The Blue Plaques Blue Army Gang

By Jon Crout

11 June 1974

‘Do you think this film they’re making is named after me?’ asked Owen. He grinned.

‘Not likely, Tommy,’ said Holbrook, licking his ice cream. ‘I doubt architecture is really their thing.’

‘Now, now,’ piped Unwin. ‘Long hair and loud music doesn’t automatically mean they’re uncultured. Quite the opposite, really. They are making a whole motion picture based on one of their records, after all.’

Owen pulled a face when Unwin wasn’t looking.

The gang all sat on pier benches with their backs to the water. Only Yates looked the other way, up on her knees. It was a bright, breezy day, with a clear view of the island. She stared out to sea, as the wind caught and played her hair in front of her face. A plethora of boats enjoyed the clement conditions, and the sea air was fresh and invigorating. On either side of her, Kipling and Sellers shared a tray of whelks. They took it in turns to lean across the back of her legs with their wooden forks.

‘Didn’t they have any pepper?’ asked Kipling.

‘Come on, Kipper, you can’t pepper a whelk,’ replied Sellers. ‘Nobody wants their food to be sneezing as they eat it, do they?’

Another man walked silently up and leant on the railings a short distance away. He wore sunglasses and stared out to sea as he smoked a cigarette. Jane elbowed Unwin in the ribs.

‘What’s your game, Freddy?’ scowled Unwin.

‘Sshh!’ hissed Jane. ‘Over there. Is that Oliver Reed?’

‘It certainly is. A bit star struck, are you?’

‘Don’t make a scene. I was just saying.’

Holbrook munched the end of his cornet. ‘He did some of his National Service in Hong Kong, you know.’

Jane looked confused. ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’

‘Careful where you flick that cigarette, Ollie,’ sniggered Sellers.

‘Pipe down, Pete,’ snapped Owen. ‘He’ll hear you. Besides, that comment is in pretty poor taste.’

If the man at the railing had heard anything, he gave no indication. He turned and walked back towards the Gaiety Bar, where there was a lot more activity.Crew and people in costume milled about, awaiting the opportunity to start filming. Excited crowds on the beach had gathered in the hope of basking in the warm glow of show business. Fred Jane jumped up onto his bench and started waving at everyone with both arms. After a few moments he looked down at his companions, and the collection of disapproving looks aimed in his direction caused him to jump down just as quick. He tried to change the subject. ‘I suppose there’s no danger of us actually finding ourselves in this film, is there? That would be a turn up. Going to the pictures and seeing our little gang appear in the background.’

‘No, there’s absolutely no chance of that, Freddy,’ answered Owen.

‘For a few of us, it would be especially awkward, given the date, and all.’

‘It’s not the same since the Pavilion burnt down,’ Sellers reflected with a sigh.

‘Bowie did a good show,’ chirped Kipling, as he popped the last whelk into his mouth.

Sellers flicked his fork over the railing with a frown. ‘I played the old Pavilion, did I tell you?’

‘I think you mentioned it,’ Holbrook condescended with a smile, ‘just once or twice. The pier’s had more than one fire hasn’t it?’

Yates suddenly turned and jumped around into a sitting position. ‘I’m missing the footy season already. How long is it until we can get to another game?’

A man’s shadow fell across the decking. The new figure cleared his throat and addressed them all directly in an unmistakeably Scottish accent, as the wind twitched the ends of his moustache. ‘Hello everyone, how are you? Are you all looking forward to the football?’

‘Oh no,’ groaned Sellers. ‘It’s the fairy chaser.’ He took off his spectacles and started rubbing the lenses on the bottom of his shirt.

Yates turned the other way and started scanning the Solent again, as if the greeting could not possibly have been meant to include her.

Holbrook stood up and faced the newcomer. He tended to be the spokesperson for the group, the closest they ever came to having a leader. ‘I am sorry, but we really do not have time right now. You really must excuse us.’

‘No, please wait. I only wanted to talk to you about—’

‘Look, I don’t think there’s anything to be gained by going over old ground. We really have to be off. Besides, I think I can smell burning.’

15 October 1987

‘Why do you think he bothers?’ shouted Jane into Holbrook’s ear.

‘What?’ Holbrook shouted back, hardly audible over the amplified guitars.

‘Doyle! He never gives up, does he?’

Holbrook was only half sure what they were talking about. ‘No!’ he replied hopefully. The conditions were not really conducive to lengthy conversations. The pair of them were hanging back towards the rear of the audience. Ahead, they occasionally glimpsed Yates’ hair as she bobbed up and down, much closer to the front, amongst the more unusual haircuts.

The band played a fresh and exciting set, full of angst ridden songs fuelled by frenetic chords. Owen and Kipling propped up the bar for the most part, but even they stood straight and tapped their feet when they heard Getting Nowhere Fast. The small, intimate venue was perched with precarious daring at the pinnacle of the Brutalist concrete folly.

While the predominantly young crowd bounced around spilling beer inside, Sellers and Unwin were out in the car park, leaning over the edge and staring at the cold, windswept Portsmouth floor below.

‘Breeze is getting up a bit, isn’t it?’ said Unwin.

Sellers was having a devil of a job getting his cigarette lit. Hunched over, with his jacket’s collar pulled right up, he eventually had to admit defeat. He ran back to the doorway that led to the last flight of stairs up to the club, and popped inside to get some shelter. Once ignition was achieved, he rejoined Unwin outside.

‘Are you not worried about missing the band?’ Unwin asked.

‘Nah. They’ll be doing an anniversary tour in twenty five years. I’ll catch it again then.’

