• James Hewlett

Summer Nights & Stupid Days

I thought I would have more time to write today than I’ve ended up with but I’m going to try and get a half decent, or at least fun, post out anyway.

A few weeks ago I was listening to a podcast and the hosts were discussing the stupid things people do as kids and telling stories either about themselves or of friends.

Then just last week we had a really nice spring day and I put on local ska legends Loonee Toons seminal (at least to me) album, Trip To Toon Town for the first time this year. Listening to that always takes me right back to the summers of 1994-1996 and that is where this story takes place.

So for a little back story, my parents split in 1993 and my mum, sister and at least for a while, brother, stayed in the house we’d grown up in to that point for a couple more years after that. These years, hell most of the nineties to be honest, are what my mum refers to as her dark years and while there are fond memories from that time she mostly looks back on it in in unfavourable light. Feel free to check out if you’re reading this mum.

My brother is nine years older than me and while he’d always had his rebellious side, after my dad left he became way more of a reprobate. To his… credit(?) he did it in the same way my family always does when we exhibit self destructive behaviour; fully functioning. He was finishing school, because of when his birthday is he was only fifteen when I finished, was already out working gigs at night either by himself or with our dad and had a good group of friends around him.

As my mum was at her lowest, he took full advantage of that. We lived in a pretty decent sized detached house at the time with a great garden. It was the best party house you could want in terms of layout, location and space.

Inevitably, my brother being the charismatic alpha he has always been, was the central piece of his extended social tapestry and that made our house, the house. I legitimately thought the Madness track was written about that address for a short period of my childhood.

Summer time was when it was at its peak. Long days, light evenings and late nights. I’m sure it wasn’t, but it felt like we would be going to the beach almost every day. I’m pretty certain it was at least three or four times a week though.

Now, the beach in question was one of a few of Bournemouth’s beaches, all about a forty five minute drive from where we were living on the east side of Southampton. My brother had one or two friends who were old enough to have their license and one in particular who owned a gaudy lime green beater of a car. Most of the time the guys were all drinking from lunchtime onward anyway. That meant the majority of the driving was left to my mum who, at the time, didn’t seem to mind to much.

She was driving an old Hyundai, five seater max with that middle spot in the back only really being able to squeeze someone small in.

We would regularly transport eight or nine people the thirty miles each direction too and from the beach in what could only be described as, ‘human Tetris.’

The configuration usually went something like this; my mum driving, the largest passenger (usually Giles or his brother Marcus) in the passenger seat with little me on a lap or in the footwell, my brother, Steve-O and a third teenage boy squeezed in the back with my sister and her best friend sat on top and then one or two more guys in the boot of the car. Looking back on it now it’s pretty amazing we never got pulled over.

Now, there would usually be that group of us at the beach, but quite often more would join us too. Those who had gone home the night before or who had been so hungover they overslept, they would be the second and sometimes even third wave of arrivals and would show up by one of the older guys driving or getting a train.

Organising where and when we were meeting was a logistical nightmare on paper, no one had mobiles and if someone did decide to walk to a pay phone and call another’s home they had to hope they were there to get the message. Sometimes guys would get a train to Christchurch and just walk upwards of ten miles along the beaches keeping their eyes out for where we had set up for the day.

None of the other parents were ever involved so my mum became the mum. The de facto parental figure of the group.

Everyone loved her, they all called her mum and still to this day on the ever more rare occasion they cross paths they still call her mum. She let them get away with, well, anything because what they were doing wasn’t hurting anyone outside of the group.

Sure they were loud, boisterous, drinking and partying, but they weren’t getting into any real trouble. As much as they took advantage of her leniency, they respected her enough to save any of that stuff for when she wasn’t around and able to be held accountable for their actions.

These were the summers of the third wave of ska music, at least in the south coast of England. Southampton and Portsmouth birthed dozens of local bands who would be playing all over the place on any given night. New Forest pubs were putting up stages in their gardens left and right, so fairly regularly after spending the day soaking up the sun, digging holes deep enough to bury a six foot three adolescent alive in stood up and damn near killing each other by hurling rocks into the sea while each other were under water, we would find ourselves skanking the night away listening to original tracks and covers of Bad Manners, The Selecter and Madness.

It was such a buzzing scene at the time that it wasn’t rare for one of those bigger bands to come through and headline a show in one of the parks in town or play the low long gone but former staple of the summer, the Southampton Hot Air Balloon Festival.

Not every night ended with a live band though and not every day was spent at the beach. For every one of those days there was probably three spent at the house, where that same group of friends, plus others who didn’t make those trips regularly, would arrive in dribs and drabs throughout the day bringing beers and meat for the barbecue that was kept alive all day and night.

