Gene Denham was from Huddersfield, hometown of pipe-puffin’ two-time PM, Harold Wilson. There is no doubt though, that in the age of aspiration, he was most definitely more Grocer’s Daughter than Chemist’s Son. Over the course of the three years I knew him, he slowly morphed into the bastard lovechild of Bono and Michael Jackson, circa Bad. It was the high-maintenance gelled mullet that sealed the deal, complemented by tight jeans, studded belt and fur-trimmed cowboy boots. He also liked to roll up the sleeves of his jackets, Miami Vice style and he wore chunky bracelets and a single twinkly stud in his ear. Indeed he had a thing about jackets, because his calling-card carried an image of a powder blue blouson. Classy. He had a slow almost methodical manner to him, as if great things were going on beneath his over-pampered barnet, but then he opened his mouth and his flat Yorkshire vowels suggested otherwise. It was a slow effortless barely audible drawl which stated ‘Hey, I’m good enough to eat so I really don’t have to try too hard’. High Peak meets High Plains Drifter. But he got away with it because you felt he knew it was all a bit of a joke and a friendly twinkle and a bit of a wink showed the real Gene, beneath the gel and the shoulderpads. I was pretty friendly with him to begin with and we even went to Wembley together for the 1983 Cup Final replay, but as the mullet got longer and the lofty pretensions more pronounced, we drifted apart. He was that rare species, a student with a car, possibly something flash and whilst I don’t recall ever seeing it, he was forever jangling his keys. And I don’t remember him living in Manchester so maybe he was crossing the Pennines every night to get home. There was most certainly an air of mystery and intrigue to him, a whiff of mid-eighties illusion and pretence compounded by liberal usage of hair-gel and aftershave. We didn’t see a lot of him in the third year. Rumour had it that he had a loft apartment and a girlfriend in Brookside who was angling to get him the part of Jimmy Corkhill’s dealer. There was talk of a recording contract and that Pete Waterman wanted him to front a Yorkshire version of Bon Jovi. He had gone to London to try and make it as a model. He was Michelle Fowler’s northern love interest in the newly-launched Eastenders. He was going to be Brian Tilsley’s younger brother in Coronation Street. He’d been flown to Kitzbuhl to be an extra in Wham’s Last Christmas video. One thing for sure, Gene wasn’t going to be rubbing Letraset or cracking open pots of cow gum for a living. No chance.
There was a beguiling plethora of late night drinking-holes in 1983 Manchester, catering for sixty thousand students, goths, heavy rockers, bikers and punks. My favourite of them all was Placemate Seven. Just the name iteslf was so promising. It was the home of future Radio One DJ, ‘Ooh’ Gary Davies and with the gelled mullet at its zenith, a popular haunt of the likes of Gene Denham. One fine spring evening I entered in the company of two more experienced pros, Mad Dog and Monsieur Le Shark. One in tight groovy daffodil-coloured pants, the other in Morrison-style leather trousers – though the effect was more supermarket than Riders of the Storm. The magic of Placemates was its individual compartments, seven different rooms, some played Level 42, others reggae, disco or new romantic. You could flit effortlessly from one to the other. Nurses, checkout girls, employees straight from the Goblin pie production line, all looked happy. They came from faraway places with funny names; Davyhulme, Urmston, Beswick, Crumpsall, Sale and Wythenshawe. All dancing their sorrows away on a Saturday night. Le Shark bobbed and smooched his way across the dancefloor and I met Andrea from Ardwick. Our half-date was brutally cut short on the way to the local chippy when she uttered the immortal words ‘Sorry, your hands are too small’. This rejection, though painful at the time failed to dampen my ardour. Le Shark escorted Heather from Harpurhey home and I was left to rue the gargantuan near-miss with young Andrea. Truth be told, despite having as much bluster and chat as Montgomery Clift, my conversion rate with the ladies was on a par with Garry Birtles at Man Utd. My only two ever serious girlfriends were from Uttoxeter and Hereford Covent Schools for Girls respectively. Yes, I could use an Alan Sillitoe line – ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’, quote John Updike, Brendan Behan or even sing John Lennon’s Working Class Hero – but the truth was my hands were as soft as a baby’s bum. So whilst Gustav took his iced cakes and working girls upstairs and Le Shark paraded Heather around the faintly sinister 25 Albany Road house whilst Mad Dog sat downstairs watching Mean Streets for the 85th time, I stared blankly at the poem on my bedroom wall by Rudyard Kipling – ‘If’. Step forward then, the sage of Longsight, former Man City youth player and horse racing aficionado, ‘Big Al’ Robinson. ‘Shake my hand, Socrates’ he said. ‘Remember, a friend will always look you in the eye, an enemy at your shoes’. Boy, his hands were coarse. He cleaned trains for a living, though I later learned