By Andrew Maben
It’s probably fair to say that most, if not quite all, the volunteers for the Digby were losers and refugees like me, seeking any escape, even should it prove to be from frying pan to fire. Which it wasn’t. Mr. Curry, the new House-master was progressive, an optimist who appeared to be genuinely concerned for our welfare both as individuals and as a group. I had taken French lessons with him and vied for first place in the class with a boy named Irons. At the year’s end it was Irons who won the prize, but I gave him a good run. I would have occasions to remember him later in my life. So I already had a comparatively friendly relationship with Mr. Curry.
At the first House meeting he told us he meant to run the house democratically. Later his catch phrase was “this is your house, and you can do what I want!”, but he continued to be fair and generous in his treatment of the boys. The first exercise in democracy turned out to be over corporal punishment. He briefly offered arguments for and against, then put the question to a vote by show of hands. More surprising than that dispensing with the cane carried was that anyone at all chose to vote for retention. I do not remember at all, but I imagine the vote was largely divided by age, older boys feeling that having endured they had earned the right to enjoy. Did I feel at that moment that a prayer had been answered?
I had been listening carefully, and perhaps selectively, to the readings from the Bible in chapel and at Sunday services in the Abbey. I was attracted to Jesus’ offering of kindness, gentle love, which I began to believe might be an achievable alternative to my schoolboy agonies as well as what I was increasingly aware of as the hell that was life for so many of the world’s people. Perhaps I feared that my future lay in that hell. Mr. Curry and I discussed going through with my Confirmation. After some moments going over Christian doctrine he asked why I felt convinced now that this was what I believed. I replied that everybody must believe in something. Which surely we must? And surely being kind to each other is a worthwhile occupation for our time and energy? I believed so then, and have clung, stubbornly, desperately to that conviction. I decided that I would make kindness and honesty the keystones of my character. As we shall see, I have all too often failed to attain even this simple standard. Am I to be condemned for that? A question I have often asked is whether it is more culpable to fail to be good than simply to be bad. Or perhaps the hypocrisy of making this choice in the hopes of finding kindness or even love in return is even worse? Who knows? Certainly not I. One way to look at my life is as alternating between attempting to live up to this ideal, abandoning it in self-disgust, and then struggling to redeem myself by trying to find my way back to it. I became very fond of hymns like Jerusalem and passages from scripture, notably the Sermon on the Mount. I began all too soon to become aware of the gulf separating this message of love from other deeply held convictions. Most insidious was the conviction that England owned the right to command the world. Insidious and rather obviously false, as the Empire slipped away. The level of hypocrisy required to profess simultaneously a belief in brotherhood and the certitude of the right to be master of other men is beyond me. It became fairly obvious that the church was a gathering place for those hypocrites. As I neither have the desire to be any other being’s master, nor will I under any circumstances concede another the right to be my master, it was not long before I became alienated from the Church.
There was a young South African physics teacher who announced one morning that he had something more important than physics to talk about. Much more important. He spent the lesson describing, in tones of bitter outrage and accompanied with ghastly photographs, the massacre at Sharpeville. I was indignant, and ashamed of my inherited part in this awful crime.
Mr. Curry’s enthusiasm and encouragement prompted an interest in sports. I swam, dived, sailed, even became a tolerable rugby wing-forward, and eventually became captain of the House target shooting team. Perhaps a description of my sporting persona should begin with shooting.
I had been given air rifle for a birthday and was allowed to shoot in the garden. Shooting at bottles and tins and targets was much less fun than shooting at starlings. There were huge flocks of these birds and they were classified as a pest. I cut rather bloodthirsty notches in the stock to record the kills, when I added crows they earned rather longer notches. Dad also had a couple of .22 rifles, and used to take me out of a summer evening looking for pigeons visible from the road. They were seldom close enough to be an easy target and I only killed one, a lucky shot through the bird’s eye. We had pigeon pie that Sunday.
One morning a fat pigeon settled in the lower branches of the beech at the bottom of the garden. I ran to fetch a .22, loaded and took aim through the window in my parents’ bedroom. I fired. The bird flew away and I cleaned and put back the gun. That evening I was summoned to the living room, where I was surprised to find Dad in the company of the village policeman. Had I fired a gun this morning? I said I had shot at a pigeon. Well, it seems a farmer living almost a mile away had been combing his hair in the mirror when he dropped the comb. He bent to pick it up, heard a crack and stood to see the mirror before his face cracked by a bullet. The police were called. Lining up the holes in mirror and window pointed directly to Court Cottage. Whether it was my luck, the farmer’s, or both, we each had escaped an ugly fate. I was a little shaken at the thought of having come so close to killing a man. And I was lucky again that the policeman chose to decide that as he saw only stupidity rather than malice, and no lasting harm had been done, he would not arrest me.
