I know, I said I was thinking of leaving Facebook. I’m still thinking. But then they do the memory thing. Every now and then, Facebook shows you one that makes you smile, but sometimes it shows you one that stops you in your tracks, makes you smile, laugh, shed a little tear, then sigh happily. This particular memory, or rather memories, did just that. However, I didn’t end up posting them on the day, because it turned into a bit of a longer blog, which then stayed as a draft for a month or so. However, having been back to Oxford last Sunday for our dear friend Gerry’s birthday lunch at his and Christine’s place and seen everyone again, I thought I’d better dust it down and post it.
So, six years ago my oldest and dearest friend Tim and I went back to Oxford together. Doesn’t sound too tearjerking, until you know that two years before that he had started to feel unwell, and a year later (maybe it was only a few months, I can’t remember, it was all a bit of an awful blur) he was diagnosed with what he suspected it was, oesophigal cancer. I won’t go into all the details, suffice to say he nearly didn’t make it through that year thanks to a botched endoscopy, but one of the first things he said to me when he was diagnosed, the only thing he wanted me to do for him in fact, was that he wanted to go back to Oxford again, with me, to see the old places, and especially to see Gerry and Christine.
I’m not going to write the story of our lives together either, but briefly, Tim and I had met on a Business Studies course at Oxford Poly (now Oxford Brookes University) in 1980, and after a while became firm friends. Neither of us finished the course, but we did spend a lot of time in Oxford, and of course its pubs, restaurants and wine bars, and particularly one wine bar, the Emperors’ Wine Bar on The Broad.
Here you’ll have to forgive me for copying and pasting (with a bit of adapting) from an old blog that actually isn’t online any more, because I took it down and tried to turn it into a book. In fact, I did turn it into a book, but never really tried to publish it, largely because I didn’t know how. Maybe I’ll put it out there sometime. Anyway, this section was all about Oxford, and the Emperors’, and Tim and I, and our then respective girlfriends (later, first wife in my case), and about Gerry.
“The Emperors’ Wine Bar was on The Broad, opposite the gates of Trinity College (it’s now a sandwich bar), and which was then the coolest bar in Oxford, where all the Bright Young Things hung out. It was also almost certainly the smallest bar in Oxford, way too small ever to make any money for its succession of owners. About ten feet wide, if that, walls lined with Osbert Lancasters (originals, not prints, I discovered years later), with two tiny bars on the ground and first floor and just seating on the top one, although only visiting parents and crowds of more than four went to the top floor – Everyone Who Knew wanted to be in the middle bar, because that’s where Gerry held court, a Mr. Toad-like character who talked and dressed like one of Bertie Wooster’s less reputable friends, and with similarly wonderfully period opinions on pretty much everything, although I later came to realise that this was mostly put on for the tourists and the oiks. Mostly. It also almost concealed his stammer. And we adored him – still do – and all involuntarily began to imitate what became known as ‘chapspeak’, which essentially means talking with the minimum of words in a faux Wooster voice. Chaps go to pub, drink beer, fall over, hurrah! That kind of thing. We just thought it was funny, although those on the outside probably found intensely annoying. Tim and I still used to slip into it occasionally years later, especially when drunk.
A lot of my mental defence mechanisms come from those Oxford days. Not that Tim or I were at Oxford, not the University anyway. We were at Oxford Polytechnic, as it was called then, out at Wheatley, notable largely for the beer and cheeseburgers supplied by the legendary King and Queen pub, run by the equally legendary Johnny Chick and his oh so gorgeous wife Lesley (I think it was Lesley anyway). Tall, blonde, beautiful, intelligent, way nearer our age than her husband’s, which always made us feel we were in with a chance (we never were), and always happy to let you in before opening time for an on-the-house fry-up and beer. Beer, food and the possibility of sex figured largely in those first days away from parental constraints, as it always should.
But Tim and I soon graduated to Oxford proper, as far as drinking went anyway, and he introduced me to The Emperors’, which he’d discovered a year before on trips up to Oxford from Reading with his then girlfriend Lynne. After an oversized overdraft and an undersized boredom threshold forced me to leave the Poly at the end of the first year, I landed a job there. A year later and Tim and Lynne were working there too – and of course Mel, my first wife. I proposed to her there, in fact, as she was walking down to the bar from the tiny kitchen mid-way between first and second floors, balancing three plates of Steak and Kidney pie.
