The riverside at Castlefields

The riverside at Castlefields

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Castlefields – February 2011




A walk around my beloved Castlefields in February proved most instructive.
We saw a man working in the back yard of the old All Saints Church Hall (which is where I had my 21st birthday party, by the way). We asked him if the place was being converted into a private residence as such a prospect did not seem so unreasonable. But no. It turns out it is being renovated for use as a community hall.
It warms my heart to hear it. At one stage, I had a horrible feeling it might be bulldozed.
Anyway, here's a picture of the hall, another of its sad old noticeboard, and another of the front door of 73 North Street – which we remember as being red, but is now clearly green.

Lest We Forget . . . Our Dad – Jim


Here's a nice photograph of Dad as a young soldier.
I can't help thinking he would very much approve of the forthcoming Jim Gillam Memorial Pub Crawl.
For more information on Dad, check out:
http://www.shropshirestar.com/
latest/2007/01/26/tributes-to-war-hero-jim-84/

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Funnyman

A short story by Phil Gillam

Note: During the early 1940s the famous music hall comedian George Robey, by that time in his seventies, lived at The Tower House on Wenlock Road, Shrewsbury, with his wife Blanche. This is an imagining of what it might have been like to be George at that point in his life . . .


“Ching Ching Chinaman” went down a storm yesterday at the YMCA canteen, and of course, as always, they absolutely loved “If You Were The Only Girl In The World”. But, you know, I often wonder if the act wouldn’t benefit from some fresh material. Do you know what I mean? Perhaps a modicum of this and a modicum of that?
Ah well. We’ll see.
Yesterday morning, while I was waiting for the bus across the road, I got chatting to a young mother and her little girl. I told the child she was a right bobby-dazzler and I promised her one of my signed caricatures. They always seem to go down well with the little ones. The mum told me her daughter was as good as gold most of the time, but sometimes, if the youngster felt sad, she could be quite a handful. “And why on earth would she ever feel sad?” I asked. “Well, y’know,” said the mum. “What with her daddy being away fighting Gerry and all.”
And that made me think of all the wives whose husbands were away in the war. All that terrible anguish. All that uncertainty. Day in, day out. It must be bloody awful. I thought about this on the bus, all the way into town. All those whose lives are in danger. All those left at home worrying about them. It made me feel small and stupid and insignificant. And what am I when all is said and done? Someone who makes a fool of himself for a living. Someone who mucks about on stage for a few cheap laughs. That’s what.
I’m sitting in the lounge of our home in Shrewsbury, looking out of the window, watching the birds flitting about. Our place, by the way (lovely it is) is on the Wenlock Road on the outskirts of town, and it is called The Tower House – which is appropriate since it is indeed a house which indeed has a tower. I think perhaps the architect who dreamt this one up must have had ideas above his station. It’s like a miniature castle.
Most mornings these days I take the bus into town, not because I want to get away from my wife, but simply because I need the change of scenery and I like to have a couple of drinks with my pals. So you’ll often find me in the downstairs bar of the George Hotel, keeping the barman company or passing the time of day with fellow performers or reading a newspaper to find out how we’re doing against these damned Nazis.
I try to keep myself cheerful, but sometimes . . .
Do you know? I got a standing ovation yesterday. It was just a few old songs and a few gags Рnothing too risqu̩ of course Рbut it seemed to go down well.
Oh, by the way, if anyone – years from now – should stumble upon these few sheets of paper, well these are the beginnings of a memoir of sorts. Whether I eventually decide to actually publish anything, well, that remains to be seen. But I’m getting on a bit now – into my seventies – and I feel the urge to write things down. I suppose I want to leave something behind. And I suppose, also, I want to try and make some sense of my life.
A friend of mine, a Mr Hammond who lives nearby and whose family run a wet fish shop in Castle Street, across the road from the Raven Hotel, advised me that if I intend to write my memoirs then I should begin by frantically scribbling down whatever comes into my head. Just write it down. Quickly. Just like I am doing now. Don’t think about it, said Mr Hammond. Just get it down on paper. There will be plenty of time to edit it later. Although why I should take advice on writing from a man who sells wet fish, I can’t imagine. But there again, I am happy to get advice from anyone who is kind enough to offer it. You know. A modicum of this and a modicum of that.
Anyway, dear reader. I shall call you dear reader because I have no way of knowing your name. Ha ha! Anyway, dear reader, it is August 1940. My name is George Robey. I’m an entertainer. My stage make-up – should you be remotely interested – is very simple, consisting as it does of ridiculously bushy eyebrows, a silly small-rimmed bowler hat and a collarless black coat. Children seem to love the bushy eyebrows in particular. I raised a few bob for the Red Cross the other day by drawing bushy eyebrows on the faces of some little piglets and getting the mums and dads to donate any loose change they might have. Yes. Silly, I know. But the lady from the Red Cross seemed pleased enough.
My wife is called Blanche. She is the sister of Prince Littler of the famous theatrical family. We both help out at the YMCA kiosk in Shrewsbury town centre on Saturday nights. The young lads and their girlfriends buy their cigarettes off us and I’ll often sign their cigarette packets for them or scribble a little something or do one of my caricatures for them. They seem to like that. Sometimes, in an evening, I’ll give a little impromptu performance for the youngsters. Slip in a couple of naughty jokes for them and their girls. They love that.
To grown-ups, thanks to the extravagant claims of my own publicity posters, I am known as the Prime Minister of Mirth. To little children, who have no need of such overly-complicated nonsense, I am simply the funnyman. I think they’ve got it about right.
This book that I’d like to write. Well, it wouldn’t just be my life story. I would want it to be more than that somehow. I’d like it to include my personal observations, my particular beliefs, my philosophy if that doesn’t sound too big-headed for a comic.
