Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Colin Preston

Keen fans of the rock group Queen will know the name Colin Preston who lived all his life in Plymouth. A story on the fansite 'Queenpedia.com' (which is wrong, by the way) reads:
"Keep Smilin'" was written for Colin Preston, a young Queen fan who considered himself a Freddie look-alike. Colin was involved in a car accident and slipped into a coma, and Colin's parents asked if Freddie could visit their son. Instead, the vocalist took opportunity of studio time and wrote and recorded a song especially for Colin, then sent the tape to his family, who reported back that it made a difference; sadly, Colin died shortly afterward, and the family reassured Freddie that the tape would be buried with him so that no one could make a copy.
I knew Colin when I was about 10 years old (in 1971) and we both went to Knowle Primary School in West Park. For a while, we were best friends and would spend evenings searching for conkers and in the day, playing marbles, building dens and playing cowboys and Indians. He lived with his gran at the bottom of the road behind the fish and chip shop at West Park and I'd call for him on some days after school and we'd go out exploring the area (as kids did in those days). We ocassionally got into trouble like the time some lads set upon us while we were cutting through Honicknowle School. I had a bleeding nose so we went back to Colin's house and his gran then blamed me!
It's odd, when the school decided that, because my birthday fell in the summer holidays, that I'd be moved up a year, we were no longer in the same class and, from then on, hardly hung around with each other. I soon left for Southway Comprehensive ( which was dire to say the least) and I never saw Colin again. It's funny, when you're a kid, you can be such good friends with someone and then just move on.
Anyway, in about 1986, I had been seriously ill in hospital and when I came out, I read about Colin in the paper soon after and his battle with cancer (he hadn't been in a car crash as mentioned on many Queen sites on the net). I read in the Plymouth Star that pool and darts players at the Victory Inn had raised £580 for him. I looked in future papers for more news but never saw anything and assumed that he'd recovered. It wasn't until about 2010 that I'd heard that he died. He was certainly a great kid and a lot of fun and, even though I hadn't seen him for a very long time, I was upset to hear the news.
Recently his brother, Philip, kindly sent me the photos, shown here, as well as the newspaper story that I remembered reading all those years ago. Colin would have been about 26 when he died and not a boy as reported on some sites. Although it was also reported that Colin had the only version of 'Keep Smilin' the song can be heard on Youtube and elsewhere.
Finally, here's a photo of me and Colin Preston in Mr Thompson's class in about 1970. I'm fourth from the right in the back row and Colin is second from the right. The flame-haired Mr Thompson had a fiery temper to match but he looks quite harmless in this photo!

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Plymouth On This Day

I was kindly sent a copy of Pitch Publishing's new book 'Plymouth On This Day.' Compiled by Rick Cowdery, it features key events of Plymouth's history for every day of the year. Included in the book are stories from the Blitz, Plymouth Argyle, the English Civil War as well as tales of pirates, explorers, seafarers and politicians such as Michael Foot, Nancy Astor and David Owen.
It is beautifully presented and includes many colour photos. Rick has written other books, both including interesting facts about Plymouth Argyle. It is a great read and is priced at £9.99 and is available from all good book shops and online retailers.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Universal Book Stores, Frankfort Gate

After my article about the various shops at the bottom end of town in the 1960s and 1970s, Mike Evans, the owner of Universal Book Stores, kindly wrote to me. I loved the bookstore when I was a boy but, for some reason, in my article, I mistakenly called it 'Bonus Books.'
Mike wrote:
'I've always enjoyed reading your articles in the Shopper newspaper but I must bring to your attention the second-hand bookshop you mentioned. The only bookshop in Frankfort Gate was Universal Book Stores which was owned by my father and myself.
My father opened his shop there in 1960, and I joined him in 1969, and we dealt in all kinds of second hand books. By the middle of the 1970s, we were selling new remainder and last of run books as well as second-hand. Sadly my father passed away in 1990 and I carried on with the business until 1997.The rent and rates had escalated so much by then that I had no choice but to finish with the business.


