Planes used to fly over our house. A couple of miles away was an airfield called Hawarden, where there was a massive British Aerospace factory; they made Airbus wings, which were then flown to France in a bloated transporter called a Guppy, to be glued onto Airbus bodies.
(Hawarden — just say “harden”.)
Push-pull propeller hotrod Cessna Skymasters zipped about, Chinooks helicopted along all warlike, and private jets ferried captains of industry to Important Appointments. Occasionally the last flying de Havilland Mosquito, a beautiful little wooden bomber from World War II, went for a spin. All the different planes had their own distinctive growl, roar, buzz or thump, but they had one thing in common: Their sounds were sky sounds, coming from no obvious direction. And so it was, one sunny day when I was maybe ten, standing by the kitchen sink with a glass of lemonade, when a deep throbbing hum arose. It filled the house; it didn’t rattle glasses or dislodge pictures, but it was insistent — it was everywhere, and it came from nowhere. So I went outside to look for it.
Saying my mum likes to read would be like saying…some sort of simile for “a lot”. She buys mad amounts of books; she’s keen on those three-for-two offers, but usually comes back from the shop with, like, nine-for-six. She reads them all too, then they pile up in the lounge and dining room. Dining room sounds proper posh, doesn’t it? It’s just a room with a table in it, with one wall given over to bookshelves, but you can’t really get to them because of the piles of Mum books on the floor. Both my parents are hoarders, somewhat — they don’t accrue much stuff, but they rarely throw anything away either, particularly paper. Dad has three waist-high stacks of Scientific American, every issue since the sixties — and although my folks retired fifteen years ago, there are still vast drifts of work-related paper covering every raised surface and most of the floor. You know I said there’s a table in there? You’ll have to take my word for it. You can see the legs, otherwise it’s just more loose paper, files and railway magazines.
Almost all the fiction in the house is Mum’s, but most of the books on the shelves (rather than the floor) are actually Dad’s. He likes histories of warfare and industry, astronomy, origins-of-the-universe stuff — but on one side, at adult eye-level, just within a grasping child’s reach, there’s a shelf of science fiction dating from his younger days.
There are sixties yellow pulp paperbacks; novels by the likes of CS Lewis and John Wyndham with brush-painted alien landscape covers, and anthologies — Spectrum and Fantastic Tales, with near-psychedelic graphics on the front. Eyes and radiation and fleeing figures. As a kid I didn’t like the covers but I loved the stories. The heroes, although they were almost always male, weren’t square-jawed and fishbowl-helmeted; Flash Gordon’s successor tended to be an uncertain Everyman, sidling tentatively into The World of Tomorrow, wearing a trilby.
Next to these are three neat black spines. I was never tempted to read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, but I loved those covers. Seventies Panther editions with Chris Foss illustrations of GIANT SPACESHIPS, each bearing his small boxed “F” signature. The three covers fitted together, making a wide space panorama. The last of the three, Second Foundation, showed a fat ovoid ship with a deep ventral fin, black-and-yellow striped like a tropical fish. It was sort of a crap thing, wallowing chubbily, squirting dirty flames from its many thrusters, but it was my favourite.
So I went outside to look for it.
Well, I went outside to look for whatever was making the noise. But somewhere in the back of my mind, maybe not so far back, what I wanted to see was a big dirty stripy space barge. Shut up, I was ten.
I didn’t spot it straight away, not because it was distant or obscure, but because what was actually there was so close to what I had hoped for, so unlikely, that I discounted the truth, assuming it was my brain’s invention. I scanned the sky…blue vault, white woolly clouds, enormous spaceship right over the house, more clear blue…
OK. Back a bit…
Unbelievably huge, low above me, filling the air with its drone and bulk, not bee-striped but gleaming white, fans churning — an airship, something I’d never seen before. I watched it hauling itself across suburbia towards the airfield until it disappeared.
I’ve told this tale before, to someone else.
Of course it was a girl.
I met her in a very normal fashion, Friday night, friend-of-a-friend, when a bunch of us went to The Dive at the end of Gerrard Street, the main drag through Chinatown, with the ornate wooden gateways at either end. The Dive really was a dive, deep under a terrible pub called the King’s Head. Or Arms, I can’t remember, it was terrible. The Dive was great though, it was my favourite; it wasn’t just unpretentious, it was grotty. There was no self-important DJ racketing up the place, they played Rat Pack sort of music at low volume, there were plenty of tables and the black paint on the back wall never dried properly, like some kind of half-hearted anti-climb finish. The only thing wrong with The Dive was that they keep strict hours, turfing everybody out at eleven. If you were on a determined night out you’d probably left by then anyway to go to somewhere even more foul, somewhere with less regard for British licensing laws, like The Troy Club, an utter hole where the door bloke challenges you with “Is member club.”
(You say “Yeah, I’m a member” and you’re in.)
The King’s Head (or Arms) is now a tidy-looking Chinese restaurant. What was the entrance to The Dive is now just a permanently-closed mystery door.
I was tubing over straight from work, so I’d have been wearing greasy jeans, a battered old black t-shirt, and steel-toe workshop boots from the Tuf safety equipment catalogue — a perfectly apt outfit for an evening at The Dive. Convenient, just rolling up in the same dirty clobber I’d been wearing all day, but I’ll admit it was a bit of a contrivance too. The thick-rimmed specs contrasted somewhat with the workshop get-up; I liked playing the intelligent handyman rôle. These days every car customising “reality” show features at least one guy with glasses, but back then it was my schtick.
