The late 1960s saw me leave our family home in Shipley, Yorkshire to take up a three-year stint as an Industrial Metallurgy student at Birmingham University. I never used that degree, but stayed on there as a struggling poet living in an attic flat in Moseley. Known locally as The Village, it was then the city’s multicultural bohemian area and home to many young wannabe musicians, writers, artists, actors, druggies and others who were equally rudderless. I’d end up staying there until the summer of 1977 when, with my then partner, the musician Kay Russell, I’d buy a terraced house in Bradford and move back up north.
Most nights, if I wasn’t at home or out gigging, I’d be in The Fighting Cocks, my chosen pub and the haunt of most of my friends. On one such occasion, in late September 1974, I was drinking there with a bunch of friends. We were interrupted by a familiar figure. He was an old guy who’d be out on the street, six evenings a week, selling copies of The Birmingham Evening Mail. It was a foul night and the weather had driven him indoors before he’d sold all his papers. He was going round the pub trying to get rid of the last few so he could buy himself a couple of drinks. To help him out, we each bought one.
We’d already had several pints when we spotted an advertisement. It was for a job as a Santa Claus in a city centre department store. There was an application form at the foot of the advert. For the hell of it and because we’d been drinking, we each filled in a form to post off next day. The agreement was that, if any of us got offered the job, we’d take it. Two of us, me and my guitarist friend, Pete, got taken on. To this day, it’s the only ‘proper job’ I’ve ever had.
Pete was utterly inconsequential and therefore wonderful company. He’d act entirely on impulse, pursuing whatever idea came to him without once pausing to weigh up the likely outcomes. I’ve never met anyone as inspirationally uninhibited as he was. That’s why and how we’d first met a couple of months earlier.
I’d been offered a prestigious local booking by John Keetley who ran The Arts Lab, Birmingham’s premiere alternative venue. Arriving there on the afternoon of my gig to sound-check for my poetry set, I found a guy I’d never met running though his set. He sounded great, a bluesy singer-songwriter with a fine voice. I asked John about him and was told he’d been added to the bill. ‘He’s called Pete’.
‘He’s great, isn’t he,’ I said. ‘How’d you find him?’ John, who lived on the premises, told me the story. He’d been woken that morning at about 4 a.m. by the sound of breaking glass followed by footsteps. It hadn’t occurred to Pete that he might be breaking into a building in which someone actually lived. That’s how John, in his pyjamas, met Pete. ‘What’re you doing?’ ‘Burgling,’ said Pete with his trademark disarming honesty. The pair chatted and hit it off. Spotting John’s guitar, Pete played him a few songs in return for which John gave him breakfast and a gig. If memory serves me correctly, it was at that gig that Pete, who was homeless at the time, met Ilse and soon moved into her Moseley flat, a few doors away from where I was living.
There was a third Santa, a guy in his seventies who really looked the part and had done the job often before. This was his final stint. It was getting to be too arduous for him. It was tough enough for me and Pete, and we were in our early twenties. Department stores are hot. Add a thick felt outfit over your own clothes, plus face make-up, beard, wig, hat, gloves and wellies, and you’re in a body sauna. You’d do one hour on, two hours off, hence three Santas. After each of my hours, I could tip the pools of sweat out of my pair of wellie-boots and half-fill a cup with it. Gross, but true.
Lunchtimes and afternoons, the two who weren’t doing the job would often get away. We’d cool down in a nearby pub, rehydrating with several beers. Cue Pete’s drunkenly outlandish schemes to reduce the boredom. Here are three which I’ll never forget.
As your hour ended, your replacement would shout something like ‘Santa, the reindeer need feeding.’ You’d leave through a side-door to be replaced by a totally different Santa, much to the indignation of waiting children who’d spot the difference immediately.
On one particular day, Pete had enjoyed an extended stay in the pub, leaving me to do an exhausting two-hour stint. Returning very drunk, he didn’t even call me in. Instead, in full view of a lengthy queue of children and parents, he burst through the side-door wearing nothing but a pair of wellies and his underpants supported by the braces we’d been given to hold up our Santa trousers. He’d his beard upside down on his head and was playing a ukulele while singing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’! This earned him the first of his two final warnings from an irate floor-manager.
