Imagine you’re on a train. You set out from the centre of a city somewhere in the North of England and now you’ve reached the urban hinterland. There’s a sewage farm, a yard stacked with rusty containers and old, boarded-up commercial buildings. Beyond them you glimpse a garage and, beyond that, a busy road. Between them are rough, disused green spaces with, here and there, rusty wire fences. No-one is left to remember what they were intended to keep in or keep out. You cross a bridge over a canal. There are fewer buildings now. You find yourself looking down into a succession of small fields. There’s a horse and a field containing a few ramshackle jumps… There’s a Mexican folk band…
You are surprised. You blink, raise your eyebrows, look around you. Did you really see that? The train has moved on. The fields are empty now…
It strikes me that as well as such obvious encounters with the unexpected, we sometimes encounter people whose stories are equally surprising and who as time passes, can quickly vanish from the worlds we move around in. Unlike the Mexican band, they may not stand out in a hypothetical photograph or startle anyone by their mere presence. The element of surprise lies in the story they carry with them. When, later, you recall them you wonder, did they really tell you the story they told you, the way you remember it? Were the stories others told you about them true?
I bought my first double bass from an old Belgian man, Mr G——. He lived not far from us. He had played the bass for years, first in an army band (he carried my bass on his back through the trenches) and later in cinemas during the silent film era. As well as buying his old bass, I mowed his lawn in return for help with my schoolboy French. One afternoon, during my tea break, he confessed to me how he’d killed the xylophonist, Teddy Brown.
As you can imagine, I was all ears. He told me how he’d been performing with Brown at the theatre in Wolverhampton. They’d had a disagreement about programme. Mr G—— had usually had a solo spot during the show and was unhappy that Brown, a visiting star performer, wanted to play during his solo spot instead. The disagreement became heated and ended, the old man told me, with both men obstinately performing their solo routine at the same time. Teddy Brown was beside himself with anger and dropped dead.
I took the story with a pinch of salt. Clearly, it had not lost anything over the years in the telling. The years passed, the internet came along and one day it occurred to me to do a bit of research. I was mildly surprised to discover what I did. Of course, there was no mention of an argument, but the facts, though less dramatic, were not far removed from Mr G——‘s story. My guess now, with the benefit of hindsight, is that the two men did argue and, human nature being what it is, Mr G—— had had to live with the fact that the man he argued with was so ill the slightest thing that day might have caused his health to deteriorate. What I didn’t realise as a teenager was, despite the fact that he laughed it off, what a burden the story might have been to the old man over the years.
None of us in our form at boarding school had ever had a teacher quite like Tristram Yelin. He was larger-than-life, fierce, charismatic, and determined that we would all learn to speak French like a native. My mother told me how the first day he taught us I came home (I was a dayboy by then) and threw myself on my bed in floods of tears, terrified at the thought of returning to school. By the third week of term, almost all of us idolized him. Once, when looking out the classroom window he saw a police car draw up in the street outside. He immediately jumped under his desk, shouting ‘They’ve come for me! They’ve come for me! Don’t tell them I’m here!’
Yelin was exacting and expected us all to give our best but he was also a past master at acting in loco parentis. He was thoroughly decent, clearly remembered what it felt like to be a schoolboy and talked to you as if you (and the things that mattered to you) mattered. When, in the afternoon, we all had to walk the quarter mile down to the school sports ground, everyone wanted to walk and talk with “T.Y.”
Recently, I found this account of a (the?) Tristram Yelin in an account of life at Clayesmore School in the 1930s by Gavin Maclean:
The head boy was Tristram Yelin. He overwhelmed me. He was a perfect (sic). He was not
only academically gifted, he was musically talented and captained all the Clayesmore
sports teams. He was rumoured to be the son of an Indian/Russian marriage, the wife
being a princess. When I spoke to him on the telephone just before he died in the early
eighties, I asked him if this was so and he said ‘No’, but offered no other alternative.
He was a Marxist and read me long tracts, I don’t know why – maybe it was apparent
that I was going to have an interest in Politics. I heard nothing of him after that first
term (when he left), until he stood as an Independent candidate in the General
Election of 1979 for Scarborough. It was then that I managed to find him but it lead to
only one letter and a phone call.
I like to think they were one and the same.