Excerpt for 1969. A Year in a Life by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


A Year in a Life

by Simon Andrewes

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 Simon Andrewes

Smashwords Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment. It may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share it with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading it and did not purchase it, or if it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favourite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the work of the author.

I am particularly grateful to Tony Hale of Erdington, Birmingham for reading my manuscript so conscientiously and giving me such invaluable feedback on early drafts.

List of Contents.

Chapter 1 (January-February):

Moon in the Seventh House

Chapter 2 (March-April):

A Good Man, and Full of the Holy Ghost, and of Faith

Chapter 3 (May-June):

Sleepy London Town

Chapter 4 (July-August):

Like A Hurricane

Chapter 5 (September):

Time’s Winged Chariot

Chapter 6 (October-November-December):

My Hasting Days Fly On

Appendix. Playlist

About the Author

Chapter 1. Moon in the Seventh House

When the moon is in the Seventh House

And Jupiter aligns with Mars

Then peace will guide the planets

And love will steer the stars

This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius ...

Fifth Dimension Medley Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In. The Age of Aquarius. 1969.

Actually, I was furious. What a way to start the New Year. I had night duty starting at midnight on 31 December 1968. It wasn’t that it was bad luck, it was downright unfair. Night duty came round about three times a year at the BOAC Victoria Air Terminal, and I had done the last of my three stints for 1968 at the end of October. But that was the trouble with working with women. They had their wily ways. One whose turn it was was ill. Another had cleverly booked a holiday at the last minute. And another had special dispensation for womanly reasons. That was the same one who could never do door duty on Departures. Door duty involved escorting passengers from the terminal building to the coach that would take them to the airport. You had to stand all morning out in a draughty courtyard, cold at the best of times and near unbearable those days, frequent, with a biting wintry wind. With her special dispensation, and being on my team, one of the few males, the chances were always high that I would be picked to substitute her. Which I would do, with an indignant toss of the head and jerk of the shoulder.

Anyway, I was the sucker who got roped in for night duty on the one night of the year that everyone hoped to get off, - and most were forward-thinking enough to make sure they did. I was determined to make the most of my misfortune. With a couple of flatmates and close friends, I set about making sure their celebration at least got off to a good start, - and that my post-midnight suffering would be borne with the least possible pain. In short, that involved quaffing a good deal and a wide variety of the highest quality alcohol over, under the circumstances, a strictly limited period of time: champagne, Tia Maria, Cointreau ... This short but intense drinking session culminated in what Tania called ‘champagne cocktails’ which consisted of two measures of Moet & Chandon and one of Remy Martin. We had a fair few of those before I left for work.

Tania was the one among us who knew most about living, high living. She was a Londoner, to start with, her family of immigrant origin, like most Londoners I ever got to know in those years. Hers came originally from Jordan, but Tania was a thoroughbred Londoner, of the more sophisticated sort. Her father was a Harley Street physician, which will give you an idea as to how different her background was from ours. He had disowned her when she started living with my closest friend, Mick, who, like me, was a northerner, provincial by birth and, we both agreed, unfortunately by mentality. Too right he was in disapproving of his daughter shacking up with a pleb, said Mick. I’d have done the same. We were both keen to overcome our birth curse, Mick and I. And had been working on it for a number of years.

A third of us council-estate provincials there that night was Roger, up in town for the occasion. He had, since we last met, become closely attached to a Czech girl he had met travelling in Italy, around the time when Russian tanks snuffed out the Prague Spring the previous summer. Although I had heard a lot about her, I met her for the first time that evening. Marta. She had a broad plump face, with two unplaited pigtails, high on each side of her head, and a wide, cheerful and disarming smile. Not very sixties-ish, we agreed.

Then there was Britt, whose father was Norwegian but who had spent most of her life living with her separated English mum in bedsits in the Victoria area. In the shadow of the cathedral. She, mother, was a devout Catholic. Britt was my long suffering girlfriend. She barely respected but certainly did not understand her mother’s conversion to Catholicism after her separation from Britt’s father. She took it as an act of retaliation, or defiance, directed at her father’s Protestant-leaning agnosticism.

And at the point when I take up this narration, I felt there was a lot about myself that Britt could barely understand or respect, too. It had started shortly before Christmas, when I phoned her at work from my job on the Victoria Air Terminal Arrivals Desk. They had there a manual with every flight of every airline everywhere in the world! Listen, I said to Britt, about our honeymoon, we could fly to, and there we could get a connecting flight to, and after that there were a couple of possibilities. All these flights for me, as BOAC employee, as well as for Britt, as my wife, would be free or nearly so. Britt was seriously unimpressed. What are you planning a honeymoon for, when we can barely afford the wedding? was her pragmatic reaction. It ended with me taking on an extra job in my free time over the Christmas period as barman in a pub called The Red House half way between Sloane Square and the Air Terminal. It bore that name, I believe, as proud purveyor of the top selling bland contemporary fizzy-frothy keg bitter classic Watney’s Red Barrel. It was not, anyway, a red house.

There were three more people there that night: two of my flatmates, Bob and Brad, and Brad’s girlfriend Jan. Bob had just got back from Singapore, where he had flown to meet up with a woman he was in some kind of relationship with. She had recently gone back home to Australia after completing her two-year stint in SW5. They agreed to meet over Christmas at roughly the midway point between them. Bob was also a BOAC employee and so eligible for standby passenger seats at give-away prices, and he had just literally flown ten thousand kilometres for a dinner date. Well, a dinner and bed date.

