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Chapter 12
Tin Pan Alley
Back in London our hero moves in with an unusual crowd and starts work as a song plugger — and becomes a father.

It was not until he left Victoria Station that it began to sink in that he was home again. Even after the boat had docked at Folkestone and he had boarded the train for London he still felt like a traveller in a strange land. But as he crossed the bus terminus, dodging the big red double-deckers and the swarming black taxicabs, and turned into a Victoria Street busy and alive with English voices, the reality that had been Spain began to evaporate with every step like a dream fading on awakening.

And then, no sooner had London and England begun to seem real, a new disquietude began to trouble his travel-tired spirit. Having grown used to the feeling of being an outsider in a foreign land he now felt oddly disturbed at the thought that no one around him was aware that he had just arrived from somewhere far away, and that here he was, back after six months in undreamt of places, being brushed up against as if he were merely another everyday commuter. He wanted to shout out: “Look at me! This time yesterday I was in Spain — in Barcelona — another world!”

But no one knew, and no one looked as if they would care anyway. The desire to tell someone, to validate his presence in this new reality became an imperative, and he mentally ran through a list of people he might call in order to announce his arrival. He thought first of Sarah, but winced and quickly passed on through various relations and acquaintances until he remembered Brian Coleham. He had shared a flat with Brian the previous year and it occurred to him that Brian would also be a good place to start the hunt for lodging — which was his next most important concern.

He stopped at a red phone box and hunted around in his bag for the little store of English money that he had kept since Sarah and he had first changed their meagre funds into francs and pesetas all that time ago. The coins had dulled, and they looked strangely large as he pulled them out. He pushed four copper pennies into the slot. It was not yet nine o’clock, and unless Brian had experienced a major conversion and radically changed his lifestyle to become one of the ‘employed canaille’ he so despised, he would still be in bed watching his automatic coffee machine prepare his morning plasma. Sure enough the phone rang only twice before it was picked up. Barely audible behind a trumpet in full blast he heard Brian’s languid tones.

“Speak to me, oh world, I am your sounding board!”

“You’ll be a bloody cracked sounding board if you don’t turn that music down. What is all that racket, it’s almost drowning you out?”

“Ah, the Philistine Coulter is among us again — you’re surely not ringing from the land of sun and señoritas are you?”

“No, I’m in Victoria Street. I’ve been travelling for two days and I need a place to sleep. Can I crash on your settee?”

“My dear Coulter, you may crash in the room of the lately departed and much missed MacCaig, whose lamentably unsympathetic pater has seen fit to recall him to the less libertine environs of Edinburgh — due, I might add, to certain unsatisfactory reports from the educational establishment at which he was pretending to improve himself.”

“Have you relet the room yet?”

“Numerous applications are about to be considered, my dear returning prodigal. Why, has expatriatism lost its charm?”

“Sort of. Get another key made, I’ll be right over.”

This was better than he had expected. A place to stay, which would undoubtedly be cheaper than any bedsitter he might have found and, apart from the occasional mayhem that occurred when the ever-changing cast of Brian’s sub-tenants got out of hand, would be in surroundings more entertaining and infinitely less lonely.

He was, however, forced to bribe Brian with the promise of a double deposit before the room became his. But considering that he managed to convince him to wait for both the first week’s rent and the deposit until he should be gainfully employed and in funds again, he felt it was worth it, especially since he knew that once he had started to pay rent he would probably be able to stall coughing up the deposit almost indefinitely.

As it turned out, one of the three other current occupants of the top floor of Alexandra Mansions was a Hungarian émigré called Lazlo, who found Roger a job immediately at the place where he worked himself, and Brian was so happy at receiving rent at the end of the first week of Roger’s residency that he pressed him only lightly for the deposit. The job was at a sheet music seller’s in Charing Cross Road, just round the corner from Denmark Street — the centre of the Popular Music Business — otherwise known as Tin Pan Alley. Although the firm was dickensian in every respect, and the actual job of seeking out music from the shop’s labyrinthine and dusty library to make up orders that were dispatched to other music shops all over the country was mind-numbingly boring, Roger was pleased to think himself part of the music business. As he took the tube down from Hampstead every day he felt sure that the decision made on the docks — was it really only five days ago? — had been the right one, and that the time would now be very short before he would be able to send for Carmen.

