21 August 2023

Give them a foot and they’ll take a metre : 1972 : Bill Beaver, Camberley & Alicante

 It was the summer of rock’n’roll. Bill Haley. Buddy Holly. Chuck Berry. Fats Domino. The Big Bopper. Now, every time I hear one of their songs, I am reminded of a summer vacation never to be forgotten … for all the wrong reasons! Certainly, much of it had been spent lazing on a lounger beside a swimming pool, immersed in an interesting book I had brought along. However, my ears had been battered for days by continuous rock’n’roll, blasted at maximum volume from a tinny cassette machine leant against the wall of a Spanish villa’s veranda. This was not the preferred soundtrack of my teenage years.

At age fourteen, ‘oldies’ from a decade earlier already belonged to a bygone generation. I was obsessed with contemporary pop music and, since the occasion Jim Morrison had dropped his leather pants onstage, every Thursday a slice of my pocket money crossed the counter of a Frimley High Street newsagent for ‘Disc & Music Echo’, ‘Record Mirror’, ‘Sounds’, ‘NME’, ‘Melody Maker’ and ‘Blues & Soul’. I devoured their every word cover-to-cover, as well as teen magazine ‘Fab 208’ that my grandparents bought for older cousin Lynn but offered me a sneaked read. These publications’ preoccupation with the newest music (aligning perfectly with their most lucrative advertisers, the major record companies) reinforced my youthful music snobbery, as dismissive of rock’n’roll as I was of The Andrews Sisters.

Our family’s summer sojourn read like a rejected script for ‘Benidorm’. Following his impulsive visit to a Camberley travel agent to book a package holiday to Spain for the five of us, my father had handed me a pocket guide to Spanish, anticipating my fluency by the time we arrived. Although I shouldered the mantle of family administrator, this expectation proved unrealistic considering my recent struggle at school to learn French, where I had come bottom of the class during my first two years. As the teacher insisted on seating us in his classroom in rank order of our most recent termly exam result, I was placed in the front row due to my consistently dismal performances. By the time our charter flight touched down in Alicante, I had just about mastered Spanish numbers, greetings, shopping etiquette and the ordering of ‘steak and chips’.

Arrived at our hotel in the Albufereta district, the receptionist confessed that the promised restaurant and swimming pool were still ‘under construction’. Our two adjacent bedrooms on an upper floor lacked air conditioning and offered a view of only the hotel’s ongoing noisy building works. Daily pills my father took for high blood pressure had insufficient efficacy to stop him raising hell with the hotel’s management, to no avail, tipping his mood into a very un-holiday rage. To escape the confines of our half-finished accommodation, one hot afternoon we all trooped down to the beach, only for my months-old sister to put a handful of sand in her mouth. She cried, my mother panicked, my father shouted, screaming that he would never take his family to a beach again … a threat he kept.

After that incident, my father decided to hire a small Seat car so that we could explore Spain beyond the coast. One day he drove us inland to a random small village where we disembarked and wandered around in the heat of the blazing sun. It resembled a sand-blown ghost town from a television Western where everything was closed up, my parents having no knowledge of Spain’s daily siesta. The odd elderly person we encountered stopped what they were doing to stare pointedly at us, as if we resembled aliens arrived from another galaxy. They understood that only mad Brits and package holiday families came out in the midday sun. Feeling somewhat intimidated and having found nothing to do there, we retreated to the hire car to return to the ‘civilisation’ of our hotel.

My father tried to rescue our totally unedifying village visit by driving back along the picturesque Alicante seafront. Confronted by a small roundabout, he drove around it at his usual excessive speed in the wrong direction and collided with a car headed towards us. Nobody was hurt but the encounter caused visible damage to the front of both cars. The Spanish driver jumped out and understandably raged at my father, whose short fuse had been smouldering since the hour of our arrival. My translation skills were demanded, unrealistically as the pocket guide lacked a chapter on Spanish expletives. While the two drivers locked in verbal combat, the four of us sat on the low wall along the edge of the brightly tiled Alicante promenade. Passers-by stared. My baby sister was screaming. My mother was crying. The sun was baking us.

After a while, a police car arrived. My father was offered two choices. Either he could be arrested and taken to the police station to face a charge of dangerous driving, or he could pay the other driver to repair his car. While we remained sat on the promenade, my father accompanied a policeman to the nearest money exchange bureau to swap our remaining British ‘Travellers’ Cheques’ for Spanish pesetas. In the heat, it seemed like an eternity until he returned, paid the driver and we could all depart the scene of the crime. Our hire car was damaged but fortunately driveable, though there remained the problem of what to explain to the hire company at the end of our holiday from hell.

Our more immediate problem was how to survive the remainder of our fortnight now that almost all our money had been used to pay the angry driver. British credit cards might have launched in 1966 but had not been offered to families like ours. Debit cards would not exist until 1987. The limited amount of cash or Travellers’ Cheques you were permitted to take abroad had to be inscribed on the last page of your passport. Transferring funds from a British bank account to Spain, while you were in Spain, was an impossibility. During the following days, I escaped the worsening parental arguments at our hotel by finding a nearby newsagent where I would sit cross-legged on the floor for hours, looking through piles of imported DC comic titles never seen at home. I also found a record shop where I used pocket-money I had secreted to buy a Spanish 1971 James Brown picture-sleeve single (‘I Cried’) unreleased in the UK.

