Category Archives: Work

framed

(Post by John Allan from Bridgetown, Western Australia – June 2022.)

When I was young my mother would knit various items of clothing for me. Mainly jumpers, beanies (woollen hats) gloves and scarfs. Unfortunately many of the items on completion would be a bit on the small side as Mummy hadn’t anticipated my growth spurts nor the time taken to create the garments. The lack of a comprehensive time, motion and cost analysis greatly impeded productivity – but mothers didn’t talk like that in the 60s as they weren’t pretentious middle manager wankers in competitive industry.

In my middle primary school years she got it just right. She produced a perfectly fitted royal blue sweater with a tiny silvery white speck through it. Most kids moped about in grey jumpers or navy blue cardigans. This was a thing of beauty. Leave that technicolour coat back on the peg Joseph. There I was in my shimmering azure outfit looking absolutely gorgeous. It was the bees knees. The dogs bollocks (as they say in these parts). I was pleased as punch. Happy as Larry (where do we get these phrases from ?) Mum had really come up with the goods this time. How was I to know it would lead to my downfall.

One day I was taken aside by Mrs. Cullen who was not my classroom teacher at the time. She (wrongfully) claimed that I had been observed (by a cleaner I think) rifling through the desks of another classroom after school hours. The culprit had a distinctive blue jumper. She accused and berated me for some time and dismissed my pleas of innocence through trembling bottom lip. “It wasn’t me, Miss !”

When I got home I burst into inconsolable sobbing at the injustice of it all. I knew there was a lad a few years my senior that had a similar styled and coloured jumper (not as fabulous as mine of course) who was a bit shifty. My mother comforted me as mothers do but she didn’t storm down to the school and demand an apology for the wrongful accusation. Was there a seed of doubt that her youngest and dearest could be a petty thief ? This was too much for an 8 year old to bare. I stripped off the bespoke jumper and threw it into the bottom drawer with all the other discarded woollens never to see the light of day again.

I will wear grey from this day forth. I will not stand out from the crowd.

(Fast forward five years and I’m wearing a mauve floppy collared shirt and a multi-coloured tank top !)

Did you know that they call a jersey a ‘Guernsey’ in Australia ? No, I don’t know why either !

I don’t know if this incident shaped my views of fighting for the underdog. Righting the wrongs. Standing up for the dispossessed.

When I was a student nurse in the 80s doing my placement at Drumchapel Hospital I was stopped by a solitary picket at the gates. Most people walked straight by him but I heard him out. He was an Orderly striking for a reasonable wage. He was from the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) as was I so I didn’t cross his line. I was summoned by my lecturers and told I was the first ever student to go on strike. ‘AND ?’ I replied. Stony silence. Chalk that one up for the little guy.

I became a job representative for the Australian Nurses Federation and took industrial action for over a week along with thousands of others for better pay and conditions in the early nineties.

I have led a relatively blameless existence in the eyes of the law bar a few traffic infringements including a fine for not having lights on my bicycle in which an aggressive young officer screamed in my face. “Where’s your f**king drivers licence ?” His colleague had to restrain him when I pointed out you don’t need a licence for a bike. The bastard still gave me a $200 fine.

A few late library books and that’s it. My wrongful primary school accusation has not led me into a life of spiraling crime – YET !

I do miss that jumper though !

lady gaggia.

(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire )

Hawkins Wine Bar.

Having spent a good deal of my teens frequenting pubs around West Birmingham during the mid 1970s, it seemed perfectly natural to progress to working in them. My ambitions were to go on the stage but a girl has to make a living, right?

As soon as I left school in 1978, and with no particular place to go, I headed for an interview with a new wine bar that had just opened in the city centre – very upmarket!   Harpers occupied a large corner site near the police station and Accident and Emergency Hospital, so I figured I’d be safe walking late at night to catch the bus from outside the ‘Back of Rackham’s’.

(Rackham’s was an elegant department store occupying a whole city block on Corporation Street in Birmingham. Rumours abounded that ladies of a certain type frequented the pavements outside the back door and Mom always warned me against hanging around there.   I walked many times around the ‘Back of Rackham’s’ as I grew up and never once saw anything improper going on, much to my dismay.)

With Mom’s advice to ‘look smart and mind my manners’ ringing in my ears, I borrowed her fashionable black and white dog-tooth checked suit (shortening the skirt, obviously); teaming it with my white leather cowgirl boots, white cotton lace gloves and an antique parasol.

With the audacity of youth, I strutted into Harpers one sunny October afternoon and stopped in my tracks to gaze in wonder at the fabulous fixtures and fittings. The long mahogany bar was backed by a reclaimed church façade and bevelled mirrors, which reflected the light from the enormous curved, windows. I felt very grown up.

(Opposite: Harpers interior – now Sound Bar.)

Assistant Manager Tristan must have noticed me gawping and bounded over, shook my hand and ushered me to a table. He had a big Zapata moustache and an equally big, bright smile. 

“Hello Darling, you must be Andrea?” 

“Yes thanks, I am.” (Going well so far) 

“So, you’ve come about the position as bar maid and waitress?” 

“Yes thanks, I have.” 

“Have you had any previous experience?” 

“No, but I learn fast!” 

Tristan flashed his brilliant smile at me, touching my arm lightly: 

“I love your outfit darling – especially the parasol! Wonderful!” 

“Thanks!” 

“So, when can you start?” 

“Right now.” (Mom had said I should appear ‘keen’.) 

“OK darling, I’ll just have to introduce you to the manager.

Tristan trotted away to find said manager; a tall man with a weak handshake which worried me slightly as Dad had always warned me of men with a “limp” hand shake.  (“Honey, you know where you stand with a firm grip.”)

“This is Andrea –  isn’t she gorgeous? She can start right away and she’s a fast learner.” 

“I bet she is,” said the manager as he looked me up and down.  My interview was apparently over and I was asked to start work the next morning at 7:30 am  to   serve continental style breakfast and coffee from eight. I was put to work on the food counter, serving cold meats and cheese, croissants and pastries and the infamous Gaggia espresso machine. This great red and chrome beast occupied the whole length of the food bar, with its hot water spouts, coffee grinders and stacks of white cups and saucers. 

Getting to grips with the Beast, as it became known, wasn’t easy – it was all in the wrist action. Customers would stand behind the counter and watch as the other girls and I twisted and twirled the mighty coffee grinders and polished the spouts in time to the music; steam hissing into the steel milk jugs. We could pull quite a crowd. 

Having to start work so early meant I was often the first person there with the cleaners, one of whom was spooked by rumours that Harpers was haunted. There were stories that the bar stools had been found one morning stacked on top of each other – just like the kitchen chairs in Poltergeist! The lamps behind the bar moved and footsteps could be heard running up from the basement kitchen, where people had died during WW2 as they sheltered from the bombing.  I hoped against hope to see a ghost but never did – but the old building certainly had an odd atmosphere.

Andrea in 1978 … and in standard issue Hawkins beige cords.

Reports of hauntings didn’t put punters off, as solicitors from the Law Courts next door poured into Harpers for their ‘working lunches’.  I worked the mighty Beast in beige cord jeans so tight I had to lie down and zip them up using a coat hanger.  I was voted ‘Gaggia Girl 1979’ – my claim to fame!

As I worked the bar one evening, Andy Gray, – the Villa footballer – came in and asked the other girls and me if we would like to come over to his new night club? I had to think about that for, oh, maybe two seconds. Imagine, the girl from Virginia who didn’t know what the Villa was, now being asked to come check out a night club owned by a Villa player!  Ha – what would the lads at the God Awful school think now? 

