Ghost Runners of the White Mountains

Ghosts. Do I believe in them?

I arrived in Center Barnstead in the fall of ’84. I was optimistic, full of ambition and while it wasn’t exactly a case of go West, young man, I figured that part – heading out to LA – would follow soon enough.

David Andrews, Center Barnstead, Fall '84

Nestling in the bosom of the White Mountains, an eternity from the nearest Interstate highway and with a population of 4,558 souls, CB –no-one calls it Center Barnstead, apparently – had ignored time. And time itself has obliged and passed by. That’s how the local denizens liked it. Or so it seemed to me.

It was said that even the Sioux Indians, hungry, bullied, harassed and despondent on their long journey north back in the day, gave CB a swerve. Actually detoured to avoid the place.

I’d been in some one horse joints before, but nothing quite prepared me for this.

live free or die number plate

Nonetheless, the settlement, buried in the deep cleavage of the Live Free or Die state, the one which puts the red into redneck, was where I was destined to spend a couple of months, rehearsing a couple of plays with a US theatre outfit ahead of a national tour.

At least my timing was good. The legendary explosion of colour which emblazoned the region as the dying embers of the summer months turned gently into autumn had turned CB’s environs into a gigantic canvas. It was impressive. Which is just as well, as there was not a lot else to do but gape at the light show nature had laid on for me.

Coming as I did from a perpetually dank and dingy low-rent part of north London, where I had been holed up trying to figure out which turn to take at this still relatively youthful juncture of the journey we all undertake, the dramatic change of scene was good for my head, and, I hoped, good for my wallet. I was after all being paid to rehearse out here.

As I settled in and became a little more familiar with the sparsely populated town, I struck up a few passing acquaintances.

There were a few characters, the usual bar flies with their tall stories, and then there was George.

I liked George, a genial old guy of indeterminate age but I put him at around the late 70s mark, sporting a solitary tooth which protruded like a Cornish crag, glinting occasionally under the generous camouflage of an enormous snow white walrus moustache.

Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath
Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath

George, invariably decked out in a pair of ancient, perhaps once a paler shade of blue dungarees – of the vintage sported by Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath – ran the town’s only gas station, which doubled as a grocery/diner/hardware store.

Arch Rose Gas Station

Always up for a chat, George would lock onto me with his one good eye – lost the other to a fragmentation grenade just after D Day, he quietly confided early on in our acquaintance – and we would chew the fat. George was puzzled as to why a ‘youngster’ like me was detained by CB.

George as a young marine WW2
George, France, near Bayeux, June 1944

Well George, just happens to be where fate has deemed I should go.

But nothing – he pronounced it nutin’ – ever happens, here, son, was a familiar, oft repeated refrain, the way that people approaching the winter of their lives have of forgetting that they had already voiced a sentiment many times over.

Fact is, he cackled, one morning when I popped in for a coffee, needing a pick me up after a fencing rehearsal, last time they had a recorded happenin’ in the area was back in the winter of 1953. Yessiree, 195…3, said George, in a singalong voice, emphasising the ‘three’ in the final syllable.

What happened George, I asked, sipping a harsh black coffee, someone raid the Coca Cola machine out the front, I teased?

Well, said George, straightening up from behind the grime encrusted counter and clearing his throat – a frequent task given that the former combat marine was a three pack a day man (gave ‘em up when I got to 70…the Krauts couldn’t get me but the smokes would sure as Hell’d keep ya warm….)

Somethin’ and nutin’, said George, shuffling out across the shop floor and beckoning me out into the warm late October breeze.

Coupla kids on the run from a job in downtown Boston, he said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the great city…got busted on some stupid job up in Concorde.

He spat and paused to focus that one rheumy eye on me, gauging as to whether he still held my attention. Didn’t get nutin’, mind, they got plumb rumbled right away, and when they were trying to git the heck our of there they’d fired off handguns – Colts, they both had Colts – at the cops.

Somehow those boys managed to show the Heat a clean pair of heels, boosted a pick up and tore out of there like their asses were on fire.

Critters had been half starved apparently when they pitched up in CB, George gestured expansively at the gently rustling trees framing the store, stole some eggs from the Thomsons down yonder chicken coop.

A long pause, as I feel the coffee buzz and as George, invariably struggling to get enough air into what is left of his lungs….we-llll, they got cornered out in that field back of the Thompsons.

Pointing a bony claw out across the pot holed automobile port in front of the store, George pauses again, like a stand-up comedian, warily biding his time until delivering the punch line of a rambling joke to an indifferent audience…and then all Hell gone done broke loose. There’s prowl cars all over the town like a rash, and cops with tommy guns and shotguns and using loudhailers to get the kids to turn themselves in.

American 1950s cop and car

And then these two kids come running out from cover, they’s ain’t no more’n nineteen or twenny years old these two young guns, and there they are the two of them, caught plum in those prowl car headlamps, and looking for all the heck like Butch Cassidy and the darned Sundance Kid, blasting away with those handguns, blam, blam, blam…George trails off, looking down at the dark stain oak boards, liberally puckered with ancient fag butts trodden underfoot, transported back through the miasma of the decades, fragile vocal chords notching up half an octave…and then the heat they opens up, there’s at least a half dozen tommy guns laying down the fire …and those kids, well, he whispers…

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidThey was blown into the next world, son.

George fell silent, looking across the dirt road to the blinding colour of the trees, draped in shadow and framing the store and the White Mountains beyond.

You know what though boy….whatever it was those kids did, whatever wrong side of the tracks they found themselves on, those kids, they was…well, they was brave. Damned if they weren’t. Now long dead and in the ground. They buried ‘em around here somewhere, long forgotten now – unmarked graves, no-one thought too much about the whole sorry business back then. Life was cheap, seemed that way after the war n’all.

Outgunned, outnumbered they was son…ain’t the size of the dog in the fight though, George spat. It’s the size of the fight in the dog, know what I’m sayin’ boy?

I nodded, trying to imagine this deathly silent homestead being turned into a combat zone all those long years ago.

In the silence that followed his graphic recounting of that one-sided shoot out at Center Barnstead in the winter of ‘53, I wonder, was George thinking, about how the years had closed and how much closer to his maker he was now.

I stand before you as an old man who don’t got many years ahead. Most behind. I know I don’t got a lot of time left, and I ain’t gonna pretend I’ve been no stranger to violence. I killed men, said George, flatly. I killed men – German fellas – sure enough in the war. No choice. Had to. He paused, reflected, the store radio crackling, playing an old hillybilly-type dance tune. Killed a lot of men, oh yes. We all did things…saw things, we….He fixed on me, searchingly, that watery, ancient eye locking on, refracted in the gloom.

Hillbilly Dancing

They say the ghosts of those boys can be seen around here from time to time, whispered George, a shadow passing over his deeply tracked countenance. Terrible thing….terrible, terrible thing…

His voice trailed off and George, shuffling back into the store, glanced over his shoulder.

You believe in ghosts, young fella?

I made to answer, but George was gone, the swing doors gently clacking together in the morning light.

*******

THAT fall of ‘84 it suited me to end up in this deadbeat drive by going nowhere joint.

Not that CB didn’t have its charms. And the odd well known inhabitant, funnily enough. JD Salinger, already long in the tooth by the time I showed up, lived close by. The reclusive legend scuttled around the even tinier hamlet of Cornish, New Hampshire. That was cool, I thought.

I had joined an American touring theatre company. Shivering in a vile flat in north London, the seasons changing and a long harsh winter blowing in just around the corner, going up for endless auditions and being told I was too big, too young, too old too whatever the fuck by some casting director or other and pulling construction shifts for terrible money by day.