My father started the business in 1947 in Tin Pan Alley in Plymouth, wheeling his books down there every day from his basement flat, eventually finding shops to run his business from. The shop he was mostly known for was in York Street. I can remember, in the early 1950s, working as his Saturday boy and people would be queueing outside the door for opening time at 8.30am.
Most of his stock came from service and merchant navy personnel returning home from abroad, hence the American comics and science fiction magazines, which are now collectors pieces.'
Mike kindly sent me some lovely photos which are shown here. I'm sure that many Plymothians will recognise both him and his father.
An article about the shop appeared in the Evening Herald of Christmas 1989 under the heading 'Heading for the Record Books.' It read:
A long established Plymouth shop proprietor is Peter Evans of Universal Book Stores who started his business during the dark days of World War Two.
He remembers the make-shift shops erected after most of Plymouth's city centre was bombed out in the blitz.
'I started a book stall in Tin Pan Alley (called Drake Street before the blitz). It led though from the bottom of Saltash Street to the old Plymouth Pannier Market.' he said.
'I used to wheel the books down in a couple of tin trucks and wheel them home again every night. The stalls in Tin Pan Alley were constructed out of sheets of galvanised steel, the same as was used for making air-raid shelters. As there was no covering to protect the stalls, everyone erected their own canvas awnings strung across the alley which gave pedestrians and stall holders a little protection from the rain. I used to advertise even then and always bought the Evening Herald. I used to buy my stock for the stall and eventually saved up for a car to collect my stock from houses. After several years and various shops (including many years at 30 York Street), due to the construction of Western Approach, I received a compulsory purchase order to move but luckily was offered a shop in Frankfort Gate. This was in December 1960. Business was fairly quiet for several years.
My son joined me in 1969 and through those last 20 years we have built up a really good selection of remainders and second-hand paperbacks.
Unfortunately, Peter died three months after the article appeared but Mike carried on with the shop for another seven years with the help of his wife.
Incidentally, I'd forgotten about the shop next door which sold remote controlled helicopters and planes, which can just be seen in the photo from the 1980s. My dad always wanted one back in the 1970s but they were hundreds of pounds which seemed a fortune back then (he never got one!).
I'm really pleased the Mike took the time to write to me and it was a a great reminder of the many happy times I'd spent visiting the shop, first as a boy buying comics and annuals and, later, buying photography and movie books in the 1970s and 1980s.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

David Soul's appearance in Plymouth in 1977

Nowadays, it's hard to imagine  the excitement that took place in Plymouth when David Soul turned up one evening at a boxing match in the city early in 1977. The story was exclusively revealed in the following day's Sunday Independent. At the time, Starsky and Hutch was incredibly popular on the tv and any programme that featured David Soul or Paul Michael Glaser was watched by millions. The seventies was a time when thousands of fans would turn out at airports and bring everything to a standstill. Other acts who'd experienced this during the 1970s included the Osmonds, David Cassidy and, of course, the Bay City Rollers (who also appeared in Plymouth).
David was soon interviewed by Westward Television and it was revealed that he was in the city to make a movie, which was originally called 'Mud.' He was so popular at the time that it had to be kept secret where he was staying but, as Westward had interviewed him in his hotel room, it soon became apparent to many that he was staying at the Holiday Inn and soon the area was deluged by fans. He was quickly moved and stayed at the Devon Tors Hotel, just by the roundabout at Yelverton.
I was at school at the time and many kids said that their dads had been drinking at the Moorland Links Hotel in the evening and David had been there and had a chat with them and even sung a couple of songs.
The local papers were full of stories about the film and the Sunday Independent regular featured photos, one of which showed David skinny-dipping at Denham Bridge. Soon after, he contracted pneumonia and the story was reported in the Times of 20th May 1977. It read:
'Actor and singer David Soul, co-star of the television series Starsky and Hutch, has been admitted to a London hospital after suffering from pneumonia.
Work on the motion picture 'Mud,' in which the blonde actor is starring, came to a halt when he was taken from the film's South Devon location to London on Thursday.
Soul had been feeling ill throughout the week but said he thought he had been suffering only from influenza. On Wednesday he flew to Glasgow to top the bill in the Scottish Jubilee Royal Variety show attended by Queen Elizabeth.'
One newspaper story reported how a girl from Plymouth had begged her parents to take her to Hollywood and the set of Starsky and Hutch to hopefully meet her heroes. However, when they arrived, they discovered that Soul was filming just ten miles away from her home.
At the time, I would have loved to have seen the filming taking place. One day, I was out with my parents in our car and there was the film crew gathered near the cricket club at Yelverton. My dad wouldn't stop the car, so that's all I saw. The next day, I decided to catch the bus and travel to the same spot to see if filming was still taking place. There was nothing going on, so I stayed on the bus. A few seats away from me was the actor, Tony Melody. I recognised him from comedies on the television but, at the time, had no idea that he was also in the film. He got off the bus at Dousland presumably to continue filming and I missed my chance to see the film in production. From the newspaper reports, it appeared that shooting was taking place at Maristow, so I walked from Yelverton to Lopwell Dam, which seemed endless. I saw nothing, realised there was no bus service and had to walk all the way back home! It was certainly a long day.
Westward Television showed occasional clips from the movie, most of which showed David slipping up in cow manure!
As far as I remember, the movie had its premier in Plymouth the following year. By then, its name had been changed from 'Mud' to 'The Stick-Up.' Unfortunately, the movie was panned by critics and seemed to be hardly shown anywhere afterwards. I still have never seen it and, unusually, it's never been shown on tv in the 37 years since! I see recently, however, copies of the DVD, previously unavailable in the UK, have been popping up on ebay so perhaps, one day, I'll get around to watching it.
I never did get to meet David Soul but a few months later, my mum gave me a copy of his album which had been signed by him. The Music Box at St Budeaux had managed to get copies of his LP signed at the Moorland Links for various customers but several never picked them up for some reason. My copy said 'to Julie' but that never really bothered me! Like most things I had in the 1970s, it's long since disappeared!

