Red light spells danger
Perhaps due to a slight burst of verbal invention by the estate agent, I now found myself living in Coventry’s red light district, Hillfields. Of course it was my responsibility to find things like that out before I signed on the dotted line.
But when your thinking isn’t quite 100%, such little niceties can be overlooked.
I wanted to find a church to publicly express my relatively new faith and find out more about knowing God. I remembered what Nula had said about the denomination of a church being much less important than it being bible-based.
So at 10:30 on the first Sunday morning after discharge, I stepped through the doors of Hillfields Baptist Church, an easy five-minute stroll away.
Just like the meetings at the Stoker, HBC it was wildly different from the Catholic way of doing things: more open, less rigid, the people friendly and welcoming. The pastor spoke with absolute passion. I found him inspirational, and enjoyed listening to him on two fronts: his preaching rang true and he was the best public speaker I’d ever heard – in any genre.
The Silly Boy & the Judge
A young woman who attended spoke to me about a 20-year old who came to the church sometimes, “Terry Wicklow is a very silly boy. He gave his life to drugs and glue-sniffing – I gave mine to God.”
“Yes, he has made some shocking mistakes. And besides, you were brought up in a stable Christian home with two loving parents – is that true of Terry? And won’t we be judged partly by how we judge others?”
A few weeks later, Terry knocked on his parent’s door just down the road from me and attacked his father on the doorstep. How grief-stricken would that man have been, brutally beaten up by his own son?
A Man and His Art
Alan Scotland, a talented and hard-working actor I’d met at Earlsdon Writers (more about experiences there another time) visited me in Shrapnel Lane one evening. I’d since seen him performing in a wide variety of parts, from the evil professor in The Care Bear Show to the lead in Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo, a great play with an incredibly demanding central role. He was always totally convincing.
When he wasn’t acting, Alan kept the wolf from the door by life modelling for art classes. This involved staying in the same position for lengthy times. Apparently he occupied himself mentally by rehearsing his lines from all the plays he’d been in.
He went on to play the Ghost at Warwick Castle, screaming at people for his supper. When I last heard of him he was touring Europe with the same company playing similar roles in places like Transylvania.
Anyway, on this particular evening, I got out my trumpet and and we spent an hour or so improvising jazz, with Alan doing Satchmo-style scat singing. He was brilliant at it.
A recording studio at home
I’d just taken delivery of a four-track Amstrad recording studio, but nothing I did made it work, not even plugging it in. You could rightly say my next move was irrational. I should’ve sent it back, but instead I grabbed my toolbox and took the studio apart. Alan laughed hysterically, and only left when the thing was reduced to a purposeless-looking pile of circuitry, speakers, transformers, wiring and knobs.
All the King’s horses…
A chap I knew was a whizz at hardware. He volunteered to have a go at putting the device together again. In the end he said the only people capable of putting it back together again were Amstrad themselves.
For a brief moment, I wondered if the warranty on the machine covered murder of the device by an unwell owner. Or could I make a claim on my household insurance?
I decided to put its mortal remains in the shed while I came up with a viable plan… and completely forgot about it.
My stay in Hillfields lasted barely a year and a half, for reasons that will become clear. During that time local ladies asked me the same question over and over. It was, “Do you want business?”
The first time it happened, a response flashed through my mind. “Yes. I always look out for business ideas.” Fortunately I realised what she really meant before I’d made a big error.
Each lady had a ‘procurer,’ or a ‘minder’ who’d get them hooked on heroin and provide it when they needed it, brutally controlling them until they outlived their usefulness.
I found the reduction of sex to a transaction or even a product in a “Would that be with fries?” sort of way revolting.
The chess set
On my 21st birthday, my sister Caitlin had given me one of the most beautiful presents I’d ever received. It was a chess set, but no ordinary one. The pieces were gold and silver pewter, each sitting on a hand-turned alabaster base and accompanied by an inch deep marble and onyx board. It was a staggering treasure and I guarded with my life.
Shrapnel Lane: Burglaries
Part of the bad news of living in Hillfields was the reality of burglary. This happened to me 4 times in 18 months. Each time I was completely cleaned out each time. Considering the neighbourhood, I concluded that my neighbours were waiting a few months after each burglary for me to refill the house with saleable items, waiting for me to go out and burgling me again.
