OUT OF BOUNDS
IN BOUNDS GREEN
Steve and I peered into the Newsagent's Window.
"How about this one?" I said.
He read the advert out loud: "Self-contained flat to rent suitable for 4/5 persons. £160 per month. Bounds Green"
"Where’s the bloody hell’s that" I said. I checked the A-Z while Steve wrote down the contact number. Bounds Green turned out to be in north London – not all that far from Tottenham. We walked over to the phone box and dialled the number. A voice answered and Steve told the person about our interest in the tenancy. I watched as he wrote down the details, hung up, and gestured to get going.
"Where are we off to?" I asked.
"121, Bounds Green Rd" he replied. "But the bloke on the phone had a funny voice".
We jumped into my Austin Cambridge and sped off.
We’d been in London for three hours trying to find a place to live. It was September 1971 and Steve had a place at The Royal Academy, I wanted to try the bright lights, and Dave had promised to join us as soon as we had found something. We were all firm friends and ex-members of the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra.
I’d been forced to take a job at seventeen following my failure to get into one of the London music colleges and I already had two years Computer Operating experience. Dave had decided on a career in banking. John, our other friend from the LSSO had already been in London for a year at the Royal College of Music, but we hoped to entice him to stay with us once we had found somewhere because he was one of my closest friends.
The last member of what was to be a five-strong contingent at our new flat was Dinna. Dinna was my best friend from school. Although he was non-musical I persuaded him that London had to be more exciting than Johnet Harborough and he wanted to go to College anyway. He enrolled at the North London Polytechnic and joined us a few days later.
After a quick pint for lunch, we found our way to 121, Bounds Green Rd, parked up, and stood around waiting for the Landlord to appear. It wasn’t long before a Morris Minor pulled up across the other side of the street. A rather strange man with black trilby hat and a fat stomach emerged from the back door and walked over to us.
"Helloooowwww" he said. "You must be Mr Draycott and Mr Monk". "How are youuuuu"? "I’m Mr Feltz".
I stood there fascinated at the way this chap spoke, especially at the long drawn out last syllables in each sentence. If you can imagine a cross between Janet Street-Porter and Lloyd Grossman you’ve got the idea. After a few seconds I realised that he must be Jewish. I’d never knowingly met a Jewish person before (what a sheltered upbringing) but I somehow jumped to this conclusion right away. It was either the fact that I’d just noticed that he had a chauffeur for his Morris Minor, or that he could have successfully auditioned for the part of Fagin in Oliver Twist.
I stared at him in a rather obvious way, taking in the egg-stained tie and shiny suite. Gumley had never prepared me for anything like this. Steve was staring at him in equal surprise but seemed to get back into his stride more quickly.
"Come on, my boys, and I’ll show you arowwwwnd" said Mr Feltz.
We approached a large, detached two-storey house at the end of a row of houses with an alley on the far side. It had a sign on the front proclaiming it to be ‘Bridge House’.
It transpired that the house was divided into a ground floor flat and a first floor flat. The one offer was the upper one. Mr Feltz led the way through the front door and into a small hall. This then opened on to a set of stairs leading straight up to the first floor.
"I’m sure that this would be just right for youuuuuuu," said Mr Feltz, and he proceeded to show us the long, narrow lounge and small kitchenette at the end. Upstairs from the landing were two very large bedrooms and up a further set of stairs, a reasonably sized bathroom.
Steve and I looked around. We already knew that it was quite close to the station, which was obviously a plus factor. I gazed out of the front bedroom window.
"There’s a pub straight across the road" I observed.
Steve turned to Mr Feltz. "We’ll take it," he said.
We went back home and phoned Dave and Dinna. It took us about a week before we’d got all our stuff together and were ready to come to London. In effect, we were all flying the family nest for the first time. I’d never given it a moment’s thought even though I didn’t have a clue how to look after myself. Thankfully, Steve was a bit more domesticated, and had worked as a chef in a pub.
The four of us moved in to the flat and we were soon joined a few days later by John. The bedroom arrangements had to be discussed in some detail. The main disadvantage was that we were obviously going to have to share – which was a potentially dampener on having sex with girls. Eventually we decided that Dinna, John and I would share the biggest front bedroom while Steve and Dave would take the slightly smaller back one.
Mr Feltz had met us on the day we moved in and relieved us of our deposit and first month’s rent. "I’m sure you boys will be very happyyyy," he said as his chauffeur held open the back seat door for him. Actually, he seemed like a nice guy and I rather liked him in a sort of mesmerising - I’ve never met anyone remotely-like-him - sort of way. For the next couple of weeks Steve and I only spoke in Felteze.
"Hello Steeeve" I would say.
"Yes, hello Phiiiiiil" he would reply.
"How are you todayyyyyyyy"?
Steve made us all a cup of coffee – for which I was very grateful because I didn’t know how to do this. Later we decided we must celebrate our first night together and rushed across to the pub to knock back a few pints.
"What shall we do about food?" I asked my new flatmates as we sat around the table.
"I’ll sort it out," said Steve. "We’ll have a kitty system. You all put in £1 a week and I’ll buy the food". That seemed fair enough and we readily agreed.
The next day Steve and I went shopping. I was out of work because I hadn’t found a job in London yet. However, I’d registered with a couple of agencies and I had an interview lined up for the following week.
In the meantime I trudged around the superJohnet in Steve’s wake. He seemed to know what he was doing so I let him get on with it. I helped carry the bags home and we put the food away. We seemed to have four pounds of bacon bits; seven pounds of broken biscuits; some bread; milk and cornflakes; fourteen tins of baked beans, and a single Fray Bentos tinned Steak and Kidney pie.
As a treat, Steve cooked for us on the second night. The bacon sandwiches seemed excellent to me, but that was probably because I didn’t realise then that I’d have to eat them every day for the next year.
