Hal­cyon days of youth at Durham

Whanganui Midweek - - HEALTH & WELLBEING -

The Com­mu­nity Choir, a lec­ture at U3A, the Shirley McDouall School of Bal­let’s an­nual per­for­mance, a so­cial evening for sup­port­ers of the Sarjeant, art open­ings at Space and Pauline Al­lomes’ stu­dio — we had to miss these when we trav­elled up to Auck­land for a week.

With­out a lo­cal flavour, our ar­ti­cle this week is an­other of nos­tal­gic rem­i­nis­cences about my time at Durham Univer­sity. When I started the first year at Had­field Col­lege, stu­dents took their meals in a large din­ing room at ta­bles of eight. Within a cou­ple of days, I was part of a group which re­mained to­gether for the whole year. Two com­mon fac­tors linked us. One was hav­ing been at sec­ondary school to­gether, the other, shar­ing a dou­ble room. When I look back, from a dis­tance of 60 years, I re­alise what an odd, mis­shapen, ec­cen­tric bunch we were in our late teens.

Bob had at­tended a mi­nor pub­lic school, spoke with an up­per class ac­cent you could cut with a knife, slicked his hair back with Bryl­creem, gen­er­ally wore a bow-tie and smoked a pipe. His room mate, John, was a tall, gan­gly in­di­vid­ual, possess­ing a deep voice and a de­light­ful sense of hu­mour, who was study­ing English Lit­er­a­ture. His spe­cial sub­ject was An­gloSaxon, where he fell madly in love with his lec­turer, Dr Rosemary Cramp. Nat­u­rally he never de­clared his feel­ings to her, merely lust­ing in­ef­fec­tu­ally! He had been at school in Leeds with Slim, a won­der­ful per­son, ma­ture, thought­ful and wise, who of­ten acted as men­tor to the im­ma­ture — namely, my­self and mate Terry. Slim’s name be­lied his fig­ure. He was heav­ily built and moved with an awk­ward gait, a re­sult of hav­ing suf­fered from po­lio dur­ing the epi­demic of the early 1950s, af­fect­ing the mo­bil­ity of his left arm and leg. He shared a room with Ian, with whom I had been at school in Wake­field. As pre­fects there, we had a com­mon room with a ta­ble ten­nis ta­ble. Ian was an out­stand­ing player. On sev­eral oc­ca­sions I had seen him give an op­po­nent a 19-point start and still beat him to 21! For some rea­son, at Univer­sity, he cul­ti­vated an old-fash­ioned per­sona. Per­haps he thought it made him ap­pear ma­ture? One evening, as a few of us were walk­ing home from a lo­cal hostelry, we met an old gen­tle­man. “Good night, Bill,” he said to Ian! Since Ian was wear­ing a long, heavy over­coat, plus trilby hat, smok­ing a pipe and car­ry­ing a walk­ing stick, it was prob­a­bly an easy mis­take to make! Ian, like Slim, rep­re­sented the Univer­sity and Durham County at both chess and bridge.

A sen­si­ble, qui­etly spo­ken young man, Tim, from Brighton, ex­uded a placid, easy-go­ing na­ture. He roomed with Zolly, who com­pleted our ta­ble. Some years older than the rest of us, Zolly was Hun­gar­ian and had fought against the Rus­sians in the 1956 in­va­sion of his home­land. Af­ter es­cap­ing to Bri­tain, he was granted a place at Durham. The phrase “gen­tle giant” de­scribes him per­fectly. Phys­i­cally huge, he never seemed to raise his voice in anger. Although his spo­ken English was pass­able, his abil­ity in read­ing and writ­ing the lan­guage was less so, and he had to leave, hav­ing failed the first year ex­ams. Terry and I stuck out like sore thumbs. We were both from a work­ing class back­ground, spoke with strong ac­cents — mine, York­shire, Terry’s, Bris­tol — and both played team sports, foot­ball and rugby. We of­ten fre­quented a lo­cal cafe with a juke box, en­joy­ing Elvis and rock and roll. Most of the group were afi­ciona­dos of clas­si­cal mu­sic, grad­u­ally guid­ing me in that di­rec­tion.

John and I spent many Sun­day morn­ings to­gether, por­ing over the com­plex­i­ties of The Ob­server’s Ximenes cross­word, a nom-de-plume taken from a mem­ber of the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion. France held a par­tic­u­lar ap­peal for John, who of­ten spent the sum­mer va­ca­tion hitch hik­ing round the coun­try. A decade or so later, when I was mar­ried with two chil­dren, I was watch­ing an en­ter­tain­ment show on TV, when Jake Thackray was in­tro­duced. It was John! A slight name change, but def­i­nitely John! A French singer, Ge­orges Brassens, had in­flu­enced him enor­mously, and Jake was writ­ing and per­form­ing songs in his style — witty, per­cep­tive, abra­sive, whim­si­cal. Like Brassens, Jake did not pos­sess the nor­mal, pleas­ant sing­ing voice of many artists, but his songs, in his husky tones, are mem­o­rable for their lyrics. He was a word­smith, a bal­ladeer, and it is worth point­ing out that every word of every song is in­tel­li­gi­ble!

When I heard he was com­ing to per­form in New­cas­tle, we in­vited him to stay with us in Sun­der­land. He went with me to col­lect my son from a Montessori nurs­ery. As the kids streamed out and I was look­ing for Chris, I heard a strange snort. There was Jake, tears rolling down his cheeks, slid­ing lower and lower down the bench he was sit­ting on. The sight of those lit­tle lads — trousers hang­ing be­low their knees, shirts flap­ping, ties askew — as they pushed and punched their way through the door, had re­ally tick­led his sense of hu­mour. A few years later we em­i­grated, catch­ing up with him only once more, when we saw him per­form at the Queen El­iz­a­beth Hall in Lon­don in 1986. Un­for­tu­nately he died far too young.

The songs he wrote var­ied con­sid­er­ably, the ma­jor­ity be­ing very funny. Sev­eral are qui­eter, wist­ful in tone, deal­ing with the York­shire Dales which he loved deeply — North Coun­try Bus and Go, Lit­tle Swale. There are love songs, of which Lah-di-Dah is prob­a­bly the wit­ti­est, most gen­tle, heart­felt and mov­ing dec­la­ra­tion of love you could hope to hear. As the fun­ni­est, I would rate Sis­ter Josephine, closely fol­lowed by The Lodger, Leopold Al­cocks and The Hole. Most of you have prob­a­bly never heard the name Jake Thackray, but you would en­joy his mu­si­cal nar­ra­tives. There are sev­eral choices on YouTube.

Thanks for pro­vid­ing and shar­ing fun and laugh­ter in the hal­cyon days of youth.

Had­field Col­lege, Durham 1957, (from left) Mike, Slim, John, Ian, Terry and Tim. Ab­sent. Bob and Zolly.

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