Being a family of DJ’s and entertainers, entire PA systems were rigged up at first in windows and doors and eventually with lots of extension cables, just out in the garden where, much to my mums chagrin, the living room furniture had been transplanted.

Calling any particular one of these days or nights a party doesn’t seem accurate. A party connotes an event that starts and ends. These gatherings would stretch for days and weeks and basically encapsulate the whole summer.

People would come and go, other would stay, one moved in with us and others were there so frequently they may as well have.

I only have one brother really, but despite very rarely seeing them for the last probably decade or so, Giles and Steve-O will always be family to me.

There were a few others of that ‘core’ group though, my sisters best friend who lived with us for a time, her brother Glyn and Nick who was tight with everyone but closest with Glyn.

This post has taken on a deeper look back at the mid-nineties than I anticipated but the original concept of it was to tell you about one day, one hour or so really, of the summer my brother and most of his friends were leaving school.

In the UK, your final year at school you sit your GCSE’s, the culmination of your compulsory education. The exams take place throughout the end of June and July so kids in that year tend to break up from school in around May for ‘study leave’ so they can revise and brush up on five years worth of bullshit they’ll never use again in their lives.

For my brothers social circle this just meant they could start drinking at eleven, when the off licence opened, instead of three or four o’clock when they got home. I don’t think any of them did any real studying in that time as most of them were already working in vocational jobs or had work in their respective trades already lined up. Boat builder, electrician, welder, DJ, that kind of thing.

All except Steve-O who was always the more academic of the group. Steve-O was the one who knew how computers worked, the one who would be going to university the one who would be working in an office one day.

He could party with the best of them but he also knew that to get to where he was going he would need to put some effort into his exams and therefore was revising.

The best spot to do this was on the flat roof of the house, over the kitchen.

To get there without spider-manning up the side of the house, you could climb out of the window in my sisters room. It wasn’t dangerous to get to at all and was a spot that was frequented by those who still wanted to be outside but also wanted a little space from the ruckus.

Everyone tells it a little differently, but as the only sober person who was outside for all of it, I consider my account to be canon.

On this fateful day, my mum, my sister and I had gone out in the late morning either to town or to the supermarket or something and when we got back the days festivities were well underway. Giles wasn’t at his usual spot manning the grill so clearly hadn’t arrived yet, Jon, Nick, Glyn and possibly a couple of others were tossing an American football around, smoking cigarettes and sipping on beers, a few other guys and I would guess my brothers girlfriend at the time were there, the music was playing at a pretty respectable level and Steve-O was on the flat roof with sheets paper and textbooks.

The house was set back from the garden by about fifteen feet of patio which had a permanently installed, seven foot tall, old fashioned metal washing line on it and a further four or five foot of rockery that countless Star Wars toy had been lost in, to my horror, years before I was born.

At some point Jon, Nick and Glyn started trying to coax Steve-O down and stop studying. Jon had even gone so far as to get his air rifle and was taking pot shots near his friend but it was Nick who was most successful when he tossed the football up and hit some of Steve-O’s revision material sending it blowing in the wind.

He came down off the roof and collected up his things, giving in to the teenage peer pressure. He wasn’t about to do anyone a favour though so left the ball on the roof and as he was the one to throw it, it was up to Nick to go and retrieve it.

As I said, getting up onto the roof wasn’t a big deal, everyone did it at some point or another, but once he was up there and because everyone was clearly in a ribbing mood that day, someone locked the window behind him.

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt right? I’m sure if he’d waited it out eventually the guys would have got bored and opened the window for him, but it was hot and his beer was getting warm, he didn’t want to stay up there.

Whenever he went to climb down the old fashioned way my brother, who has always been a very good shot, would pop a shot off to the lip of the roof, keeping him up there as everyone laughed. Whenever that happened I’d run over to the patio where the pellets would fall and try and collect them up. Just one of those things eight or nine year old kids do.

It was on one of those time that I was running over to the patio that Nick looked down at me and asked, “James, shall I jump?”

You ask an eight or nine year old boy if you should jump and the answer is always yes. Height, distance, safety, it’s all intelligent if you have to ask, the answer is always going to be yes.

Remember how I described the layout of this house in relation to the garden? That was to try and give a little context to this jump.

In order to make it to the garden, his desired landing spot, Nick had to leap from a flat room that was about ten feet up from the patio, which was about two feet higher than the garden. Call it twelve feet of elevation.

He would have to clear fifteen feet of patio and about four feet of rockery, ideally a little more so as to not fall backward onto it. Let’s say twenty feet distance.

