INTERESTING TIMES 10: ON MY OWN

By Andrew Maben

Easter March 1968Before I left, Mum handed me a packet of Durex, told me to always keep them handy. Good advice.

I’d found a bed-sit just south of Victoria station, a tiny room on the top floor, up many flights of stairs and with a shared bathroom, but it was my own private place. And I had a job as a trainee clerk at a commodities brokerage in the city. I can’t for the life of me remember how I found the room and the job, nor with any certainty my wages and rent, but I seem to remember the pay was £10 a week and the rent something like £5, which would have left all of five pounds to live on.

The job seemed mildly interesting for the first few hours, mainly because of its novelty. But that soon wore off. The work was terminally tedious, and seemed utterly pointless. My position was in the coffee department, dealing specifically with shipments from Brazil. It went something like this: freshly harvested coffee would be auctioned at a Brazilian port and loaded on a ship, then, for the several days that the voyage took before arriving in London, speculators would buy and sell portions of the cargo as the price of coffee fluctuated with the market. As brokers, the company handled these transactions and took a small percentage on each deal. I didn’t then, and I don’t now, fully understand the intricacies of the business, but the whole thing seemed utterly nonsensical, not to say parasitical…

Somehow I had struck up a friendship with a local who called himself Doc. Unprepossessing with his thick glasses and total lack of style, he was an amusing enough companion, with a surprisingly heterogeneous set of acquaintances. At least once a week he would be kind enough to invite me to enjoy his mum’s cooking for supper, and then we would retire to his room to share a joint or two, sometimes between the two of us, or sometimes we’d be joined by one or two of his friends.

My life settled into a rather dull routine for a couple of months. I’d battle the rush hour crowds on the tube in the morning and spend the day in stultified torpor at my desk where it was my job to sit all day long with a constantly replenished stack of bills of lading and bills of sale, matching up the bills of sale with their respective bills of lading and transcribing each transaction into a huge ledger, carefully adding the totals at the foot of each page and then re-entering them at the head of the next. My penmanship has never, thanks to the changes from left handed to right at kestrels, and then from right back to left handed at at art school, been of particularly high quality, but I did my best to be at least legible. And all the addition had to be done in my head and on scrap paper before the final figures could be written in the ledger. Positively Dickensian… Then in the evening once again I’d battle the rush hour crowds in the tube to get home, where I’d smoke a joint and read, or draw. Sometimes I’d visit Doc at his mum’s basement flat near Buckingham Palace, sometimes he’d visit me. On Friday nights I usually managed to get to Middle Earth, which had taken up the torch after UFO folded, and most Saturdays would find me wandering the Portobello market in a post-acid haze…

The humdrum did take a toll. I had noticed for a while that I would develop a particular tendency to moroseness in the early spring, and in my sessions with Dad’s friend the shrink I’d suggested that I felt some symptoms of manic-depression. Grey days and all too often lonely evenings, dark nights… One evening thoughts turned downward and darkward, I found a razor blade, rolled up a sleeve. I had been, and remain, pretty firmly convinced of the truth of the last scene of Pierrot le Fou, so any likelihood of finality was remote, but I wanted to test the sensations. I made a few light transverse cuts across the wrist, not deep. It felt interesting. No, fascinating. So I used my forearm as sketchpad, the blade as stylus, and drew and wrote until there was no more space and I fell into a troubled slumber. The next morning my handiwork was limned in scabs, which in a few days healed and dropped off, leaving no trace. Sometimes I wonder what it was that I drew and wrote. I stare at the skin of my arm, seeking some kind of answer, but none is forthcoming….

And so it went until Easter…

On Easter Monday I joined the Aldermaston March at Shepherds Bush, and soon enough I’d moved up to the front ranks of demonstrators. The chants were perhaps a little predictable, maybe even trite, so I took it upon myself to add my own as we moved down Oxford Street: “Inter-conti-nental Ball-istic Missiles!”, “OUT!”, “Inter-conti-nental Ball-istic Missiles!”, “OUT!”, “Inter-conti-nental Ball-istic Missiles!”, “OUT! OUT! OUT!” for some reason has stuck in my mind…

This year the demonstration’s focus was as much, perhaps more, on the horrors of the escalating war in Viet Nam as on nuclear weapons, and there was much discussion of a demonstration in Grosvenor Square, in front of the US Embassy to foliow the rally in Trafalgar Square. Rumours of riot and violence were rife, and I was not entirely comfortable with the mood of the crowd. I could not see any gain in the quest for peace, in Viet Nam or in the world, to be had through the use of violence, particularly the mindless vandalism that was urged by a rowdy anarchist fringe. I found laughable the notion that violent acts of protest designed to bring down the violent might of state repression might somehow be necessary to awaken the anger of the people. More like an excuse to play cowboys and indians with real guns, sound and fury signifying nothing… So once in Trafalgar Square I withdrew onto the steps of the National Gallery while Tariq Ali and others made incendiary speeches, and radical chic celebrities like Mick Jagger and Vanessa Redgrave lent their cachet to the proceedings.