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Robert Lenkiewicz, a treasure hunt and a forgotten cannonball

I recently walked down to the Barbican to look at Robert Lenkiewicz's quickly deterioring mural, located close to the premises of the South West Image Bank. It seems a shame that the council didn't preserve the artwork or allow it to be restored while Lenkiewicz was still alive.
I met Robert Lenkiewicz only twice and he was a man of a few words and was always accompanied by a girlfriend decades younger than himself. One meeting was in the queue for the ABC cinema in about 1989. It was evening and he was dressed in his familiar black smock and red scarf, complete with young girlfriend. I think the movie showing was John Cleese's 'Clockwise' (which was awful).
The first time I met him, though, involves a far more interesting (and ridiculous) story. It was about 1981 and I was still in my teens. My brother worked as a black cab taxi driver and said that he had had someone in his cab who was a film director. He was making a film, supposedly, about a treasure hunt featured in a booklet and, apparently, the clues led to Plymouth. He asked my brother if he knew anyone with a metal detector and he remembered that I had one so, without telling me, he sent him around to my parent's house. Anyway, an overweight man, with straggly grey hair and beard, a nylon mustard-coloured polo neck jumper, and a huge gold medallion around his neck, arrived in a clapped-out Mini. He looked all the part of a film director and, after he had a cup of coffee (with six sugars), I located my metal detector and we set off to the Barbican. Of course, now, with hindsight, I can see it would have been better to tell him that I was too busy! So, we drove towards the Barbican and he told me about the book and how the author had hidden buried treasure somewhere in the British Isles. He also told me that his company had filmed Mari Wilson's (long forgotten) first video. So, we arrived on the Barbican and parked by Lenkiewicz's mural (you could park anywhere, free, in those days). The film director (I don't think he ever did tell me his name) explained that the clues suggested that one of the characters in the painting pointed to the location of the treasure which, in this case, was the flower bed directly in front of the mural. At this point, Robert Lenkiewicz appeared (complete with young girlfriend) and it became apparent that he and the film director had some sort of history. As their conversation progressed, I learned that the film director had been digging in the flower bed the previous night, someone had called the police and he had ended up spending the night in a cell. Lenkiewicz thought that this was great fun, although he said little else. So, I was asked to turn on the metal detector and I waved it over the flower bed. Straightaway, I got a very loud signal and clearing away the dirt, discovered a cannon ball which measured about 4 inches in diameter. It was obviously hundreds of years old and must have been in the soil when the flower bed was first constructed (the flower bed appeared to have been built some time in the 1950s or 1960s). It would have been good to keep but the director 'bagged' it for himself and said that it would make a good paper weight for his desk back in London. By now, Lenkiewicz had got bored and had gone back to his studio. I was bored too but the director wanted to try one more location which was in the flower beds in Frankfort Gate. I refused to metal detect in the middle of the town but went with him anyway. He happily dug around one of the trees and some kids laughed as they went by and shouted, 'Look, it's Percy Thrower!'
After that, he dropped me home and set off to London in a Mini that didn't look like it would complete its journey. It seemed a very long day and I was very relieved to return back.
I never heard anymore about the director, the proposed treasure hunt film, or the cannon ball, and didn't meet Lenkiewicz again until I was behind him in the cinema queue in 1989.
This story is certainly ludicrous and I'm not sure how many people will find it interesting but it's the only Lenkiewicz related story I have!
Incidentally, I'm sure someone with a metal detector will think that the flower bed in front of Lenkiewicz's mural is worth checking out. I never went back to it and I'm sure no-one else, apart from a council gardener, has ever dug further than a few inches. Of course, I wouldn't suggest digging up council property so any secrets therein will, probably, remain hidden.
The moral of this story is, of course, never talk to strangers (especially if they tell you they're a film director).

