… Bill, Remembrance and Barcelona Brothels

Bill up the road died last month.

He was 91.

I’d always liked Bill, not least because he used to swear at me in front of my mother.

“Morning, Mr. Taylor” I’d shout out on the way to school.

“Now there’s a cheeky young bastard!” he’d reply, not looking round.

Bill had been in the RAF after the second world war. Maybe the SAS.

He never spoke about it to me.

I read later in the school old boys’ magazine that he never spoke about it to anyone.

He went into computers in the days when a computer took up a whole floor of your building.  He’d lived in the USA and visited 48 of the 50 states.  When we asked him why he’d never completed the set he said there was nothing he wanted to see in North Dakota or Hawaii. 

He didn’t feel the need to complete the set. 

He didn’t need our approval.

Bill spoke to everyone the same.

When I was doing door to door shoeshines for the cub scouts, age maybe about ten, he had the financial pages of Ceefax on his TV (imagine the internet but worse, kids) and explained his stocks and shares picking strategy with me.  Picture a pensioner in a golf jumper advising a small boy in a cub uniform how to follow fund managers.

Sometimes when you walked past his house at night you’d see him in his front room, playing the piano with a glass of wine on top of it and plumes of blue smoke from a full ashtray.  Bill had met Frank Sinatra a few times.  There were no showbusiness anecdotes.  Bill had found him disappointing.

He hadn’t needed Sinatra’s approval either.

When I was a medical student, I went to Barcelona for a week in the holidays.

Hearing about this, and sensing a kindred spirit, Mr. Taylor disappeared into his house and came out with a battered phrase book he’d used when he had hitch-hiked the same trip as a student at Oxford.

The years hadn’t been kind to the phrase book.

My favourite entries were the Spanish for “See here!  You’ve put too much starch in these shirts!” and the slightly more sinister “If you show me a good time I will pay you well.”

Do remember, though, that these were the days that most Englishmen Abroad simply spoke in English a bit louder, shouting the most important word twice.  TWICE!

“Just ignore the phone numbers at the back.” he apologised.  Then a pause.  “That said, they might have some granddaughters about the right age now.”


“And what we found was the cleanest, cheapest places to stay were the brothels.  But don’t tell your mother I said that.”

Two minutes later…

“Mum!  Mr Taylor says I’m to stay in the brothels!”

Times change.

And I’m going to risk an observation here.

Not funny, but true.

When I started work as a GP in the 1990s old people would bang on about the war or national service.

In the early 2000s older patients would sometimes refer to or reminisce about their war experiences.

Now I have a few frail, elderly patients, maybe wearing their Burma Stars or speaking in eastern European accents, who will hint at memories that have shaped them, scarred them and still haunt them seventy years later.

I’ve not rushed one of these patients telling me their story in surgery for a decade, because I realise these are the last of a breed and their stories are who they are.

There are some things a ten minute GP appointment won’t cover, and if you’re next, you’ll just have to wait a little longer.

GPs of my generation have had, what I only realise in retrospect, the privilege of caring for these men and women in their old age.

They have grown old. 

Age has wearied them.

So, a raised glass of red to Mr Taylor, and the rest of this fading generation.

I shall continue to give you back chat, Sir, and continue to be – and I suspect you’d approve of the last word in this tribute – a cheeky young bastard.

12 thoughts on “… Bill, Remembrance and Barcelona Brothels

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