For use in the event of any unforeseen problem, we’d been given a large cardboard sign reading ‘Santa will be back soon.’ It only got used once. On this occasion, an impatient queue lined up in front of Santa’s empty seat, next to which stood a statue of Santa holding the ‘back soon’ sign. After about ten minutes, one of the kids near the front suddenly announced that he’d seen the Santa statue blink. In response, the ‘statue’ promptly threw the sign in the air and ran at the kid with a loud ‘WAAAAH!!!!’ The manager, who happened to be approaching the grotto at that moment, was confronted by a crowd of screaming kids rushing out in terror. This earned Pete his second and last warning.
On our final day, Pete put into operation his best idea yet. He stuffed one leg of a spare pair of Santa trousers with newspaper, pushed the foot end into a spare boot, and – throughout that day – with the extra leg between our own legs, we each sat there as a three-legged Santa. Remarkably, only a handful of people even noticed this, and those who did were simply amused by it. All the rest, including the photographer, didn’t spot it at all. The store made as nice profit out of selling over-priced photos of the kids sitting on Santa’s knee. It was well into January when we each got an angry letter from the manager informing us that they’d had numerous complaints from parents demanding refunds and that our services wouldn’t be required next year.
We’d really needed Pete’s presence to lighten the burden of that job… doubly so after 21 November. That was when the IRA bombed two city centre pubs – The Mulberry Bush and The Tavern In The Town – killing twenty-one people and injuring 182. Both pubs were close to the store. It was pay-day and store employees were among the dead and injured. A couple of my closest friends were in The Mulberry Bush at the time but were among the lucky ones who escaped without injury. It was a dark and frightening time, much relieved by Pete’s madcap pranks.
One extraordinary detail from the days after the bombings was the sudden presence of armed soldiers on the rooftops of the buildings around the store, lying there all day with rifles casually trained on the crowds below. These were mostly young guys, some of them just teenagers. The fear was that more bombings would follow, but what they were supposed to do if that happened was beyond me. Surely they weren’t supposed to just open fire on the shoppers.
Our grotto was on the top floor of the store, so we three Santas and these soldiers had a clear view of one another. They’d sometimes even wave to us. Also, about once a day, a couple of the soldiers would come into the store to empty the post box. This stood close to our seat and was for children’s letters to Santa. The two squaddies would comb through the letters with a detector to check for bombs.
Soon after this work I started to earn a living of sorts from my writing, but not immediately after the Santa job finished. So, in early January I put in a claim for unemployment benefit. The people working in my local claims office were a humourless lot, none more so than the form-filling woman who interviewed me. ‘Previous employment’, she demanded. ‘Santa Claus’, I replied with a grin. Unsmiling, she wrote down ‘Father Christmas’. ‘Reason for leaving’, she asked. I looked at her and said ‘It’s January!’ ‘Give me a proper reason,’ she barked, ‘or you’ll get no money’. ‘Santa stops work after Xmas and returns to the frozen north with his elves and reindeer’, I told her. She wrote ‘Post terminated’.
Pete, meanwhile, had got himself a new job as a foundry labourer, helping to lower hot castings into a huge cooling tank. It was sweltering work. He was sacked, just days after starting, when the shop-floor manager, summoned by cheering, found the whole workforce crowded round the cooling tank in which Pete, stark naked, was swimming up and down.
Soon after this, I’d a phone call from Ilse to ask if I’d seen Pete. Apparently he’d gone to the corner shop for cigs two nights back and she’d not seen him since. Several days passed. Then Ilse phoned again. She was off to join Pete in Denmark. ‘Denmark?’ I asked in surprise. ‘Yes’, she told me, explaining that he’d fallen into conversation with a long-distance lorry-driver while waiting to be served in the corner shop. The guy’s wagon was parked outside and he was on his way to Copenhagen. True to form, Pete had immediately offered to accompany him. Concealed under blankets, he’d got through customs. A few days later, he’d phoned home to ask Ilse to bring him his clothes, passport and instruments.
That’s the last I ever heard from either of them.