What finally cured me of the desire to kill living creatures for sport was an early autumn morning hunting hares. The first hare we put up I managed to kill cleanly with one shot. The second was not so lucky. Evidently badly hurt it still managed to run. I gave chase, cursing as I stumbled through bracken and thorns. At last the poor creature’s legs gave out. It looked at me piteously as I stood over it. I could think of no reason at all why it would or should forgive me for what I was about to do. All I could think to do was level the other barrel to its head and fire. A twelve-gauge at close range. There was a fine spray of blood. Where the creature’s head had been was a flap of bloody skin from which hung an ear, and a six inch crater in the ground. My discomfort was not too great to allow me to enjoy the jugged hare mum served a week later. The other I sold to the village butcher.
So ended my hunting days, but I was still a good shot and so continued as I had begun, shooting at targets, until I left school.
I have no idea what possessed me to take an interest in Rugger, up to now I had shown even less aptitude than enthusiasm for the game. Perhaps a lingering desire to find a way to make Dad proud? I won’t bore you with an account of games played, making it to the school semi-finals and being awarded my House Colors. Frankly I’m even more bored than you…
But I can’t touch on the subject without recalling one gloriously inglorious moment. One of our three-quarters had kicked ahead, almost to the opposition goal line. I was in completely the wrong place, which happened all too often, offside by the right touch line. But then one of their full-backs caught the kicked ball, just a few yards in front of me. None of my team-mates was anywhere close, so it was up to me. I charged. He saw me coming and evidently calculated that he had time to get off a return kick before I landed on him. He got off the kick. The ball was headed directly over my head. I leaped to make a heroic interception. Except I rather misjudged the situation. (Feel free to draw parallels later in this story). So I leapt. The ball was not ascending quite as steeply as I had thought. There I was, again, suspended in the air watching doom accelerating directly towards my face. The ball was suddenly huge, and smashed into my nose…
Next thing I knew I was opening my eyes. Flat on my back, boys from both teams gathered round, looking down at me, the teacher who was refereeing was kneeling at my side, looking concerned.
“Do you feel alright?”
“How the fuck do you think I feel? Someone just kicked a rugger ball in my face!”
Shocked looks from the boys, you just don’t speak to a master that way. Oh, I’m probably in big trouble now. But no, he was solicitous as ever.
“Do you think you can make it back to the House on your own? Or should I send someone with you?”
That night I found I’d actually earned a little kudos with the boys, so perhaps that was the spur to play?
Meanwhile after so many years of character-building punishments, teasing and other low-grade victimhood, I was at last taking an active part in developing my own character, and there were teachers who helped as well. I certainly count it as a blessing that corporal punishment was a thing of the past, I was certainly aware by now of the chain of sadism whereby small boys suffered at the hands of bigger boys, only to later have the opportunity to inflict suffering themselves. I was aware, and I was disgusted, but to be honest I cannot say with complete certainty that I would not have learned to love to hurt had I been presented with that carte blanche. But I was not, so instead I began to build in my heart a growing hatred of violence in all its forms.
By now I had somehow earned a place at the R.A.F. College Cranwell. But by now I had also come to recognize that those beautiful V-Bombers, those Victors, Valiants and Vulcans were instruments of cruel and indiscriminate mass-slaughter. I had begun to realize that I wanted to be no part of any war machine.
While never working at my studies any harder than I needed to to get by hovering somewhere in the middle ranks of my classes, I nevertheless somehow learned that most essential aspect of an education: a love of learning for its own sake. I guess we’ve already seen how Whittaker’s crude approach actually stood me in good stead in my rivalry with Irons, but one teacher at least relied on his ability to inspire. Mr. Neale taught English, both Language and Literature, and managed to instill in me a lifelong love of both. He taught me to understand the beauty of carefully constructed syntax and well chosen words. The Canterbury Tales, or parts of them, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, perhaps fatally, The Autobiography of a Supertramp. To be honest Chacer didn’t offer much but the sounds of the words. But A Midsummer Night? Oh my! The idiocy of lovers, the wisdom of fools, the painful dance we’re led by joy. “There is a bank…”, “Lord, what fools…” and of course “Ill met by moonlight…” Tender mockery, and mocking tenderness. Tragic misunderstandings, misunderstanding tragedies. If only I had known..! And then Supertramp, what were they thinking when they put this on the O-Level syllabus for 1964? Let’s put it this way: how many happy, glazed smiles of recognition when I would mention the book two, three or more years on? I suppose it seemed an enlightened idea to some academic somewhere. Let Britain’s callow youth gain a taste of the vagabond life. But the Swinging Sixties were upon us!
