After my 'black moment', as I've said, I took the illness and fracture of my mind away with running and debauchery. But, there was one other incident, which had no bearing upon my recovery, but it did have an utmost impact on my life, and I wish to relate it now.
In my self-remedy of recovery, I would wander for hours with the dogs in the fields and regularly venture down by the canal, river, and across the two bridges to Temple Newsam park and grounds.
Temple Newsam had an amphitheatre and strolling past it with my greyhound and the two Alsatians running at will by my side and terrorising all the posh dogs, but only in looks, and not sinking their teeth into the poodles' necks, as all three were well behaved, I noticed a sign: ‘Tonight! King Lear by William Shakespeare: 7pm.’
I can't remember the name of the amateur dramatic company who put on the play, but I can remember the rest of the day.
At that time of 'blackness', I was a strong reader of literature, which the Doctor had initiated, and for every word in a book I didn't understand, I'd underline the word and then practice it stupidly in a sentence at the first available opportunity. I know it was pretentious crap, but all children learn new words and get them wrong and are corrected; and, remember, I was a tolerant fellow for one so young: I had a desire to learn, and that **** off everything else.
I always resisted reading Shakespeare until that day, both at Grammar School, where I couldn't stand it, and when the Doctor first ordered, 'Read him.' I couldn't and didn't, for I felt 'intellectually' unprepared, and was afraid I wouldn't understand it.
I took the dogs back home and didn't think at all about returning in the evening, as the day was beautiful, and it was summer, and I'd intended to undertake a long run instead. However, my ‘blackness’ was still there and with it inertia; I didn't make the run but merely sat in 255 staring at the walls.
King Lear was ripe for me. I had to get out of the house, and I took the one well behaved dog I had to the amphitheatre, our Lassie. It took us a good forty minutes to walk to Temple Newsam from Belle Isle, over fields, canal and river. Once past the Stourton Power Station, the heavens, as they say, opened, and the rain fell.
We were nearer Temple Newsam than home, and I decided to press on, especially with home and the 'blackness' being my only companion.
When we arrived at Temple Newsam, Lassie and I were wet through, and there was only an old bloke with a big umbrella sat in the open amphitheatre. I know the black umbrella was big because I and my dog sat under it that summer night.
The amateur dramatic crew were huddled beneath the arch at Temple Newsam stables, no doubt thinking what the **** to do. They waited. No one else except the old man, my dog and I came to see their play.
'I'm sorry, but we're going to have to call the show off because of the weather,' one of the Thespians said to us.
'I've walked a mile to get here,' complained the old man, who was in his seventies; and I'm sure must be dead now, and this is a tribute to him; God bless him.
I added, 'I've walked 5 mile to get here over the fields and we're wet through,’ pointing to the dog to add necessary weight to the argument, 'and I've never seen or read a Shakespeare play.'
'Good point, lad,' the old man shouted to me. 'Here, get thysen under mi umbrella here and bring thee dog too. She looks shivering.'
I duly did, and Lassie accompanied me under that old man's umbrella.
Another fellow made his way towards us from the arch; we identified him later as Edmund from the play. 'Okay, we're going put it on and call it a rehearsal. Do you both mind waiting a bit while we get a few beers from the offie?'
It happened in those days, such honesty.
Gloucester and his company got their beers from some local off licence, probably in Halton Moor, which I'll tell you about later, and they began their performance of King Lear in the drizzle of Temple Newsam amphitheatre.
I could lie, and I could say, 'There was a storm,' but I'd be lying. It simply pissed it down and it became dark, but the lights of the amphitheatre still shone, and I still feel emotional even now watching that amazing play performed by a set of drunken Thespians.
The Thespians weren't drunk at the beginning, and neither were they legless at the end. Don't get me wrong, they weren't slurring or falling over the stone, but they were enjoying Shakespeare and singing in words in the metre and rhythm of a language I'd never heard: iambic pentameter: dee dum, dee dum, dee dum, dee dum laced with cider, wine, and lager: Brilliant! Enchanting and totally mesmeric it was. I loved it and so did the old man too. And when King Lear looked upon Cordelia on the floor, dead – and pissed as well, I think – the effect was heart wrenching for me. I was still waiting for Cordelia to wake up in the play, but instead the actor finished her performance, and she went for another can of beer.