Meanwhile, Jan, we learnt that same night, had just dropped a bombshell by telling Brad that she had arranged for an interview at Canada House and her plans to emigrate to Canada were advancing steadily; she reckoned she would be welcoming spring across the pond. Jan’s bombshell was clearly a gauntlet thrown down to Brad, but he shrugged it off, took it in his stride. He boasted how, whenever he got to know a girl he would always go out with her even if he didn’t find her particularly attractive. That way you get to meet her flatmates. That’s how I started going out with Jan, he told us all. Jan grinned ruefully in acknowledgement of the truth of Brad’s swaggering confession. He seemed to be implying it was a policy he would continue with, post-Jan.

Jan was a tomboyish sort of girl, with short naturally blond hair and a sort of natural low-key bisexual charm. Brad was a bold and brash Eastender with a loud voice and bushy eyebrows. A car salesman. A man from the motor trade, as he liked to call himself. And very masculine, with a strong jawline. A macho, an alpha male, in his self-ironising way. They made an odd couple on first impression.

None of us gave Jan much encouragement with her emigration plans. Apart from its cold climate, Canada was a country that somehow fell between two stools. The Americans considered Canadians as little more than sub-standard Brits, while to us they were failed Americans.

Jan, though, had been devouring the propaganda. The great job opportunities. The lifestyle and standard of living there for people like us was so far superior to ours that it was hard to imagine. Then there was the stunningly grandiose scenery of mountains, pine forests, lakes and raging rivers. Think of the Prairies, and the Canadian Pacific, crossing a continent. The Great Lakes, and the Rocky Mountains. All this conjured up visions of a vast and extensive sparsely populated geographical area, welcoming immigrants from an overcrowded island like ours with open arms. And with the best standards of affordable healthcare and education in the world, to boot.

And if winters in Canada were on the chilly side, so what? said Jan. There was also spacious and comfortable housing that was designed and well-equipped for dealing with those low temperatures.

Well, Jan had obviously done her homework, - or been brainwashed. We would wait and see what happened at her upcoming interview. Maybe she would not be accepted. Maybe she would not go through with it. It was only a dream.

In spite of Jan’s bombshell, Marta was more the centre of attraction that evening, because she was new in our circle, and because of her status of being recently exiled from her home country. Involuntary political exile was not something we had much experience of in our circles. She told us her story. She had finished her secondary education the previous summer and was enjoying the period of relaxed political controls in her country to travel abroad, through Europe, before returning to Prague to study languages at university. She was going back to major in English, she said, the language that for her seemed to encapsulate best that all-pervading spirit of freedom and opportunity that infused the life and thinking of her generation. Something like that. She had been in Italy on 21 August when the tanks rolled in to crush the unwittingly innocent attempt to construct socialism with a human face.

She had at first just postponed her return to Prague and then she had met Roger who persuaded her to visit him in England. It was a totally unexpected opportunity for her to improve her knowledge of the language prior to university. Did Roger persuade her, or did she herself come to the conclusion that returning to Czechoslovakia was not the best option, at least for the time being? The answer to that question was left open, but either way the new year started with her still in England and sharing her life with an Englishman, another provincial northerner, albeit another one with still intact cosmopolitan aspirations.

Marta’s story was hard for us to take in, even though it coincided quite closely with the news we had seen and heard and read in the course of the previous year. Before the clampdown, she had just been getting accustomed to what it was like to be able to think and speak and breathe freely, as she put it. But while she had been away from home, hundreds of ordinary people just like you and me had been killed, among them people she knew by sight or by name, maybe not intimate friends, but brothers and sisters in struggle. Liberal-leaning politicians, Communist Party leaders by necessity, had been arrested and carted off to Moscow, where who-knew-what fate awaited them. Thousands had resisted with passion and anger, but within a short time a ban had been imposed on all parties and organisations which, in officialese, ‘violated socialist principles’. In other words, the dictatorship of the state Communist Party had been restored and the struggle for freedom temporarily defeated. Marta would go back when the time was right to advance that drive for liberty and human dignity that she knew was not to be held back.

The events that Marta had lived through were barely imaginable for us, expressed in a language we were not accustomed to. It seemed to us unfair that the totalitarian regime in Russia would not let Czechoslovakia be free and it touched us in as far as it affected Marta so directly, but we had our freedom, and London, as everybody knew, had been swinging for the best part of a decade now, and we were sure we could carve out our future for ourselves pretty much as we liked, socialism or no socialism. Anyway, my concerns were rather more immediate that night.

I left the flat in SW5 far too late and reluctantly at about twenty to twelve, leaving my companions in high spirits and raring to go. I had realistically no chance of getting to work by twelve, but, it so happened that I walked out of my front door and stepped straight into a passing taxi. At twenty to twelve on New Year’s Eve! That made me feel hysterically euphoric. On account of my state of inebriation, no doubt. Within the circumstances of my misfortune, everything went right for me, everything that happened in my little world was revolving around me at its centre. With perfect timing, I swept into the air terminal in Victoria and took up my post on the dot of midnight. By accident or design I had rather a cushy job for the first part of the evening: giving out announcements over the tannoy, mostly about the arrival of coaches bringing in passengers from the last of the evening’s flights that had landed at Heathrow. This was the BOAC Air Terminal, you know, across and down the road from Victoria Coach Station. Later in the year we would go up on the roof of that building to see the supersonic airliner Concorde fly over London for the first, maybe only, time.