Tamla-Motown and Stax were infiltrating the pop charts. There was a raw new voice from New York singing angry songs against war, racism, injustice. A screeching quartet from Liverpool who seemed to me a sad shadow of the Four Seasons. Then one night, something else. I remember the night, falling asleep as usual, transistor radio under the pillow tuned to Radio Luxembourg. From the opening bars I was hooked, mean bass, cat-howling harmonica and a defiant angry voice. I pulled up the pillow, turned the volume all the way up, held the speaker to my ear. It ended much too soon. “…something new. The Rolling Stones… ‘Come On’… released today…” And I slid a little further…
At school I sailed through the O-Levels and entered the final two years. I moved from the Common Room and got my own study. This afforded privacy, and a chance to decorate to my own taste, and I was allowed a record player! The first LP I had purchased was Peter and Gordon. Alright, I know… Then had come the utterly gorgeous Françoise Hardy with her plangent odes to loneliness, definitely a step in the right direction. The Stones, the Who, I still have the first Who album, in mono, ordered as soon as the release was announced, Five Live Yardbirds… And my walls were soon lined with magazine photographs of beautiful women. The Sunday Times Magazine had a feature on up and coming young actresses, including Julie Christie. And then there was About Town. This magazine had a huge influence on me. I bought every issue I could from the age of sixteen on. Aesthetics, style, beautiful women! NotPlayboy by any means, there was seldom so much as a nipple to be seen. I still recall “Oh, You New York Girls”: text from an old shantey “Oh, you New York girls, can you dance the polka…” Baby Jane Holzer, Warhol superstars in extraordinary black and white portraits… And yes, I did read the articles! Tom Wolfe’s The Pumphouse Gang, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamiline Baby, and fatally(!) The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test were all published as articles in Town. Well, I guess we’ll come back to that…
The Lyme Regis holidays had come to an end some years back. One summer we took a completely uncharacteristic car tour of Cornwall. Highlights of the tour were Fowey where we crossed into this, to me,terra incognita, Jamaica Inn, Land’s End, St. Ives, where I remember huge breakers at a long white deserted beach, Tintagel for some Arthurian mystique, and Polzeath. After that summer we moved our summer base to Polzeath. But Polzeath marked some kind of turning point, offered a taste of freedom, opportunities for adventure that just were not on offer in the safe, comfortable, prototypically English seaside-atmosphere of Lyme. We rented a house on the cliffs between the Polzeath beach and Daymer Bay. The days were pretty much my own. I could hike, try to conquer my fear of heights scaling the cliffs at the bottom of the garden – I’m still trying to overcome the fear, and never became a rock climber. Daymer Bay offered a lazy beach and the placid waters of the estuary to swim. The ferry from Rock to the tiny port of Padstow was there if we wanted a dose of shops, cafes, naughty post-cards. But soon I would be spending every moment of the incoming tide in the breakers of Polzeath. The beach faced due West into the open Atlantic, no other land before the East Coast of America. The sea was seldom calm, and after a storm the waves could be spectacular. The only surfing equipment available was plywood body-boards, but once I had one I was addicted. I soon taught myself in shallow water to catch a wave and ride to the very edge of the beach. It was not long before I was swimming out to deeper water, beyond the last line of breakers to wait for the big ones. The exhilaration! To see a peak rising above the other incoming waves in the distance, the express-elevator feeling as I sank into the trough, the frantic paddling as the monster would rise beneath me, then if my timing was right the magic of being at the peak as a line of foam broke out around me, the plummeting fall as the wave broke into the trough ahead, and then the surge of acceleration as the rushing water thrust me forward. And if my timing was off, to either be left behind, disappointed, or to be caught in the roiling waters of the breaking wave, powerless in the colossal force, spun, thrust deep, sometimes to be pressed against the sea-bottom, then left to struggle breathless, shaken, defeated, to the surface to await the next opportunity. Young, impressionable seeker that I was, it is no surprise that this became my central metaphor for living my life. Sometimes I have managed to time my actions in concert with the events around me to be swept forward towards success. All too often my timing is wrong and I find myself left stranded. And all too often I have found myself overwhelmed, caught in a maelstrom, out of control and caught in the grip of a crushing despair from which I have to somehow escape to return to a surface sanity, somehow collect myself and stay afloat for the next wave.
There was a tiny sailing school on the beach at Rock. It was not, I swear, just because there always seemed to be pretty girls embarking on lessons, that I leapt at my parents’ offer to pay for a course of lessons. I took to sailing, as much as, and later even more than I loved the surf. And I won’t pretend that it was not a distinct pleasure to meet girls. Three sisters in particular have always had a special place in my memories, Caroline, Vanessa and Diana. Caroline was a beautiful, blonde, English rose, sweet, generous and outgoing, while Vanessa was raven-haired, equally beautiful, haughty and proud. For the first time, but, I regret to say, far from the last, I found myself half in love with two women. My shyness helped not at all, and I was unable to detect any reciprocal feelings from either, nor to make the choice and make my own feelings known to either. I suppose I could call this sad, but really it is just pathetic, don’t you think? And Diana, less stunningly attractive than her sisters, she made up for it in wit and intelligence and she offered me an open and genuine friendship that I was glad to reciprocate.
