The next post will be on or before Sunday 18th March. If you want to read my latest comic novel The Lawless Book of Love, you will need to go to the January and February 2018 archive, see below to the right
THE OOMPAH SONG – a short story
Brigitta and I were bouncing up and down, but she was an obvious expert and I was not. As she rose a good three feet in the air I tried to bounce in synchrony but I couldn’t do it, and I pulled a face of severely theatrical despair. She smirked at that, then giggled joyfully, as if to say she liked to laugh at any opportunity, so that my heart danced to the endearing music of her heartfelt amusement. Brigitta had gently blond hair and a neat little green and red dress, and she wore glasses and had a look of vagueness, distraction and abiding innocence, rather like a little song bird resting for an indefinite period before going about its necessary business. I had never seen anything as lovely at close distance, and as I did my apprentice bouncing, I asked myself what the hell I had been doing of any worth or merit for all my life preceding.
It was a lovely hot day in August 1967 and at the time the hit song all over Holland, Germany, Belgium and by extension the adjacent border towns of Givet in France and Clervaux in Luxembourg was the invigorating and hypnotic ‘Oompah Song’. It was blaring from the amusement park café as Brigitta and I poy-oynged into the atmosphere from about twenty yards adjacent.
Ya da da oompah oompah oompah ya da da
Ya da da
Ya da da….
Believe it or not those lyrics are repeated without the slightest variation some dozen times and they are the only ones. That Oompah Song is addictive beyond words because it is both brainless and cheerful, and believe me brainless cheerfulness can be a fine thing at any time of year and at whatever biographical stage you find yourself. Some people spend a fortune learning how to do Transcendental Meditation or become skilled at Mindfulness, or perhaps they explore some quasi-Hindu technique where they assimilate a repetitive mantra in order to steady themselves ontologically speaking. Far cheaper and far less of a debatable struggle in every sense, is to google The Oompah Song of which there are fascinatingly many variations over the decades. Once you find this 1967 Benelux eurohit, stop all else to listen to it on Youtube and surrender yourself lock, stock and barrel as I did when I bounced up and down with Brigitta and pulled faces of exaggerated anguish to make her laugh her little Dutch socks off, even though she always wore neat sandals and her fine and enchanting little feet were always clearly visible in the time we spent together.
Everything has its one and only coordinates, its piquant and inimitable context, and ours was the equivalent of an inland Blackpool in southern Holland, a small town called Valkenburg which is just the place to be if you are sixteen as Brigitta and I both were. She was from Amsterdam and was on holiday with her friend Anni and Anni’s Mum and Dad,and was staying at a pension a short distance from our hotel. I was on the impressively titled Five Countries Tour with the now sadly defunct Southbound Holidays, and for the first time ever was not with my parents but a schoolfriend called Len. Len’s flat monosyllabic name was all too apt inasmuch as he was on the prematurely old, plodding and dutiful side, an only child spoiled by his doting Mum and teased by his likeable and unassuming Dad, who for some reason he openly and unashamedly looked down on. Actually, the reason for his rejection of his playful father was clear enough, and was because his Dad worked contentedly on the conveyor belt in a button factory whereas Len was severely ambitious and wanted at all costs to get into a medical school and become a doctor.
To tour five countries in the same week, even if some of them are very small, you need to get up very early and spend a lot of time on the road. There is a fair chance The Oompah Song will be pullulating from the coach’s radio at least half a dozen times during the day, and that you and even frowning Len will be carousing alongside and gurgling buffoonishly in the pauses between verses. Behind us as a rule sat red-faced black-haired Frankie Shears from Newcastle, who despite the temperature always wore a neat blue suit and was amiable and optimistic and had a musical Geordie accent and who eventually dated Anni in parallel with me dating Brigitta. He was nineteen and worked in a Durham insurance office but was happy enough to befriend two Cumbrian schoolboys who had just finished their fatiguing O level exams. Sat behind him invariably was Margie, an overweight, boisterous and heavily made up Londoner in her late-twenties, who helplessly fancied him and evidenced a flirtatious interest even when he was to be seen snuggling against Anni and putting his arms around her in the hotel lounge. Nonetheless, Frankie must have possessed much altruistic sensitivity unusual at nineteen, as he always returned Margie’s flirting on the excursions, as if to say that though she was considerably overweight and homely rather than thin and handsome, she had her feelings like anyone else and it would be cruel of him to rebuff them. Also because Frankie and I were friends, she chaffed me too and regularly addressed me as Jimmy Tarbuck, the name of the fast talking Scouser TV comic, who you will recall always wore a suit, and as I never wore a suit and Frankie always did, I decided that her banter with me must actually be a coy, vicarious way of addressing him.
One more significant addiction was that of the cigarette. We all apart from cautious Len smoked like chimneys on the Five Countries Tour, as if you are a zestful smoker, being on a week’s holiday encourages you to let your hair down and puff away all the more. Frankie and Margie both liked the standard Embassy Tipped which meant they were always offering each other a tab, whereas now that I was abroad I believed in going cosmopolitan and tended to go for Gitanes and Gauloises though I also favoured obscure American imports made of toasted tobacco and always without tips. Frankie guffawed his incredulity when I offered my pack of odorous French snouts and Margie hooted even more hilariously and said it was so true to form, as being Jimmy Tarbuck I obviously smoked my mad cigarettes as a kind of stage repertoire joke.
I looked at Margie who was teasing me like a playful older sister and grinned at her to show that I liked her and would even have flirted with her had I been older, because of course sixteen-year-olds unless in anomalous possibly deplorable circumstances, do not flirt with twenty-nine-year-old women. I said to her, wagging an admonitory finger: “For a start Jimmy Tarbuck is from Liverpool whereas I’m from West Cumberland…”
She snorted hugely. “But you sound just the same! You sound exactly like Tarbuck to me.” Then infinitely possessively. “So does Frankie here a bit, come to that, though not quite as bad as you.”