So when I did get a call from a guy, Danny Shapiro, who had seen me in a show, asking if I could audition for this adaptation of old Brit yarn The Adventures of Robin Hood why yes, I said. To my astonishment I got the gig, cast as the mad, evil (and very funny) King John, and was on the next flight – more or less – out to Boston.

I hooked up with these American actor dudes for a six week rehearsal period before we hit the road to wow the Stateside audiences. Could be worse, I thought. And besides, I could well end up in LA, maybe I could break into the movies.

Well, I could dream. I passed the days outside of rehearsals with one hour pace runs, followed by hitting the rusting old weights out the back in the barn where we ran through the shows.

There were worse places to be in the world. I liked watching the trees change colour, like in front of my very eyes I kid you not.

How do they do that? There is, I learned, an imperceptible trigger that makes the chlorophyll break down as the trees stop producing the food. So the green disappears, to be replaced by the hues of red, yellow and orange that gives New England that, that look.

Man, those colours. George at the store says you never know just how vibrant the colours will be – depends on other chemical processes, he would muse, pointing a gnarled, heavily mottled and tremulous hand out of filthy, ancient windows and squinting into the midday watery sun. You see the red in those maples?  Just how darned brilliant red depends on how much sugar is produced in the leaves and how it gets all tangled and trapped in the chill of an autumn night.

White Mountains, New Hampshire, with orange foliage

He would look at me, triumphantly, as if he has just stumbled on and finally unlocked the secret of the universe. The more sugar that accumulates, he drawls, the brighter red the leaves turn. That’s how the good Lord made it all happen, George would sigh, perhaps anticipating a pop up appearance from the Man himself.

Y’all ever meet any famous actors, son, George wanted to know. Funnily enough, just before coming out to the States I had auditioned at the Haymarket Theatre for Charlton Heston, by now an ageing bear of a man, who was in town drumming up talent for a newly polished version of The Caine Mutiny, the old Humphrey Bogart vehicle, that he was to direct.

Charlton_Heston

I had no idea I was going to be doing my stuff in front of Chuck Heston. My agent, an imperious septuagenarian and former starlet who was prone to shouting down the phone at me as she was deaf as a post, had advised that a ‘big star’ was coming into town and that she had secured an audition for me.  What she had failed to advise was that Ben Cross, fresh from his Chariots of Fire success playing Harold Abrahams, was also going up for the play. I was, once again, about to be blown out of the water.

But I got on well with Chuck (you should address him as Mr Heston, the ASM beaned as she ushered me onto the vast space that was the Haymarket Theatre stage). The first thing I noticed was that he was sporting a particularly brutal hairpiece, slightly crooked, looking like one of those South American flying squirrels which had taken a leap out of a kapok tree and landed fortuitously on the open plains of the great man’s generously proportioned dome.

Charlton Heston in Ben Hur

As a child, I had gasped at Chuck’s skills as the slave chariot driver in Ben Hur, and gazed agog at the big screen of the Burnt Oak Odeon as he flagellated himself in Bible bashing epics such as The Greatest Story Ever Told. And now here he was, flashing me that crinkly smile, one actor to another, the difference of course being that the great ham Chuck was one of the most famous men in the world with a huge body of work under his belt and millions in the bank, and I was me.

Out in the States in CB, I was happy enough. Some days I would join Jonny Shapiro, the younger, tearaway boxer brother of Mike Shapiro, our director for the tour. Jonny was staying awhile, wanting to train out in the White Mountain hills for his next fight. For a boxer, I always thought Jonny Shapiro sure went about his training schedule in a funny way. I would nod to him in the mornings when on my way to the first rehearsals of the day, and Johnny, blowing moodily on a Marlboro Lite and yawning out on the front porch, would nod back.

One gloriously beautiful afternoon in late October, when the colour burst trees were at their most majestic, I finished a rehearsal session early and decided to hit the dirt track for a run. Jonny spotted me pulling on my battered old Nikes, and asked if he could tag along.

Sure, why not I said, glad of the company, but convinced he would be bored with me after the first quarter mile. I fully expected him to take off and leave me flagging in his dust trail. But, to my pleasant surprise, he stayed with me. I was running a lot back then, more than used to knocking off anywhere from seven to ten or so miles, and I could crack a pretty decent pace for a 95 kilo guy.

On that day we stopped off after around three miles and got down to do a bunch of push ups and endless sit ups. Jonny would shadow box while I was doing my sets, and he liked it when I told him I thought he looked like he could do a lot of damage to anyone he met in the ring. A light heavyweight, coming in at a similar 95 kilos to me, the dude looked badass alright.

Ok, let’s hit it again, said Jonny, and then he took off, going from a steady run into something approaching a sprint.

I couldn’t keep up, no matter how hard I pushed myself, arms and legs pumping as fast as I could get the oxygen into me, and Jonny rounded a gentle bend in the road and ran out of my line of sight. As I approached the bend, I felt a sudden chill despite my exertions, as the late October sun on my back faded to be replaced, instantly, by a disconcerting mist – like the pea soupers which suddenly sweep in from the sea just when you do not expect it.

Getting the rhythm of my breathing back, I blinked through the gloom and saw not Jonny but two men, jogging slowly in unison with one another, their backs to me, making an easy pace. They were not wearing running gear. I thought, that’s, like odd, they seemed to be dressed as if of a different era, indeterminate but they both looked to be running in faded dungarees, bluey/grey…a bit like the ones George favoured.
ghost imageAs I ran and kept the runners in my sights, I thought I heard music coming from somewhere behind the densely packed white cedar trees lining either side of the track. It sounded like that slow, waltzy, lazy country music that diner jukeboxes were fond of stocking.

The men seemed to pick up their pace, then slowly, imperceptibly, but definitely, began to fade into the very road in front of me. Hey. Hey!! Hey, I called out, trying for all the world to catch up. I thought I saw one of the runners slowly glance over his shoulder, jet black hair cut razor short at the sides but a fringe lopping down over cobalt blue eyes. I thought I saw him nod, silently. I thought I saw a smile.

Hey, I shouted and waved, hey…HEY!! And then I was looking at a deserted road ahead.

The flame lit cedars bending and whispering to me, the runners now gone and silent as time itself stretching and stretching to the beyond, and as the music died,  to be replaced by a mournful rustle of thousands of junipers, larches, hemlocks, pines and cedars, and amid that glorious nature I thought of George 40 years before, and the young men who had fallen beside him on fields of combat and how they were now ghosts themselves.

I thought of the ghosts that had begun their eternal parade through my own life as I looked up and down that road, those who I had known who I would not encounter again in this life.

And I thought of a harsh day in the winter of 1953 when two young men made a bad call in CB and had their numbers punched, and the shadows were lengthening ahead of me and time beats on knowing we have all of us made a mark somewhere in this world and who knows maybe in the next.

the ghost road


Then cometh a horseman….

Horse Riding on misty beach with rocks

I was an actor.

Post graduate drama school training after university. Immersed in the method as taught by Stanislavski, with ambitions to get to LA and hit the big time.

img008

A few hysterical months as a stand-up comedian, occasional Tarzanogram and endless fringe theatre jobs, and I finally secured the elusive Equity card. I was a professional. Finally. Now for world domination, I thought.

As with all the best laid plans, mine were derailed very early on. The freezing winter of 81/82 pretty much did for me. Having played a singing, dancing bear in a fringe pantomime production at the Grove Theatre, Hammersmith, I began to have second thoughts about my career path when I could not afford to buy a hot dog (they were 37p…I still get a Proustian whiff of those sizzling onions as I emerged blinking into the London gloom) from the stall which lurked tantalisingly outside the theatre.

