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How to Write The Scottish National Anthem

(Originally published at artisticechoes.com)

To say that Alan Tomkinson enjoys ambitious, quixotic projects is something of a considerable understatement. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single ordinary job or hobby he’s done in his whole life. He designed a new type of mattress; raced karts directed a 32-piece youth jazz orchestra (it became the best in the country within its first year); befriended a lion; conducted at the Albert Hall, and founded and built up the UK’s biggest boarding cattery franchise from scratch. Then, after he retired, in his early seventies, he built his own house. And now he begins his biggest and most ambitious work: promoting the song he hopes will become the new Scottish national anthem. Read more at Artistic Echoes

How to begin 64 years of marriage

I first met Mary when I was a young man playing the alto saxophone in the big Tony Stuarts Orchestra at the Astoria Ballroom in Plymouth Grove, Manchester.In those days it was a very popular dance venue, and every Saturday night, bands which were famous in those days used to appear at the Astoria to attract even more dancers. Bands like Vic Lewis, Teddy Foster and Edmundo Ross — all names which are forgotten now.

Within our band there were several single young men, and of course we always had an eye for the pretty girls. One day, three of the musicians had a ‘dispute’ over one of the young ladies they were all simultaneously trying to attract. As a result, in order to save arguments, we all agreed that the first one in the band to point towards a particular girl should have the first option to test his chat-up technique at the interval. This idea worked, smoothly until the evening when Mary walked in. The whole band pointed (married men as well!) and, for a brief moment, there was no music to dance to, and Tony, who was conducting the orchestra, turned to look and fell backwards off the stage into the arms of a young man who thought his luck was in.

After peace was restored, it was reluctantly agreed amongst the orchestra that I was the winner, and so until the interval I spent some time trying to catch Mary’s eye each time she danced past with one of her dance-floor admirers until, at last, we made eye contact! Only a shy smile, but it was enough. The interval couldn’t come quickly enough.

The time came, and my hopes rose as I looked for her and noticed that she was already standing near to the stage — but, alas, she was still with her last dance partner. ‘Nothing ventured’, and all that, so I prepared for battle and bravely walked up to introduce myself. “Sod off!”, said the little man. Being unprepared for such an ungentlemanly remark, I replied in similar terms, until Mary (who hadn’t stopped laughing the whole time), said she would decide for herself. Of course, all my fellow band members had been watching with interest, and all raised a big cheer for me when Mary reached for my hand and raised it in the air as if it had been a boxing bout, which it very nearly had been.

After the dancing was over, Mary shook off the last of her admirers and waited whilst I put away my saxophone and, holding hands, we stepped outside to where Mary was expecting my car to be. I pointed to my bicycle which was chained against the wall and said, “It’s the cross-bar or nothing”. And so there she was, with my arms wrapped around her on the cross-bar, under the stars.

In my day, that was real romance.

How to build a boarding cattery (Part 1)

With borrowed money, we built the largest private boarding cattery in the whole of England. It came about as the result of a single phone call from a person who wanted me to give his young son private music lessons.

At that time, in addition to playing in the bands at night and teaching music at schools in Stockport, I had accepted a few private pupils, and when I received the phone call I nearly turned this new pupil down. I had enough to do, and he lived miles away in Sale. However, it was difficult to refuse any extra income, and so in many ways I’m glad I accepted the offer, as it directly lead us to opening our own boarding cattery which is still operating after some fifty years, and has provided a good income for all of the family. But, of course, there were many difficulties along the way.

It was 1968 when I gave young Mitch his first lesson. His parents owned a large, popular boarding kennels and cattery in Sale, and one day I was talking to his father, and casually asked him how many dogs and cats he had in. “Well at the moment”, he said, “we have about thirty-five dogs and about twelve cats”.

On my way home it struck me that he was earning a lot more than me. I realised something was amiss. If we were to swap jobs for a day, I could easily feed and look after animals, but he would obviously be unable to do any of my work as a musician and tutor. And so the idea of our escape from poverty was born.

Driving home, I thought of the difficulties of dog boarding, and decided that, for a number of reasons, it would be better just to board cats, and so I put the idea to Mary. Imagine her Scottish accent when she replied “Och, noo! I’m no’ cleaning out after cats!”. However, after I had explained that I would do all the basic work and she could just prepare the food, deal with customers and take the money, it suddenly seemed more attractive to her. She agreed to think about it, but to consider that in our present circumstances it would be a huge challenge. But I had permission to go ahead with it and see what I could do.

And so, with Mary’s promise of support, I set about considering how it could all be achieved. ‘Probably with great difficulty’ was the answer: we had no money, lived in a small, mortgaged terraced house with only a back yard to work in, and no business experience at all.

It seemed a shame to leave the house where I had done so much work modernising it, even to the extent of making fitted wardrobes in the bedroom with a design that exactly matched the new bedroom door. One day when Mary had been ill, the doctor, having completed his examination, said “Cheerio” and walked straight into the wardrobe, which cheered Mary up more than any medicine as she couldn’t stop laughing.

Anyway, the first thing seemed to be to visit a few catteries and learn as much as possible. Secondly, a fact-finding tour of various vets’ seemed a good plan. So, a couple of weeks later, armed with fresh knowledge, I sat down and worked out the initial details.

Firstly, we would need to borrow enough money for a secluded house with a large garden and parking space, and then some extra money to build the cattery. This was to be my first challenge. I spent some time writing down my requirements and ideas, polished my shoes, put on a tie, sacrificed my long hair at the barbers, and went to Stockport to find the bank that looked the least hostile. Eventually, I chose The Midland, where the manager was a man called Mr. Kennedy.

