If they only knew what he was truly capable of, they would tremble, bow or prostrate themselves before him. Their very existence depended on his mood or whimsy at any given time. Their feeble minds could not even comprehend his being nor could their senses perceive him yet, the power of life, death or suffering lay firmly in his hands. As the powerful August sun beat down relentlessly for another seemingly endless day, the decision was made. Today they would live, undisturbed, allowed to continue their pointless tasks oblivious to how close they came to total annihilation by the hand of a single entity. Today, but only for today, he would allow the status quo to continue…
Elephants and Allegations
I remember 1976 most clearly because it was really hot and Granny had given me a large magnifying glass that spent the whole summer glued to my hands. It made small things look big, my mouth look giant to my sister but above all, it turned me into the god of ants. Had I seen ‘Apocalypse Now’, I would have shouted “ I love the smell of formic acid in the morning” each day, before setting out upon my ghoulish duties of garden eugenics, genocide and above all else, a taste of real power. I would dream of owning a suit of armour, later a real Dalek and earlier my very own elephant.
Roger’s elephant first burst on the scene during Mrs Grey’s story time, on the mat at Wordsworth First School. “Who has a pet?” was answered with the expected yet boring replies of “cat”, “dog”, “hamster” until “I have an elephant” was heard from a small brown boy in grey shorts and a yellow tie. As one can imagine, this announcement was something of a show stopper which was met with not inconsiderable disbelief. However, after explaining that because we came from India, it was quite normal for small boys to own an elephant and if anyone would like to see it, they were more than welcome to come to my house for a personal viewing.
This development meant that I experienced popularity for the first time and was quite drunk on my new found celebrity. The only flaw was the undeniable fact that there was no elephant or any likely hood of there ever being one any time soon. My first major public humiliation soon followed and I say major as it was not the first I had endured. Warm up events preceding this were: The ice cream van, being hit by a car, grabbing a stranger who was not my mum and of course, the circumcision. As the hoards of expectant five year old urchins pounded on the door to 28 Howards Grove, I stood resolute in the belief that there would be an elephant in my garden somehow, by some means and provided by some higher power that I was yet to meet but would be indebted to for all eternity. Alas, no elephant.
During the period 1972 (Liverpool FC commemorative coin rolls behind the kitchen cupboard for ever) to 1976 (Dad’s car is officially hotter than the surface of the sun) I learned all about disappointment and that the mere act of wanting something to happen does not guarantee its manifestation. Concepts I still struggle with today and refuse to accept as applying to me. This meant that an alternative and better reality was needed and fast.
Power cuts, mountains of rubbish in the streets, strikes, no money and ridiculously cold winters made things a bit more interesting but the underlying sense of normality prevailed which was definitely not what I had signed up for. Bowling a googly (curved ball for Americans) became good sport for a while until a diagnosis of being ‘retarded’ was bandied about by Miss Perkis after the Bumble Bee incident in the cloakroom.
The first of these staged events took place in the summer of ’74 at the Summer Concert and Performance of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’ at Wordsworth First School. Due to the poor and inconsiderate scheduling of the programme, the recorders were required to play ‘Summer is a Cummin in’ immediately before curtain up for the second act of the play. Musicians doubling as actors was prevalent then as now and equally under appreciated. This meant that make-up had to be applied to the Town Councillors (a moustache) back stage leaving the overworked Musos, currently entertaining the crowd, hirsutely bereft. As the only Town Councillor in Hamlin without a moustache, it fell to me to make a stand. Tonight, the delivery of the crucial line “One! Fifty thousand!!” would not be made. In its place however, a simple yet heartfelt speech of protest.
Allegations of sub-normality continued abound resulting in a trip to the optician to see if not-seeing might be the cause. This was the seventies after all and the addition of big plastic National Health spectacles to the only brown face in a white working class inner city council estate primary school must surely help with self esteem, self confidence and a sense of fitting in. It didn’t. Enter Yvonne and Sharon from the towers overlooking Wordsworth First School. This wonderful duo were the architects, engineers and the driving force behind the finest rolling barrage of mental and physical abuse by any Super Power since the Second World War. Their campaign? Quite simply, “ What colour’s your willy Roger?” Resistance to this kind of sustained attack was futile and led to the inevitable capitulation known as ‘The great unveiling’ of 1975.
A Tragic Turn
The 1973 Chilean coup d’état was a watershed event in both the history of Chile and the Cold War. What followed was an extended period of social and political unrest between the center-right dominated Congress of Chile and the elected socialist President Salvador Allende, as well as economic warfare ordered by US President Richard Nixon. Allende was overthrown by the armed forces and national police. All hell broke out in Chile which meant a much needed diversion and reprieve for me. This horrendous up-rising allowed the Cavalo family to seek asylum in the UK and most importantly of all, the addition of another scared, small, brown boy to Wordsworth First School. I was off the hook!