Finding the rent that winter was a nightmare. I remember one day in desperation joining a concrete laying gang. For a 10 hour, back breaking shift in the pouring rain I was paid £18. I spent most of it in the pub that night and then suffered a terrible bout of flu’ which laid me up for a month.

I did get a few breaks – one of the Chariots of Fire producers, Paul Knight, cast me in a couple of episodes of the popular kids’ series Robin of Sherwood, which first screened in 1985. Can you ride a horse, he asked, barely looking up from his desk.

No. I mean…yes, I mean. I could learn.

Learn to ride David. Learn to ride. Script will be in the post. Filming starts at the beginning of June. We will be in touch. And with that I was dismissed. Around ten riding lessons later, I am on the set of Robin of Sherwood, filmed mostly in and around the Cheddar Gorge, a few clicks from Bristol.

You can check me out getting an arrow through the chest, courtesy of a grumpy Ray Winstone, who was cast as Will Scarlett and spent much of the shoot getting hammered in bars and clubs in and around Bristol. Ray didn’t like me very much. I think he thought I asked too many questions. Was too full of myself. Mea culpa, probably. I can’t remember exactly. It was a long time ago.

When my fleeting appearance in Robin of Sherwood was finally broadcast I thought I had the acting business cracked. A steady flow of work in theatre, commercials and then a call to join a US theatre company.

Touring shows around the East side of the US got me a little closer to LA, but only in the geographic sense. It wasn’t long before the phone stopped ringing once again and I was grubbing around from fill in job to fill in job.

the road
Bar work, hod-carrying, teaching, driving, I took whatever came my way. But it was only when I started filing copy for movie and stage magazines that I gradually made the transition from an occasionally working actor to an always employed journalist.

Comedor

But I always regarded myself as an artist, one way or another. I know I was side tracked into journalism and then formed my own PR consultancy, but hey, a man needs to make a living. And you try bringing up two kids on the typical actor’s income.

MozartBeing an artist and grinding penury often go together. Mozart, on his brief stay in Soho, literally starving, stealing food where he could find it. Know the feeling, Wolfgang.

Van Gogh, constantly in poor health through lack of regular nutrition and damp living conditions. James Joyce, forever dreading the rent collector’s knock on the door and wondering how he would clothe and feed his young family.

Van Gogh

The poet Rimbaud, half crazed with malnutrition despairing of another freezing winter in a hostile and unforgiving Paris.

Dostoyevsky, skeletal and ill, the bank account and the cupboards bare, all hope long since evaporated.

F Scott Fitzgerald

F Scott Fitzgerald, before the spectacular success of The Great Gatsby, reduced to begging in the streets to help fund the next marathon drinking session.

Suffering for one’s art is a cliché. Oscar Wilde, while entertaining lavishly in the salons of Paris, would remark that when bankers got together they liked nothing better than to discuss art. But when artists got together the theme was invariably money, the folding stuff, and the lack of it.

Art and artists come in all shapes and sizes. Along with the painters and illustrators, poets and writers, musicians and composers, filmmakers and dramatists, there are the actors, the thespians – the grubs that populate this seductive world.

Back in Shakespearean times, which is around the time that theatre troupes were properly established in a more or less coherent form, medieval actors were the absolute dregs of society, occupying a social standing barely elevated above common thieves and pimps – the so called travelling players, nomadic performers typically regarded with contempt, fear and suspicion.

Fast forward a few hundred years and actors are still having a rough time of it.

Despite being unequivocally aligned to an industry which contributes billions of dollars to the global economy, recent data reveals that over 75 per cent of actors earned less than £5,000 from being on stage or in front of the cameras last year (2014). Less than £5,000. That’s not even £100 a week.

David with Omar Sharif 1993
David Andrews with Omar Sharif , 1993

And despite the undeniable glamour that is invariably associated with this penurious world, Casting Call Pro (CCP), a professional casting website, found that just two per cent of our thespians earned over £20,000 in 2014. A further one in five failed to secure a paid acting job at all over the last 12 months.

Track back to 2013 and another bleak statistic is revealed: 46 per cent of actors made less than £1,000 from acting jobs and a further 30 per cent had made a paltry £1,000 to £5,000.

So many a bitter thespian eyebrow would have been raised by the recent revelation that Daniel Craig, the actor par excellence du jour, has trousered around £39 million from his latest outing as 007.

Thirty nine million pounds. It might not be enough to get him onto next year’s Sunday Times Rich List, but it will keep the diminutive performer in Aston Martins and Omega Speedmaster wristwatches until they are banging the nails in.

The sheer imbalance in the harsh realities of this precarious world become even more pronounced when you look at the vast fortunes amassed by the likes of Robert Downey Jnr, a man alleged to make north of £50 million every time he climbs into an Iron Man whistle.

Robert Downey Jr

These riches of Croesus are rewards granted to just a handful of actors, who by some fortuitous route or other have managed to achieve the near on impossible – make it big in Hollywood.

Millions chase this dream. Millions fail. And I speak from experience.

There are lots of actors based in Brighton, where I rest my head. Many is the time I would overhear conversations in my local gym, of glum faced actors, sighing in between grunts on the bench deck.

The subject is invariably the next job. Where – if at all – it was coming from. News of the steady success of the wider economy to those who have staked all on a career on stage – and screen, if they are fortunate – does not register.

The phone seldom rings in these conversations I overhear, and I know only too well how useless and bleakly hopeless one feels at these times.

A couple of older actor chums of mine, both at one time very successful in their own right, with lots of high profile film and TV credits between them, recently had to move out of Brighton to a much cheaper area as the strain of bringing up young children on irregular or entirely absent incomes began to tell.

An actor who was in the same couple of episodes of Robin of Sherwood (The Swords of Wayland, check it out on YouTube) as me went on to become a household name. He now lives in Brighton with teenaged children and rarely works. It is hard. Someone else usually gets the job. Unless you are Brad Pitt.

Tales of bailiffs pounding on the front door looking to take away the television or whatever else might be removed to cover the mounting debt pile are common. I wonder how in 2015 anyone could really live like that. The nobility of art must seem distant at these times.

But in the purest sense of the pursuit of art and beauty actors, and fellow travellers like writers and musicians, have a sense of destiny. One which does not rely on being glued to a screen full of figures day in day out.

Worship of Mamon, then, is not a good reason to pursue a life in art – whichever discipline it might be. Art should be for art’s sake, and if you happen to strike a chord along the way, then that is all to the good.

Mark RothkoI think of Rothko, finally, after 30 or so years of struggle to make his voice heard, drawing the knife deep into the vein below the elbow, despite having had the success of the Seagram Building series of works and the spotlight of fame slowly panning in his direction. And of Van Gogh, whose poverty was so pitiful that days would pass when he would lie in a semi coma, too weak to call for help. How he would have laughed to think his canvases are now being fought over in auction rooms around the world, the stratospheric price tags only within reach of the oligarch and the billionaire hedge fund founder.

And I wonder, glumly, what will happen to the mass rank and file of artists in a world so determined to be seduced by the cult of ‘celebrity.’

Daniel Craig got lucky, by some miracle of fate and happenstance, and has made the transition from ‘actor’ to ‘celebrity’. A man who has been able to command astonishing sums of money by being cast in the role of a 1950s fictional Secret Service creation.

It may not be art. But it is a living, of sorts.