The nightclub was the most fantastic, exotic place I had ever been! Like a dark cave, it went back and back through a series of rooms beneath the railway arches at Snow Hill station. It became a new romantic club in the early ’80s with live bands such as Roxy Music and Duran Duran, but when it opened in ’79 it pumped out disco. TheHarpers staff became regulars after our shift ended; strutting our stuff fired up on Pernod and coke, great music and youth. I crawled home at 2am to sleep it off, get up at five and do it all over again.

Back at Harpers the buzz was always at fever pitch as we worked to the heady disco beat on a Bose Sound System:  ‘Le Freak’’, ‘Ladies Night’, ‘Instant Replay’, ‘You Make Me Feel, Mighty Real’ beneath the huge mirror balls and innovative laser shows. I loved every minute. 

It was in this heady atmosphere, that I first met George Melly when he was booked to play a gig at Harpers with John Chiltern and his Feet Warmers. I was asked to go down into the staff room to serve drinks to the band and was introduced to Mr. Melly, who was sitting with his large frame overextending the rather small chair; resplendent in a snappy pinstriped suit with wide lapels and a large snap brimmed fedora hat.  He smiled his languid smile and said something like:   

“So, my dear, how kind of you to bring old George a drink.” 

As the lights in the bar dimmed to a spotlight, Mr. Melly sashed onto the floor with a wicked gleam in his eye and a whisky in his hand as he belted out Bessie Smith’s ‘Kitchen Man,’ which was rich with lewd innuendo.

I became a big fan, following his gigs from London’s Ronnie Scotts to the Malvern Theatre, where he had to stop the show and tell the be-jewelled, staid audience to clap on the off-beat: “This is Jazz!” he growled.

 I saw George Melly several more times, including an appearance he made on BBC Pebble Mill’s ‘Six Fifty-five Special’ – a surreal experience.  I was invited to meet him in the Green Room, where he sat in his trade mark Zoot suit and snap brim Fedora before he went on air. Whether he remembered me or not is doubtful, but he spoke to me as though I was his best friend:

“Hello my dear, how kind of you to come to see old George.” He still twinkled.

With him was Kenneth Williams, who was staring up the nostrils of  70s actor and singer David Soul, giving him an impromptu lesson on how to speak with an English accent:

“Enunciate, dear boy, e-nun-ciate.”

I had just witnessed a Master Class.

Before I left Harpers, we had a New Year’s Eve fancy dress party with a ‘Glamorous Hollywood’ theme. All staff were expected to do a ‘turn’ and having recently had my permed hair cut into a short crop, I went along dressed as Liza Minnelli as ‘Sally Bowles’ from “Cabaret” in bowler hat, black waistcoat, fishnets and towering stiletto’s.  Grabbing a bar stool, I did my best, although I couldn’t for the life of me bend backwards over that stool! My brother Dale tagged along wearing a full suit of armour. Unable to sit down, he stood all evening with cigarette smoke curling through the grid on his visor. 

Liza Minnelli as Andrea … no, wait …??

The drag acts were outstanding that evening, including ‘Fred and Ginger’ who thrilled us with their rendition of ‘Cheek to Cheek’ and ‘Rita Hayworth’ slinking across the floor to ‘Put the Blame on Mame’. We danced until dawn, seeing in 1979 in considerable style and with heavy hangovers!

Oh to be eighteen again!

(Copyright: Andrea Burn May 1st 2021)

ballad of a refuse disposal officer

(Post by John Allan, Bridgetown Western Australia – December 2021)

Oh, my old man’s a dustman
He wears a dustman’s hat
He wears cor blimey trousers
And he lives in a council flat

Unlike Lonnie Donegan’s, my old man was not a dustman, he was a teacher. He used to say to me, if I didn’t study hard for my exams all I would be fit for was emptying other people’s bins. Like most things my father said, I thought that was grossly unjust and unfair.

There were three Johns in my primary school class and John with the cracked national health glasses held together with sellotape – yes that John – his Dad was a dustman. I’m not sure about his head gear and I don’t know what ‘cor blimey’ trousers are.

I have an image in my head of tight leather chaps worn by some colourful gentleman around the Bay area of San Francisco in the 70s that exposed many a firm buttock but that can’t be them surely. It certainly wasn’t de riguer for council workers at the time as far as I can remember. John’s Dad, and the rest of his eight siblings I presume, did live in a council house around the corner from us.

These dustman were the soldiers of the streets hanging off the back of their tank-like lorries. On a certain morning each week they would swoop through your street like an invading army. These waste warriors would jog down your driveway, give you your morning wake up call by throwing down the metallic bin lid and whistling tunelessly. They’d scoop up your carriage of discarded crap in one fluid movement, jog back up your drive bin held aloft over their shoulder, it’s contents waiting to be fed to the hungry growling beast. The midden lorry. These garbage guerillas would then hop on to the running board slap the side of the vehicle and vanish into the misty morn.

What wee boy (or girl) didn’t dream of riding shotgun for a day.

Even in the seventies the metallic trash cans gave way to tall wire baskets with black plastic bin liners. Our heroes, still at a steady jogging pace, would remove the bulging bin bags and deposit refills under the lid like chocolates on your pillow at a fancy hotel. These men were artisans.

Taking it to another extreme, up until the late 70s in Australia where I now live, toilet facilities were rarely contained within the suburban household. The ‘dunny’ was the outside toilet at the back of the yard. There was a lane at the back of the properties where the dunny man wheeled his cart. Most well respected housewives stayed indoors while the dunny man was taking care of business so to speak. One day a concerned housewife heard an all mighty crash and rushed outside to see a fallen dunny man sprawled out with the contents of a weeks worth of family excrement all over him.

“What happened ? Did you fall ?”

“Nah, I’m stocktaking and I’m one shit short !”

I digress.

And where did all this rubbish end up. We didn’t know ! We didn’t care ! It was whisked away to a magical mystical midden world and never seen again. It probably ended up as land fill which a few years later would become the latest new ‘scheme’. The sort of place where they tear down all the trees and then name the streets ‘Oak Parade’ or ‘Willow Grove’. It could have been dumped at sea and now floats like an island the size of France between California and Hawaii.

These days you have to take out your own mystifying multitude of rainbow coloured receptacles to the kerb side, requiring a spread sheet to work out what bin goes out which day. I nearly didn’t hear today’s ‘bin man’ as I think they have a new electric truck.

‘CLEANAWAY – making a sustainable future possible’ it smugly claims on the side of the vehicle. One man operated – no jogging required ! A mechanical arm comes out and lifts the plastic bin to a gaping hole in the side. I think there is also a small camera so the operator can check you’re not depositing severed body parts into his shiny new truck.

I wonder if he’s wearing ‘cor blimey’ trousers?

Radio Ga Ga

George Cheyne: Glasgow, Dec 2021

We’ve all experienced those awkward few seconds of satellite delay after being asked a question from left-field.

You know the type…
What time did you get in last night?
Where did you leave the car keys?
How much were those new shoes again?

A self-defence mechanism usually kicks in as you punctuate the silence with an “ehh…” here or an “erm…” there while formulating your response.

Now, imagine you were going to make your debut on live radio and the only brief you’d been given was never, and I mean NEVER, allow any dead air.

That was the situation I found myself back in 1977 when I was asked to cover a Clydebank-Hibs game for Radio Clyde in my days as a local newspaper reporter.

It was no biggie, they said. A wee pre-match chat with presenters Richard Park and Paul Cooney, throw in some team news, another chat at half-time, phone in any goal flashes and then a full-time wrap, as they say in Radioland.

Park
Cooney

The producer, on hearing it was to be my first time doing a live broadcast, then gave me my pep talk about making sure there was no dead air.

“Just remember, George, radio silence might be good in war-time…but it’s no effin good any other time.

