At the moment this blog finds me in the middle of pre-production on a short film version of my book, so in the meanwhile I’m going to start posting the book here, chapter by chapter. I hope it brings at least some of you some reading pleasure 🙂
“It’s Friday, it’s five to five and it’s Crackerjack!”
I suppose I knew, from the very first camera I held, that my calling in life had been found. Although my path to photographic success was sometimes blocked by idiots intent on my downfall, I managed to strive through with my sanity thankfully intact and my goals largely achieved. Which is more than I can say for the idiots.
Destiny deemed my future to be in journalism, specialising in the reported stories of actors and film-folk in general. Their world appeared to be solely of glamour and riches. Unlike those great people, however, I was not born into a rich family myself.
Our name of Montague was a moniker that had become associated with adventure and great landowners over the years due to the efforts of the more dramatic offshoots of the family. The Montagues had fought battles alongside Kings, ventured overseas to cross great lands in the name of trade and empire. Geoffrey Montague, my father, had descended twelve generations ago from Robert Montague. While the rest of his brothers were sturdy warrior types, Robert had been a weak and ineffectual addition to the family who had not entered the clergy as so many of the younger siblings did in those times. Not being deemed fit to join the exploits abroad with his brothers, he decided to put all of his inherited money into a type of seed drill which did nothing to move the agricultural development of England forwards and simply failed tremendously along with Robert’s heart just six months later, leaving behind an only son to continue his line.
Yes, the name brought with it none of the expected associations, and centuries passed so that we were as detached from the line as you can imagine, and it therefore meant little to me other than when signing cheques or knowing if letters had been delivered to the correct desk when working.
The impression is given from the result of this unfortunate history that we were perhaps poor, which is not particularly the truth. My family lived comfortably enough and wanted for very little. Our home was a large terraced house in a leafy suburb of North London, our neighbours house to one side had been burned out in a mystery fire and the owners had never been successfully traced so it stood and remained a sorry looking scorched husk, unsold and unloved. The house to the other side was owned by a local businessman who had made good with his life and moved to sunnier climes, apparently in such haste that he had quite forgotten to sell or even board up his property and so that also was left abandoned. Thankfully it never caught the eyes of opportunistic squatters and after a while even the postman stopped making deliveries there, so we appreciated the relative peace this lack of neighbours brought us.
I wanted for nothing as a child. My mother, Katherine, was doting and my father supportive. I can’t say if being an only child affected the way that they treated me, nor if there would have been more or even less love had been more children in the family, as I had no way of comparing my situation I had no point of reference and therefore never missed any alternative life. You can’t miss what you don’t know.
Life passed me by uneventfully, there are no Tom Brown style stories from my time at school, there were no eccentric aunts constantly visiting us and there were no local children for me to go off on wild boyhood adventures with. I enjoyed playing with my Cowboys and Indian toys as I watched the television serials and, every month or so as a treat, my parents would take me to the local Odeon cinema to watch a film, a time I always looked forward to and later treasured. The films were always full of glamour and, when filmed in Technicolor, revealed the world they moved in all the more to me. It was as far from our north London home as you could get.
Nothing really happened until perhaps my seventh year when my Mother, who had enjoyed apparently good health until then, became suddenly ill and died, all within a matter of a few weeks.
A problem exists when you’re young, it seems that there are so many things to learn around and about you of a physical nature, that you tend to have the more emotional or intangible parts of life just pass you by. It’s possible to arrive at a workplace when in your adult life, and notice that a colleague is having what is often described as a bad day, or that your lover or partner is “under the weather”, but this does not apply to children, they only know that they are being ignored and so are unintentionally selfish. So, even though I state that my Mother had died within a matter of weeks, what I should say is that within these few weeks I felt my life disrupted and my Mother was present in my life a lot less.
My Father would often be running around with bags packed for overnight hospital stays and our previously quiet household now became thrown into a comparative chaos. I did not know why, or how it had happened. There was no time for explanation and, in the days after her death, very few words came from my father who quietly dressed me and sent me off to school, or simply disappeared to cry behind closed doors while I tried my best to continue playing in the hallway outside.
As time passed by, I spent more and more time alone with the television and all the stars on it’s warm, glowing screen as my babysitter while my father made all the necessary arrangements for the funeral.
A week went by and what I could only view as chaos once again entered our home. My Mother’s family had been Irish Catholic and insisted on all the traditions of a funeral as they saw it. Our sitting room was turned into an exhibition area for my Mother and her coffin, the family milling around pretending to pay what they thought were respects as my father rushed from person to person filling glasses while they commented on our house although they had never, as far as I could recall, visited before.
At one point my father lifted me up to see my Mother lying in state, naturally quite still and wearing clothes I hadn’t seen her wear before. The thought occurred to me that they’d perhaps switched her with a doppelganger and that my Mother was elsewhere avoiding the raucous cacophony of this rabble. Oh, how I envied her.
The coffin itself was just like in the cowboy adventure serials I had been watching, with half the lid laid closed and the other half open to display her to the room, appearing to me just like the saloon bar doors I’d seen, it all seemed so bizarre.
As my Father lifted me down to the floor again, an apparently drunk uncle interrupted the moment. We’d never had alcohol in the house as both my parents were teetotal, but our extended family always liked a drink (or so I’d heard) and so my Father had felt inclined to make them welcome by obtaining a stock of various liquors, beers and wines for the leering herd, something he now found himself beginning to regret.