The next morning I hit my first problem when I realised that I didn’t know how to make toast. I’d seen my Mum put slices of bread under the grill and it looked pretty straightforward. However, four burnt slices later produced loud protests from the rest of the gang at the waste of our valuable food supply. I gave up being sophisticated and ate cornflakes instead.
Steve taught me how to make a cup of coffee and I sat back basking in my new-found domesticity.
Of course the top priority, even above finding a job, was to get off with a woman as soon as possible. This was difficult for me to reconcile with the fact that I had a long-term girlfriend. But given that I had the morals of a snake, I was on red alert from the word go.
If everything sounds a bit dull so far you have to imagine a group of nineteen-year-olds let loose in London for the first time, and realise that for most of the time, the flat resounded to the sound of shouting, singing, farting, playing, and so on.
During the second week, Dinna and I were sitting around being bored. He didn’t seem that interested in going to college, I wasn’t working yet, and there was nothing to do until the evening. Adjacent to the lounge was a flat roof that covered the kitchen on the flat below, accessible via a window from our landing. We’d washed some underkecks in the sink and we’d set up our clothes dryer on the roof and were watching the pants air nicely.
John came home early and copied our idea with the drying underwear. He was hanging out his togs on the roof when Dinna and I looked at each other and had a meeting of minds. We rushed to the window and locked him out on the roof. Initially, John just rained abuse on us – something like "C’mon you stupid bastards". When he got really wound up, we let him back in. We played the same prank on each other a number of times over the next few weeks.
There was a payphone in the downstairs hall. One day the phone rang for some time and I ran downstairs to answer it. It was Mr Feltz.
"Hello Philiiiiiiiip. Would you like to sing in my Jewish boys choirrrrr?"
"Er, well, Mr Feltz, I'm not sure".
I finally landed a job in Fulham with North Thames Gas. Unfortunately, it involved shift work – which was a pain when I had to work evenings because it meant missing out on lots of social events. My first week was ‘days’ – which meant 7:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. This meant that I had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to catch the tube to get there on time. Not easy if you were smashed from the night before.
The first week was spent familiarising myself with my new set of workmates. I was part of a shift of twelve Computer Operators and they all seemed like a good crowd – even if some of them were slightly weird. The work itself was disappointing. I’d been hired for my computer skills but seemed to be some sort of equipment slave at the direction of the Shift Leader who was, unusually, a woman who we called Mousey (you can guess why). She appeared to be the only one who knew what was going on and just told us to fix this, load that, get more paper, load those cards, and so on.
Computers in those days were not the sorts of things that people are familiar with now. There were no PCs. Only big companies could afford the massive investment required to buy large computers. The ‘processors’ had a memory capacity from 8K to 32K (today’s PC of 64MB is equivalent to 6,400K!). More importantly there were no screens or VDUs. A Teletype device (called a console) controlled the machine. There were no disks and all information was recorded on large, 14 inch diameter, 2400ft reels of magnetic tape.
There were two types of input media – cards or paper-tape. I was primarily a paper-tape man. I had learnt to ‘read’ the holes punched in the tape by the data prep machines and could fix errors and splice tape together. When large reels of paper-tape were fed through the tape-reader they frequently snagged and it could take some time to sort it all out.
All this was interesting background but the main skill employed by the blokes on my shift turned out to be elastic band fighting. Right from the start of the shift, they would sneak around all the computer cabinets and fire elastic bands at each other. Some were particularly excellent practitioners of this art and could hit you on the back of the head from thirty feet of so. Mousey appeared powerless to do anything about this and by the time the shift ended there were hundreds of elastic bands all over the floor.
The computer systems generated millions of bits of paper. Mainly gas bills I suppose although no one ever explained to me anything about what the computers did so it was guesswork on my part. Some bright spark had decreed that boxes of paper were stored on the seventh floor - which was great considering that the Computer Room was on the ground floor. Along with a chap called Martin, one of our jobs was to bring all this stationery down in the lift on a large trolley. This took at least two hours per shift but was at least an opportunity to meet the girls who worked there.
Back at the flat we had a constant stream of visitors, all of them musos of one sort or another. There were a lot of ex-LSSO players around such as a trombonist called Glen, who I’d known right back from my time in the Harborough band. But most guests were other College or Academy players brought back by Steve or John. Any girls were fair game, and any guys were quickly assessed as to their drinking prowess, whether they had a sister, or their ability to get us into parties or other social events.
The game of locking people out when they ventured onto the flat roof to do their drying continued on most days, and we all fell victim at one time or another. Dinna and I decided to extend this little joke by lodging a book over the slightly ajar lounge door just before John came through. A perfect hit ensued followed by lots of swearing.
When I had to get up to make the early shift at work I used to make sure that I got up at the last possible minute. To this end I went to bed in all my clothes ready for the morning, including my coat. When it was time to rise at 5:30 I simply threw he covers off, had a pee, and walked straight out of the flat. There was no central heating in the flat so it was a useful technique for keeping warm anyway.
A week later I had to do my first stint of ‘nights’. This turned out to be a rather extraordinary experience. Being the newest member of the team, on arrival I was selected to ‘do’ the dinner. This involved going around to the other eleven Operators and jotting down their requirements for the mid-shift lunch break. Once I’d got the list I was told to clear off to a 24hr superJohnet in Earls Court. I was astonished at the revelation that there was a superJohnet that opened all through the night; I’d never heard of such a thing.
I was carrying three or four large bags by the time I’d got back. My next task was to set about the business of preparing all this food. This was tricky to say the least because I couldn’t cook. I managed to make the sandwiches, and then put everything else in the oven (the microwave was science-fiction at this time!). I made a large pot of baked beans and that was that. I didn’t get many complaints and the first six seemed happy with their grub. They trooped out and I served the next lot. By the time I’d done the washing up and cleared everything away, it was nearly the end of the shift. This Computer Operating was skilful stuff.