I've seen almost fifty plays of Shakespeare since, and I can honestly say that performance of King Lear was astounding, and the best I've ever seen. I wasn't drunk, but had that 'blackness' in me, and the play happened when my nerves were supremely alive to the theme of the play, the poetry of the play, the universality of the play, and, of course, the song of metre in the play, which those amateur Thespians performed with brilliance. I shall never forget it.
The following day, the sun was guaranteed to shine, and I went again with Lassie to watch King Lear. The old man was there, too, but without his umbrella. He'd been waiting for us. We sat and waited. The auditorium was packed full this time.
The biggest pile of **** I've ever watched! I left well before the end, just after the old man left. Instead of music and poetry, there was Realism; where there should have been pain, there was nervousness, and the words had lost completely their 'warble' as the old man told me afterwards. ****. Crap.
'Ham acting,' the critics call it: the bastards. I love it, and it is, to me, how Shakespeare should be acted and spoken. When I worked down London as a hod carrier, I'd go to the Barbican mid-week, wait for ten minutes or so into a Shakespeare play, and pay £5 for a cancellation, all in the hope of hearing 'ham acting.' I never did, and I would walk out after twenty minutes if I didn't recapture that first beauty I'd heard of Shakespeare by those drunken actors on a drizzly night in Leeds, sat there with an old man and my dog.
255 regularly held little chess tournaments for all the cranks on the Leeds Chess scene, and it would be unfair not to mention the perfect marriage of Brian Foster and Peter Hall. Brian and Peter were inseparable, and wherever one of the characters went, the other was sure to be there too. You might have called it a perfect friendship, as I never once saw the two characters fall out.
Brian was a beauty of council estate creation: middle aged and weighing in at just over 20 stone, unshaven, matted hair, and a face looking like it had just emerged from a second-hand tyre yard: round, pock-marked, and bloated on account of all the alcohol and smoking it had undergone during a chess career at 136 level. He had a unique way of not talking, but not shouting either, but somehow his mouth, if you could call the yellow thing one, was always making sounds like an industrial machine: Yorkshire made, of course.
Peter, his ‘wife’ was the living contrast of Brian. Peter was diminutive, thin and ill looking, and the only manifest resemblance he had to Brian was when they sat together at a table smoking, as you could in the old days. The collective exhalations from the two would create a toxic cloud of purple, which would have instantaneously turned any Victorian Industrialist into the first Victorian Environmentalist.
Unlike his husband’s bloated features, Peter’s countenance was gaunt and cadaverous looking. A moustache, already dead and yellow with the smoke, hung over his top lip, and his eyes drooped perpetually, as if to say, ‘Is it bed time yet?’ Peter somehow never looked awake; he was always in some semi-stupor state and barely let out the merest shuffle of life. This trait was no doubt the consequence of working gruelling shifts in the factory where he sprayed ovens with toxic paints. He regularly complained of having to spend an hour in the bath washing the cancerous stuff off his body. Peter never did ‘wash all the stuff off’, though, and in the end it killed the poor sod.
Brian, the husband, lived, however, and during one eventful day at 255 we knew about how angry a middle aged council man can be when someone lifts (steals) his cigarettes.
It was summer, and we’d been playing a series of five-minute chess competitions. It was nearing the end, and people were beginning to make their excuses and leave. A few die-hard still remained when the dogs leapt up and began to bark because of a knock on the door.
Brian was puffing away on the sofa with Peter doing the same at the other side of the sofa. ‘Someone at door, Karl!’ Brian boomed.
‘See who it is, Brian. I’ve only a couple of minutes on me clock.’
Brian heaved himself out of the sofa with a fog of smoke swirling around him and lumbered his frame to the door. A minute later, he appeared again saying, ‘It’s t’ Jehovahs Witnesses. Have a to let ’em in?’