By the end of January, however, although life at Alexandra Mansions was convivial and diverting, and although Lazlo had become a good friend, frustration was growing upon Roger once again. The decision to leave Spain had been instantaneous, but on the long train ride home again there had been plenty of time to reconsider the bigger picture, and he had decided on a revised Grand Plan. The Castilian Suite for String Orchestra he now thought had been too adventurous a project; he was abashed at his own temerity. Spain had been an invaluable experience, and the work he had done on the Suite was useful — but hardly good enough. Carmen deserved more than a student work. Their entire future together demanded a more secure base. He would continue writing, but more importantly, he would recommence studying.

Lazlo, who had been an architecture student in Budapest before leaving after the 1957 uprising, and was now struggling to learn English so that he might resume his studies in Britain, had thus far been very supportive of Roger’s somewhat parallel Grand Plan. He had endeavoured to make time for Roger to study surreptitiously among the racks by collecting some of the more difficult-to-find pieces himself. Despite his still very inept command of English he had become amazingly adept at understanding the byzantine system by which the music was stored, and could locate any requested piece in a fraction of the time it took any one else to find it. In fact, he was faster even than Hodges, who headed the firm’s staff of collectors and who, having been with the firm for many years, could reputedly remember when much of the material had actually been delivered from the original publishers. Lazlo had masked his ability from the very first in order to utilize the saved time to study his English grammar texts, and the rate at which he appeared to collect his orders was now carefully slowed so as to create even more time for Roger.

The time thus made available to Roger had so far been spent preparing for the extra-mural examinations for entrance to the Royal College of Music; the idea being that by the end of the summer, if he passed, he would be able to attend and devote himself entirely to composition classes. Ignoring the fact that he was barely making enough money to support himself at present, let alone save any for supporting Carmen and the baby when it should arrive, how he was going to be able to keep things together when he was studying full-time remained a complete — and ignored — mystery. His fervent self-involvement had been sufficient to render this mystery irrelevant for the first few weeks, but now it was becoming apparent there was a terrible flaw in the Plan and he began to try to think of ways to improve the situation.

His frustration at this stage was further compounded by Hodges, who was beginning to be a problem. A small man in his late forties, with a pointed chin and wire-rimmed spectacles, he had been at the job since leaving school, and was full of the unctuous officiousness commonly seen in that class of clerks which has risen above the humblest but will never achieve any real authority.

“Not an easy piece to find, but I think if we look under ‘Chorales’ we might have some success, Mr Orolik,” he said one day, just as Lazlo was starting at the wrong end of a rack in order to justify the thirty minutes that he proposed taking for the search.

“Tsenk you, Hodges,” said Lazlo, staying where he was. “I look already in ‘Chorales’ but is not to find.”

“I think if you look more carefully you will find it there, Mr Orolik. Don’t you think so, Mr Harrison?” he added, more loudly, looking over his shoulder to the proprietor of the firm, who was standing at the main counter in the front of the shop.

“What’s that, Hodges?”

“I was suggesting that Mr Orolik look for Vita Pulchra in ‘Chorales’, Mr Harrison.”

“Quite right, quite right! Look in ‘Chorales’, Orolik. You’ll save a lot of time if you take Hodges’s advice.”

Hodges smiled smugly at Lazlo, who picked up the pile he had already collected and in squeezing past Hodges managed to drop it, and in so doing cause Hodges to drop his own pile as well. As Hodges bent down to retrieve the sheets, Lazlo somehow managed to knock two other open folders from the shelves, so that their contents also fell on top of the previous piles.

“Oh, let me help!” said Roger hurrying over, and in his rush tripping, so that reaching to save himself from falling he too managed to empty several more files of their contents onto the exasperated Hodges.

By the time order was restored and the three collectors were back at work, Hodges had had enough and was content to leave Lazlo and Roger to their own devices for the rest of the day. But day by day his persistent meddling increased, and more and more he managed to bring some deficiency of Roger’s or Lazlo’s to Harrison’s attention under the guise of well-intentioned obsequiousness. It was not long before Roger’s chief occupation had ceased to be trying to find some time in which to squeeze the odd fifteen minutes of studying, and instead was directed to dreaming up new ways to frustrate Hodges and land him in trouble with Harrison.