Back at the flat Dinna and I got some cotton thread and tied everything on the food shelf together. We had to wait an hour before John took an item off the shelf and everything came with it.
John was a gem. He took all this hassle in the spirit it was intended and although he swore at us he never once turned nasty about it. I admired him for this but unfortunately it inspired us to greater lengths of practical joking to see if we could send him over the top.
We switched the book over the door to a water bomb. Dinna and I were experts at making these from our schooldays. Because we were in and out of the rooms ourselves all through the evening we had to wait until the last minute before setting up the booby traps, listening carefully for the sound of John at the front door.
On many weekends some or most of us returned to Leicester. Dinna, Steve and Dave would go back now and again to see their parents; John and I would go back and play with Ratby band. After band rehearsals on Sunday we would drink five or six pints before going round to his Grandma’s and eating one of her huge Sunday dinners. We’d then sleep it off in the afternoon before driving back down the M1 to London.
By this time I was the proud owner of a Vauxhall Velux. This was a massive, square, box-like car with a three-speed column gear change. One day we pulled onto the motorway and, as I changed up from first to second, the gearstick broke. We carried on slowly down the motorway while we had a hurried debate about what to do. We both needed to get to London the next day and we couldn’t afford to go back. So we carried on down the hard shoulder at fifteen miles an hour all the way from Leicester to London with the engine screaming with the effort. The fact that it took us nine hours wasn’t so bad. The bad bit was crossing the exit slip roads. We’d crawl across them with my knuckles white on the steering wheel and John sitting bolt upright as lorries thundered past on either side with their horns blaring. I’m sure we both aged overnight. Mind you, we didn’t do the journey without a break, as we had to stop at Toddington to put a gallon of oil in the engine!
The car was never the same again and I soon sold it for £15 and bought an ancient Triumph Spitfire to impress the girls.
One the whole life was great. I hated going to work but the social life, drinking binges and general larking around were a source of constant amusement. We were all short of cash but seemed to get by somehow. Visitors often stayed the night and kipped down in a made-up bed on the floor of Dave and Steve’s room. We didn’t stay in often but, if we did, it wasn’t long before someone suggested popping across the road for a quick pint, usually followed by chips at the local Fish Shop just next to Tube Station.
Dinna and I decided that the curtains on the window next to John’s bed needed adjusting. The window was very large because the rooms were of a good height. Later that night, when John drew the curtains they fell down on him.
I had decorated my corner of the room to my own unique taste. This was a mixture of posters for old pop concerts (which would have been worth money if I’d had the foresight to keep them), and assorted road signs nicked from the works outside the house. This latter collection included ‘Give Way’, ‘Beware, Men at Work’, and other suggestive designs in red and white. We each had one bedside cabinet, a third of a chest of drawers, and a third of a wardrobe. There were the usual moans that you would expect about tidiness when three guys lived together in the same room.
In the communal areas there were constant insults levelled at mates not doing their washing up or tidying away. Worse were rows when someone got home late to find there was no food because those who hung around the house all day had eaten all the rations. This lead to incessant arguments about getting fair shares of the daily grub round.
When John got home he pulled the doorknob and it came off in his hand.
After a few months the people downstairs moved out. What the nice Mr Feltz did was entrust us with the keys so that we could show any prospective tenants around. We checked out the living area and decided that it wasn’t as good as our accommodation on the first floor and decided to stay where we were. However, we noticed that the area could be used for other possibilities. The first was obvious if you wanted some privacy for body wrestling with the opposite sex; the second, less so.
We went and bought three toy pistols that fired dried peas. Each had a hollow butt that one could fill up with ammunition. In no time at all we were playing pea-firing contests in the empty ground floor flat. This was a real reversion to our childhood as we hid behind chairs and sofas before sneaking off a couple of shots at the ‘opposition’. This new fad lasted about a week before the pain of picking up all the peas from the floor outweighed the pleasure one got from smacking someone square between the eyes with a dried pea.
John got home and tested all the doors carefully. He was pretty much on guard now since we’d taken the bulb out of the light on the stairs. To help him avoid the unexpected he had found a stick in the garden that he used to keep by the front door. He’d use the stick the tap his way up the stairs slowly – a bit like a blind man – to test for tripwires.
This night Dinna and I had agreed that we wouldn’t play any pranks unless John decided to take a bath. Unfortunately, he did. The trick was one of those rare ones that we used more than once, and even used on each other and not just John. The hot water in the bathroom was supplied by a gas water heater that came on fully once you had turned the tap on. The gas was controlled by a stop valve in the meter cupboard at the bottom of the stairs.
The idea was that you’d wait until the bather started his bath running. He would invariably return to the bedroom while the bath was filling up. During this period we would sneak downstairs and turn the gas off. The bather returned and tested his lovely warm bath only to find that it was stone cold. The frustrated bather then had to run downstairs dressed in only their underpants to switch the gas back on.
I arrived at work the next day and met with the other chaps in the tearoom before the start of the shift. Mousey came in to roust us out just before the start time. I trooped in with the others but Martin climbed onto the top of the ICL 1905F central processor. This was a fairly sturdy computer about five feet off the ground. It was the first in a long line of processors of different types stretching about thirty feet down the Computer Room. Martin stood at the end of the 1905F nearest the door, gave a cry, ran forward a couple of small steps and proceeded to execute a perfect double flip-flap of the kind you see on a gymnasts’ floor routine. We gazed at him surprise and awe as he landed on the 1903T processor with a resounding bang.
Mousey went mad at him. He shrugged of the rollocking with his customary charming smile and we gathered round to congratulate him and enquire as to how he’d learnt such skill (at school apparently). Anyway, Mousey was still shouting at us as we formed an orderly queue at the 1904E console Teletype to wait for our instructions. I got lumbered with changing two reels of 2400ft tape and was told that there was a paper jam on printer number 5. I beavered away at fixing this for a moment and had just pressed the green ‘Start’ button on the printer before I was hit on the back of the head by an elastic band with a paper-clip attached (the most lethal form).
