Thursday, March 03, 2016

The £1.99 Time Machine

Bonjour mes amis.
There, hello to France, strangely the source of my (just about) biggest readers, and very much appreciated. I've never been, but you never know, one day I might just stop by and smoke some Gitanes and have a couple of nice strong coffees with you, for these are things of my childhood, courtesy of my sister, who only smoked Gitanes (or Gauloises at a push) and only drank black coffee
I thought she was terribly sophisticated, and I suppose by the standards of a London Council Housing Estate of the 1960's she jolly well was!

My sister Maggie was (to me) terribly modern.
Nowadays she'd be considered Boho/Hippy Chic, but she was, genuinely!
A goer-to of places like Eel Pie Island and other pre-hip, happening, groovy destinations, she dug it early and she dug it deep.
Joss sticks? Yep, by the smoking handful!
Small bottles of Indian Essential Oils? Yep, stored in wonderful hand-me-down lacquered Japanese tea boxes . .
Copy of Bert & John? Yep, expertly used for rolly-up fags.
She was like a short-wave broadcast from another world and because of her eclecticism I was introduced to a whole bunch of music from an early age through my early teenage years; from the Beatles through Steely Dan; from the Moody Blues and Journey, via CSN&Y and Bob Dylan and Neil Young to Bert Jansch and John Renbourn.
We sat and listened to my Mott The Hoople albums and she'd explain the meaning behind the lyrics to me - School of Ian Hunter, that was me
Marry this to my very early musical experiences of sharing a bedroom with a brother who only listened to BBC Radio 3 (and Private Eye Flexi-Discs and of course Ramblin' Syd Rumpo) and thus permeated my sleepy brain with Mahler and Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky and Bruckner and Nogs, it's no wonder I ended up being nuts about words and music. 
Maggie, after being a typist with the RAF benevolent fund, ended up working for one of the best music lawyers in London (one of her claims to fame being she typed the legals for Dire Straits signing to Phonogram)
And Chris?
Well, he managed May Blitz (a proto-heavy metal/hard rock band that eventually signed to Vertigo Records) and one of his partners was the then dead young, dead famous (and apparently dead broke) drummer Richard Bailey, who later became most notable for his work on Jeff Beck's seminal fusion albums of the '70's.
Chris was a giant of a man - 6'4" tall and 18 stone, he was one of the five tallest men in London back in the 60's. His claims to fame (amongst many) are that the first colour TV he ever watched was in Keith Moon's Rolls Royce (he booked them for Leeds Uni - yes, that gig) and that he blew the substantial profits from an early (that he promoted) Curved Air gig on treating everyone in London's Speakeasy to steak sandwiches and champagne.
My Dad could play the uke a bit.
My Mum could play the piano a bit.
So I suppose it says something about me - music has always been my passion and my profession.

It's funny you know, how easily certain pieces of music can transport the mind.
I have recently been re-listening to the English band Wishbone Ash. It's not that I am a massive fan or anything, but I listen to music daily, and will often play the same record for a couple of weeks on end. These recent weeks I have been listening to their "Argus" album, a classic of the rock genre and very much of its time. 
Until Ali bought it for me for Christmas a couple of years back, I had never owned it, though I must have handled hundreds of copies through my work. 
But I wasn't a Wishbone virgin with the present of "Argus" because I still owned (and adored - bought for the grand sum of £1.99 from a long-forgotten record shop in Dumfries) a copy of the compilation "Classic Ash", and it is to this I will allude.

The £1.99 Time Machine
AND a Hipgnosis cover too!

As I have no doubt detailed painfully before, I was lucky enough in my teenage years to live in a small, old cottage in the middle of nowhere. It was a wonderful place, though somewhat lacking on the space side . . enough for three people (me and my Mum and Dad) but any more than that and you were pushing it
It was with this thought in mind that my dear old Dad decided he would try and expand our living faculties and put-you-up-ability by making our loft a bit more comfortable. 
Now you have to remember this was in the days before DIY superstores and the easy availability of any material under the sun. No, it was all hardboard and chipboard and ordering stuff from local ironmongers. If you were lucky there was a Builder's Merchants not far away and if you knew someone, then you could maybe make use of them. 
So it wasn't the easy-peasy, make a list and head to B&Q/Homebase, that it is today. 
Anyway, my Dad managed to eventually get it all together and started converting (no not a real conversion, more a redecorate/modernise) our loft into somewhere you could stuff someone at a pinch.
We called it The Loft, though in reality it was a floored area under the slope of the eaves of the house. 
Previous generations of East Orchard Cottage-dwellers had slept there - indeed when we first bought the place, there was plentiful evidence of previous owners in the form of old linen (totally moth-eaten . . the place had been empty for years) and a rather wonderful framed painting of Jesus, no doubt in the loft to make sure that the souls of the occupants weren't turned by the powerful paganistic forces one can find flowing along river valleys. 

