My family moved to the city of Leicester, in the East Midlands of England, in the summer of 1968 when I was 13. My father had got a job nearby, where he struck up a friendship with a fellow Scot by the name of MacCormick, known by everybody as Mr. Mac. Dad was looking for a home to rent, and Mr. Mac told him there was a house available on his street, two doors along. Naturally, that’s where we moved to.
Mr. Mac had a son, John, who was two years older than me. But despite what was quite a large age difference (at least to a 13-year old) we soon became best friends. Over the course of the next two years we could always be found together, playing with a football (soccer ball) every free moment. John didn’t go to the same school as me – and in fact I don’t recall that he actually went to any school at all. He may have left school early, which was not unusual in 1968.
Over that couple of years John grew into a handsome young man. He was blond and blue-eyed, and an absolute magnet for all the girls. He began to go with me to many of my school’s social functions, and fitted in smoothly with my wider circle of friends. Every school day, all the pretty girls would at some point come to me to ask “How is John?”, which I suppose is better than them not wanting to talk to me at all! And being someone from outside the school circle also lent him a certain glamorous cachet.
Near where we lived was a local football club called Wigston Fields. They had quite a nice set-up with two full pitches, a practice goal, a club house, tea-rooms, and lots of field space. So John and I would regularly head on down there, often with other friends, and find a place to kick a ball around. One day, someone from the football club strolled over to where we were playing and asked John and I if we would mind playing for one of their teams. Apparently they were a man short, and needed a player plus a substitute. John was asked to play, and I got to be the substitute. John was barely 16, playing among hard men, but he played a cracking good game, while my contribution was that of a 14-year old unused substitute.
The opposition side was so impressed that they invited John to join their club, which he did. This team played on one of the most peculiar football fields I ever saw. One half was reasonably flat while the other rose up at quite an incline, so that the goal line was nearly 20 feet higher than the half-way line. On his first game for them, John scored a goal at the uphill end, quite a notable feat. Within weeks he was playing for their first XI. It was said that this was one of the local teams that Leicester City’s scouts would regularly watch.
When I went to high school, I immediately joined the choir. Guthlaxton School Choir had just begun to establish itself as one of the finest in the country, a status it held for a few years, and which I was privileged to have been a part of. The school choir would enter two or three major competitive music festivals every year, competing against adult choirs in musical competitions of an exceptionally high standard. The choir I joined in 1969 had just come off an amazing season in which they won every competition they entered, and for the next four years we would sustain that record, winning every single competition we entered, up and down the country. At one point there was an attempt to ban us, when another choir raised a formal complaint that we were somehow undermining competition, but that was quickly overturned.
Guthlaxton School formed part of a remarkable musical tradition in our county, Leicestershire. Under the leadership of Eric Pinkett, the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra developed an unmatched reputation across the country, and was the subject of a prominent 1973 BBC documentary “The Other LSO” as part of which they were led in concert by the London Symphony Orchestra’s conductor, André Previn. Whenever the LSSO needed a choir, it was always our school choir which stepped in, and whenever our school put on a concert or an opera, the LSSO did likewise. Together we gave regular concerts at Leicester’s de Montford Hall.
Our school choir’s conductor, by some odd tradition, was also the conductor of the British United Shoe Machinery Company Male Voice Choir (the “BU”), and many of the boys would also sing with the BU. Usually the BU would enter the same competitions as the school choir, but in the Male Voice Choir section. We also enjoyed a winning competitive record at the BU, although not quite as comprehensive as the school choir’s.
Naturally, many members of the choir also had fine solo singing voices, not least of whom was a young tenor called Mark Kenney. He had the sort of voice that would just make you want to break out in a smile – a bit like Pavarotti in that sense. To this day whenever I hear “Take A Pair of Sparkling Eyes”, from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, I always hear Mark Kenney’s golden tones. Mark sang in both the school choir and the BU. Whenever we put on an opera he always sung the tenor lead. He was also one of my circle of friends. Like John MacCormick, he too had a shock of naturally blond hair, and the sort of good looks that lent themselves naturally to a career on the stage.
