Chapter 17: Tiny dancer

French left UK to escape the cops and taxmen and headed east for Bangkok. This was not the first time he had been to this part of the world. Colombo was ‘a mess and a bit threatening’, Singapore was ‘squeaky-clean and restrictive’, but Bangkok was ‘dirty, hot, steamy and smelled wonderful’. Thailand was ‘scarily, exhilaratingly, and amazingly… foreign’.

After checking in at Montien, French headed out to paint the town red and realised it was midnight. No worries. This is Asia, AND this is Bangkok. There were plenty of bars open, each with a girl in a bikini to lure the customers. He walked on.

Then, like love at first sight, French was transfixed by the vision of a creature from another planet:

Waist-length blue-black hair flailing like a cat-o-nine-tails, body bouncing, jerking, and sweating so much you could see the flying droplets caught in the spotlight, and the colour… she looked as though she’d been flayed alive and dipped in hot honey.

He went in like he was on elastic… I wonder what his reaction would be had he seen a ‘ping-pong girl’.

To cut the long story short, she followed him back to the hotel. She had him at “You so silly, you!”, plus the off-stage ‘secretary-fantasy in miniature’ look. Her name was Mae.

By the next night, he had moved into her apartment at Sukhumvit Road. While she went to college and worked at night, he explored the city by tuk-tuk. They soon settled into domesticity. Ate at street-stalls, watched Thai soap operas… He learned some Thai, and taught her better English pronunciation. On weekends, they travelled by train to the north, or took a coach to Pattaya, ‘the rectum of Asia’.

Wait. Wasn’t French supposed to be somewhere else? Right. He only remembered when Mae was looking at his passport photo. “You overstay!” He was supposed to be in Hong Kong the week before.

He called Michael Ball who was not a happy rabbit. The job in Hong Kong was already filled, but if French could get himself to Singapore the next day… What did I tell you? French is one lucky bastard.

So off he went.

I waved one last time to my tiny dancer, who didn’t look at all heartbroken. In fact she smiled happily and waved back. On the other hand, I felt empty.

I silly, I.

I think French had fallen in love.

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Chapter 16: Goodbye to all that

When French was on holiday in Singapore, he did a bit of freelance for Ogilvy, where he met Michael Ball, the Regional Chairman of Ogilvy and Mather. We’ll get back to him later.

Back in London, French had a run-in with the police. This was in the 70’s, back when the force was really corrupt.

French had imported an orange Porsche 914, a left-hand drive from Germany. He got into an accident when a drunk stepped in front of it. French missed him by inches but a policeman appeared like magic (much like our tow trucks and 4D punters) and proceeded to book French, even though the drunk had vanished into thin air.

French had to spend a night in jail. He refused a breathalyser test on the grounds that it was too late and the results could be tampered. Instead, he demanded for a blood test. A medic had to be dragged out of bed, and by then hours had passed.

When the case got to court, it was theatre, with ‘witnesses’ taking the stand, including one produced by his own lawyer. All that was unnecessary because French won the case by cornering the cops.

“How did you conclude I was the driver of the vehicle?”
“The gentleman emerged, staggering, into the path of passing cars, sir.”
“Officer, are you quite sure about my stepping out of the car into traffic passing on the right?”
“I am. Quite certain.”
“Then I can’t have been the driver, surely, since the car has a left-hand drive.”

Checkmate.

Unfortunately, his troubles were far from over. Now the police wanted to question him about his time working in Soho and the Inland Revenue issued a tax demand for income from the Judas Priest and disco days.

The lifeline

A note arrived from Michael Ball, offering French a creative director post in Hong Kong. So to escape the law (it would be to troublesome for the police to pursue him), French sold his car, resigned from his job at HKR and packed his bags. He had a month to kill so he headed for Thailand.

And in typical French style, he spent his last night in UK with the gloriously, fabulously, crazy girlfriend of one of the fellas of the agency. She’s the sexiest lady he’d ever met and he has the Polaroids to prove that.

Ah, the days before digital cameras. The pictures would have been all over Facebook.

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Chapter 15: Hubris makes an overdue entrance

All good things have to come to an end, and it did too for Blacker Hyde. They went broke spectacularly, with their cars (a Porsche and Citroen) repossessed after Christmas.

Their golden goose client Warwick Records (refer to Chapter 13) that churned out compilation records of cover versions was wiped out when K-Tel came along with the original versions. No client, no money. And because they signed personal guarantees with the bank, they owed the TV companies too. This is what happens when you count your eggs before they hatch.

So what did they do? When the going gets tough, the tough goes for lunch. And French spent his last fiver on a cigar.

