INTERESTING TIMES 9: WINTER OF DISCONTENT

By Andrew Maben

VU AlbumYes, I was still a student, and I’d been set a summer project as an introduction to the Fine Art program: a painting on the theme of night. Somehow I became fascinated with a small photo in Scientific American of an aluminium crystal. Whatever tenuous logic I might have conjured at the time to link this image with night by now utterly escapes me, though I think it may have had some connection with Klee, of whom I’d become an admirer, almost a disciple. But I suppose I did have some sort of reason. The piece took shape on a three feet by four piece of board. Well, perhaps “took shape” is too generous a description of the process… I did manage to successfully transfer the shapes from the photo, but somehow the application of color did not turn out quite as I had envisioned. Strong, bright colors all became muted and dull. What were meant to be subtle tonalities were muddy. In a desperate, and frankly hopeless, effort to somehow inject some life into this inert surface I hit on the idea of applying bright collage. The final effect was a little disappointing…

Unsurprisingly enough, my offering was met with something a hair this side of outright derision and I was given a week to come up with an alternative. I was crushed. My rationale having been dismissed, and having seen others’ efforts, I understood that what was wanted was something more “traditional”, more “figurative”, and mostly more “painterly”. So I set out to paint an Impressionistic view of the pier at night. From Klee to Monet, my other great love and inspiration. Perhaps I could meet the “traditional” and “figurative” criteria, but here too the “painterly” quality remained beyond my grasp. Alas, once again the distance from vision to execution proved beyond my capacity. Once again the paint steadfastly refused to sing my tune. Once again the final result was drab and muddy. And this time I did not have even the recourse of colorful collage to fall back on…

So I found myself in the Principal’s office.

“You’re not a painter” he informed me bluntly. My heart sank, even as in its depths I acknowledged the truth of his observation.

“But,” he went on, “you are the most talented student in the school.” From despondent to dumbfounded. How could he be saying that? I had a little trouble accepting such a gargantuan note of praise. No, not a little trouble, I was, frankly, utterly incredulous. I stared…

“So what are we going to do? I don’t want to lose you, but you cannot stay in the painting class.” I felt certain that he would insist that I return to my originally stated interest in industrial design, or perhaps graphics. My heart sank a little further.

But then, “Take a week off to think about it. If you want to come to any classes, you’re welcome. If you want to miss them all, you may. But I want to see you here next week to tell me exactly what you want to do, and why.”

Wow.

I offered some words of heartfelt thanks and reeled out of there, head spinning.

I took the offer at face value, attended all the drawing classes, skipped the rest. And gave the matter some thought, a great deal of thought, actually. I had already arrived at some kind of confluence of ideas, influenced by the synesthesia of sound and vision induced under the influence of LSD, the lightshows that were a staple of UFO, as well as my readings of Paul Klee, in particular his ideas as to the possibility of painting achieving the transcendent properties of music. As I saw it Klee’s ideal was unrealizable, due to an essential difference between the two mediums, namely that while the determining dimension for music is time traversing space, for painting it is space fixed in time. The effects of music are dependent upon, and achieved through, changes of aural tone in relation to time. The effect of a painting is achieved through changes of visual tone in relation to space. Any but the simplest music is composed of multiple tones that change, both in relation to each other in space and in relation to time. The multiple tones of a painting lack this component of change in time, so I was already coming to the reluctant conclusion that unless the crucial ingredient of orchestrated movement in time could be introduced into visual art, Klee’s project was unrealizable. Up to now I had not reached beyond this rather vague conclusion, but there’s nothing like a deadline to bring my thoughts into focus. It did not take long to put it all together and realize that there did in fact already exist a medium that consisted of the mutation of shape and color relative to time: film.

So when at the end of the allotted week I was faced with the question, “So, have you decided what you want to do?”, my answer was simple.

“I’d like to do film.”

“But the school doesn’t offer any film classes.”

“I know, but you asked me to think it through, and that’s my answer.”

He asked me to explain myself, so I laid out my argument and showed the notes and sketches that I had made in the course of the summer.

“OK, you’ve obviously thought it through. I’m convinced. But we still don’t offer any film classes…”

I sat through the silence.

“… But, the photography instructor is also a film cameraman. Let’s get him up here and see what we can work out.”

And so over the course of the next hour or so, the three of us came up with a curriculum: the first half of the winter term, black and white photographhy; the second half of the winter term, colour photography; spring term, film photography and editing; summer term, make a short film!

Given that turmoil was already brewing on college and university campuses around the world as students began to demand more say in the curriculum, this was quite remarkable. On this score I was probably the luckiest student in the world… And so, although at the time the notion of youth being the happiest time was foreign to me, from the perspective of my present situation I suppose that the next few weeks were in most ways “the happiest of my life”.