Mark left school at 16 and joined the Fire Service. I always wondered why he didn’t pursue a career in music.
What Was His Name?
I went to Loughborough University in 1973, and was assigned to a residential hall by the name of Royce Hall. Just about all the university’s students lived on-campus in those days (and still do today), and it was quite a shock for the majority of young 17- and 18-year olds who suddenly found themselves wrenched out of home for the first time and thrown together into a cultural melting pot. There we all were, inner city kids and country kids. Rich kids and poor kids. Northerners and southerners. Pakistanis and Indians, Greeks and Turks, Arabs and Jews. Chinese, West Indians and Malaysians. Canadians and Americans. Even Welshmen from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantisiliogogogoch (I visited one at his parents’ house a few times which is why, to this day, I can still not only spell it, but pronounce it too!). I found I adapted quite easily, but there were a fair number of youngsters who didn’t.
But by far the most unusual presence in Royce Hall was the boy whose name I don’t remember. He was, I suppose, at the Q end of what we today refer to as LGBTQ, but in 1973 we had no terminology for such things. He had a lot of Boy George about him, but a good 10 years earlier. He had a totally androgynous look, although not in the fashion-driven David Bowie style of the day. He wore long wrap-around dresses whose vibe was half way between femme-fatale and African tribesman. He wore stiletto heels and makeup. He had long hair that he wore in sleek and shiny styles. So, during the course of our first term, when we spoke of him at all it was naturally in snarky terms. He was a person for whom life had not up to that point provided me with a handy pigeonhole into which I could place him. In fact, it would be many years before it did.
By our second term I got to know him slightly in the sense that we did speak on occasion. He had a notable presence about him which conveyed the fact that he was totally at home with who he was, and didn’t particularly care what you thought of him. The other memorable thing was that his circle of friends was fiercely protective of him, and was not going to allow any inappropriate remarks to pass unchallenged. He commanded a remarkable loyalty. And you didn’t need to talk to him for long to understand why. He had more presence than anybody I had ever met up to that time, and possibly even since. He was very quietly spoken, but at the same time, you felt you wanted to listen to what he had to say. At no time did I ever hear him attempt to justify himself, but he would speak thoughtfully on whatever subject was at hand. And by the end of our first year, the snarky remarks had all evaporated.
In 1971, at the age of 17, John MacCormick was riding pillion one night on the back of a motorcycle belonging to a friend. The friend failed to navigate a sharp bend at high speed and both were killed. Mr. and Mrs. Mac were at my parents’ house when they got the news. It was a horrible night, and one whose memory is still emotionally raw for me. It was a very long walk to school the following morning, knowing that the first thing all the girls were going to want to know would be, “How’s John?”.
Mark Kenney had a keen sense of community and public service, which is why he joined the Fire Service. One night in 1972, he got the call at 1:00am, and drove off immediately. He lost control of his VW Beetle in the pouring rain, just round the corner from the fire station. He died at the scene, aged 19. One of his best friends, who had just got a job as a hospital porter, found himself wheeling his mangled body from the ambulance to the morgue.
I went back to Royce Hall for my second year at Loughborough University in the fall of 1974. The boy whose name I forgot wasn’t there. When I asked why, I was told that he had passed away during the summer, having suffered from a brain tumour. He can’t have been 20 yet.
We tend to live very self-absorbed lives these days. We mostly enjoy a standard of living that might have seemed unattainable to our parents’ generations. And whenever I get the urge to complain about how something isn’t going the way I wanted it to, or hoped it would, I need to think back on three people – contemporaries of mine – whose lives were cut short before they even had the chance to get them started. What lives might John, Mark, and the boy whose name I forgot, have lived if they had been granted the opportunity? What would each of them have given to experience the things that I get to complain about?