After I had returned fire I trooped back to the console station. A new game had begun amongst the waiting Computer Operators. Depending on usage, the 2400ft reels of tape needed a plastic hoop called a Write-Protect Ring (or WPR – pronounced Wooper) inserted into the back of them. This device protected the tapes against being inadvertently overwritten – the theory being that tapes to be saved didn’t have a ring in them, and the tapes to be written did.
All the spare WPRs were kept on a wooden pole about one foot tall attached to a square base to keep it upright. The idea was to play ‘Hoopla’ and toss the WPRs over the pole from about eight feet away. Some bright spark had decided that it was even more fun from ten feet away, then twelve feet away, and so on. After half-an-hour playing the distance was seventy-five feet, i.e. from the farthest corner of the Computer Room. You couldn’t actually see the pole from there so you just spun your WPR as hard as you could over the tape drives in the right general direction and relied on your colleagues to jeer or cheer depending on you accuracy. A hundred WPRs littering the Computer Room did nothing for its appearance.
John arrived home that night and went to bed as usual. He’d followed the usual precautions but he’d probably not thought of the squashy pear that we’d lodged carefully on top of the curtains above his bed.
It’s important to mention that John and I were the best of mates. It’s only because of this that I got away with all the practical jokes. We’d been big pals in the orchestra and the band. We’d chased women together, got into scrapes together, and had the same great times. Hell, we even slept with the same women! (three actually).
The story of one of them is worth relating. One of our regular pubs was one in Highgate where we’d made friends with the locals. I particularly fancied one girl who I knew vaguely as Carol. One thing led to another and eventually I found myself back at her flat and we did what teenagers do. Somehow though, things didn’t feel quite right. I couldn’t quite say why but there was something.
Afterwards, she was lying there in my arms and after the usual insincere murmured sweet nothings I asked her what her name was.
"Carol" she replied.
"I know that " I said. "But Carol who?"
I was out of there in 2 minutes.
It didn’t stop John having a go a few weeks later. He was almost as promiscuous as me but, as I was completely obsessed with girls and didn’t take my job seriously, he was always going to find it difficult to keep up. He did all right though as did the rest of the lads. The all managed to get themselves girlfriends at various times, some of them lasting long enough to become frequent visitors and friends to us all.
Dinna and I had gone to considerable trouble with the subtlety of our next prank, and I for one hoped that John would appreciate how much time and effort we’d devoted to him.
After some metaphorical head scratching, we’d decided that the best sort of trick was the late-night one spent when we were all in bed. To this end we’d bought some very fine string and sewn (yes, sewn) it into the top of John’s blanket. We were all in bed and John was nearly asleep when Dinna gave the string a tug from the end that we’d laid to his bedside. John’s blankets moved down two inches, he pulled them up again in his half-asleep state, and, on the other side of the room, I wet myself. Dinna waited a minute before tugging the blankets down again maybe three or four inches this time. John must have felt this one and he raised his head from the pillow to look around. Seeing no one near the bed he warily lay back on the pillow again and appeared to relax. He was fooling us though and when Dinna tried the next tug after five minutes had passed, he sat up and switched his bedside light on to discover the doctored blanket.
"Very fuckin funny," he said, before ripping off the string.
Despite all the larking about at work, I didn’t really feel that I was learning anything and the commuting was a real pain. I registered with an agency and, in no time at all, I found myself in an interview for a Computer Operating job at Oxford University Press in Neasden. This went well and I received an offer that allowed me to hand in my notice at North Thames Gas. I had never seen my boss at North Thames since my first day but I knew where his office was. I was working the night shift so I left a note on his desk. It said, "Dear Sir, I resign."
Back at the flat we’d switched the electric off at the meter before John came home and it's hell to negotiate the stairs in the dark.
My first day at work in my job soon came around and I was introduced to my new colleagues. I soon settled in and discovered that my new workmates were even worse for messing around than the last lot!
One of my new colleagues was named Gary. The Computer Room was next to the entrance foyer and the open stairs to the upper floors. Gary’s speciality was lying on the Computer Room floor so that he could look up the womens’ dresses through the stair treads. Another new friend was Alan, and he took me to a local dance club one evening. What amazed me about this experience was that for the first time in my life I saw blokes dancing together in groups. Apparently this was nothing unusual in London, but I’d never seen such a thing. If we’d tried it in Leicester we’d have been ridiculed as poofs. Oh the sophistication of London!
After our next party we managed to bring home an Afro-American girl called Jackson. No one quite knew where she appeared from but she sort of latched on to us and became a regular visitor to the flat over the next few weeks. She was a session singer and had set her heart on becoming famous. But although she seemed to get regular gigs, she didn’t seem to earning enough to live on. Steve came up with a wizard wheeze and said he could get her a job giving old men ‘hand relief’ at the local hospital. She was all set for her ‘interview’ before I felt sorry for her and owned up to the truth. She seemed to like me for that and in no time at all we became lovers. But it was an unconventional sort of love (sex) because we had to do it very quietly in the bedroom at night with Dinna and John in the same room.
My Spitfire was constantly breaking down. I had to leave it in various parking spaces when it wasn’t driveable to stay one step ahead of the traffic wardens. I was also seriously testing the patience of the RAC with seven calls in six months.
Dinna, being the great bloke that he was, agreed to help me put in a new engine for the car. We got all the bits from the local scrap yard and set to work on the forecourt outside the pub. We both knew a fair bit about cars through owning old bangers that should never have been on the road in the first place. Dinna was more knowledgeable than me though and we set about dismantling the Spitfire engine. After releasing the cylinder head bolts, we knew that all we had to do was turn over the engine once to free the head itself. The theory was great but it would have worked much better if we had remembered to disconnect the battery first. As soon as we turned the starter the spark plugs set fire to the disconnected petrol pump and the engine was ablaze. We stared at each other in horror. I did my passable impression of Sergeant Jones in ‘Dad’s Army’. "Don’t panic," I cried.