Although he normally found great difficulty in being punctual, he now went so far as to arrive a few minutes before Hodges each day and look at the list Hodges would be expected to fill, remove the contents from the appropriate folders, and hide them somewhere else. One day he had a better idea. He managed to switch the address labels on a couple of orders, one of which was particularly urgent and which Hodges had been specially assigned to fill, and sat back to enjoy the inevitable furor. Two days later, arriving at work expecting that on this day the orders would have been discovered to have been sent to the wrong addresses, he received an unpleasant surprise. Instead of a chagrined Hodges in hot water with Harrison he found himself on the mat. Hodges had realized what had been done and had gone immediately to Harrison to ‘apologize’ for Roger, saying that it was Roger who had written out the labels and whose inexperience had resulted in the switched addresses. Harrison, an irritable man at best, was beside himself.

“Mr Coulter, this firm is where it is today because our customers have learned over fifty years that they can rely on us. You are the last link between our reputation and the customer. Our entire library and stock counts for naught if it be misdelivered as a result of downright incompetence. You were given this position on the basis of your supposed familiarity with our stock in trade. I was led to believe that you were, in fact, a musician acquainted with the literature of the profession.” He spluttered on in this vein for a considerable time.

Roger pursed his lips and frowned, wondering what he was doing standing there listening to all this nonsense. What was the matter with the bloody fool? Who did he think he was, and who the hell cared anyway? Anyone would think this was all actually important. At last he simply turned and walked away, leaving Harrison continuing to splutter with increased indignation.

“Mr Coulter, where are you going?” — splutter, splutter — “I haven’t finished …” — splutter, splutter — “Come back! You may consider yourself relieved of your…”

But Roger had already reached the back of the shop where the coats were hung up. He turned and said: “Goodbye, Harrison, you really ought to watch your blood pressure, you know.”

As he opened the door to leave, Lazlo rushed after him.

“Vait for me. I come also!”

“Mr Orolik, if you leave with Mr Coulter you too may consider yourself sacked.”

But this remark was ignored as well, and they slammed the door and ran off laughing down Charing Cross Road. Harrison, who by this time was screaming at the top of his voice, was left alone with a terrified but triumphant Hodges.

“Now what do we do?” said Roger as they came to a stop at the corner of Denmark Street. He was wondering where to go until the pubs opened, since in his opinion their audacity demanded a suitable celebration. But Lazlo was thinking of his future, and an idea that Bart — the most recent arrival at the flat and a Spanish wine exporter’s son — had suggested to him.

“I tsink I take now big step into business. ‘Orolik Import Export’ is sound like wery good idea. I vill start vit champagne. Vill you be partner?”

“Lazlo, that’s a great idea. This is as good an opportunity as any to try your hand. But I don’t think I’ll be your partner, I’ve got to stick to my music.”

“So vot you try now — collectink for Moody and Bliss Poblishers?”

“No, I’m going to Grossner’s. I heard they’re looking for a junior plugger.”

“Plogger? Vot it is?”

“A plugger takes sheet music around and tries to get people to play it. If you get good you can get into the record business. Besides, you get to work your own hours, and I bet with any luck I could get a lot of studying done.”

“How you know from tzis?”

“Max over at Lilly and Hawkes was telling me about it at lunch yesterday. I was going to go over to Grossner’s tomorrow anyway. But I don’t see why I shouldn’t stop by now and see if I can arrange for an interview. Come with me and we can get a drink afterwards, all right?”

“To tzis,” agreed Lazlo grandly, “I vill trink champagne!”


Over the next few weeks ‘Orolik Import Export’ gradually became a reality, and after Lazlo had talked Brian into backing the purchase of a fifteen-year old van, on the sides of which he had the firm’s logo — a champagne bottle emerging from a globe — emblazoned in black paint (the van having been painted by hand in a particularly virulent shade of blue), the venture gained a certain credibility. Lazlo and Bart spent a lot of time driving the ‘waan’ to the docks, bringing back ever more paperwork but no champagne. This seemed in no way to dampen their enthusiasm, and Roger continued to wish them luck.

In the meantime he had applied to Grossner Music Publishers, lying about the circumstances surrounding his departure from Harrison Music Distributors. To his relief his story was not checked, nor was he asked for references. The following Monday found him around the corner from his previous employer, basking in the glory of his elevated position. That very afternoon he took time off from familiarizing himself with Grossner’s catalogue to use the office typewriter to write to Carmen:

My Dearest Carmen,
We’re nearly there! As you can see by the letterhead I’m now a genuine part of the music business. I imagine that before very long I will have saved enough from this place to be able to afford to move out of Brian’s and look for a place for both of us. Hang on, it won’t be long, I promise — another couple of months at the most. Then we can get married and the baby’s birth can be taken care of on the National Health.
With all my love,
Ludwig van Coulter!