that just like Magnier and J P McManus at the Coolmore stud, he made more from professional gambling. ‘Don’t brag or be too flash, son and get a manual job’. So I started collecting empty beer pots in Saturdays nightclub and when Janice wasn’t looking would help myself to extra helpings of delicious but gritty mince chilli con carne. I even offered to do the washing up after the traditional Sunday fry-up. Within weeks of my girlfriend Libby having won a Gillette scholarship to study and work in Boston, Massachusetts, I nonchalently asked Claire from Whalley Range who worked in Woolworths for a date. Remembering Big Al’s sound advice I took her to a play at the Library Theatre, Decadence by Steve Berkoff. We then went for a pint in a local pub. Libby was a changed woman on her return from the States and we drifted apart. Claire and I enjoyed a wonderful relationship. The fact that I moved out of the house of horror and back into digs where female company in the bedrooms was forbidden only improved the whole thing. Like most working class girls, Claire lived at home with Mum and Dad, so furtive high-risk clinches and derring-do was woven into the fabric of our life. It really did not do us any harm at all. More than twenty years later whilst living in Wembley, I swear I saw Andrea from Ardwick again. She was lined up outside Wembley Arena with a Gary Barlow lookalike. I could not see his hands but like everyone else that night, she looked really happy and at one with the world.
In June 1996 an IRA bomb wrecked the central commercial area of Manchester and almost destroyed the Irish peace process. What not many people know is that ten years prior to this there was a bomb attack of a different kind on Deansgate. The weapon of choice on this occasion were little glass phials filled with bright yellow liquid, known to Fantasy Bob and readers of The Beano as a stink bomb. And when you keep them kicking around for six or seven years to ‘mature’, the effect can be truly devastating. A powerful defence against capitalist abuse, no less. A well known expensive knitwear shop in a prominent location between Deansgate and St Ann’s Square had commissioned us to design a leaflet. There was no written contract, but as was the usual practice, the project was accepted in the good faith that the work would be remunerated. In later years it became commonplace for designers to enter into an unpaid ‘pitch’ for business. Three or four parties would speculatively put foward ideas, in the hope of being selected to do the project ‘proper’. We were never aficionados of this way of working which completely devalues the profession. Imagine saying to Tesco ‘No, I want to eat your buns but I won’t pay for them until I’ve sampled some from Asda and Morrisons before making a decision’. We weren’t fools, we would take the brief, submit our ideas and expect to be paid for our time and expertees. Whether the client chooses to use them or not is their business. Well, we presented the designs to this lot and they were all smiles and told us how great we were. Then presumably the bright spark that we’d dealt with went upstairs and a different story emerged. When we sent in our invoice and failed to get a response there followed some awkward phonecalls. The gist was ‘there appears to be a misunderstanding’. We went through all the proper channels to seek redress including letters to the big boss. A sniffy missive from their solicitor signalled the end of the matter. Or was it? On a very busy Saturday at about 3pm, two fully-primed softlads, freshly-permed and resplendent in Adidas, walked nonchalently into the shop and launched the first bombs. We watched from across the road as customers spilled out of it and onto the pavement. Among them, holding her nose in disgust, Ron Atkinson’s wife, expensively attired and all the way from Wilmslow with a new hairdo. Rotarian ladies from Marple on a mission to kit themselves out for the Conservative Club Fundraising Ball stumbled into the street looking confused and bewildered. Other customers dropped their Prada bags in order to clamp bejewelled hands upon faces and protect themselves from the malignant odour emanating from the fine knits and cashmere. It was as if Kelloggs, Goblin Pies and Scottish and Newcastle Breweries had all momentarily relocated their processing plants to St Ann’s Square, such was the stomach-churning sulphurous stench coming from these perfectly matured mini-missiles. The not-so-happy shoppers shook their heads in disbelief at what was happening and sought refuge and the opportunity to flex their purchasing power in one of the many rather more sweetly-perfumed neighbouring boutiques. An hour later, when it would appear that everything had returned to normal, as if by a miracle of coincidence, the same thing happened again. From our vantage point across the road we took great pleasure in watching the manager, hands-on-hips, staring into the middle distance wondering how often this incident was likely to recur – or perhaps what he’d done to deserve it. I never saw who the second set of bombers were, though apparently one was a chinese man and the other was clutching a copy of the Beano.