I decided we needed water quickly. "Let’s get water from the pub" I said. We dashed inside and ran up to the bar.
"Can you give us some water quickly?" I said to the barman.
"Wait your turn," he said.
We stood there waiting to be served while the car was on fire outside.
Eventually we managed to convince the barman that this was a bit more urgent than a Cinzano and Lemonade, and he filled up a couple of bowls of water for us. We dashed outside, slopping it everywhere, and threw it over the engine. To the amazement of the crowd that had now gathered the fire went out!
Rebuilding the engine took longer than I had planned.
The flat was constantly noisy not just as a result of riotous behaviour but because most of us were musicians trying to find time to practice. Steve and John had the most work to do because they were at music college. However, I also needed to rehearse three or four times a week to keep up my standard of play, as I had joined the City of London band shortly after settling in Bounds Green.
With Dinna, Steve, John all at college and me working shifts, there was nearly always someone around during the daytime. This made it tempting to try and skive off whatever you were doing to make sure you weren’t missing out on any fun or drinking sessions. You never knew when there might be a girl (or girls) there and one didn’t want to miss out on any chance of sexual adventure.
One day, Dinna and I were hanging around and were getting bored with the mild trick stuff. So we went all the way to the nearest proper shops to purchase a balloon. We returned to the flat and carefully inflated the balloon before squashing it behind the headboard on John's bed. We then sellotaped a line of drawing pins to a piece of string and placed it next to the balloon. We tied one end of the string to the bed leg and led the string to Dinna's bed.
We eagerly awaited John's arrival home and we all went to bed at roughly the same time. We'd all been in bed for five minutes before Dinna pulled the string. There was a loud bang and John's whole body rose six inches from the mattress.
When he had recovered he came over and tipped both me and Dinna out of bed. Despite this I was still laughing five minutes later.
I was quickly getting used to the new routine at work. I’d been promoted within a week after my Shift Leader had been caught stealing books and fired, so things were going well.
I’d started to get the hang of the various routines. The main skill involved making sure there were enough ‘scratch tapes’ of the right length before you started a job. The computer could only run one program at a time. Therefore at the start of the shift you loaded a program from paper-tape called, funnily enough, ‘Scratch’. Once this program was installed in memory, you could then load lots of previously used 2400ft tapes and write a scratch Johner to the header label, which indicated to other programs that the tape was eligible to be overwritten. At the end of this little session, it was all hands to the Isopropyl alcohol and we had to clean all the read/write heads on the tape drives with cotton buds.
You loaded each individual program from a ‘program tape’. The important thing was that halfway through most programs the computer would type a message on the Teletype saying ‘load a scratch tape’. You would then take off one of the reels that had been used initially and load the aforementioned scratch tape. The real problem came if you didn’t have a scratch tape to hand. You couldn’t simply load another old tape and write a scratch Johner to it because the computer could only run one program at a time. In these circumstances you had no choice but to abandon the program and start again. This could easily lose you an hour and get you into real trouble.
I quickly got the hang of optimising the tape management so that, on the evening shift, Alan and I could sneak out of work at 10:00 p.m., go dancing, and be back again by 2:00 a.m. to finish the work.
Although this was strictly forbidden it was minor hitch compared with Gary dropping a paper clip down the Teletype console. If he had left it, then it wouldn’t have been so bad. But he insisted on fishing it out with another straightened paper clip. This short-circuited the computer and threw him across the room with an electric shock. Thankfully he suffered no long-term effects, but the incident took some explaining to the Computer Engineer who had to fix it, let alone my boss.
Glenn had come round the flat and had brought his girlfriend because he had no place to stay where they could sleep together in privacy. They managed to achieve this by using the still unoccupied bottom flat. This worked well for a week before Mr Feltz brought some prospective tenants around unexpectedly early one day and found them fast asleep together as the visitors entered the main bedroom.
Dinna and I had enough of the childish pranks and decided to go for something more ingenious and worthy of our talents. It took two hours of careful preparation. First, we carefully taped around an egg with sellotape. Then we attached the egg to some strong cotton that we connected to a nail in the ceiling on the stairs. In this way, we had a sort of pendulum affair where the egg swung on a long arc down the stairs.
It took a lot of testing. We had to shorten the cotton so that the bottom of the egg’s arc would hit the top of someone’s head (you can guess who’s) coming up the stairs. The tripwire also had to be very carefully done so that the merest tug would pull the egg from its taped starting position on the ceiling halfway up the stairs. At last, everything was in place.
Dinna and I stayed in all evening in a state of high excitement. About eleven o’clock we heard a key in the door. We crept along the landing to see the action.
John had brought a friend called Mike home and invited him in. Unfortunately, John being the gentlemen that he was, indicated that Mike should go first.
The other unfortunate aspect of the incident was that Mike was about two inches taller than the rest of us. The egg hit Mike smack on the forehead. Dinna and I ran for it.
There were shouts of consternation from the stairwell and loads of swearing. Dinna and I sat in the lounge thinking that this might be a trick too far. Ironically, I think that what might have saved us from John completely losing his temper was that there was a guest present. Dinna and I were grovelling in our apologies, although if you looked closely you could see our fingers crossed behind our back. We helped Mike get cleaned up, all the while explaining that the egg was meant for one of us because we were always playing tricks on each other. Eventually we retired to our bedroom where we rolled around the floor with laughter.
It was nearly Christmas. Decorations were up and most of us planned to go back to our parents for the break but intended to be back at the flat for the New Years Eve parties.