To a certain extent his optimism was justified. Life as a song plugger for Grossner Publishers was a great improvement over life as a collector for Harrison’s. He did not have to start work until nine a.m., and since there was no time-clock, arrival and departure times were quite flexible, depending mainly on who from the upstairs office was in the building. Lunch hours were considerably relaxed: he was free to leave whenever he felt like it, and by arranging an appointment immediately after the supposed lunch hour itself, it was often three in the afternoon before he reappeared in the office.

The job consisted mainly of sending copies of Grossner’s most recently published sheet music to various small-time performers in the hope that the pieces would be played and thereby stimulate sales. It had been a passive operation up to Roger’s arrival, his predecessor merely mailing out copies of each new song as it was published to a list of theatre organists, but Roger was quick to see that follow-up phone calls and personal visits were far more likely to produce results — as well as provide copious opportunities for some quiet study on park benches.

It was difficult to tell whether Roger’s new approach had any direct effect on sales since he shrewdly concentrated on distributing only those pieces of music which had been recorded already and which were consequently already in demand. But the list of plays in theatres, restaurants, and hotels grew impressively, and although the royalties received by the firm were by no means enormous — amounting only to fractions of a penny for each performance — the upstairs office was duly impressed, and after only a month took the unprecedented step of giving Roger a small rise.

Lunchtime society in the Alley also improved greatly for Roger. As a plugger he was now admitted into a more elite circle than he had been as a lowly collector, and he began to hear stories about the next level of the business — that concerned with recording. Several pluggers working for other publishers with whom he became friendly were actually assigned directly to looking for ‘covers’ — minor recording artists who might be cajoled into recording additional versions of songs already made into hits by the big names. Max, the stock manager for Lilly and Hawkes, whom Roger had met while still at Harrison’s, and who had encouraged him to ‘move up in the world, my son’ was a special source of inspiration.

“It’s like this, Roger me boy,” he announced one day with his thumbs stuck in the armholes of his striped waistcoat, “you’ve gotta be smoove. All these bleedin’ recordin’ artists think they’re Frank Sinatra, don’t they, and you’ve gotta treat them like they was — even though they ain’t and never will be.”

“Yes, I see.”

“No, you don’t, neither. What you need is a new suit, innit? Get rid of that bleedin’ corduroy jacket and get yourself kitted out with somethin’ smart.”

He took the advice, but the new suit ate a large chunk out of the savings account recently established for phase two of the Grand Plan. However, after a lot of soul-searching it was rationalized on the theory that it would lead to quicker and greater growth of the fund by increasing his efficiency, and maybe his chances of being promoted to Grossner’s record-plugging team. It was a vote of confidence in himself that did in fact lead to results in the form of increased responsibilities and commensurate opportunities, but somehow the results never quite made it into the savings account. He found himself being included in the sharper set of pluggers, and instead of lunching on two-and-sixpenny veal escallops in Maria’s — the little Italian café at the end of the Alley — he was now enjoying five-shilling luncheons in the Marquis of Granby’s plush-carpeted saloon bar.

Although the bank account was stagnating, his studies continued, spurred on by the daily contact with the manifest results of musical success. He was ever more determined to reach the point where it would be his music that someone else was plugging and his songs that someone else would be singing and recording. One day Gloria Laine appeared at the office. Accompanied by several record company artist-and-repertoire executives — commonly referred to as the A-and-R men — and her own manager, she was ushered upstairs into Lionel Grossner’s private office by Marilyn, Lionel’s personal secretary. The large limousine in which she had arrived filled up half the street, and soon pluggers, collectors, and casual passers-by were crowding outside waiting to get a glimpse of the celebrity — whoever it might be.

Roger knew she was expected. Marilyn had called down earlier in the day.

“Roger, make sure you’ve got every version of Singing To You on hand, including the orchestral reduction. Lionel’s managed to get the one-and-only Gloria Laine to promise to drop by this afternoon before she goes down to Leicester Square to do the matinée at the Copa. If she’ll do it at the Copa and they like it, there’s a chance she’ll include it on her live album.”

