Having a name that can be confused with something which sounds very similar does have its advantages. Spiffing Images Design was regularly mistaken for Spitting Image, a very popular eighties satirical puppet show. In fact around 1987 the programme was at the peak of its powers, beloved by people from all kinds of backgrounds, hip and razor-sharp in its wit, with a number one hit record to boot. I’m not quite sure how but we ended up on a mailing list and were invited to a Manchester United Executive Suite Open Day. The brains of the Old Trafford marketing department were clearly under the impression that we were the producers of cutting-edge TV comedy. Funny that it never occured to them why we might be based in a two-up-two down next to Moss Side Bus Garage. In those distant pre-David Gill days the club was still fairly low-rent and hadn’t worked out the best way of fleecing its vast army of devotees. The souvenir shop was basically a wooden shack and Louis Edwards’ idea of a marketing opportunity was parcelling up a bit of sirloin and slipping it under the counter, thank you very much, Missus. But times were a-changing and by the later part of the decade the Thatcher effect saw a bit of money starting to trickle up north. Not that Choccy McClair and the current crop of players were exactly setting the world on fire, but suddenly it seemed like those Executive Boxes all along the top tier of the stadium were worth milking. At four grand a pop, not a bad way to impress your clients and drum up a bit of repeat business. These were the fledgling days of corporate hospitality aimed at what Roy Keane later famously derided as the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’. So, on a very warm July afternoon we set out for Old Trafford. ‘Come and have a look, try out the facilities and sign-up for next season!’ We certainly weren’t complaining about the confusion and naturally went along mob-handed. Commie Ken was our Far East Logistics Manager, tasked with ensuring we got the best chinese deals on importing the latex used to make the puppets with. Boris Becker was our European frontman, power-broking with fledgling satellite TV channels across the Rhineland. Mad Dog came up the Chester Road on his bike after putting in a night-shift at Goblin Pies. Coated in sweat and up to his elbows till midday in Louis’ off-cuts, he didn’t smell that good – but if you’re a creative genius in charge of puppet production you can get away with that sort of thing. What a day, fired up by a few lunchtime pints in the Dog and Partridge we were plied with cheap bubbly, supermarket seafood and plates of processed cheese. We kicked back on the red velvet recliners and gazed out at the hallowed turf. It was actually being re-seeded at the time and resembled a paddy-field. A Gill-wannabe eyed Ken enviously, he could clearly see him as the man to sell truckloads of replica shirts in Asia. But for all that, United were still light years away from the slick money-making global beast that they’ve become today and the cheddar cheese and Piat d’Or on offer was never going to get us to part with 4k. Socrates’ Dad had trained him well and he already had a nose for a decent vintage. Even if we had any money in the bank and wanted to show Roadrider a good time we wouldn’t be wasting it on that. Come on, it only cost £2.50 to get on the United Road Paddock in those days. But you couldn’t blame them for trying and they even rustled up a few second-string players to stand around and try and impress us. One was slumped at the bar nursing his lager and looking bored. He nodded at Boris, ‘Any good fanny in tonight, pal?’ Our man on the Rhine counselled him that such a misogynistic attitude would have no place in the game of the future and if he wanted a place on the Sky sofa in years to come he would do well to mend his ways and adopt a more progressive countenance.
Until I came to Manchester I hadn’t really visited a shopping centre. My retail experience was limited to the Thursday market in Enniskillen. Woolworths and an imaginatively-titled rival across the road called Wellworths were about the biggest shops I’d ever been in until I landed up on Market Street and feasted my eyes on the early seventies monster that straddled about seven acres of bomb-site between Victoria Station, Oldham Street and Deansgate – the biege monolith that dominated downtown Manchester, The Arndale Centre. One of the biggest shopping centres in Europe, it fascinated and repelled me in equal measure. I loved the story that in 1974, Man Utd and Glasgow Rangers hooligans fought a pitched battle before their ‘friendly’ using material from the under-construction site, presumably clunking each other over the head with the bile-coloured cladding tiles. I had some great moments in there, slacking off college to go record-hunting, looking at the girls choosing their gear for a night at Rotters or chasing Georgie Best’s autograph in WHSmith, but I would never care to enter its dreary malls again. It just bestrode the city centre in a mean brutalist way, the planning of which now seems quite inconceivable. Much of the exterior was swathed in huge sand-coloured concrete tiles giving the impression of an enormous public toilet. It was opened officially by Princess Anne in 1979 when the Mayor of Manchester apparently remarked ‘I didn’t think it would look like that when I saw the balsa wood models’. It even had a huge seemingly pointless tower, presumably where the management perched themselves. But the whole business of escalators, winking Christmas lights, sports shops selling cheap trainers and every football shirt under the sun, the meat and veg and cheap jewellery and tat in the basement all fascinated me. So did the punters – bored housewives, alcoholics, gangs of predatory moustached teenagers, they were all in there, an escape from the rain, a chance to jump on the early eighties consumer gravy train and live the Viv Nicholson dream. Sprend, spend, spend, everybody. Littlewoods, British Home Stores, HMV, Top Man…there was even a covered footbridge to a glittering Marks & Spencers where we once followed Martin Platt from Coronation Street to see what he was cooking for his tea. It was hot and stuffy with a succession of dead-end malls all bathed in artificial half-light and there was the constant threat of abuse or worse from the roving gangs of casually-attired softlads and lasses. I was once spat on by a drunk whose phlegm unknowingly hung to the back of my jacket until I got home. Attached to one side of it was a bus-station which doubled as a mugger’s paradise and served grim northern satellites to where thankfully I never needed to venture. I probably bought clothes for the first time there, most certainly a watch and a few records. But even then I wasn’t really a proper consumer and soon discovered second-hand and the more leftfield joys of Affleck’s Palace. It seemed ironic that after all my visits to Wellworths, when a security man at the door would rifle through my schoolbag in case I was carrying a bomb, that the Irish troubles caught up with the Arndale in June 1996. The footbridge was destroyed but amazingly the main shopping centre wasn’t so badly damaged. Still it was a good excuse to give it all a major overhaul.