The Uncle, with one hand on the coffin for support, drunkenly slurred a few poorly chosen words of pity and condolences into my Father’s ear, but as he did so he lost his balance completely, falling to the floor and dragging the coffin with it. My Mother’s corpse fell to the ground. Whatever had been blocking up her nose for appearance’s sake suddenly popped out like champagne corks, followed by a slow glut of thick, black liquid, oozing onto our until recently very clean carpet.
My Mother had been a calm and graceful lady in life, and as people gathered her corpse back into the coffin, I knew that not only was this not my Mother, but also that respect or fear of death existed neither here in the house nor in the minds or eyes of the onlookers to this ghastly affair.
As people may find understandable, the death of my Mother hit my father quite terribly and, although he had never been the most energetic of people in my eyes, he never seemed to recapture what little vibrancy his character had previously enjoyed after the events previously described. Life drifted into a monotony of making sure I was ready for school, fed when necessary, and then ready for bed at night. Weekends passed with little excitement, mainly concentrating around household chores or the necessities of everyday existence such as fetching groceries or cleaning certain stubborn stains out of carpets.
The death of his own mother not more than two years later strangely seemed to return him back to a more alert existence, with him apparently enjoying life that little more. Part of this newfound energy was directed towards myself and the few interests I had; noting my fascination with the television set, he obtained tickets for us to view a filming of the then well known BBC children’s entertainment show Crackerjack.
The programme, presented at that time by one Eamonn Andrews (a friendly appearing gentlemen, well suited as all television presenters were, and with an endearing Dublin accent) involved pitting a number of school children, fully uniformed, against each other in a series of increasingly inane challenges mixed alongside what were considered to be questions of general knowledge. At the end of the programme the lucky contestants had the chance to return back to school with a much-coveted Crackerjack pencil. I heard many years later that there was a minor black market among TV staff in the trade of these pencils and so, to stifle this market, the pencils were placed under strict lock and key, only to be given to those deemed worthy on the show itself and to absolutely nobody else, not even the presenter.
Yes, the whole show was, with hindsight, lowbrow, patronising and pointless. I never missed an episode and I really wanted that pencil.
Before we left for the broadcast, while busying myself with getting dressed when my father called me downstairs to see something he’d picked up that day. With a smile on his face that I’d not seen for a long time, he handed me a box. On opening it, I found inside a shiny new camera. It had been a good amount of time since I’d received any sort of present, never mind one to this level. Absolutely overjoyed I pawed over it with eager hands as my father explained as best he could how it worked, although I was far too absorbed with the moment to take in his advice.
I insisted on taking it to the BBC studios with us in my school satchel and once inside we were treated to what I thought was an amazing spectacle of entertainment. Not only could one experience the cheering audience, the cameras at work, the lights, experience the songs, but best of all, I could see the presenter Eamonn Andrews himself in the flesh. At last, the line I had perceived between myself and the reality of these people had gone. They weren’t just flickering images on a muffled television, they were breathing and living, and it was all there for me. I knew it was something I had to somehow be part of and surround myself with, although I couldn’t at that time possibly perceive how or under what circumstances that might occur, as later developing years would reveal to me.
Once filming had completed and we were politely yet forcefully asked to leave the studio, I overheard a family discussing the whereabouts of the stage exit and their plans to seemingly ambush Mr. Andrews for an autograph on his exiting the studio complex. I tugged at my father’s jacket and begged for him to let me wait as well and, camera in hand, we found our way towards the stage door and waited patiently with one or two other families for it to open. After around an hour had passed and my father checking his watch with increasing impatience, he finally suggested to me that it was most likely that Mr. Andrews had either left via another exit or we had simply missed him, whatever had happened it didn’t change the fact that we had to catch our bus home before the services stopped.
Downhearted and tired, I took my father’s hand and walked with him to the bus stop. Presently, the bus arrived and we took our seats for the journey home. After only perhaps a minute or so of travelling, a very large car appeared to be blocking the road ahead. It’s bonnet lay open with a chauffeur tinkering around the steaming engine within. As we stopped to let traffic on the other side of the road pass us by, who should jump on board our bus but Mr. Andrews himself, apparently frustrated at his broken down vehicle and, like us, desperate to get home.
I was fixated in awe at this now all too real character and begged my father to bother him for a photograph. With hindsight I suppose he was tired after performing the show but agreed to my request and even took interest in my camera. He came across as such a pleasant gentleman I quite forgot, and now chose to disregard, any negatively cautious warnings about never meeting one’s heroes and now swore to meet as many as possible. I was sure that not only would they be as charming and gracious as Mr. Andrews now appeared to me but also that my hopes had been met and also exceeded.
He descended from the bus before us and I watched as he faded into the distance while the bus sped us home. I spent the rest of that journey gazing at my camera in satisfied bemusement with my father smiling contentedly at a job well done. Days after that eventful evening, I had been so desperate to see my photograph that I had busied myself in successfully filling the rest of the camera film with random shots of the house, the garden, some children playing outside my house in the street, anything to get it finished. My father had by now framed our tickets for Crackerjack and put them on display in the upstairs hall. Only a week later I had received back my new prints and the picture of Mr. Andrews now took pride of place framed upon my bedroom wall.
This was much better than any Crackerjack ticket or even a pencil. I was happy.