INTERESTING TIMES 6: FREEDOM

By Andrew Maben

Jazz BluesNo reprieved prisoner could have felt greater joy and relief than I as I walked out of the front door for the last time and made my way to the station. I took off my tie, that throttling symbol of all the repression of the last twelve years, and stuffed it into a pocket.

On the train I sat alone and silent, my heart bursting with freedom and the possibilities that finally were open to me. The whole world would be my playground now. It would be a summer of stretching my wings, exploration and modest adventure, at last I could begin to live.

My first destination was a celebratory farewell to my Royal Air Force fantasy – I had signed up for a glider training course to be held at an RAF base in Essex. The freedom of flight opposed the constraint of my cadet uniform, which I would wear for the week and then never again. It seemed a fitting symbol of my new beginning…

At our orientation lecture the instructor informed us that gliding is safer than being at home. He then went on to say that a student had died the previous week, hardly confidence inspiring, but went on to say that the boy suffered from epilepsy and hadn’t bothered to tell anyone.

The planes were WWII vintage two-seater trainers, heavy and unwieldy, and it was my luck to be assigned a somewhat overweight instructor. The first flight was nonetheless exhilarating. A tow cable was attached at the nose and a high-speed winch pulled us down the grass strip. As we gained speed the craft reluctantly left the ground and seconds later my instructor pulled back on the stick and we began to climb. My fear of heights had me gritting my teeth and clenching my fists as the ground fell away below us at an alarming speed. And then there was a loud click as he released the tow, a jerk, and a peaceful quiet, the only sound the gentle soughing of air in the wires. With the release of that attachment to the ground, my fear dissolved, replaced with a gentle exultation.

After the requisite number of training flights, I was deemed ready for the first of two solos that would earn me my certification.

“Don’t go too high, and don’t go too far,” my instructor told me. “Good luck!”

I gave my thumbs-up, the ground crew signaled the winch, and I was on my way. The plane became airborne it seemed almost instantly, and when I pulled back the stick bounded upwards like a rocket. In no time I’d reached the prescribed height, but had scarcely covered half the usual distance. Just a bit higher, I told myself. And somehow, before I’d even traveled as far as the usual point at which we were used to releasing, I had reached almost twice the elevation I was supposed to be at. Oops! I pulled the release. The plane seemed to jump for joy, as did my heart. An utterly sublime feeling of freedom swept over me. The plane seemed as light as a feather under my hand. It was a glorious sunny day, a few small puffy white clouds cast their dappled shadows on the earth that lay outstretched beneath me. Those moments were perhaps as close to unalloyed joy as I had ever come to in my life. I flew on, long past the boundary of the airfield before finally banking to make the turn back. I still had a lot of height to lose before I could make my landing and so I went into a fairly steep dive. The airspeed rose and I pulled up, exulting in the power and freedom…

I must have been drunk on the euphoria, because I find my memories of that summer are even more fragmentary than usual. I have clear pictures of some events, hazy recollections of others, and frankly almost no memory whatever of my state of mind beyond that initial rush of excitement and anticipation, so all I can offer are a couple of vignettes surrounded by a rosy haze.

The last weekend of July brought the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival. I must have met some people during the course of two days, surely? I’ve no idea… I took my little tent and sleeping bag and found a spot in the campground, where I surely had neighbors.

The line-up was extraordinary, with many bands I had long wanted to see live: the Yardbirds; Cream, in what was billed as their first major show; Geno Washington; the Move; Spencer Davis; the Small Faces; the Who…

Honestly the only thing I recall with any clarity is the end of the Who’s set. They launched into My Generation, after a brief introduction by Roger Daltrey in which he claimed that after tonight there would be no more orgies of destruction. They blasted through the song. Daltrey moved to the footlights and glanced down. He casually kicked out one of the lights. Cheers from the crowd. He made his way systematically along the row of lights, carefully extinguishing each one. Townsend drove the neck of his guitar through the front of a speaker cabinet. Banshee feedback. Howls of approval from the crowd. Moon’s drumming became an assault. Daltrey smashing his microphone into the stage, into the cymbals. Townsend monomaniacally smashing his guitar repeatedly on the stage floor. Moon kicking pieces of drum kit off his platform. At last there was not a single piece of equipment on the stage that was not almost utterly destroyed. The band walked off, leaving only a high pitched squeal from a single amplifier. And a crowd whose earlier cacophonic approbation had by now subsided into stunned silence…

