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Or How I Found These Two Albums For A Quid Each.

Place of my Own.

Until I was seven years old I lived in a rented cottage on what was still then the great North Road, but was soon to become the A1. The two up two down cottage had a small back garden, an outside toilet, no indoor plumbing and so much rising damp that the place had its own micro-climate. This situation persisted until my sister was born and we got enough points on the ranking system to qualify for a brand-new house on a newly built council estate.


The first time we went and stared at our new house; Mum, Dad, me, baby brother in pushchair, baby sister in pram, dog on her lead, there were children playing in what was going to be our garden. Footprints in muddy furrows. Fleeting laughter among the debris that the builders had dumped on what would become our garden. I stood and watched them and they took no notice back. Boisterous strangers building an impromptu camp from box wood and discarded cement bags. In a matter of months those boys would be my best friends.


Spring Grove. London Brick Company clay red bricks. Brand new sheds and coal sheds out the back (which we called the barn and the coal barn.) Shiny television aerials, silvery white against the sky. Newly planted waist high hedges. Brand new lamp posts. A strip of freshly laid turf running up each side, separating pavement from road. Saplings staked and tied at regular intervals. Front doors painted in strictly rotated council regulated colours. Red yellow green blue red yellow green blue. Eight houses up one side. Four across the top and eight down the other side. Four bungalows at the bottom end, allocated to old age pensioners. We were offered number twelve, last in the row that ran across the top. Blue front door with frosted glass. Big side garden in our cul-de-sac corner, the largest garden plot in the street. Lucky us with the fertility count and the council lottery points. The last house completed and the last one occupied. Curtains up in every other front room window but ours. Blurred movement in hallways. And boys playing in my rubble.


I remember that early Spring day in 1962 very clearly, but I have no memory of an old life being dismantled or of a new one taking shape.  One minute I lived in a small damp cottage on a main road, the next I lived in a brand-new three up three down council house with a pantry and indoor plumbing. I don’t remember boxes being packed or new furniture arriving or a cooker being installed. (We didn’t have a fridge, the pantry was our fridge.) I wasn’t party to conversations about where the telly or the radiogram or the dining room table would go or who would sleep in which bed in which room, or where the extra beds even came from. One minute, home was there – forever after referred to as ‘the old house’ - now everything was going to be here. Deep down inside though, some emotional stirring must have lodged because many years later I was watching a documentary about what they now call social housing. In the programme, a mother, from the Midlands I think, was recalling her upturn in fortunes when she too moved into better quality housing stock. She remembered her young son on the first night saying “Mum, can we stay here again tomorrow,” the child’s assumption being that this was some sort of one-off treat and not a permanent situation. I welled up unexpectedly at this recollection, at some long supressed memory I suppose of something similar. The can’t quite believe your luckness of it all. The freshly carpeted smell of new. Food in the pantry. Brobat in the bathroom. The Marley tiles. The road that’s safe to play in.


Oddly enough I experienced a similar frisson of uncertainty in December 1996 when me and Caroline bought our first house in Stretford, Manchester. I sat there in the big bay window of that spacious front room and, with our still sealed boxes and possessions scattered all around, glanced nervously outside, as if half expecting someone to walk up the drive and say ‘I’m sorry sir, there’s been a mistake’. Once again, I was metaphorically pinching myself at the can’t believe my luckness of it all as I tried to get my head round the fact that providing we kept up regular mortgage payments to the Northern Rock Building Society I was now finally, at the age of 42 a home owner. It’s a working-class thing that never leaves you. When you’ve grown up with sod all it leaves a mark on your expectations. Certain childhood deprivations remain ingrained, not as permanent markers but as cautionary reminders of how things once were.


Perhaps my uncertainty also had something to do with the last-minute rush to get into the house before Christmas. The superstitious occupants hadn’t wanted to move on the originally agreed date of Friday 13th. of December. When we suggested the following Friday they told us they thought it might be best to leave it until the New Year. Given that we had been effectively squatting our unfurnished rented flat in South Manchester, after the landlady had died and her daughter and son-in-law had presented us with an unlawful new contract we were reluctant to stay a minute longer than necessary. We were all packed and ready to go. There was also the small matter of the gas heating having been recently cut off when the emissions were found to be dangerously full of monoxide. We were mightily relieved when they finally and somewhat begrudgingly said yes to the 20th.