My parents signed me up for sailing at school, and bought me, at some sacrifice, a racing/cruising dinghy. Sailing opened my social world, and surely raised my confidence, testing both my skill and courage. At Rock there were races every Saturday, and during the week there was the estuary to cruise. One memorable day a group of us took our boats beyond the estuary into the open ocean to sail around the rocky island off the head. And I found a heady way to combine the joy of sail with the exhilaration of surf. There was a sand bar across most of the mouth of the estuary, exposed at low tide and covered with deep water at high, there was a point between the tides where the water was deep enough to sail, but shallow enough that the waves would break. By sailing out of the channel and circling back, I found I could sail in on the crest of a wave to ride the surf as it broke. This required some skill, and in certain measure courage, as there was some real danger. But the real test came the day I decided that the stiff breeze in advance of an approaching gale was the perfect opportunity for a solo sail. Jubilantly I sailed out of the estuary into the Atlantic waves. However, when I finally decided that perhaps it would be wise to turn back I found it more than I could manage to handle the boat close-hauled amid the fearsomely large waves. For a few moments, in rising fear, I managed to stay in control. Then a vicious squall blew in. As the boat capsized I faced the real possibility that I might drown. I was half a mile out to sea. The beaches were deserted, and I was sure no one would have noticed that I was in difficulties. I was far from confident that I would be able to right her in these rough waters, and quite sure that even if I did manage that I would not be able to control a swamped boat. I was very afraid. Somehow I swam to the centreboard and climbed onto it, took hold of the jib sheet and with less struggle than anticipated managed to haul her upright. Head into the wind we were pointing straight up the estuary. That is where I needed to go, but there was no question of baling, waves broke over the sides far faster than I could manage to scoop water overboard, and there was still less chance of keeping the boat upright close-hauled in this wind, these waves, and full of water. I sat for a moment, completely at a loss. Still no signs of life ashore, and the wind and the estuary’s flow were slowly bearing me out into the Atlantic. If I didn’t think of something soon, obviously I was lost. Well, Daymer Bay was on my aft beam, perhaps I could bear away onto a broad reach and make it to the shore. Once there I would be able to drain and beach her and plan what to do next. So that is what I did. She fell away from the wind sharply enough, and even with both sheets let fully out the sails caught enough wind to start to make good headway. I began to breathe more easily. Enough wind? More than enough. Even with me sitting as far aft as possible, the bow started downwards. Water flowed forward and in seconds we were making a fine impression of a U-boat crash diving. As the bow went down, the stern rose and there I was, four feet above the waves as she slowly gave up the struggle and lay down once more on her side. But the shelf of the Daymer beach is very shallow, and although still several hundred yards from shore, to my delight, my surprise, and most of all relief, I found that I was standing on the bottom. Neck deep, to be sure, but standing. Once more I righted her, but now I did not re-board. I was able to push her from the stern at a sharp enough angle to the wind that the sails did not fill. It was hard work, but the danger was past and eventually I could pull her up onto the beach. For several long moments I just sat on the sand beside the beached boat, recovering my breath, my energy and my courage, and considering my options, which were not many. I could just sit it out here, but that might possibly be a cause for some alarm, as at least a few people had seen me set out, and I had told Mum I was off for “a quick sail”. If I wasn’t back for lunch she would surely worry. And then at the thought of lunch I realized I was famished. Very well, I would have to get back. I could tow her back along the shore, but that would mean slogging through thigh deep water for a mile or more, which would take forever, I did not want to wait that long to eat, and it would be humiliating if any of my friends were to see me, which they surely would. Which left returning under sail. So I reefed the sails down to the size of ladies’ hankies, and very chastened, beat my way back up the channel.
Sailing also brought me face to face, for the first of what by now feels like far too many times, with one of life’s bizarrely cruel tragedies. The Sherborne sailing club used to go for weekends in Poole harbour. Leaving early on Saturday morning, we would drive down to Poole and sail out to an island where we had a camp site. The short summer nights allowed for a good day’s sailing before returning for a camp fire supper and then to sleep in army surplus tents. After sailing again all day on Sunday, we would sail back to the slip, beach and trailer the boats and drive back to school. One Sunday a family group shared the slipway with us, beaching a large, powerful and expensive looking speed boat. Vehicles were prohibited on the slipway, and as the boat was heavy they were having some difficulty getting her to the top. Among the party was an extremely attractive girl, bikini clad. Naturally a crowd of sixteen to eighteen year old boarding school boys were quick to notice her ample and shapely breasts. Equally naturally, she seemed pleased at the attention, and was perhaps paying, on that account, less attention to what she was doing than she should. She was pushing from the stern, and standing below the high water mark. The slipway was carpeted with slippery green algae. “One. Two. Three. Push!” called a man, presumably her father, from the bow. As she flexed her body to push, we were treated to the view of her lovely straining legs and delightful derriere. But then suddenly her feet both slid away from her. She let out a pretty gasp of mock fright. And then she completely lost her footing. Her legs flew backwards and for a moment she seemed to hang suspended, horizontal, a few feet off the ground. Then she fell. The whole weight of her body landed on her right breast, with a frightful sound that I will not try to describe. At first no one realized what had happened. But as she stood, it became obvious. Her breast had literally exploded under the force. Where once, seconds before, had been that shapely flesh that we had admired, of which she had been so proud, now… Now the green cloth of her bikini bra was soaked in blood, what was once a beautiful breast now resembled nothing so much as some unmentionable piece of offal on a butcher’s block, good only to be thrown out as waste. She stood there, sobbing, gasping unintelligible words, whose sense of inconsolable grief and pain were nevertheless all too clear. Someone wrapped a jacket around her shoulders and gently led her away. Someone else ran to call for an ambulance. I was seventeen, you may imagine it left a deep and indelible impression. For my own part I am quite sure that this incident was responsible for my discomfort with large breasts, my life long preference for small breasted women.
