about basing the saviour’s father on a bizarre hybrid of John Wayne and Norman Wisdom.
The confused audience were not quite ready for a major biblical figure wearing toy six-guns in holsters (I snuck these on just before taking to the stage knowing full well that my teacher would not have approved), and having made this statement of intent set about taking every opportunity to upstage the other young actors by making pratfalls or intentionally knocking over bits of scenery during whatever precious moments in the spotlight the script had gifted them. I remember the audible gasps from the rows of seated parents when, after the inn keeper had maliciously refused bed and board for the night for the missus and me, I hollered in my best Texan cowboy accent "Whatt doo you meann there’s noo room at the inn?", while ominously reaching for my handguns.
It was certainly an eccentric performance, but despite the uncomfortable inquest that ensued post-show after I’d pistol whipped one of the three wise men for having offered something called frankincense to my infant son rather than precious jewels or an Action Man or, at the very least, a festive Cadbury’s chocolate selection box, I have to report that I really loved it. I loved the dressing up, the being someone else for a while. But mostly I loved being on stage in front of an audience as an object of their gaze and attention.
Strangely enough I wasn’t asked to appear in any Infant School productions again. This did not faze me though, as upon discovering that I was a fairly competent football player I exchanged being in the limelight on a theatrical stage for the physical drama to be found on a soccer pitch. This brand of performance continued to pander to my Attention Deficit Disorder for a number of years until a certain televisional music moment destroyed all notions of a professional footy career and redirected me back onto the boards…
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. In the interests of structural cohesion I think it might be beneficial to share a few more basic facts and occurrences with you regarding my early years before we progress on to that touched-upon experience, which was to entirely alter the direction of the arc of my life.
I was born in the late 1950s in the London Borough of Croydon, at Mayday Hospital to be precise. My father is English, my mother Portuguese, a marital merger which has given me a more European perspective of life. My first memories are of the small council flat where I spent my early years in a pretty rough part of southern England called New Addington. My mother tells me that a much older kid attempted to kill me by hurling a brick at my skull as I kicked a ball around on the green attached to our block of flats when I was aged four.
Apparently I only just managed to escape extinction by tilting my head to one side at the last second, which saw the would-be murder weapon glance off my shoulder and drop harmlessly to earth. There was lot of this kind of thing going on in New Addington then. Murderous little bastards, proto Phil Mitchell and Nick Cotton types, who were the offspring of the hundreds of East Enders who had been re-housed there after their homes had been destroyed by Hitler’s Luftwaffe during the war.
By that time my mother had given up on the ambition which had brought her to England, a career in nursing, and instead worked the till and beer pumps at the local pub and took whatever other odd jobs were available for whatever money was on offer. My father had served his national service in Aden and other parts of the Middle East as a medic in the Royal Army Medical Corp, and then re-enlisted in the Parachute Regiment. I can distinctly recall the day he went away to parachute onto one of the mournful tracts of land that then separated East and West Germany during the Cuba Crisis in 1962. With the rest of his battalion, he was expected to deal with the waves of Soviet tanks that were amassing in front of them with just the handful of grenades and the Sten Guns they had dropped to earth with, if Khrushchev refused to turn the missile carriers around and the cold war turned liquefying hot.
Just before meeting my mother he had also been actively involved in another celebrated political/military crisis. The Suez Crisis saw a combined operation between British and French forces to retake the Suez Canal after Egyptian premier Nasser had nationalised and taken possession of this strategically and economically important stretch of water. My father’s battalion parachuted into Port Said where they hooked up with the French Foreign Legion after fighting off the Egyptian commandoes who’d awaited their descent and offered formidable resistance. This was a port, and ports have lots of bars, and there’s nothing more attractive to fear-thirsty, adrenaline-charged soldiers than a bar to commandeer and call HQ. This is what my father did. With a dozen or so other paratroopers he set about getting into some decent drinking while trying to figure what was the best way to take out the Egyptian driven T-34 tank that had appeared at the end of the street.
