Having toyed with the question for a few days, we decided at the last minute (after some head scratching from Liam, Stephen and Colin and a few expletives from Tom) to wait till we got to the airport.
And so it was, that on the morning of May 3rd, we found ourselves having coffee and a fry-up in the departures area of Dublin airport. Fez's carefully packed and the Tent banner folded and stored, ready for hanging on the wall of the dining room as per tradition. As we sat and drank our coffee and moaned about the price of the sausages, a theme began to emerge.. laughter! We had begun to laugh and it wasn’t going to stop until Monday afternoon when we were to finally separate after spending the entire weekend in each other's pockets.
We chuckled on the tiny Aer Arann propeller plane as she bobbed about in the air and if anyone suffered from a fear of flying it sure didn't show. Arriving in Southend airport, we quickly exited and took the 5-minute taxi ride to the hotel, eager to be settled and see who was about. Sons of the Desert were casually wandering about enjoying the vintage car and motorbike display that had been laid on for us. As we took in the sights of these marvellous vehicles, we spotted Jeffery Holland (Spike from Hi de Hi), walking about with his lovely wife, actress Judy Buxton. Special guests for the weekend and at the mercy of the Sons, we had a chat and a photo and they were thrilled to meet the boys from Ireland. Familiar faces arrived and we renewed our acquaintance with Sons from Holland, Britain, Belgium and the USA.
Beers at the bar and we took up residence at the back of the dining room. Stephen had negotiated a ladder from a member of the hotel staff and our banner took over the back wall. Our old friend Voodoo from New Jersey and the boys from Bradford joined us. Gary Winstanley and Tony Traynor made up the rest of the table and we were off. Our hosts, the Saps at Sea Tent introduced Jeffery and Judy and also descendants of Fred Karno and The Lonsdale sisters, who had played on the bill in Southend with L&H.
We enjoyed our meal and an odd beer (!) and were entertained by L&H lookalikes and a revue show that ended with a fabulous ventriloquist that we unfortunately missed deciding to move out to the bar area! Our first mistake! We sat at our table in the foyer and Sons passed and stopped for a chat, the most memorable being Phil Rushton who entertained us with his jokes that usually resulted in groans rather than laughter. More beers and fun and laughter and we eventually retired to our four man room in the small hours.
What followed when we got there was nothing short of the best laughter I have ever enjoyed! I knew we all got on really well but the hour before bed as we drank coffee and tea and talked and joked was amazing. Chuckles, guffaws, and a night I will never forget.
We woke early on Saturday morning. I say we as in Colin, Stephen and myself. Tom already had a day's work done by the time we awoke, early riser that he is. Breakfast was enjoyed in its artery clogging entirety with a small scare the night before when Roger Robinson told us that two days previous to us arriving, the hotel were only offering a continental style breakfast! I could not imagine the faces of the Sons as they arrived to breakfast and the only thing on offer was healthy fruit and breads!
Boarding the buses for Kent and the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch railway, we were warned by our (Un)Officials to make sure we came back on the same bus.. colour coded of course. We were on the yellow bus but the question was still asked (Sons style), many times.. "what colour is the bus".
The railway is a miniature steam locomotive that takes its passengers on a trip around the Kent countryside and coast and was famously opened by Stan and Ollie in 1947. After a squashed carriage ride in the company of Voodoo, we arrived at Romney in a frozen state, due to the fact that the idea we had of taking an open carriage seemed like a good idea at the time. Until we departed the station that is, because that's when the weather suddenly turned cold and wet! However, we made it and the town of New Romney had turned out to greet us, including the mayor himself. A small parade of Tents, with banners aloft meant the local papers got their photos and everyone was happy.
Just time for a re-enactment of the opening of the railway with the Laurel and Hardy lookalikes and we boarded the train again for the last bit of the journey to Dungeness. We wisely took a closed carriage this time but ended up leaving the door open for the journey, due to the claustrophobia that an entire closure brought about!
We were entertained that night by a great sketch entitled "The Nine Wives of Laurel and Hardy". This was superbly acted and sung and we all agreed it was a great opener for the night. It was followed by the music of The Zoltans and the Fancy dress. No Jitterbugs entrants but the deserved winners were the boys from the Dirty Work Tent, who naturally played the chimney sweeps..
We retired once more to our spot in the hotel foyer and had one more for the desert! Ok maybe two!! Laughter and guffaws a plenty, we were told at one point by some of our Dutch friends that we were too loud! Kettle, pot and black come to mind!
