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He didn’t set out to be a Womble, just got lucky. When I first met him he dreamed of becoming a rock star. Didn’t everybody? Oh, it was just me then. And him.
Some years afterwards we literally bumped into each other as he wombled out of a door onto Notting Hill’s Westbourne Park Road straight into my path. Like a tatty, old winter coat emerging from hibernation, he looked a right two and eight, to employ the vernacular of the time. Desperately in need of a fix, he was dirty, dishevelled, and more than pleased to see me again, even though he couldn’t remember who I was.
Our chance encounter enabled him to tap me for a fiver, and tell me of his earlier good fortune. If nothing else, life had been one long rock ‘n rollercoaster ride since our last meeting. One moment he was up there, wombling free on Top of the Pops, next he was down and out with a rock ‘n roll habit, but not the means to support it. We promised to meet up again knowing we never would. He would pay me back then. With that he wombled off. Another chip hacked off the innocence block.
We’d shared a tab of Strawberry Fields at an IT benefit gig in Bongles or Bilbo, or some place like that. Back in the days when IT stood for International Times, mouthpiece of the underground. When the underground meant music played by people like Elmer Gantry and Jethro Tull, or living on the dole in a Catford squat, and not just a train rattling through a tube. When alternative society was actually an alternative. When alternatives still existed. The past really is a foreign country, where they even have their own foreign language. We were guys and chicks. Hip, way out, freaky, trendy, groovy and fab. We earned bread, scored shit, got blocked and crashed out in pads.
A Womble chillin’ wiv a spliff coulda bin kinda cool in the early 1970’s. A Womble on acid; a bit finga waggin’ iffy. But a Womble gouched out on smack was a definite no-no. A rock ‘n roll P&R nightmare, unwholesome in the extreme. Blood dripping syringes sticking out of Great Uncle Bulgaria’s throbbing veins don’t shift kiddy product. Like finding Noddy and Big Ears strung out on crystal meth with Keith Moon, guzzling from bottles of tequila while lobbing colour tellies into swimming pools at the Beverly Hills Hilton, there’s a brand ambassador problem.
That reminds me what a meal red tops made of colour tellies in those days. If it was colour they had to rub it in. Mainly, because most of the rest of us couldn’t afford one. Round our way, lobbing colour tellies into swimming pools was seen as the height of style and luxury. If you could afford to do that you were made. All we got was chucking old prams, supermarket trollies, and black and white tellies that couldn’t get BBC 2 into the canal. Mind you, only after they conked out. But a colour telly? Even if it conked out you’d still keep it. And the ones rock stars lobbed into swimming pools hadn’t even conked out.
Where was I? Ah, yeah, so my Womble friend had wombled out of his brain in a Womble costume to the hit single Remember You’re a Womble. Such a catchy refrain it drove some to suicide. What was more, I’d seen him on Top of the Pops without knowing – because of the massive Womble head. If I’d known, I could’ve pointed him out to my mates. The one on the right, that’s him. Not him, the other one. The other right. My right. No, he’s in the middle now. I could have achieved fame as the bloke who once knew a Womble.
Funny thing memory, isn’t it? You’d think journalists would have good memories. Seems a lot don’t. Apparently, some ace newshounds can’t remember earwigging thousands of mobile phone calls a few years ago. Or policemen. They don’t have good memories either. A lot of coppers can’t recall journalists slipping brown envelopes stuffed with used notes under the table at McDonald’s every other week. Sad that. According to the grapevine, there’s a lot of premature senility down at the Yard. If you can’t remember it, you can’t know whether you enjoyed it or not. I think it was Bernard Cribbins who said: “If you can’t remember being a Womble on acid in the 1960’s, you probably were.” No, I don’t. Or was it Mick Jagger?
I was a journalist for a short time eleven years ago. Not a proper one, a *freelance one. Can’t remember slipping plods brown envelopes under tables, though. Or hacking into Jemima Kahn’s mobile, for that matter. Nope, definitely can’t recall doing anything like that. Perhaps, that means I did.
Living proof any fool can become a journalist, within a couple of weeks of hatching a ridiculous idea over a few beers with Thomas Rees, erstwhile contributor to the Observer, and winner of worst jockey of all time award, I was on a plane to the former Soviet Republic of Armenia on assignment for The Daily Telegraph. Or was it Amnesia? I forget.
Almost fifty years of age; it was to be my very first real article. The original wheeze had been not to go there, but to pretend I wanted to, in the hope I might be sent to Ibiza. Or something like that. I didn’t dream they might actually take me up on it.
