…or, another way of putting it: why would you ever need to start your record collection on three separate occasions?
But let’s start at the beginning…
Let’s see now, this would have been in the scorching hot summer of 1976 where it was so hot we were building body high pyramids from used Fanta and Coke cans in our small office in Dryden Chambers just off Oxford Street. Dryden Chambers was a Victorian apartment block, one unit of which then served as Asgard’s offices, where, allegedly, some long passed member of royalty housed a mistress or two. All by-the-by of course but at that time I was living in a two floor apartment (flat as it was then, although it wasn’t really a ‘flat’ because it was on two floors) in Dulwich in South London and had two members (and their girlfriends) from Fruupp, the band I was managing at the time, crashing with me.
Now as I remember it one member of the band, liked to sit in on Fruupp’s gig free nights, sip from a can of larger, chain smoke and eat (very daintily it has to be said) from a non-stop supply of potato crisps and whisper sweet nothings to his girlfriend; but more about all of that later.
On one such night I retired to my wee room in the eaves of the roof space before the rest of them and it was so hot I had great difficulty falling asleep. 39,333 sheep later I eventually dozed off only to be woken up in the early hours by this noise on the roof above me.
My first thought was, “Wow, the hot weather has broken at last, and if the noise on the roof is anything to go by it’s absolutely bucketing down.”
I tried to get back to sleep secure in the thought that now with the weather breaking at least it would start to get cooler and sleep would come easier and deeper. However if anything it actually felt warmer, a lot warmer.
The noise on the roof grew louder and louder to the point that I started to think that the rafters must surely buckle under the incessant pressure. Eventually the rain on the roof sounded so heavy and potentially dangerous that I had to get up and take a look. I was thinking that I couldn’t remember ever hearing so heavy a rain fall before. I opened the curtains, slid up the window and stuck my head out.
Aided by the street lights, the first thing I noticed was that the footpath and street were still bone dry. Yet I could still hear the rain beating down incessantly on the slates just above me.
I looked to my right and saw a shower of violent flames.
I thought: Shit the next door’s house is on fire, and I turned, immediately jumped into to a pair of trousers and quickly opened my bedroom door, which led straight into the lounge.
For my troubles I was welcomed with a wave of livid flames which would have been a lot more destructive to my person if I hadn’t already closed the bedroom window, thereby avoiding a backdraft. I slammed the door shut as quickly as I could, realising immediately, from the smell, that I had singed my eyebrows, although for some strange reason or other my moustache remained intact.
I ran to the window, opened it wide but quickly closed it again as my survival instincts kicked in and I sealed the bottom of my bedroom door using a towel I dampened with a full bottle of orangeade.
I returned to the window, opened it again, stuck my head out and considered my options.
In the circumstances I was surprised at how clear my mind was and as I went through various routes of escape I could hear the ever growing feverous flames wreaking havoc on most of my worldly processions (my vinyl collection and my book collection) proudly and carefully stacked on shelves in the room the other side of my bedroom door.
I reasoned, quite logically I felt, that if I jumped the three floors to the ground I would most likely break both my legs, maybe even do myself a lot more damage but there was at least a chance I would survive. Climbing, or trying to climb, up onto the eaves of the roof above me could result in a 50/50 chance of not reaching it but by such a point I’d already too far committed to be able to safely return to my room, On top of which even if I did make it onto the roof so furious were the flames I’d probably be burned alive.
I took great comfort from the fact that at no point thus far had my short life flashed through my mind. I’d often read that’s what happens to you just before you die but I often considered 100% proof of such a theory somewhat flawed.
“Help.” I shouted.
Well when I say, ‘I shouted,’ I really mean that I said it quite feebly, I mean it sounded very wimpish and more of a question than a request in that did I really need help?
This time I didn’t shout, I screamed no doubt now spurred on by the sound of the mass destruction taking place a few feet away in my sitting room.
“Help, somebody help me, yeah.” I screamed, realising I’d inadvertently quoted Stevie Winwood.