So after the second burglary I decided to get a burglar alarm installed. Feeling secure, I placed the chess set on the coffee table .
Being burgled is always a truly horrible experience. Burglars don’t open a drawer, rifflle through it and carefully close it. They rip out everything, break everything, pull down every fixture, fitting and stick of furniture, scatter anything scatterable all over the floor, creating out of your proudest possessions a sort of mad Jackson Pollock artwork.
Shrapnel Lane: the lorry
One evening I noticed a parked-up lorry, a ‘for sale’ sign and phone number prominent in the window. What happened next was typical of a deepening manic phase: I felt strongly that this lorry was being sold for me only. It was there for me and no one else to buy, part of my destiny, just like the Mercedes saloon I’d ‘owned’ many months ago outside Mercia Ward.
I made the phone call, gave the lorry a once-over and bought it.
Ultimately when I came to my senses, I found I was the proud owner of a dirty, old, rusty lorry. I had no idea what to do with it. I couldn’t drive it, I had no business plan, no strategy, nothing. I tried to sell it back to the guy I got it from. Unsurprisingly he said he’d spent the money.
An advert in the local paper brought someone who came and took it off my hands. What on earth would I have done with it otherwise? It would’ve been a huge white elephant hanging like a millstone round my neck.
The all-night walker
My hypomania rocketed and I went on one of those all-night walks, leaving my front door open. An acquaintance who was in training to be a church leader came round to see if I was OK. He entered the house, setting the alarm off and cleared off, leaving the alarm ringing. Most alarms would stop after 20 minutes. This one didn’t.
Somehow I ended up back on the ward in Walsgrave Hospital. How I got there and who got me there I didn’t know.
Anyway, back at my house, a neighbour got a ladder, took the alarm box off the wall and disabled it. But he left the box on the pavement outside my door. From that moment until my return from another two weeks in hospital, every passer-by could see that the house was unprotected.
It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that burglars came before I returned. It must have been like stealing candy floss from a baby. This time they didn’t steal everything: they left a bishop from Caitlin’s chess set.
I don’t regard myself as a particularly wise man of God and am unlikely to be earmarked for a dazzling career in church leadership. But if it had been the other way round, I’d at least have got a ladder and screwed the box back on the wall, giving the place some semblance of security.
Beating the wheel – or not
I’d previously lived and worked within striking distance of the utterly amazing Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
One attraction was that one of the hotels had a small casino. I watched the little ball going round for a few hours wondering if it was possible to beat the wheel. Logic said no, because the odds are against you: 37 numbers, at a price of 35:1. No value there.
But I became interested in following a number that hadn’t come up for a long time and betting on it until it did come up, increasing the stake to cover my losses. A difficulty with this is that you eventually run into the house limits, i.e. a maximum bet on a number.
I spent one evening in the casino each long weekend over my 6 months in Zim, putting my plan into place. I won each time, total winnings about £1000.
In 1984 that was almost jackpot-like.
Appreciating a challenge
While in Shrapnel Lane I bought an Amstrad word processor with a modest amount of computing power and set about writing a piece of software which threw out random numbers between 0 and 36 and ran them through the system. I wanted to see if a starting balance of £1000 would rise or fall over time.
It was partly an academic exercise and partly a challenge to beat the wheel. I have to say that everyone I mentioned this to said I was in cloud cuckooland. But I like challenges. If someone says, ‘That’s impossible,’ ‘You’ll never do that’ and, ‘You and whose army?’ it’s like a red rag to a bull. It fires me up to prove them wrong.
Anyway, using my program I simulated 45 trips to a casino. And you know what? By the 45th my pot of £1000 had steadily gone down to about £150.
There was one casino in Coventry town centre and another in Hillfields. I visited both, but didn’t guard my words. I was quickly banned from both, one for no given reason and the other because my face ‘didn’t fit’.
Were they scared of me? I doubt it, particularly as if I’d habitually placed bets there, I would certainly have lost in the long run.
Folks, just a quick word about my 9 – 5 work existence. As Marketing Analyst at GEC National One, there was excitement in my working day, but at this point in the narrative I’m back in IT. Software isn’t interesting to do, writing about it is even less so, and reading about it might result in you, my precious readers, leaping lemming-like off a nearby cliff.
Folks, I hope you’re finding this blog compelling. Do drop in again!