The Box Man of Bohola

THE farm where I spent the lion’s share of the summer of 1966 nestles at the top of a densely overgrown lane on the outskirts of the tiny hamlet of Bohola.

Bohola Farm

Steeped in ancient Gaelic history, Bohola, located in the far west of County Mayo, Eire, with a population of a little over 200 mostly agrarian workers, survived plague, famine and long centuries of indifference to its fate.

It has changed little since my mother was born on that same farm in 1918, just as the First World War was coming to a close. I don’t know exactly which day or month she was born, for accurate local parish records did not exist back then.

When I travelled with my mother via an early Aer Lingus flight to Bohola as a child, the farm was running a modest dairy operation, overseen by Uncle Bernie, one of her eight brothers. Like my mother, they are now all long gone, but with the recent passing of a family member on the Irish side of my family, I was reminded of an event which took place on the farm all those decades ago.

You could say it was my first insight into the machinations of capitalism – or perhaps more accurately, how the long reach of capitalism serves even the tiniest of outposts.

Men at Bohola Farm

As a commercial centre, Bohola has little going for it. A solitary public house serving cold Guinness to farm workers at the end of a long day in the fields. And a village shop, administering to the basic needs of the community. There is a Catholic church of course, and many a stern sermon has been addressed to the tiny Bohola populace from its pulpit over the centuries.

In order to secure anything more than the everyday bits and pieces, you’ll need to travel the seven miles or so to the small town of Kiltimagh, a beautiful spot, terribly ravaged by the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s.

Which is what I ambitiously decided to do back in that long, drowsy summer in 1966.

England had just won the World Cup – not that the news travelled particularly quickly to the farm on which I found myself that year, for there was no means of receiving news from the outside world.

Men at Bohola Farm

I was baffled by the fact that there was no radio, and further mystified by the worrying absence of a television. Nothing. There was not even a toilet. I remember when I first enquired as to the whereabouts of the loo in the rambling old farmhouse. To be met with lots of chuckling and rolling eyes and thumb pointing outside gestures.

So outside in the fields was where you had to go to relieve yourself. Maybe find a spot in one of the outhouses if the weather was inclement.

You get used to it, cackled my Aunty Bea, toothlessly beaming through a fog of Sweet Afton cigarette smoke.

I doubted I would ever get used to crouching down in a field under the mournful, watching eye of the dairy herd, but as the days passed and the summer ebbed and flowed, sure enough I began to adjust to the rural ways of this mythical part of Ireland, where leprechauns were said to congress with fairies, and heroic knights once fought against invaders from many foreign lands.

And where many children and their parents starved to death in their thousands in the pitiless famine that decimated the local population between 1845 and 1852.

bicycle against farm wall

On the day I set out to Kiltimagh, on a bicycle so ancient and rusted I had little faith it could support the 14 mile round trip, the children in the farmhouse were in a state of heightened excitement.

Cousin Bernard is coming down from Dublin and he’s bringing a picture box with him. A picture box! Who would have thought such a thing, they sang and chattered all around the farm.

I had no idea what a picture box was – what on earth could they be referring to, I wondered. But, as the miles crawled past on my epic trip to the town of Kiltimagh, I thought less of the mysterious picture box and more of the Victor comic I hoped to pick up that morning – assuming I made it there and back, of course.

Bohola Lane

As luck would have it, the comic was in stock, and the old bone shaker held up for the long cycle ride back to the farm.

When I finally arrived, exhausted, back at the ranch, the yard – normally alive with the sound of many young children yelling and shouting – was oddly quiet.

Where, I wondered, was everyone? Not even a chicken pecking at my feet. How strange.

Children watching old television

On entering the farmhouse, it all became clear. Sitting proudly on the kitchen table, a somewhat fuzzy black and white picture weakly penetrating the gloomy stone floor and walls, was a television, a huge aerial protuding ostentatiously from its rear.

A television, transported all the way from a tiny warehouse in Dublin, to a farmhouse in the back of beyond which did not even have an outdoor toilet, let alone an indoor one.

Sat spellbound in front of the box were assembled children, quiet for once, looking as if they had been visited by a magician. Which in a way they had, in the form of my cousin Bernard, who had come down on a surprise visit with his miracle gift.

Bernard, who was eventually to become one of the UK’s most successful businessmen, building up and selling the construction company he inherited from his father – my uncle – had lavished what was then an unearthly amount of money in Ireland, a country where television sets were in the mid-60s as rare as hen’s teeth.

And this is where capitalism will always win, reaching out, feeling and probing for demand for its goods and services in the most unlikely of places.

You can call the story of my cousin Bernard and the television a parable of sorts. We had both made journeys that day. Me to the paper shop in Kiltimagh, and Bernard from Dublin to the miniscule hamlet of Bohola.

But I will remember cousin Bernard’s visit for another reason.

Unbeknown to me, when I was glued to that television set along with all the other kids, Bernard had felt the irresistible call of nature, and had crept out to one of the barns to relieve himself.

Like televisions, toilet paper was scarce in that part of Ireland in 1966: well, there were hardly any toilets, were there?

I later found my unread Victor comic in the barn. Well someone has found a use for it, I thought grimly as it was buzzed by flies. But no-one would admit to purloining it, leaving me with one of my earliest lessons, that investments, no matter how small and desirable, are never guaranteed to bring any dividends whatsoever.

I recall my howls of anguish at finding the comic in that barn. A comic I had sweated for – exchanged my labour for, in a way – on a windy day long ago in the far west of Ireland.

Bernard was well on his way back to Dublin by the time I had made him for the culprit. Probably never gave it another thought.

And just as it was an early lesson for me, it was also an example of one of the primary edicts of success in business. Seize the opportunity when it arises. Because you may not get another chance.


…so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

There was a guy, wiry, hyper – South American – who tended bar in Long Island. A run down, paint peeling, one horse joint just south of the Hamptons. It was late October, 1984. Back in the miasma of time.

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I was working in the States. The days were getting shorter, the leaves turning. It was getting cold. The local bar flies joshed with the barman. They called him Chilly. I assumed this was because he came from, well, Chile.

But I was wrong. He was Chilly because he kept saying, ‘…man, I am SO chilly….damn if it ain’t cold up here…really chilly..’

I can still hear the plaintive shiver in his voice. I think Chilly, and his fixed, incessantly beaming grin, was probably an illegal alien, but, working in a country of around 260 million people, he probably thought he had a good chance of getting away with it. After all, millions of South Americans slip through the borders and take the kind of jobs most Americans do not want to do. Chilly, I recall with some clarity, earned five bucks an hour back then. We argued one night (Mexican beers were involved…) about the relative wealth of America vs the rest of the world.

‘Man, c’MON!! This is a rich country man. They can afford to pay me more’n five bucks an hour!

He probably had a point.

I sometimes think back to that time, and the tour that took me through the dying coalfields of Pennsylvania, still lyrically beautiful, straight out of the set of The Deer Hunter. You could almost see the ghost of Christopher Walken hypnotically dancing to a Polish country tune.

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Then gliding down through zones of acute economic deprivation in the redneck towns of West Virginia, framed by the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains. With trepidation into the inner, black dominated ghettos of Philadelphia and Washington DC, witnessing the dreadful poverty of isolated homesteads in Maine and upstate Vermon – where I helped one tragically poor family move a massive, antiquated fridge from the 1930s into a dank kitchen – and I think back to that time long ago when I argued through the night in a backstreet bar in Long Island about whether America was a rich country.

According to US data intelligence agency Y Chart, the typical American earns $23.58 an hour, or around $39,000 a year. That compares more or less with the £26,000 a year which is currently defined as the average wage in the UK.