As they drank and considered their options, four French legionnaires arrived with two civilian captives. They said they had found weapons concealed in their clothes and wanted to interrogate them. After tying them to bar chairs they started to rough them about a bit while asking questions in English. My father tolerated this treatment while only slaps and threats were being employed, but when one of the legionnaires unscrewed the Jerry can of petrol he was carrying and decanted it over the two terrified men, then lit a match, my father’s forbearance dissolved and he cocked and levelled his Sten Gun at the interrogators. “I’ll fucking kill you lot if that match goes anywhere near those men”, he warned. The would-be cremator protested: “But these men are cowardly Arab soldiers in civilian clothes. They are fucking Arab spies and we are on the same side, are we not?”
“I don’t care if we are supposed to be on the same side”, my father retorted, “I’m not about to watch you arseholes set fire to human beings”.
My father’s men (he was their corporal and happened to be the ranking officer in the bar) also cocked and pointed the business ends of their weapons at the bewildered legionnaires who, having received the message, hastily untied the Egyptians and let them go.
That is my favourite account from the many tales my father tells of his time with the Paras. I like it because it is not about killing, it’s about saving lives. And it reveals something of the essential British sense of right and wrong that prevailed in his generation and which I like to believe still resides in character of the majority of British people today.
…Oh, and just as way of a postscript, my father eventually staggered out of that bar with another intoxicated paratrooper to fire an armour piercing rocket from a shoulder launcher into the turret of that T-34 tank. It instantly destroyed that infernal machine and its unfortunate occupants in a terrible eruption of heat and smoke. Considering his inebriated state he still deems it some kind of miracle that he was capable of firing the weapon at all, let alone hitting his target first time. It’s a sobering thought that, if the rocket had erred, both he and his comrade would have been mown down by the tank’s machine gun before they could reload and I, dear reader, would have never been born.
When my two sisters eventually made their consecutive entrances onto the stage of Planet Earth, money had become, as the song goes, too tight to mention, and my father was economically forced to exchange jumping out of airplanes and the ways of a soldier for driving a delivery lorry for a paper manufacturer. Despite not having much in the way of material things my parents’ care and emotional support for my sisters and I meant we were content to get by on very little and when my father turned up after work one Friday night with a small, second-hand black and white television we were ecstatic.
The 1960s were starting to swing and that diminutive, monochrome TV set became a holy portal by which to discover what was going on in the wider world. And what seemed to be going on principally at that time was the rise of pop culture and the emergence of a new breed of working-class men and women who were challenging the status quo and breaking into film, television, fashion, music, photography, journalism and numerous other professions that had previously been the protected realms of the upper and middle classes.
I saw the Beatles perform on a well regarded variety show called ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’, and instantly took to their music and the noire tight-fitted suits and longish hair they collectively sported.
Below: The Beatles perform 'Twist & Shout' (Live At The Royal Variety Performance, 1963)
When a programme devoted entirely to the rising new-generation of pop groups ‘Ready, Steady, Go!’ became family viewing I immediately changed my allegiance from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones after catching them miming to the slide-heavy, atmospheric blues ‘Little Red Rooster’. The Stones didn’t wear identical suits. Their hair was considerably more unkempt, their clothes dishevelled, their general demeanour intimidating and irreverent.
Below: The Rolling Stones perform 'Little Red Rooster' on Ready, Steady, Go! in 1964 (plus interview)
Even at the youthful age of seven I was starting to be attracted to a specific type of music and performance that had a whiff of menace and rebelliousness about it.
I had unknowingly taken my first tentative but perceptible steps on the long march that would lead to my embrace of the attitudes and sounds that you and I collectively call Punk Rock.
Tune in next time for...
Alvin discovering the pleasures of wine, women (but not yet) song, as well as the joys of Selhurst Park...