Jose could run and I mean really run and he could fight like his life depended on the outcome which it had, back home. However, Jose could not speak a word of English. Now, I had never been any further than Devon at this point and the only Spanish I knew was Sombrero so the obvious answer was to put us together ‘cos we were both a bit odd. To my delight, in 1974–75, Wordsworth First School belonged to Jose and I. As it turned out, my new found ally could provide the necessary muscle and I the brains to ensure both our safety, domination of the playground, dressing up corner
and Mrs Goodwin’s undivided attention.
The Mysterious Case Children
The 1970s was a tough decade for everyone. Misogyny, homophobia and racism were the norm. There was no such thing as ‘Health and Safety’ or ‘Child Protection’ and bullying was the accepted form of natural selection. A nation still recovering from World War 2 (a mere 30 years earlier) was struggling to find its identity and importance on the world stage, post empire. And of course, nuclear war was imminent. Paranoia was rife albeit from the Soviet threat and the new threat of thousands upon thousands of immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean flooding the country with their weird food and funny foreign ways. Fueled by Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, the far right in the form of the National Front reared their disgusting heads creating fear and division amongst fragile new communities across the land. Not a great time for a small bespectacled brown boy to be making his way in the world!
However, September 1975 was the time for 8 year old Roger to make the transition from safe cuddly Wordsworth First School, under the protection of the feisty Jose Cavalo, to the large, unpredictable and scary world of Foundry Lane Middle. Stories of elephants as pets would no longer cut it and despite having an older sister already in situ, the fear was palpable and I knew it would not take long for the bullies to find me. I needed something to give me an edge, to stand out for different reasons and above all, to command some respect. Many young people these days find gangs, weapons and dangerous older role models for the exact same reasons that I was struggling with but these, mercifully, were not available to me and I know had they been, this is the path I would have chosen.
No, something else presented itself to me. The mysterious case children.
What were these strange wooden cases that children were carrying back and forth from school everyday that created an aura of mystique, respect and class and above all, how could I get hold of one? Not your modern trendy gig bags but old fashioned wooden coffins that occasionally gave away their secret by their shape. Is that a violin, a guitar perhaps? My parents reaction to my announcement of wanting to play an instrument was simple. “You gave up playing the recorder, what makes you think playing the trumpet would be any different?” My reasons were not musical at the time but this decision came to shape my life for ever.
Having decided that becoming one of the Mysterious Case Children by taking up the trumpet and raising my status amongst my peers was the way forward, I set off to school armed with a letter from my mum for the music teacher and an appointment was made with the visiting brass teacher the very next week. Unfortunately, Terrance Maldoon, a lovely boy from a musical family, had the same idea. There was only one instrument left in Mr Everest’s cupboard so an impromptu ‘play off’ was arranged. Monday morning came and Terrance and I were led off up a spiral staircase in this creaking old Victorian school to the very top of the building to a small creepy room where the instrumental lessons took place. There could only be one!
Waiting to greet us was Peter Whitehead the brass teacher, also Tuba player in the acclaimed Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and the solitary remaining trumpet. Sitting on the table in its moth eaten mouldy wooden case lay the most exciting object I had ever seen. The musty aroma combined with valve oil and brass polish was intoxicating and is still a smell that excites me to this day. Terrance was up first and he nailed it. A perfect, loud middle G that parted Peter’s hair, bounced around the room and did a little dance before leaving a big smile on Terrance’s face. Wow! I was up next. A big breath… and nothing. Puffing of cheeks, blowing for my life and still nothing. Barring a few pathetic squeaks and pops, absolutely nothing of any substance came out of the end of the trumpet. Unsurprisingly, Terrance got the gig and I was sent away devastated.
A long forlorn walk home without a mysterious case that evening was followed by cheerful supportive comments from my family. Dad pointed out that nothing worthwhile was ever easy and the mere fact that we couldn’t afford to buy me a trumpet of my own was by no means a bar to my entry into the musical world. Off he went to his shed where he set about making me a trumpet out of an old copper water tank and some off-cuts of copper pipes. Dad was a plumber after all so how hard could it be? Several hours passed with considerable banging, sawing and swearing emanating from the shed before a triumphant dad emerged clutching a Heath Robinson esque contraption vaguely representing a trumpet. There was no mouthpiece and the copper made my lips go green but I loved it. A moment in time where I truly loved my dad and for which I will be forever grateful. My musical career was born.