But as we know, the gap between America’s wealthy and that country’s poor is inestimable. If you are born poor in America today, you are likely to stay poor.

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One of Obama’s promises to the American people when taking up his second term, was to help usher in a revival in American manufacturing.

“If we take an entirely new and different direction in energy, in trade, and in labor policies, we will see more manufacturing jobs come back to America than those that are leaving America. I am absolutely convinced that with the right policies and leadership we can see a resurgence in American manufacturing.”

Fighting talk. But do the millions of unemployed workers – 8 per cent of the population at December 2012 – the construction workers whose tools gently rust through lack of use, the factory hands restlessly idling away the long days, do they I wonder share this vision of resurgence?

Obama’s first term coincided with an unprecedented economic crisis, the depths of which rocked this vast society to its very core. In the space of a few short years, the country has lurched from the shattering blow of 9/11, to war with Iraq, war in Afghanistan and other myriad combat zones peppered around the globe, to, ultimately war with itself. An economic war, still being played out by the haves and have nots, following the collapse of the banking system.

Obama’s speech writers may have reached for all the superlatives when talking the re-building talk, picking themselves up from the ashes, and creating a full employment economy once again, but let’s hope the unparalleled greed and cunning which powered the ugly edifices of the US banking industry is reined in. For as we know, it was ultimately the investment banks running unregulated and out of control, which took us all down with them.

Whereas prior to the recession Public Enemy Number One for many underemployed and low paid Americans was cheap immigrant labour – guys like Chilli looking to improve on life in the village back home – these days it is more likely to be the faceless denizens of Wall Street.

Interestingly, the first Wall Street movie in 1987 heralded legions of admirers for the Gordon Gekko lifestyle.

Applications for investment banking jobs went through the roof. The ‘lunch is for wimps’ philosophy tunneled deep into the New World pysche. Corporate raiders like Gekko – ‘if you want a friend, get a dog…’ – were the go to guys. America in the late 80s, having dragged itself out of the gloomy pall on successive recessions in the 70s and early 80s, once again embraced rampant get rich capitalism on an industrial scale. Rich was good. Yo! Rich was what we want to show the rest of the world. Richer than those fuddy duddy Europeans, infinitesimally richer than the Chinese and let’s not even go there with the Russians.

But as 2013 dawns on the Land of the Free, the tables have been turned. The high fives are notably absent, and the yo’s a muted whisper.

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Now it’s the Chinese who are in the driving seat. South Korean manufacturers are outgunning the US’s once mighty automobile industry, and while Silicon Valley is designing the Macs and iPhones, it is the two bucks an hour workers in the hi-tech factories of Shanghai who are making them.

Millions of Americans, however, still have their dreams.  A new dawn may well be approaching for them. This is a country famed for its can do optimism, after all.

F Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby embraced the American dream.

He, Gatsby, ‘believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter. Tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’


Bad day in Upper Gardner Street

After four months or so of brutally hard hod carrying – where I was earning £46 a day back in 1980 – I was offered a job as a supervisor on the Government’s Youth Opportunities Scheme, known back then as YOP.

The money was poor compared to running up and down ladders with bricks and muck in my hod, but I thought here was a chance to give something back to the community, helping out these kids who were deemed unemployable. Most had left school at 15, as you could back then.

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I think back to when I was 23, having just left university. I had moved to Brighton, where I had many friends, and decided to work for a year before going on to a further degree in London.

Some of their own volition, but most because they were thrown out, branded as trouble makers. Most also came from broken homes in the problem areas of Brighton. But one thing they all had in common was that they wanted to belong somewhere, to be part of a collective enterprise. I suppose it is human nature.

I was put in charge of 17 boys in all, with a brief to go out into the community and do up dilapidated buildings which could then be used by local people.

Most of the work was straight forward painting and decorating, and the boys were given a small wage each week, more or less equivalent to today’s minimum wage. It was designed to be a learning experience and help prepare them to enter the work force.

Every day we would go out in a Ford transit-type van, descending noisily onto whatever project we happened to be engaged in. Sometimes the boys would moon out of the windows at startled passers by, and as their boss I was supposed to be unamused. But it was a laugh, and we bonded.

Lunch times were a challenge however. The boys were supposed to bring a packed lunch, but many did not have anyone at home to prepare them.

One boy, Trevor, often missed out on food altogether, having to scavenge what he could from his reluctant peers.

One day he did, to my surprise, actually have a modest lunch box with him. This relatively unusual development was the subject of much speculation by the other boys. What was in Trevor’s sandwiches – you don’t want to know – that kind of thing.
We were giving the old Brighton Boys Club in Upper Gardner Street a lick of paint.

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All was going well – the boys were by and large hard working and keen – until Trevor suddenly announced he had had enough, was starving, and was going to have an early break. Retrieving his tupperware container, he tore into one of his sandwiches. It may have been spam. I do not recall.

What I can recall is that it was far too early for a break, being around 12 noon, and lunch time was never before 1pm, starving or not.

With 17 boys – all ravenously hungry seemingly all the time – it was important to keep to the routine. So I asked Trevor to put the sandwich away until 1pm, when we could all eat.

No, he said, glaring at me like a feral dog protecting a bone. Fuck off. You can’t make me.
Trevor, please put the sandwich away, or I will have to send you off for the rest of the day – you will lose half a day’s money, and it could compromise your place on the scheme. I mean it, I said, trying to sound more authoritative than I felt.

Trevor, who had severe learning difficulties and an absentee mother who was known to be a working prostitute, was a strong kid with a shock of bright red hair and a face bedecked with large freckles.

He leaped up, furiously masticating on the remains of the sandwich, and seized a fire extinguisher from the wall.

Put it down Trevor, I cautioned. But Trevor was by now determined to show who was the boss, and instead of putting the extinguisher down, lifted it above his head and stumbled towards me, snarling, trying to catch his breath. I. WANT. ….TO…EAT…MY… SANDWICH, he screamed.

Many of the other boys found this hugely entertaining, and there were shouts of do ‘im Trev, go on, do ‘im. It was as if i had walked inadvertently into a dog fighting ring,  and Trevor, playing to an enthusiastic crowd, strutted like a victorious gladiator in a particularly bloody arena.

Looking back now down those long years, I can tell you now that all notions of the romanticism of youth and my desire to put something back into the community left me. I wasn’t much older than those kids, and I was about to sustain perhaps a severe head injury.

It didn’t seem worth it. You’ll want to know what happened, did Trevor go the whole hog and launch the heavy extinguisher at the side of my head.

He wanted to, but ultimately thought better of it. Even in the heat of Trevor’s rage, my assuring him he would be locked away for a good while if he went ahead with the attack managed to seep through. I held my ground and talked Trevor down.

There were no mobile phones in those days with which to summon the police, so it was with great relief that i warily watched Trevor lower the extinguisher to the floor.

I resolved not to let the incident – terrifying though it was – put me off my job. But in truth it was never the same again. The trust had gone.

Having reported back to my boss on the episode, Trevor was quietly removed from the programme. I recall him mournfully taking his leave of our base camp, never to return.

I wonder to this day where he and all those other boys are now. Did they ever make it into the work force proper, did they grow up to have families and ideals of their own?

Or did the hand they were dealt simply mute all enthusiasm for life, take away any desire to progress in the world of work.


Not not while the runner….

I’d seen Bernie out on the track.  I didn’t know he was called Bernie back then. He was, if I’m truthful, intimidating. Very muscled up looking black guy loping around, occasionally breaking into a sprint, then turning off the juice, easing back into the pace. Then the after burners would kick in and he would flash round. Fast.