The agency shut down and French got a job a Creative Director in a small shop in Bloomsbury.

With most of his measly salary spent on the train commute to London, French hid in the toilet at closing time to sleep in the office. We all do what we need to survive. No shame in that as kong as you don’t steal or harm anyone. This was eating humble pie, after escargots, wine and cigars.

The lucky break and the cigar

French is what I’d call a lucky bastard. At his lowest point, a call came in to save the day. It was from Sir Lew Grade, the boss at ATV, the most important man in entertainment and biggest unpaid creditor of Blacker Hyde.

Far from asking for money, Sir Lew instead offered a business proposition – to handle the ATV account (because some of his friends liked Frenchie’s work).

French struck a deal with the agency he was working at. He brought in the ATV account, and took a cut of the media and production. He also took a 50% pay cut to freelance for other agencies.

Sir Lew sent French to be ‘fitted’ for cigars because he has the face for them. All this despite the unfortunate incident of French elbowing Sir Lew (French didn’t know it was him) at the revolving door on he rushed up to the man’s office.

The shop was Kaiser (now closed) in Tottenham Court Road. He was fitted with Hoya de Nicaragua in 7-inch and 6-inch versions. Here, I must reproduce this elegant sales pitch:

The Churchills are a gift from Sir Lew. The torpedoes are a gift from me. Wear them in good health. It will be a pleasure to supply you in the future.

French became a loyal customer as long as he remained in London. And the cigar became an iconic prop in his vanity photos.

The road to Singapore

French later joined Holmes Knight Ritchie, the Ritchie a suit French worked with when he was freelancing at Grey. He was back to making good money, so it was a matter of time before he took another holiday.

He headed to Singapore, where the draw was waking up in daylight, never needing an overcoat and being constantly surrounded by astounding-looking girls.

An encounter at the cricket club led to him writing an ad that got discussed in Parliament. The client – Dyno-Rod – the people you call when your drains or toilets are blocked. The ad – an announcement that there’s a new company in town to ‘Clean up Singapore’ (that was the headline). Everything is supposed to be squeaky clean and efficient in Singapore, so of course the insecure Singaporeans too offence at a bunch of foreigners bad-mouthing the country.

So what did French do? He went for lunch. And the ‘fiasco’ ended well – the company getting the contract to clean the container terminal.

I should try this lunch thing. Don’t worry, let’s do lunch!

The boo-boo

Everyone has a boo-boo. I’m not telling mine. It’s too embarrassing. It happened at my first agency, in Penang. A company profile for a events company. It was a proofreading oversight. That’s all I’m willing to divulge.

But I can tell you Frenchie’s boo-boo. The ad – an insurance company’s home nursing service. The headline – When you’re old and ill, the last place you want to be is in hospital.

After he wrote that, French went on holiday. Big mistake. When I go on holiday, even the month-long ones, I come back to find nothing has moved. When French took off, the art director sent the ad out with an illustration of the Grim Reaper. The ad topped Campaign’s list of the most tasteless ads of the year. And decade.

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Chapter 14: Judas Priest! Will I ever learn?

This chapter starts off with cars that French owned. I’m not particularly interested in them unless they come with a contest (I still dream of winning a car), but M, since this blog is for you as much as it is for me, I’ll give you a short rundown.

1. A split-roof Chevrolet Corvette Stingray: black metal-flake paintwork, chrome sidewinder exhausts and a 5-litre engine. The pistons shot through the bonnet like guided missiles while he was driving it at 100mph. The bodywork fell apart and French was left seated in the chassis. I wish he had drawn what that looked like because it sounds too cartoon to be true. Imagine French with nothing but the steering wheel in his hands.

2. A red and black De Tomaso Pantera with a 6-litre Ford engine. Its sound was amazing but like a Ducati, most of its life was spent in the workshop. And like an Italian lady, it was also a flame-thrower.

3. A metallic gold Porsche 911 with a huge whale-tail spoiler. Within a week of owning it, French lost it to some joy-riders. It went over the popular suicide leap-off at the cliffs of Beachy Head in Sussex but the case was more likely ‘murder’ or ‘homicide’.

4. A Citroen Maserati. Sought after by petrol-heads. Among its notable owners were Jay Leno, Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, the Shah of Persia, the notorious Idi Amin, Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones drummer) and Leonid Brezhnev (General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union).

Let’s have a break, shall we? Since this blog is mostly all words, let’s have a bit of eye candy. A few of my favourite cars, seen at the Gläserne Manufaktur VW in Dresden, Germany. Sorry, I don’t do sexy girls draped over cars. The machines are sexy or cute enough as they are.

Half-wood prototype.