Anyway, the New Year started with me feverishly high on the effects of some magical chemical combination of alcoholic treats. I cockily believed I could dissimulate it well, but looking back I doubt very much that could have been the case. I imagined I was earning heaps of admiration from my fellow workers by addressing the public over the tannoy one moment and then switching the switch to off while I poured abuse on my superiors and mocked them mercilessly with a wit I sadly lacked when sober. Did nobody out there notice anything, a slur in my speech, as I read out the announcements? At one point the duty officer came into the office we called the control room and gave me a long hard piercing look. But I was unbreachable and she neither said nor did anything more.

Within an hour or so anyway the arrival coaches were all in and our job was to prepare the flights for the following morning. It was boring paperwork and gradually my elation wore off as I dealt with the grim routine of office duty in the duty office. From then on it was just a question of getting through the night. We had the chance to sleep for a while before preparing for the morning shift take-over and at seven we were released into the chilly early hours of the New Year, 1969.

When I got back Britt was already asleep, the revelries had ended for her quite early. She was not at the peak of health, I knew. But I was alarmed when she asked me to accompany her to Westminster Hospital the following day for a chest x-ray.

Why? I asked helplessly.

Why do people go for chest x-rays? I can still hear the exasperation in her voice. She was more than usually irritable, irritated by me, as she so often seemed to be of late. I remembered once how she got extraordinarily angry with me when I didn’t take her question about the right way to treat frostbite seriously. Warm the affected part, of course, but how? Rubbing? Are you crazy? Rubbing is likely to make it worse! Rubbing can cause ice crystals that have formed to do irreparable damage to the tissue. So what would you do? I was losing my patience, we were both losing our patience, and I was also embarrassed by my ignorance. It was obviously something I needed to know if we were going to live in cold Norway – which I really didn’t think was all that likely. Britt persisted. OK, warm the affected part, but how, quickly or slowly? The answer was as quickly as possible but with lots of provisos, but I got it wrong. Sorry, the correct treatment of frostbite, just like political exile, was neither in my field of experience nor that of acquired knowledge.

Just as it simply wasn’t in my field of experience for people to go to hospital, for any reason, never mind for something as ominous-sounding as a chest x-ray. Then she told me the news she had been holding back. Yes, she had her own bombshell to drop. She had been diagnosed as having TB, tuberculosis. It was, they conjectured, the result of a visit to the west coast of Norway we had made the previous summer. They told her there was a high incidence rate of the disease there, a proposition I found astonishing in view of the evident purity of the air there and scarcity of anything like heavy industries. The incidence of TB was associated with the pulp and paper industry, they said, the presence of which I had noted nothing in the part of west Norway where we were.

Be that as it may, Britt could be assured that she would receive the best possible treatment at the chest clinic. She would be ok. They had discovered the infection early and it was curable. In my case, there was a chance of contagion, as I understood it. It had to be checked for, more as a precaution than anything else. We would be all right. I’m sure I haven’t caught TB from you, I told her. How do you know? she asked angrily, aggressively. We bickered about it for a bit and I ended up saying that I bet she would feel disappointed if she had not infected me. Where did it come from, that petty malicious thought? Why did we always argue over trivialities? How long had it been going on?

So the following day she accompanied me for my x-ray check-up and the day after that she was admitted to hospital. Westminster Hospital was just a hop, step and a skip from the BOAC Air Terminal. I would visit her every day as long as she stayed there, apart from the days that I had an afternoon shift: Visitors were not allowed in the morning. And except for the one day when I had promised to visit my mother in Cambridge, I would miss that one. And except for the days when I was preparing for and then taking my GCE A Level in Spanish, starting with the oral exam on Tuesday the 7th. That day I had swapped my morning shift for an afternoon shift, two till midnight.

I had been studying Spanish A Level at night school because it was my intention to try and get into university that autumn, to do something with languages. This had been my goal for over a year, but I was not convinced it was a realistic one. The results I had from school six years previously were not good enough to secure me university entrance. I had scraped bare passes, ‘E’s, in French and German. Not a great achievement to end my secondary education with. I had followed that up with an E in Spanish the previous summer. Perhaps ‘E’s marked the absolute limit to my academic-intellectual capacity, I thought.

I had come to the conclusion a couple of years ago that my career, if that was what it was supposed to be, in export was not leading me anywhere I wanted to be. So I had quit my job in the export division of H J Heinz Ltd, where I did the paperwork for shipping baked beans and stuff to British colonies and ex-colonies in Africa, and moved to BOAC, lured by the cheap flights I heard you could get as an employee. Standby seats at 10% of their face value! And if my academic aspirations came to nought I had a Plan B. Get a job as an air steward and dedicate myself to travelling the world. In fact, I was interviewed for that post a few days after the Spanish Oral, successfully as it turned out.

Britt had encouraged me in my academic aspirations from the start, hoping to see me as a potential husband make something more of myself. She saw me as a state school teacher in a small fjord-side town on the west coast of Norway. She saw us living in a spacious and comfortable house with a modern utilitarian design and a view across the fjords. Enjoying high status in the local community. She showed me photos of typical state school teacher houses. One of Britt’s obsessions, one that I never understood, was to choose a set of cutlery for our future matrimonial home.

Britt had very clear ideas about what this cutlery set should be like and it was evidently very important for her. It had to be of a traditional Norwegian design, with intricately decorated handles, and none of this plain functional modern Scandinavian stuff, which was actually Danish, she said. Decorative retro designs based on popular rural art styles were very much in vogue among the middle classes in 1960s Norway, so Britt was able to show me catalogues with a wide selection of different styles, only they all looked pretty much the same to me.