Soon I found myself talking to another pair, Ros and Nick, who were also a little perturbed by the ominous atmosphere. We decided to give the riot a miss, and instead went to visit the National Portrait Gallery. Ros was a lovely young hippie chick, long brown hair, secondhand finery, lovely blue eyes and a small thin mouth. Nick just seemed immeasurably cool, not least because he let out that he was the electrician at Middle Earth. After the gallery we went for a cup of tea, and Ros mentioned that Nick was looking for a place to live. I leapt at the chance to offer him some space in my room – his contribution would greatly ease my finances, and best of all he was offering free admission to the club anytime I wanted!

Meanwhile, the Grosvenor Square demo had turned into a full-scale riot… Back at work on Tuesday I was greeted with several comments about the demonstration and my part in it. It seems my participation in the chanting on Oxford Street had been captured in full close-up and broadcast on the BBC news…

By now the days were getting longer, my spirits rising. Perhaps too much so, as the more I enjoyed my own time, the less I enjoyed my job, my distaste for the commodity brokerage business was turning to disgust…

Nick’s presence was a boon. Many an evening passed smoking, listening to my small record collection. Hendrix and Pink Floyd were foremost, with the Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Velvets… If I had a penny for every time we heard Third Stone from the Sun or Interstellar Overdrive… We came up with a list of activities that we might practice in private but not out in public that we’d permit each other in those tiny confines that offered too little privacy. And we found an effective way to vent anger and frustration. Outside the window was a concrete balustrade about three feet high enclosing a tiny area, much too small to even pretend to be a balcony. It began when a lightbulb burned out. Once it had been replaced, one of us took the dead bulb and flung it through the open window to shatter against the concrete.

“Man, that felt good!”

The bulb was followed by an empty milk bottle… This became an occasional ritual. We saved bottles and bulbs, and I’d stop from time to time and filch a bulb from a phone box on the station for this express purpose. In spite of this streak of destructiveness, I did make some attempt to make the place habitable with posters from Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, UFO ComingCIA vs. UFO and Arthur Brown, and Martin Sharp, Mr Tambourine Man, as well as cheap but colourful Indian bedspreads, both on the bed and as a curtain.

Middle Earth was where I would be most Friday and Saturday nights now. In retrospect the eclectic roster of bands who played there that spring is astonishing: Brian Auger and Trinity with Julie Driscoll (whose cropped hair flew in the face of the hippy fashion for flowing locks); Family, who I think deserve far greater recognition than they ever got; Fairport Convention; Captain Beefheart; The Deviants; The Nice; The Byrds; Ike and Tina Turner… I was usually tripping, so my memories are in the main a kaleidoscopic chaos of colour and sound, but a few things did stick in my mind. There was an odd couple, a boy with very long blond hair and a girl with a boyish cut, both dressed in flowing kaftans, who would lay out a prayer rug and dance all night in an exaggeratedly mannered style. These two were the object of many a raised eyebrow or superior hippie sneer, but danced on, seemingly oblivious. It was not until several years later, with the release of Ziggy Stardust that I realised who they were. Ike and Tina (billed as “Ike and Teena” in IT!) played an incredible set to a near-empty house. I watched, rapt, from in front of the stage, my nose mere inches from Tina’s crotch… The Byrds, too, managed to attract only a small crowd, the English audience once again demonstrating its narrow conservatism in the face of their explorations of country music. As I recall, the Nice were not at all nice and Nick almost got into a punch-up with Keith Emerson when he tried to climb onto the light tower and start giving orders. And speaking of Nick’s misadventures, his attempt to pick up Beefheart’s guitar player, whom he’d mistakenly taken for a girl, was not that well received either…

One evening I came home to find a note: “Gone to Leytonstone(d). See you later.” When Nick finally got back he told me he’d been to visit Ros, who was living in an abandoned school, so a few days later I prevailed upon him to take me out there. After an almost interminable tube ride, followed by a long walk through grey streets, we came to the school, which had been taken over by hippy squatters living as a commune. They had made some effort to make the place welcoming, with colourful posters and wall hangings in the central dining room. Ros had a small room that had probably been an office, which she had made very cozy, and we spent a pleasant hour or two smoking hash and listening to music before making the long trek back to Victoria.