They were plain black (actually very dark grey, transparent) and originally had “Donna Karan” (not even “DKNY”) printed in gold (gold!) on the right temple. I took that off with the edge of a scalpel and some Brasso before I ever wore them. Now that was pretty cool, right? Until I told you, that is, now it just looks like I’m blowing my own trumpet.
The plan was: Meet friends, drink, talk. But, as usual, I was single, so I was on the lookout at all times. Strangers, though; I wasn’t expecting to be hanging out with anyone unfamiliar. Nobody — thankfully — had said “I’ll bring X from work, you’ll really like her!”
You know how that doesn’t work; your friend’s telling you about their colleague who has a trait you like and you start quizzing them (“Oh my God don’t tell me s/he has a big nose/wears shell toes/likes Rush” etc) — and they sound like your ideal human. Then, when you finally persuade your friend to engineer a social situation, you get to meet this hotly anticipated person and it’s like an exquisite corpse. All the elements are undeniably present and correct, but they’re not working in harmony; in your arrogant assessment, the whole is much less than the sum of its parts.
(I’m assuming you are, or have been, young and stupid, as I was — young (mid 20s) and stupid (stupid).)
But sometimes — just sometimes, like almost never — it works. Everything comes together in a…I’ve noticed a tendency for journalists to use the expression “perfect storm”…but no, or rather yes, everything comes together. Almost never. Almost never.
Meet friends, drink, talk.
I can’t remember who was there. I usually can, pretty reliably, but not this time, because a Thing happened. It was a bit momentous…you can guess what happened. I didn’t spot her straight away.
It was early and quiet. Apart from my friends, who, as usual, were all there before me, only a few tables were occupied. The Dive opened at six and filled up quickly; a good thing as it looked pretty wretched when empty. You could see the floor, and nobody needed to see The Dive’s floor.
So more empty space than usual, the bar all present and correct, and a group of familiar faces. Although I can’t remember exactly who was there, I’d say Wee Sue and Van and Big Dave were good bets. Definitely Johnny Bravo though, then maybe Duncan and Hannah and…
OK. Back a bit.
The reason I can say for sure that Johnny Bravo was there is that he was talking to this person. This “perfect storm” person, who had all these things going on, whatever the things were that I was into at the time — glasses, black hair, red hair, a gap between her front teeth, a fitted shirt, a plain vest, jeans, a skirt, heels, flipflops — the exquisite corpse unfolded to reveal something from my imagination. Honestly, I actually didn’t see her at first; I discounted what my eyes saw, just like the airship.
We talked quite a bit. We got on well, it was nice.
A couple of weeks later she dropped in on a party at my house, and we talked some more, and arranged to meet in town in a Soho café (which has been at least three other things since). We didn’t use the word date back then, not in that sense anyway; a date was either a particular day or a mushy, grainy fruit. I don’t like those. Figs win in my book.
We strolled through Camden and Chalk Farm and carried on to the top of Hampstead Heath, where we loafed on the grass, looking at most of London crouching in a haze of pollution. It was another Little Fluffy Clouds day, much like the day when I didn’t see the airship, so perhaps that nudged me towards telling the story. I’d probably have told it anyway, but maybe later, somewhere else.
I introduced it pretty well, I said something like “You know, in films, when there’s some sort of situation the lead bloke finds himself in? And there’ll be this wise patriarchal figure like Frazier’s dad or something, and he’ll have this handy story which is like a perfect metaphor for the situation his son’s in? Actually it might be an allegory or something, not a metaphor, I’m not too sure.”
She did, yes, or she said she did anyway.
I continued. “It’s usually about baseball.”
“So we wouldn’t understand it.”
(Indeed — what does “It’s the bottom of the ninth” mean?)
“Mind you, I wouldn’t understand it if it was about cricket either.”
Well, she laughed, and agreed. I was clearly making sense to her, so I kept on keeping on (perhaps unwisely — no, not perhaps, definitely unwisely, foolishly, recklessly, stupidly), saying “Well I have one of those metaphor stories,” and spooled out the whole stupid tale about the airship and the night we met in The Dive and how I didn’t see her at first and blah blah stupid blah.
So yes, that might have been what’s called Too Much Information, TMI. Do you think I overcooked it? I think I did. I mean, she took it well, and how could I have passed up the opportunity to tell a real-life true story like that, that, like, fitted perfectly? I’m sure you’ve realised by now that I like to spin a yarn. Thanks for sticking around for my shaggy dog, by the way. Not everybody has your patience.
Well, yes, it probably was TMI, but it didn’t matter really — we went on another date, but it didn’t go anywhere. Not much connection, little spark, we were in different places or whatever. Anyway, it was years ago.
So that’s a good story.
Well now, you probably don’t know Chris Foss — I mean, statistically, you’re probably not the exact brand of geek to get nostalgic over his swirls of stardust and monumental machines — but if you’ve ever seen a seventies or eighties sci-fi paperback with a huge (probably stripy) spaceship on the cover, chances are it was one of his, and there was a little F in a box lurking in the corner. He worked on Alien (his designs weren’t used) and produced some beautiful hardware paintings for a planned film of Dune to be directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky (which never happened).
Oh, no, actually, you probably have seen his work, or parodies of it — because, unlikely as it may seem, he did the hairy hippy illustrations for The Joy of Sex. How about that?