The styles were all a sort of Norwegianised baroque, or rococo, I can never remember the difference. Which is the very busy style, with a lot going on at the same time? Baroque? Well, these were baroque then, with lots of ornamental scrollwork and complex interwoven geometrical elements and plant-inspired flowing patterns. Rosemaling-influenced, if you know what that is. Many of them were, it suddenly occurred to me, a micro two-dimensional equivalent of the lavish carvings you might see in stave churches, if that makes sense.

‘Which ones do you prefer?’ Britt asked me. I sensed it was important for her that I choose, and choose right: the same design that she liked. Choosing right would help demonstrate our compatibility and go some way towards cancelling out our frequent differences of opinion and attitude. More than that, our joint choice of cutlery would symbolise our standing as a respectable teacher family in her fjord-side home town. This was all so tiresome and unreal for me. For one thing, I did not want to become a teacher even if I could, which I doubted, and certainly not one in her remote fjord-side home town; that is, the town where her father was from and now lived. Secondly, I was BOAC groundstaff with a handful of O-levels and three Es at A-, and it was not certain I would ever get into university, or teacher-training college for that matter. And thirdly, I did not speak Norwegian, which seemed to be a weird and wondrously put-together and impossible-to-learn variant of a mythical north European language with roots that went straight back to the Middle Ages, if not to the Vikings.

But I did want to go to university and make something more of myself, and the deeper motivating drive for me came from the feeling that I was missing out on something, not having gone to university, being deprived of an experience some of my friends made sound appealing and rewarding. University life would make me a more complete person. And increase my social status, sure. It would be, in itself, both rewarding and fun.

So for the first three weeks of 1969, I popped in to see Britt after my morning shifts and on many of my days off. At BOAC, we worked two mornings, two late shifts, two mornings, and then three days off. So I went to see her about six days out of nine, and considered myself a loyal friend and fiancé, willing to make something of a personal sacrifice for her. Was it enough? My social life carried on without her, but I was 100% faithful to her. Was it enough? I thought so. But often on those hospital visits I could feel she was angry with me. Maybe not exactly angry, but I felt very clearly that she was disappointed in me; I did not live up to her expectations. Whatever I did, it wasn’t enough. She never said so, in so many words, and I couldn’t lay my finger on it. At first.

At around four o'clock on 16 January in Prague, a Czech student about the same age as Marta, stood outside the National Museum in Wenceslas Square, poured petrol over himself, and set himself alight. Ablaze, he ran across the square and then collapsed by the side of the road, where someone, a transport worker, mercifully threw his coat over him and extinguished the flames. In vain. The student was rushed by ambulance to the nearby hospital burns unit, but with third-degree burns covering a good part of his body there was little they could do. He died three days later and the name Jan Palach became a symbol of the resistance of idealistic youth to the oppressive rule of a faceless totalitarianism.

Palach’s self-immolation triggered a huge demonstration, which was subdued by the police in the usual, universal and time-honoured way.

On 21 January Britt was transferred from the hospital in Westminster to a sanatorium, high up on the South Downs, originally built by King Edward VII: for the poorer middle classes, I read somewhere, so just the right place for us. In the clean and somewhat rarified, unpolluted air the Downs were noted for, a regime of rest, moderate exercise and an appropriate diet, together with a course of antibiotics, would nurse early-stage consumptive patient Britt back to full health.

I was in the middle of taking my Spanish exam, three papers on different days. But the following weekend, on the weekend that the funeral was held for Jan Palach in Prague, I went to see her. It was a beautiful setting, parklands landscaped in the middle of a pine forest, though it did reek of hospital. Britt would be there for at least six months and if everything went well, and there was no reason why it shouldn’t, she would be out and in the clear well in time for her twenty-second birthday, on 31 August.

It was just a few days later, on the last day of January, that I had an interview at University College London. Of my six permitted choices for a place on a course of undergraduate study I had put down on my application form, two were for Spanish, two were for Linguistics, and two were for Scandinavian Studies. Scandinavian for two reasons. It was easier to get in, they said. And secondly, although Britt had weak and somewhat ambivalent links to her Scandinavian heritage, she did occasionally speak Norwegian with her mother; when there was a secret or personal matter she did not wish to share, maybe. This of course made me feel excluded and drove me to want to unravel the mysteries of the language and in those early weeks of the New Year I did, in fact, enrol in a course at night school and set about tackling the rudiments of modern Norwegian.

As soon as I entered the University College courtyard leading off Torrington Place, rather than via the main entrance to the Wilkins Building, I felt intimidated by the whole physical presence of University College London. The old halls, the old walls, the oldness and sobriety of the place. I found it all alien and oppressive. And unmistakeably hostile towards me.

University College London had been standing for, what? some 140 years? It was a manifestation of an ethos of bourgeois liberalism, going back to the earliest days of the Victorian Age. Now, at the end of the 1960s, this ethos was surely defunct, approaching if not past its expiry date. The College’s old walls wilted under the weight of a moribund tradition. The department of Scandinavian studies, with its pre-modern medieval orientation, was claustrophobic enough in itself. But the epitome of UCL’s suffocating claustrophobia were the gloomy cloisters on either side of the Octagon, hard to avoid, being part of the main thoroughfare through the College. On the south side of the south cloisters, the side nearest to the Scandinavian Department, hidden away in a dark corner, lurked the stuffed dummy, or, as they preferred to call it, the auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham, the ultimate symbol of tradition as necrosis and decay.