Fair point well made.

I turned up at Kilbowie Park in plenty of time, got settled in to my seat in the left-hand corner of the social club – which doubled as a press box on match days – overlooking the pitch and pored over the team sheet when it was handed out an hour before kick-off.

This information would form the basis of the pre-match chat so I duly noted the changes in both sides from the week before, made a few notes and – as it was November 5 – dusted off a few Guy Fawkes Night puns.

You know the ones…the Bankies will have to light a bonfire underneath themselves if they’re going to get out of relegation trouble, Hibs have a few sparklers of their own up front today and Clydebank boss Bill Munro will be hoping he doesn’t have to give his side a rocket at half-time after falling behind to an early goal again.

Bill Munro and his team

I was ready as I’d ever be and put in the call to Radio Clyde HQ and spoke to the producer.

“We’ve got a few minutes before you’ll be on,” he said, “They’re just starting to go round the grounds just now. By the way, how do you pronounce your surname?”

It’s Cheyne, as in gold chain.”

“Really?…okay then. Stay on the line and you’ll hear a click just before you’re due to go on.”

I spent the next 10 minutes or so trying to prepare for any curve-ball questions which might be coming my way – and so avoid the dreaded dead air.

Click. This was it, my live radio debut…..

And now we’re off to Kilbowie Park where we can speak to our reporter George Shyann ahead of the Clydebank-Hibs game. Tell us, George…which way is the wind blowing at Kilbowie today?

If I’d prepped for a week solid I could never have anticipated that question. Left-field doesn’t begin to cover it.

A trickle of sweat meandered its way down my back as I looked out the social club window for a clue, any kind of clue – about which way the wind was blowing.

Nothing, not a damn thing. Meanwhile, I had broken the world record for the number of times anyone has uttered the “ehh…” and “erm…” sounds on live radio.

After what seemed like an eternity, I was finally able to blurt out: “It appears to be swirling all around the ground.”

“Ah, well, and what’s the team news today, George?”

I was completely thrown by the question about the wind and went on auto-pilot to read out the teams, formations and changes.
No Guy Fawkes references, no witty chat…nothing.

The call ended, I slumped back into my seat and and said a silent prayer for a 0-0 game so I wouldn’t need to go back on to tell the waiting world about any goal flashes.

No such luck. Clydebank scored through Billy McColl before half-time and I had to put in the call.

Click. “And we’re off to Kilbowie where George Chainey has news of a goal.
Who’s it for, George?”

No dead air this time as I managed to give an account of the goal without tripping over my tongue.

Half-time arrived and, just before I checked in again, a press box pal sidled up to me with the reason behind the question about the wind.

He’d been listening to Radio Clyde on his way to Kilbowie and the topic du jour was whether games should be called off because of high winds.

That would have been handy to know, but I wasn’t able to hear the broadcast while I was waiting to go on.

No matter. I could go out in a blaze of glory with my full-time wrap peppered with references to the winds of change blowing through Kilbowie after a 1-0 win and tweak the Guy Fawkes Night puns that I never got to use.

I check in with the producer and he tells me I’m next up. “One thing,” he says, “Don’t use any references to high winds or Guy Fawkes Night…everyone else has being doing that today.”

Aaargh! That’s showbiz…

All Over The Shop (Part 3)

Mark Arbuckle: Glasgow, November 2021

Suddenly it was 1979 and every bloke shopped at Topman!

After the excitement of the grand opening and the hosting of Fiona Richmond we settled into our new store and were extremely busy over the summer of 79.

The shop’s basement had not been refurbished and left in a rundown state…. part sales-floor, part stock-room, part office, part staff-room.
It also had one of those old-fashioned wooden parquet floors that made a clip-clop sound when anyone walked on it.

Davy our manager’s family home was still in Arbroath so he was staying in digs in Glasgow during the week, getting the train home on a Saturday evening and taking the Monday off to spend time at home.

One Saturday Davy had left to catch his usual train. I was still working, collating the monthly figures when I heard the clip-clop of footsteps on the parquet floor outside the office. Davy walked in cursing that he’d missed his train before heading off 20 minutes later to catch the next one.
Ten minutes after Davy had gone I heard the clip-clop sound again and swung the door open ready to slag Davy for missing another train and….there
was nobody there! 

I shouted ‘Hello’, ‘Hello’ before realising I was on my own…. or was I?
So I quickly packed up my stuff, set the alarm and got the hell out of there!

A week or so later, Rikki, Davy and I were leaving the basement when Rikki suddenly reared back in fright pushing Davy out of the way!
WTF! 
An ashen faced Rikki swore that he’d just seen a black dog crouching beneath a plastic chair in front of an old fitting room before it started to leap up at him!
He was very shaken and took quite a while to calm down!

Intrigued at the goings-on, I did a bit of research and discovered that our building had been built close to the site of an old chemical & pharmaceutical factory
W&R. Hatrick & Co. on Renfield Street. 

The building had gone up in flames, exploded and then collapsed killing 4 firemen on the 7th January 1898.

Fire on Renfield St 1898

There was to be another ‘ghostly’ incident a few months later but this time it was a bit more explainable.

Ross (he of the wiry ginger hair) was passing the shop late one evening when he stopped to look in the front door. He gasped when he saw all the jackets begin to swing about on their rail next to the cash desk…. he thought he was seeing things!
He saw the next rail of clothing start to swing about too before running off in a panic for his late-night bus!

The next day he related this incident to Davy and I.
I was sceptical but, having already ‘witnessed’ two other ghostly ‘sightings’ that month, I had an open mind.

Davy on the other hand said “Dinny be daft son, ye must’ve been pished!”

Later that evening when we went for a pint in Sloan’s, Davy told me why he’d been so dismissive!

Sloans Tavern

Am stayin’ in the shoap instead a the digs” he confessed! “But am still gettin’ ma digs paid by tha cumpany and no tellin’ em! Last night I’d set ma sleepin’ bag up at the back cash desk which can’t be seen from the front door. But I’d left ma watch at the front cash-till and had made my way behind the rails to get it and that’s what Ross saw! It wiz me pushing the jackets aside as I crawled back to ma sleepin’ bag!”

I nearly choked on my pint!
We had such a laugh about it! We never told Ross and he probably still tells the story about the ghostly jackets!!

A couple of weeks later Davy experienced another form of incursion, but this one was a tad more sinister!

He had just returned from the pub late one night and was making his way to his hidey-hole at the back of the shop when he saw a ladder and a pair of boots disappearing up through the polystyrene tiles into the roof space!
Above our roof was an empty building which burglars had gained entry to before entering via the shop’s unalarmed roof!
It was obviously a very well-planned break-in with three rough looking guys in the process of emptying the leather and suede department!

As handy as he was Davy didn’t fancy taking all three of them on so he slipped quietly back out to a phone box to call the police. He made up a story that he’d left important paperwork in the shop and was returning to get it when he witnessed the break-in in progress!
The burglars were never caught but poor Davie had to book into a B&B until the dust settled.

We had another police incident a few weeks later.
Next door to Top Man was a very busy HMV store. 

Rikki and I got very friendly with the staff and in particular big Duncan the security guard who was about 6’4″ and 20 stone!
We gave them discount and they reciprocated.

However, despite big Duncan’s presence HMV had a major shoplifting problem which, considering it was all vinyl albums in those days, was quite a feat on the shoplifter’s part!
One day Rikki spotted two young guys crouched down dividing up their stolen haul of albums around the entrance to our front door. (Not very bright then!?!?)
While Rikki kept an eye on them, I slipped next door to inform big Duncan. 