So, there we were just five days before Christmas, finally ensconced in our new home with Alfie our 14 year old cat and heating that didn’t make you feel suspiciously drowsy by 4pm. Once again, as in childhood I had the corner plot on the street and the largest garden as a result – a little too conifer dominated for my liking but it had an expansive lawn, a washing line, a garage, a shed (which we called the shed) and a plot of soil suitable for growing vegetables. We had a really chilled Christmas and on New Year’s Eve we dropped acid and went out to see a mate who was DJing in the downstairs room at Jilly’s Rock World in Oxford Road. A taxi had been booked in advance for 3am and we saw in the New Year dancing to banging Chicago house. We emerged from Jilly’s at the stroke of 3am expecting to see our taxi. What we didn’t expect to see was a total white-out. In the three or four hours we had been dancing our tits off there had been evidently been a snow storm. The blizzard had been and gone by the time we got outside but the streets were now a chaotic mess of slithering drunks and slow-moving traffic. And no taxi. I mean there were taxis, plenty of them, all pre-booked by the looks of it, but no sign of ours. We scanned the cab firm names in vain but ours did not manifest itself among them. I went across the road to the row of phone boxes and called the number. I was coldly informed that “your taxi did turn up on time but you weren’t there.” Not for the first time I realized that we had inadvertently booked a taxi with “Lying Bastard Cabs of your town.” They have branches everywhere.


We spent a slippy trippy hour or so trudging through the snow in search of a ride home. Outside Village Cabs a legion of leather boys and mustachioed muscle men stood forlornly waiting for taxis. With the acid still surging they looked like a tableau of melting walruses. We were just beginning to entertain the decidedly ungiggly prospect of trudging three miles back to Stretford in the snow when in a side street we chanced upon what was obviously an illegal taxi. Ripped upholstery. Air freshener that had seen better days. Furtive looking driver.  The kind of car a woman on her own wouldn’t have climbed into. We climbed in and negotiated a fare. We had never been so keen to take an unregistered ride in our lives. White City and Trafford Park passed in a window smear of blizzard tints and soon enough we were back at our house. Our lovely cozy house. Our sanctuary. Our safe haven. I’ll never forget the moment I opened the door and the warm blast of the central heating hit us. And there was Alfie to greet us. Where have you two been? What time do you call this? Feed me.


Despite the novelty of central heating, the new year was harsh and cold. Stretford was very different to South Manchester. Our little side street in Withington stood opposite a Hindi Community Centre. The neighbours were a mixture of liberal middle-class residents and a transient population of students in rented digs. Stretford was more of a solid working-class district, the kind of area that if someone said they were moving away they generally meant a mile or two down the road to Daveyhulme or Urmston. Much like the previous occupants of our house in fact. Every December without fail we received a Christmas card addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Teal. It was only when we moved out of Stretford in 2012 that we looked at the deeds of the house and realized that Mr. and Mrs. Teal had been its owners in the 1950s and 60s. Our immediate neighbours were amenable enough in a polite but reserved kind of way, but the man in the post office was grumpy and he short changed me the first day I went in there. Because of his grouchy demeanor I felt almost apologetic in pointing out his error, which he corrected reluctantly. The newsagent had the sly look of George Bush about him and spent much of his time making nasty comments about his wife, directly to her on some occasions in front of a shop full of customers. Only the Asian supermarket seemed friendly and welcoming. Some locals, using vernacular I naively assumed had died out years ago routinely referred to it as the P*** shop. But despite any misgivings and doubts about the area we had moved to, our house was our semi-detached anchorage and life trundled agreeably on.


I was teaching for half a week in Warrington, writing regularly for Mojo and doing a bit of radio freelancing at the BBC. Caroline, like many a post-graduate with a specialist Master’s Degree had taken on a number of menial jobs while she waited for fulfilling employment to come her way. These jobs had included serving customers in a Withington bakery and a spell in the Food Hall in Kendal’s department store, where she wore a fancy little hat and regularly served members of the cast of Coronation Street. Ivy Tilsley was a big tipper. Tony Warren the programme’s creator was sweetness personified. Tom Baker was an occasional visitor too. Currently Caroline was in the employ of Man City FC, working floodlit evenings and Saturday afternoons as a match day steward and on weekdays in the Maine Road ticket office.  