This car is so bloody expensive it needed an entire building to house it.

If I ever have a pet cat, this would be it. I think I’ll call it Kid Cat.

I’m only including this because it’s so bling-bling.

Sexy!

From cars, we move on to music and Frenchy’s almost close encounters with even bigger fame and fortune (at the peak of his advertising career he was after all worldwide creative big boss supreme of Ogilvy).

Would you believe that French and his pal John managed Judas Priest? The band already had an album out (Rocka-Rolla) and were on tour. It was a lot of hard work and the cost was frightening. In the end, French and company signed the band over to a more professional outfit.

French then took off for yet another holiday. By the time he got back they were in the American heavy metal charts.

Some trivia on Judas Priest:

1. They were nice young blokes who went home to their mothers for Sunday lunch.

2. The original title of the album Sad Wings of Destiny was Fallen Angels. French worked on the cover with the illustrator Patrick Woodroffe. You won’t find French’s name on the reissues, but his name appeared in the credits of the vinyl album.

3. Rob Halford, the lead vocalist gets my vote for most classy line in the book so far. His reply to French’s offer to ride in a Rolls Royce,“Thanks a lot for the offer, Frenchy. But the first time I go in a Rolls, it’ll be my own.” Smooth!

French’s brush with the ‘next big thing’ is almost too painful to tell. Success is about being at the right place at the right time as much as hard work and talent. But what if you don’t even notice it when it knocks on your thick skull?

A young lad invited French to help a band get a recording contract. Ten percent in royalties was even dangled as incentive, but French had already lost interest in the music business.

Still, he allowed himself to be dragged to see the band and this is his account:

“On stage were some of the least-appetising young men I’d ever had the misfortune to clap eyes on. By now I was used to the bedraggled excesses of the hard rock denizens. At least they had the doubtful advantage of being aggressively masculine… but this crew! Their bouffant hair, heavy makeup, and frilly, flouncy shirts were only surpassed in horrendousness by their ridiculous posing and strutting.”

The band’s name was equally absurd.

Duran Duran.

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Chapter in between 13 & 14: Drugs. Luck rather than judgment

French devoted this chapter to the subject of drugs because he has seen so many lives destroyed by them. And he’s grateful his isn’t. “Alcohol has also screwed up the lives and careers of a lot of friends and acquaintances… but I’ve noticed that adding drugs to the cocktail almost guaranteed calamity.”

His first and second attempt at weed resulted in him passing out. When he woke up, the party was over. So he gave it up. He didn’t want to miss any more parties.

But the experiment didn’t stop there. At a cricket match, French mixed the tobacco in his dad’s pipe with some ‘dried herbs’ (marijuana). Nothing much happened. His dad was unusually chatty on the way back and thought the weather was splendid when it had in fact rained.

After the happy tobacco ran out and his dad was back on the regular stuff, his mum asked if he could get more of the ‘funny-smelling’ stuff. She preferred her husband ‘drunk’.

Space pork

Ever dreamt of ‘loosening’ up a party of old bores? French did it, at his parents’ wedding anniversary when he volunteered to do the catering.

The weed episode from before was not quite over. His supplier didn’t have any weed for his dad, and gave him some hash instead. He ended up adding it to the spicy pork and beans. The happy guests, including a vicar and two Irish nuns, proclaimed it the best party ever.

Then there was the cocaine. It messed his taste buds. He couldn’t taste the spiciness of his prawn vindaloo. So that was the end of it.

I never felt the need to do drugs. Never belonged to any cool group, so there was no pressure to try them. The only time I came close to drugs was at a former boss’ house party. They were doing the bong.

Another girl who was not interested and I went upstairs and locked ourselves in a room. Not because we were afraid. We were more concerned that two colleagues were looking for a place to shag. In the end, the party finished early because the boss passed out or something like that.

Though French could drink more than his share of alcohol without being visibly drunk, the terror of losing control of himself (he’s a control-freak) and seeing the indignity of friends falling over and throwing up restrained him from turning into an alcoholic.

Message for M

So that was French. Reading this chapter, I remember you saying you’re a functioning drug addict. I never really pressed you about that. It can’t be about the psychotic drugs you took for your depression. You said you stopped because of the detachment you felt.

Were you referring to the painkillers you’re taking for your leg? I’m beginning to think your dependency on painkillers is messing you up. Leave the pink elephants. Try this instead. It’s expensive but would probably be better for you in the long run.

One of the side effects of synthetic painkillers is anxiety. Do you really want to bear this burden for the rest of your life? Like the American and Dutch friend I told you about?