He listened to my proposals, and surprised me by saying that the kennels where I taught Mitch actually banked at his branch — a happy coincidence, since they were some fifteen miles away. He quickly warmed to my enthusiasm (I even got a cup of tea) and, against his better judgement, agreed to the loan. I was over the moon, and I immediately phoned Mary with the great news that the first problem seemed to have been solved. But I was immediately brought back down to Earth when Mary said, “So how many thousands of pounds are we going to be in debt if we don’t make a success of it?”. I was stuck for an answer, but I did notice that she said “we“, and that was the only encouragement I needed to carry on.

Now that we had the promise of a loan, the next obvious thing to do was to find a suitable house. One of the benefits of boarding only cats is their relative quietness compared with barking dogs, so we could open in the centre of a community surrounded by people who own cats. And so the search started.

Of course, it proved to be rather difficult to find a property already for sale that fitted our needs for a small, secluded, detached house with a large, sheltered garden and a large space for parking, all in the centre of a community. Another problem was finding the time to go searching, due to the facts that our son, David, was only fourteen, Mary didn’t drive, and I was still doing three jobs. However, search we did, but despite unearthing some interesting places, we came up with nothing.

In my optimistic anticipation of eventual success I spent some spare moments working out lists of requirements, designing brochures and so on, and for a little relaxation, I also wrote a poem to advertise the cattery (which is still in our brochures today):

A cat can mean so very much,
A friend in every way.
Its little life depends on you,
For love and food each day.
But once a year, or even more,
You leave it on its own,
So bring it to our cattery,
Where it’s just like home from home

Several weeks passed, until one evening when David, who had been out on his bike with a friend, came rushing back to us excitedly, saying that he had found the ideal house in Cheadle Hulme. By now, it was getting late, but because of David’s insistence we all got into the car and David showed us the way. Arrigin at the ‘For Sale’ notice, we saw a house at the end of the avenue with an area at the front large enough for four cars to be parked — a good start! By now it was dusk, but David wanted to show us the garden and so, feeling like burglars, we opened the side gate and saw a secluded garden that stretched for a long way. It had high hedges, and was not overlooked by any neighbours. It seemed ideal! Well done, David.

Not much sleep that night, for I was far too excited. I planned to be at the estate agents the moment they opened the next morning. I was up early and left in plenty of time. “Good luck, do your best”, said Mary. And then it was nine o’clock, and I was standing outside the estate agents, reading on the door that they didn’t open until nine-thirty. An anxious half-hour pacing up and down the pavement followed, the the doors to our future opened, and I walked in.

How to tame a Jaguar

Alan has been friendly cats of all sizes. He was later to befriend a lion, but I think I can make the tenuous link to befriending a wild Jaguar XJ when he worked as a car salesman. – Charles

While playing in the band at the Ritz Ballroom in Manchester I had plenty of spare time during the day. So, to supplement the family income, I often took on a part-time day job as well.

I was a car salesman, selling new Jaguars at the Henley salesroom in Peter Street, Manchester. I was a very poor salesperson and very quickly I found myself transferred a few doors down to Pass & Joyce, who were part of the Henley group but sold Armstrong Siddeley’s large and luxurious Sapphire, and the new one-hundred-miles-per-hour 234 model.

Sales of our Armstrongs were very slow as the new Jaguar XJ over at Henley’s was far more exciting, so things were very quiet at Pass & Joyce. However, in an attempt to boost flagging sales, a member of the Armstrong family by the name of Tommy Sopworth, a well-known racing driver, arrived at the showroom to take prospective customers for a spin in the new 234. But, as the day wore on, there was no interest so, to ease the boredom, he took me and my colleague out instead.

His driving was certainly an eye-opener, in and out of the busy Manchester traffic. And, at the end of Princess Parkway, he went round the roundabout in a full four-wheel drift before briefly accelerating to over a hundred miles an hour — what an experience! I thought I could drive, but this was something else. I decided that whenever I had the chance, I needed to practise the roundabouts.

During the next few weeks, I had quite a lot of time to practise and managed to perfect the technique on a number of roundabouts. One particular day, I was asked if I would take the Jaguar XR demonstrator car to the home of a prospective customer the following morning. It occurred to me that this would be a wonderful opportunity to get a photograph of my new-found skill. So the next day I took my camera to work and asked my colleague, Arthur, if he would come with me and take a few photographs as I performed my drifting technique. He agreed, so we set off to find a suitable roundabout at the end of a long, quiet country road. Arthur settled himself on a wall with the camera whilst I drove a little way down the road to set up for the action.

I accelerated hard, reaching a good eighty miles per hour, before hammering the brake for the corner, tyres squealing and dust and gravel everywhere… but no Arthur.

I stopped and got out of the car. Arthur, it turned out, had taken fright as I headed directly towards him at such a rapid speed, and had fallen backwards off the wall into a stream. He climbed up, soaking wet, and not in a good mood.

“Did you get a picture?” I stupidly asked. His reply was not encouraging. The camera was ruined. Arthur poured himself soggily into the passenger seat, quickly regaining his sense of humour… until we realised that we still had to show the car to our customer, which would now be impossible as the front seat was soaking wet! After some thought, I decided to take the car home, dry it out overnight, and find an appropriate excuse to re-arrange the customer’s appointment for the following day. Luckily, this went smoothly and no-one was any the wiser.

Sadly, the only picture I got was the memory of Arthur’s legs disappearing backwards over the wall.