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He looked good. Like a confident guy who knew he had it. We would nod to one another from time to time. Both of us would use the track to warm up, him looking far more purposeful than me, then slope into the falling down hut which passed in those days for a changing room.

The track and ‘facilities’ were located in the middle of Finsbury Park. It was 1983 and this down at heel part of London had not yet opened its doors to the investment bankers and marketeers. Not a particularly welcoming part of the world. But we made the most of it.

The ‘changing room’ was, we all agreed, far too grand a way of describing the space. Blistered, peeling paint, and on the floor something that may or may not once have resembled a carpet. So worn and grey and holed and shot that it had long since thrown in the towel.

The smell of ancient, unwashed foot traffic, so ingrained, pungent, that it would waft out through the vandalised door, then to linger trackside. It was, we all agreed, inescapable, infecting as it did so resiliently every fibre of our clothing. Hanging fastidiously on the damp walls, obdurate and oblivious. But still we came. Because that stinking changing room harboured a medieval looking device, a multi gym machine. You know the kind of thing – or perhaps you don’t – this was after all 1983, when work out machines were primitive.

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There was a 30p charge to use the multi gym. Supposed to be. No-one ever seemed to come and collect it. I had never encountered anything like it back then, happy enough as I was to plod around the track, maybe throw in some bad form push ups and grunt through a sit up routine. I had some idea that maybe, somehow, a six pack would magically appear. The kind of sculpted abs that guys like Bernie casually sported.

As i became more confident with how the machine worked, began to up the weight on the bench press stack, I started to feel more at ease in the company of the few souls who drifted in an out. One day, Bernie, heaving and struggling, trying to shift 100 kilos on the bench, asked me to spot for him. I obliged, and we got chatting.

The usual guy stuff. I was trying to make my way as an actor, having just left drama school and acquired my Equity card through persevering with a truly terrible stand up comedy routine. I had plenty of time on my hands. Bernie, like me, was doing casual bar shifts, but what he really wanted to do, he confided in me one rain sodden day, as we huddled in the gym doorway gloomily contemplating the rain hammering down on the track, was to be a trainer. Maybe a boxing trainer.

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I nodded. Sounds good. This was in the days before the now ubiquitous concept of personal training took root in our now bloated work out culture. I got to like, do exams n’ stuff, he explained. Trouble is I ain’t too good with the words, you know what I mean? Man, I need a job because I am like getting married and stuff and I want to bring home the bacon like any man does, but man I am no good with putting those words down on the paper.

You know what I mean, Dave? No-one called me Dave in those days. I was always David. Bernie preferred Dave.

He looked at me solemnly, coal dark eyes searching for some glimmer of a solution reflected in my face. I nodded earnestly, grim in my tacit agreement. Bernie, look at you man, you look like a god walking among men. You just need to get that foot in the door. You’ll blow them away fella, make no mistake. Bernie was unconvinced. He and his girl planned to get married that autumn, and we were already at the beginning of the long, sultry summer of 1983. You’ll be fine, Bernie, I breezed, making heavy with the reassurance.

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One of the reasons Bernie and I used to hook up on the track or in the stinking gym most days back then was that we were both out of work. I was going to endless auditions, occasionally I would, much to my astonishment, land a job. But they were few and far between, until one day I was called in to read for a part in a new tv series.

It was going to be about Robin Hood, said the producer, – ‘for ITV! Prime time, Saturday night!!’ – who was preoccupied with working on Chariots of Fire. He didn’t look at me when he asked me to read, and he apologised for the fact that the casting director was not present that day. She was, he said, staring at a script sprawled out on his desk, unwell. Womens’ stuff, he winked, looking at me for the first time and flashing a wide smile, revealing, grey and chipped molars.

A few days after reading for the part – to play a medieval assassin equipped with the useful ability to kill people by teleporting destruct thoughts directly into their brains (a talent which i have often wished in later life I did indeed possess), I was called by the producer. David, can you ride a horse, he drawled, gruffly, I thought. Yes, I lied, I can ride. Excellent, he said. Filming starts next month. We’ll be in touch. I called my girl friend, told her i had a job, that I was actually an actor after all. A working actor. I just need to get some riding lessons going. And then I hit the gym, wondering what it was like to get onto a horse. Worse, what it was like to fall off a horse.

Bernie was on the track, ambling one moment, turning on the heat the next. I  chugged along beside him, telling him I had landed a job that morning, that I would be going away for awhile…that I wouldn’t be making it to the gym for a few weeks. Yeh, what you doing, you like going somewhere nice. Out of town, he asked. Just down to Bristol I said. Never been there, but if you getting out of town it gotta be good, man, no? Yes, I said, I guess it has to be good.

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As we came off the track, headed for the gym, Bernie said it was too nice to go inside, so we went through a push up and sit up routine track side. It was a beautiful early summer’s day, what clouds there were occasionally eliding and fragmenting. Man, dig this weather, said Bernie. You get into shape, work on the abs and the guns, and you get the tan. Now Bernie was black, very black, I didn’t think he would be too bothered about a tan. Not me, brother, it’s whitey who needs to go to work. Tan up, man, feel good.

Over those languid summer days we worked out a lot together. Occasionally we would be joined in the sweltering gym by one of Bernie’s chums – I remember one guy, also black, in good shape, who set himself the target of 1,000 sit ups and 500 push ups a day. Obsessive. Ma-aaan, I ain’t proud of this stomach man. It just ain’t coming together. And so on in that vein, self critical, constantly pushing. It felt like, well, like family.

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Every so often an actor who’s name I have long since forgotten, American guy based in London, very cool, would drop in to lift some weight. Mid 30s, he was in a big tv series, Tender is the Night, playing one of the lead characters. And while clearly way ahead of me in terms of career success, always had a lot of time to share some tips of the trade, and I would make him laugh with my stories of harrowing auditions with openly hostile casting directors.

So with the passing of those languid summer days, we became an unlikely alliance in that intimate, cruddy space. The camaraderie was indisputable. But we all knew it was not going to last. As I prepared to go off to Bristol to film Robin of Sherwood, Bernie came into the gym one morning, and solemnly advised that he had a job. Got this personal trainer gig, dude. Down in Brixton. He pronounced the second syllable with a fierce emphasis. Bernie’s manor was north London, and hoods like Brixton he could do without. Not into all that brother shit, you dig what I’m saying?

The last time I ever laid eyes on Bernie was out on the track, him loping around effortlessly, barely breaking sweat even after punching in with the after burners, me, grunting and heaving myself around, as I did. Work on that, dude, throw in some more fast time, you’ll soon be up there. We parted that day, for the first time shaking hands, some slapping on backs. Take care dude. Keep on, he said, flashing a huge white beam. And then he was gone, jogging off through the park, back to tell his girlfriend about the new job. She’ll be pleased dude. I’ll be the man.

I’m still trying, Bernie, still trying.


Requiem for a Bren gunner

I asked Don if he had ever killed a man.

He looked up slowly from his beer….shot me one of those sideways glances, you know, not engaging, not fully locking on. Looked around the bar. A shadow passed fleetingly over his deeply pock marked countenance, and, exhausted, looked down once again at his drink. Sighed. Shifted, barely perceptibly on his stool, cupped his hands. Sighed again. And I knew he had. Killed a man. Maybe more than one man.

But he took awhile to confirm what I already knew.

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Don was one of my regulars, you’d maybe call him a bar fly. He was also a Bren gunner.