The apostrophe in Emperors’ is important, as Gerry would insist on telling impressionable newbugs. It was important because it wasn’t the wine bar of just one Emperor, but several (in fact those that stared down from the railings surrounding the nearby Sheldonian Theatre). But it was more important because Gerry, his fellow staff and the hardcore regulars would generally only tolerate customers who knew the proper placing of the apostrophe. Those that didn’t were never allowed into the inner sanctum, i.e. those allowed to serve themselves when the bar staff were retrieving supplies from the cellar, or had gone to see Nigel (for so the Gents’ toilet was named). Those that didn’t, especially the unwary tourist, would either ignore the staff’s elitism, or more often than not would leave, complaining, the sound of ribald laughter chasing them up The Broad. Some might call Gerry et al snobs, but in reality they were mostly just bored, and the taunting of tourists and other prols merely made the time go faster. There was no malice in any of them, their only crime being perhaps being a little too devoted to Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse. Tim fitted right in – he’d been to public school. A very minor one, granted – in fact, possibly one of the worst in the country, but public school nonetheless. I had to try harder – when you’ve just emerged from the shadows of a provincial Grammar School as I had, you were very careful not to make a fool of yourself, because if they caught you out, and it was their hobby to do so, they could be vicious, putting you down like you were an American tourist asking for cream with their coffee. I can hear them now, reading this, wincing at the grammar, but now, finally, I feel able to look them in the eye and tell them I don’t give a f**k. But you didn’t have cream with coffee in the Emperors’, you had milk, like all right-thinking Englishmen should, the same way as you knew what cutlery to use, how to tie a bow tie, and how those who used an elasticated one should be hung by their balls from Magdalen Bridge. Even simple conversation was a minefield, with the staff and regulars, devotees of verbal fencing to a man and woman, waiting to pounce on any slip, naiveté or repeated story. But I was a fast learner, and soon bluffed my way In. As it turned out, the mastery of verbal fencing later protected me from a cruel, grown-up world. However, it also ensured that my inner self never had to grow up. But most importantly, The Emperors’ was where I learnt to create the mask, how to make way more superior people believe that I was their equal, or even their better, and not the intellectually awestruck Black Country geek that even to this day has never quite been buried.
Someone I obviously didn’t mention in that excerpt was Christine, who mostly ran the place, and who was Gerry’s girlfriend (although we didn’t officially know this at the time, because it was not to be spoken of, for reasons I won’t go into but which are irrelevant now). She and Gerry married a long time ago now, and still live happily in Oxford. Christine had been the one that hired me in fact. It was the summer of ’81, I had left the Poly and started working at Burtons as a trainee bespoke manager (I measured people for suits), but needed a second job, so I had put a list together of bars I wanted to work in, in order of preference, and the Emperors’ was at the top. I took a breath, walked into the bottom bar, dressed in jeans, dinner jacket, white shirt and silk scarf, and asked the lady sitting behind the bar if they had any jobs going. Christine, for it was she behind the bar, looked me up and down and hired me on the spot. That story has been retold between us many times over the years, and always raises a smile.
So I told Gerry and Chris about Tim’s request, and we arranged to meet for lunch in the Turf, the legendary thirteenth-century pub tucked away behind Holywell Street, and the best pub in the world. Fact. The trip had had to wait for a year, while Tim recovered from the botched endoscopy that nearly killed him. But he was recovered now, from that at least, so I had driven up to London in the sports car we had at the time, a Mk1 Mazda MX5. I thought it would be fun to arrive in style. I figured Tim would fit in it – he had been quite large for many years, but I assumed the chemo and everything else would have done what it does to most people, i.e. force them to lose loads of weight. But it hadn’t – Tim didn’t even do cancer like anyone else, and was if anything even larger than usual. But he manfully squeezed into it, I guess because he knew it meant a lot to me to go to Oxford in a sports car, as opposed to a little white Mini, which was what I had when we were at college.
I had got a discount deal at the Randolph, the top hotel in Oxford, famous way before Inspector Morse used it as a prime location, but very famous now because of that. I’d stayed in it before – Julie and I had stayed there years earlier, and had a legendary lunch with Gerry and Chris, which I’ll write about some other time – but it was somehow important that Tim and I stayed there. Their car park was full though, so we parked at Gloucester Green instead, and ‘rushed’ to the Turf (Tim wasn’t rushing anywhere – the cancer had at least had a ‘normal’ slowing-down effect on him).
At the Turf, we were greeted not just by Gerry and Christine, but by both Christine’s daughters, Charlotte and Jessica, who I hadn’t seen since the infamous Oxford New Year’s Eve of 1989 (also another story!), who had in turn brought their own ‘children’ (one of whom now has children of her own, gulp!), and now a six hour lunch ensued (I was still smoking and drinking back then), and much joy, which brings me back to the Facebook memories. All I was going to do was post the various Facebook Memories from that day with minimal comments, but I seem to have written a very long post. Ah well, here they are…
Sadly, we lost Tim three years ago now, but for all of us he will always be there, in Oxford, holding court with Gerry in the Emperors’.