On top of this he would need to maintain a height of at least seven feet for about half of the jump to be able to clear the washing line.

I’m sure that with those figures someone smarter than I could work out the speed and trajectory require to make the jump and I would put money on it not being possible by a half cut sixteen year old without any notable athletic ability ninety nine times out of a hundred.

But he asked the pre-pubescent brother of his mate who was shooting at him with an air rifle, so it must be a good idea right?

I can still see it clear as day when I close my eyes. It’s weird to think of the other guys perspectives because for me, Nick backed up out of view, then I heard the few rapid steps as he took his run up and launched himself from the roof.

The tag line for Dumbo was did you ever see an elephant fly, well this was similar except it wasn’t a circus animal and there was no magic feather, but if you asked me if I had seen an almost full grown man fly I would have said yes.

Miraculously he sailed over the washing line, cleared the patio and made it over the rockery as he made his rapid descent. For a split second I thought, we all thought, holy shit he made it, but very quickly we realised what it had cost.

Nick did make the jump, it really was incredible and while, sure I’ve used some flowery language in the telling of this story but the height and distance is not exaggerated at all.

I believe his intent was to land into a roll in one of the earliest feats of parkour, long before it had a proper name.

That didn’t happen though. Instead, in order to clear the final few feet Nick had extended his legs out in front of him, landing ankles first.

The impact condensed him into a tiny package in an instant. His knees went straight into his glasses smashing them into his eyes and face because he came down at such a vertical angle the full pressure of his body caused his spine to compress like an accordion.

As the guys rushed to his side I hollered at the top of my voice for my mum. She knew something serious had happened and although I’m sure she was relieved to know her kids were all safe she still loved all… most, of these guys.

No one there was medically trained. Most people there weren’t even sober. So when the first thing anyone tried to do was to offer Nick his now lukewarm beer I’m sure it was meant with all sincerity. I’m not sure what drew my mum away at first but I know that in the mean time my brother and a couple of the others thought it would be a great idea to pick Nick up and move him inside to the sofa which had actually remained inside that day.

It wasn’t long before that foolish, well intended gesture was countered by my mum who got those same guys to pick him back up and load him into the back of the Hyundai, laying across the back seat with his head on my lap. That’s right, I actually got a seat mostly to myself as there were only four of us in the car that time. I don’t think my mum liked the idea of leaving me at the house at that time and my sister came along with us too.

The rest of that day was pretty somber, the guys still spent some of the afternoon in the garden but I think they were all just shell shocked as to what had just happened. They’d all been invincible and now one of them was potentially paralysed.

It was around that time when guys arrived with a case of Strongbow and asked what was going on. He was filled in on the events of the day and in response simply said, “Well fuck, shall I still put these burgers on the barbe for him?”

There were six inch indents in the turf marking the spot and they were still visible a couple of years later when we moved out. For us, that was as bad as it got. Well, that and the sweat soaked back seat of my mums Hyundai.

Considering the way he landed Nick too got off extremely lucky.

He spent six months in hospital, I don’t know how many surgeries and how much physical therapy was done but I know there was still some hilarious stories that came out of visits the boys made to see him. After that he spent six months in an upper body cast, essentially a coat of armour.

This too lead to more shenanigans; stones being throne at him as he walked along the beach, intentionally getting into fights so that the other guy would try and punch him in the chest and break their hand, that kind of thing.

It turns out that Nick has always had a rare condition in which he was missing half or one, I forget, vertebrae. This meant that when his spinal chord compressed there was just enough spacing at the bottom to prevent it from shattering all the way up.

Eventually he made a full recovery and even as of the last time I saw him, in the summer of 2019, it is still a story we all tell and reminisce about.

The long term effect on everyone else present that day, I think, was the loss of innocence.

Seeing the true fragility of life right in front of you will suck the air out of any room or garden. There were more parties, barbecues, beach days and ska shows in the months and years that followed but it was always slightly different. I wouldn’t say everyone grew up that day, some of them have struggled with growing up ever, but they stopped being invincible kids that day.

Holy crap, that went long! I am gutted I don’t have any pictures from that time. I’d love to have been able to include pictures of the whole we buried Glyn and my sister in at the beach, Loonee’s playing at The Sir Walter Tryrl or even just the house on Eynham Close and that garden for some context. I hope I was able to paint a vivid enough image in your mind, for those of you who weren’t there to experience it. I had a blast writing this post and if you were there for any of those times and have the details of any of the others, please share it with them, or anyone who you think would enjoy a bit of nineties nostalgia.

I might chill with tomorrow’s writing and just do something short, but we’ll see. Maybe this has spurred some creative juices! Come back then to see I guess.

Hasta mañana.


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