‘Do what you want,’ I answered without realising what I said and without looking up, frantically slamming the pieces down and slapping the clock in time trouble.
When I’d lost, there was Brian on the sofa with these two black-suited, young gentlemen of the faith of Jehovah, looking very frightened as the triple-headed hounds of hell were showing their sharp, white teeth at them; Brian and Peter flanked and smoked at them from either side.
‘What have you brought these in for, Brian?’ I asked, looking at them and wondering what to do.
‘A thought you might wanna ask ’em about God,’ he said, and he waved his hands.
Paul, who was a steadfast atheist, began to question the poor fellows and what followed was a barrage of questions from Paul, the Doctor and Brian, with the occasional muttering of ‘Yea,’ from Peter. I listened, but I didn’t really get involved, and eventually the questions died out, and the Jehovahs, realising their cause and intention of converting these two was futile and seeing their opportunity to escape, duly made excuse and rose, leaving Brian and Peter left on opposite ends of the sofa.
‘It’s been nice chatting to you,’ one of the well-dressed young men said before leaving.
Brian was looking for his cigarettes.
‘We hope you can think about the religion and give it some of your time.’
Brian was now frantic in the search for his cigarettes.
‘We’ll be getting off then,’ was the final word the Jehovah uttered before just about to leave.
‘The bastards have nicked me ****g cigs,’ bawled Brian. ‘Don’t let the ****s out.’
The dogs, by this time, had all jumped to their feet, and the humans were looking at Brian and the Jehovahs looking at each other.
‘You, yes, you near the door. Where’s me ****g cigs?’
‘I’m sorry, but I don’t smoke, and I’ve not seen your cigarettes.’
‘You lying bastard,’ and Brian actually went for him, nearly falling over Peter’s feet, who was still sat smoking on the sofa.
‘Whoaah, Brian. What yer doing? They won’t have your cigs,’ we all added.
‘I know these bastards, and I’m telling you they’d nick owt, and they’ve nicked me ****g cigs.’ And he lurched again for the Jehovah.
Quick thinking was needed before some outrage upon the poor Jehovahs was done by Brian, who by this time had become enraged. I grabbed hold of Brian and Paul gave support, and I think it was Stuart who got the poor lads out of 255 and away from Brian and his lost cigs.
Peter, Brian's wife, was still sat smoking on the settee, saying to his husband, ‘They must have nicked ’em, Brian. Gotter ’a been them,’ and he blew out another plume of smoke as if to conclude the issue.
A year later, on Bonfire Night when all the old settees would be fed to the Bonfire Night pyre, 255's flea bitten mess was added to the pile. It was a customary act to tear open the bottom and sides of the settee to see if any lose money had fallen down there, and, lo and behold! – there, before our eyes, were Brian's long-lost packet of cigarettes.
It was during this time I was given a Harris Tweed jacket of the most expensive kind. John, a fellow chess player and bricklayer, had been given the jacket by this receptionist on a site in London, and since the jacket didn’t fit him, he passed it down to me. You have to remember that in the early years of the 1980’s, when still in your teens, there wasn’t the glut of cheap clothes that there is today. A set of jeans would set you back a good tenner, and that was a quarter of your wage gone for a teenager on a wage of no more than £40 a week. A jacket was a more expensive and luxurious item, and a decent one would mean you have to put money aside for a couple of week.
I was no dandy, and whatever cash I readily had was just as readily lost. I was a scruffy pillock as they saying went. I would buy a pair of shoes or trainers, and wear them until they actually did fall apart. My attire consisted solely of a couple of shirts, one pair of jeans, and a pair of mucky trainers, which I’d treat to the washing machine every second week. The old jacket I had was threadbare and only in desperate weather conditions was it donned.
At this time Brian Bewildered was lodging at 255, and he was a veritable dandy and would regularly secure some fine items of clip from somewhere. They wouldn’t stay fine, though, as the living conditions in 255 and cheap make of the clip meant that the life span was short. I remember returning home one summer from a day’s graft concreting. It was a Friday, and as I was walking up the broken path, there was Brian all clipped up in this brilliant black suit. At least it looked brilliant from a distance, but when you got closer, the jacket had a sort of worn sheen on it, which gave it a cheaper look.