A couple of weeks into the new year Mojo sent me a cd re-issue of the first Caravan LP to review. Appropriately the opening track was called Place of My Own. The synchronicity of title and personal circumstance was wryly appreciated. In my mid-teens Caravan had formed an integral part of my psychological make up. The Land of Grey And Pink album in particular had dominated my emotional terrain during the summer of 1971, the year I left school. Twenty five years later it still resonated with memories of rain swept playing fields, warm nights of endless possibility and days of splendor with my girlfriend Cindy. All of it, every last note and lyrical image was intrinsically bound up with that carefree post-school feeling that there was no tomorrow, not one that mattered very much anyway. In fact, so synonymous was the album with my love-struck state that for a long time I found it impossible to disassociate The Land Of Grey and Pink from that all too brief summer affair. I sold the album not long after the relationship ended, much in the same empty headed broken-hearted inconsolable way that one tosses an engagement ring from a bridge into the river below. A memory trace still lingered though and although I hadn’t listened to Caravan in decades I retained a wistful affection for that summer and those times. The summer of 1971 seemed to be embedded in every last groove of Golf Girl and Winter Wine and the LP still rooted me to the splendor of my seventeenth summer. As they sang on Nine Feet Underground;

There's a place where I can go

Where I listen to the wind singing
Songs of happiness I know
And it brings it all back again


Despite my fondness for The Land of Grey and Pink and its predecessor If I Could Do It All Over Again I’d Do It All Over You, I don’t think I’d ever heard the band’s 1968 debut. In fact, for a long time I’d assumed that If I Could Do It All Over Again was their first LP and wasn’t even aware that anything had come before it. And so, one murky dull day in the January of 1997 I dived for the very first time into that debut album and there it all was again, as freshly summer scented as a newly mown outfield, as perfectly preserved as a wild flower pressed between the pages of an antiquarian volume. All it took was a brief drum roll, the sound of Pye Hastings’ gossamer light vocal and off we went again, gliding towards the welcoming Arcadian embrace of that opening chorus.


I've got this place of my own
Where I can go when I feel I'm coming down
We'll do our best to ensure
You'll feel secure if you come


The individual components that made up that distinctive ensemble sound were all still intact, just as I’d remembered them. Pye Hastings and Richard Sinclair’s choir boy bel canto, conveyed a keening fragility born of the same garden of England gene pool as Robert Wyatt’s educated soul boy annunciation. David Sinclair’s keyboard sound, as distinctive as any leitmotif that ever emerged from the underground in the late 1960s, evoked the feeling of pushing open the heavy wooden door of an empty village chapel on a quiet August morning and breathing in the stillness, the stained glass filtered air and that faith affirming scent of seasoned wood and cold stone. Slowly, over in the corner someone begins tinkering away on the chapel organ, holding down chunky root chords and riffing on some elegantly unshowy jazzy chromatics . There’s an assured lightness of touch in all of Caravan’s early work that is largely absent from the more portentous rumblings of progressive rock once it got into its ego driven stride. Even when Caravan got vaguely menacing it was still an airy-fairy cartoon book kind of menace. No more unsettling than finding seaweed under your pillow when you’ve just been dreaming of the beach. That opening track, Place of My Own, chimed pleasingly with my recently acquired sense of security. Escape and safe sanctuary were themes that tumbled rabbit hole headlong and carefree through the entire album. I scribbled down a few notes, as I habitually did when writing a short Mojo review, then put the cd aside and got on with marking a few student essays.


