Last Sunday, my daughter Tanith presented me with a unique and unforgettable handmade card and a very welcome bottle of superior red wine for Father’s Day, while my son Jack bought me a book that had long been missing from my collection, because I had lent my last copy to someone a few years ago and I had never got it back. The book was The Choirboys by the American author Joseph Wambaugh and while its contents were long ago indelibly branded on my memory, it was nonetheless shocking and thrilling to delve once more into the pages of this supreme masterpiece and to be reminded of the tragic and uproarious stories that made such a lasting impression on me when I first encountered them at some point in the late 1970s, not long after the book had first been published.
For those of you unfamiliar with The Choirboys, the title refers to ten policemen who would regularly meet up in a park in the city of Los Angeles after their shifts had finished, to indulge in wild parties that they euphemistically termed ‘choir practise’. They held these ribald celebrations as a means of winding down after the shocking scenes they regularly encountered during the course of their shifts, and also to find solace and understanding from their fellows. At this point, I had yet to read A Clockwork Orange, among others, but I was already familiar with other lurid written material such as The Siege of Trencher’s Farm and the works of Catullus, a Roman poet to whom I’d been introduced by my enlightened Latin teachers.
One of the recurring themes in The Choirboys was the way in which a policeman could commit an act so outrageous that it instantly earned him a macho nickname and which made him the sole topic of conversation throughout all the police stations in the city within twenty-four hours. This seemed to be an echo of events from centuries before in England, when Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hell Fire Club became notorious on account of the activities of its various members, and I’d read about this colourful institution within a few years of picking up my first copy of The Choirboys.
As I suggested in A Tale of Sound & Fury, an autobiographical work I penned a few years ago, I was grateful for the way in which these books opened my eyes to various ways in which I might enjoy myself when I was in my late teens and early twenties, while I always kept an eye out for other people of a broadly similar disposition. While I was leafing through my new copy of The Choirboys prior to reading it once again, I naturally thought of the five years I spent from 1988 to 1991 working as the Earl Marshall on what was then the world’s only touring mediaeval jousting tournament, as I do not remember a solitary day in all that time that could ever be described as boring or mundane.
While I was idly reminiscing about some of the more colourful characters I’ve met over the course of my time, I was also reminded of a former colleague and drinking partner from my time in London, who now seems to have happily taken up residence in the Philippines. Neither my son or daughter could reasonably be described as unworldly, I feel, but they were both stunned and absolutely appalled by just one brief memory of the aforementioned gentlemen, so I feel the nature of the fund of tales I’ve yet to tell bodes well for the next installment of my autobiography, something I’m more and more inclined to start work on.
And by one of those sad coincidences, I learned later that night of the passing of a man by the name of Martin Chandler from Usk, the village in south Wales where I was born and where I grew up. The first time I remember seeing or encountering him was when I was a child at some point in the late 1960s, when he was employed on a building site that produced what would become my family’s home, as well as other houses. Martin drove a dumper truck and he let me ride for a while beside him, something that would simply not happen in these days of micromanaged health and safety regulations. I thought that splashing through great pools of water and scrambling through banks of mud on this growling machine was the most exciting things imaginable and it’s something I’ve never forgotten, so for this reason alone I’m forever indebted to Martin.
As I grew older, I became more and more aware of Martin Chandler’s jaw-dropping social exploits and when I was a teenager, I would often drink alongside him in a few of Usk’s pubs, most notably the Royal Hotel. Some of the stories of what this man got up to after a few pints defy credulity for those who were never lucky enough to meet him, but as the innumerable posts on social media all make clear, he was one of the most colourful characters my home town has ever produced, and a legend in every sense of the word. One of these fine days, I shall have to try to write about my recollections of him in greater detail, because he was also an incredibly amusing and warm-hearted man, but for now, Martin, God bless you and it was a true privilege to have known you.