Here’s one of my beliefs for a start. It has always been my contention that when God was still in the process of putting this world together, still sifting and sorting the ingredients as it were, still coming up with perhaps the rhinoceros one day, the buttercup the next, that sort of thing, there must have been a time when his inventiveness suddenly scaled new heights. At this point, unable to keep the shackles on his supernatural genius, I reckon God just went all out for sheer loveliness. And it was surely during this most fruitful spasm of his creation, that he brought into being the breath-taking vision that is a beautiful young woman. Now, don’t you give me that Adam and Eve nonsense. God must have created womankind in one great lightning bolt of brilliance, and then he would have sat back, feeling rather pleased with himself, and thought: “I’m never going to better that!”
Here, the magical ingredients, a modicum of this and a modicum of that, came together in perfect harmony. Beauty. Youth. The Female Human Being. There is nothing else on this earth to compare.
This was brought home to me again only the other day as I was putting the world to rights with the barman at the George Hotel.
A young lady – she may have been one of the daughters of the hotel manager, I don’t know – strode purposefully through the bar. As she did so, she accidentally dropped a glove. Being a gentleman, I immediately slid from my bar stool, and stooped down to pick up the glove to offer it to her. As I rose with the glove in my hand, I was able to take in at close quarters the perfect curves of the young woman’s figure which would have needed very little in the way of corsetry to accentuate that shape, I’d wager. Her perfume was divine although it was not the perfume that was so utterly captivating. The heart-stopping loveliness of her alluring shape was matched by that of her perfect face, perfect eyes, perfect hair. If I had been struck down there and then, I would have died a happy man.
No really I would. And kindly temper your hilarity at the thought of it! Oh desist! Desist!
But no. I am serious. Should you ever doubt the existence of God, look no further than a beautiful young woman.
Of course, as she looked back at me, this lovely young thing, I knew what she was thinking. She saw before her an old man, a man old enough to be her grand-father. Which, in turn, left me thinking: How on earth did I ever get to be this old? Just a few short years ago I was still able to deliver my stage act sixteen times a day in non-stop revue, but I know I couldn’t do that now. I’m not the man I was.
Oh, but I must remain cheerful. Even if it is so very difficult to do so when one reads the news. In May, Belgium and Holland surrendered to the Nazis. In June, it was France’s turn to be humiliated, the victorious Germans parading through Paris with their swastikas flying from the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. If we’re not careful, it’ll be us next.
Do you know, this damned war touches upon all our lives. Not just the people who are fighting, not just their loved ones who have to worry about them, but everyone. Everything is in short supply. We all have ration cards for the purchase of butter, sugar, bacon and ham. We’ve all been given gas masks in case the Germans try to attack us with deadly chemicals. And guess what! They’ve even been digging up our beautiful park – The Quarry – in order to use it for growing vegetables. For heaven’s sake! Is nothing sacred?
But enough of this depressing talk. On a brighter note, I have made the acquaintance of some of the army officers who are staying at the Golden Cross. They’re a jolly bunch, I can tell you. They’re members of the Royal Army Pay Corps by day, but by night they are actors and comedians who link up with some of the girls from the ATS and produce little plays at the Music Hall. They call themselves the RAPCATS – get it? R.A.P.C. as in Royal Army Pay Corps and A.T.S. as in Auxiliary Territorial Service. Put it all together and you get RAPCATS. Oh, kindly temper your hilarity with a modicum of reserve! Anyway, they’re a splendid bunch to hang out with should one fancy a tipple or two.
One of those army fellows, as it happens, congratulated me on my performance yesterday. It was my first real appearance in public in the town. I shall do more. I’m sure I will. But anyway, at mid-day I spoke rather well, I think, from the National Savings Committee’s daylight cinema van in Butcher Row and declared to the crowd, with all the faith that I could muster, that we should undoubtedly win this war. It was up to every one of us, I said, to help the War Savings Campaign and to donate as much as we could so that we can give those villains hell. And I meant it. Because these Germans are villains. They’re not like the Germans we fought last time. They were just ordinary blokes fighting our ordinary blokes. But this time they’re wicked, invading other countries with unspeakable brutality, killing women and children and anyone who gets in their way.
And there I go again on one of my rants.
Damn it. I am determined to stay cheerful. All I need in order to do so is simply a modicum of this and a modicum of that. Ha, ha!
Did you know I played Falstaff on stage back in 1935. Yes! Shakespeare. Henry V? Oh yes. Oh yes. I have other strings to my bow. I have been a magnificent pantomime dame. I’ve done comic opera, I’ve done films. Don Quixote. I was Sancho Panza in both the 1923 and 1933 film versions. I also had a very brief career with Chelsea Football Club. Did you know that? As a young man I played and scored a goal for them in a friendly and was awarded an amateur contract! Oh yes. That was a laugh.
I’ve made gramophone records, you know? There was “It Wouldn’t Surprise Me A Bit” and “Tempt Me Not” and, most famous of all, “If You Were The Only Girl In The World” which I did as a duet with Violet Loraine, and there were others too, but I forget them now.
Oh well, dear reader, I’m afraid dear Blanche is wanting to go into town shortly to do some shopping, so I shall have to stop this now. I will pop in with her on the bus and possibly go and have a drink or two in the George. After all, one cannot get through this life without a modicum or this and a modicum of that. One must try to stay cheerful, musn’t one? And who knows? Perhaps a young lady will accidentally drop her glove and I shall have to pick it up for her. Oh, desist, dear reader! Desist!
Like I say, the grown-ups know me as the Prime Minister of Mirth. The children just call me the funnyman. They’ve got it about right, I reckon. They’ve got it about right.