I was working shifts in and around Crouch End in between acting jobs. It was 1982, March – I remember clearly as my birthday falls at the end of the month – and we were effectively at war with Argentina. The talk in the bar was about war, how we were going to take it to the Argies, get our territory back, kick them back to where they had come from. There was much patriotic, gung ho talk. A lot of bravado, not always from men who could deliver.

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Don, who was more often or not accompanied by his wingman George, an albino, similar age, late 60s, alcoholic, was ambivalent about the impending carnage in the Falklands. But, unlike most of the younger regulars in the bar, had experienced war first hand. From the business end, as he used to say – but he would never be drawn on his experiences. There was a tacit agreement, it seemed, that those engaged in that war would not discuss what they had been through. It was their prerogative.

After a fractious start to our relationship as barman and punter – Don had demanded i changed a beer which he deemed flat after sinking the best part of the pint – we gradually struck up a rapport. Don had recently lost his wife, and, like his pal George – also a widower, although I could never work out what poor soul might agree to married life with George – had concluded the best way to while away a few hours in the middle of the day was propping up the bar at the Queens Head in Crouch End.

It was one of those old gin palaces, now fashionable. In those days there was little to rhapsodise over. The Queens Head was a shabby joint, with filthy, beer sodden carpets and nicotine stained walls and ceiling. Impeccably grim, but If you were momentarily detained, you may have seen fleeting ghosts of the regulars down the decades. Don and George, solemnly contemplating their mid day beers, had already taken on that deathly hue synonymous with men of that generation. Grey men, in the autumn of their lives, from time to time allowing their minds to dwell on the past and what might have been.

I recall Don had very large hands – I remember thinking that, like George Foreman, he had killer fists. Despite the passing summers, Don was a big bloke who could clearly still look after himself. I liked him. A Londoner, he’d joined up when called, did his duty, as he said, that’s what we all had to do. He looked at me plaintively. What else were you going to do? It was war.

Draining his third pint and cocking his glass towards me for a refill, Don looked across at George, sighed again, loudly, and said, finally, after taking in a deep, deep breath….yes, I killed men. I killed a lot of men. And you know what, I can still see …I can still see….I can still see all their faces. He whispered. They were young men, like you, young men. Yes, I killed men, he said, his gaze now falling quietly on a group of builders in for a lunchtime beer and shouting loudly about how we were going to reclaim the Falklands and that the only good Argie was a dead one.

Don stared down at his pint, lit another cigarette and, in his slow, deliberate north London argot allowed a fleeting glimpse of the demons he carried with him over those long years.

I was 22, we were in France – Normandy – it was late October 1944, we were just outside Caen, some little village, I don’t remember what it was called – they all looked the same – but it was right on the front line.

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We had to hold the village. There was one night, it was so very cold, a clear night and we had not slept and were hungry and had not been resupplied…the Germans kept counter attacking – it was scary as there was so many of  them. I was a….Bren gunner, said Don. Do you know anything about the Bren? He locked onto me, holding up those huge hands, making a trigger action.

I shook my head, no Don, only the sort of stuff you see in old war movies, but….no, I don’t .

Fucking gun, incredible fucking thing, fired 540 rounds a minute. A minute, 540 rounds  A FUCKING MINUTE said Don, now animated, for the first time looking up from the bar, glancing behind him, then sinking back down, almost as if he did not want anyone to hear him. He dropped his voice to barely a whisper. George motioned to me for another beer, and then leaned in to Don. George put a steadying hand on Don’s left shoulder. It’s alright mate, you’re….you’re alright mate….

Don stuttered, mumbled, and then got off his stool, sank the remainder of his pint, slammed the empty glass down on the bar, and then assumed the stance of a Bren Gunner. He’s on his feet, crouched, shoulders slightly stooped with the imaginary weight of the machine gun. I’m worried. Worried that Don is about to lose it.

Don is standing in the middle of the bar area, sweat glistening at his temples. But he is calm.

You see ..they were….they were ….everywhere, he said, voice now tailing off. Exhausted, Don sank back down onto his stool and gestured for another beer. Quietly now. We were waiting for them, probably a platoon, they came up on us, bunched up far too close together, I was surprised like, you know, the Germans were good, we always thought they were the best, but who knows, maybe they were tired, i dunno, it was the middle of the night, but when they were nearly on us I ….I …Don, rose to his feet again , now swaying slightly, brought the Bren up to a firing position, and pulled the trigger.

They all just ….just fell over…..they all went down….and then it was quiet. You could have heard a pin drop, said Don, slowly lowering those pile driver fists.

Now the braying from the young builder contingent in the bar fell silent. A real warrior was present among them.

Don looked at me, expressionless,  frozen, and I saw then in the refraction of his grief that night in northern France a tiny village with a handful of nervous young men facing other young men who were determined to kill them and I heard cascading down through those long years the harsh bark of Don’s  Bren gun and the screams of the dead and dying. I saw the cold moonlight playing on the bodies of those who Don had cut down. And I heard the silence of death.

Don, like an actor caught momentarily in the spotlight, centre stage, turned slowly towards me.

It seemed like I was firing for ages, but it was just the one mag – it was probably no more than three or four ten second bursts…that’s all….that’s all it took..

Stricken with grief, tears rolling down the fissures of his grey face, Don stumbled back to his stool. Yes, you asked, and now I have told you.  I have killed men. George was silent. There was an awkward shuffling at a table adjacent to the bar. The silence resonated.

Don stared at his reflection in the faded, cracked mirror and I saw there his place in the universe and his life which started and ended in a small village in France nearly 40 years previously. But it was a life.


Last orders for a fly boy – oh, how we did weep….

I’d never met a fighter pilot before. I don’t know what they were supposed to look like, but when I first met Colin, reeking of sour whisky and leaning laconically against the massive concrete mixer he operated on the sprawling construction site back in that harsh winter of my youth, I found it hard to believe that he had flown Spitfires in the heat of combat. That he had killed opponents – warriors – like himself.

But he had.

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Almost 30 years before we met, and spent long evenings animatedly debating the climb dynamics of an ME 109 and the rate of fire from a Spitfire Mark 3’s eight wing mounted Browning machine guns, and what it was like to feel the cold sweat clamming over you when you threw your kite into a dive at 30,000 feet because you had two hostiles closing you down out of the sun, Colin was a front line pilot with 783 Squadron.

The Firm, as he called it, was ironically based barely three miles from High Wycombe, where we found ourselves working on the site which was being built to house currently serving US Air Force personnel.
There were many characters passing through that site back then. Work was pretty easy to come by, and if you didn’t mind the occasionally back-breaking nature of it and could adjust to the harsh conditions that went with the territory, then it was not a bad life.

I was drifting myself back then. I didn’t have a plan, thought maybe one day I should get myself a proper education, who knows, even a proper job, but for the time being I was happy enough driving a dumper truck on the site, building up my young body, getting strong, having a laugh on a good day and getting a weekly wage, solemnly handed over by the terminally depressed looking site agent on a Friday afternoon. The boys called him The Wasp – because he’s always fucking buzzing around getting in your face, said Frank the Slab Layer. The Fucking Wasp. I liked that.
It was all cash in those days. I took home around £46, the notes tucked neatly into a small brown envelope. The envelope had a window cut into the middle, the tenners and fivers tantalisingly revealed inside. Already I had mentally allocated where they would be spent.

Most of the men I worked with had alcohol issues. I recall one guy, a huge labourer from the south west of Ireland, Maurice – maybe 23 stone, massive – throwing up in a trench one searingly cold Monday morning.

Long night, Maurice, I asked pleasantly, looking down, perched as I was on the relative safety of my dumper, as he shuddered and shook, his terrifying bulk swathed in a filthy donkey jacket.