A wild, wartorn sort of place in 1997, not far from even more wartorn Chechenya, nobody in their right minds would want to go there. Not Ibiza, Armenia. My brief was to paint a picture of a new tourist idyll for the well-off. They must’ve been taking the piss, or trying to get rid of me. Anyway, I managed to return unscathed with a crap article about armies of greyish Ladas full of armed policeman and mafiosi weaving between clapped-out buses tootling about Yerevan powered by chicken shit, which was so boring they didn’t print it. Being the Telegraph travel promotion section, I decided not to mention the suspected alleyway murder I witnessed, with the Lada backing in, and the hose swiftly being employed where hoses are never normally used for cleaning streets. My assignment was to visit the wonderful Chistian churches the oldest in the world. And they were magnificent.
Undiscouraged by undisguised failure, my second article, on a deranged 19th century Norwegian writer’s semi-autobiographical account of stalking a whore and his subsequent descent into starvation, was published by the Independent. Flushed with success, I regarded myself as a tried and tested hack.
To fit in with my idea of how a journalist should dress I bought a baggy, secondhand, hairy, Harris tweed suit at War on Want. The sort just a casual glance brings you out in an itchy rash. A couple of sizes too big, I imagined I resembled George Orwell in it. Worzel Gummidge more like.
No matter, one rainy Halloween found Thomas Rees and I sitting in Finch’s on Portobello Road. Sporting my fabled suit, which had bagged out alarmingly through overuse, I was busy picking up tips on freelance journalising, which seems to involve hanging about pubs downing pints, mainly, waiting for the big story to break.
Scoopless and legless, having got on the wrong side of uncountable pints of Guinness, our conversation turned to me and the deficiencies I possess as a human being. They’re so much more apparent viewed through a thick veil of alcohol, it seems. My mentor and guide began lecturing me on what a miserable old sod I was for not buying him another pint. Admittedly, he’d passed on several useful journalistic tips during our friendship, like how to borrow a fiver till next Friday when expecting a cheque, and the importance of alcohol in the art of reportage. But too many Fridays had passed without cheques, too many mix-ups at the Post Office had occurred, and there had been too many oversights in the accounts dept at the Observer. Realising he’d taught me too well, Thomas stormed off in a huff of Guinness deprivation.
Left on my tod, I vaguely remembered an alcoholic haze into which a pretty, young, Chilean drama student from Sweden had stepped, several weeks previously. Hadn’t she invited me to a Halloween fancy dress party? “Miserable old sod”? I’d show Rees. I’d go to that party. Just as soon as I could remember the venue. Somewhere in London, definitely. That narrowed the search down considerably. Fancy dress might create a problem; good and evil being the theme. Where on earth could I get a good fancy dress outfit that time of night? Or an evil one.
At a very long shot my junkie wombling mate might still have his outfit, and be in need of a couple of quid. Even a bit moth-eaten I might pass for a fat dog-eared vampire. Or a giant, wingless bat. But I hadn’t seen him since 1973. More than twenty-five years later the squalid dwelling in Westbourne Park Road was almost certainly home to an international banker. Or record producer. Time to think of something else.
What about the ancient sign advertising printed stationery services, carnival novelties, and fancy dress? Painted in large letters, it’d been flaking from the wall above Barnett’s toyshop on the next corner up from The Duke of Wellington since God was a boy. If the offer still stood I could nab a pointy witch hat, or a purple polyester wig. A big, red nose would do. Or a latex Popeye mask. Only at ten o’ clock on a cold, wet, October, Tuesday night it would surely be closed.
Discounting the idea of breaking in, something else was needed. A laddered stocking pulled over my head, perhaps? But what woman in her right mind would pull down her laddered stocking and hand it to a stranger as tight as a pair of matador’s trousers? If you could find one anywhere, it’d be in Finch’s. But she wasn’t there that night.
A sudden grave itch reminded me I was wearing my hairy tweed suit, over a dark, grey shirt. My mind in creative overdrive I spotted a menu card advertising sausage ‘n chips and other greasy delicacies. The reverse was blank white. A quick rip here, a deft fold there, transformed it into a clerical collar. Perfect.
Down in the lavatory – or is it the toilet? Though Thomas keeps correcting me I still can’t remember which. So, down in the gentlemen’s I tucked the strip beneath the collar of my shirt. A tipsy clergyman grinned out of the mirror.
Outside, it pissed cats and dogs. The kind of filthy night taxi drivers make a killing while amusing themselves by drenching kerbside punters with miniature tsunamis. Yet, miraculously, no sooner had I raised a hand than a taxi pulled up beside me. “Where to, sir?” He was talking to me. What happened to ‘mate’? I felt like Moses must’ve felt parting the Red Sea on his way to the Promised Land.
He dropped me off at Notting Hill Gate, it being only natural the party should be at first place I thought of in my state. Observing the seedy-looking club where I met the pretty, young, Chilean drama student from Sweden, the cabbie imparted a knowing nod and a sly wink as I settled the fare. “Good night, rev.” I wish they’d mind their own business.
Two bulging examples of steroid enhancement quietly strained jacket seams at the door. Even with one eye shut, there didn’t appear quite enough space to pass between them. Yet, as I meandered closer they parted, waving me through as though I were the Pope’s brother. This was the gig all right. My improvised fancy dress had worked.