I plunged whole-heartedly into the task of completing what would normally have been two years’ worth of studies in a single term. I wandered the town, camera in hand. I learned darkroom techniques and studio lighting. What started as an exercise in advertising photography – to create a photograph to advertise hot cocoa – turned into a portrait study of Binky’s beautiful girlfriend Carol…

My grades were consistently high in all my classes, although by now it was common knowledge around the College that I was a hash-smoker and acid-head. I still recall Mrs. S___’s enquiry, as I studied an amethyst geode she had set as the subject in a drawing class.

“Ah, Andrew, are you discovering new worlds?” Yes, I think it’s fair to say that I was discovering new worlds, both within and externally, new worlds of thought, of experience, of emotion…

There were just two clouds on this broad and sunny horizon. The first and most difficult was my strained relations with Mum and Dad, which seemed to be steadily worsening. Although I had cut back my drinking, which had been a major point of contention, to almost nothing, my other psychic recreational resources remained a constant source of friction, as were my strengthening political convictions and rejection of established Christianity.

And then there was my unrequited love for Sally. The two of us still spent many platonic hours together, and my romantic yearnings grew daily stronger, even as she insisted on friendship. It must have been somewhere amidst these days that she spoke some of the most crushing words ever addressed to me, words that still have the power to wound all these years later…

“Andrew, you’re the nicest boy I’ve ever known. but I just don’t think of you that way.”

If you’d like to interpret everything that follows from this point as my efforts to by turns come to terms with, transcend, negate or simply escape those words, I cannot argue with you… But other than those small clouds, my horizons were sunny.

Faced with Sally’s rejection of my amorous advances, I felt free to pursue other girls. Nothing really serious, and nothing that really went anywhere. There were fumbling embraces at parties, but I seem to have been living so deeply inside my head that my heart really wasn’t in it.

Except. Tina…

With the start of the new school year, she had moved into her own little flat, to avoid the tedious daily commute from Hastings, and we began spending time together. I had no idea how to initiate any kind of intimacy, shy, and scared to spoil the friendship with a wrong move. No doubt my feelings for Sally also held me back.

So it may not be a huge surprise to you to hear that, on an occasion where she had been visiting it got late and she asked to spend the night, we slept chastely side by side in my bed. The next morning, Mum knocked on the door and poked her head inside to wake me. Seeing the two of us in bed, she didn’t bat an eye.

“Oh. Two cups of tea this morning?” Yes, most of the friction was between me and my father.

One afternoon after classes I walked into town with Tina, as I did often enough, but this time she invited me to walk her home. As she took out her key at the door, she asked if I’d like to come in. You can imagine my delight at the invitation, and probably my nervousness also. My chest tightened, my stomach fluttered, and no doubt I blushed – to this day, blood rushes to my face at the least discomfiture. The “flat” was really just a spartan bed-sitting room: bed, table, chair, sink, cheap and rather tatty flowered curtains over a window overlooking the back alley.

We sat together on the bed, making stilted small-talk, until she smiled and asked:

“Would you like to make love?”

The the nervousness I had felt as she invited me in was nothing to the turmoil I now felt. Speechless, all I could do was reach out to hold her.

And we kissed.

I was still clueless, of course, but Tina was no novice and gently tolerated my nervous fumblings. Soon she was lying next to me wearing only her bra and panties, enjoying my clumsy tender caress, my eyes greedily devouring the vision of her youthful loveliness. I started to take off my shirt.

“Do you have a Durex?” Oh dear. What an idiot! It had never occurred to me that this kind of situation might arise – and no doubt I’d have been too embarrassed to actually buy any, anyway.

“No.’” I admitted. “Do you?”

Tina showed remarkable restraint and kindness by not rolling her eyes at this.

“No, I don’t. But there’s a chemist’s around the corner – you can see it from the window.” And she handed me the front-door key. I rushed out, feeling both foolish and triumphant. Lust trumped embarrassment as I asked the lady behind the counter for a packet of Durex.

Soon I was back at the flat, and soon we were both naked. Tina’s body was as delightful as I had imagined, more so. I wish I could describe a blissful transport to some sensual seventh heaven. Alas, no. I was just too inexperienced to return the pleasures she offered me, even to fully appreciate and enjoy them for myself. All too soon we were sitting smoking cigarettes and barely talking. With an inane remark that I had to go home for supper, I pulled on my clothes and with a brief kiss left.