Jane. I hope you have gathered that I had essentially no contact whatever with girls, and altogether too much with boys. My ideas on romance, sex, love were constructed haphazardly from pop music, books, magazines like Town and others rather less salubrious, the lonely longings of my heart and hormonal activity. My parents left a sex education pamphlet by my bed one night, which did little, beyond supplying some Latin terms, to increase my knowledge of the biology. As to the psychology or the social niceties of romance, I was on my own. True, I had a sister, but we were not close, certainly not close enough to talk sensitively on this topic. And I’ve already mentioned her teasing me about Christiane. There was a remark dropped when she strayed into the bathroom to find me naked in the tub. There was a scandalous note of hers that I found and used for the purposes of blackmail for a day or two. My mother would occasionally remark, rather unconvincingly, how handsome I looked, but that seemed irrelevant as I had apparently already decided that character was what was important. Romantic, over-sensitive, awkward, shy, utterly inexperienced, in a word I was clueless. And yet…
In the summer of 1965, it was decided that I should acquire some social graces, and off I went for dancing lessons. I blush at the memory. Two left feet? More like two left hooves. I eventually managed the simplest of waltz steps without endangering my partner, but for the rest I was completely inept, too stiff to find the rhythm, to shy to relax. The lessons continued in the winter holiday, culminating in a Christmas dance. I have no clear memory, but I imagine I spent most of the evening carefully not dancing, probably snacking on the canapés, drinking glass after glass of the sugary non-alcoholic punch. But at last the lights dimmed for the last waltz. The end in sight, I finally relaxed a little. And then, consternation.
“Would you like to dance with me? Please.” She was so pretty, long dark hair falling in waves over her shoulder, bright blue eyes, a sweet smile. Could she really be talking to me? Hard as I found it to believe, she was. How could I refuse?
“I’m not a good dancer,” I told her.
“That’s alright. Come on.” And she took my hand, led me onto the floor. To tell the truth we did not so much dance as shuffle, but that did not seem to matter. We spoke a little, enough at least to exchange names. She pulled me very close. She nestled her head on my shoulder, I could feel her breasts pressed against my chest, her hands in the small of my back, stomach, hips thrust forward. I know I wondered, why me? Then she lifted her head. Looked at me. And then, as the song says, she kissed me…
When the music ended she gave me her telephone number. I remember it to this day. I promised to call. A smile, a quick kiss on my cheek and she was gone.
This had not been my first kiss. There had been Claire’s friend Ginny, who came to Rock that summer. We had an evening of guilty, furtive kisses and clumsy groping. And Theresa at what must have been a farewell party before we decamped to Eastbourne. Theresa flirted, kissed me and promptly switched her attentions elsewhere. But Jane’s kiss was the first truly generous kiss, the first that had felt actually meant for me, in a sense the benchmark against which I have measured kisses ever since.
I kept my promise to call Jane, and we spoke often, but the thirty miles that separated us might have been thirty thousand, and we only saw each other three more times.
Before I get back to those articles by Tom Wolfe, and my ongoing explorations of some kind of provisional ethical, political framework for myself, I think I hear a critic or two complaining. “This is no more than a collection of anecdotes strung together,” I can hear them say, “What about narrative structure?” I guess they were just skimming, because I could swear I touched on this in the opening pages. Perhaps they were expecting some attempt at a stream of consciousness tour de force. “Stream of consciousness”? Surely the most pretentious literary device ever invented. And narrative structure? Listen, I’m just talking about my life here, the way I remember it, trying to put the events more or less in chronological order, in words that attempt to provide a reasonably accurate and coherent description. That’s all. If you don’t like it, you know where the exit is, just don’t let the door hit you… Excuse me, but really, all that literary theoretical, writers’ workshop posturing just makes me ill.
Besides my athletic and amorous adventures, I was still at school, studying for the A Levels in preparation for University. As it was to turn out, this plan went somewhat awry. It started with my curriculum. Somewhere within the depths of the Education Ministry had been born the proposal to modernize British Education. Of course this chiefly affected State schools, but we felt ripples. We had grappled with the New Math already, and now it had been decreed that a more rounded syllabus was called for at A Level. Pupils heading for a liberal arts degree at University were required to take one science subject, while scientists were to study one in the arts. I think this was at least in part a reaction to “The Two Cultures”, but whatever the reason it was, at least on the face of it, a noble idea. “On the face of it”, alas, there lies that infamous rub. As I had been doing so well with English, I even won a prize if I remember, it didn’t take a great deal of thought to decide that Maths, Physics, English would be my subjects, and I had hopes of leaving the University graced with my BSc, a literate, if not a literary, engineer. Of course that was too easy. No the school could not fit those classes together, English was definitively out of the question.