However, at the same time, unbeknown to us, two youngish looking plain clothes cops had also spotted the two thieves and were in the process of lifting them….. when big Duncan bounded up behind the cops, mistaking them for the shoplifters and smacked their heads together!!

It took a lot of fast talking and profuse apologies from myself and big Duncan to prevent him from being arrested for Police Assault! 

The two thieves witnessing the event cowered in the corner terrified that they’d be next for a head cracking!
When everything was sorted out, they looked positively relieved when they were actually arrested and led away!

Leading up to Christmas the shop continued to be busy, and for a laugh Rikki wrote a pantomime featuring all the staff as characters.
It was near the knuckle stuff, but hilarious, with lots of in-jokes that had the staff in stitches.

Things worked out very well for Rikki in the long run as he became a professional comedy writer, working with Craig Ferguson, Rikki Fulton, Scotch & Wry, Only An Excuse, Chewin’ The Fat and Watson’s Windup amongst many other BBC Comedy Unit projects.
Rikki also had his own weekly comedy page in The Scottish Sun for 17 years!


As the weather in Glasgow began to bite you’d find the majority of Top Man’s staff queuing up outside City Bakeries most mornings for that rare Glasgow delicacy… A Hot Roll and Mince!
They were delicious and really warmed you up!

About a week before Christmas when the store was at its busiest Davy decided to complete the weekly paperwork. 

I said ‘It’s ok Davy I’ll do it’ but he insisted.
He had all the daily sheets so all he had to do was transfer them onto a new document and cross check them to make sure they all tallied up. I left him to it.

An hour later I checked to see how he was doing.
There were a lot of crumpled scraps of paper lying on the desk and Davy’s face was getting redder by the second!
I offered to help again but that just seemed to make things worse
He was muttering away under his breath like Muttley from Wacky Races! 

Exasperated, he suddenly leapt to his feet, threw his pen at the wall and shouted, ‘Ach F*ck The Pope!!’

Realising what he’d just said he looked at me and began to apologise profusely!

With a straight face I looked sternly at him and said, ‘Don’t worry about it Davy….I hope you have a F*cking Rotten Christmas too!

Then I turned around and (mock) stormed out the office!

I went back in 10 seconds later and the two of us burst out laughing!!

We met at a Fashion Industry Trade Show in London about 12 years later and Davy told this story in a crowded bar to everyone’s amusement!

Davy, Rikki and I would have many more laughs and experiences in and around the Rag Trade over the next two decades but unfortunately those stories belong in another blog….!!

All Over The Shop (Part 2)

Mark Arbuckle: Glasgow October 2021

Top Man would officially open its doors in Glasgow mid November 1978.

I was appointed Assistant Manager and another recruit from Burtons, Davy was the Manager. 

I spoke to him on the phone and we got on well and looked forward to working together.
However before all that I had a wedding to attend…my own!

I returned from honeymooning in Athens eager to meet Davy and the rest of the staff.

Evidently I had been with Burtons far too long and turned up wearing a navy pinstripe suit, (Max!) a crisp white shirt and a red tie! Talk about conservative!! 

The first person I met was Rikki, he had on a modern cut baggy, beige suit with big shoulder pads, a fancy blue patterned shirt and NO tie! Think late 70’s Duran Duran and you won’t be far away!

He topped this ensemble off with long, bleached, shaggy hair and a fake tan!

We eyed  each other up with the same thought…… ‘W**ker!!’

43 years later we are still great friends, we’ve been each other’s best man (my 2nd marriage where he actually recounted our first meeting in his speech!) I’m Godfather to his daughter and we co-owned and were partners in an upmarket fashion business together for 10 years with many great laughs and adventures!

It just shows you how first impressions can be sooo misleading!

Rikki had come from ‘Jackson The Tailors’ who were always ‘edgier’ than stuffy ol’ ‘(Full) Monty-Fifty- Bob-Tailors!’

Davy arrived from Arbroath the next day.
He was a stocky ex Amateur Boxer who wore glasses with tinted lenses, which was quite unusual in 1978. As expected we got on really well and the shop was busy from the start. I even managed to shed my pinstripes and ties!

Obviously because of all the ‘knowledge’ I had gained from the students union bar during my one year studying accountancy I also became the shop’s bookkeeper!

Top Man had a brand new monthly book keeping system which must’ve been copied from an ancient greek abacus which had been translated from Persian! 

It made no sense at all! 

At the end of the first month I filled in what I could and duly sent it off. I got a call from our fledgling head office the following Tuesday saying I hadn’t completed it properly! 

I pointed out the areas I was struggling with and they agreed that it was a bit vague. I said that it must’ve been an idiot that compiled the form. There was silence and a laugh and he said ‘Well I did have a hand in it but never actually filled one in. 

Hi, I’m Andrew Leslie, Top Man’s MD!’  Whoops!!
He was very good about it though and actually asked me to redesign the Monthly Accounts Form cutting out the confusing and  unnecessary segments.
Andrew would go on to have a great career in retail and is now a director at JD Sports

The next week Ross started as a salesman.
He was a hard worker and very funny although not the sharpest knife in the box.
A favourite trick of his was to go into a fitting room, pull the curtain across, muss up his wiry red hair, pull a deranged face and re-emerge 30 seconds later with what he called his Mad Heid!! 

It was funny/scary the first time and never got old.
Anytime it was quiet somebody would shout ‘Hey Ross dae yer Mad Heid!’ 

Occasionally a startled customer would witness his full ‘Mad Heid’ display and either burst out laughing or quickly head for the exit!

Now as I said Ross was entertaining but a bit on the daft side – he once got a taxi from the City Centre to his home in Kirkintilloch and realised he didn’t have enough cash to pay the fare! So he asked the driver to stop 50 yards from his destination and then did a runner straight to his own front door!! Hahaha

I learned that Davy had left Burtons in the middle of a feud with Ken, the area manager. One day during Ken’s visit to the Buchanan Street Burtons, I realised that we, in the basement, were unusually quiet. In fact we hadn’t seen a customer for over an hour!
I went up stairs to investigate and found large boxes piled 3 high in front of our entrance! Ken had instructed Burtons’ staff to place their delivery there! I shouted down to Davy that there was a problem! 

He came tearing up the stairs screaming with rage when he saw the boxes! We began pulling them out of the way.

Davy spotted Ken smirking in the corner, stormed over, grabbed him by his lapels and rammed him up against the wall.
Ken was terrified and spluttered 

Picture McKay & Bremner as Davy & Ken and you’ve got the idea

‘You can’t do this!’

Davy replied ‘Do this? I’ll ram my fist down yer throat ‘n’ pull yer f**kin’ guts out ya wee pr*ck!’ (Ken was about 4″ taller than Davy but at that moment he looked 4′ tall). George pleaded with Davy to let him go and eventually he let Ken slide down the wall.

Freed from Davy’s grip, Ken became brave again, a big mistake!
“I’ll get you done for assault” he squeaked to Davy! “Go ahead” said Davy, “But I hope you like hospital food!”
Ken didn’t call the police and would in future, time his visits to coincide with Davy’s day off or holiday!

As I said Davy was a tough, good amateur boxer from Arbroath.
He and his fellow drinking buddies’ favourite past time was to goad the young marines that were stationed at the nearby Condor base into fights!
The young marines were very fit and strong but lacked the street fighting prowess and experience of the crazy locals.
Every weekend there was a major battle which would end up with several marines and locals ending up in hospital or jail! 

It got so bad that the base commander had to ban the soldiers from entering the town for their own safety!

Around May 1979 we were told that we were at last moving out of Burtons’ basement to our own Top Man store. 

The old Jackson’s shop in Union St. was being completely refurbed and we were to open in June! 