Jeremy Bentham was in his time a political radical but by the 1960s his auto-icon should surely have been a meaningless waste of space, if not yet an environmental hazard. He died about the time that University College London was being born and the association between the two seemed to hold UCL in a time warp-eddy of the 1830s. The auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham is a Victorian wooden booth containing the philosopher’s skeleton and head, with the skeleton padded out with hay and dressed in what were purported to be the man’s original clothes, and with the head being modelled in wax, with some of Bentham's own hair glued on. In this gruesome setting the macabre icon-monster is kept on public display presumably in an attempt to deform the psychological mindset of the college’s staff and students.

Looking around as I waited for my interview it occurred to me that the set-up I found myself in was in some ways parallel to a court of law, where socially established old men decided over the fates of the young, of those with fewer grounds for complacency, of those who did not yet know for certain on which side their bread was buttered. My fate was in their hands. They, as yet faceless, were gatekeepers and they bade me ill from the beginning, and I knew it, and I stood powerless before them.

In fact, the two men who interviewed me were not that old. One was a middle-aged professor, a leading light in his field, an achievement that, to be unkind, may have seemed less extraordinary when one considered how little tradition existed in the field of Scandinavian studies. But nevertheless he was an outstanding academic and worthy of admiration, I am sure, although I could never ever warm to him after what happened on this day. The other man was probably around the same age as me, one of a certain extraordinary breed whose knowledge was based on an intelligence and an ease of learning that came naturally to them, requiring minimal effort on their part, built on a minimum of experience, and thus making it impossible for them to empathise with their less gifted, less privileged peers. For a prejudice-laden mortal like myself, mesmerised by the gaze-sneer of such a naturally superior being, it was impossible not to feel ultra-sensitive to the sting of the unwittingly dealt out lashes inflicted by the whip of his obnoxious arrogance.

The youngish middle-aged professor obviously adored his talented protégé and let him conduct most of the interview, which seemed to be focused on finding out my weaknesses and flaws, both those of character and those of an academic nature. The professor watched on and let his intellectual gladiator rip me mercilessly to shreds. Although, to be fair, I do not deny my own contribution to the debacle.

The worst part was when, after some discussion in which I had failed to give a true impression of my boundless curiosity, my inquisitive mind and my eagerness to learn, the young genius asked me what Scandinavian literature had I actually read, then? I answered Ibsen’s ‘The Wild Duck’? Oh why, oh why? I had heard of it but never seen or read it, nor did I know the least thing about the play or its venerable author. The only Scandinavian author I knew anything about was Hans Christian Andersen. I knew a number of the fairy stories and had even seen the film with Danny Kaye in it with my mum on a rainy day in Hull. But I didn’t think Hans Christian Andersen would have counted as worthy of academic literature at UCL. So I didn’t go with that. In fact, the first thing that came into my head after the Danish storyteller, was Ibsen’s ‘The Doll’s House’, obviously much more likely to impress than Danish fairytales in this fear-inducing setting. But ‘The Doll’s House’ sounded alarmingly concrete, whereas ‘The Wild Duck’, I felt, must surely be open to a freer interpretation and less apt for right or wrong answers. It was a hopeless gamble.

So my brilliant adversary, with high culture totally on his side, asked me pointedly what impression the work had made on me.

The music of Grieg’s ‘Per Gynt Suite’ came to mind and memories of the cloud-filled fjords that I had visited with Britt, the sopping wet pine forests, bowed by the winds that swept in from the Atlantic, the soundless and colourless panoramas where you felt the soul being sucked out of you, as if by scary creatures of scary Norse legends, or what I imagined scary Norse legends to be; again, I hadn’t actually read any. ‘Peer Gynt’ was by Ibsen, I knew that much, so ‘The Wild Duck’ – wasn’t it reasonable to suppose it would be along similar lines?

I tried to pass off this confused idea of the atmospheric effect of the Norwegian west coast mixed with the evocative workings of Grieg’s music on my soul to the brilliant young intellectual virtuoso sitting in front of me as my impression of ‘The Wild Duck’, as I imagined it, even though I was dimly aware of the risk I was taking, the thin ice I was skating on.

The insufferably eloquent, intelligent, knowledgeable, mild mannered, polite speaking, sneeringly smiling young Scandinavianist took out a watch from his pocket and placed it on the table in front of him. I watched him do this as I suppose a rabbit watches the movements of a snake. And he said ‘well I don’t know if you have any questions to ask us; we certainly don’t have any more to ask you, so I’m sure your time is as valuable as ours is …’ and he just fell silent staring at his damned pocket watch. I got up and left apologetically and utterly humiliated, having been made painfully aware that I was simply not university material, as little as I would have been officer material in a different but parallel context. The words of leave-taking I muttered, if I did indeed mutter any, were not responded to.

Cabin crew was the maximum I could aspire to. I had that to fall back on.

That was the worst interview imaginable. I would have done better if I had stuck with Hans Christian Andersen. But whatever I’d done, smarty pants would have caught me out. I felt dejected, miserable, worthless, thick. It was a cold day and that bitter winter wind was blowing, how apt. The interview had not lasted long and it was not yet eleven. I had an afternoon shift that day so I began to wander, as I loved to do, through the streets of London, heading towards home in Earls Court. Gower Street, Tottenham Court Road and then cutting across to Oxford Street, Carnaby Street, Regent Street, and then somehow by chance stumbling upon the West End police station. Here I came upon some kind of a kerfuffle. There were crowds of people in the neighbouring streets and the police were turning out to deal with some commotion, caused by loud pop music coming from the rooftop of a nearby office block, in Savile Row, apparently. I chose to avoid the core of the crowd, working my way around its edge; I always feel frustrated when my freedom of movement is hemmed in by a mass of others. People were looking up, vainly I thought, staring and straining their ears to hear the distant discordant din of amplified sound.

