81. America versus Birmingham

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So easy to say in retrospect. But I do I wish I had paid many times more attention to my American Studies degree course at Birmingham, which began in autumn 1976. I enjoyed the literature courses: reading Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Poe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and so on. But coasted in my lowest gear through the large history component of the course.

What a story to skim over. The Puritans and Founding Fathers, Manifest Destiny, War of Independence, the push westwards, the genocide against the natives, and the Civil War. Industrialisation and the constant schisms between isolationism and foreign intervention.

Above all, the 61-year-old Kev would like to have studied, in some depth, the struggle to escape the pull of the British Empire and the City of London.

In Out of Essex, Chapter 15, I inserted the following quote from Thomas Jefferson, a principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third US President. “If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks…will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.”

TJ was on the money. In an 1816 letter, he wrote: “And I sincerely believe….banking establishments are more dangerous than standing armies; and that the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.”

My course had significant competition. Principally the enjoyment to be tapped elsewhere, including a first taste of marijuana sometime that autumn. On too many mornings sleep was the winner, after alcoholic nights out. Tutors tore a few strips from me over my minimum efforts. I rode my luck.

asleep

Despite the futility of the Cambridge violence, I threw a milk bottle that smashed a fellow student’s window one drunken evening.

Above all, I needed a female to calm me down. In stepped Jane Simpson, an Everton fan who lived upstairs. She declared an interest just before Xmas 1976. I was quite mesmerised by this wilful woman, who could twist me around her little finger. And was almightily jilted when Jane called it off after a term together. I’ll always be grateful for that time, which saved me from the darker shores of myself.

After an Easter 1977 trip up to Liverpool to stay at Keith’s house, and meet his Scouse mates, it was back to Brum, for a great summer term. Another landmark ‘sketch’ came on Silver Jubilee Day. June 1977. Big Dad led a pack of us to the Plough in Harborne, where the merriment let out fully equalled the ale taken in. After the pubs had closed, a group of us congregated in the road, singing our drunken homage to something, probably not the monarchy. This stopped a double decker bus, and Dad proceeded to scale the side, Bonnington-like, to the driver’s incredulity.

bus climb

En route back to Maple Bank, Dad and some lads decided to break into a swimming pool in an unoccupied Edgbaston house. As a man whose criminal record was still fresh, this seemed like intrinsically dangerous behaviour. Others chose to climb over walls and steal some expensive-looking plants. I sat on a wall by the road with a couple of unknown girls, and waited to see what transpired.

Two of the lads returned with potted plants, and began debating whether to take a swim in the pool of the particularly sumptuous house to where Dad had toddled, and whose owners were obviously away.

Suddenly, with next to no warning, a police car came screeching to a halt just feet away from our little wall. You should have seen the scramble. Males and females, left and right, over walls, behind bushes. One instinct told me to do the same, while another said stay put, because you are guilty of nothing. Micro-calculations in less than a second, resulting in me remaining wedged on a wall with plants for companions.

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The coppers asked if I knew any of the culprits. No, I had met them in the pub that night. They wanted names and descriptions, so I invented some, and sat in the back of the police car while the information was sent to HQ. They told me to stay in the car, and went outside again, sniffing around.

Now the tour de force. A never-to-be-forgotten image appeared in the wing mirror. A bloke walking down the road, whistling. A yellow lilo slung over his shoulder. At night, in the middle of Edgbaston. As he neared, I could see it was Big Dad. He had lifted the lilo from the pool, and was giving it a new home. He walked past the coppers, who were still scrambling around for clues or suspects, and said  to them, very politely, “evening officers,” before winking at me and ambling on. They were too preoccupied to notice. I received a lift home for co-operating.

There was also a fantastic afternoon when Jonny Price, from Norwich, got hold of a horrific mask. I was keeling over in delirium at the anticipated fun. We found a ladder and sent lads up to look into people’s windows wearing this macabre item. The dare was to stand very still on the ladder and look into the room until the victim turned to see them. The screams were ear-piercing, and the laughter unparalleled. I was stretched out on the ground, ready to die of happiness.

mask

Brother Neil also came up for an evening, stopping off on the way to an interview at Stafford Polytechnic. The poor bugger left the worse for wear the following morning. Late for his appointment. Whoops. He still remembers that Dad had requisitioned several hundred burgers from somewhere, and that our diet was accordingly narrow.

And then another time when Shaun and Andy’s Geordie mates came down for a weekend. What a lovely bunch of blokes. Ken, Mac, Sel, Steve Gav and Mike. Perfect drinking companions. As we looked out from Shaun and Dad’s kitchen, well-lubricated, a dreamlike vision appeared on the grass below. Andy dancing naked, uncoordinated, face to the skies, arms aloft, in some kind of heaven in his blond head.

It was a beautiful summer. Lots of exhilarating friendship, memorable come-ons from women, tons of beer. I got into the habit of letting my tongue out in Lake Hall bar, centimetre by centimetre, until its full length was on display to onlookers.

A riotous visit to Stratford-upon-Avon deserves a separate blog.

We listened to Derek and Clive non-stop. I just played it again, going back 41 years in time, tearful with joy as Peter Cook noted that “I was having a wank, going slightly beserk, clinging onto things……it was just a run-of-the-mill, nine o’clock, Wednesday morning wank.”

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Returning to Romford at the end of the term I ached with a cocktail of sorrow and joy. As the coach left Digbeth, it was clear that some of those play peaks could never be repeated.

Digbeth

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