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U3A Writing: The Striped Blazer

Derek McQueen tells a tale of a retired music hall entertainer – a real charmer in his striped blazer, even if he had a voice to challenge the stoutest eardrum.

For more if Derek’s stories please type his name in the menu on this page.

The Garibaldi Home for Retired Stage Performers was difficult to find. ‘It’s in a Georgian mansion, in one of the more attractive suburbs of Luton,’ they said - not a lot to go on when you think about it.

It was a long drive from Bakewell, in the Derbyshire Peak District and I left early on the Tuesday morning to be there for two o’clock. The carer who answered the ‘phone seemed relieved that Geoff was having a visitor to take him out for the afternoon.

‘He’s driving us crazy as usual,’ she said. ‘Please be here on time, if you possibly can, Mr.- er. It would be a great help.’

‘Snowden,’ I said. ‘Harry Snowden. I’m an old acting friend of Mr Bingley’s. I’ll make every effort to be with you before two o’clock.’

‘Up to his usual antics?’ I thought. ‘Nearly bloody eighty and still at it. Bit much her coming out with it like that though.’

Everyone in the profession knew that Geoffrey Bingley was a total fruitcake – a crank really. What they would call an eccentric now I suppose. ‘Strange connection that’, I mused – ‘eccentric and crank’ – both would mean the same thing to some people.’ He would never hurt a fly though, Geoff wouldn’t - kindness itself – help anybody.

We were a double act, playing the Moss Empire chain for a couple of years, just after the war. Bingley and Snowden – A Smile and a Song. Third from top spot we were towards the end. Geoff was the stronger singer and did the big finish, after our comic knockabout routine. On the very rare occasions we got an encore we finished with ‘I’m only a strolling vagabond’ but the audience could hardly hear me. He was deafening, Geoff was.

That’s what ended it for me, the loudness of him. It was appalling when you were just a couple of feet away.

It had gone to his head a bit as well, third spot. He was always bottom of the bill before he met up with me.
He had a dog act then, Geoffrey and Mick. After the tricks, the poor thing used to throw its head back and howl for almost five minutes while he was singing Land of Hope and Glory, as the big finish.

You could never shut his singing out after that. He was even at it in the digs at night. ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’, that was a regular. We got the full Jimmy Cagney impression on that one. ‘Jazz Singer’ favourites - that was another. He’d get down on one knee in the dining room and do ‘Mammy’ at some horrific rate of decibels. Everybody had to stop eating until it was over.

By the way, he was wearing stage outfits all the time by then as well. The more outrageous the colours and patterns the more Geoff Bingley loved it. He had a green and purple blazer – I think he’d begged it from someone he knew in the Wimbledon Tennis Club. It was their colours anyway. Never had it off, that blazer, in the two years we were together. Eventually, the stage outfits were the most restrained he owned.

I was in good time on the motorway and didn’t want to get to the home in the middle of lunch, so I stopped at Watford Gap services for a bacon sandwich. The place was heaving with coach parties and I ended up standing at a coffee slopped counter. That wouldn’t have done for Geoff, no way.

**

The staff at Garibaldi’s were used to extrovert residents by definition. Even so, they were astounded and dismayed, in equal measure, when Mr Bingley moved in to room 37 on the ground floor that memorable January two years ago.

On his first morning, strains of ‘Bless Your Beautiful Hide’ could be heard as far away as the main lounge. Given that the lounge overlooked the South Wing gardens at the opposite end to the bedrooms, everyone agreed that Mr Bingley’s voice must be quite remarkable for a man of his age. Even allowing for the unlikely possibility that other residents had a penchant ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’, 6.30 am was a little early. At any rate, this seemed to be the consensus at breakfast, two hours later.

Eyebrows were raised further, if that were possible, when Bingley sauntered into the dining room at 8.40 am dressed in white tennis trousers and the purple and green blazer. Possibly because there was a slight January nip in the air, the outfit was topped by a red trilby hat.

“Good morning everybody,’ he boomed. “I’m Geoff Bingley. I do hope you will all call me Geoff.”

The response from the gloomy-looking diners was muffled and seemed to lack any affirmative content. Eyes flicked from bacon and egg plates to Geoff’s red hat. It is difficult to signify disbelief whilst consuming a full English breakfast, but they did their best.

“May I sit with you?” Geoffrey intoned at two hapless ladies sitting at a table for four. Two more place settings had been laid, so there was scant excuse for turning him down.

“By all means Mr Bingley, please do,” the one with rollers and facial hair, said. “This young girl will take your order for breakfast. They’re very good here, aren’t they Elsie? Sheila’s really lovely.”

Elsie was confused as well as deaf. She peered up at the newcomer.
“I used to be a contortionist you know. I did a season at the Moulin Rouge in Paris when I was eighteen.”

Geoff Bingley smiled broadly, pulled out a chair and looked round for Sheila. He was hungry and had one further obsession to inflict on the Garibaldi Home for Retired Stage Performers.

‘We’ve got a full English breakfast today Mr Bingley,” Sheila said. “Bacon, egg and sausage every Tuesday. Tomatoes if you want them. Lucky for some eh?”

“Wonderful Sheila, thank you- that’s what I’ll have. With brown toast please, if you have it. Oh – and I must have a separate plate for everything, please. That’s four plates altogether – warmed if you can.”

**

The M1 was pretty clear and I was an hour early. Geoff was just finishing his lunch when I arrived at The Garibaldi. Lamb cutlet, new potatoes and broccoli, on three plates - apple pie and custard on two more. The staff and most of the residents had come to love him in the two years he had been there. He had brightened up the place as well as their lives. The morning singing had become a wake up call too - the extra washing up was neither here nor there really.

We had a relaxing afternoon together strolling around Middleton Park and reminiscing, as you’d expect. Geoff talked a lot about Mick and the dog act they did together in the fifties. He only got booed once, he said. That was at the Glasgow Empire one Saturday night.

I was back on the road just after five. It was the last time I saw Geoff. He died of a heart attack two months later.

The Garibaldi management were brilliant. They made sure he was wearing his striped blazer when he was cremated and placed his red trilby on the coffin with a single bunch of yellow roses. Sheila asked the chapel people to play Howard Keel’s ‘Stranger in Paradise’ at full volume, at the end of the short service.

Afterwards, the staff put on a wake tea for the residents. It was only sausage rolls, sandwiches and vol au vents but everyone was given three plates anyway.

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