Jackson the tailors on Union St

This was all very exciting. A larger staff, a wider stock range and most importantly total autonomy from Burtons. (Mad Max, the John Cleese lookalike had recently been promoted to Area Manager!?!? Nepotism at it’s best!)

Firstly we had to pack up all our existing stock and a van was being sent to transport it around the corner to Union Street. 

I delegated each member of staff to be responsible for an area of stock. 

I showed them how to group 30 shirts, 20 pairs jeans or 15 jackets while still on their rail, to tie the hanger hooks together to make it easy to lift off and straight onto the van. However I soon regretted not checking Ross’ bundles!
The van arrived and we quickly started emptying the shop. Everything was going smoothly until we came to Ross’ area…..he hadn’t ensured that the hangers were all facing in the same direction before tying them together! Therefore all 20 of his bundles were effectively locked onto the rails!!
Davy was going to kill him! The van driver was getting very agitated as a traffic warden was on his case to move!
I advised Ross to quickly hide somewhere. 

Davy sent the van driver away and told him to come back in an hour and Rikki and I cut the ties on the bundles, straightened the hangers and retied them!

We worked hard for a week getting our new branch ready for the Grand Opening with an incentive that a mystery ‘celebrity’ would be turning up for the big occasion to do the honours.

5 star luxury at the Albany Hotel

Rikki and I were dispatched on the big day by taxi to The Albany Hotel to collect the celebrity who turned out to be the infamous Porn Star Fiona Richmond!

It was a well known ‘secret’ that my bosses, bosses, bosses, boss, the Burton Group CEO Ralph Halpern, was, ahem, a bit of a boy and was allegedly very close to Ms. Richmond in a non business capacity, so maybe Fiona’s presence wasn’t such a surprise after all!

On arrival at the swanky Albany Hotel we were shown up to Miss Richmond’s room, where she was very charming, regaling us with vivid tales from her colourful career and her current projects!

Unbelievably, Ms Richmond was currently treading the boards in the West End, starring in a stage adaptation of The Incredible Hulk.

In her saucy version of the Marvel classic however, when The Hulk, became angry and turned green it wasn’t his shirt that he broke out of and it wasn’t his massive biceps that were exposed!…..

I’m sure you can fill in the rest yourself!

Davy, Fiona & Mark…. through years of training Fiona always knew where the camera was!

Part 3 to follow next week……

All Over The Shop (part 1)

Mark Arbuckle: Glasgow October 2021

Following my stint as a Saturday boy at Burtons in Sauchiehall St, in 1977 I transferred to Burtons’ flagship store along with my friend and colleague Charlie to join the management training scheme.

BURTONS FLAGSHIP STORE ON THE CORNER OF ARGYLE ST AND BUCHANAN ST


The Manager at Argyle St, Max Black (who was rumoured to be married into the Burton family) looked like a thinner, pinstriped John Cleese. 

6’6″ tall and 4 foot of that was legs! He also had incredibly long arms and size 13 feet…more on those feet later.

One busy Saturday I was on ‘shop lifter spotting duty’ (no electronic tags in those days,  (Burtons were far too stingy to install them anyway) at the front door. I spotted a well known thief and gave the agreed alert to Charlie ‘Is Mr Thomas back from lunch yet?’ or something equally banal!

Max also heard my coded message and reacted like a coiled spring bounding up the stairs to a half landing to gain a better vantage point! Unfortunately he tripped on the first step and sprawled flat out with his telescopic arms in front of him! He covered the entire 13 stairs with startled customers stepping over him in both directions! I don’t know what happened to the shoplifter as Charlie and I were doubled over laughing!

Every Tuesday morning the branch was closed from 9-9.45 for Staff Training.
Max had just returned from a Mangers’ meeting and was eager to impart his new information to us.
The entire staff was gathered on the 1st Floor around the Made to Measure desks with it’s high stools. Max was telling us about a new concept of Individual Staff Responsibility. In other words the sales floors were to be divided up into smaller depts and each staff member had to maintain, stock and merchandise it. Sales per square foot would be monitored and you could earn a bonus at the end of every month. (the scheme lasted less time than it’s taken you to read this!!) 

Anyway to demonstrate how to calculate ‘Square Footage’ Max proudly held up his size 13 shoe and said ‘My shoe is a foot in length, so it’s easy to work out square footage!’ 

He then began walking heel to toe and counting out ‘One, two, three…but when he got to five he began to lose his balance, struggled to stay on track and lurched sideways disappearing through the open door that led to the staircase! 

He just lurved those stairs!! 

Most of the staff who had been dozing up to that point burst into laughter! 

Even wee John, the head of the Made to Measure dept. was suddenly alert!
Wee John had been with Burtons for about 30 years and was nearing retirement.
He could be a bit curmudgeonly with the yung-uns but I got on well with him. 

Why? 

Because we shared a secret….

One morning I was early, a very rare occurrence, and was walking down Buchanan St. when I spotted him looking into John Menzies window about 50 yards from Burtons. 

‘Morning JOHN!’ 

I loudly greeted him. 

He started to choke and splutter, turning an alarming shade of purple! It was only then that I noticed a cigarette half hidden in his cupped right hand. ‘Are you all right?’ I asked as he frantically waved me away. 

He cornered me at tea break and asked if I could keep our earlier encounter just between the two of us, which of course I agreed to.

It was the shop’s worst kept secret that John smoked as anyone who used the staff toilet after him would attest. 

You could cut the smoke with a knife! 

He’d smoked all his life but had recently experienced some heart problems and had promised his doctor, his family and his formidable wife Anne, who also worked for Burtons that he had quit! 

When I say Anne was formidable she was about 5′ and weighed 7 stone but OMG she could destroy anybody with a couple of vicious words. However she liked me and I did feel kinda guilty about keeping John’s ‘not so secret’ secret.

After the summer sale the store was getting a bit of a refit so Max asked George the assistant manager, Charlie and myself to come in on a Sunday (no Sunday trading in those days) to work on the refit.
George was a big, easy going, amiable guy probably in his mid 50’s with a passing resemblance to John Le Mesurier. 

He never got flustered and was quite happy to play second fiddle to a succession of (poor) managers.

The shop had floor to ceiling windows and our task was to place 12′ aluminium poles into pre set fixings in the floor about a yard from the glass. Then place 8′ x 4′ boards in between the poles to create a wall onto to which metal shelves and/or rails could be attached.  

The side facing the window was used for mannequins and displays.
The boards were very heavy and had metal pegs on the sides about 8″ from both ends which slotted into holes in the poles and tightened with a screwdriver.  

It was cumbersome work and took all four of us to manoeuvre each board into place. Charlie and I lifted the board a foot off the floor and guided the pegs into the bottom two slots while Max and George were both up ladders and had the same task to secure the top two. 

We had successfully erected three boards but the fourth was proving very tricky.
Charlie and I had secured the bottom two but George’s side wouldn’t line up so we disconnected them again and tried to get all four inserted simultaneously. 

We were ‘cussin’ ‘n’ fightin’ my friend’ but to no avail. 

We took a break and examined the problem. The slot on George’s side of the board was misaligned so the only solution was to force it in. We tried again and George said that the problem was he couldn’t tighten the slot because it was off kilter. 

Suddenly Max from the top of his ladder exclaimed 

‘I’VE GOT A BIG RED ONE!!!  

Charlie and I dropped the board causing George to nearly fall off his ladder. The three of us were crying with laughter while nonplussed Max muttered something about ‘it being in his car’. 

He left and came back shortly with a big red screwdriver which, to be fair to him, did the trick.
We finished the job with no further issues, although every now and again Charlie and I would catch each other’s eye and descend into fits of giggles once more.