The giant Makro ‘cash and carry’ food and grocery wholesaler was the source of my sustinence at that time on two levels. As the main supplier of the larder at St Clements Road, this was the well from which all the frozen chips, pizza, strawberry mousses and potato croquettes were sprung. How odd then to arrive in Gravyland for my first job and find myself working on their advertising broadsheet. You still get these today, shoved inside the free local newspaper and outlining the special deals and bargains that the supermarkets or local convenience store have going on. Three bottles of Lenor for the price of two, tins of Fray Bentos ‘this week only a pound’, 24 under-size packets of cheeslets for 75p. Whenever I see one of them I am immediately transported to my dreary gravy days in Ardwick. Maybe this one – they called it a catalogue, was a bit more substantial, but it was a dismal task. My job was to draw out a sketch positioning bottles, cartons and products on the page. Tracing these from previous editions, using a grant enlarger to vary the scale. The highlight and only outlet for any creativity would be doing the occasional advertising ‘flash’ – something like ‘six family-size bottles of Vimto for the price of four’ or ‘amazing Goblin offer’, in which case I could maybe choose a stand-out typeface or set it in a little coloured box. How riveting. Someone else would then go and photograph all these items and another person would lay out the final artwork. It was probably done once a fortnight. Back in Ardwick, a misery-guts in furry boots called Christine looked after this account. She was extremely frustrated to be still stuck in Gravyland after training in London and was determined to drag me down into her cesspit of thwarted ambition and despair. My failure to be entirely enthusiastic was noted. Things came to a head when the all-powerful client contact ‘Suefrommakro’ (all one word), witnessed me nonchalently walking out of the office bang on five o’clock. There may vaguely have been a plan to brief us about something but the two of them had been standing round gossiping for half an hour and Furry could pass on whatever dull instruction or tedious new initiative Makro Sue had in mind the next day. I was going home. No one told me there was any kind of deadline or urgency. I should of course have played the loyal eager-to-please dedicated young employee and just assumed it. I hadn’t quite grasped that in the brave new world of The Grocer’s Daughter, these mediocre mid-ranking nonentities held so much sway. It was a few days later that The Cowboy made his ‘mutuallly incompatible’ speech and showed me the exit. Furryboots confided that ‘Suefrommakro’ hadn’t been impressed by my casual attitude to her precious account. If only I’d got Brenda Dean or Arthur Scargill on the case, but this was 1985 and the printers were getting hammered in Wapping, the miners were on the slide and there were riots in Tottenham. What hope for a humble pie-tracer?
I’d only been in Manchester a couple of months when Janice told me that The Gibb Brothers, Maurice, Barry and Robin were visiting their old Chorlton-cum-Hardy stamping ground and specifically the Oswald Road Primary School that her three children attended. It never dawned on me where they were from, but right enough, their accents were as thick as Len Fairclough’s and they came back on numerous occasions to the place where they honed their unique and special talent. Apparently they’d lived in Keppel Road, right next to Albany Road, no less and as little boys performed regularly at the old cinema next to the snooker club behind Safeway on Barlow Moor Road. Gustav’s Polski cake-sklep was just round the corner and it is easy to imagine the budding master-baker slipping down Keppel Road on his way home with a tray of cakes. He might even have been ambushed en route by the young Gibbs, keen to relieve him of his cream horns and vanilla slices. Seemingly the boys were getting into a few scrapes and although Harold Macmillan was telling everybody they’d never had it so good, Mum and Dad weren’t too keen on the climate. When baby Andy came along they wisely jumped ship to Australia, though not so sensibly heading for mosquito-infested Brisbane. All that scratching drove them back to the UK and on the road to shifting several hundred million records. Along the way, one of them married a girl I went to school with. Kilskeery is a tiny village on the Fermanagh/Tyrone border, two rows of houses and a church. The future Mrs Robin Gibb was brought up in one of them and once a car pulled over when Mum was walking up the road. The window wound down and she had a chat with a Bee Gee. In fact all the ladies in the Mothers Union were once piled onto a coach and sent to Dublin to watch them perform. Back to Manchester in the mid-eighties, Keppel Road was teeming with student life. I briefly had a girlfriend who lived there, quite possibly in the house where the young Gibbs practised their harmonies. One fateful Friday I went off to London to watch football but came back to hear reports that she’d been seen canoodling with another in The Royal Oak. Tragedy. When the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on, its tragedy. When the morning cries and you don’t know why, its hard to bear, with no-one to love you, you’re going nowhere.
