Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Cigars, The Sopranos, port, more cigars, Berlin, Lincoln, newspapers and two drunks (a father and his sadder son)

What with my daughter turning 19 next August and my son turning 16 in May, and me having turned 65 last November, and many of the items I hear about on the news being just retreads of items I heard on the news 30 or 40 years ago, with just the names being changed to protect the innocent as they used to declare as Dragnet started more than 50 years ago; and with most of the films I see being films I have seen before many times, with again just the names being changed to protect the innocents, I find I look back quite a bit more than once I did.

This afternoon, apropos coming across an short obit of someone I knew in the 1970s when I worked for a weekly newspaper in Lincoln, I found myself recalling life and work on a small weekly newspaper, the Lincolnshire Chronicle, where I was employed as a reporter. Later on, tonight in fact, after I had watched four episodes of The Sopranos back to back, polished off half a bottle of Graham’s port - over more than four and a half hours I must add, so the AA won’t be claiming me quite yet (and as the bottle cost £11.99, so half a bottle cost only half that, it’s cheaper than swilling beer or spirits) - and smoked four La Paz Wilde Cigarillos (available online from the Continent, and you would be sucker as well as being well out of pocket to buy cigars of any kind in Britain - those cheap enough to buy are crap, horrible cigars and those worth smoking are, at British prices well out of my price range) I got to be thinking, as one does, of the past.

This particular bit of the past was in the early 1960s when we lived in Berlin where my father was the BBC representative for four years (and, as I now believed, also provided whatever valuable help he could provide to Her Majesty’s foreign intelligence agency). We live in the Heerstraße, in Berlin-Charlottenburg. For our first year in Berlin, when I was ten, I attended Die Steuben-Schule in Charlottenburg, a Volkschule (primary school), while my older brother Ian, who died three weeks ago tonight, was already attending Das Canisius Kolleg in Berlin-Tiergarten, where I joined him in Easter 1960 (the German school year runs from Easter to Easter, not, as here in Britain from September to the following July). It was the cigars which brought back that particular memory.

From home we caught the tram which ran along the Heerstraße to what was then the Reichskanzlerplatz (now, I think, called Theodor-Heuss Platz after a former German President) where we caught the U-Bahn. We travelled as far as Nollendorfplatz and caught a bus to the Tiergartenstraße where our school was. (The pic below was taken before the war, but that is more or less what it looked like when we were there in the Sixties.) We always tried to make sure we caught

the U-Bahn before 8am as any later train would make us late for school. First thing in the morning the trains always stank of stale cigar smoke. That’s the link with cigars. Because of the cost of cigars in Britain, smoking them still seems to be a rich man’s pastime, but as they are considerably cheaper on the Continent many more men smoked them (and as this was Berlin, I don’t doubt a few women smoked them, too). So every time I light one up, I often have a similar sensation to Proust in his famous novel. Christ, I loved Berlin. And if I wasn’t firmly convinced of the wisdom of the advice ‘never go back’, I would go back like a shot to live there. But, of course, it  would never be the same. It never is.

PS When we first moved to Berlin in June 1959, we lived in a fourth (or fifth) floor flat in the

Olympischer Straβe in Berlin-Charlottenburg. This (pictured above) was the ‘smaller’ exit to the Neu-Westend U-Bahn station. It was just opposite our flat. Maybe it doesn’t mean a lot to you . . .

. . .

Earlier today, after googling the name ‘Robert House’ for no very good reason I can now recall, I discovered that the Robert House I had known in Lincoln, where he was the news editor of the Lincolnshire Echo, the local evening paper, had died in January 2011 at 83. I later came to know his son, also a Robert House, who, like his father, was something of a slave to alcohol and who topped himself in 2008 by jumping off a cliff. I worked with Robert House, the son, on the South Wales Echo, where I found him to be good company and where he kept telling me he wished he could introduce me to ‘his special friends’.

At first I had no idea what he meant until one night after a lot of boozing and as it was so late and my flatmate was away I agreed that he could doss down in my flat. He was very drunk and when I decided I wanted to go to bed, he tried to follow me into my bedroom telling me he wanted to sleep with me. I had other ideas and finally the cryptic remarks about ‘his special friends’ suddenly made sense. I had taken him to a ‘club’ in Cardiff called The Casablanca where I scored my dope and where he cut a horribly forlorn figure in his tweed jacket among the whores and black folk who, apart from me, patronised the place.

The Casablanca was actually nothing but an old disused church where usually there were fewer than 20 at the bar except when whoever ran ‘the club’ hired a sound system from Bristol to play reggae and when the place would be packed. It has since been demolished to make way for the gentrification of the Cardiff Bay area, which I have, however, not yet visited. I first came across Robert House, the father, when I by chance dropped in at the pub (I can’t remember what it was called) where he and other Lincolnshire Echo hacks went for after work beer.

Bob House was delightful and highly entertaining company when in his cups, but something of a bastard when sober. However, I rarely saw him sober. Sitting in the pub he was full of stories from his time working for the Daily Mirror in Fleet Street (though it wasn’t actually in Fleet Street, but

nearby), and I quickly developed a technique to extend his swift pint after work into a drinking session which went on until closing time. I waited until he had finished his pint an was on the point of going home and insisted I should buy him another. Once that was finished he then insisted, as I had stood him a pint, on buying me one. And so on. And on.

On one occasion he had bought and had with him in the pub a brand-new set of crockery acquired especially because he and his wife were having friends from France to stay. When I joined him in the pub and had bought him a pint, he then bought me one. This made him liable to be late and risk the wrath of his wife. So to calm his nerves I bought him another pint. Then he bought me one. Eventually he was so late, he knew he was in for it and kept postponing his departure hom because he knew he would get an almighty row from his wife for being late.

Finally, the pub wanted to close, so I suggested that if I came back home with him and helped him carry the new crockery his wife would find it impossible to rip him off several strips if I was there. It didn’t quite work out that way: when we arrived at the front door, with me carrying most of the boxes of crockery, she assumed I was the taxi driver, gruffly ordered me where to put down the boxes of crockery and began to give him hell. He explained I wasn’t the taxi driver, and then she became sweetness and light and after he went to bed to sleep off his laters binge, she and I sat up till two in the morning talking about I don’t know what and getting one well.

Not much of an anecdote, I know, but it’s the only one I have about Bob House, the father.

As for Robert House, the son, he really was a sad case. By the time he joined the South Wales Echo subs’ desk he was already an alcoholic, and it just got worse and worse. After our friendship had

cooled - I was rather embarrassed in his company after the night of his failed seduction - it seemed to get even worse, although I wasn’t the cause. I think he was ever more trouble with his partner - he was already divorced and had an ex-wife and two children in Windsor - and he would go on benders, turning up for work in a terrible state.

Again, not much of an anecdote, but it is only January. Pip, pip.

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