“So what can I take?” I asked, naively imagining that there would be some options available. French, perhaps, even Geography. Actually, no, it turned out that the sole option on the table would be the combined Economics and British Constitution course. Hooray. I would be hard pressed to think of anything that interested me less. But this proved to be fateful. Also fateful, in fact life changing, was my decision to take Art as an easy option that I hoped would allow me to unwind from the rigors of Maths and Physics.
I have already touched on the erosion of my rote conformist conservatism. Economics classes were to strike a fatal, albeit unintentional, blow to the taproot of that misbegotten ideology, and a good thing too. The teacher was blotchy-red-faced, jingoistic blowhard who repeated ad nauseam, and beyond, in an insufferably pompous tone that “the British Constitution is the best constitution in the world”, not as a reasoned opinion but as uncontestable fact. I was already ill-disposed towards this whole course that I felt I had been shanghaied into taking, and this man’s teaching methods served only to further alienate me. Every lesson seemed to provide excuses for virulent diatribes against Marx, Communism, anything, really, to the left of the Liberal Party, which merited mere disdain. So following the adage about “the enemy of my enemy”, I came to the conclusion that anyone who could inspire such hatred in this man must have something. I checked out Das Capital from the library and started to wade through Karl’s turgid prose. I confess that I was dragged to a standstill long before the end. I was struck by two things, though. Firstly the way in which Engels gathered all his damning evidence from those he sought to damn, an example that should be followed more closely by contemporary social critics. The historical overview of pre-capitalist history was at complete variance with our textbook’s version. In particular the heartbreaking injustice of the highland clearances infuriated me. I took up the hobby of annotating the text book with references to counter-arguments from Marx, sometimes crossing out entire sections. Needless to say that when it came time for the A Level I was lucky to scrape an O Level pass from my efforts.
My fifth form year passed fairly uneventfully, scholastically at least. The maths and physics were challenging, and I caused the physics teacher no little annoyance as I sought explications of electricity that I could actually grasp, rather than simply memorize relationships between what seemed, and still seem, mysterious if not downright mystical qualities.
I continued to be a voracious reader of fiction. From war stories I had slid into mysteries and spy dramas from the likes of Buchan and Ambler followed by Fleming and what became a life long love of Deighton, Le Carre and Greene. I also developed a taste for science fiction. I had begun with the standard classics, Verne, Wells, Conan Doyle. Then I stumbled onto Wyndham’s “Day of the Triffids” after which I set myself the goal of reading the entire Penguin Science Fiction library. I was primarily seeking entertainment, certainly not wishing to collect a combustible array of intellectual influences. But that was what I succeeded in doing.
Over the summer holiday of 1965 we were set the task of writing on one of several set topics in physics. I chose Relativity. It was an enormous challenge, and I cannot claim anything like a complete understanding. However, thanks to Einstein’s lucid explanations, I did manage at least a tenuous grasp of the Special Theory, enough at least to get high marks for my essay. More important the notion of the fixed of our own perceptions was shattered for ever, and my eyes were opened to the worlds of wonder revealed in physics and cosmology.
My sixth form year saw a thorough reappraisal of all my beliefs, desires and ambitions which resulted finally in their almost complete reversal. I should point out that this was no conscious, thoughtfully reasoned intellectual exercise. No it was the desperate groping of my my cowed, almost defeated, spirit, a search for some way of being, of living my life, that might give me some glimpse at last of freedom, a chance, perhaps, at happiness. And partly I was simply caught up in the currents of what still seems to me to have been an extraordinary era.
There was music of course, but rock ‘n’ roll was merely the most blatant expression of what was being called a “seismic upheaval” of England’s long entrenched class system, an upheaval that demonstrated itself most forcefully among the young. “Teddy boys”, “beatniks”, “rockers”, “mods” in turn and together scandalized the bastions of the status quo. One day, shopping with Mum in
Wellington, I had been a little shocked, and secretly a little pleased, to hear a passing child tell his mother, “Look, Mum! A beatnik!“. Evidently he saw in me something I had not yet recognized for myself.
My revulsion for war led me to attend the CND Easter March during the spring holiday of 1966. Although I had come to the march alone, I found there were hundreds of other young people there. Young people who did not question or challenge my public school diction, united across classes, geography, and yes, even race, by their common passion for peace, for justice. We shared our food, our stories, our dreams and our fears. And we believed, from the bottom of our innocent hearts, that not only we should make a difference, change the world for the better, but that we actually could, and in fact would. Foolish? Naive? Unrealistic? Oh, in retrospect it is all too easy to pass those judgements. I prefer to believe now, as I did then, that there was something beautiful, something truly noble in these children who honestly believed that without violence, through the strength of our hearts, and the certainty that the cause was just and true, we could tear down all the structures of hatred in the world. Yes, it was a transformative weekend for me, to finally have found kindred spirits, to have walked those long miles together, singing, shouting our defiance, united.