It's funny what a little laughter and booze will do to a Son of the Desert. We were sitting beside the automatic doors of the hotel and every time someone entered or left, the doors would of course automatically open.. We thought it was absolutely hilarious when this happened and we waved our hands at the same time pretending we were Jedi Knights using The Force to open the door.. Yeah, I know!
Another laugh filled hour before bed as we sat once more in our room and chuckled and then chuckled some more.
Sunday morning came round quickly and Tom was AWOL at 7am. The rest of us dressed and readied for breakfast when Tom showed up, mission accomplished! You see Stephen happened to have his birthday that particular day and a text from Mrs. O'C the day before ensured that we were prepared to make the best of it. Tom had purchased the cake as part of his early morning manouveres and our plan was coming along nicely.
Breakfast enjoyed and we took part in the games, Tom did dismally at the golf and Liam did equally dismally at the paper plane throw.. The hotel foyer was besieged by the Sons as Louise Murchison had set up a great display of Fred Karno memorabilia. Liam, being a bit of a Fred fan was delighted to see original documents relating to the great man and having a photo with Louise was a highlight.
We boarded the coaches for Southend and took the short trip to see the Palace Inn Hotel where the Boys famously stood on the balcony. Photos taken, we decided not to stay for the film show but choosing instead to partake of the seafront fun park and the joy of the roller coaster. What a thrill it was. Wind in my hair, loop the loop and a great funfair feeling.. Ok, I lie.. Liam and Tom stayed on terra-firma and left Colin and Stephen to entertain the crowds with their screaming and shouting as loop the loop and freefall filled them up.
Now when in Southend on Sea, what could be better than some good old fish and chips on the seafront? What indeed.. how about some jolly fine weather? 24 degrees!!! WOW... We sat outside a fine establishment and treated the birthday boy to lunch, fish and chips x 4!
We joined the rest of the conventioneers at the Naval and Military Club, where the Saps at Sea hold their monthly meetings. Some fine ales were taken and we sat in the sun and shade and enjoyed more laughing and a relaxing afternoon, before taking the coaches back to the hotel and taking part in the convention quiz.. Hmmm! We were doing quite well until we took the wrong turn at somewhere along the way?? Laughter ensued when scorekeeper Janice announced our score after round one, as the "JITTERBUGGERS", Janice now has sole copyright on the name and we are having our banner changed! ("We don't think"). More study for the Jitterbugs next year.
Pre-dinner beers and we sat down for the last time to enjoy a Sons feast and a spot of trouble for Stephen. Tom announced his birthday and Stephen was invited front and centre to be presented with his birthday cake and the wishes of 150 Sons of the Desert.. The look I received as he left the table is forever etched in my brain and his promise of a resignation still stands.. I think.. All taken in good fun.
A Q&A with Jeffrey Holland and Judy Buxton and Colin took the spotlight on behalf of the Jitterbugs and had his questions answered admirably. We then enjoyed some magic from our L&H lookalikes before the Sons entertain began with some fine acts providing an array of fun and laughter..
We adjourned once more to the foyer and played laughter and fun and Jedi door opening once more and found it as funny as ever. Voodoo, Nick, Dave, and many Sons were delighted to join us and we laughed into the small hours. Bedtime came and we were sad to go to sleep because we knew that the end was near.
Next morning, we woke, packed, and had breakfast. Being the only room in the hotel with a balcony provided us with a bird's eye view of Sons packing their cars and leaving the convention. All four of us stood, waved and shouted obscenities at those below, and enjoyed our last few hours amongst our fellow friends. All too soon, time passed and we hugged and shook hands with everyone we could before the taxi arrived and we said farewell to The Skylark Hotel. ("All Aboard the Skylark")
We checked in and proceeded to the gate and had a final coffee and then readied ourselves to board. From the corner of my eye, I saw Anton, Bram, and more of our Dutch friends, arriving for their flight. More handshakes and goodbyes and a farewell from Bram who shouted after us as we left the terminal building.. "We wanted to make sure you left!"
Dublin arrived and we bade farewell to each other. I don't know about the rest of the boys but I have been to a good few conventions and I can honestly say that Southend-on-Sea was the best.. Great fun, company and laughter. Here's to Manchester 2014..
Our thanks to all the Saps for a great weekend.. Brilliantly organised and run.. Paul, Roger, Dave, Ray, Rita, Paul, Janet, Melanie, Debbie, Jim and all our friends.