Jester Jane arrived as she departed in a tornadoesque flurry of frisson and anticipation. She was that rare thing amongst the human species, being gifted with spontaneity and a substantial element of danger. We had decided to liven-up our humdrum Chorlton existence with subsidised parachuting. As soon as our instructor Mr Joe Diamond called us a couple of feckless bloody students, we were determined to become the finest paras since Monty Woodbridge of SOE dropped into Crete in 1941. There, on a Shropshire airfield in a corner of middle England, we met Jester Jane. I cannot see her doing any of the training drills now, she seemed to transcend all that. Instead it was her fire-engine red Peugeot 209 GTI with go-faster stripes that caught my eye. ‘Jump in boys, gotta go to Mold first, then Stone’. Roaring down those narrow country lanes with such carefree élan gripped us both inside. Oh it felt so good. Suddenly I realised why philosophers and theologians spend so much time on mortality and why-are-we-here conundrums. It was a rush, a fearless sense of liberty. Jane was going out with an international rower called Richard Fox at the time, but there were clouds on the horizon. ‘Just dashing into the house’ said Jester. Some minutes later she returned ashen-faced. ‘Look at this postcard from that tart to Richard. What is she up to?’ It was from a young attractive tennis player called Annabel Croft. Jester looked perturbed. Seconds later we were hurtling round hairpin bends and slaloming our way through Wem. We were slaves to the rhythm of Grace Jones.‘Pull up to the bumper baby’. After a delicious ploughman’s and pint of Shropshire ale we were back in the motor.’My Jamaican guy, oh oh oh’ blasted out of the boom-back speakers and frozen in a nano-second of time, a joyful cocktail of adrenaline and pure unadulterated happiness coarsed through my veins. It didn’t last. Chrissy-Boy Rowlands joined us in two successful jumps. Out of the blue, there was Shropshire sunshine and a post-para celebration at his Dad’s pub in Rosset that is still the talk of North Wales. Will we ever see Jester Jane again? Glorious student days inevitably came to an end and we all moved into Mad Dog’s twelve grand Moss Side terrace house. A year later we threw a party. Jester had a cool girlfriend, Susan. She had dark hair, beautiful shimmering green eyes and a white BMW 323i. She was a jeweller and the epitome of style. I fancied her from afar. I’d only met her briefly but knew she was way out of my league. Then Saturday came. Fired up on Thunderbird wine and kebabs from Mustafa of Moss Side I was in the mood for anything. Just before midnight, like maniacal pirates,in burst Jester Jane and her friend. They were on fire and electricity fizzed through the tiny terraced house illuminating the cavernous Moss Side bus garage next door. Commie Ken, formally known in the People’s Democratic Republic of China as Mr Shunghua-Xia had been a little edgy all evening and eyed them both suspiciously. The vigilant Mad Dog patrolled his property and followed them into the kitchen for questioning. Not long after there were squeals of astonishment from upstairs. While most guests were quaffing, Jester and friend had trashed the bathroom, spraying shaving foam all over the mirror and walls. Their message expressed their undying love, unbelievably for me. Ken was the first to react. Three days earlier he had been badly stung when after a knock on the door, he naively let in a slimey TV license officer who promptly handed out a £400 penalty. Commie Ken was über-defensive. Mad Dog had been informed of the attack and as the lights came on, Ken announced to a baffled and bemused throng of revellers ‘This is a respectable household. Vandalism is not acceptable’. The room fell silent. Jester and Susan slipped out through a back ally and revved up the car. Before they raced off she threw open the door and furiously beckoned myself and The Kid. Everything froze. For a moment we contemplated joining them and disappearing into the Moss Side night but Jester sensed our hesitation and the door closed. With a furious squeal of brakes they were gone forever and the path to a lifetime of conformity and convention beckoned. In all my life I have never witnessed such a getaway.