George Coulouris Memoirs


Written by GC 1989

No doubt about it, McNicol and I were friends, bosom friends. We started out together in the same form, Prep 3, Manchester Grammar School, matriculated six years later in 1921. We saw a lot of each other for several years after that. But as I say, it all really started in Prep 3. McNicol was the steady one, never in trouble, studied hard, was at the top of the form most of the time. I was regarded as the flighty one of the pair. I made people laugh by writing funny little stories and my most popular imitation was of Sir Frank Benson. I had seen him, or rather heard him, in Shakespeare. In my imitation of his "Friends, Romans, countrymen," I managed to equal his three-octave vocal range, which was probably why my classmates all shouted "an actor! an actor!" when it was my turn to say what I would do when I left school. I fell in with the convention that I was so brilliant I didn't need to swot.

We were both mad about cricket and were hoping to get our colours in the school first eleven. In reality, it was McNicol all the way. I watched mortified his stylish batting with all the right flourishes and heard the captain remarking, "Nice style. He's just what we need." I on the other hand was very successful in the second team both as batsman and bowler.

We visited each other at home quite a lot. I loved his family. His mother was my first glimpse of a typical Scots mother, small, silvery haired, merry-eyed with rosy cheeks. In another Scots way, too, she was a wonderful fighter for her family's education. One day, I think it was my third visit, mysterious crashes and bangs began as if somebody was closing the door with superhuman force. I hadn't yet met Mr McNicol. I heard he was that mysterious thing called a credit draper. He called on miners' wives selling them clothes by cash instalments. As he came into the room, his manner seemed strange. I knew after several more meetings that he was a drunk. The final moment of realisation came when Bill and I were waiting for a bus. He came up to us, ignored me and shook hands effusively with his son.

Bill McNicol and I were almost inseparable in our spare time. I spent hours every day in summer bowling in his back garden till there wasn't a blade of grass left. We went to school camp together and were in the same bell tent. I got to know how deep his feelings were about his father's weakness. He became religious, joined the Band of Hope and signed the pledge. A travelling evangelist, named Hudson Pope, whom we called Hudson Soap, lectured us campers about the danger of letting sin get hold of you. "First of all," he said, "it is like a thread around your wrist, easy to break if you do it at once. But later on it gets thicker and thicker and you're tied up for good!" The meeting ended with a song, "God hath said it, it must stand, Pass it on, it's simply grand, Sin shall not have dominion over you." This sort of stuff left me completely cold. That night, McNicol's place was empty. I asked, "Where's Bill?" "Oh, he was so carried away that he was one of those who went with Hudson Soap to the station!"

During the matric exams, I was hopeless at chemistry and thought I was certain to fail. I still don't know how I passed or even if I did, But I hissed at McNicol "Let's have a look." He refused. He'd done all that work and I'd done hardly any and it wasn't fair to him, he told me afterwards. Even so, I felt betrayed, but not enough to break our friendship.

My mother liked him a lot. She thought he had been very well brought up. One time I asked him to show me some paper or other at the tea table at our house. Later on my mother pointed out to me his good manners in looking through his wallet on his lap and not putting it out on the table cloth.

McNicol was obsessed with the idea of becoming an architect. He daydreamed of winning the Prix de Rome on his way to fame a fortune. But he couldn't even take the first step. His family hadn't enough money to pay the fees of the well-known school of architecture at Manchester University. Finally I asked my father to use his influence on the silly old bank manager, Mr Lambert, who arranged a job for him in one of the branches of the Union Bank. From this he was able to save the whole amount of his salary and as soon as he had enough he paid for himself to take up architecture at the university. During the next few months I hardly saw him at all. When I did see him one day, I was struck by the look of grim determination on his face. I thought, "My God, this man is very serious, a real tough character!" How wrong I was.

