I watched a documentary on TV last night which represented the World Cup as the pivotal moment in 1966. This was not the case for me, football interesting me then as much as it does now. The lie of “the whole nation glued to the TV set” does persist however, since it offers the illusion of national unity whereas many people around at that time will recall that fissures were opening up in the social fabric, more significant and much more exciting .
It was the year I left school, hitch-hiked to the South of France, returned to art college, made life-long friends, dropped out.
Though my purple-blazered Sidcup grammar school had liberalized its uniform to the extent of permitting “sports jackets” I was still the target of vigilante sports masters who’d grip my arm, enquiring (in a Welsh accent of course), “What’s this pink shirt, Dean??” “Ah, aagh… it’s a pink shirt sir.”
I took refuge in the art room under the protective wing of the most intellectually stimulating teacher in the school, Stan Simmonds, and in the company of friends with whom I shared a sense of humour and the need to escape.
Escape came most locally in the form of sorties to the shady trees and lakeside of The Glade, an adjacent park, but as another dead hand – that of A level revision – began to grip us we slipped out after registration to one of the main roads diverging from the south-eastern suburbs and hitched down to the coast: Whitstable… Cooden (Cooden?? Well that’s hitch-hiking for you).
Weekends were split between London on Saturdays and bird-watching on Sundays (Cray & Darenth Valleys, North Kent). London was Soho, Chelsea, Portobello Road, Tate, National, Whitechapel Galleries, independent places in Bond St and of course Robert Fraser, where we got an official afternoon off school to see the first Claes Oldenburg show. Fraser talked to me too; he said, “Please don’t touch the artworks.”
The art scene was exciting: Pop Art! Op Art! though the allegedly Swinging aspect of the capital passed me by. The nearest I got was Antonioni’s “Blow-up” though the film which really inspired me was Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou”. Even now it looks audacious.
One day in Soho I bumped into a couple of girls from my sister’s class. They told me they’d got a spare ticket for a talk at Better Books, a radical shop in Charing Cross Road; would I like to join them? The event was about this fascinating stuff called LSD. It was illustrated with slides of paintings made while under the influence which, as I recall, were very dull compared with the kind of Disraeli Gears cliché coming out a year later. When I told my mum about it she cried. She could see I was interested, she said, (an understatement, if only she knew) and I’d end in the gutter. (There’s still time.)
I can’t recall anything about the birds though. If I could locate my old notebooks I’m sure it would all come back but I suspect they’re in the attic somewhere, along with bags and bags of letters from long-distance girlfriends. Which is another subject.
At Easter I hitched to Paris with one of those girls. Standing in a long line of hopefuls in the industrial port of Calais, we were astonished when a Rolls-Royce stopped for us. Honestly. It was driven by an elderly Swiss gentleman who dropped us off in Pigalle where there was a hostel. Profiting, I thought, from the novel availability of red wine & Camembert I consumed too much of both & was sick over my bunk. A day or so later we went to see Screaming Lord Sutch in an all-nighter at the Locomotive, where this long-distance girlfriend put an even greater distance between us upon meeting a nice French boy. So I hitched home alone.
Maybe it was just before that I saw The Who for the first time. It was the weekend that “Substitute” came out and the group were featured on the cover of the Observer magazine with Pete Townsend in his subversive Union Jacket. They played on a Sunday afternoon in the basement of a Victorian house in St Mary Cray. Honestly. It was called the Iron Curtain Club. They turned up an hour late. Speakers were stacked to the ceiling. Feeble cheers greeting the group as they came on stage were the last you could hear of the audience for an hour or so. A day later my ears were still ringing. About fifty years later, however, I can still hear Goldcrests. Another unusual music venue we frequented was Chislehurst Caves where I saw The Yardbirds & Julie Driscoll.
In the summer, having put Chaucer, To The Lighthouse & The Winter’s Tale behind me, I worked for the council Parks Dept. They’d set me at one end of a privet hedge with a pair of shears and maybe a step-ladder and leave me to it. (It would appear that this supposedly famous football match took place during this period.) I spent much of the day reading or chatting to passers-by, especially foreign students who included fabulously stylish and beautiful girls from Nice or Casablanca.. In the following years I noticed that most of those hedges had vanished.
After work on Thursday August 25th, my friend Mick Flight & I hitched to see The Who again, this time at Dreamland in Margate. (A Thursday!) Somewhere into E Kent we were picked up by a Jaguar Mk10. Honestly. (Most hitch-hiking, I have to point out, was not like this, much of the day hanging about at miserable roundabouts having slogged through miserable suburbs to reach them.) I think the driver wanted to impress us and for that reason was pulled over by the police as we entered the town (at speed). While he was having his Particulars Taken, we hung about on the pavement, attracting the attention of one of the officers who enquired, rhetorically I’m sure, whether we we members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. The long cut of our hair (that voice again: “Dean, I can’t help notic-ing that your hair is touch-ing your coll-ar.”) should have provided the short cut to his answer but his point was that we were both wearing army uniforms. So far, in what I intended to be a brief sweep across that busy year, I’ve failed to mention fashion (Carnaby St, King’s Road, Biba, Palisades, Mary Quant, Courrèges…) but by that summer shops like “I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet” were selling not only khaki stuff but also splendid ceremonial garb.
I’d bought a beautifully tailored Marines jacket from Chelsea Antiques Market, quickly cutting off the tawdry bit of scarlet stuff they’d stitched round the collar. It upset my dad and it upset the policeman who invited us back to the station where he indicated our crimes in a very thick book. After some discussion he conceded that, since we bore no insignias of rank nor were masquerading as soldiers we were free to leave albeit beneath a dark cloud of disapproval.
The support band were called “The Gaylords”. The Who were as exciting as ever though I was disappointed to notice that, for the “My Generation” finale, Pete T swapped his guitar for a junk-shop specimen. Mick slept on the sofa of a nurse called Gloria while I hitched back through the night.
Within a week I realized that A Level French had not prepared me to communicate with French-speaking people. Heat, cicadas, new smells, long banlieues on the way out to vacant lunch-time rond-points, then I arrived at night in an out-of-the-way hostel at Cassis. Next morning, completely unexpected: dazzling white limestone and brilliant blue sea.
Which is one of the reasons my art college career was rather brief. But I haven’t got to that yet.