A couple of week’s later Max decided to get the Sunday ‘band back together’ (more overtime!)The task this time was to clear old shop fittings out of the basement. 
To do this we had to carry them up a flight of stairs, out onto the street where there was a door on the side of the building that led to a lift down to a sub basement and then narrow sloping stairs to an area that was basically just a hole in the floor. 

I hadn’t even realised that this area existed before then. George did however and started to tell us stories about Rodents of Unusual Size!!


The first four hours, though hard and physical, went by without incident. Later we were nearly done for the day when one of the last heavy, cash-desk units jammed in the steep, narrow staircase leading to the sub basement level which Max had insisted we filled up first. 

Charlie being the smallest managed to squeeze between the bulky unit and the sloping roof of the stairwell hoping to release whatever was making it jam. He quickly succeeded… but too well really as the heavy unit slid down the stairs trapping him between the piles of stuff we’d already placed there.
‘Don’t panic Captain Mainwaring’


The unit’s new angle made it impossible for Charlie to climb back over the obstruction and he had no room to manoeuvre behind him. George, Max and I started to haul at the bloody thing trying in vain to pull it back up the steep slope.

No chance! 

After 15 minutes our arms were aching and it hadn’t budged.
Should we get a rope? Would we have to phone the Fire Brigade? This was bad!

I suddenly realised that Charlie had gone very quiet in his imprisoned area. ‘Charlie are you ok?’ I asked but didn’t get a reply. ‘Charlie stop messing (he didn’t say ‘messing’) about’ shouted George, but still no answer.
We exchanged worryingly looks….Then there was a loud bang and Charlie’s head appeared through a trapdoor hidden from us by old cardboard SALE signs about 10 feet from where we stood! He was filthy and covered in cobwebs but was apparently unharmed. 

He gave Max a look that said ‘Ye canny get rid of me that easily!

By Autumn ’78 I’d completed my first year of management training and had been asked to join the Burtons Group new, young fashion concept Top Man. I jumped at the chance.

They would open their first Scottish branch in the  basement sales floor of Burtons! (Yes the same basement I’d helped to clear the previous year!)

Top Man would have it’s own distinct branding and identity, and carry stock aimed at a much younger, trendier market. We were also given window space on the ground floor, much to Max’s disgust.

He did however say he was sorry to lose me and wished me well, but cautioned me saying ‘It wouldn’t last!’….

Part 2 of All Over The Shop and how I met a famous porn star through working at Top Man to follow next week…..

The Girl With Colitis Goes By

Paul Fitzpatrick: London, June 2021

When I moved to London in 84, I worked beside a guy who had just made the same move but from Manchester rather than Glasgow. We hit it off straight away, moved to a different company together and then after a few years we decided that we wanted to start up our own business, which we did in 1990.

This meant that for nigh-on 20 years I probably spent more time with Laurence than I did with my own wife and young family.
We were constantly travelling, going to see customers all over the UK, Factories in Hong Kong, Cape Town and Morocco. Fabric Suppliers in Italy & France and trade fairs in Europe and the US.

We were different people, but we got on really well, he was a graduate that spoke 3 languages, whilst I was still trying to master English; he loved rugby, I loved football; he drank real ale and red wine, I drank lager & lime.

Still Buddies 37 years on

Still Buddies 37 years on

The one thing we always bonded on apart from work was music, we were a similar age and had grown up listening to the same radio stations and buying the same albums, but Laurence had a unique talent that was even more impressive to me than speaking 3 languages…. he knew the lyrics to any 70s song (and most 60’s songs) that came on the radio!

In the late 80s we worked for a Chinese company and spent a lot of time in Hong Kong just as Karaoke was starting to break through, and before it hit the UK.
We used to travel out to HK to meet customers who were visiting our factory… buyers from UK retailers like Top Shop, River Island and Next, and in the evening we’d take them to one of the first Karaoke Bars to open in Kowloon called The Bali Lounge.

Whilst I’d be scrambling to read the words on the monitor to ‘You’re So Vain’ or ‘New Kid in Town’, Laurence would be face-on to the crowd belting out the song without glancing once at the lyrics.

I asked him once if when he was younger he used to study and memorise lyrics from album sleeves or from those pop mags that were around in the 70s, like Disco 45, but he didn’t need to, he just heard songs on the radio and the lyrics stayed with him.

I would test him with obscure songs, and he rarely failed, it didn’t matter if he liked the song or not, if he’d heard it a couple of times the lyrics always stuck.

I thought about his unique talent the other day as I was listening to one of the songs from our 70s playlist and remembered that I’d been singing the wrong lyrics for nigh on 40 years to a song I love.

The song was Tumbling Dice by The Rolling Stones it was released in 1971 and up until a few years ago I always thought Jagger was singing ‘Tommy the tumblin’ dice’.
I now know of course that it should be…. ‘Call me the tumblin’ dice’.

I love that song and had belted out “Tommy the tumblin dice” at Stones gigs, any die-hard Stones fans within earshot at Glastonbury in 2013 must have cringed.
For nearly half a century I thought the song was about a gambler called Tommy, when in fact it’s a ditty penned by Jagger (riffs by Richards) about love, money and loose women… using gambling metaphors.
There was no Tommy in sight!

I also didn’t realise that there’s an official term for this sort of thing.

Mondegreen: a mondegreen is a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase in a way that gives it a new meaning.

It made me think of other classic mondegreens…. like my friend who will go unnamed, who on hearing the track Ziggy Stardust for the umpteenth time finally cracked and asked why Bowie would be ‘Making love with his Eagle’?
When we all know that in fact he was “Making love with his ego’!

Or a girl I knew who genuinely thought Crystal Gale was singing…. ‘Donuts make my brown eyes blue’

I was always big on melodies and never that strong on lyrics when I was younger, so I’ve had a lot of catching up to do with lyrics over the years.

Some lyrics as I knew them didn’t even make sense, but I never stopped to wonder why, for instance why would Kenny Rogers have 400 children, as in….
You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille, with 400 children and a crop in the field’?
Of course, on closer inspection I now know that it was only ‘4 hungry children’ the bold Kenny was left with… he may have been a lothario and a favourite of Dolly’s but he wasn’t that prolific!

There are sites and forums dedicated to mis-heard lyrics now and the three mondegreens below seem to be the ones that pop up the most…

Song – Lucy in the sky with diamonds:
Lyric – ‘The girl with colitis goes by‘ (should be – The girl with kaleidoscope eyes)

Song – Bad Moon Rising:
Lyric – ‘There’s a bathroom on the right‘ (should be – There’s a bad moon on the rise)

Song – Purple Haze:
Lyric – ‘Scuse me whilst I kiss this guy‘ (should be – Scuse me whilst I kiss the sky)

Peter Kay did an excellent stand-up routine based on misheard lyrics that you can find the link for below and if you’ve ever been caught out lyrically, then please share and let us know what your mis-heard lyrics were on the comments or the Facebook page….

The Jean Genius

If you’re a Bowie fan you probably have a selection of his albums, tapes, cd’s and downloads in your music collection…. hit-after-hit stretching across six decades from 1969’s Space Oddity to 2016’s Blackstar.

For a few years though, until his WOW moment on TOTP in 1972, as implausible as it sounds, Bowie was on course to be a one-hit-wonder…. just like Thunderclap Newman with ‘Something in the Air’ or Norman Greenbaum with ‘Spirit in the Sky’

Then along came Ziggy Stardust and the rest as they say is history.
Bowie went on to become arguably the most influential artist of the 70s….. continually reinventing his sound and persona and influencing the tastes of a generation along the way.

As an example of the latter, on October 1974 David Live was released, it was a decent album showcasing Bowie’s transition from Glam to Soul with a great version of Eddie Floyd’s ‘Knock on Wood‘, but what captured my attention as much as the music was the powder blue suit DB wore on the cover.