With some of the money that Nick’s share of the rent had permitted me to save I bought some navy blue velvet which I found a hippie tailor to make into a pair of extremely tight trousers. Much too tight, as it turned out. The cloth had no give to it at all. I was walking home from the tailor’s through St. James’s Park and in my exuberance jumped over one of the low fences to walk across the lawn. There was a short rending sound and I felt a rush of cold air on my right buttock. The strain of my outstretched leg was too much and the cloth had ripped from inseam to out at the crease between buttock and thigh. Chastened and embarrassed, I made my way home, doing what I could to hide my near-naked bum…

Not altogether surprisingly there came a Monday morning when I overslept and decided I couldn’t be bothered to go in to the office. Tuesday the same, and I more or less decided to simply drop out. After all, I had already turned on, and felt that I was fairly well tuned in, so it was the next logical step, and I remained both naïve and impressionable. Certainly I was not worldly enough to consider how I might subsist after dropping out. I suppose I had some notion that the community would somehow provide, and certainly a distant echo of “consider the lilies of the field…” still rang somewhere in the back of my mind… A couple of days later I received a letter telling me that due to my unexplained absence the company was regretfully obliged to terminate my employment. This of course was a boon as it meant that I was eligible for unemployment benefits, and another day or two later I received an invitation to visit the local centre and sign on.

Once again I was extraordinarily lucky, and my case worker turned out to be extremely sympathetic.

“So what do you do?”

“Well, I was a clerk at a commodities broker’s…”

“I know, but what else?”

“Um. I did go to art school.”

“And what did you study there?”

“Basic design. Photography…”

“Photography? Fine, we’ll put you down as a photographer. You’ll never get a job…”

So I started freeloading on the State…

I remained somehow in thrall to my feelings for Sally, and anyway I was pretty clueless where girls were concerned, so I was hardly a beneficiary of the so-called sexual revolution and the legendary wave of free love that had supposedly swept over swinging London. I seemed doomed to live chastely. I did have a certain regard for Ros, but on the one hand felt that she was far too cool to be interested in me, on the other sensed that we were somehow better suited as friends than lovers… There was one girl, astonishingly beautiful in memory, whose name escapes me as does how we met. She told me she had found a sugar daddy who paid for her flat and gave her an allowance, but made no sexual demands of her at all. We spent a fair amount of time together, but I was much too clumsy and shy to initiate any kind of intimacy. Whether I was naïve or simply stupid I shall let you be the judge – perhaps your assessment will be kinder than my own… But she did take me to Afternoon Tea at Fortnum’s one day…

By now I was supplementing my meagre unemployment allowance by selling
small amounts of hash. Doc and his friends were fairly regular customers, and in those days it was still relatively safe to sell to strangers on the street. Nick told me one night (apparently he was joking, but I took him at his word) that he’d met some geordies in Trafalgar Square and when they’d asked to score some acid he simply shook some drops of piss onto blotting paper… Some nights later there was a knock on the door, a voice with a decidedly northern accent asked for Nick.

“He sold us some acid the other day…” Reluctantly, half expecting to be beaten to a pulp, I let them in.

“It was fantastic, do you have more?”

Surreptitiously grabbing scissors and blotting paper, I made for the bathroom…

I sold them five “trips” for five pounds… Surprisingly, luckily, we never heard from them again… It’s troubling how even in this supposedly egalitarian, alternative, underground culture there existed so many stratifications and complicated pecking orders that provided the basis for some to regard others with varying degrees of contempt and thus “justify” such craven transactions…

Among Doc’s friends was an Anglo-Indian with dreams of pop-stardom (a few years later I realised he bore a striking resemblance to Freddie Mercury. Heck, perhaps he was Freddie Mercury?), who one evening led several of us to a swimming pool somewhere out in West London. The wall was easy to climb, and there didn’t seem to be any kind of security, so we swam and horsed around for an hour or two…

And then there was Mr. Trips, a classical bassoonist from San Francisco who had somehow ended up as a lodger in Doc’s mum’s basement flat while he spent a year playing with an illustrious London orchestra. He had brought with him an ample supply of white capsules of what he claimed was Owsley acid, which he shared quite generously. Trips was an exponent of the Ken Kesey/Acid Test school of thought, and often expressed the, perhaps somewhat questionable, view that “Anything you can do straight you can do twice as well on acid.” I still recall an afternoon when he took me with him to a little hole in the wall workshop in Kilburn where he went for his bassoon reeds. And of course the night he took me to see 2001, A Space Odyssey, tripping on one of his Owsley caps. The sensory experience of the film was overwhelming, but overshadowed by the Indian meal we went for in Soho afterwards. After a delicious hot curry, Trips insisted on ordering a plate of lychees for me. The little silver-white spheres seemed somewhat unappetising, but Trips persuaded me to open wide and popped one into my mouth, then chucked me under the chin, forcing my mouth closed and causing the lychee to explode inside my mouth. The greasy, syrupy-sweet fruit flavours and textures are perhaps best described simply as “interesting”, but I’ve somehow managed never to have had another lychee since that night…

