Halcyon days of youth at Durham
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.