Then I thought that the word, ‘Help’ just might sound too desperate; might just scare off potential rescuers in the quiet suburbia of Dulwich in the south-east of London.
“Hello?” I shouted, trying a new tact. “Is anyone there? Hello?”
A short time later – it could have been two seconds, could have been thirty seconds I didn’t know really – someone ran out of a house just across the road.
The thing that amazed me about living in London in the mid-seventies was just how much everyone kept to themselves. I’d been in that accommodation for at least a year at that point and I hadn’t a clue who my next door neighbours were, let alone who the people from as far away as the other side of the road were. Whereas back in Magherafelt in Northern Ireland, where I’d spent all of my pre-London seventeen years, everyone knew everything about everyone including, but not limited to, their shoe size and the size of their weekly wage packet.
The man on the street below me seemed more distressed than I felt I was. I suppose it was a bit like the situation where the look of shock and horror on relatives’ faces when you come around after an accident, can be more damaging to you than the accident itself.
“What can I do? What can I…”
“Do you have a ladder?” I shouted down through the increasing volume of the crackling flames.
“Can you bang on a few doors to see who has?” I shouted, trying to kick start him into action.
“Oh,” I screamed after him as an afterthought, “could you please ring my doorbell to make sure my flatmates are awake?”
Which he did and he also banged loudly on the door, just in case the electricity was off, I assumed.
As I’ve already mentioned one of the weird things throughout all of this for me was that I was still going through my logical thought process. I started to think if the man on the ground did manage to find a ladder would it be long enough to reach up to my window ledge. Then, if the ladder wasn’t long enough was he going to go and knock on some more doors and find a longer one.
Someone else ran out onto the street.
“I rang the fire brigade,” she called up. “Don’t worry you’ll be okay?”
I was talking great comfort in her words until she continued with:
“Why don’t you jump?”
“No thanks,” I replied as if she’d just invited me over for a cup of tea. “I think I can afford to wait a wee bit longer,” I continued just in case she felt I was being a bit ungrateful.
The cavalry - with my best friend Vince McCusker playing the part of Randolph Scott - arrived at this point.
Well that is to say Vince’s head, with no other cavalry in sight popped out of the bay window below me. Vince was the lead guitarist and main writer for Fruupp the Belfast band I was managing at the time and he was living in the room below my room.
His eyes displayed the panic missing from his voice, “Jeez man, don’t worry, we’ll get you down.”
“The flames from the living room are just about to burst into my bedroom,” I shouted, hoping I was fully betraying my state of terror.
His head disappeared.
Okay, I thought, perhaps the panic was too evident in my voice and I scared him off.
I heard his window slide shut but before I gave up on him I heard the bottom section slide open. He then proceeded to climb out onto his window sill, stood up as he supported himself with one arm in the closed section of his window frame. (*1)
“Okay Paul,” he started, his voice now sounding very serious, “what I need you to do is to come out of your window feet first, face to the window.”
“But I’ll never be able to climb in over the top of your window.”
“No you won’t but if you lower yourself down as far as you can, keeping grip of your window ledge at all times, then I’ll get in a position directly below you and I’ll tell you when to let go and then you’ll slide down over the top of the roof of my slated bay window (*2) and as you’re sliding past my window I’ll catch you and pull you in.”
Right, sounds like a good idea. NOT!
I strained in vain to hear the sounds of the proper cavalry, the fire brigade, coming to my rescue but all I could hear was the fire starting to devour the door to my bedroom. Smoke was billowing in through my scorched towel.
“Come on Paul,” Vince pleaded, “we gotta do it, you’ll be okay.”
I consciously forced myself not to be receptive to any flashing images of my youth. I thought of my mum and my dad though.
I went through all my alternatives: broken legs; broken neck; broken back; burned alive; waiting for the bright red fire brigade with its huge ladders
Then I thought, ‘It just doesn’t matter what I want to do, I just can’t do what he’s asking me to do.’ I felt it was just physically impossible for me to even attempt Vince’s suggested great escape.
