VT Coughtrey

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Chapter 10: Nigel Palmer and jazz
Chapter written 1999 & last revised 2013

When Nigel re-established contact in 2003 as a result of discovering this site, he was somewhat amused (or perhaps bemused) by some aspects of this description of his teenage self. I'd love to have his own description!
Around 1957, as I approached 15, I began to see less of Walter and more of Nigel Palmer, the school friend mentioned in an earlier chapter.  The two could hardly have been more different.  I don't think they ever met, but had they done so I'm sure each would have been very surprised that I was friendly with the other.  They were separate species.  Nigel was the scholarly, conservative-minded son of a professional man.  He lived in a large Early Victorian house with extensive grounds in Lyonsdown Road, New Barnet.  He always did well at school and was particularly enthusiastic about Classical Greek and Ancient History, subjects he eventually took as A-levels.  Although he was the very opposite of most of the boys in character - quiet, shy and respectable - I don't recall that he had any trouble from them.  It may have been because he was quite good at sport.  He attracted the minority of reasonable types in his year (no longer my year, because I'd been kept down), and they certainly didn't join in the general taunting and harassment of me.  They were Bolden, Pratt, Segal, Goldstein, Hond, Brand and Martin.
Of course, in my situation, actually having a close friend at school was not something to be given up easily, so I found myself spending a very boring (and blisteringly hot) day at Lord's, for example, even though I had less than no interest in cricket.  But the most extraordinary thing I did to keep Nigel happy was to join the Crusaders' Union.
Actually, I see that 'Cru' is still very much alive (in 2010), but has changed its name to Urban Saints.  I think I can guess why. 'Cru' was (and no doubt still is) a network of Sunday afternoon Bible classes for middle-class adolescent boys that included simple catchy hymns and even simpler preaching.  Nigel had been directed to join and attend regularly by his parents and quite happily obeyed, while secretly being rather contemptuous of the whole thing.  I don't think he ever seriously thought of himself as a Christian.
And they seem to allow girls to join these days.  That would have made me rather keener on it. Every week for about two years, from age 14 to 16, I dutifully gave up my precious Sunday afternoons to walk the couple of miles to the hut in a Whetstone churchyard where the Cru sessions were held.  As a closet smash-the-system, shoot-the-religious revolutionary, I felt somewhat uncomfortable at Cru classes.  But at least the pallid, drippy, horribly earnest young men in charge provided good material for a private laugh with Nigel on the walk back to his place (which was about halfway between the church and my place).  I was occasionally called upon (with a week's notice in order to prepare notes) to give 'testimony' of the Lord at work in my life, and concocting absurd drivel for this was yet another demand on what should have been homework/lines time.  Eventually I was presented with a fine King James Bible for excellent attendance!
The house was unfortunately demolished in the '80s and replaced by a block of flats. In the holidays I began to spend more and more time with Nigel at his house, which fascinated me.  It was a great, rambling early Victorian mansion (well, it wasn't really that big, but it seemed so to me at the time).  It had a games room with a snooker table in the cellar and two or three tennis courts in the extensive grounds.  Everything was magically shabby-genteel.  The grounds were partially overgrown.  The Palmers obviously couldn't afford the gardener and other help that the place required, especially as Mrs Palmer seemed to be in a very delicate state of health.  This place was 110 Normandy Avenue all over again but on a much bigger scale.  It was a wonderland to me.  Nigel attempted to teach me snooker while playing Perry Como's Magic Moments over and over again on the Dansette. [Just after I typed that sentence, Perry Como's death was announced on TV].  I showed some promise at snooker, but was hopeless at tennis, which he also struggled to teach me with mounting exasperation.
My mother approved of Nigel: I now seemed to her to be moving in high circles.  However, at this stage she had not even met him.  This was because it was unthinkable to me that he should find out that I lived in a Council house and that my father was a factory hand.  I therefore told him I lived in Nan Clarke's Lane in Mill Hill Village.  I thought of that because it was a location too remote for him to check on, or so I thought.  In fact he went there out of curiosity, made enquiries and found that I certainly didn't live in any of the few cottages there.  I also said that my father was a fire investigator.  I can't remember if that was also found out to be a lie.
At around this time I began to acquire a liking for trad jazz of the British variety, having heard it once or twice on the radio.  Actually, I'm not sure that liking had anything to do with it, originally.  I was always on the lookout for things that the smallest possible number of people liked and understood.  I certainly had no intention of admitting a liking for any form of pop music, and in fact I genuinely detested all of it, especially Bill Haley and Elvis.  I could never understand why teenagers were always being referred to as 'rebellious' when in fact they were obviously desperate to conform as closely as possible to mass tastes and to buy whatever the old men who ran the entertainment business chose to sell them.