And now there he was, acting very casually, as if artists of the stature of Gloria Laine dropped in at Grossner’s every day of the week. The attitude was not only for the benefit of the audience outside. He was every bit as impressed and as excited as they were, but at the same time embarrassed with himself for it. It was one thing to work one’s way up while studying, but almost unbearable to be seen as a mere plugger by someone he hoped soon to be in a position to fraternize with, even condescend to.

The phone rang on his desk and it was Max — whose office on the other side of the street afforded him a grandstand view of practically all the comings and goings of the Alley.

“Well, my son, I can see you’ve got company over there. ’ow come you’re still at your desk downstairs and not bein’ suave with the stars up in the front office?”

“What stars? You mean Gloria what’s-her-name?”

“Gloria Laine, eh? So that’s ’oo it is. Well, I am impressed. By the size of the limo’ I thought it must be Elvis ’imself! Mind you give ’er your card before she leaves”

However, when the entourage descended and made its way through the autograph hunters jamming the space between the office door and the waiting limousine, Roger was nowhere to be seen, having just at that moment remembered something that needed to be brought up from the basement archives, and which proved exceedingly difficult to locate.

Although he fell into the habit of spending an hour every day after work at the Marquis of Granby — not just to socialize but to wait for the rush hour to subside and to get something to eat — evenings were spent in his room at Brian’s, and were devoted with monastic single-mindedness to the harmony and counterpoint texts required for the upcoming examinations. He wrote to Carmen now with regularity, unconsciously sublimating thereby any urge for female companionship, and she wrote back encouraging him in his studies but never complaining about their separation or the difficulties her pregnancy was causing for herself and her family. It was becoming increasingly apparent that he was going to be in no position to provide a flat for both of them, let alone for the baby, so long as he worked at Grossner’s, but since Carmen had now determined to have the baby in Madrid he felt justified in directing all his energies towards admission at the Royal College. The sooner he qualified, the sooner he could start work at something meaningful and sufficiently remunerative to make their lives together a practical reality.

Spring arrived and winter’s leaden skies lightened. London burst into leaf. As the temperature became warmer, Roger’s optimism increased and he felt ever surer of the outcome of June’s examination. At the same time his position at Grossner’s was improving. Gloria Laine had indeed recorded Singing To You, and new copies of the sheet music bearing her picture on the front were plastered all over the window of the offices in Denmark Street. It was easy to convince almost anyone to play the song, and consequently Roger’s play list had never been longer. Lionel Grossner had begun calling Roger by his first name, and was talking about hiring another plugger so that Roger might spend more time on recording artists. If this happened it was almost certain that another rise would accompany the event, and he would be a little closer to doing something about a flat of his own.

Back at Alexandra Mansions, Lazlo’s business had progressed so far that much of the flat was now filled with cases and crates bearing Spanish labels. Evenings were frequently occupied with much moving and removing of these things, and Brian, very put out by all the commercial activity, spent a lot of time locked in his room with his Miles Davis records playing at full blast. The effect was to make Roger’s studying less than optimal, but he bore it with good humour, buoyed with confidence in the way everything else was progressing.

On the sixth of June, the very day before the examination, he received a short letter from Carmen:

Madrid, June 2 1962
My Dearest Roger!
This morning our son was born. Come to see him so we can all be together. You can stay at my aunt’s house and my parents will receive you here when you come to see us. We miss you.
Your Carmen — and your son Juan-Miguel.

He sat the examination with almost religious fervour, conscious of answering the questions not just for himself, but for Carmen and his son and their whole future life together. Afterwards, he was so certain that he had done well, that he virtually emptied his savings account to buy a return ticket to Madrid. The money to bring them all together would surely be forthcoming when he was enrolled at the Royal College. This wasn’t exactly a logical deduction, but he couldn’t believe that having so faithfully kept to the Grand Plan fate would not somehow provide. He had done his part, and done it despite having had to do it alone, without Carmen. So far as Grossner’s was concerned, not having told them of the examination but simply having called in sick, he merely informed them his ‘influenza’ looked like being a week’s affair rather than the one-day event he had at first thought.

And so, after six months in London that had seemed twice as long until the moment he stepped off the train in Madrid’s Chamartín Station — at which moment it seemed as if he had never left — he found himself back in Spain.

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The Castilian Suite is available as an eBook or a paperback at Blackburn Books.