As I was thinking this I found myself, in spite of myself, putting my feet out through the window. I then turned around so that my legs were on the outside and my torso was on the inside stomach resting on the ledge of my window, with my head and hands reaching for the floor of my bedroom.
At this point the flames had very sneakily started to break into my room. A quick flash here and a quick flash there, just like an advance party checking that everything was set up okay for them and would be receptive to a full break-through.
I gingerly pushed the remainder of my body out of the window gripping the window ledge with all my might as if my life depended on it, and depend upon it my life did.
So far, so good, as my father has a habit of saying when asked how things were going. Yes, so far, so good for me as well.
By now my knees had reached and were temporarily resting in the rain guttering and so I knew the lower part of my legs and my feet were now visible to Vince.
At this point, and I kid you not, I wanted Vince to be, not Randolph Scott, but Burt Lancaster, as the trapeze catcher (for Tony Curtis) in Trapeze the movie where Mr Lancaster apparently did all his own stunts.
“Okay man, let go,” Vince pleaded.
I tried and tried and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t hear the sound of a fire engine in the distance. I did hear some shouts of encouragement from the gathering crowd in the street.
I twisted my head to the left and then to the right and I still couldn’t see anyone arriving with a ladder, long or short.
The flames were now flowing freely in my room just inches above my head.
“Come on Paul,” Vince encouraged confidently.
“Okay, I’m letting go.”
I thought it would take ages for me to let go of the wooden window frame, if indeed I ever did, but I felt my fingers involuntarily releasing their vice like grip and my body started to slide slowly over the slates until my waist reached the rain guttering.
I came to a halt.
The flames were now streaming furiously out my window above me hungry for fresh oxygen.
“Push yourself Paul,” Vince coaxed calmly, as I felt his free arm loosely around my ankles. “Come on man, you can do it.”
The palms of my hand were resting on the slate top of Vince’s bay window and with a mind of their own they pushed but slipped back up over the slates as they tried desperately to get a grip.
Slowly, very slowly, my body started to move again, to slide down in the general direction of Vince, and more worryingly, in the particular direction of the hard pathway two and a half floors below.
I felt one of the brackets supporting the guttering cut into my chest, tearing the skin as I slid over it.
Surprisingly it hurt not even a little. Once my head reached the guttering I clawed furiously at it if only to save the skin on my face from also been ripped open.
“Come on Paul, I’ve got you, you’ve got to let go.”
And I did.
For about one and one half seconds I was in free fall and then I felt Vince’s arm catch me under my arms and he pulled and tugged at me aggressively until we both fell head first through his window and into his room.
I passed out.
I came to some minutes later as I was being whisked out of the burning building. One of the neighbours from across the road kindly brought us into their house for tea and sympathy and dressed the wound on my chest. I seem to remember they even put us up for the rest of the night.
The next day I walked around my flat seeing and smelling the exact extent of the damage a fire and three fire brigades can do. I looked out the window and got the shivers as I realised just how much Vince risked his own life in order to save mine.
The fire officer advised us that a cigarette had slipped down between the cushions of a sofa in the living room and a few hours later the house was ablaze.
I’d lost a collection of LPs (including all the Beatles’ albums purchased on release day) and books, all of my clothes and a roof to sleep under but I remember walking around for the next few weeks ecstatic, if still slightly in a daze, but thankful, very thankful to the bravery of Vince McCusker, that I was able to walk around at all, if you know what I mean.
I’ve lost a book and LP collection twice, once in the above fire and one a few years later when my flat was raided and absolutely everything was stolen. What really hurts though is not the actual loss of your records but every now and again you’ll remember a favourite album and you’ll be as keen as a junkie for a fix of that particular music and you’ll search through your new collection-in-the-works and you’ll discover you won’t have re-bought it yet and that’ll make you want to listen to it all the more. Quite likely though those are also the occasions when you’ll be forced to remember what happened to your previous precious copies. Just last week in fact I tried unsuccessfully to put my hands on Little Willie Ramble the classic Demick & Armstrong album.
*1. These actual details I didn’t discover until sometime later but I felt it was better to include them at this point.