With the summer term came University interviews. These offered a welcome escape from the confines of school, train journeys to London, to Birmingham, to Bristol, to Brighton, and sometimes with time to spare to catch a foreign film in Soho. Yes, I was hoping to see women with no clothes on, and accidentally found myself discovering Buñuel, Godard, Vadim. And their actresses, Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, Brigitte Bardot, the luminous Jeanne Moreau. But to meet other boys who were interviewing for Mechanical Engineering, was sobering, not to say thoroughly depressing. Dull, shy, nondescript, in fact, to be honest, a lot like me. But the prospect of three years in this company to be followed by a lifetime’s anonymous employment by some industrial giant was frankly horrifying. It was not immediate but eventually I would balk at the whole idea. But I did at least gain acceptance at three schools.
Art had proved to be a good choice, many lessons had been taken up with slide shows of art history, providing perfect cover for refreshing naps, and after all the practice with my flight fantasies I could draw well enough to scrape through the few practical assignments. But in the sixth form year came a fateful change. The school’s art master chose that year to go on sabbatical and his place was taken by Mr. Blenkinsop. As well as possessing this remarkable name, he was a practicing artist, and a bohemian eccentric of the old school. He wore magnificent tufts of hair on his cheeks, tweedy leather-elbowed jackets and baggy corduroy trousers and, of course, smoked a Ted Hughes pipe. He was enthusiastic and committed. He took it for granted that everyone was taking the class because of some genuine interest, rather than as simply an escape. This novel approach to teaching elicited cynical laughter behind his back, but I was touched and caught up somehow in his enthusiasm. The more so as he was kind enough to recognize that I possessed some weak, guttering flame of talent, that he took it upon himself to gently fan into stronger life.
All these influences acted together to encourage minor, mostly symbolic rebellious gestures. I tested the limits of hair length and style, had trousers narrowed to a hair less than the permitted minimum, sported a narrow knit tie. Tiny gestures that were dwarfed by the miscreants of Abbey House, though certainly more subversive in intent. The Head Boy of Abbey, along with his cronies had been throwing illicit parties in his study, inviting girls from the girls’ school, drinking, playing cards, there were rumors later of strip poker. So he had rigged an alarm using the house’s electrical circuit, but it seems he was not a skilled electrician. One night the alarm shorted out and the house burned to the ground. No one was hurt, but needless to say all the boys, and girls, involved were expelled. As I say, at this point at least my rebellion was at a much lower key.
At about this point the fateful, what later proved to be the fatal, final ingredient was added to the mix. Tom Wolfe’s writing in Town found an eager and appreciative audience in me. The pump house gang’s insouciant attitude towards all the mundane priorities in life, their willingness to give everything over to an endless quest for the perfect wave sounded romantic, quixotic, somehow almost noble. All the values that I had been force fed for the last dozen years already seemed to me false, hypocritical, worthless, and this courage, or foolhardiness, to simply walk away from them was inspiring. And it was at this time also that a growing interest in a new wonder drug began to gain more and more prominence in the mainstream press, and particularly in Town. A lengthy interview appeared with a Harvard professor who advocated its use. The professor, of course, was Dr. Timothy Leary, the drug LSD. I was fascinated. As tens of thousands of others were fascinated. This widespread fascination was another symptom of what truly did appear to be a worldwide wave of questioning, searching, concern. People, and particularly the young, appeared swept up in a quest for justice, hopes for an end to the fear of nuclear annihilation, questioning of bankrupt ideologies. It was an intoxicating feeling, for a lonely, isolated, alienated boy like me to suddenly find that all those questions and doubts, all those dreams and unformed hopes that I had nursed in my secret heart believing them to be mine alone were shared by so many. It is hard now to imagine the hope and hoopla associated in those days with LSD. The drug was touted as a universal spiritual panacea. Its advocates clearly believed their own claims. I was not alone in recognizing a deep need for what appeared to be on offer. I was a little doubtful of Leary’s rather sanctimonious approach, but Wolfe’s description of Ken Kesey and the Pranksters captured my desires perfectly. Rock ‘n’ roll spirituality, holy madness, sacred creative frenzy, a peaceful revolution for love? Count me in, oh yes please, count me in! But although LSD was still quite legal there were no clearly marked recruiting stations for this nascent movement. If I wanted to join up – and believe me, I did, passionately – then I would have to find my own way.
Half-recognized currents of thought began to flow together, becoming a meandering river. Too soon the river would become a torrent, eventually to throw me over mighty falls that all but finished me. The ideas that came together now were my growing distaste for the conformist life that seemed to lie ahead, Mr. Blenkinsop’s encouragement, my taste of community on the CND march, a desire to taste LSD, the wish to join a community possessed of what appeared to be the real possibility to transform the world. Of course! It seemed blindingly obvious, I would alter course completely. I would take a blind leap of faith. I would go to Art School! The very thought was liberating. I gained a sense of purpose, direction, I had never known, and with it a new feeling of strength and confidence.
I called home with the news of my new plan. Dad was rather less than pleased. No, he was apoplectic.
“Art school?” he spluttered, “That’s… that’s… the last refuge of the incompetent. No. Out of the question.”