(Seriously, our ancestors held a powerful belief in the sanctity of water and its environs, and I could feel in my post-city dweller/teenage/pre-lifelong city dweller days, the power of the water and the feeling of a ritual as ancient as time being enacted daily along the riverbank.) 

Anyway . . . that's an aside . . . 

Where's me Dad with his rolly-up fags and a bag of nails?
Ah, there he is!

Access to the attic area was via a new (Double Extension) Ramsay Ladder, which neatly slid back up into the loft when the hatch was closed - it was a modern marvel.

Triple Extension Ramsay Ladder
Left:Closed / Right:Open
Made In Scotland . . . From Aluminium

It kept the cold out of the house, was easily accessible, by using the boathook in the hall. You had to grab the catch of the loft door, pull, and down came the ladder halfway - it didn't just flop down either, because it was held in place by an ingenious spring system that counter-balanced the whole thing. . . undo another catch and the lower half of the ladder swept down until it was fully extended and up you popped! You could even, if you were in the loft, pull it back up, rather like repelling boarders or drawing in a draw-bridge - it was dead exciting!

My cat Cookie even mastered it

Pull it down, and she would climb up in a most un-cat-like way, one stair at a time, but the cracker was that if it was closed and she was in The Loft (and she used to spend a great deal of time up there - we had mice - we lived in the country . . . of course we had mice!) she worked out that is she put weight on the hatch from above, the ladder was sensitive enough to move downwards like it was being opened normally from below. She'd then jump from the half-descended ladder and away she went. She was an intelligent cat, though obviously she struggled to close it after she had come down . . .

The Cat On The Leash
My Dad and Cookie somewhere between London and Scotland
Taken on the family Kodak Instamatic

Mum and Cookie
This was our garden at 32 Newbury Close, Northolt.
Mum and Dad created an oasis in a sea of Council housing.

Anyway, the loft now had easy access, which beat a pair of step-ladders hands down! 
So what was left to do? 
Well, some old carpet kept the draughts at bay; a couple of old bed settees (which for some reason my Mum called "Biscuits" . . . they were actually, a bit like the cream-less biscuit bits of Bourbon Cream biscuits . . . so I suppose they were like their name.) 
Oh, and there was no door to separate the sleeping area from the rest of the loft storage area, oh no, this was The Rogers' Family, legendary makers-do with nothing, so the 'door' was actually a large piece of flowery curtain material on one of those old springy white plastic net curtain runner things (Not even a properly hung curtain for our No Door!)
It flapped something rotten did that 'door' - when I was up there, I used to weight it at the bottom with an old draught excluder.
But what about daylight Sheephouse? What about bracing fresh air?
Well, there was plenty of that - remember the cottage was around 200 years old and not antiseptically sealed like today's modern builds - this was proper, solid country building - draughts and fresh air keep things clean and fresh . . oh yeah man, there was plenty of fresh air. The daylight entered via a typical cast iron loft window whiich you could open with it's long handle and keep open via the holes in the handle and a little catch of metal on the frame. It was single-glazed and let a Winter's moon in beautifully. 
In fact, in Winter, sleeping up there was an unforgettable experience.
Dad didn't insulate the space at all, so between me, the Moon and -8ยบ C were these layers:

Winter Air
Layer Of Frost
Root Tile
Layer Of Paint
Air of Loft
Layers Of Blankets