What I almost but not quite witnessed of course was the famous Beatles’ Rooftop Concert, their last public performance, on the roof of Apple Records. But it wasn’t till later that I found that out. I didn’t see it on the evening news that day because I was working late, but everyone was talking about it next day, so I put two and two together. What I had missed was nothing less than that iconic performance that would go into the composition of the Let It Be album, including the classic single version of Get Back with Billy Preston, which was to be heard constantly in the weeks and months after its release on 11 April that year.

Some time later, I went to another university interview, this one in York, and to do linguistics. I remember sitting in front of this prof with this big wide window behind him giving out onto a scene of excruciating desolation. Vast grey skies presided unmercifully over a barren wasteland of mud, mud, mud, a bulldozer shunting around ineffectually on top of it. They were actually landscaping, the professor explained to me. One day this will be an ornamental lake with swans and geese and ducks, and there would be lawns, and trees and flowers, and… It seemed unimaginable at the time. But it came to pass, as I was to witness with my own eyes thirty years later, when I attended an English teachers’ conference there and saw it, just as the prof described it, only more so.

It may come as no surprise to hear that I failed to convince that forward-looking professor that I had any aptitude for linguistics. I couldn’t answer his questions with anything resembling intelligent thought processes and I can never remember a thing about his conversation apart from that one reference to landscaping, presumably because I didn’t understand most of the rest of what he said. I set off on the journey back to London dejected, subdued, but at least not utterly humiliated this time. That, at least, I could tell Britt. Things were looking up. This had not been an utter rout. These newer universities were opening up to people like me, people who were nearly but not quite of the right material for academic study.

When Britt got moved from the chest clinic in Westminster to the King Edward VII Sanatorium in Midhurst, on top of the South Downs, it was less easy to get to see her. Visiting hours were restricted. I used to get a train at 12.50 from Waterloo to Haslemere and spend a couple of hours with her after lunch. I’d get a bus from the train station and then still have a fair way to walk through the grounds to the sanatorium building. The grounds were always fabulous, a perfect melancholy park landscape in late winter. It was February and the weather always seemed to be sunny and crisp and cold, you could feel spring just around the corner. In the air, at least; if not in the heart.

Apart from that longish walk from the bus stop to the sanatorium, I rarely spent any time outside Britt’s bedroom. Patients were encouraged to take daily walks through the grounds and there were a number of picturesque walks laid out through the woodlands. Once or twice I remember we sat in the shelter of the forecourt at the north front of the hospital, to enjoy some sunshine, or we strolled in the gardens adjacent to the wards. But for most of the time I was confined to sitting next to poor Britt’s hospital bed in her bare hospital room, which she rarely showed much inclination to leave; at least, while I was there.

I caught that train to Haslemere four times in February and three in March, and that was about it. During this time my position as Britt’s lover and indeed her fiancé was gradually undermined and usurped by a rival, Philip, who she had known from a time way back before she met me. He was the son of friends of Britt’s father, from the time he served in London supporting the resistance during the Nazi occupation of Norway. He was from Surrey, a Home Counties boy, so he didn’t have so far to come to visit Britt, and he had a car, a sports car, a Morgan, that he had gone himself to collect from Malvern. Otherwise, he would also borrow his dad’s Bentley for special occasions, no doubt.

He was from Godalming or Weybridge or somewhere there along the River Wey, somewhere in that hilly, thickly wooded part of the green commuter belt round London, living in a much desired, parent-owned, large-gardened, detached piece of real estate, so typically English in that attractive and appealing, privileged, high-quality, historic and expensive sort of typically English way that we love, or, as in my case, hated.

Philip had long but kempt, wavy blond hair, which, from my northern provincial point of view, struck me as effeminate. And he wore good clothes, though I can’t remember what they were, you know, trousers and shirts mainly, but quality, not Carnaby Street fashion, more made-to-measure impeccably fitted and subtly textiled Savile Row. He was there all the time, the creep, winning her round with his suave Home Counties manners. On the last two or three occasions I was there he dropped in shortly before I left and stayed long after I had gone. No rushing off to catch buses and trains for him. The timing of his visits was obviously by prior arrangement with Britt, and deliberately arranged to tell me something. In the end it was blatantly evident even to me that I had lost Britt to this smooth Wey valley boy. I was only too aware that there was a rivalry between us that I was losing hands down. I was losing sweet long-suffering Britt in the course of a sort of proxy class war, waged between the commuter belt beau and the inept left-hander from up north that was me: I didn’t have a chance.

I had by now got so used to Britt’s increasing criticisms of me I hardly noticed them; I thought they were a part of normal relationships, or a normal part of our relationship. It wasn’t until Tania and Mick visited her in my absence and she spent the hour they were there moaning about me that I got to realise from what they reported back to me exactly how the land lay.

She wouldn’t have spoken like that if she really loved you, Tania warned me. I protested at first. We love you, she said, meaning Mick and her, and it would never occur to us to think let alone say the things she says about you. They’re completely untrue, of course; maybe we can put it down to her illness. In any case, Tania went on, and bless her heart for it, what she says ignores the purity of your thought, the kindness of your spirit, and the generosity of your heart. It is as if she had never even glanced through the open book that is your soul. She does not see what is there for everyone to read. I continued to protest weakly, not recognising myself in Tania’s unconventional use of words, though flattered by them, and not wanting to see it was the indelible writing on the wall of comfortless reality that counted rather than the faint scribblings in the open book that may or may not have been my soul.