*2. Vince didn’t actually use the words, ‘top of the roof of my slated bay window’ because it was right there between us separating me from safety, but I felt it helped the narrative here.
And now time for a new feature: A top 10 for each blog and this edition’s top 10 is:
My All Time Top Ten Irish Groups.
03. The Undertones
04. The Interns
05. The Hothouse Flowers
06. The Gentry
08. Grannies Intentions
09. Skid Row
10. Blues by Five
This time I’ve seen:
The Titanic Exhibition at the Titanic Centre, Belfast. Extremely well put together, informative, exciting, moving, powerful. It’s a major credit to the team who created the exhibition; it’s up there with anything I have seen on my travels. The iconic centre is most certainly a crowd pleaser and a top of the list of ‘must-visit’ on trips to Belfast. Now when’s anyone going to get around to doing the same with the Maritime Centre the home of Them; the best ever Irish group. (see Top 10 above)
And seen and heard:
The Waterboys at the Iveagh Gardens, Dublin. An amazing concert at the perfect outdoor venue. It’s really incredible when the audience and band join together in celebration of a body of work. The feelgood factor during the Waterboys’ performance in the gardens was truly sky high. The Waterboys are one of the few acts who have successfully sussed that indoor and outdoor shows are entirely different.
And listened to:
Dexy’s – One Day I’m Going to soar. Great album, beautiful engaging string arrangements and Kevin is not just back on form, he’s on the form of his life; easily worthy of an Olympic Gold.
Abraxas - Santana. The best thing about McDaid’s Wine bar in Ramelton is not just the craic provided by the legendary host and raconteur, Mr James McDaid, but also that he has an amazing sound system and every now and then he’ll surprise you with a classic album like this. I hadn’t heard Abraxas for ages and I couldn’t believe how incredible it still sounds!
Live by Night by Denis Lehanne – he’s just like a jazz musician playing pop music – effortlessly brilliant.
The Vanishing Point by Val McDermid - more twists than a Curly Wurly.
Stella Days by Michael Doorley. It took me ages to track this down and I eventually found a great copy with a first edition book but (I assume) a second edition jacket, because it’s got a movie announcement star plonked on the front and post-release reviews on the rear (all these things matter to book collectors.) Anyway loved the book and still trying to find out where the movie’s is playing. I’m a major fan of the work of Martin Sheen and that’s how I first heard of the book.
The Man Who Wrote the Teddy Bear’s Picnic by JJ Kennedy. It really should have been named after one (anyone) of his father’s other 47 classic hits. For instance Red Sails in the Sunset – a brilliant song and a wonderful title for such a book. Jimmy Kennedy is still one of Ulster’s all-time great songwriters. Personally speaking I would have loved a bit more insight into his wonderful craftsman-like approach to songwriting. Hopefully someone will get around to such a volume one day soon.
I Am The Secret Footballer – who could it be other than Phil Neville? Of course there are a few little spoilers to this theory in the book but they could be red herrings! However on the other hand I always remember the Evening Standard had this thing where when someone really famous did something noteworthy like bite of the head of a chicken they would run a front-page headline: “Ozzie bites head off a chicken!” But should it have been a minor celebrity who performed the dastardly deed then the banner would run: “Soap Star bites the head off a chicken.” The point being that Ozzie sells papers but the minor celebrity won’t, so if they hide the story behind “Soap Star” then people will buy the paper to see who said ckicken biting soap star is. Unfortunately the periosn who parted with their hard earned cash will always be disappointed by the lack of status of the revealed soap star. I wonder if someone applied this theory to this book title in that “Secret Footballer” will generate more attention than the name of the footballer would have done.
The Lost Library by A.M. Dean. The perfect summer read, a chunky book and great entertainment altogether.
Eli Stone Series I & II - writing-wise they really hit their stride in series II
The Good Mother – great TV Drama.
The Good Cop – incredible promising start to a series.
And was heartened by:
the incredible, unselfish, unrewarded work the Ramelton Tidy Town gang continue to do.
Ben And Jerry’s fabulous Chunk Monkey Ice Cream.
Until the next time,