It's A Start

A short story by Phil Gillam


The invasion of our evidently not-so-secret patch of land was heralded by a flash of torchlight slicing through the darkness, and the words: “It’s all right, lads. It’s only us. Come to see how you’re getting on”. I had had encounters with people like this before and I was not exactly thrilled to see them.
It felt like it had already been dark for hours so it must have been about eight o’clock when our peace was shattered. It could only have been a couple of degrees above zero and I had just got myself tucked up and relatively cosy. Luckily, though, none of us had been asleep. We’d been chatting, exchanging disaster stories.
A small car park by day, our home by night, this place, between the higgledy-piggledy backs of buildings, sheltered us from the biting wind and gave us a degree of privacy. Sometimes it smelt like a strange mixture of stale pee and strong cider, but you got used to that.
It was now surprisingly well illuminated, this walled but roofless space, by the four torches and two fairly powerful lanterns carried by our philanthropic gate-crashers.
A woman’s voice, chirpy and bright, directed itself at me. “Hello there. We’ve come to offer you support. Some things to eat. Something to warm you up a bit. And we have useful information. Advice. That sort of thing. If you have any questions at all . . . ” Her sentence trailed off into the chilly November night. I looked up at her from my cardboard-box-bed, dazzled by her torchlight. And I could tell that she was taking it all in: the patch over the place my left eye used to be, the deep scar across my forehead, my matted hair. I knew I was not a pretty sight.
“You’ll be a Christian, no doubt,” I said.
“That’s not important now. We just want to help you if we can.”
They had descended upon us in our little den behind Poundstretcher and it felt to me like they were the ones who were doing the trespassing. Why couldn’t they just leave us alone? We weren’t hurting anyone. Our little band of ne’er-do-wells: James, 64, ex-Royal Navy, divorced three times, abandoned by his kids; Terry, 31, a bit of a druggy but an okay guy actually; and me.
“You’re new to this,” I said.
“How did you know?”
“Oh, you know. That impossibly cheerful disposition. That eagerness to help. That innocence. That patronising patter.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Don’t be,” I said, immediately realising I had upset her. “I’m being rude to you and you don’t deserve that. I’m the one who should apologise.”
She had arrived with three men, two of them solid and middle-aged, the third twig-like and spottily young. One of the older blokes had something bulky sticking out of the side-pocket of his jacket. I assumed it was a first aid kit.
I dragged myself up and out of my cardboard cocoon, pulled my coat tight around me, and leant up against the wall to be on some sort of an equal footing with my unsolicited benefactor. I looked at her properly for the first time. She was lovely. Eyes as big as oceans, hair wild as a thunderstorm. Her loveliness made me feel ashamed of my ugliness. We were about the same age, I reckoned. Who knows? – In another time, another place, we might have . . .
“Do you not have family to look after you?”
“It’s a long story,” I said.
“Just give me the edited hightlights,” she said.
She seemed like a genuinely caring person so I decided not to be such a tight-arse and to be pleasant for a change.
“Well, they used to say I was brainy. Intelligent. That I could really go places. And I believed them for a while. I was going to be a scientist, a high-flier.” I could see that she wasn’t quite sure if I was joking or not. “No really,” I said. “But I had a few problems. Dropped out of university. That was a mistake. Got my heart broken. Never really fulfilled my potential. Then a nasty motorcycle accident. Lost my eye. Hence the patch.”
“Very Johnny Depp,” she said. And then I could tell she thought she’d gone too far. She thought she’d offended me.
“That’s all right,” I told her, and I smiled at her. “I get a lot of pirate jokes.”
“You’ve had more than your fair share of bad luck,” she said.
At which point I decided not to tell her about my nervous breakdown and my psychotic episodes. I didn’t want her to think I was beyond all hope.
“Yeah. I suppose I have had a lot of bad luck,” I answered. “And then of course Paul McCartney let me down.”