The last I heard of Trips, he told me how he had become bored during a concert, and annoyed at the conductor’s approach to the music. During a pianissimo section he blew a mighty raspberry on his bassoon, picked up the instrument and walked off stage…

I didn’t know it, but my London spring was drawing to a close… In April I made a half-hearted, last-ditch effort to get back into college and went for an interview at the Guildford Film School. One question on a pre-interview questionnaire asked what was my most memorable visual experience, to which I replied, “Pink Floyd at UFO”, another what I felt the most appropriate organisational structure for film-making, “Constructive anarchy”. So I suppose these, and my attire of torn bell-bottoms and tattered army jacket, made the rejection that came shortly afterwards pretty much inevitable.

Nick and I had seen the news of the “events” in Paris and became enthused at the idea of going to join the revolution, but the next day all the ports were closed and a news blackout put in place. I have always been struck by the irony that so many students worldwide were demanding greater autonomy and control of their curricula, and there was I having had it given to me on a plate…

One day in June I received a letter telling me to go for another interview at the dole office. I met with the same friendly case worker.

“Looks like your benefits are going to run out soon, but there’s a job here that I think you might like.”

It was a company that franchised their name for boutiques around the country. They had an old barber shop in Wrexham that they wanted gutted and redecorated. The interview with the company was short. I showed them some of my sketches and assured them that I could do the job, and they signed me up on the spot. The pay seemed a small fortune, especially as all my living expenses in Wales and travel would be paid. When they told me they’d be looking for someone to assist me, I said that I might know someone, and as soon as I left I called Bob. He leapt at the chance, so a few days we were on the train to North Wales…

We made short work of the existing fixtures and fittings, and soon the shop was reduced to bare walls and floors. Our design for the interior called for a mural of stylised art nouveau irises and framed Mucha posters. Bob had brought some French blues, and hash of course, and we had a little record player that we played as loud as it would go. For years this would remain the best job I’d ever had…

The days passed in a pleasant fog of hash, amphetamines and creativity in the shop, and at weekends we’d go for long walks in the surrounding countryside. As we only had use of a sink at the guest house for our ablutions, on one or two evenings a week we’d take ourselves to the public baths and enjoy a long soak in huge bathtubs with an unlimited supply of scalding hot water. Bliss.

When the speed ran out, Bob took a trip to London to get more. He couldn’t find any, but did bring back a new Pink Floyd LP, A Saucerful of Secrets. From then on we relied on caffeine pills to keep us going. When the painting was almost finished, a lorry delivered the new fixtures, hooks, clothes racks and so on. We had kept the sturdy old wooden counter from the barber shop. As the day scheduled for the grand opening approached, it became apparent that we’d never manage to finish on time, so we managed to get a week’s reprieve. Nevertheless, we were still at work until the wee hours on the eve of the opening.

When we arrived at the shop in the morning a squealing crowd of teenaged girls was crowding the arcade outside. We felt like (very minor) pop stars as we pushed our way through to the door. At noon the doors opened, and the mob surged inside. It didn’t take very long before first one, then another, and finally all, of the clothes racks came unstuck from the walls and slowly collapsed to the floor with their burdens of bright skirts, blouses, dresses and coats. It was a bit embarrassing, but the owner took it well, her mood no doubt helped by all the champagne, and Bob and I were hard put to keep from collapsing in hilarity…

It turned out that the collars we had used to attach the racks to the walls were not designed to have any structural value, being merely intended as decoration to conceal the holes in the wall that were supposed to bear the weight, and that we had neglected, in our ignorance, to drill. But we managed to complete the repairs that evening, and the next day were on the train back to London.

At the office we were told that, as it was Friday, they’d not be able to write us our check until the following Monday, so we each went back to the coast for the weekend, Bob to Brighton and I to Eastbourne, where I prevailed upon my long-suffering friend Judith to put me up on her couch for Saturday and Sunday nights.

You may not be surprised to hear that I was unable to resist the temptation to ring Sally to see if she would come into town to see me. But I was a little, though pleasantly, surprised when she agreed to meet me on Sunday afternoon for an hour or two.

It was a lovely sunny day, so after I’d met her bus at the railway station we went for a walk in a nearby park. She was radiant in her spring frock, and seemed truly delighted to see me. I told her about my adventures in London, the saga of the shop. Then she offered an invitation that simply bowled me over.

“Some of my friends and I have rented a villa in the South of France, at St. Jean Cap Ferrat, for August. Would you like to come and stay for a week?”

    Comments are closed.