Up until this point Bowie’s wardrobe had consisted of elaborate Japanese jumpsuits, kimonos and leotards.

Distinctive, perhaps, but not the kind of thing you could buy in Top Man and wear to Shuffles night club on a dreich Saturday night in Glasgow!


Bowie’s cool new look was something we could relate to on the other hand, so on our next pay-day, a few of us travelled to Glasgow city centre to Jackson the tailors to order our own made to measure version of the tin-flute Bowie sported on the David Live record sleeve.

After a few weeks the suits were ready and when we hit the town that Saturday night we all felt ‘gallus’ in our high-waisted trousers, and double breasted jackets, as did half the male population of Glasgow, who seemingly all had the same idea!

I was pretty much hooked from the minute I saw Bowie perform Starman on TOTP in 72 and stayed a fan all the way through his career.
I loved his 70s personas and of course the music, particular the Thin White Duke period which frustratingly he never talked much about… owing to the fact that he had absolutely no recall of making the Station to Station album!

In fact he was so bonkers and strung out during this period (75-76) that he reportedly kept his own urine in a fridge.
This in part was due to a falling out with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page….. Bowie became paranoid that Page (well known for dabbling in the occult) would engage some form of black-magic against him if he got hold of his bodily fluids.

Based in LA and weighing in at a meagre 7 stone, his diet at the time consisted of milk, peppers and heaps of Colombian marching powder.
It’s well documented that Bowie fled this life of excess to regain health and sanity in Europe, specifically Berlin, and by the release of Heroes in 1977 he was in a much better place, both physically and mentally

Bowie 75
Bowie 77

I actually came into The Starman’s orbit very briefly in 1983.

I was working at Levis and we were developing a campaign to promote our 501 Jeans, which at the time, we couldn’t give away in the UK, in fact the only European country who sold them in any volume was Sweden.

UK retailers didn’t want to stock them as they were more expensive than regular Levis jeans and they reasoned that consumers didn’t like the American fit (low waist, straight leg).

Nonetheless, our chiefs in San Francisco had planned a global strategy around the 501. It was the original 5 pocket jean and the main point of difference for the brand in the US, where Levis was coming under threat from designer brands like Calvin Klein…. so we had no choice but to try and make it work in Europe.

A team was put together tasked with coming up with innovative ideas to support the 501 campaign in Europe and as a first step we came up with the simple idea of getting contemporary icons to wear 501’s by highlighting the fact that it had been the jean of choice for James Dean & Brando in the 50’s and guys like Springsteen were now wearing them.

It was a classic ‘seeding’ strategy which more or less consisted of gifting product to opinion leaders (musicians, actors, sportsmen, models, etc), in order to get the product seen on the right people.

It’s a concept that can work pretty well if all the planets align.

As an example…

In early 1983 we sent some Levis denim jackets to an up and coming band coming out of Dublin called U2. The lead singer Bono cut the sleeves off his jacket and wore it relentlessly.
The band released the albums War and Under a Blood Red Sky and 83 became U2’s big breakout year hence Bono was everywhere… wearing his self-customised, sleeveless Levis jacket

As an example of seeding at work – around this time met I Charlie Nicholas in a Glasgow bar as we had a mutual friend, when Charlie heard I worked for Levis he asked me if I could get him a Levis denim jacket “to cut the sleeves off… same as Bono“.

Charlie wasn’t the only one with the same idea and within months, retailers started selling out of our denim jackets, sales tripled and we eventually had to increase our jacket production and develop our own sleeveless version.

The other avenue we explored was official sponsorship… ‘let’s get influential artists to wear and promote Levis by sponsoring their tours’.
Everyone does this now but it was a new concept back then.

This was trickier than you’d think… some people in the room actually thought it would be a good idea to approach the gods of double-denim, Status Quo and there were a couple of Gary Numan fans in there as well… however to most it was clear we needed someone with gravitas, credibility and a wide appeal.

After some debate and research we discovered that Bowie was scheduled to launch his Serious Moonlight tour in support of his new album – Let’s Dance, so after some discussion he became the prime candidate.

To be honest we weren’t over optimistic that he’d go for it as he wasn’t big on commercial ventures but he liked the brand and the sponsorship helped to finance the tour… so the mighty DB came on board.

The concept worked so well that we repeated it over the next few years with tours and one-off events, but the tipping point for the brand in Europe came when we launched the famous 501 Laundrette ad with Nick Kamen in 1985, which also propelled ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ to number one in the charts.

Ironically, the same retailers who claimed they couldn’t sell 501’s in 1983 were now begging for as much stock as they could get their hands on….

Levis 501 ad
Bruce Springsteen and the E street band – Wembley 4th July 1985

Sting’s first solo tour 1985
Ultravox’s Lament tour 1984

One of the conditions of most tour-sponsorship deals is for the acts to meet customers post-gig however we knew Bowie was never going to do meet and greets.
Sting and Ultravox on the other hand were contracted to meet customers and prize winners briefly after their gigs, which they mostly did with good grace, particularly Midge Ure who was extremely affable.

My brief Bowie moment came when he popped into our London office to pick out some jeans and shirts, he looked incredibly healthy and was friendly and charming. He signed a few bits and pieces for some of us including a tour programme and the Let’s Dance album (pics below ) before making his exit.

In truth, I struggled a bit with the 90’s Bowie, particularly the Tin Machine period but I got back on board in the noughties…. a return to form, spring-boarded by his stellar Glastonbury performance in 2000 when he decided to give the people what they wanted…. a set-list made up of his best songs.

Although I’d been a big fan in the 70s I had never seen Bowie live and the first time I saw him perform was when we took some customers to see his Serious Moonlight gig at Murrayfield in Edinburgh in June 83.

The next time I saw him perform live was the most memorable.
It was at the Hammersmith Odeon in October 2002, his first return to that venue since the shock July 1974 retirement announcement when he ‘broke up the band’ live on stage…. to their complete bemusement.

“Not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do. Thank you.”

It helped that we had fantastic tickets for that show, centre stage, six rows from the front.
I’ve no idea how long Bowie was on stage for but it must have been close to 3 hours… he played 33 songs starting with Life on Mars, finishing with Ziggy Stardust and included a song he’d only ever played live once before… the majestic Bewlay Brothers from Hunky Dory.

I also saw Bowie the following year at Wembley arena on his last live date in London.
He seemed so fit and healthy at 56 but six months later whilst still on the same gruelling ‘Reality’ tour he had a heart attack on stage in Hamburg and that proved to be his last ever gig.

He released an album in 2013, The Last Day, which raised hopes that he was fit and well but it all went quiet again, and then out of nowhere a new album – Blackstar dropped 3 years later on his 69th birthday, this was the encouraging news we’d all been waiting for… maybe we would even see him play live again?

He died two days after its release on the 10th of January.

There was much outpouring of grief when the news broke, he meant so much to so many people and it’s probably the only celebrity that I’ve ever felt sustained grief over.
I had grown up with Bowie from age 13, my kids had grown up listening to him, he’d been a fixture in my life for 45 years, and suddenly he wasn’t there any more.

But even in the end Bowie did the most Bowie thing ever, bowing out on his own terms with an innovative, out-of-the-blue, jazz-infused album that we knew nothing about until the day of its release.

If you listen to the lyrics it’s an album made by a man who wasn’t ready to leave us but knew he wasn’t going to be with us for long.
To this day I still find it hard to listen to that album…….

‘Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried’
“I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar”

All hail the Starman, we’ll never see his like again…..

My Bowie top 20 changes all the time, but for anyone who’s interested here’s this weeks selection….

lady gaggia

(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – May 2021)

Hawkins Wine Bar.