One obvious forewarning of the imminent break-up of our relationship came to light over a number of photographs I had taken of Britt on holiday the previous summer. I had only just got round to getting them developed. That’s how it was in those days. You had a film of, say, 36 shots in your camera and when you had used them all up to your satisfaction, you handed the film in at the chemist’s to have them, in due time, processed, revealed, or whatever you called it. What happened was that sometimes you had a few shots left over on the film and it took weeks or months to find an occasion to use them up. I had used up the last takes on this particular roll of film at the get-together in my flat on New Year’s Eve and so, some time in those first weeks of the new year, I finally got to see them, those photos from the previous summer.

During that summer holiday Britt took to objecting to me taking photos of her, saying her nose was red, her face was red, and the sun had brought out the freckles across her little snub nose and broad cheeks. She didn’t want anyone to see her in such a state. So I took a number of photos of her from the neck down. Some of these headless photos were pretty erotic indeed, honing in unapologetically on her slim waist and well developed breasts, down to the curve of her hips. One in particular, just of her torso, as she lay not quite naked on a rocky ledge at the water’s edge, conjured up for me a sort of Scandinavian Henry Moore Aphrodite, recently emerged from the waters of an ice-cold fjord, like a sculpture, only in flesh, so tempting in how the lure of the soft warm flesh contrasted with the repellent chilling dark waters and hard stone bed that cradled her sensuous form. These photos were really quite good, but they had disappeared when the pack of 36, now at the most 30, was returned to me after I had left them with her to show other visitors. I accepted the censure gracefully, acknowledging her right to her own image. I dare say she tore them up and did not show them to anyone, not to Philip, that’s for sure.

I wrote this poem, though I never shared it with Britt:

Dry rock, weak sun, and flesh, - warm flesh,

cool lake, - and emptiness.

This water, rock, and sun,

ours to the far horizon.

This water, and this rock, and sun

refreshed our flesh after the long,

long weeks of none,

no feeling, but the concrete stifling slum.

The water waited for our touch,

the sun caressed our naked limbs,

the rock repelled our soft smooth skin,

yet cradled us kindly in love.

The lake desired our flesh

and yielded easily,

while the sun sighed softly at his loss,

and the harsh rock lamented his.

Satisfied and wet, we lay again

and water ran in crevices of rock,

whose unintentional pain we loved,

more than our flesh.

Now happy sunbeams on my back

dried droplets on our flesh

and those that formed in crevices of rock.

Our world was then content.

Alright, let’s look away from the pathetic fallacy, that I was yet to learn about, and comparing the stretch of London from Earls Court to Victoria to a concrete stifling slum is really an abuse of poetic license, but ... you get the idea.

Although my fiancée was confined to a TB sanatorium far out on the top of the South Downs, and although I could not help but see that we were growing apart, I did not see any reason to let it interfere seriously with what I had started calling my social life. There were parties of some sort every weekend, usually several to choose from in any one weekend. The majority of them I suppose were bottle parties, or you might call them house parties, that is, when a group of people who shared accommodation would threw open their house to allcomers, more or less. The chances are you hadn’t been invited by any of the house residents, but by a friend of theirs, or friends of friends, etc. Weekends frequently involved parties on both the Friday and the Saturday night, leaving me feeling the worse for wear on the Sunday. So even if I had no shift work, I might not always make it down to Midhurst. That was OK Britt said, because she had plenty of visitors at the weekend and it was better if I visited her on my days off during the week when nobody, or hardly anybody, could go and see her. So I might go twice during the week to compensate for missing a weekend.

Visiting for the second time in the same week, I remember the nurse commending me to Britt. That’s a true friend, she said, who makes so much effort to make such a difficult journey so frequently. She was building me up because she saw Britt was discontented and sulky. And she knew that I had a rival and – could it be? - she preferred me to the well groomed and good-looking specimen of a Home Counties boy, Philip. That was how I preferred to interpret the nurse’s unexpected intervention on my behalf, which at the time I didn’t quite realise I needed. How often Philip was there giving real solace to my lost love I had no way of knowing. But the nurse knew what was going on, and championed me, the provincial. No doubt, without my being consciously aware of it, she was one of us.

Another social occasion I enjoyed after Britt was sent to the sanatorium in Midhurst was a visit to the theatre to see Hair (the Tribal-Love-Rock musical) at Shaftesbury Avenue. I went with Mick and Tania; it was the three of us, as it so often was in those first months of 1969. The show was of course a self-conscious and deliberate provocation, and that is how it was built up to be: championing mostly heterosexual promiscuity, experimentation with drugs to throw open the doors of perception, and, last but not least, virulent opposition to the Vietnam War. With its full-frontal-nudity sales line, the show was promoted as something shocking. That particular clothes-off scene was in fact sort of noble, a rather modest form of showing off, and it could hardly be seen in any way as sensationalist, - except by those of an utterly rigid mindset, a mindset that seemed to dominate society but which was in fact crumbling away smoothly and compliantly, from the early 60s and into the 70s.

