‘What’s wi’ all the big words an’ talkin’ posh? Who d’yer think y’are, Shakespeare?’
‘Do you mean Bob Shakespeare, off Bentinck Terrace, or the chap who wrote Hamlet?’
‘Think you’re right clever, don’t you?’
‘One tries, you know.’
It is not with the benefit of hindsight that he realises how lucky he was not to have had his face punched in by one of the hardest nuts in town, three bleak school years older and a good foot taller than he was then, aged 13. He was a cheeky little sod, and he knew it. How could he not? If it were not the verbally-befuddled big lads telling him what he was, it was his teachers. Not all of them. At best he infuriated no more than say 80% of those whose organisational or disciplinary paths he repeatedly pissed upon, but as regards his future prospects, they were all 100% in agreement.
“He’ll never get anywhere, the way he carries on” “He’s a fool to himself” “He could do so well, if only he’d put his mind to it”,
chimed his school reports, topped with the not entirely disheartening summary of his academic abilities: Year Grade: A. Group Grade: A. Overall Effort: E. Yes, he would think, if only I would put my mind to it.
He was what in the pit villages of north Nottinghamshire they called “a clever lad”. One who hated school, hated being told what to do, and what he would, or more likely would not, one day become, and yet he loved learning. Not that he’d have recognised it as that at the time.
It was just reading, nothing more, his own private escape chute which lay hidden between the covers of a book or a magazine.
With quiet envy he’d followed the Famous Five through all 22 of their ‘super’ adventures, taken abridged dips into the children’s classics and joined the Beano Fan Club for the badge and a sense of belonging. Aged 11, there’s a brief flirtation with David Attenborough’s Life on Earth, and some more focused investigations into the lives of frogs and toads, which would result in the needless half dozen corpses discovered in the bread bin in the back yard. Normal lads, whose dads were still around, seemed to find refuge in football, but he could never see the attraction, beyond the fleeting charms of a sticker album.
No, the thing that did for him were the railways. A train-mad uncle, himself newly divorced, took to relieving his sister of the eldest of her three kids on Saturdays, whisking him off at the crack of dawn on cheap day returns to Liverpool, York and Crewe. The railways are full of history, the uncle would say, pointing out another marvel of Victorian engineering or the location of a World Speed Record. This is the engine from The Great Train Robbery, 1963. I’ll lend you a book about it. There were lots of books loaned, none of which ever needed to be returned. Gradually the net widens to include not only books about railways, but also glossy profiles of classic cars and aircraft, photography, the biographies of long-haired rock stars. The boy’s interest in music grows. The uncle can lend him some records too, if he’d like, The Eagles, The Stranglers. He gives him an electric guitar, a slim book of chords and a baffling set of tuning pipes.
Sometimes, at weekends or during the school holidays, his mum would let him stay up late and watch old films, Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey, Alfie, The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, A Kind of Loving, The Family Way, Billy Liar. Black & white, mostly. He likes the clothes, the cars, and the girls, the steam engines always whistling in the background.
He likes the bitter old ladies and daft young men, but best of all he likes the words, the angry, rebellious words.
This was a best-selling book in the Sixties, his mum had said, so the next day he borrows it from the school library and never takes it back. The author, according to the jacket, was a working-class lad from Nottingham, who’d left school aged 14 to work in a bicycle factory.
His uncle didn’t like The Smiths, a bit too wet for his tastes, he preferred Cream and Hendrix, but he appreciated the sound of a Rickenbacker, said it reminded him of The Byrds. That kooky looking girl from A Taste of Honey is on the cover of a new Smiths single sung by Sandie Shaw. These books and films and music, the clothes and trains and moody girls, slender threads which have somehow been pulled together to capture and captivate him, he feels are a sign that he might be onto something, on the right track, so to speak.
But is he still that cheeky little sod asking for a thick ear? Actually it appears he gets worse before he gets better, only this worrisome side of his personality he reserves almost exclusively for the classroom.
It’s not the trouble he relishes, resulting in detentions, lines, and canings, it’s the words, the language he’s trying out, the smart-arsed, silly voiced back-chatting childish insolence, of behaving like someone else, someone smart, someone clever, that’s what drives it.
Well, there’s no father at home, is there? No discipline. And then you’ve got all those daft buggers on the telly, Rik & Ade, Stephen & Hugh, Dawn & Jennifer, and Rowan, Pamela, Mel & Griff, all carrying on like deranged animals, such language and vulgarity, and properly educated too, most of them. Also, when you come to think about it, that uncle was no stranger to a Silly Walk or to answering his mother’s phone as Bluebottle or Inspector Clouseau, and him in his forties.
At this point in the story it would be nice to say the boy suddenly recognises he’s fallen madly in love with literature, with the power of words and the idea of writing himself a future inspired by the fictions of the films and the vinyl he devoured, the pages of Sillitoe, Waterhouse and Hines that kept him up far too late for his 5.20am start on his paper-round. Perhaps if he’d put his mind to it. But he never did, at least not at school. He jumped as soon as he could, aged 16, mildly ashamed of the handful of O-Levels and CSEs which in late-Eighties money bought you a place on a government Youth Training Scheme scheme, £27.50 a week, tax-free, working in the parts department of the local Ford cars dealership. After he’d paid his mum £10 board there wasn’t much left, enough for an LP a week, and a couple of pints and fish & chips on Saturday night. Or Sunday morning.
By now he was too cool to watch trains, and too colour-blind to ever be able to drive one. But he still saw his uncle, and he never stopped listening to music. Around that time, he read mostly about cars, guitars and rock stars, some alive, some dead, others who drifted somewhere between in a three-parts-pickled rock n roll limbo. Lloyd Cole was almost 24 when he had his first hit. Jim Morrison was dead at 27. The boy began to wonder if he’d ever be able to write a song, a whole song, three or four minutes long.
He liked the idea of writing something entirely of his own creation. And perhaps he would do, one day, if he were to put his mind to it.
Lee Stuart Evans was the first boy in his family not to work down the pit, though not the last. He spent 7 years in the motor trade before returning to education aged 24 and starting a new career in television. A full-time comedy writer since 2002, he’s worked on many hit shows, including 8 Out of 10 Cats and 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, The Jonathan Ross Show, The Frank Skinner Show, 10 O’clock Live, A League of Their Own and I’m A CelebrityGet Me Out of here!
His first novelWords Best Sung, published by Arundel Books, is available from waterstones.com, fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk, arundelbooks.co.uk, nottinghambooks.co.uk and amazon.co.uk