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1933 – Birkenhead.

My grandfather, Pat McManus came home from sea after being away for much of his son Ronald’s first five years of childhood.

My first clear memory of my own father was of him in the hallway of our basement flat in West Kensington, clutching a homecoming gift…

The fact that my family turned out to be traveling salesmen of music was the result of an industrial accident.

Young Pat McManus was orphaned by his mother’s death in 1906, from T.B. and the exhaustion of raising five young kids alone, eight years after their father was killed on the North Float Docks in Birkenhead.

Pat learned the cornet and French horn in a Catholic orphanage in North Hyde and the trumpet and bugle in the Military School of Music at Kneller Hall, serving ten years from 1912 in the Royal Irish Regiment, posted missing after being severely wounded just before the Battle of Cambrai, and then serving in India before his discharge at Beggar’s Bush Barracks, Dublin in 1922.

He quickly traded his army uniform for that of a ship’s musician, sailing on the White Star liners for the next ten years, some minor routes, sailing out of Liverpool as well as the New York crossing, departing from Southampton.

His travels afforded him some decent clothes and furniture for his wife Molly and an album of snapshots taken on leave in New York Central Park and Coney Island.

He also came home with a collection of autographed publicity photos; silent movie stars, boxing champions and Duke Ellington, who was a passenger on one of Pat’s last journeys on S.S Olympic in 1933, heading to London for his BBC broadcast debut.

Once ashore, Pat found work for a musician was limited to the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead or the pit at The Futurist cinema on Lime Street until the success of “talkies” meant that the accompaniment of a small orchestra for silent pictures was no longer needed.

My grandmother, Molly, cursed the name of Al Jolson for putting her husband on a corner playing for pennies.

Still, my Dad followed his father into music, changing his name to Ross, as it sounded more like the jazz musician he aspired to be. The cues from Louis Armstrong soon gave way to the new music of Dizzy Gillespie.

He was “Birkenhead’s Own Be-Bop” player.

There wasn’t a lot of competition.

He met my mother – a girl from Liverpool 8 – across the counter of the record shop where she worked. She made a point of knowing about the new releases, gave her own money to a seaman friend working his passage to New York in order to smuggle in rare Lenny Tristano records that her employer would not stock due to excessive import duty.

After they married in London, Ross came to the realization that there was a more reliable living to be made as a dance band singer and eventually he put away his horn until he took to the road as a club entertainer from the late 60s, covering thousands of miles alone, playing songs of his own choosing in working men’s clubs until his eventual retirement in the early 90s.

For fifteen years from 1955, his schedule was that of any working man, only he was on an evening shift at the Hammersmith Palais between BBC radio broadcasts, summer tours of Irish dancehalls, Bridlington Spa, Trentham Ballroom and The Winter Gardens at Cheltenham, all of which still drew huge crowds of strict tempo dancers.

The radio and record player offered me magic, mystery and occasionally my father’s voice but music also meant distance, travel, heartbreak and eventually that my Dad lived at another address.

My lessons did nothing to connect the name of Shakespeare to the music of his poetry, it was just another puzzle, like algebra, that seemed to have no purpose in real life.

Nor was it made obvious that the commentary in Dickens served the same function for Victorian life as the paperback writers, the kitchen sink drama and “The Play For Today” did for the 1960s?

I felt nothing for “hey nonny no” verses about the plight of the plough-boy or the weaver. The English folk songs that I could recognize were called, “Waterloo Sunset” or “Penny Lane”.

What else could I glean about adult life that was not contained in the thrill and sorrow of records? Well, perhaps squalor and conflicted loyalties of dour spy movies, the deceptions and tawdry glamour of detective fiction, the sex and ambition of “A Room At The Top”, the cloying claustrophobia of BBC Light Entertainment.

By the 1970s, a road from “Tuscon to Tucumcari” sounded inviting, even though this too was a song of perseverance. John Prine’s portraits of loneliness or Randy Newman’s grotesques, set to New Orleans and ragtime piano motifs were as attractive as they were impossible to master on the guitar.

That didn’t stop me from attempting to decode these signals. I wrote what little my fingers would allow under the hum of the Heathrow flight path.

“Jump Up”, “Poison Moon” and “No Star” – songs I wrote when I was little more than 20 years old – aspired to sound arcane, in the manner of these American writers that I admired so much and I used these songs to express the way it felt on the outskirts of town, on the outside of everything that I imagined happening elsewhere.

Yet, I’d stand them up next to “Voice In The Dark”, written ten years ago or “Hey Clockface”, which picks a genial argument with the face of time, a song recorded not a moment too soon, in 2020.

I’ve known enough of the comfort sought in desperate hours to write these songs of a vaudeville life, that Archie Rice thrown at a summer of loveless weddings, the sad masks of “Ghost Train”, “God’s Comic” and “Mr. Feathers”.

Some of these songs contained personal revelations which were easier to face after raiding the dress-up trunk on the long and winding road from “Sulphur to Sugarcane”, pulling on the itchy, dank suit of “Jimmie Standing In The Rain”, an account of three generations of traveling musicians, compressed within the frame of an imaginary “Forgotten Man”.

His bitterness at the unkindness and ingratitude of strangers is something I tried to admit in the lines,
“And there’s still life in your body
But most of it’s leaving
Can’t you give us all a break

Can’t you stop breathing” 

Before donning a dazzling “Suit Of Lights” and stepping out of the haunted wings into the false confidence of applause and the shared dust, hung in the shaft of a misdirected beam.

To be continued…   

1) SULPHUR TO SUGARCANE – Elvis Costello & The Sugarcanes from “Secret, Profane & Sugarcane”

2) GHOST TRAIN – Elvis Costello from “Taking Liberties”

3) I CAN’T SAY HER NAME – Elvis Costello from “Hey Clockface”

4) JUMP UP – Elvis Costello from “My Aim Is True”

5) VOICE IN THE DARK – Elvis Costello from “National Ransom” 

6) POISON MOON – Elvis Costello from “My Aim Is True” 

7) A SLOW DRAG WITH JOSEPHINE – Elvis Costello & The Sugarcanes from “National Ransom” 

8) MR FEATHERS – Elvis Costello  & The Imposters from “Momofuku” 

9) HEY CLOCKFACE/HOW CAN YOU FACE? – Elvis Costello from “Hey Clockface”

10) GOD’S COMIC – Elvis Costello from “Spike” 

11) SUIT OF LIGHTS – Elvis Costello from “King Of America”

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