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Sweeney comes to Plymouth

In the 1970s, one of the coolest programmes on British television was 'The Sweeney' starring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman. Both stars came to Plymouth in the 1980s. John Thaw filmed, mainly at Cawsand, a long-forgotten film from Westward Television about Francis Drake.
In the early 1980s, Dennis Waterman came to Plymouth, along with Rula Lenska, to take part in the poppy day remembrance ceremony during November. For some reason, the ceremony was held at the bottom of the escalator beside C&A's in the old Drake Circus shopping centre. I went along to see it all and there was quite a crowd of people waiting. I don't
remember much about the day except that Rula looked very friendly and Dennis looked a bit stern. Maybe he was just being sombre for the event. I took many photos which I've just found recently so here they are! I think that maybe they were both appearing at the Theatre Royal at the time so it should be easy to track
down the exact date.            Footnote: It appears that Dennis and Rula appeared in Cinderella in Plymouth in 1985 alongside Peter Purves.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Santa Claus Ship 1914

In November 1914, America sent a ship full of Christmas gifts for war orphans in Plymouth. American newspapers reported on 26th November that the 'Santa Claus Ship' was met with much joy and that Plymouth and Devonport had been festooned with decorations to welcome the Americans. Huge crowds gathered to greet the Jason as warships directed it into the harbour. Lord Kitchener sent a message expressing the army's gratitude which was read at a banquet to the ship's officers. America, at the time, were still neutral and the Christmas gifts were supplied to orphaned children of all troops, on both sides. The ship was loaded with 8,000 tons of gifts comprising of 5,000,000 separate articles which had been donated by American children and were destined for British, Belgian, French, German and Austrian children whose fathers were away fighting in the war. The ship was officially welcomed by Earl Beauchamp, the president of the council, on behalf of the government. He was accompanied by Mr F D Acland, the Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, together with a large gathering of naval and military officers. Among the greetings awaiting the ship was one from the Queen to the wife of the American Ambassador. In her letter, the Queen wrote: ‘I am anxious to express, through you, my warm appreciation of this touching proof of generosity and sympathy and to ask you to be so kind as to convey my heartfelt thanks to all who have contributed towards these presents, which will, I am sure, be gladly welcomed by the children for whom they are intended and received with gratitude by their parents.' The scheme was initiated by the Chicago Herald and a Mr O'Loughlin, who represented the journal, stated that 200 other newspapers throughout the United States had assisted in the project. As well as an enormous collection of toys, gifts also included shoes, boots, clothing, sweaters and stockings. So much was collected that 100,000 tons of presents had to be left behind. While the Jason was at Plymouth, gifts were left for British and Belgian children before the ship carried on its journey to Marsailles to deliver presents to
German children. It then continued on to Genoa to distribute gifts to further German and Austrian children. Gifts heading for Russia were loaded on to a different vessel. This story and many others can be found in my new book, 'Plymouth in the Great War,' which is available at all good bookshops.