Talking about it afterwards, I put forward my pseudo-highbrow point-of-view that the show came across as a bit immature, kids showing off how daring they could be. ‘Like in that scene, early in the first act: it was just a group of friends taking delight in uttering the four taboo words ‘sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus and pederasty’, that’s all. And the final question, uttered in mock innocence – ‘Father, why do these words sound so nasty?’ – was just an excuse to get in that other great contemporary taboo-breaker, Portnoy’s Complaint, masturbation: ‘Masturbation can be fun. Join the holy orgy, Kama Sutra, everyone!’ Puerile, wasn’t it?’

Mick and Tania were evidently more in tune with the times than I was and disposed to see the show less ambiguously as a positive statement of the positive values of our generation: generous, open-minded, non-judgemental, humane, taking new patterns of interpersonal relationships for granted; relationships freely entered into as their own had been, much to the displeasure of Tania’s parents with their fixed, rigid, unquestioning and unquestionable moral values.

Theirs - Mick and Tania’s - was the future.

A highlight of the musical for me came with that Black Boys/ White Boys scene, in which first three white girls enumerate the attractions of men of African origin in highly suggestive and erotic terms: ‘Black boys are delicious’, they sing, ‘black boys are nutritious’, and ‘Black boys are so damn yummy, they satisfy my tummy’. Black boys were eulogised with descriptions such as ‘chocolate flavoured love’, or ‘liquorice lips like candy; keep my cocoa handy’ and more. The white girls are then countered by a blond-wigged trio of black singers, an obvious take-off of the Supremes. ‘White boys are so sexy / Legs so long and lean / I love those sprayed-on trousers / Love the love machine’. Although there is a little less sexual innuendo in this part of the song, the delivery is in no way less voluptuous, especially when the three singers at the end of the song, after standing as close to each other as the tight harmony of their voices, step apart and reveal that they are all dressed in a single piece of cloth.

Although this scene was totally warm-hearted, I had to admit to an underlying feeling of discomfort. It was uncomfortable – for a white provincial Briton, in any case - to be confronted with the idea, first of one’s own sexuality, and then with that of the sexuality of black men, particularly in terms of direct sexual rivalry. That a white girl could prefer a back bloke was evident and I myself had felt strongly attracted towards a black West Indian air hostess I had met on my travels the previous year, though nothing really came of it, as they say.

In fact, I have to recognise the fact which I took as something absolutely normal and unquestioned that among my work colleagues at BOAC there were no people of black African origin. In the bedsitter land of Earls Court/South Kensington black faces were exceedingly rare. And at the weekend bottle parties we attended so assiduously you were more likely to meet a white South African than any person of black African descent. Just once, once in all my time living in Earls Court and working at BOAC, we had been invited by a West Indian nurse, the workmate of a friend of colleague Philomena’s as it happens, to a party in Wandsworth or it may even have been Brixton where we were the only whites present. When we left, I wanted to invite the nurse back to a party at our place a few weekends later, but the hostility I felt from her boyfriend scared me off. He thought I was making a play for his woman. But it was a courtesy invitation, honest.

So, race and sexuality was a combination I had never until then had much to do with, while the idea of oneself as a sexual subject had been completely taboo in my upbringing. Yet, in the end, it is fair to say the thorny issues were treated in the Tribal Love-Rock Musical with a fine balance of humour, humanity, and respect.

The 60s were nearing their end, but it was still hard for me to be open to a celebration of physical pleasure and of free love. These had to be justified by embedding them in a framework of high-minded spiritual self-fulfilment, in which the sex act was an almost accidental by-product rather than a delight in itself.

However, when it came down to it, what surprised me most about Hair was that the storyline had more to do with opposing the war the USA was fighting in Vietnam than the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Although the hit single was not released until March, the song Aquarius from the musical was already well known in the first months of 1969 and it immediately came across as a somewhat innocuous and innocently joyous ode to love and peace, expressing a metaphysical belief in or desire for cosmic harmony and understanding, where sympathy and trust would replace the falsehoods of the older generation. It sings not of political emancipation but in an esoteric way of the mind's true liberation through the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, an awakening to the Age of Freedom, which in astrological terms was on the point of replacing the Age of Pisces, the Age of Christianity and its fishing of men. That’s in any case how a one free-spirited workmate had taught me to see it. I passed this hippyish cosmic interpretation on in my post-show conversation with Mick and Tania as my own.

In contrast to the hit song, the musical play is full of harsh real-world references to the contemporary resistance to the US military intervention that dominated the political agenda on the other side of the Atlantic, and it brought home to a British audience the urgency of the very real threat young male Americans were facing of being drafted into that abominable and unjust war.

We were aware enough of the Tet Offensive that had been launched by the Viet Cong the previous year and of the corresponding build-up of American military involvement in the war. What we still could not conceive of yet was the Tet Offensive as the real turning point in the war, militarily disastrous by Western standards but a political victory for the Viet Cong, as it began to dawn on world and particularly US opinion that this was a war the Americans could not win. It had destroyed the credibility of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who subsequently stood down and ceded his post to the Republican Richard Nixon in the presidential elections of 1968.

As the number of US military casualties peaked in the last year of Johnson’s tenure, nobody could be unaware of the massive worldwide anti-War movement that was at the height of its momentum, even as the succession of flag-draped coffins being delivered to mourning and uncomprehending American mothers and fathers continued unabated.

I suppose what I did not appreciate yet was the intertwining of this opposition to the War and the emergence of an ebullient counterculture of sex and drugs and music that was further advanced in the USA than over here. The impact of the War was particularly decisive and divisive in the USA because of the draft, bringing about an immediacy to the issue that we did not feel over here.

Chapter 2. A Good Man, and Full of the Holy Ghost ...

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