At work preparations were in full swing for the traditional workers’ Xmas party in the main canteen. We watched the decorations go up and the beer barrels being rolled in.
That night I went along with all my other friends in case there was a chance I could get off with one of the girls from the office. We were about halfway through the evening when I noticed that an ambulance had pulled into the car park. Alan and I went to check it out.
Apparently, what had happened was that an ICL Computer Engineer had been called in by one of my colleagues on the evening shift, due to a fault with some of the hardware. The front door was open for the party but the hall was very dimly lit. The engineer had never been to our site before and had mistakenly turned right from the corridor and had fallen down some quite steep stairs.
He’d actually been knocked unconscious. About two minutes later, my boss - a great chap called Bill Smith – had come along dressed as Santa to give out the presents to the workers’ kids. He had turned the light on, spotted what had happened, and had called the ambulance.
I met the Engineer in question about two weeks later. He said it wasn’t so much the bang on the head that caused him the trouble, but more a case of a near heart attack brought on by being woken up from unconsciousness to find Father Christmas bending over him.
By now Dinna had virtually given up college to concentrate on playing tricks on John. When I was on evening shift we spent a lot of our spare time at Wood Green snooker hall. We were about the only English youngsters there as every one else appeared to be of Greek origin. We inevitably drank numerous pints of lager when we played and the standard deteriorated thought the session. We usually rounded off these sessions with a quick stop on the way home for chips before hurrying home to watch our black and white telly while dreaming up new pranks to play on John.
Me in my corner of the bedroom.
The following day I travelled home on the tube from work in a state of quiet, pleasurable anticipation. The sort that makes you smile in public and always causes people to return the smile in sympathy because they’re pleased that you’ve got a secret to smile about, or, more often, ensures that they give you a wide berth because they think you are an absolute nutter. I was eagerly looking forward to seeing Dinna. I knew that he’d skived off college again to hang around as usual but more importantly, he’d promised to come up with a John special. I couldn’t wait.
As soon as I got into the flat I demanded to know what the plan was. To his credit, he smiled slowly and said he might have something interesting – savouring the moment because he knew he had me hooked. I begged like a pathetic little kid, "What? What?"
He jumped off the sofa and walked over to the sideboard. He proudly indicated a battered, second-hand tape recorder. I looked at it and instantly went into possibility mode. Three point four seconds later I exclaimed ‘you’re going to make a big noise!’ He continued to look at me, with a smile that under other circumstances, would deserve a good slapping. He just let the moment hang in the air. I thought again. "You’re going to hide it somewhere!" "But a big noise isn’t that funny" I thought out loud.
His eyes held mine with that indefinable twinkle that comes only when the twinckler knows the pleasure that’s just about to appear around this particular street corner.
"We’re going to record ghost noises and play them when he’s in bed"
I peed my pants. Not literally you understand, but if I had you wouldn’t have noticed because I was writhing around on the floor anyway. As Dinna and I were so like-minded in our quest for an Olympic gold medal in practical joking, the whole thing had sprung into my imagination immediately. Words, suggestions, ideas, all came tumbling out in between the pauses while I wiped my eyes with a grubby hanky.
"We need some clanking chain noises," I said.
"And some heavy footsteps", said Dinna.
We spent the next 30 minutes refining the plan. I couldn’t wait to get started. Getting the sound of the clanking chains bit right was difficult. After numerous attempts at hitting water pipes with forks, fiddling with the toilet chain, and so on, we finally settled for coins in an empty baked beans can. I know, I know. It’s nothing like it but you don’t have rusty old ghost chains lying around in a flat in Bounds Green. Of course, the footsteps were much easier except that we had to make nine attempts before we got me on tape walking slowly and heavily up the stairs. All previous attempts failed when we looked at each other and dissolved in a fit of giggles.
We then had to pop across to the pub to start the tricky debate about the mechanics of the thing. We already knew we wouldn’t have time to put the plan into action that night so we took our time about deciding on the practical business of getting the tape to play at the right time. Quite what the regulars made of our whispered conversation I don’t know considering that we would break into guffaws of laughter every five minutes. Eventually we conceived a cunning plan.
We’d hide the tape recorder in the loft, positioning it over the ceiling directly above John’s bed. We’d connect it to an extension cable that would run through the loft access, down the stairs, and under the carpet to the socket next to my bed. I could therefore work the power and the final details were in place.
The rest of the evening passed in the usual aimless conversation, watching the telly, getting up to make beans on toast or some other haute cuisine. In those days drinking beer at home was virtually unheard of. It’s only in the last years of the twentieth century that people have begun to stack up with drinks from superJohnets and such like. It was a very rare event indeed when we drank in the flat. If we wanted a drink we went to the pub – simple.
John arrived home late as usual. We heard the key in the lock and the cautious tapping of his stick as he checked the stairs one at a time. We’d set no traps this night and we gave him smiles of innocence that would have done virtue to two choirboys when he walked through the lounge door.
"Wotcha mate, you look like you’ve seen a ghost", I said.
Dinna’s face muscles tightened and his lips formed a solid diagonal line.
I offered to make him a cup of coffee – an almost unheard of event. He eyed me suspiciously and wisely watched me make it. By now Steve and Dave knew what we were up to but they were sworn to secrecy of course.
"You look like you’re in good spirits mate," I observed innocently.
Dinna creased up.
The next day passed as usual with another boring day at work. I lugged boxes of stationery around and played elastic band fights. But throughout the whole day I felt this undercurrent of excitement that meant that no matter what happened I just couldn’t help being in a good mood.
I rushed home. We checked the tape and I went into the loft to rig it up. The agony of sitting in the flat from six o’clock until John came home was indescribable. I kept checking the clock and mentally counting down the hours to bedtime.
Eventually John came home. I think the lack of action on the previous evening had given him a new sense of confidence and he seemed quite laid back and chatty. I asked him what he’d been up to then finally I suggested it was time for my bedtime. Dinna followed soon.