‘Off out, Brian?’
‘Yea, off to pull all the women in the town.
Do you like the suit?’
‘Looks good. Where d’ye get it?’
‘My mate gave it to me. Anyway, can’t stay, the women are waiting,’ and off he sauntered past me.
I watched him walk down that path, and all the way down his back, from the back of his neck to the foot of his trousers there was a veritable carpet of dog hair, which he was no doubt unaware of, and which clung to the cheap, synthetic suit. I don’t think he scored that night.
The Harris Tweed that John gave me was anything but cheap. No dog hairs from the sofa of 255 clung to that jacket. Harris Tweeds were just on the brink of coming into fashion in Leeds, and most were of the cheap, imitation kind, but my jacket was thick and lined with great skill by the seamstress who made it. You could see the quality in the clip; feel the opulence, and how proud I was to wear it.
I’d go up to mates with their cheap, imitation Harris Tweeds and rub their thin cloth between my fingers, fling my head to one side, purse my bottom lip, and say, ‘Nice jacket.’
They’d reply with some paltry brand, and then they'd return the act and place the thick lapels of my jacket between their fingers and say, ‘Yea, what’s yours, Karl?’
I’d slowly reveal the inner lining with the name tag and say with the greatest of pride, ‘Harris Tweed. Harris Tweed is this, pal.’
Wherever I went the jacket went, and we were inseparable, and when the horse racing came round at York, the jacket went too. The only problem was the jacket was the only fashionable item of clothing in my clip, and the shirt, jeans, socks and trainers didn’t quite match, so that I still looked working class, but I didn’t care, the jacket was all that mattered.
The summer and sun were terrific when we arrived at York races. To those who don’t know York, there are two parts on either side of the track: the ‘posh’ part with all the grand architectural stands and on the other, the family, or cheap side, where all the kids ran around screaming and all the drunks did too.
As working class youngsters, we never really had much money, and it was always the poorest part of the course for us.
The day’s meeting was a massive affair, and there were thousands of people there. The ‘posh’ part was packed with punters. Because of the huge crowds, the officials had erected huge champagne tents at the side of the ‘poor’ part, but sectioned off, and all manner of fine ladies and gentlemen strode with assumed elegance and breeding across the course, past security, and into the marquee to sip champagne.
We hadn’t yet paid to get in, and I exclaimed to Billy Boy, ‘Come on Billy, let’s have a bit of fun.’
Billy Boy was a year or two younger than me, and he didn’t wear a Harris Tweed like me, but donned a cheap brown leather jacket, but that didn’t matter, I had did have a Harris Tweed, and that would gain us entry.
I waited for an opportunity to arrive at the security gate without been seen walking up to it, as the jeans I was wearing would have given the game away.
With my bestest upper class voice, I declared, ‘Come along, Benson,’ as I gestured to Billy Boy in my trail, whilst saying to the young security guard, ‘An ex-qui-site day for the races, don’t you think? Come along, Benson, be quick now,’ and in both of us went. No questions, no nothing. We couldn’t believe it and thought we’d simply get turned back, but the reality was we were in with the toffs, and more importantly: the champagne. I turned round to Billy Boy to gesture the nearest table of champagne, but he was already there and starting his first guzzle. When we’d taken our fill of what was available and were beginning to attract down the noses looks from the toffs, we decided it was time to leave, and we slipped to an idle part of the marquee and nipped under the flap and into our customary cheap part of the course complete with bellies filled with champagne. The Harris had done the deed as it were.
Betting is a dangerous game at the best of times, but when accompanied by drink, it can be lethal, and this day was no different. The champagne had gone straight to Billy Boy’s head and mine, too, and add to that more alcoholic beverages and you get the scene. Our Michael and Tony were with us, and they weren’t nearly half as drunk. Billy Boy was the first to be relieved of his money by daft betting, and I was shortly after. Only two races had gone, and we were both skint. Our Michael had a little win, and he lent us a tenner for the next race. Billy studied the form and duly chose the horse, which was a 20/1 shot, but that didn’t ring any alarm bells, as drunkenness and an indefatigable gambling addiction is completely deaf to those.