On the walk home I wanted to skip, and to kick myself. Tina continued to be friendly, but never repeated her offer, to my chagrin and relief…

Tina was not the only one to have moved into her own place – Barbara and Margaretta also had found a flat, which became a gathering place and the kicking off point for trips up to London. One Friday evening a few of us were there before driving up to UFO. To my astonishment, delight, and a degree of perplexity, Sally had asked to come with me. We were five, as far as I can remember, until Sue, the blue-eyed, raven-haired beauty, showed up and invited herself along. No one objected and after a while we all trooped down to the car. The small car. It was a bit of a Chinese puzzle to fit us all in, and somehow or other, for some reason of her own, Sue decided to sit on my lap. A look that might have been disappointment passed over Sally’s face as Sue squirmed against me, pulling my arms to encircle her. A bird in the hand is what I was thinking, so I succumbed to Sue’s nubile writhings and spent most of my time at the club with her. Another light-struck, acid-hazed night at UFO with Zoot Money’s psychedelic incarnation, Dantalion’s Chariot, topping the bill…

Back in Eastbourne, I’m afraid I didn’t even pay attention to what happened to Sally. The girls had offered me the spare room, so Sue and I went off to bed. We indulged in some fairly intimate groping for a short while, but she drew a strict line and soon we dropped off to sleep… Many a slip twixt cup and lip. Worse, the bird in the bush no doubt now was skyborne…

It was around the beginning of November that the Velvet Underground’s first LP was released in England. As it happened, Mum and Dad were going away for the weekend, leaving the house to me on Saturday night. I decided to take the opportunity to have a small party, and phoned a few friends to invite them over for the evening. Then I hitched over to Brighton, bought the record and scored a bit of hash.

I really didn’t anticipate any kind of trouble – I’d had a big party with lots of people a while before, everyone had pitched in to help clean up afterwards and when the parents got home the place was pretty much immaculate. Tonight there were about six of us all told, Geoff, Peter and Lillian, Stella, perhaps one or two others, and we spent a pleasant and rather quiet evening, smoking, drinking wine or beer and listening to music until people just started falling asleep. Leaving people to more or less make their own arrangements, I dragged myself to bed.

Unfortunately Mum and Dad came home a bit early. At nine o’clock on Sunday morning. I awoke to the sound of their angry voices, telling people to leave. they’d had to pick their way past someone who had fallen asleep on the stairs, and found Peter and Lillian in their bed. Once everyone had left and I had been verbally chastised, that might have been the end of it.

But as it turned out it was just the beginning of the end of my halcyon days.

An hour or two later, the phone rang. Mum answered, and I could hear her side of the conversation.

“Hello.”

“Yes. Yes she was.”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, yes, that’s certainly possible.”

“Yes, I know. I’m sorry.”

“Goodbye.”

It was not until I was at school the next day that I came to understand the full import of that short conversation. In the afternoon I received a summons to the Principal’s office. He looked stern and troubled. Two rather shabby men sat on chairs to one side and glared at me.

“These officers are with the police.” Uh-oh…

I will not attempt to reconstruct the conversation in full, but I heard later that at a meeting earlier in the day with Stella and her father, allegations had been made. Stella had a very difficult time at home dealing with her strict and conservative father, and was trying to have herself declared emancipated, so that she could leave home and apply for grants to continue at school. Her father was against her being at the school in the first place, and implacably opposed her bid for freedom.

“Stella smokes too much, she drinks too much”, he had said, “and what’s more, she takes drugs.” He had gone on to say that he knew for a fact that Stella had been at my place on Saturday night and doing drugs, because my mother had told his wife… Thanks, Mum…

So the police were called, and here I was. Mr. F____, the Principal, presented me with an ultimatum: either I could prepare a list for the cops naming everyone in the school that I knew to be a drug taker, or I would face immediate expulsion.

“I can’t make that list for you.”

“Then I must tell you to collect your things and leave. Now.”

As I was leaving the room, one of the cops hissed at me, “We’ll be watching you, Maben. Sooner or later we’ll get you.”

I collected the few things that were in my locker and left. Shattered. How could I have betrayed my friends and spent the rest of the year as a pariah? Now what was to happen to me? I have tried to escape its shadow, but I look back and see that it was the devastating disappointment of that moment, the anger and resentment that it conjured, that propelled the flight that my life from that day on became.

Outside the College entrance gate was a phone box. I phoned Sally to tell her what had happened and to ask her to meet me, as I really didn’t want to go straight home. I needed the support of a friend. She refused.

You may well imagine the row at home that evening. Dad’s suppressed rage, tinged with a certain perverse satisfaction that all his worst fears had been justified. Mum’s quiet anguish…

The next day’s Daily Mail ran a short paragraph on the front page, below the fold with the news that a student had been expelled for drug-taking…

“Now you’re just going to have to get a job…”

I was put under virtual house-arrest, and soon Dad found me a menial clerical job at the Civil Service office where he worked. Suffice to say that the next few weeks were purgatorial. I have no memory at all of Christmas…

But with January things took a turn for the better. Barbara, Margaretta and Stella – who had joined them after winning the battle with her father – invited me to move in! They treated me much too well. They fed me, washed my clothes, barely allowed me to take on any chores. Idyllic – at least for me – as this ménage was, I was more than restless. The civil service clerk job was stultifying, asphyxiating, a tedious waste of time, and the pay a pittance. The cop’s threat whispered quietly that the town was too small. London beckoned. I had no Puss in Boots illusions of streets paved with gold, but the acid sparkle of the pavements, the trove of possibilities, seemed so much more alluring…

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