Mervyn was a magnificent bronze 50cc moped which I bought for seventy quid from a man in Stretford. He was immediately designated our official company vehicle. They say never go into business with your best mate – so I did and although my partner insisted we didnt need a new company BMW (this was 1986 and all The Grocer’s Daughter’s thrusting young entrepreneurs needed a status symbol to go with their blue champagne and self-help books). But no, the accounts of Spiffing Images Design were managed with an iron yet prudent grip, not seen since rationing in 1945. We turned a small profit each quarter, paid minimal tax thirty years ahead of Amazon and Starbucks. In November 1990 The Grocer’s Daughter was ousted and I honestly believe that the grey accountant, John Major borrowed our economic model when he rode to power. What was it about Mervyn that made him so special? Flash, unreliable and with a healthy thirst despite his modest cc engine, he was more Best or Marsh than Barry or Batty. Moody, temperamental, yet as loyal as a stormtrooper in the desert. When we broke down, I simply didn’t care. One hot summer day in the Pat Cash summer of 1987, I had a business rendezvous near Piccadilly Station and Mervyn decided to have a rest. We trundled off to Cafe Yaqib where a young Osama Bin Laden was rumoured to bake the unleavened naan bread for a magnificent fifty pence kebab roll. No fuss as the three of us walked the three miles home to the Moss in warm sunshine, as happy as sandboys. Yet it was the smell of Merv that I remember most. Giddy, my girlfriend at the time would jump on the back and be whisked down Whitworth Street. I always pulled up at the nearby petrol station to refuel and the aroma of gasoline was glorious. I made a big deal of these pit stops before whisking Giddy into her morning lecture at the Uni, the smell of petrol perforating my mind. However the troublesome back suspension continued to hamper our relationship. One afternoon without any prior thought or strategy, I simply marched Mervyn without ceremony into the desolate and cavernous bombsite that was Hulme and dumped him. Mistakenly, I thought I could claim some insurance money. I never did and my disloyalty to my fellow traveller was to dog me for many years to come. Fast forward some eight years to a wonderful summer garden party in Colliers Wood, south London. I was about to get off with a stunning girl called Julie and whisk her back up the High Street to my pad in Tooting when Mervyn the Moped’s tale of woe was recounted by a misguided third party. Julie, having checked the facts that I had indeed dumped my beloved vehicle, walked off in disgust. A salutary lesson for us all.
Daffy Darlington from Moston slipped into my pot-collecting world and became a great pal for a year or two. It was his expansive lustrous, dark mulleted mane that caused him to acquire his moniker. This was only revealed to me quite far down the line into your acquaintance but I could see immediately how perfectly it suited him. Indeed he did in fact have a bit of a mallard-like waddle which was accentuated when he was wearing his penguin-style potman get-up. He was a few years older than me but a lot more worldly-wise and he never let anyone or anything get him down. It all just rolled off him – like water off a duck’s back in fact. He knew what was important in life and what really didn’t matter. Its hard to imagine him charging round a sweaty nightclub lifting empty glasses but I suppose he must’ve done. I can’t remember if he had a day job – possibly not. He’d come back to Manchester after studying at Keele and working in London for a while – something to do with horses. It was his cheerful easy-going good-humoured nature that attracted me. He always had a smile on his face and was a real joy to be around. He loved going to gay pubs and organised a Sunday night drink in the Thompsons Arms. No surprise then that he suggested the island of Mykonos as a holiday destination. I think he knew it would be full of colourful characters and he was right. These two weeks were the highlight of our friendship. We had a blast, leading a riotous nocturnal existence, meeting a cast of exotic chancers from every corner of the globe and rarely getting to bed before daybreak. He drove me down to London once and we had a manic weekend hanging about with some of his old pals and doing the rounds of his haunts. He disappeared like he came and just sort of gently melted away. But it seemed perfectly natural, a few more years hanging around with Daffy might have had serious long-term health implications but it sure was fun while it lasted.