Nowadays (being a big softie) I think I would probably shrink in horror, but you know what, it was FINE!
When you'd switched out the light - pretty sure it was recycled Bakelite fittings - and had settled down, the moon used to transform the room (which was white, in itself pretty unusual back in the late 1970's when excess in decorative vomit was at its nadir - f'rinstance my bedroom was lime green with a purple carpet!) into somewhere cold and ethereal with a glow from the walls and the bright cut of light falling through the skylight.
I loved it.
All that I needed was entertainment!
Well, that was soon sorted in the form of our old Stereogram . . which was about the size of an average '70's teenager . . 
Wheich the legs off, two people (one up top, one behind) could get it up into The Loft quite easily. 
Leave the legs off, plug it in and BINGO . . entertainment! 
Add in a ton of old Beat Instrumental magazines and some (especially sent up from my sisters' office in London) hand-me-down copies of Rolling Stone and Music Week and I was go!
It was the perfect pad - a getaway place like no other, where you could pull up the drawbridge and standby to repel all boarders . . . 
And it was to this haven that the sounds of Mott and Ian Hunter and punk and Yes and Wishbone Ash (especially The Ash) brought solace to a young dreamer.
Curiously I am listening to "Classic Ash" as I type this - its like cheese and crackers - as natural a feeling as anything.
I can smell the cold of The Loft.
I can feel the presence of the young Sheephouse, a lad with little clue of what he wanted to do (apart from become a professional guitarist) who was about to be hit head-on by the death of his Father.
I can feel the texture of the biscuits - no, not crumby and creamy like dunked Bourbons.
I can see the cold light of a Winter's moon and my home-made posters (made with some newly acquired and utterly wonderful Rotring pens)
I can see some actual posters too:
Bill Cosby's "Let's Boogie" hobo still drawing a smile;
Fougas' "You Never Know Who's Listening"
and an amazing Jim Fitzpatrick poster (probably my biggest artistic influence though I knew little of him in that pre-connected age.)
I can smell the faint waft of glues and paints from my Father's improvised workshop in the other half of The Loft.
Oh, and there's Cookie - she's curled up near my feet under a rather natty 1930's bedspread.
Music is amazing in this way isn't it?
That ability to transport the mind.
You know, every time I hear Mott The Hoople's Thunderbuck Ram (off their seminal "Mad Shadows" album) I can smell the interior of our stereogram!
Yep, not the exterior, which smelled of furniture polish (hard wax, not tinned spray) . . . but the interior - a warm smell of wood veneer, leatherette, the greased workings of a Garrard deck and the curiously distinct smell of record cleaning fluid, a Watts Dust Bug and an Emicloth!
Amazing isn't it  - like little drawers in a cabinet of long-forgotten curiosities, the simple act of listening to, say, Throw Down The Sword ("Classic Ash" - Side 2 - Last track) can open those drawers when you'd long ago forgotten to look in them.

But wait a minute I hear you say . . . what about the photography?
Well, there's precious little friends - certainly none that I know of from when The Loft was up and running properly.
No happy snaps of a youthful me peering out of the hatch and waving . . .
No happy snaps of a young Sheephouse lounging on a 'biscuit'. . . 
Nope . . . all I can provide is snaps of sadness.
Snaps that wring my withers every time I look at them . . .
Snaps that were taken after my beloved home was transformed from this:

Me and Mum and Aunty Jane
This was our house when we first bought it in 1967.
It had been empty for a loong time.

And this:

Sunny Days
Me and Steve and Mum and Steve's Uncle Bill and Aunty Lillian and their friend.
The cottage looks clean and neat and fresh.
The Loft window is that window on the roof.

To this:

The small extension was a later addition after we'd gone.
Devastation courtesy of thieving bastards, post compulsory purchase.

And here's my Dad's loft:

The Loft

Yes I know it is all squinty-woo, but what could I do?
It was snapped on my olde Olympus MjU and I had nothing to stand on and no Ramsay Ladder to climb - as it (like just about every fixture and fitting and roof tile) had been nicked when the Council compulsory purchase had rendered my home uninhabitable - see the big story HERE.
The white that you see appears to be my Dad's original colour scheme - which I find remarkable considering it was originally painted back in 1978 and had (at the time of the photo) experienced 20 years of wear - also amazing to see that there are what appear to be bits of cut hardboard in amongst the detritus and his frame-work was still fine. You see daylight in the apex? That's where the ridge tiles had been thieved. You see the rough lines on the horizontal rafters? That is proper old-time hand finishing.
It is also amazing how memory can play tricks too - Dad had painted straight onto the laths  - no hardboard on them.
No wonder it was freezing up there!

At school I had a friend called Charles Armstrong-Wilson - his father had saved Gilnockie Tower at Canonbie (now home of the Clan Armstrong Centre) from falling into a state of disrepair. Charles slept in the upper roof space and said that he could wake some mornings to frost-rimed blankets - I never mentioned it at the time, but I reckon The Loft could have been nearly as cold.

Gilnockie Tower, Canonbie
Charles slept in that upper, tiled bit.
Bloomin' freezin!
Photograph randomly pulled from the web

What happened to my home was utterly terrible - looking at that photo of the remnants of Dad's loft again I can feel the utter pain I felt when I found it in that condition; I can smell the overwhelming, all pervading, mould and damp and decay; I can feel the bones of our home aching for release from the pain of neglect and the black despair that nearly all human striving seems almost pointless.
It was utterly shocking to see somewhere I held so dear, somewhere I carried around like a small spark of pleasure with happy memories of my long-dead Father, rendered into total dissolution . . . but it is also fortunate that my ageing brain can still remember it as it was - a place of sanctuary and fun and hope; of teenage dreams and wonder and growth, and fortunate too that a feeling of youthful optimism can be simply unlocked by the basic act of sticking a piece of music on.
And it is also wonderful how something as basic as that long castigated artifact, the simple snap, can help you sift through time to correct memory!

So, to wind up, I'd like to say thank you to Wishbone Ash.
It's not just for the music, or the incredible value for money £1.99 spent in 1978 has bought, but also for the key to:

Sheephouse Storage Corridor 17: 
Sub-section 2: 

Thanks for reading, TTFN.