In the half-light at the bottom of a flight of stairs it seemed everyone had chosen to come dressed as men. Even the women. And even the men. A strange sort of fancy dress. Very subtle. Too subtle. My hostess, the pretty, young, Chilean drama student from Sweden, was nowhere to be seen.
Obviously, I was the first to arrive. The riff-raff had yet to be cleared out. The rest of the fancy dress party party had yet to turn up, having been held up on such a miserable night by the downpour. If it was tipping buckets on the Gate, down on Ken High Street it could be running rivers. Chelsea might be a real sea.
At the bar, an exceptionally friendly barman handed me a bottle of foaming lager while waiving the charge with a sweep of his hand. This was turning out well. Very well. Miserable old sod, indeed, wait till I told Rees about the free beer. I beamed beatifically upon my good Samaritan for his generous contribution to the cause.
A couple more complimentary lagers, and a bit of mad dancing by myself, I forgot all about the pretty, young, Chilean drama student from Sweden; I forgot there was ever going to be a party. I forgot I was dressed like a vicar.
Back down in the, er, bog, a drunken bishop smirked from a mirror to remind me. In the time it’d taken to down a lager or two, seems I’d been promoted. By the refreshed and elegant cut of the senior clergyman’s jib it was well deserved.
Returning to the dance floor, I noticed there weren’t any women dressed as men after all. The women dressed as men were real men. And the men dressed as men were also real men, apart from two dressed as women. The jury was still out on those. What was more, some of the real men were dancing with other real men. Some were holding each other close. They were all staring at me. Some were even ogling. As though I was, well, a woman. A real woman. A real woman in men’s clothing. It hadn’t occurred to me people might not know I had come kitted out for a fancy dress party. Hadn’t given a thought they might assume I was a real cleric out on the town, blowing away a few cobwebs. Definitely didn’t see how they could mistake me for a female cleric. But then I haven’t seen too many. The realization slapped me in the face like a cold kipper in a sauna. Gay night. The pretty, young, Chilean drama student from Sweden had chosen to stage her fancy dress party on gay night.
Never mind, it was almost eleven, the rest wouldn’t be too long in coming. Besides, everyone wanted to buy me drinks. A sozzled bishop in a gay club, who wouldn’t? Though I doubt it’s such a rarity, few would be wearing clerical collars. No wonder men were leering. It was the collar. Kinky bishop seeks kinky sex. Your move.
About to tear it from my neck, one side of me still found the idea of masquerading as a drunken bishop appealing. Free entrance to clubs, free beers and getting called ‘sir’ by taxi drivers. Being a prominent member of the clergy had many advantages. Surely, I could put up with the attentions of a few harmless gays a bit longer.
Then a couple started to home in on me. Inundated by more reservations than Friday night at The Ritz, despicable cowardice took hold. What would the Archbishop of Canterbury do in a similar situation? How would he handle finding himself two sheets to the wind in a gay club at Halloween? He’d lay off the sherry for a start. I removed the collar. How naïve of me, that’s exactly what a bishop in a gay club would do if he wanted a bit of backdoor nooky. In a moment, I’d transformed myself from a drunken bishop wearing collar into a drunken bishop so desperate for a pull he’d removed his collar. I put it back. However, it was a no-win situation.
I can’t understand the fascination some men and women have for men of the cloth. Seeing what seemed like a terrifying mass of gayness heading towards me, I loped across the dance floor towards what I prayed were the two real women. Shuffling miserably round a couple of handbags unnoticed, they could be nothing else.
I still recall the chant running through my head while gyrating my hips and flailing my arms hysterically to attract their attention, The words, “Remember you’re a Womble,” ran through my mind. They helped. There followed one of these memory lapses I’d rather forget, if you get my drift.
It reminds me of the night I was in Eastern Anatolia dancing with some bearded Kurdish tribesmen at a tribal feast. After more than a few of tumblers of rakι, and a couple of sheep’s brains, the headman invited me back to their mountain village. Now that really was a difficult one to get out of.
Copyright © 2011 Bryan Hemming
*From the Mind Dictionary definition of freelance
free’lance¹, a. & n. Unemployable, deluded, unreliable, uncommitted, unrealistic, poor – person who, against the advice of everybody, gives up the day job. A loose cannon, a hopeless romantic, on the dole.
free’lance², v. To throw without aim or aforethought, to act in a carefree manner, to behave irresponsibly, to arrive late and clock off early, to take long alcoholic lunches, careless, sloppy
free’lan|cer, n. Person who cannot pay for own drinks. Someone who sleeps on other person’s (persons’) sofa for months on end. Gatecrasher, chancer. Also see: freeloader, freebooter.
Copyright © 2011 Bryan Hemming
Une fois. Encore.
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