That summer’s rock’n’roll soundtrack was a consequence of my father’s solution to our predicament. While we would continue to sleep in our package holiday’s half-finished hotel, he had hustled an invitation to spend our remaining vacation daytimes at the nearby villa of one of his business associates. We lounged beside an Olympic-size outdoor swimming pool whose shallow end was bizarrely three times my height. The towering villa’s doorways were big enough to drive through a truck. Its rooms were the height of a church and the living room resembled a ballroom. We had traded our building-site hotel for a newly built mansion that could have easily served as a set for ‘Land of The Giants’ or the inspiration for a new ‘The Borrowers Abroad’ sequel.

The owner had purchased the plot of land, ordered a custom plan for a villa from an architect in Britain, brought the designs on paper to Spain and given them to local builders to construct during his absence. Returning only once it had been finished, he was astonished to realise that his plan’s dimensions in ‘feet’ had been misinterpreted as ‘metres’, resulting in the building and pool being three times their intended size. It was too late to remedy the error and too expensive to demolish it and rebuild. Planning regulations? What were they? The accidentally gigantic villa was there to stay … and we were now its guests.

It was the owner’s two sons, around a decade older than me, who had wired up a cassette machine outdoors to play their favoured rock’n’roll music. Though our three hosts hung around the villa and pool all day, they mostly ignored me quietly reading my book in the shade. Even the pool’s shallow end was too scary for a non-swimmer like me, however much they tried to persuade me to dive in. They were plainly enjoying their lazy, hazy days of summer on the ‘Costa del Dodgy’. I must have appeared quite a joyless nerd to them.

Our ebullient host Bill Beaver owned a successful car and truck dealership in Camberley, located on an expansive near-derelict triangle of land at the town’s western extreme. He lived in an old-style mansion named ‘Badgers’ Sett’ opposite ‘The Cricketers’ pub on Bracknell Road in nearby Bagshot. His accent was ‘Eastenders’ and his patter was pure Del Boy. My father had lately begun to forge local property redevelopment deals for which Beaver provided the cash, while he ensured local council planning approval for architectural schemes he drafted. My parents had uncharacteristically started hosting dinner parties for Beaver and his wife, despite my mother not warming to the couple’s brash ostentatiousness. My father probably hoped Beaver’s wealth would rub off on him … and, for a while, some of it did.

I had been pressganged into their joint enterprise to calculate the potential ‘return on investment’ of their projects, using my O-level maths studies to amortise the costs over varying numbers of years. One such development site was an anachronistic one-pump petrol station and car repair workshop that occupied a valuable rectangular plot on the busy London Road at Maultway North between Camberley and Bagshot. Owner John Sparks had inherited the business in 1966 upon the death of his father Arthur, though neither had updated its blue corrugated iron shack since 1926 when Arthur’s mother had purchased this large corner plot from the adjacent secondary school sportsground for her son to launch his one-man business.

Once I had calculated the viability of replacing the ramshackle building with flats, including the cost of removing the underground petrol tank and cleansing the polluted soil, the project was determined a ‘go’. However, we had not reckoned on Sparks’ stubborn refusal to sell. Beaver visited him. My father visited him. The Beaver sons visited him. Sparks remained intransigent. Their ‘persuasion’ techniques were evidently not working. Beaver purchased the Jolly Farmer pub on the roundabout opposite the Sparks site. One night it suffered a large unexplained fire. Sparks still refused to sell. In the end, the project had to be abandoned.

Like my mother, I was less in thrall of Beaver’s ‘entrepreneurship’ style than was my wide-eyed father, so the end of our disastrous two-week holiday in Spain and our farewells to his oversized villa came as a welcomed relief. On the flight home, I was seated next to larger-than-life Trinidadian bandleader Edmundo Ross. Despite already loving reggae and Brazilian music, my youthful snobbery regarded Ross as old-school due to his regularity on ‘BBC Radio 2’. Unaware of his fascinating life, I now regret not having chatted with him more.

A short time after our return to Britain, my father left us permanently to set up a new home with a teenage girl only a few years older than me. Our Spanish holiday seemed to have proven his last straw playing ‘happy families’. Children just got in his way. I had no further contact with the Beaver family … and I disowned my father.

In 1986, Tesco and Marks & Spencer jointly purchased a huge 76-acre site on the western fringe of Camberley to build two massive superstores (‘The Meadows’). The adjacent four-acre site, bounded by the London Road, Laundry Lane and Tank Road housed Bill Beaver’s open-air vehicle sales operation and was necessary to developers for a revised traffic flow system that included a new Sainsbury’s Homebase superstore. This plot on the far edge of town had suddenly become Camberley’s most valuable piece of land … to the benefit of its wily owner.

In 1990, John Sparks applied to Surrey Heath council for permission to build a bungalow (for his retirement?) on empty land at the back of his one-man garage. It was granted but never built. In 2014, seventy-eight-year-old Sparks retired, closed his business and sold the land to developer North Maultway Limited which demolished the workshop to build ten flats, for which planning permission was approved the following year. By 2017, the land had been sold to Seville Developments Limited which reapplied for planning permission to build nine flats. Two years later, this permission expired … leaving the former ‘Sparks Garage’ site derelict to this day.

No comments:

Post a Comment