Having spent a good deal of my teens frequenting pubs around West Birmingham during the mid 1970s, it seemed perfectly natural to progress to working in them. My ambitions were to go on the stage but a girl has to make a living, right?

As soon as I left school in 1978, and with no particular place to go, I headed for an interview with a new wine bar that had just opened in the city centre – very upmarket!   Harpers occupied a large corner site near the police station and Accident and Emergency Hospital, so I figured I’d be safe walking late at night to catch the bus from outside the ‘Back of Rackham’s’.

(Rackham’s was an elegant department store occupying a whole city block on Corporation Street in Birmingham. Rumours abounded that ladies of a certain type frequented the pavements outside the back door and Mom always warned me against hanging around there.   I walked many times around the ‘Back of Rackham’s’ as I grew up and never once saw anything improper going on, much to my dismay.)

With Mom’s advice to ‘look smart and mind my manners’ ringing in my ears, I borrowed her fashionable black and white dog-tooth checked suit (shortening the skirt, obviously); teaming it with my white leather cowgirl boots, white cotton lace gloves and an antique parasol.

With the audacity of youth, I strutted into Harpers one sunny October afternoon and stopped in my tracks to gaze in wonder at the fabulous fixtures and fittings. The long mahogany bar was backed by a reclaimed church façade and bevelled mirrors, which reflected the light from the enormous curved, windows. I felt very grown up.

(Opposite: Harpers interior – now Sound Bar.)

Assistant Manager Tristan must have noticed me gawping and bounded over, shook my hand and ushered me to a table. He had a big Zapata moustache and an equally big, bright smile. 

“Hello Darling, you must be Andrea?” 

“Yes thanks, I am.” (Going well so far) 

“So, you’ve come about the position as bar maid and waitress?” 

“Yes thanks, I have.” 

“Have you had any previous experience?” 

“No, but I learn fast!” 

Tristan flashed his brilliant smile at me, touching my arm lightly: 

“I love your outfit darling – especially the parasol! Wonderful!” 

“Thanks!” 

“So, when can you start?” 

“Right now.” (Mom had said I should appear ‘keen’.) 

“OK darling, I’ll just have to introduce you to the manager.

Tristan trotted away to find said manager; a tall man with a weak handshake which worried me slightly as Dad had always warned me of men with a “limp” hand shake.  (“Honey, you know where you stand with a firm grip.”)

“This is Andrea –  isn’t she gorgeous? She can start right away and she’s a fast learner.” 

“I bet she is,” said the manager as he looked me up and down.  My interview was apparently over and I was asked to start work the next morning at 7:30 am  to   serve continental style breakfast and coffee from eight. I was put to work on the food counter, serving cold meats and cheese, croissants and pastries and the infamous Gaggia espresso machine. This great red and chrome beast occupied the whole length of the food bar, with its hot water spouts, coffee grinders and stacks of white cups and saucers. 

Getting to grips with the Beast, as it became known, wasn’t easy – it was all in the wrist action. Customers would stand behind the counter and watch as the other girls and I twisted and twirled the mighty coffee grinders and polished the spouts in time to the music; steam hissing into the steel milk jugs. We could pull quite a crowd. 

Having to start work so early meant I was often the first person there with the cleaners, one of whom was spooked by rumours that Harpers was haunted. There were stories that the bar stools had been found one morning stacked on top of each other – just like the kitchen chairs in Poltergeist! The lamps behind the bar moved and footsteps could be heard running up from the basement kitchen, where people had died during WW2 as they sheltered from the bombing.  I hoped against hope to see a ghost but never did – but the old building certainly had an odd atmosphere.

Andrea in 1978 … and in standard issue Hawkins beige cords.

Reports of hauntings didn’t put punters off, as solicitors from the Law Courts next door poured into Harpers for their ‘working lunches’.  I worked the mighty Beast in beige cord jeans so tight I had to lie down and zip them up using a coat hanger.  I was voted ‘Gaggia Girl 1979’ – my claim to fame!

As I worked the bar one evening, Andy Gray, – the Villa footballer – came in and asked the other girls and me if we would like to come over to his new night club? I had to think about that for, oh, maybe two seconds. Imagine, the girl from Virginia who didn’t know what the Villa was, now being asked to come check out a night club owned by a Villa player!  Ha – what would the lads at the God Awful school think now? 

The nightclub was the most fantastic, exotic place I had ever been! Like a dark cave, it went back and back through a series of rooms beneath the railway arches at Snow Hill station. It became a new romantic club in the early ’80s with live bands such as Roxy Music and Duran Duran, but when it opened in ’79 it pumped out disco. TheHarpers staff became regulars after our shift ended; strutting our stuff fired up on Pernod and coke, great music and youth. I crawled home at 2am to sleep it off, get up at five and do it all over again

Back at Harpers the buzz was always at fever pitch as we worked to the heady disco beat on a Bose Sound System:  ‘Le Freak’’, ‘Ladies Night’, ‘Instant Replay’, ‘You Make Me Feel, Mighty Real’ beneath the huge mirror balls and innovative laser shows. I loved every minute. 

It was in this heady atmosphere, that I first met George Melly when he was booked to play a gig at Harpers with John Chiltern and his Feet Warmers. I was asked to go down into the staff room to serve drinks to the band and was introduced to Mr. Melly, who was sitting with his large frame overextending the rather small chair; resplendent in a snappy pinstriped suit with wide lapels and a large snap brimmed fedora hat.  He smiled his languid smile and said something like:   

“So, my dear, how kind of you to bring old George a drink.” 

As the lights in the bar dimmed to a spotlight, Mr. Melly sashed onto the floor with a wicked gleam in his eye and a whisky in his hand as he belted out Bessie Smith’s ‘Kitchen Man,’ which was rich with lewd innuendo.

I became a big fan, following his gigs from London’s Ronnie Scotts to the Malvern Theatre, where he had to stop the show and tell the be-jewelled, staid audience to clap on the off-beat: “This is Jazz!” he growled.

 I saw George Melly several more times, including an appearance he made on BBC Pebble Mill’s ‘Six Fifty-five Special’ – a surreal experience.  I was invited to meet him in the Green Room, where he sat in his trade mark Zoot suit and snap brim Fedora before he went on air. Whether he remembered me or not is doubtful, but he spoke to me as though I was his best friend:

“Hello my dear, how kind of you to come to see old George.” He still twinkled.

With him was Kenneth Williams, who was staring up the nostrils of  70s actor and singer David Soul, giving him an impromptu lesson on how to speak with an English accent:

“Enunciate, dear boy, e-nun-ciate.”

I had just witnessed a Master Class.

Before I left Harpers, we had a New Year’s Eve fancy dress party with a ‘Glamorous Hollywood’ theme. All staff were expected to do a ‘turn’ and having recently had my permed hair cut into a short crop, I went along dressed as Liza Minnelli as ‘Sally Bowles’ from “Cabaret” in bowler hat, black waistcoat, fishnets and towering stiletto’s.  Grabbing a bar stool, I did my best, although I couldn’t for the life of me bend backwards over that stool! My brother Dale tagged along wearing a full suit of armour. Unable to sit down, he stood all evening with cigarette smoke curling through the grid on his visor. 

Liza Minnelli as Andrea … no, wait …??

The drag acts were outstanding that evening, including ‘Fred and Ginger’ who thrilled us with their rendition of ‘Cheek to Cheek’ and ‘Rita Hayworth’ slinking across the floor to ‘Put the Blame on Mame’. We danced until dawn, seeing in 1979 in considerable style and with heavy hangovers!

Oh to be eighteen again!

(Copyright: Andrea Burn May 1st 2021)