Monday, 9 June 2014

Shedloads of memories

Ever since we moved into our house more than 20 years ago, there's been a large white time machine parked in our garden. Most people mistake it for a garden shed, a slightly ramshackle construction that's been there since at least the early 1960s. But they're wrong - it's definitely a time machine. Once or twice, it's even fooled me.  I've kept lawnmowers and garden shears in it, and patched it up with bits of wood when it began to disintegrate.

This year we decided that, if it were a garden shed, it would be judged an irreparable eyesore, only good for demolition.  So we began to clear out all the junk that had accumulated there over more than two decades, some of which, I swear, had never been unpacked since the previous house-move. It was when I began to empty the 'shed' that I was reminded it wasn't a shed at all. Some of the contents had been destroyed by rain, damp, mice. But, being a sophisticated time machine, it had preserved everything of importance.

The time machine first of all transported me back to 1974, when I was a 13 year old singer songwriter who wore a denim cap to look like Dylan and Donovan. The 13 year old Tony Gillam had already been writing songs for three years and was contemplating learning the harmonica to accompany his guitar playing.  He never did ... but he got as far as buying a copy of J Reilly's The ABC of Harmonica Playing from Bratton's Pianos in Shrewsbury. When he wasn't browsing through the sheet music at Bratton's, the teenage Tony would be checking out the LPs in the basement record department of Wildings Bookshop, imagining buying the albums in the Island Records Illustrated Dictionary  - a beautifully-produced free catalogue made to look like a children's pictorial alphabet book.

Journeying through time, we are able to see again the hand-written lyrics to songs written when I was 14, 15, 16. Just reading the words on the page allows me to hear the tunes - unplayed since the 1970s -in my head, and my fingers find the abandoned chord progressions on an invisible guitar. The teenage Tony was now dreaming of electric guitars, but even the budget-priced instruments in the Woolworths catalogue were out of reach. (£15.49 for an Audition Solid Body Electric Guitar, £11.75 for an amplifier - who could afford that kind of money?)

The songwriter, back then, was a poet too, a regular contributor to the school magazine, The Priorian. And the time machine has kept these too, along with the thrill of first seeing my name in print.

Marc Bolan sang, 'Whatever happened to the teenage dream?' and I wanted to know whatever became of the schoolboy poet?  For the answer, we are transported to St Brieuc in Brittany, 1981, where the young student buys a few large posters to cover the walls of his bleak bedsit ... among these a print of Ha Van Vuong's Mandolin. This enigmatic picture combines my love of acoustic instruments with the beauty and simplicity of Zen philosophy.  Yet, it was rolled up when I left France in 1982 and remained thus hidden from view as I moved from Wales to Shropshire, Shropshire to Worcestershire, Worcestershire to Staffordshire and back to Worcestershire.  After 32 years, for the first time we've framed it and put it on the living room wall. I never knew my wife would like this picture as much as I do.

Finally, the time machine is emptied of its memories and made ready, Tardis-like, to de-materialise. It has no need to linger. Its job is done: it has reminded me of who I was ... and who I am. 


  1. Lovely evocative post, Tony, can see the downstairs in Wilding's now. Was intrigued that you had a school magazine - what a shame we didn't produce a joint one with my school. It could have been a lot of fun.
    Do you remember Whoppy Phillips's on the Smithfield Road? Positively Dickensian. I often think it would be a great place to set a scene in a novel. The hero, wrongly under suspicion for a crime he didn't commit could be chasd through the 'warehouses' and then then get away by which he falls into after the, after the floor gives way...

    1. Sorry my comment seems to have got mangled. It was meant to say 'and then get away by river, which he falls into after the floor gives way'.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post, Grumbling Appendix! Of course I remember Whoppy Phillips's - a ramshackle, veritable Aladdin's Cave. As you say, it could have been a location for a thriller or for a modern-day version of 'Our Mutual Friend'.


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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).