‘Bang it all on, Karl, and if it loses, I’ll go and find our Kev and scratch some money out of him.’
I don’t think Kev had even gone to the races that day.
Off I went, in anything but a straight line, in search of the best price. There must have been fifty of these betting stands, and I wasn’t really attentive to their position but only the price on the boards. I found the best price and duly placed the bet at 20/1, a tenner, and made my way back to Billy and the others to finish off another drink and wait for the race to start.
The race started, and when you’ve put everything on the horse, your last dollar, as they say, the emotions are the keenest, and it was no different for Billy Boy and me when our horse burst through to the front in the final furlong and snatched the race by a neck! We were rich; we were intoxicated, and we were Lords. What a joy!
But joys, as you know, don’t last and can just as quickly be extinguished.
‘Give us the ticket, Karl, and I’ll run and get the money. Which bookies did you place it with?’ cried Billy Boy.
I was fumbling in my jeans and Harris Tweed for the ticket and thinking, ‘I can’t remember which bookies.’
That didn’t matter, though, because the search for the ticket was becoming desperate.
‘Check your Harris again,’ Billy shouted.
I checked the Harris, but the ticket had definitely gone and was lost.
‘You stupid ****g stupid bastard,' and other such expletives were delivered without ceremony.
I don’t know how I’d lost the ticket? Does any common drunk know how they lose things? I started to look around on the floor, but there were a million spent and lost tickets strewn across the turf and the search would be pointless.
‘Let’s go to the stand where you put the bet on, and we’ll sort it from there,’ Billy urged. And all four of us set off; me and Billy Boy staggering in front and our Michael and Tony walking behind us, and muttering something about ‘idiots’.
We must have walked up and down every single bookies on that course ten times and it was hopeless, as I couldn’t remember where I’d put on the bet. We were winners, but were now losers. We all sat dejected on the grass. But desperation does have creative powers, and I think the drink had started to abate a bit when I thought of an idea.
‘All the bookies keep ledgers, and they have to record every bet they take. Bernie told me this, and he’s a bookie’s clerk. If we can find out which bookies’ stand I put the bet on, we can look at the ledger!’ I exclaimed and jumped up.
‘But you can’t even ****g remember which stand you put the bet on, you idiot, so sit the **** back down,’ slammed Tony.
I sat back down, but I was not to be undone when I saw this steward walking into one of the offices there. I thought for minute and then said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute,’ and set off for the office.
I returned shortly afterwards and proudly declared, ‘Sorted. The old official is going to walk along the bookies and check all the ledgers for me.’
‘Brilliant!’ Billy Boy cried, and he began jumping in the air, as though he’d had another winner.
The old official did as he promised, and off he set with us in tow to check all the ledgers. He had to break off twice to see to other duties, but he returned each time and resumed his investigation of the ledgers. Finally, he found the bookies and the errant bet. I can honestly say, even to this day, how I ventured up to the furthest end of the course I do not know. I could have sworn I never went up there, but I did, and the old official was now discussing the bet with the bookie and the lost ticket. He returned to us and informed us that we would be getting paid, but only a ½ hour after the last race, as someone else could produce the ticket, and those were the rules. We were a bit disappointed, but at least we had the money now, and we waited.
We duly collected the winnings and set off for the bus back home. The time was around six, and the first bus was packed and simply drove past. We headed for the pub across the road and returned forty minutes later for the next bus. That bus was packed and simply drove past; back to the pub we went.
This was repeated until well after ten o’clock, when, finally, completely pissed, we hauled ourselves on the last bus. I was ready for falling asleep, but Billy Boy was at the back of the bus in full voice belting out Frank Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night to the groans of all the other passengers.
‘Yeh, don’t like it then, eh?’ he slurred with passion and mischief and added, ‘Let’s see if you like this then,’ and without shame dropped his pants and waved his tackle around whilst laughing uproariously.