‘Not at this venue, though.’

‘True enough. This is a weird, dirty, elevated hole. I love it.’ Sellers flicked his cigarette butt into space, and the strong wind grabbed it and sent a swirl of sparks spinning into the night.

Inside, the band had finished. Backstage, they were giving an interview to a fan that would eventually turn up in a fanzine named after a hamster.             ‘Oh why do you catch my eye, then turn away?’ Yates sang to herself as she spun around on the emptying dance floor. Some of the crowd were filtering out to get to their cars, as Sellers and Unwin made their way back inside. The rest of the appreciative throng patiently filed all the way down the stairs to ground level.

Holbrook was tapped on the shoulder from behind.

‘Good gig, wasn’t it?’ With no great surprise, Holbrook turned to see Doyle smiling hopefully at him. ‘Arthur,’ he said, ‘no offence, but we’ve made our position clear.’

‘Come on, old man, don’t be like that.’

‘No. Look, we decided at the start that our gang is, and can only ever be, the seven of us. It’s nothing personal, that’s just the way it is. Now come on, it’s time everyone was going’.

Across town, on the Ladies’ Mile, some trees were starting to feel the strain of attempting to withstand stronger and stronger winds. Some of them realised that they were fighting a losing battle, and that sadly, they were not all going to survive until morning.

26 February 1992

‘I never thought we’d see this fixture, when the last round went to a replay,’ Unwin said, mainly to Holbrook, who was standing beside him.

‘Yes, and what a replay it was!’

The two navy men felt that they set an example when it came to following the team in the right way, but the truth was that since they had formed their little enclave, none of the gang could be said to enjoy the football any more or less than the others.

‘Come on you Blues, play up Pompey!’ Yates screamed at the top of her voice, jumping and waving her scarf. Amongst her companions, more eyebrows were raised than otherwise; the match was still some way from kicking off. Kipling, Owen, Sellers and Jane all sat on the terrace, puffing cigarettes or cradling cups of tea. They watched the ground fill up. The sense of anticipation hung in the air like a thing alive. Playing a big team at home in this stage of the Cup brought all kinds of possibilities. Did anyone really expect the home team to progress? Probably not, but that slim chance cranked up the excitement.

‘Shouldn’t you be a Gooner, rather than a Pompey fan?’ Owen called to Sellers, very pleased with himself.

As kick-off drew closer, the gang were all on their feet, jockeying for the best view. They looked around the old, tired stadium, soaking in the atmosphere. Kipling noticed a familiar face in the crowd at the back of the stand. His attention was brought back around when Jane started talking.

‘I’m not sure about this new lad, you know. Do we really want someone that has played for that lot down the road?’

‘What about Clarkey?’ Owen retorted. ‘Or Alan Ball?’ Jane shut up.

Pompey came out to louder cheers and bigger clouds of ticker tape than usual. For the first few minutes, there was nothing between the teams. Doyle chose that moment to make his presence known, squeezing in from the gangway, with his back to the match.

‘Oh, for goodness sake!’ Unwin exclaimed.

‘I just wanted to say—’ began Doyle.

‘I’m sorry, but we’re English Heritage plaques only,’ Unwin blurted out.

‘I’ve got an English Heritage plaque!’

‘Yes, but not in Portsmouth.’

‘Well, you can keep your snobbery. If you just let me finish, I only wanted to say that I’m down with a couple of the London plaque lads for the game. I just thought I would do the decent thing and let you know that we were here.’

The Blue Plaques Blue Army Gang turned in unison and were all left open mouthed when they saw Charles Dickens and Lord Nelson waving down to them from the back of the stand. On the pitch, a foul had brought a free kick Pompey’s way, generating expectant mutterings.

‘Beresford’s out of position!’

The gang looked sheepishly at each other, a little oblivious to what was going on around them.

‘Have we been a bit harsh?’ Kipling asked his fellows.

‘Possibly just a bit cliquey,’ Holbrook conceded.

Things around them became very lively as a free kick was swung in. ‘The keeper’s dropped it!’

The ball was toe-poked into the net and the crowd went wild. The gang were swept up in a euphoria that lasted until the final whistle and beyond. Protecting that slender lead against top flight opposition was an immense team effort. The feeling that the other team would surely manage a goal at some point kept stomachs fluttering right to the death.

As the happy crowd dispersed, the gang drew together. All except Yates, who was picking up handfuls of ticker tape and flinging them into the air. No one said anything, but they exchanged glances that spoke volumes. Kipling gave a little nod to the others, then caught up with Doyle as he was about to leave.

‘Listen boys, it’s up to you entirely, but we always go and hang out on the pier for a bit after a game. Would you like to join us?’

With their new companions, the gang draped themselves around the pier benches once more, discussing the great victory.

‘That Macca, what a player!’ enthused Jane, winking at Owen, who laughed.

‘No hard feelings?’ said Holbrook.

‘I was the original goalkeeper, you know,’ replied Doyle.

‘Yes, and I was club President!’ A new voice took the group by surprise. Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery had arrived. He popped his can down on the deck, and stood up on a bench. ‘Now listen everybody, I want to talk to you about a new group that me and a Vicky have been talking about starting up.’

‘No statues!’ shouted Yates from beside the railings.

Monty turned with his finger outstretched. ‘Now listen here—’ he began, but never got to finish, as in a blur of motion he managed to tread on a whelk, slip up, and go tumbling head first over the edge of the pier, disappearing from view.

Doyle nudged Sellers. ‘Oh no,’ he grinned, ‘he’s fallen in the water!’