I had lived in a housing association flat in Smethwick for most of my time in at Birmingham University as I studied for a housing policy PhD. I was allocated it after I had to be moved out of the horrible dry rot riddled University accommodation in King’s Norton that I had been my ‘home’ when I first arrived in Birmingham. Returning to London to work, the plan was to get an inter-landlord move to north or east London, it never happened in practice though. In the short- term, I took up the space vacated by one colleague, I, in a short-life house rented by T in Leytonstone. It was owned by the council I worked for, but being managed by a small housing association whilst money was found to refurbish it.
I had lived in short-life before behind Turnpike Lane tube station in a house earmarked for demolition for a bypass of Wood Green High Road that never came to fruition. That had just been a bit grotty, but no worse than much student housing of the era. The house in Leytonstone was grim, really grim. There was only an outside toilet, with a hole in the roof – of sufficient size to ensure that toilet paper always got wet when it rained.
The bathroom was a massive room with an ancient cast iron bath and basin at one end and the rest of the room something of a dumping ground. We had bath nights a couple of times a week during the bitterly cold winter of 1986/87, taking it in turns as to which order we bathed in – the heavy iron bath took a couple of occupations and new hot water to warm up to an acceptable level, although for the third bather it was almost like being in a steam room.
My room was the rear living room which had little natural light and a small window overlooking the partially covered walkway to the toilet. While the room had a door, it wasn’t attached to the frame and had to be manhandled into place when any privacy was required. This didn’t prevent the free movement of the other inhabitants of the house, a large family of mice, in and out of the room and everywhere else in the house for that matter.
The other human occupant was M, who worked for a travel agency. Despite his tall frame, he was terrified of the mice and would often be heard screaming in the kitchen. The mice though were almost oblivious to our presence. We made desultory attempts to rid the house of rodents by putting out copious amounts of poison, it seemed to have little impact on numbers although the stench of rotting mouse carcass occasionally filled the air. The mice liked to store the poison for future use, oddly in the 1960s spin drier we had for helping to dry the hand washed clothes, water frequently emerged from the spout a bright blue as a result. I was working as a Housing Officer at the time, residents would often say – ‘I bet you live somewhere really nice.’ If only …
The front room had a floor covered with beer cans, particularly the gold aluminium of Stella Export – M’s drink of preference – which seemed to appear like mushrooms, it was particularly noticeable if I had been absent for a day or two. He had musical tastes were not dissimilar to mine and introduced me to a few new artists including Mathilde Santing and Astrid Gilberto. The most significant though was Carmel, a three-piece band, who played a mixture of jazz and pop. The first sound of the the drums of Gerry Darby, with the echoey double bass of Jim Parris being woven into the mix at the beginning of ‘I’m Not Afraid of You’ followed by the haunting, slightly gravely voice of Carmel McCourt had me hooked within seconds. The best was to come at the end of the album though – the delightful, upbeat ‘Sally.’
T, I and sometimes M and our respective girlfriends, E at the time for me, saw Carmel several times at Ronnie Scott’s, the Jazz Café and one or two other places over the next few years, even after I’d moved out and bought a house in Walthamstow Village with E. There doesn’t seem to be any footage from the gigs at Ronnie Scott’s but ‘Sally’ is available from the same era in a concert in Bologna.
We were all due to see Carmel at the Astoria on Charing Cross Road on 4 July 1990 in the days when you could still pay on the night to watch bands at medium sized venues. The Astoria was one of my favourite London venues, despite the aggressive bouncers in its latter years; it was sadly lost to Crossrail. The plans to see Carmel had been made weeks before but excuses started to roll in as it clashed with the Italia 90 semifinal with England playing Germany for a place in the World Cup Final in Rome. It would have been one of the last times E and I went out together before we split up, it was only the pair of us that went in the end.
I had recorded the game at home on a VCR, just replaced after a burglary. I was hoping to avoid all reference of the result, ‘Likely Lads’ style, at the gig and on the way home – it was a dismal plan. The venue was almost empty and Carmel gave updates on the game, which was going into penalties by the time the encores had finished and we emerged onto Charing Cross Road. Those getting onto the Victoria Line train at later stops knew the final score and grumbled about the misses of Pearce and Waddle that they had seen on pub TVs. The tape was never watched.
I saw Carmel once or twice with J in the subsequent years, I remember a festival in Stanmer Park in Brighton, but I guess I was falling out of love with their newer work which started to take on more of a gospel based sound with overtly religious lyrics.
Like a lot of music I listened to in that era, particularly Working Week and Everything ButThe Girl, Carmel was largely forgotten for a couple of decades from the mid 1990s as my musical tastes moved on. A serious accident in 2015 and the resultant psychological dislike of loud noise saw me return to my music of the 1980s. A second hand CD of ‘The Falling’ was an early purchase as I recovered at home, it remains my favourite Carmel album, and one that I play regularly.