The McNicol family gave me one of the best holidays I ever had. After the war, I went to Brittany on a camping holiday with the school. It cost very little and when I got back I found an invitation from the McNicols to go to Arran to stay in their cottage. My father was furious. He thought the Brittany trip was holiday enough, but my mother, as usual, won for me and off I went. Their little cottage was on a hillside in Lamlash, near Whiting Bay and Brodick. The whole island was ten miles wide, completely unspoilt and belonged to the Duke of Argyll. McNicol and I and Richardson, another of our schoolfriends, walked all over, and up Goat Fell, its only mountain. They had their own little rowing boat, which developed a leak on a day when we visited the lighthouse giving us a rather anxious journey home, with Mrs McNicol at the helm. Bill had a brother and sister, Ian and Jean, both younger than him, and an adopted brother, Mac, the same age as Ian. They were all with us for the holiday. Mr McNicol turned up once and said that it was the only time he could remember being able to see right across Scotland: it was the time of the great miners' strike in 1920, some years before the General Strike, and the air was completely clear. We had a glorious time. In the morning, we took turns swimming long distances followed by the boat, then home for a wonderful lunch or tea with the best scones I've ever tasted in my life. I would have them all in hysterics reading aloud from Tchekhov stories. One of them was about a man who had a dog that he lets swallow food, tied to a piece of string, which he then pulls up from its stomach. Everyone found it very funny. The weather was magnificent the whole month we were there.

One moonlight night, I went for a stroll with the old man. We ended up high on the hillside watching a little sailboat sailing across the bay in the moonlight and I suddenly realised how sad it must have been for him to have this short interlude of a few days in his miserable, scruffy, plodding existence collecting two shilling pieces in the mining towns.

We hear a lot about culture shock. I think that Bill suffered from it. He came to live in London several years later. I was already there and my friends all began to laugh at the way he talked. His version of a posh accent was so extreme that it was funny. Plus royaliste que le roi. To be an actor in those days, I was forced to get rid of my accent. I overdid it, too, and when I left the drama school, I sounded silly.

Bill had a job as a draughtsman in an architect's office. He was a very good draughtsman. He got seven pounds a week and was sharing a flat in Baron's Court with three other young architects. They were all against him when he married his fiancee, a nurse. He always seemed to be hard up.

In 1930, on my first return from America after a couple of years, during which Louise and I had got married, we stayed in a flat that Bill had found for us, possibly in Kensington. After one year trying to get a living in the theatre in London, I decided to return to America. Although I had worked every week, I had had to dip into my savings of $1,000, to eke out my average three pounds a week earnings. Wonderful notices but not enough to live on. When we got down to $250, it was time to clear out to where we could manage to live. We booked steerage. In New York the immigration people examined Louise's hair for lice. I think it was a very low point in her life. As usual, she never uttered a word of complaint, despite being a born American.

On our last morning in London before we got up, the phone never stopped ringing. I felt sure no one else would be trying to get through to us but Bill. He had asked me to lend him some money, but I wouldn't hear of it: our income had been less than half his and I felt it had been very unfair of him to ask, so when we left the flat the phone was still ringing.

In 1950, on our second return from America, I went into a pub in Marylebone High Street and saw Bill McNicol's father - no, how could it be, I realised a second later, he'd been dead for years, but this apparition could have been his twin. Of course, it was Bill. He recognised me. Maybe he was equally shocked but he didn't show it. He began talking about the state of the country and soon showed me that he was blaming his personal failure on left-wing society, thinking that everyone else shared his opinions. The same thing happened when I got in touch with Jean and her husband, Ralph Anderson. I cycled over with my son one Sunday morning to their flat in Surbiton, but we left after a few minutes of his right-wing views which were too extreme for me. After that, I phoned Jean once or twice and last time I spoke to her she delighted me by telling me she still remembered the delicious taste of my mother's apple pies. I asked after Bill and was sorry to hear what she had to tell me - that he had died some time ago. She told me how upsetting it had been for her to see him going to pieces, and the final scene was the worst. Old Mrs McNicol died tragically, hit by a tram. She was deaf and had become slightly senile and would go out on her own. Bill went up to Manchester for the funeral and got raving drunk. He picked up the poker and blamed them all for her death.

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