“How’s that?” she asked. “Did his cheque bounce?”
I laughed and – through my laughter – said: “You’re the first good Samaritan to make me giggle. What have you got there in that bag of yours anyhow?”
She slipped the bag from her shoulder and unzipped it. “Mars bars to give you a sugar boost and Pot Noodles to warm you up. We have flasks of hot water and spoons if you fancy one now. We come around about once a week to keep an eye on you. Guys like you sleeping rough. People living in poverty, having trouble keeping things ticking over. We’ll say a prayer for you if you like.”
In my gentlest, friendliest tone, I said: “No. Don’t bother.”
“Anyway,” she said. “Tell me about you and Paul McCartney.”
“In the song, Winter Rose/Love Awake, he sings: ‘Snow falls in the winter, spring brings the rain.’
Before I could say another word, my goody-two-shoes interrupted by finishing the verse. “But it’s never too long before the summer comes again.”
“My God! How do you know that song?” I asked. “No-one else I know knows that song. We must be about the same age. How else would you know the words to a track from a lesser-known Wings album?”
“Lesser-known?” she said. “Back To The Egg, 1979. One of my all-time favourite albums. Don’t you give me that ‘lesser-known’ crap. It’s a brilliant record.”
I’ll tell you. I was really warming to this woman.
“And so Paul let you down in what way?” she asked.
“Well, I don’t think he is singing just about the changing seasons there. He’s really saying, don’t worry about all the snow and the rain. Eventually, you’re life will take a turn for the better and the summer will come again. Well, I’ll tell you. In my case, it’s been nothing but snow and rain. I haven’t seen the summer in a long, long time. So, as far as I’m concerned, McCartney let me down there – suggesting that things would all come right in the end. That’s not always the case.”
The three other goody-goodies seemed pre-occupied over in the other corner with James and Terry. From what I could gather, poor old James had pissed himself and the holy mob were trying to persuade him to go back to the church hall with them and change into some clean trousers that had been donated to their “good cause”.
I could see now that the bulky thing sticking out of the guy’s jacket pocket was not a first aid kit but a Bible. The old cynicism was rising in me again, but I stopped myself from saying something sarcastic. I stopped myself for her sake.
“By the way, you smell gorgeous,” I told her. “Fancy perfume? A little bit inappropriate given these circumstances, don’t you think?”
“It helps to mask the smell of the urine,” she said.
“Well, you shouldn’t keep pissing yourself,” I said.
She laughed and said: “Well, now we’re even. You’re the first homeless person to have made me laugh.”
Then, quite suddenly, and with all the audacity of a man with nothing left to lose, I asked her point blank: “Do you think you could ever love a man like me?”
She dug deep into her shoulder bag. “Here. Have a Mars bar,” she said.
“It’s a start,” I said.


Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Our Old Kitchen and The Power Of Place


I took this photograph when I was sixteen. It shows part of our old kitchen at 73 North Street. This was the kitchen from which my brother Tony and I would broadcast our imaginary radio show on a Saturday morning (Saturday Extra on Radio Zero) but that's another story.
The picture was rediscovered this week as the family continues to uncover old treasure during our massive sort-out of the loft (an emormous undertaking, but satisfying).
For me, this photograph speaks of my deep interest in what touchy-feely people nowadays might call “the power of place”.
The image reminds me that even at the tender age of sixteen I was intrigued and fascinated by rooms and their half-forgotten corners, by staircases, cupboards, fireplaces, old brickwork. Even back then as a spotty teenager I was moved by the atmosphere of places, in love with buildings and architecture, history and heritage, old pubs, old houses, old shops, old post offices, the patterns made by streets and cul-de-sacs, the incredible richness of the urban landscape. Even then I was captivated by how villages, towns and cities had developed through the ages and by the shapes and patterns left by past generations.
All this I can see as I view this battered corner of a damp and uncared-for kitchen in a Victorian house, photographed by me in 1974.