“Ar ya brothers?”
asked the driver in broad Naarfuk as we clambered into the back of the taxi. Here we go, I thought. We’re gonna have that conversation again.
Cabbies are notorious chatterboxes, aren’t they? I think it’s in the job description. And they’ve usually got a view on absolutely everything, with opinions often slightly to the right of Attila the Hun. I knew where the conversation was heading and I didn’t fancy going round the houses so I cut straight to the chase.
“No, we’re husbands.”
“Oh, reet. Me youngest is gay too.”
It turns out our local yokel is totally unfazed by his son’s sexuality and he told us about it – loudly and proudly all the way.
“’Bin goin’ steady wiv the boyfriend for a couple of year now. I ‘ear weddin’ bells. I might get me a noo ‘at!”
So much for my petty prejudices.
I first met Clive Smith a few weeks into our first year of secondary school. My very first memory was him doing a skit of ‘The Fenn Street Gang’ – some of you oldies may remember the seventies sitcom. He was doing all the voices, mostly female I have to say. It was hysterical. I liked him instantly. A theatrical life beckoned.
We travelled together through our teenage years – birds of a feather, you could say. And what adventures we had.
There were the incredible school trips – all the way to Russia by train then back by sea on an old Soviet rust bucket. We shared the boat with a girl’s school from Scarborough and attempted to chat up the lasses – really, who were we trying to kid?
But it was the afternoons in the front room of Clive’s home in South London I remember and treasure the most – gossiping and talking schoolboy sex to a soundtrack of Elton, 10cc, Alice Cooper and Bowie – lots of Bowie – oh, and way too much Roxy Music for my liking.
In the late seventies, Clive came to see me at work in Habitat on Chelsea’s King’s Road. He had something to tell me. ‘I’m gay,’ he announced. He’d come out to me next to a stack of trendy crockery in the middle of the shop floor. ‘No, you’re not,’ I replied. ‘I’d know if you were.’ Shows how little I did know.
For years after, Clive was always my Christmas Day guest of choice. Best thing was, veggie Clive always brought his own nut roast. How we laughed over the Coronation Street board game he brought one year. No we didn’t. It was rubbish.
Clive’s greatest attribute was his loyalty, to me certainly, even when I didn’t always deserve it. Typically, he was the first to visit me and Liam in Turkey – no mean feat out of season – and the first to drop by when we moved to the middle of nowhere in Norfolk, house-warmer in hand. It was a bottle of port. He knew us so well. He always kept in touch through time and distance. That was his talent.
I’d known Clive for nearly half a century and, for nearly half a century, we debated and argued, bitched and joked, fell out and fell in, laughed and cried, shared secrets and naughty thoughts.
We may have bickered for nearly fifty years but for nearly fifty years we also loved, more like brothers than friends. And that’s what counts in the end. So all I can now say is, ‘Missing you already.’
Clive died suddenly and without warning from a cardiac arrest on 16th January 2020. He was 58.
Our little house is one of a small row of four workers’ cottages standing proud next to the 12th-century parish church of All Saints. Built in 1852, each dwelling once consisted of just four rooms – the original meaning of a ‘two up, two down’ – with water supplied by a well at the end of the row and, in all likelihood, a single outside latrine shared by all and sundry. There must have been quite a queue when cholera struck. The well’s still in full working order but, these days, only used for watering the roses.
One of our neighbours, a sucker for genealogy, obtained the entries for the 1911 national census. It provided a tantalising glimpse into the lives of the residents of our little terrace at that time.
While Liam was lapping up a concert by a local ladies choir at our spitting-distance church, I took a look through the documents. I really hope Mr Jackson the wherryman*, widow-woman Maria, James the omnibus driver, Mr Kerry the jobbing gardener and all their assorted families had happy and fulfilling lives. I guess we’ll never know, but the chances are their day-to-days were hand-to-mouth, horribly insecure and plagued by illness or the fear of it. Life expectancy at the time was about 56 for women and 52 for men, though this average was skewed by high child mortality rates which meant if you did manage to survive to adulthood, you had a better chance of growing grey.
Still, this was a big improvement on the situation when the houses were first chucked up. Back in the 1850s, life expectancy was only 42 for women and just 40 for men. As life was short and often grim, it’s little wonder people took to religion for solace. Thank God for the doorstep chapel.
*a wherry is a shallow-draught barge with a large single sail once used to transport cargo on the rivers and broads hereabouts.
Now we’ve moved on to fresh fields, my five-day-a-week gym routine is no more. Whereas I was once able to stroll to my city centre torture chamber, I’d now have to bus it – so that’s that. But, I still need to help my circulation by power-pushing my ageing legs, and avoid diabetes by keeping the pounds off. So we’ve invested in this monster.
No longer am I able to leer discretely (or not so discretely) at the sweaty fellas squatting and pressing around me. No. My view has been replaced by classic episodes of Coronation Street from the eighties, weekdays on ITV3. The tattooed talent in tight togs have given way to dreary Deirdre’s dreadful perm, wooden Ken’s unlikely sexual prowess, bottle-blonde Bet’s gravity-defying hair do, blue-rinsed Phyllis’ hopeless pursuit of flat-capped miserable old fart, Percy Sugden, Jack and Vera’s endless bickering and Betty’s nuked hotpot. I love it. The script is glorious and my guilty secret is out.
It’s funny how things turn out. At the start of 2019 we were loft-living city-style, happy as pigs in the proverbial. By the end, we’d escaped to the country surrounded by the stuff, all quite by chance. Our best laid plans for a move to God’s own county were consigned to the recycling bin. And, my old girl reached her own milestone – turning 90 and still on the fags.
These twin themes were writ large in Perking the Pansies this year. There’s a lesson there somewhere. Also featuring in the top ten were a couple of fairy films, a fine but imperfect city and steely celebrations by the pansies still perking after all this time. Ladies and gents, please give it up for…
The Only Gays in the Village | Beware of Mad Cows | Thursday’s Child Has Far to Go | Monarch of the Hill | Rocket Man | The Shiny Shrimps | So Far So Good | Norwich – Irresistible and Imperfect | Unlucky for Some | The Last Dance
As usual, popular classics were of the more salacious kind. For the third year running, Gran Canaria, Sex Emporium from 2012 was the most read blast from the past. And the most clicked image was those naughty but nice boys with their big oars from Catching Crabs.
Shame on you.
Happy New Year to one and all. All we hope for in 2020 is some sunshine. It’s been pissing down virtually every day since we moved.
It’s Christmas Eve and we’re stopping home this year to soak up the village vibe. Thank you to Mr Marks and Mr Spencer for the superior festive fare. It’s not that Liam can’t cook – he’s actually rather good (me, on the other hand…) but after a few sherries down the local on Christmas Day, I fear a killing in the kitchen, and not in a good way. So best to minimise the risk with pre-prepared grub. After all, as the slogan goes…
“This is not just food, this is M&S Food.”
And who am I to argue?
God rest ye merry gentlemen, ladies and all those in between.