The following lunchtime I took a bus up to the local Asda at what was still then referred to as Dumplington, an area on the edge of Trafford Park industrial estate. The weather was unremittingly dour. Typical January. Typical Manchester. Grey slate skies. Inhospitable wind. Everyone wrapped up warm, scowling at the elements and each other. That citadel of consumer kitsch The Trafford Centre was still under construction. Its grand rococo façade spoke loudly of council approved folly and monumentally bad taste. I bought a few groceries from the adjacent Asda, got back on a cold unheated single decker and headed for home. On exiting the bus I walked through the alley from the main road into my avenue and turned left. About 50 yards up ahead a car was parked awkwardly on the corner next to our house, not the most considerate of places to sit stationary, blocking a blind bend in the road like that. I could see passengers in the car, so for a moment I assumed they were waiting for someone at my next-door neighbours. What happened next seemed to unfold in slow motion. It still does whenever I replay it in my mind. The front passenger side door of the car opened and Caroline got out. She started running toward me. And she was crying.


Back home in Northamptonshire, her younger brother Vincent, a keen cyclist, had gone out in the morning on his day off work to drop off some leaflets for a local scout troop.  A car on the other side of the road had skidded on black ice and hit him head on. He was now in a coma in Kettering General Hospital and on life support. Such are the bare bald facts of moments that change your entire life.  The rest of the day passed in an anxious blur of phone calls, hopes, prayers and uneasily digested meals. Caroline deliberated over whether she should get straight on a train and go down there. I urged caution and suggested she went the following morning, fresh and clear headed. Late that night while I was still in let’s hope for the best mode she told me Vincent had received the last rites.


The following morning the taxi to the station seemed to take an eternity to come. You can always rely on Lying Bastard Cabs to be late when you’re utterly dependent on them. I can still see Caroline standing at the front gate, literally hopping from foot to foot with the agony of waiting. It was distressing to watch someone in the throes of anguish like that. She told me later that on the train going down, a concerned guard asked her if she was ok. The small gestures you remember when big circumstances are about to swallow you whole.


And me? What did I do while I waited for news? I went back to marking essays and writing my review of the first Caravan LP. While our secure little world went into limbo, my work schedule resumed in all its ordinarily mortal banality. I was just putting the finishing touches to the album review when Jim Irvin from Mojo phoned about an unrelated matter. Can’t remember what, the details aren’t important. I dealt with that and went back to finishing my review. The phone rang again and it was Caroline telling me that Vincent’s scan had detected no sign of brain activity and that that technically, to all intents and purposes he was no longer with us. A few minutes later Jim Irvin phoned me again to check on something and again, on auto-pilot by now I dealt with the enquiry dutifully. Picking up on a slight hesitancy in my voice Jim asked if I was ok. There are no hiding places at times like that. The hollowness at the very centre of your soul betrays you. I relayed our bad news to Jim and he reacted in the way that all good people do, with sympathy and condolence, and then went back I assume to his work in a busy office, as I went back to what remained of mine in the cold shell of an empty house.


Suddenly the world was different. Our little bubble world of security and bliss in our new house had lasted for precisely 27 days before a tragic and unexpected death shattered everything. You never quite go back to the same place after that. Everything shifts. The snow globe containing your cosy little life is shaken up irreparably and the scene never quite settles again in the way it did before. Something new has taken up residency in your psyche. There is a before and an after and both are clearly and unambiguously demarcated. The during gets buried deep down of course. The events of those few fateful days are painful to recall, even now. I’m writing this in January 2024. The 27th anniversary of Vincent’s death will have been and gone by the time you read these words. I’m not big on the writing as therapy thing and it would serve no cathartic purpose whatsoever to relive the details of that awful period here. It would be indulgent, insensitive and I would deeply distrust my motives for doing so.


Unfortunately, I’m an old hand at family death. My maternal Grandmother (November 1979) my Dad (August 1980) and my Mum (July 1981) had all died within 20 months of each other when I was in my mid-twenties. It took me several years to get used to the idea that a loved one or family member wasn’t going to pop off on an annual basis. I’d been back on an even keel for some time when my maternal Grandad died in 1995. And that was easier to deal with, because although diminished by cancer at the end he’d had a good innings. He was 92 when he journeyed off into the great beyond. Vincent was 22.