I lay there for what seemed an eternity before John entered the room, and got ready for bed. Dinna and I had agreed that we would carefully time the action for between five and ten minutes after John had switched out the light. After five minutes I couldn’t stand it any longer and quietly pressed the switch down next to the three-pin plug.
Nothing happened for about ten seconds and I had just begun to think it had all gone horribly wrong when the first sound floated through the night.
"Ooooogh" it went.
I bit down hard on my sheet.
"Ooooogh" it went again.
I flipped the switch off.
John raised his head from his pillow.
"Hey lads, what was that?"
I pretended to groan sleepily as if he’d just woken me up.
"What’s what", I said.
"Did you hear something?" said John
"No", I said.
He peered around the semi-dark room and lay back down on the pillow.
After two minutes of crying into my pillow I had recovered sufficiently to press the switch on again. The clanking of the baked beans tin – I mean, the chains – wafted across the room. I could sense John stiffen in his bed. I stopped the switch straight away and tried desperately to control the shakes that had taken over my whole body. I was twitching with laughter and foaming at the mouth.
I switched the switch again and a ghostly falsetto voice (Dinna’s with a handkerchief over his mouth) echoed above the ceiling:
"John, you have done me wrong"
I clenched my jaws into the pillow and twitched uncontrollably.
John sat bolt upright in bed.
"Did you hear that?"
Dinna groaned sleepily and yawned.
"What?" he said. (This was lucky because I couldn’t talk).
"Somebody’s calling me," he said.
"Well I didn’t hear anything," replied Dinna.
"I did. There was definitely someone calling out," he said.
I got a grip on myself.
"How could anyone be calling at this time of the night?" I said.
Somewhat placated he took a last look around in the gloom and lay down again. I waited five whole minutes this time while I stopped dribbling into the mattress. They could have actually been the longest five minutes of my life. I flipped the switch.
"Oooogh" it started again.
John jumped out of bed like he’d been shot.
My fingernails were almost through the skin of my palms as I struggled to control myself. My pillow was wet through with tears of suppressed laughter. The whole bed shook. Dinna was similarly coping as best he could within his own private hell of repressed mirth. All I could see were spasmodic twitches from under his bed sheets.
In the meantime John had crossed the room and switched on the light.
"Something’s going on," he said.
He looked at both of us for some sort of response. We tried to sit up in bed keeping a straight face but it was a hopeless task. He looked at me and I fell out of bed, rolling around the floor as I thumped the carpet. Ten minutes of uncontrolled, pent-up laughter just erupted.
John had twigged by this time.
"You stupid pratts" he said, and got back into bed. It took me another hour before I’d calmed down enough to get to sleep myself.
I think this was peak of our tomfoolery. Although we carried on with the fun, I don’t think we ever put quite as much effort into another prank as we had done on this occasion.
The next night I arrived back at the flat and, over bacon sandwiches, asked Steve if there was anything planned that night. Apparently there was and we were all going to meet for a drink in the local Academy pub.
Dinna and I shot off down there later on in my Spitfire. Sometimes we took the tube when we went out at night; sometimes we took my car. The fact that I might drink and drive was irrelevant. It never crossed our minds that this was anything to be bothered about and I drunk just as much if I was driving as I normally would. We all did.
Arriving at the pub we had to immediately drink a couple of pints to get in the mood and then got down to the serious business of checking out the talent. After a couple of failures I managed to get talking to a small group of musos because I knew one or two of them vaguely. One of the girls was a trainee opera singer called M. I was keen to explore the possibilities of playing tenor to her soprano, especially below the stave.
She was amazingly upper class and spoke with an accent that made the Queen sound like she was playing the lead in Eastenders. But I thought she was great, and, as they say, opposites attract, and we got on really well. There’s always that indefinable moment of ecstasy when you know (don’t ask me how, you just know) that you’re going to do it, and I could see the possibilities of this new relationship going into extra time. I ditched the lads without hesitation and escorted her to my prized motor. I could tell that this wasn't the mode of transport she was used to. She’d tentatively agreed to my offer of ‘coffee at my place’ – which was lucky because she hadn’t seen the flat and I couldn’t really make coffee.
I knew that if I could get a head start on the lads I could test her arpeggios before the buggers got back. They’d have to take the tube and I had also conveniently forgotten to tell them that I was going home, so it would be at least an hour before I would be missed.
We arrived back at Bounds Green at I led her up the path to the front door.
"What’s that?" she said, eyeing the stick by the front door. (This was John’s ‘testing’ stick that he used for detecting booby traps on the stairs).
"Oh, nothing" I innocently replied.
I brewed a cup of my famous coffee and urged her to drink it fast as possible. On these occasions you always had one eye on the clock and desperately wanted to consummate the relationship before the return of the lads. Even if they left you alone in the bedroom it was impossible to concentrate if they were yelling and noisy (which they always were after a night on the ale). Anyway, we managed to do what one does at that age in record time and we were sitting there trying to look all innocent (well, she was) when the gang returned.
I took her home and promised to meet her again that weekend at her place. We got on well together in a sort of - me taking the mickey out of her upbringing but fancying her like hell - sort of way. I saw her quite a few times over the next few weeks although my loyalty was severely tested when I took her to our grotty local and she embarrassed me by asking for a pink gin.
The following week Dinna and I had spent a happy hour creating an ‘effigy’ of John in the bedroom. This artistic creation involved dressing John’s music stand in all his clothes, and standing it on his bed. The skill lay in making it look as realistic as possible so that at first glance it really did seem as if he was standing on the bed himself.
John arrived early and, once he’d checked out the landing carefully for traps, came across our ingenious arrangement in the bedroom. We waited nonchanantly in the lounge, and when he walked in calling us effing idiots, we just shrugged our shoulders in a regular guys sort of way. However, John wasn’t expecting the double whammy and it wasn’t till he was about to take his first mouthful of coffee that he smelled the gravy granules….
