Happy Birthday

On Easter weekend, I mentioned how, because of “the lockdown” it would be odd that I wouldn’t be travelling to visit my parents, which my brother and I do pretty much every year, not for any religious reasons, more for it being a long weekend and, crucially, generally around the time of my Dad’s birthday.

You can keep your St George’s Day celebrations today, your William Shakespeare was born and (because he couldn’t handle his beer) also died on this day, for this year, today, is my Dad’s 80th birthday, which probably would have warranted a second visit.

Before lockdown, when pressed as to what he wanted to do to mark his milestone, he insisted that he didn’t want any fuss. Which was lucky, because he’s not going to get any this year – at least not via close contact with any of his family, anyway.

And that includes my Mum, because this year, he isn’t going to be spending his birthday at home. Oh no. He’s in hospital, recovering from an operation.

On Sunday, my Mum called. This is not a common occurance. (Actually, that’s not strictly true. My brother and I have set times on set days that we call them to have a weekly catch-up, and if you’re as much as five minutes late, your phone will start ringing as the enquiries as to why you haven’t called yet begin. “I took a little longer in the toilet than expected, Mum. Shall I take the phone in with me next time?”)

Anyway, Sunday is not my day to speak to them, so I feared something was wrong. And it transpired that as he was cooking his breakfast that morning, he had inexpicably fallen over. He couldn’t get up again by himself, and my Mum, who is probably about half the size of him and has just had a hip-replacement operation herself, couldn’t manage it either. An ambulance was called, and off he went to hospital where a diagnosis of an acute fracture of the femur was given.

I don’t know, some people will do anything to get out of the house during lockdown.

Unless he has made a miraculous recovery, that’s where he will remain throughout his birthday.

So since I won’t be able to see him to wish him a Happy Birthday – or rather, as happy a birthday as it’s possible to have laid up in a hospital bed – I thought I’d share a memory, which looking back now, probably had a lot to do with my obsession with music later in life.

Growing up, evening meals at our house during the week were always taken at the table in the kitchen, but often Saturday’s evening meal (if there was nothing on TV, in which case it was eaten off trays on our laps in the living room) and definitely Sunday lunch, were served in the dining room.

Which makes our house sound remarkably grand, but it wasn’t really. I mean, it was a decent sized gaff; not long after we moved in in the mid-70s we had a loft conversion done at the front and an extension built at the back, and it was in the latter that the dining room was situated.

Here’s a photo of the old place, which just so happens to be my brother and I’s favourite picture of Dad, fag in hand, leaning nonchanlantly against the back of what we think was his first ever company car (a Vauxhall Cavalier – there’s posh!):

Anyway, after we’d finished eating on a Saturday night, we’d remain sat around the table, picking records to play from his collection. It’s a tradition which remains to this day when the family meets up, although these days tunes are played via an iPhone and bluetooth speaker rather than from his hi-fi system.

Inevitably, since my brother and I were forbidden from bringing any of our records downstairs – he’s not daft, he’d heard enough Quo blaring from upstairs as I tried to play my guitar along whilst simultaneously trying to perfect my ‘foot-on-monitor-rock-god’ pose to know that he needed to subject himself to no more – the same records would get picked every week, to the point where, after a few weeks I started compiling a chart.

Because generally the same records got picked every week, it wasn’t the most exciting chart to read, I’ll grant you. There was no Beatles v The Stones, no Blur v Oasis.

But one rivalry did spark up, oddly between two records by the same artist.

And that was because Dad would always pick the same record by this artist, and, after a fashion, so would I.

You know when you were a kid and, if you had a sibling, you would both be charged with doing the washing and drying up every now and again? And how the one doing the washing-up would often lay down a challenge: “I bet I’ll finish first”? And the dryer-upper would rise to the challenge, hurriedly drying each pot, plate and pan, blissfully ignorant that the washer-up had to finish before the dryer-up because that’s the order that things get finished in? I say this like it’s a rhetorical question, but this definitely happened in our house, and no I wasn’t the one doing the washing-up.

The same principle applied here: having compiled the chart and established that Dad’s weekly selection was miles ahead, I started picking the same record every week, determined to catch him up, hoping that he would forget to play the resolute Number One. And of course, every week, after I’d played my choice, Dad – and he might let me think he’d forgotten for a record or two afterwards – would play his choice and I’d have a bit of a sulk and would vow to return the following week, surely to be triumphant when next we would joust.

When I mention the name of this artist, a couple of his best known records will spring to mind, and don’t get me wrong, they’re great, great records, but a bit…I dunno…’comedy’. The record I used to choose every week pretty much fell into this category, but the one Dad chose most certainly did not.

They’re both by an artist who is often cited as an influence by bands and musicians who came through in the late 50s and early 60s: as well as having an effect on the likes of The Beatles and Jimmy Page, in the 70s he released an album where his backing band comprised of Elton John, Ronnie Wood, Brian May and Ringo Starr. He later toured with Van Morrison, which displays far greater levels of tolerance than perhaps he had previously been credited. The Wedding Present have recorded a cover version of one of his songs. There’s doubtless many more who would cite him.

I speak, of course, of Lonnie Donegan, who I found out when researching this, died in my home town of Peterborough. It has that effect on people.

It’s a shame that he is mostly remembered for his ‘novelty’ records, for “My Old Man’s a Dustman” and “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavour on the Bedpost Overnight?” and this, the record which I chose every week:

Lonnie Donegan – Puttin’ On The Style

It’s a record which, now imbued with a a little more pop knowledge, reminds me of The Beach Boys “I Get Around”. That should be the other way round, of course.

Unlike this, my Dad’s choice which is neither novelty nor particularly skiffle, but whenever I hear it, makes me think of…well, Dad:

Lonnie Donegan – Seven Golden Daffodils

I don’t think he would argue too much if I said that was his favourite record.

And after today, annoyingly, it still remains top of the charts.

Dad: I know this might sound weird given where you are, but happy birthday. I’m so sorry that we can’t be with you today. When all of this is over, and you’re allowed home, and we’re allowed to visit, we’ll have a bloody good drink. Deal?

And if any of you are nice enough to want to wish him a happy birthday too, there’s always the Comments, and, rather than calling him Jez’s Dad, his name’s Den. That would be quite a lovely thing for you to do.

More soon.