I know I went to Rock to see that summer refuge one last time, and I must have slept on the beach as I certainly had nowhere else, but again memory is overwhelmed. I do recall a party in the dunes where I earned my beer by opening bottles with my teeth…

I did all my traveling by hitch-hiking, and on my way from Rock to visit Uncle Reg in Weymouth I had a rather remarkable encounter. Dropped at a lonely hilltop crossroads somewhere in Dorset in the early evening my prospects were not looking good. There was almost no traffic, and none of the drivers showed the least inclination to stop. Time passed. I waited. I enjoyed the balmy summer evening. I waited. A big black antique Rolls Royce appeared, drew closer. I eagerly extended my arm, thumb extended, hopeful. The car slowed a little and my heart leapt in anticipation. For nothing, the Rolls rolled past. In the rear window, two girls turned around to wave. Yeah, I thought, ha fucking ha… I stepped into the road and gave them the V sign. The car suddenly braked and stopped, began to reverse towards me. Once again my heart leapt, but this time in fear, as I took stock of my isolation. I pictured the driver beating me up and leaving me to spend the night in the ditch. The car stopped a few feet away, the driver jumped out and I steeled myself for a drubbing. But he picked up my bag and, grinning, told me to hop in. After he put my bag in the boot, we both got in.

“Hello”, a beautiful girl, somehow looking familiar, and her tone suggests I should know her. I’m drawing a complete blank, and I’m too embarrassed, as usual, to admit my failure to recognize her. And why is she so caked in makeup, in contrast to her simple peasant dress?

“Hello”, I answered, with an attempt at a confident smile that I may have imagined would signal my recognition.

“Where are you going?”

“Weymouth.”

“Great! We can take you all the way. How’s it been going.”

“Well, I left Cornwall this morning, so pretty well.”

“Oh, I used to hitch everywhere with my boyfriend, but I just can’t anymore. I miss those days…” Another dazzling smile.

I turned back to the front. Gosh, she’s so beautiful, and friendly. I decided that when we got to Weymouth, I’d ask her out for a drink.

Meanwhile the girls were having a somewhat odd conversation.

“What a day.”

“Yes, I wish they didn’t have to do it.”

“I know.”

“It seems so cruel, running all those sheep over the edge like that.”

I could make no sense of it whatever…

And so we arrived in Weymouth.

“We’ll just drop you off in front of the hotel. We’ll be there in a moment.”

I nerved myself to ask her out. But then we were there, in front of the Grand Hotel. There was a crowd on the pavement outside, spilling into the street, holidaymakers and photographers. I turned to the back to ask her. And that’s when the penny dropped and I lost my nerve. Finally I recognized Julie Christie.

Abashed, embarrassed, chastened I retrieved my bag from the boot, offered my thanks and slid away into the crowd. It was a long walk to Reg’s, and I berated myself. How could I have not recognized one of my icons of beauty? Why could I not have had the courage to ask her out anyway? She was so natural and friendly, and from the sounds of it she may have welcomed the chance to get away for a while… Much later I realized that she must have been on location for Far From The Madding Crowd, and the remarks about sheep at last made sense.

Reg had invented a revolutionary new sail, and had build a small boat to try it out. He had some hopes that the new rig might be considered for the Olympics. Essentially the sail dispensed with the bottom of a conventional Bermuda sail, tapering to the mast both up and downwards from a point a little below half-height. His claim was that the part he had cut away contributed mostly drag and so the new sail would be far more efficient. He proudly showed me his article in a yachting magazine that explained his invention. The main drawback was that the boom had to be at the broadest part of the sail, meaning it had to comprise two curving parts, one on each side, and the mechanism for running the rigging was a little cumbersome. Nevertheless the little craft was extraordinarily fast and manoeuverable. Alas, his Olympic hopes were never realized. A few years later though, the sail showed up in a new configuration: as the rigging of windsurfers…

And so finally back to Eastbourne and the eagerly anticipated start of my first Art School term. But also to face living at home. At home with the parents who had abandoned me to the prisons of boarding school for so many years. Now they wanted to keep me under their watchful eyes, just when I was beginning to taste the possibility of freedom.

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