Although trad jazz was by no means the most esoteric thing I could have found, had I known where to look, professing a liking for it in those days definitely marked you out as a weirdo.  Well, put it this way, it had plenty of shock value in Barnet, partly because the press were associating it with drugs, booze and loose morals - with fascinating creatures called art students, that is.  Rock 'n' roll was only associated with smashing up cinemas, which was not genuinely subversive.  Smashing up cinemas was just a phase, from which rehabilitation was perfectly possible - inevitable, in fact.  In addition, my school fellows shared the general adult perception of trad as a frighteningly meaningless racket perpetrated by men who didn't wear ties!  Of course, within a few years, a simplified form of trad jazz played by men who very definitely wore ties was all the rage for a while.
I soon began to buy the Melody Maker, a publication that died just a few weeks before writing this.  It might surprise some people to hear that the MM was militantly anti-pop in those days and sported headlines such as 'Stop this Pop Rot.'  Before long it became obvious to me that I should be collecting records.  I told my father that I needed plenty of bass.  These were the days long before young people in general had become obsessed with bass, probably because they had to make do with Dansettes and the like, which could produce practically no bass at all.  My father dutifully went to Janes & Adams in the High Street and asked for the bassiest equipment they had.  The only things suitable were radiograms, which were far too big and prohibitively expensive, even on the 'never-never'.  However, they had an old Truvoice gramophone in the stores, which was now far too old-fashioned in looks to be saleable.  In its day it had been state-of-the-art as far as bass was concerned.  They let my father have it for next to nothing.  It displaced the chemicals, test tubes and flasks from the large table in my bedroom and I was very happy with it.  Apart from anything else, it was a beautiful piece of walnut furniture, which is precisely why they hadn't been able to sell it.  Eventually the bass wasn't enough for me, so my father acquired an old speaker from a radiogram and built a large cabinet for it so I could use it as an external speaker (unusual then).
My first record wasn't British trad jazz at all, but Django Rheinhardt.  In fact I was never to possess a single trad record by a British band.  This was because by the time I got round to collecting records, I had learned from the MM that the British stuff was a pale imitation of much older American music and also that there were other forms of jazz even further from the popular taste than trad.  However, it's still a bit of a mystery why I bought (i.e. got my father to buy) a record of French gypsy jazz.  Anyway, I was soon in love with Django's music.  In fact I was soon in love with all possible forms of jazz, and the record collection began to reflect this, although of course it grew only very slowly while I was still at school.
I also got my father to buy me a tape recorder (on which bass wasn't a possibility in those early days).   Very few boys at school yet had one.  I wired it up to the little bakelite radio in my bedroom and recorded what little jazz there was on radio then.  Eventually this practice caused the radio to go up in flames.
Ok, so Coltrane doesn't seem so difficult these days, but in 1958 ... It was in order to attempt to convert Nigel to jazz that I eventually owned up as to where I lived and actually invited him round once for an illustrated lecture in the holidays.  I spent many hours putting together a programme of jazz styles in chronological order on the tape recorder, (by wiring it up to the gramophone this time) and even more hours writing the lecture that was to intersperse the music.  No doubt I made up a good deal of the historical 'facts'.  What mattered was that it should all come across as extraordinary, weird, very shocking, yet be a deeply intellectual treatise at the same time.  I'd read a fair bit about New Orleans brothels, for example, to give me a good start.  It was also very important that much of the music should be incomprehensible in order to prove that I was infinitely more intelligent than my hopeless situation at school might suggest.  It had to make Ancient Greek seem a doddle.  My mother popped in briefly and was very careful to say as little as possible in the falsely posh voice put on for such occasions.  My father appeared during the John Coltrane track and said "I must say you've got a red-hot sax player there!"  I was relieved when Nigel seemed very impressed by this remark, but he was not so impressed, I believe, by the music itself.
I began bashing out the twelve-bar blues on our ancient horribly out-of-tune piano.  The black notes seemed in a slightly better state, which is why I am the only person in the world most at home in F sharp.  Anyway, I soon drove my grandmother to distraction with the piano and the times when I was allowed to get at it were severely restricted.
Meanwhile, things at school were going from bad to diabolical (to use a favourite word of my father's).
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