Jesus fucking Christ Lord God Almighty, whispered Maurice, his huge, spade-like face ghostly white, haunted and haggard despite his youth, framed against the translucence of that freezing late November morning.

Hell of a night alright, he managed a watery smile, before exploding into a coughing fit. A lock in. The van picked me and Frank up from the pub early this morning. What a fucking night – he pronounced it foook-in’.

Could be a long week, I heard him say to himself, as he picked up a shovel and dug deep down into the trench, could be a long week.

Most of the men drank steadily through the day, one way or another. Morning nips from well-used flasks were common, as was the obligatory dart to the pub to neck a few pints on a lunchtime – and it always struck me as miraculous that there were not more fatal accidents, such were the levels of drunkenness on site at any time of the day.

But Colin, who kept himself by and large to himself, could drink most of his fellow labourers under the table.

One Friday, late afternoon in early December, as the day was closing in and ice was already starting to form its familiar criss-cross patterns on the pocked puddles which punctuated the site, we all downed tools, shuffled into an orderly line, and picked up the brown envelopes.

Piling into one of the death trap vans perennially on hand to whisk us down to the Jolly Angler pub – a true horror of a drinker if ever there was one – I found myself in with around 15 blokes, most of whom were hell bent on getting as drunk as skunks as quickly as possible.

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The Jolly Angler had a terrible jukebox which only ever played four songs, as I recall. Rock Your Baby, by George McCrae, Wichita Lineman by Glenn Campbell – which would incidentally always bring a tear to my eye once I had downed a few beers, Angie by the Rolling Stones, and a haunting, tragic Danny Boy. When the latter came on – as it did many, many times throughout the evening, the boys, many pints up, would throw their heads back and howl, oh-hhhh….

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Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling.
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side.
The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying.
It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow.
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow.
I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow.
Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so.

Once they had sung, and the song had finished, there would be tears and then, in those long and cold nights as I fought to make my transition from boy to man, I would marvel silently at these enormous men, gladiators, hard as nails, weeping silently into their beers, thinking perhaps of back home and girls who had got away, parents and families they had not seen for many a long year.

So we’re drinking and I see Colin, swaying unsteadily towards me, glassy eyed, huge, with one of those fly-boy moustaches glistening with sweat. He had me in his gun sight.

Colin is a big guy, around 6.2, gangly but very strong. He clamps one of those big paws on my shoulder, cobalt blue eyes boring into me, and tells me how it was to put your kite into a dive at 37,000 feet and hammer down towards the 109s escorting the bombers far, far below.

He is very drunk, topping up over the day, now making sure he gets properly shit-faced before having to return to the solitary horrors of the caravan.

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Did you really fly Spitfires Colin, I asked, not wanting to doubt him, but wondering, did he, did he really sit in the claustrophobic space of that cockpit all those long years before. Did he take off into the grey light of dawn with death on his mind as a young man barely older than I was then.

Came over in ’42, Hell, kid, I didn’t ask for it – we got called up, I could fly a kite, was brought up on gliders, then officers air training corp at college, next thing I know I’m on the fucking banana boat over here. They gave me three weeks training on Spits, then you’re on your own.

Colin was leaning against the fag-stubbed bar, pulling on his thirtieth Camel of the day and ordering a pint of watery lager to chase the whiskeys he had lined up.
The more he smoked, the more he drank, the closer Colin leaned in towards me. The whiskey fumes threaten to overwhelm me.

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The kite is bucking and kicking, you’re hitting past 600 and you’re thinking the wings are going to tear off, he whispers.
Colin stands up from his stool, unsteadily, and you know he is back in the cockpit, thumbs hovering over the gun buttons. He has not changed out of the threadbare sheepskin coat he wears from dawn to dusk on the site, and the long since faded and greying once white polo neck sweater is liberally daubed with beer and ancient food stains. His ill-fitting trousers hang loosely from his now emaciated waist, and the site boots he still wears are deeply encrusted and caked with an off green mud.

And you’re looking at your airspeed indicator which is going off the fucking scale, and you’re running the gun checks and adjusting the sights and wondering if any of those fuckers have sneaked out onto your tail, and you are thinking, you are thinking, fucker it’s me or you and it ain’t gonna be me, oh no not today.

And you’re there – what, it’s been maybe a 15 second dive to get down to the 25,000 and there they are all over the fucking sky and I lock onto one of the outriders – you know, he’s like riding shotgun for those fucking bombers – as if they can just waltz in and drop their bombs all over us – and he comes up in the sights and I hit the gun button….and….and…
Colin wobbles, steadies himself against the bar rail, stumbles backwards momentarily, before composing himself. Suddenly he is ram rod straight, now transported back to a tiny cockpit high above the Kent down-lands framed against a deep blue sky, the white trail of aviation vapours and staccato blasting of wing mounted machine guns and sharp tang of cordite lingering somewhere in the distant rim of a fading consciousness.

We were standing at the bar. No-one was saying much, but watching Colin, wondering what he was going to do next. Very slowly, he bowed his head, fumbled for his whiskey – brought back those massive shoulders, slugged back the drink.

I got a few, you know, he said quietly. Always difficult to prove a kill, but yeah, I got a few. Colin, now swaying, barely discernibly, held one hand above the other, demonstrating how he came up behind his enemy in a 600 miles per hour forward dive.

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He’d come out of the sun – my wingman, dude called Charlie Johnson, Charlie, who didn’t make it back that day, had shouted for me to break and I managed to flip the Spit out and over, rolled back into the dive and I swear to all that is good and Holy that I saw that boy and he was a boy glancing over to me as he flashed past. Kid didn’t believe that he could have missed me.

His fucking mistake, Colin grinned at me – I cut him out when he was turning into his climb to come at me again in another pass, locked him on and gave him a two or three second burst and – boom – he was gone. I watched him go down, said Colin, lighting his umpteenth Camel of the night and slugging back his whiskey, sinking exhausted back onto the grimy bar stool.

Danny Boy was on again, and the boys were singing along tunelessly, mournfully. Colin, head bowing now, looked up at me, eyes no longer focused. Can you sing, kid, he asked? Me, no, rubbish at singing I am Colin. Do you, I asked? I used to sing kid, used to be able to hold a tune, just like I used to be able to climb into a kite and climb up into the sun and go to war.

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I used to, he said, slumping forward now onto the bar as the day and the week and the long years that went into Colin caught up, finally. And in that night I looked into his cold blue eyes laced with shimmering lines of red and saw there the darkness and solitude that he took with him 30 years before as he climbed up into the morning sun to meet his enemy.

And so we stumble forward into the world, heads set silently against the wind and knowing that we must go on or fail, and as the strains of Danny Boy echoed and faded around the decaying walls of the chestnut bar and Colin sighed and silently faded from my life I knew that dawns and the pleasure of the dawns for all of us had been afforded by Colin and his ability to climb into the tiny space of a fighter plane and know that he was, somewhere, loved.

I never saw Colin again after that long day’s journey into the frosty night. When I arrived on the site for work on the Monday, I swung past Colin’s caravan to bid him a good morning and to make sure he had survived the weekend. But he was gone, the few belongings he had also swept up, gone with him.

I didn’t think too much more about him, until one of the boys told me several months later that Colin had been found lying dead in a local bar after a particularly heroic session. There was no-one to claim the body, no known family. He rests in a lonely grave, just outside of High Wycombe and far from home.

He had, finally, been shot down. And I know he wouldn’t have wanted to bail out from this final tail spin.