ONE - EARLY DAYS
It was just the same at the seaside. Dad would creep the van ever closer to the cliff edge, claiming trouble with the gears or the brakes, while the small compartment would be filled with mom’s screaming interspersed with loud guffaws from dad. As always I sat in the back, a bemused spectator.
I had a Godly upbringing. Mom and dad were real Christians - the front door was always open to anybody in trouble, and hymns were sung at full throttle on Sundays! Dad would play an old pedal organ – (ah, that old organ - how I remember it being carried on a horse cart pulled by dad and granddad while I sat on top; the three miles from the leafy suburbs of Kingstanding to the big Georgian terraces of inner city Aston). That pedal organ used to be the focus of entertainment at our home. Dad played it while he and mom and whoever else was present, would brim the room full of singing. He had never been taught music, he just played by ear. When we moved from Aston to the new council Estate at Tile Cross, that organ moved with us.
The reason I can remember this story
so well is because I heard it recounted so many times whenever a visitor
to the house would remark about the dancing ladies hanging on the wall.
Dad always seemed to be involved in
the wackiest of enterprises.
But life for me took a dramatic turn when I was thirteen - dad died suddenly leaving me alone with mom. From there, any belief I had in God evaporated, and relations with mom went steadily downhill.
Dad dying just messed everything up. I was at Bordesley Green Technical School, a sort of downsized Grammar School. I can’t remember quite how or why but I went from being at nearly top of the class to the very bottom after dad died. It was probably something to do with the way it happened.
It was 1956, the year Britain went to
war over the Suez Canal. But all I knew was that dad had been feeling
unwell for several days. He needed some medicine. So, late one night, we
drove together in his van to the only place open, Boots the Chemist, in
the city centre. We had parked up and were walking along the streets
when dad bent down to pick up a scrap of paper... He stood motionless
for a moment looking at it. I peered over his shoulder - or I think it
was more under his shoulder - to see for myself. It said simply:
'Prepare to meet thy God'. Nothing else - Just like on those sandwich
boards that men used to carry.
Two days later, he died. He was 42, a guy brimming with humour and practical jokes, in the prime of life. Mom was devastated. I was numb. I didn’t cry, or rather I didn’t cry in front of anyone else.
It was all too much for me. I knew God had done it, but that only made it worse. It was impossible to make any sense of it. I just went to ground. Somewhere I thought: ‘if I keep my head down, maybe he won’t notice me!’ - for surely, God must be someone who zaps his pals for no reason.
It was whole lifetime later, in June
1988, that I laid myself down before God and soon after that, mom and I
began gradually to become friends, because we never really were –
throughout all that time!
Constable Ferris was a man used to stepping out in front of speeding vehicles, to be precise, speeding motor bikes and scooters. He had also learned to be adept at skipping backwards, as sometimes the invitation to stop for a chat was beyond the capability of our feeble brakes. But despite all the provocations, Constable Ferris maintained an air of amiable, authoritative familiarity with us as he policed the quiet suburb of Marston Green. It was a patch devoid of rebellion were it not for the fact that we imported it nightly from nearby Tile Cross. A race from the chip shop at Marston Green to the bus terminus at Tile Cross was virtually mandatory for the ‘gang’ of which I was a member, some say a ring-leader.
The best of us, or the worst -
depending on which way you looked at it, was Paul Goodall. Nobody could
beat Paul. I should know, I tried often enough. I could never beat him
although I drove as if without attachment to this mortal coil. I learned
that the secret to winning was really to convince your opponent that you
were absolutely stark raving mad, and that required demonstrations of
maximum lunacy. Really, you could always depend on someone else’s sanity
giving you a tyres width of lead, if you could make them believe you
were mad enough to kill both of you otherwise.
I saw him do so many crazy things to
be first in a race, or just to cause consternation. And sometimes he
would pull a stunt just for no reason at all, just because! -
But he never batted an eyelid. He sat there looking back at me until him and his bike collided with the barrier of bushes, branches and nettles. He went through it to the field the other side while his bike was impaled sideways on the thicket. We pulled him back through the hole he’d punched. He was sporting cuts and bruises, and still that silly grin. He knew the hedge was there, he did it just for a laugh!
One time I remember we were both up
together before the beak (I can’t remember what for). We were standing
side by side right in front of the bench. The proceedings were at that
bit where they are about to pass sentence and the magistrate leaned over
and said: ‘Are there any previous convictions?’
Then one night Paul appeared on my
doorstep looking very bedraggled and shivering with cold:
He lowered his voice so that she
couldn’t hear and went on to tell me how he’d decided to end it all.
‘I’d been lying on the tracks for nearly an hour wondering why no trains
were coming down the main London to Birmingham line, and then I
remembered – It’s the day of the National rail strike!’
But a short while later, on 7 March
1962, Paul Goodall gassed himself. They found him in his parent’s front
room. A note said it was because a girl had finished with him.
Somebody said how it was losing his licence that had taken away his reason for living. It was true, Paul lived for kicks and the thrill of doing battle with the moving scissors of vehicles and obstacles. Yet it was none of those deadly foes that brought him down, but a girl he barely knew. Her and the devil of rejection.