The following week the lads and I were out on the town again. We’d been invited to a muso party somewhere in South London. We went on the tube this time and the party was in full swing by the time we got there. It was the usual drinking binge and attempt (unsuccessful this time) to get off with an available woman. We were all paralytic on the way back. Dave was sick, and, not wanting to puke all over the carriage, he was sick out of the window. The only problem was that the wind took the sick in the slipstream and smeared 24-carat vomit over the whole of the outside of the tube carriage window.
The next night Dinna and were bored so, after Steve and Dave had gone to bed, we piled up all the furniture in the flat against the lounge door so John couldn’t get to the kitchen.
After a few months we had to talk to Mr Feltz about the renewal of the lease. Steve and I volunteered for this task as we'd been the original lease-holders. Actually, because Mr Feltz had invited us around to his house, we fancied the chance to be nosey.
We arrived at his house in Golders Green and Mr Feltz greeted us warmly at the door.
"Hello boyyyyyyyys" he said. "How nice of you to cooooome". "Let me introduce you to my motherrrrrrrrrrrrrr"
An elderly lady appeared in the hallway.
"Hello boyyyyyyyys" she said.
I stifled a giggle and felt Steve do the same.
He took us through to the office and we could tell we were in the right place by the patched wallpaper and the fact that the tea towels had darned holes in them. His mother managed to make us a nice cup of tea even though she was about three hundred years old. Mr Feltz was dressed in exactly the same clothes as he always wore. I think he must have slept in the same shiny suit. We concluded our business satisfactorily and he offered us a ride home in his chauffeured Morris. We were both highly amused to find ourselves the centre of attention as we drove through north London with people peering at us every time we stopped at the lights.
John did something that even I had to admit was very silly. He announced to us all that he was bringing a new girlfriend home the following night. Nothing wrong with that you may say. But then he added that she was a vicar’s daughter. To Dinna and I this was not so much a red rag to a bull, more like a red rag sprayed with lady cow perfume. Our eyes met across the room and that familiar prankster smile played at the corners of our mouths.
We all stayed in the following night so as we could meet the girlfriend. She was great. A perfect lady in fact, despite being only nineteen years old. John was obviously desperate to shag her before Dinna and I went to bed, so he made the excuses and off they went. (We had an unwritten law that anyone who had a woman to stay got a thirty-minute head start before the rest of us went to bed).
"What do you think? About 5 minutes?" said Dinna.
"I reckon about that" I replied.
We hadn’t told Dave and Steve what we’d been up to, wanting to keep the secret to ourselves. It was about four minutes before there was a scream from the bathroom. Dinna and I looked at each other with a nonchalant smile. We were old pros at this by now.
"What the bloody hell was that?" said Dave.
I explained that it was probably something to do with the condom that we had carefully rolled up inside the cold tap so that once the tap was switched on it would fill up with water, unroll, and swirl into the basin.
Back at work we were playing football in the Computer Room. This went well until we smashed a window. Fortunately, it was low down and we were able to explain it away as an accident with the trolley.
It was much better the following week when our ‘tail’ game reached its climax.
For some weeks now, we’d been tearing off three-foot long strips of paper-tape and attached them to people’s backs by means of a sticky paper-tape splicing patch. The required technique was to lean over someone’s shoulder and pretend to steady yourself by putting your hand on their back momentarily. If you were quick the unfortunate victim didn’t realise that you had stuck the paper-tape ‘tail’ on them and they could often walk around the general office for some minutes before they realised that it was very unusual for everyone they met to be smiling at them. There was something about the tail that made them look particularly foolish – a bit like a monkey really.
I got my fair dose of this too but then suggested that the top Johns of all time for bravado and reckless daring would be to see if someone could ‘tail’ the Head of Programming, a chap we called Snowy (on account of his dandruff). After a week or so of near misses Gary finally managed to tag him. This would have been hilarious enough in the first place but the sight of him walking up the stairs and meeting his boss on the landing with his tail between his legs will remain one of my most treasured memories.
Back at the flat, the treasured era of Dinna being part of the crowd was coming to an end. Sadly, his father had died and he had little choice but to move back to Harborough to sort things out at home. I was sorry to see him go, as he was my best friend from school. Worse still, the practical jokes on John couldn’t continue because it just wouldn’t be the same without both of us there to share the laughter. We played one last trick of putting marmalade on the front door handle as a token gesture of some great times gone by.
A trumpet player called Ken was a frequent guest around the flat, and it was only a week or so before we invited him to stay permanently in Dinna’s place. So this was the first change to our original crowd, but the only permanent one for the two years that we lived in Bounds Green.
After four months I decided I really had to change my bed sheets and pillowcases. I didn’t have a spare set so I had to make an excursion to the Launderette. I had avoided this totally new and alien experience so far by washing my underwear in the sink. But I couldn’t hold out forever.
Steve told me where the Launderette was and off I went. When I got there I asked a woman who was sitting on the bench what to do. She told me to put the washing powder in the top drawer and then put my fifty pence in the money slot. I explained that I didn’t have any washing powder.
She took pity on me and gave me some of hers. I sat there and watched my things go round for an hour (I’d brought everything while I was at it). When the cycle finished the nice lady showed me how to unload the machine and put everything in the tumble dryer where I apparently needed a twenty pence to make this work for fifteen minutes. While she was helping me she asked if I’d meant to dye all my clothes pink.
After two years we decided to move out of Bounds Green. I think the main reason was that we fancied having our own rooms so that we could shag in private. Steve moved back to Leicester but Dave, Ken and I stuck together and moved into a new house in North Wembley. John moved into another flat a couple of miles down the road (I wonder why).
More of this in a future episode………