Part of me turned into my mother during that period. In the early 1950s when she and Dad first got married they put down a deposit on a house, but they were victims of post war gazumping, a tendency as prevalent then as it has been periodically ever since. They lost the house at the very last minute and so moved into that cramped damp little cottage where I spent my first seven years. They never once ventured back into the housing market, Mum in particular came to believe fatalistically that home ownership was not for the likes of her. She had that Hardyesque cosmology thing going on. Tess and the blighted apple. Living on a bad planet. “Unlucky that we didn’t pitch onto a sound one” as Tess puts it. A little of that thinking seeped into my mind too. Am I not allowed too much luck? Here’s a house to live in. Now you have to forfeit something.  It’s completely irrational thinking of course but then a premature and shocking death will do that to you.


Death is the one thing we all have in common. We will all die one day and yet all grief is private and personal. You can utter the right words of condolence but unless it’s you gazing blank eyed out of that front car in the funeral cortege you have no idea what’s going on in the head of the mourner. Death is the soul’s fingerprint.  We all have them, but no two are identical. Time heals the best it can and you mend your life the best you can and carry on. What else is there?


In the middle of all this that first Caravan LP quietly disappeared into the incidentals of everyday life, just another CD on the shelf. I didn’t play it again for a long time and when I finally I did I realized something had happened. The events of that January day had stained themselves into the digital grooves like a watermark. The melancholy of that opening track had taken on a different darker hue. It still sounded resplendently English in a way that only Caravan can but the fragility of the vocal tips into something more unsettling. There’s a chill that wasn’t there before. The security and sanctuary of the sentiment sounds more like a retreat now, and less robust, less draft proof. The song itself hadn’t changed at all of course, but I had. Songs have a habit of doing that, I find. As I get older, no, make that as I’ve grown old, all kinds of music warrant fresh perspectives depending on circumstance and the angle of light. Certain songs still blaze with the carefree untainted innocence and unfiltered jubilance of youth. Others have either outstayed their welcome and lost their sheen, or simply frozen into a tapestry of their time, revealing little outside of themselves other than the reverberations of the period when they were made. Some were effortlessly incorporated into the tempo of my everyday life. Others announced themselves so forcefully that I adjusted my own tempo accordingly.


There’s an abstract and intangible quality to all this that can frequently catch you unawares. The passing of time creeps up on you and you remain oblivious to the fact until something quietly revelatory reveals itself, something that was there all along, waiting. That cold January day in 1997 I initially found warmth and empathy in that chorus line about having a place of my own. In my haste I didn’t dwell on the ambivalence of the sentiment. Why would I? Context is everything. All I know is that my CD re-issue of the first Caravan LP now has its own unique indelible watermark.




 The opening sentences of my self published memoir Ad Lib : Repeat To Fade are;


We were driving down from Manchester to Luton Hoo to see Kraftwerk play a rare live gig. It was May 1997. A bright sunny Saturday.


Note the date. I’ve long believed that autobiography is the biggest fiction of all. The way the author ruthlessly selects, edits and discards. Ad Lib does that from the opening line. There was another unspoken presence in that car with us, still resonant, still lingering. Later that day Kraftwerk performed a version of Tour De France with appropriate slide show images from the famous race. Again, just another tune, just another track to some people. But not to someone whose younger brother was a keen cyclist. Keen enough to go out on a cold January morning, as a favour to a local scout leader, and drop off some leaflets.


On the way home from that gig, as I also mentioned in Ad Lib, we got caught up in a rave convey on its way to an all-nighter. “We both grew wistful for a dance life recently aborted (other ghosts, other reasons)” I said in the book. The great unspoken reduced to parenthesis. Again, the ruthless narrator editing out, excluding the reader from harsher more poignant truths. I still have a tendency to do that. Even now. I suspect it’s partly a working-class thing – that traditional wariness of sharing information with outsiders other than on your own terms. Not for me the ‘woe is me’ misery memoir or the roadside memorial of flowers. There was one of course, but neither of us was inclined to drive up there to have a look. 


Just four months after Vincent was killed, the Labour Party was elected with a landslide majority. I found myself staring at a faintly surreal state of the parties scoreboard which at one point read LABOUR 100. CONSERVATIVE 2. I turned to Caroline on the sofa and said with joy and relief, “it’s finally over.” I detected the mildest flicker of hesitation in her response. Yes, something was indisputably over. Not everything though. Some things are never over.


Vincent John Julyan

1974 - 1997

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