Girls & Groups
It was 1961, the year Yuri Gagarin became the world’s first spaceman. A friend named Roger bought a guitar, and so I bought a guitar too. It was so difficult to play, I almost gave up. Then I saw a book in a shop: ‘Play in a day’ it announced on the cover. Bert Weedon sold millions of copies of that little book to people like me. It had diagrams of a guitar fret-board with numbered dots showing which finger to put on which string. Of course it should have been titled ‘Play in a lifetime,’ but never mind, it was a great help. Still it took me ages before I was able to change chords fast enough to play a song.
The cross-over to music took awhile, but finally became complete for me one frosty night in January 1963. We were all sat around the Formica-covered table at a city centre café, sipping cups of tea while our bikes were parked up outside. Suddenly the juke box exploded into my reality with a sound like I had never heard: It was the Beatles singing ‘Please please me.’ The chords at the end went round and around in my head, I was entranced. I thought it was beautiful. The brute magic of it captured me as it did most everybody else.
A pal named Mick Andrews sang with a
group that rehearsed at St Giles’ church in Tile Cross and soon he
pressed me into service on rhythm guitar. We fumbled around in varying
degrees of ineptitude as ‘The Moonrakers’ and then metamorphosed into
‘The Jaguars’ before disappearing altogether. It was shortly afterwards
that I joined a proper group – one that actually got paid to play!
But there was one slight problem – I
couldn’t really play! I had real difficulty keeping time. My left hand
was okay at chords, but my right hand was lousy at rhythm, no more that
a stuttering sail jerking in approximation to the beat. To compound
matters, I found it impossible to play with a plectrum, and resorted to
strumming with my fingers so as to avoid the embarrassment of having my
pick zoom across the dance-hall, catapulted by my strings with a
strident, heralding twang.
I resolved to do what I could, and
soon discovered that one thing I could do was write songs:
|Jeff Silvas and the Four Strangers 1963-64 photographed by the manager, Ralph Hitchcock.|
It was the age when groups wore matching uniforms. Ours were posh red tuxedo's with a dash of silver on the lapels. Front man Jeff Silvas wore white, as you can see in this pic of us playing at the 'Meadway' pub above. Left to Right: Bill Miller, John Panteney ('Pank'), Jeff Silvas, myself. The fourth Stranger - bass player Ray Hammond - is out of shot to the right.
|Above, a session shooting publicity photos in a field near Marston Green.|
Along with singing, I would
practise 'speaking' - yes speaking. Something had made me aware of how
bad my speech was - maybe it was being around my girl-friends family,
with their slightly Shakespearean country English. Maybe it was serving
afternoon teas to the toffs who stopped at the impromptu café they ran
in the garden of their farmhouse. But somewhere along the line it dawned
on me that the slovenly Brummie dialect I had harvested from birth
needed a translator to be understood anywhere outside of a Birmingham
factory or pub.
Yes I ran my own academy of elocution and singing lessons in that Morris J2 van. I was my own instructor, my own audience. I booed or cheered, I organised the lessons, I set the exams and I marked the papers.
I was a 'Stranger' on rhythm guitar for a total of two years before the reality of my paltry guitar skills got the better of me. It seemed no amount of practice could turn me into a proper musician. I left the group and made a decision: I would become a proper storeman for the Colmore Depot company instead. At least that was something attainable. I still played with a group and wrote some songs, but it ceased to be a priority.
I started to turn up on time for
work, a miracle that did not go un-noticed. Then I began redesigning the
stores filing system, and organising the racks carrying the spare parts.
I was doing really well at it, the management were humming my praises,
right up until one day in January 1966.
But all the objections of her family, and all my protestations, came to nought, and in the summer of 1962 mom became Mrs.Print at the little church up the road where she went to worship every Sunday.
Three months after mom married Alf, the Cuban missile crisis flared up and for a while I existed like everyone else, as a zombie going through the motions - get up, catch a bus, go to work, come home, all the while expecting the enormous bang that would announce the end of the world. Then as quick as it had flared up it was gone. We were at work, on tenterhooks, wondering what would happen when the Americans intercepted the Soviet ships in the Atlantic when suddenly someone was running around shouting: 'It's over - the Russian ships have turned around! They're going back home. Khrushchev's backed down!'
During this time Mom's brother Joe
also came to live with us in our council house at Tile Cross. Uncle Joe
was a fugitive from other relatives who had tired of him.
It was in one of these eruptions that Alf smashed the TV to pieces with an axe. My friend Mick Andrews bought us round a replacement, a second-hand one from the TV shop where he worked. I remember Mick saying to Alf: 'You keep smashing them up and I'll keep bringing them. You'll be knee-deep in tellies!'
Then in July 1964, Alf died suddenly, releasing the household from its state of simmering stress and mom from her pledge to God. She had kept Alf off the streets and given him a home. Now all she had to do was look after Joe.
A womans work is never done.... Mom in the kitchen.