I once asked you to try alternative treatment for your pain. I’m asking you again. You’d probably say you lost the contact. So here it is. God helps those who help themselves. Check it out. Stop making excuses and stop whinging. Two years is a long time to be stuck in a rut.

UPDATE 4 SEPT 2012

If you think drugs make you ‘creative’, have a look at this experiment by Bryan Lewis Saunders. He drew different self-portraits after each drug use.

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Chapter 13: The wreck of the good ship to Alhambra

This is the chapter where French became a music executive in various forms, among other things:

1. The agency got a new client – Warwick Records – the biggest player of compilation albums, which were all the rage then.

2. French and a partner took over an old Bollywood cinema and turned it into a rock venue. Just before the first act went on stage, they got into trouble with the local authorities over the lack of illuminated exit signs. This was promptly solved with cardboard, felt pens and a flashlight. They didn’t make any money and this venture came to a dramatic end when their signange (canvas the size of a sail attached by chains and hawsers) tore off the side of the building in a storm.

3. Next, they opened ‘clubs’ by taking over the under-utilised space in pubs set aside for functions. This was also the time when French wet into the bouncer business. The skills he learned (finger-folds) came in handy decades later when a South African rugby fan hassled him in Singapore’s Top Ten club.

Another great learning is to turn poachers into gamekeepers. Just appoint the troublemaker as law-enforcer and he’d soon behave. And if all else fails, just issue this threat, “I’ll tell your Mum”. But I think this works only with Irish men. And maybe Indian.

4. French also had a try as a debt-collector, just for the sheer hell of it. Actually, I think the finance people could learn a thing or two from this experience. French only took on commercial businesses (not family men) and he basically talked the money out of people. And hired tramps to sit in business establishments to drive customers away.

For businesses with no ‘fronts’ he roped in an enormous Trinidadian who was all size and no bite (he read Barbara Cartland and went on to become a preacher). If the debtor was ‘unavailable’, French turned on the klutz and spilled tea and broke lamps until the receptionists/secretaries pushed him to the bosses.

What French learned from these episodes (taken whole from the book):
Don’t gamble. Do not get into relationships from which it’s hard to extricate yourself. And never, ever borrow money that you can’t immediately cover with the equivalent collateral.

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Chapter 12: Oscar and the bent coppers

French made his way to London to look up a Nancy Sinatra lookalike Jewish girl he met in Mallorca. Soon he settled into a couple of days in the office, and a couple of days in London. Much like you, M. He left a case and turned up whenever he could. You left a T-shirt, a toothbrush and two unmentionables. You turned up when you wanted to and then you just left me hanging when you chickened out.

Ruth (that’s what we’re calling her) was in publishing. So was her dad. His name was Oskar Wild, Wild being a name he took on because he wanted to sound more English than the Polish Rabinowitz. Yes, he had heard of Oscar Wilde.

Oskar ran a newsagent business. It was the 1960s and there was demand for something stronger than risque magazines of ladies in saucy underwear. Innocent Oskar was flabbergasted.

Enter the milkman. Seriously. He deciphered ‘stronger’ – ladies with no clothes on.

And now the milkman cliche. He happened to like taking snaps. It started with ladies in the nude and moved on to ‘actually doing it’. Milkman became the naughty pix supplier. Wipe that drool off your chin, M. Your Girl Friday days are long gone.

French was put to work with Oskar. He went through the books and paid off the police with brown envelopes. Noticing that the business was losing money in the film division, his scheming mind soon greased another opportunity. Films in those days were bulky, not like our DVDs today. They were easily noticed, prone to ‘falling off the back of the lorry’ and easily confiscated in raids. Importing films was bleeding profits. It was time to DIY.

So here is the part where French became a pornographer, porn actor! This was easier than shooting commercials.

Girls were recruited off the train from the depressed Midlands. They descended upon London to make a few quid. Runaways were roped in too. Even though none were forced into the trade and any underage girl was sent home with a train ticket, I still find the porn industry vile. Yes, I’ve watched porn. They leave a sick aftertaste.

Girls, you think you have body issues? Seems like guys are very insecure about the size of their willies and going floppy. That’s why you keep seeing the same pool of guys in pornos (French assumes this is pre-Viagra).

Anyway, girls, if your man says your boobs are too small, thighs too big or bum too flat, just give his dick a squeeze and tell him you could squish it like a pisang emas (a very small variety of banana).

Now, I know you’re waiting for the part where French becomes a porn ‘star’. He ‘filled in’ once, making sure his face was out of frame of course.

But the past has a way of catching up, even 30 years later. He was caught out by none other than his wife, who was on a girls’ night out half a world away in Singapore. How? She recognised his damn ugly bottom.

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