I turned to her Geordie heart-throb and shook my head severely. “That must be what they all think in London. That in Newcastle, Liverpool and West Cumberland we all talk the same. That’s the equivalent, Margie, of me saying that in London and Surrey and Kent and Middlesex and Essex, all of you all talk the same…”
As if they had cleverly rehearsed it, Margie rocked up and down in her seat and shrieked, ‘Well we do!’ just as Frankie guffawed and roared, ‘Well they do!’ and they celebrated their brilliant unison with their tenth Embassy Tipped of the morning.
We went to the French border town of Givet that afternoon, after crossing through Belgium and dawdling an hour or so by the lush and musical riverside in beautiful Namur and then Dinant. There was a street market in Namur and I bought myself a choice leather wallet at a bargain price and the stallholder, a good- looking man of forty grinned as a cascade of Dutch guilders, Belgian francs and French francs came hurtling out of my battered old English purse.
“Capitaliste!” he chuckled and both Len and I laughed at the irony, in my case because I could tell a radical soul a mile away and I guessed this confident and handsome man to be an instinctive and unwavering socialist. As for me, I was currently a standing joke at the Grammar School because I declared myself to be a communist of the Prague Spring kind, and I regularly scoured the town newsagents, sometimes for hours, for a stray copy of the Daily Worker. But there was a headier joy to be experienced in the Givet cafe as I lit up a pungent Camel and saw that the juke box had a specially orchestrated film, and in colour at that, to go with every record, so that I stuffed in a lot of francs for the costly treat of seeing the bands on screen, which seemed to me surely impossible by which I mean mythological, when I saw it half a century ago. If video existed in my homeland back in 1967 I had never seen it, and neither had colour TV as opposed to technicolor cinema arrived. What’s more, I have neglected to declare another addiction, which was that both Len and I were drinking bottled beer at every opportunity, for it was legal at sixteen in all the five countries where they joyfully sang the Oompah Song, while back home where we didn’t sing it, we would need to wait till we were eighteen. Booze at sixteen when you have spent months slogging away for exams, brings out a cathartic and angry defiance, for even though you bow to the sovereignty of those obligatory ordeals, at bottom you hate the bastards, and you also hate the people both real and imaginary who cause you to suffer them, and suspect that the future they promise is not at all the glorious thing it is cracked up to be. Even Len who would have tackled any impossible workload to get into medical school sensed at some intolerable level it was all optimistic hope and no definite assurance, and indeed his suspicions were proved horribly right for in 1970 he was turfed out of a Midlands medical school after his first year, as the second year only had places for thirty medics, and they had wisely taken in an expendable extra twenty, just to be on the safe side.
Back at the hotel that night Frankie and Len and I drank more beer, and before long Brigitta and Anni arrived. We bought them drinks and offered them cigarettes and Brigitta took one of my scented Gauloise with an infinitely accepting smile. At which point Frankie ordered womanless Len to take a photo of the two new Anglo-Dutch couples, and I have the beguiling black and white memento to this day. Frankie is on the left in his dapper blue suit, leaning forward with a frown, rather as if attending an unexpected job interview. He is holding Anni’s hand but almost as a dutiful afterthought and she is glancing obliquely at him with an old fashioned, clearly puzzled look. Brigitta, sat next to her friend in her touching green and red dress, looks face on at the camera with a guileless yet somehow quietly knowing expression. I am on her left and I have my arm round her, and by the sheerest accident, for it was not remotely deliberate, it happens to rest on the edge of her handsome cleavage. Very obviously she doesn’t mind it being there, and we look every inch a steady, endearing little teenage couple in all but name. I am leant indolently back on the sofa, Gauloise in free hand, my face obscured by the cigarette smoke, but my expression is discernible as many things…happy, serene, carefree, angry, quizzical, lustful, innocent, provincial and naive…
It was my camera that Len used to take the photo, and once I’d had it developed, I showed it to my mother who predictably enough took a serious interest in my nascent love life. I expected her to be touched by Brigitta’s young innocence, those blameless, obligatory specs, her gentle fair hair and fetching little dress with its simple patterned lines. Instead she snorted and pouted and passed an instant verdict.
“Hm. That one looks like she’d give you absolutely everything she’s got….”
I stared at her a while and wonderingly examined that unkind and inaccurate judgement. My mother was fifty-one in 1967 which is barely middle aged these days, but was then the borderline of venerable antiquity. She had left school at fourteen in 1930 and worked in service before her marriage, and aside from when following difficult recipes I had never once seen her read a book, whether fictional or factual. None of which stopped her being remarkably adamant, entirely fearless in her opinions about everything under the sun, whether it be politics, ethical principles, town planning, nuclear power, religion, matters psychological or sociological, even though she could not have defined either of those terms. As long as I knew her nothing could ever prise her from her certainties, nor did she ever once express any doubts about the soundness of her reasoning.
I frowned, then said in a rush, “You should have watched little Brigitta as she moved up and down! You should have seen her amazing technique!”
She blinked very rapidly. “You what?”
“You should have seen Brigitta in her element! Up and down like nobody else could hope to do. She had me doing it as well. She was an expert and she showed me exactly how to do it. As I say, she was amazing. At one stage we were both so happy I thought we were going to take off and ascend up to the skies, to the limits of the universe that is… or even up to Heaven itself, wherever that is.”
And with that I stepped out briskly into our sunlit garden and lit up the last of my 555 State Express.