Monday, 8 July 2013

Dancing in the kitchen with Dolly.

I should have been very sad this week but I’m not, even though a dear friend and comrade and a fellow cancer survivor, died. Dolly Schaer was in her 80’s, a feisty, fighting, fantastic sister in arms. She had been diagnosed just after I broke my ankle and was operated on a couple of months later. It was sudden – I thought she’d get a couple of years at least. She fought a good fight.

Saturday was the annual London remembrance meeting organised by the International Brigades Association. It will be the first ever that she missed – she was an important part of it from the start– her father had fought for the Spanish Republic as a member of the International Brigades. She wasn’t going to let the world forget.

Dolly had been a teacher and a headmistress. Through her working life she fought hard for disadvantaged youngsters in West London. She loved modern jazz – a regular at Ronnie Scotts. We had a lot in common apart from politics.

Probably because of her job, she always looked on me with that stern, disapproving eye of the long suffering teacher spotting trouble at the back of the class. I was always the one in trouble, although I never did anything wrong. I’ve kept that through life.

I was at a meeting with her a couple of months ago. I said something outrageous and then had a huge fit of the giggles. Dolly told me off in a kindly way.

I’m really glad that this time I told her that I was determined to enjoy every minute, especially the bad minutes. I hope she took the hint – I think she did.

Anyway, yesterday I spent the afternoon being told off by Dolly. I had a dumb moment – rather like the technicians at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power station who thought it would be a good idea to see what happened if they shut it down, unexpectedly and without telling anyone. Doh!

We had an outside leaking tap which for very good reasons I’d put off fixing. I can’t explain why but I tried to reduce the dripping by undoing and tightening it one last time – the occasional drips turned into an uncontrollable flood. It was 5pm on a Sunday, shops shut, plumbers on triple time, me not feeling so great.

Just then my sister rang from the other side of the world and probably thought I was strangely distracted, distant even. I was just listening to the water flow.

I turned the water off, collected my WD40, PTFE tape and Vaseline (sounds like the makings of an interesting weekend) and undid it all. Hottest day of the year, puffing, blowing, sweating, swearing – I think it had been there for 50 years. The washer wouldn’t come off, and when it did I felt like an archaeologist opening an ancient tomb, it all came apart in my hands. It was imperial not metric. All I needed was for the thread to peel off the inside of the tap. I’m scrabbling about dark places as the water went on flowing.

All the way through I could feel Dolly’s disapproving gaze on me, until amazingly, I found a washer that fitted.

When I finished, by accident, I put BBC Radio 2 on just as they played three Kirsty MaColl records in a row. I often saw her father – Ewen MaColl – playing at the Singers Club. Folk music, was not my thing at all, but he was political too and I was always attracted by a rebel song.

‘New England’ – she made this Billy Bragg number a hit by covering it before anyone had ever heard of him – it came out when I was working in a record shop.

‘There’s a guy works down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis, but he’s a liar and I’m not sure about you’ – the title says it all really.

I started dancing to the latin rhythyms of ‘In these shoes’ a beautiful, funny song about growing up and not growing up.

And that’s how I ended up dancing with Dolly in the kitchen.


Neil Harris

(a don’t stop till you drop production)

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