It is a lot easier to defy an angry parent over the telephone. “Well, in that case I just won’t do my A Levels.” Stunned silence. My god! Had I gained the upper hand? So easily?
I pressed my advantage. “Look, dad, let me try it. If it doesn’t work out, I can always go back to engineering. But this is what I want to do. And I know I can.”
Eventually we reached a compromise. I would do my pre-diploma course at Eastbourne School of Art, at least if I was accepted, but I would live at home, where they could keep an eye on me. If Eastbourne did not accept me I would give up this “silly nonsense” and take one of the University places on offer. I was confident enough, or arrogant enough if you like, to be sure that I’d be accepted, and I was. It was the living at home that would prove troublesome.
Free of anxiety over my A Level results and looking forward to a brighter future, I all but floated through the final months of school. Twice I even managed to escape the place for an afternoon, a day. I was still talking to Jane several times a week. We agreed to meet on a Saturday afternoon in Yeovil to go to the pictures. When the day came, I slipped away from the House. We were encouraged to go out and about on Saturdays and Sundays, so no problem there. But this kind of excursion was forbidden. I met Jane at the bus stop in Yeovil, and we went to see Cary Grant and Leslie Caron in Father Goose. Other than the clues to be gleaned in the poster, and a few moments of the opening scenes, I saw next to nothing of the film. If I had been worried about those awkward moments, wondering if I dared try to put my arm around her shoulders, Jane apparently had no such concerns. It was she who had chosen a row towards the back of the almost deserted cinema. And now it was she who turned to me, put her hand to my cheek and kissed me. The sweet innocence of those childish kisses, tender, generous and warm, inexperienced, inquiring, exploring together, discovering the delight to be found in, to be offered to, each other. We kissed. We gently held each other. Jane found my hand, softly brought my fingertips to stroke her breast. I found it had become difficult to breathe. She pressed my palm against her. And then, again she took hold of my hand, led me beneath her sweater. Somehow she had loosened her bra, and I was holding her naked breast in my hand…
Jane was my guest at the school’s Commemoration Ball, but I’m afraid I remember almost nothing of that evening. In fact the only thing I do remember with any clarity is a boy named Crump, he was terribly shy and something of a laughing stock as he had developed the nervous habit of prefacing every utterance with “Mmmnnnyaah”, which earned him the nickname Mnyacrump. However on that night he amazed everyone by arriving with a luminously beautiful, ethereal, raven haired princess who turned everyone’s heads.
One day towards the end of term, A Levels over, time on my hands, I decided to leave for one last visit to Holcombe. It was a perfect English summer day. Many generous drivers seemed to be abroad and I arrived in the village around lunch time. My first stop was the village shop, where Mr. O’Dell greeted me warmly and sold me a bottle of red wine, a pork pie and sausage roll and no doubt my favorite Bounty bar. I strolled the main street towards Court Cottage, full of a sweet melancholic nostalgia and anticipation of the infinite possibilities of the future that lay open before me. On the way back to Sherborne I decided to stop in Ilminster to visit Jane. After being dropped off on the main road I asked directions and walked the short distance to her house. A little nervously, for my visit was unannounced and I was not entirely certain of my welcome, I climbed the steps to the front door and rang the bell. Moments later the door opened and there was Jane. She broke into a smile when she saw me, brushed aside my apologies. “It’s alright, come in. My parents aren’t here.” Are those not the most welcome words any teenage boy could ever hope to hear? She led me upstairs to her room. We sat side by side on the bed. We kissed. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I must taste awful. I’ve been drinking wine.” “No,” she answered, “not at all. You taste like strawberries.” I still smile at those sweet words. We kissed again. That was the last time I saw her. Some years later Mum showed me her wedding announcement in the newspaper. I was happy for her, happiness shaded with a sweet regret.
On the last evening of term Mr. Blenkinsop invited the four of us who would be going on to art school to join him for a celebratory pint. We could not get away with drinking at any of the pubs in the town, so we set off across the fields for Sandford Orcas. We passed a pleasant couple of hours drinking a couple of companionable pints at the Mitre before walking back through the summer twilight. Once back at the town we made our separate ways. I was feeling elated, staggering only very slightly when I got back to the Digby. Where I found all the doors locked. I tiptoed twice around the house, just to be sure. No luck. But there was a drainpipe. Perhaps the window would be open. In spite of my lack of gymnastic skills and impaired equilibrium, somehow I made it up to the window. Also locked. Damn. So long as I was up here, perhaps if I were to knock quietly. Eventually one of the boys came to investigate. He seemed oddly surprised to see my face outside the window.
“Maben.” he whispered. “What are you doing?”
“Locked out.” Obviously. “Would you unlock the door downstairs?”
He nodded and disappeared. I slid clumsily back to the ground and waited. He seemed to be taking an extraordinarily long time to descend one flight of stairs. I waited. At last a figure appeared. I was grinning ear to ear in gratitude and relief when Mr Curry opened the door.
The next morning there was a brand new announcement pinned to the house notice board, to the effect that I had been demoted from junior prefect. I grabbed it and stuffed it into a pocket on my way out.