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Though Are the Wonders of this Brief Life Book Two The Spawn of the Swinging Sixties Chapter Five Once in an English Seaside Town Chapter Six The Sweetness of Wrens
Chapter Five Once in an English Seaside Town
Once in an English Seaside Town, a series of seventies-themed pieces, was forged in February-March 2006 from scribblings committed to a notebook in 1978-'79, and concerning events that took place in the summer of 1974. I adapted it word for word, although regarding certain passages, I selected crossed out words or series of words rather than those I'd chosen in the late 1970s and certain sentences were formed by fusing portions of the original sentences together. Moreover, the structure of the story has been altered, and the punctuation changed and greatly improved on; and I edited out words, sentences, whole passages. To the best of my knowledge, all the events depicted actually occurred; however, given that I was writing in '78 or '79 about events that took place some half a decade previously, the original conversations would necessarily have been somewhat different to how they turned out on paper. Furthermore, it may be that a certain amount of exaggeration crept in to my writing in the late 1970s, particularly with respect to the quantities of alcohol I consumed, but then again, these may have been reproduced with some degree of accuracy. I have no recollection whatsoever of the events depicted in the final nineteen lines of the story, and these may have been tacked on for dramatic effect. The events in the story as a whole take place in “a certain English coastal town”, but I have a strong feeling that it was in Lymington, a port on the Solent in the New Forest district of Hampshire that they actually occurred. Why I changed Lymington to Bosham I cannot say for certain, but it may have been a genuine mistake on my part. Final changes were made in July 2007. I think it's fair to say that we are dealing with a story in the truest sense, which is to say one based on real events, rather than a genuine fragment from a memoir. Being the person that I am, it is my desire that this resurrected story of mine possess a strong moral centre. And morally sensitive readers will discern intimations of ultimate disaster in the heavy drinking of the protagonist Carl (known as Kris in the original tale) which given that he is only 18, is necessarily only at its inception. My story however is as much a little slice of history from a simpler age than today's as anything more serious and one which I hope will prove an entertainment as well as a morality tale. It finishes on an upbeat note, at the beginning of another night of purported pleasure, and yet as I recall I actually ended the night jumping into the chilly waters of the town harbour.
Chapter Six The Sweetness of Wrens
1975 was the year I resumed my studies at an official place of learning, namely Prestlands Technical College as it was known then. Some time later, it was renamed Prestlands College. Then as now it's to be found on the semi-rural fringes of Weybridge, a beautiful outer suburb of South West London. I enjoyed a full and perfectly idyllic social life there for nearly two years. Like Spain, it was an Edenic playground for me, in which I learned to be a social being after four years of boarding school followed by a further two years or so of leading a semi-reclusive existence.
At Prestlands, I was able to perfect the persona of a wildly eccentric good time guy, a ceaseless and absurdly successful attention-seeker. And there was a period when, come disco night, two close friends of mine, one male the other female, would actually wait for my arrival in order that the festivities might truly begin, and once they did, anything could happen. However, those who tried to get to know to know me on a truly intimate level were confronted with a peculiarly naïve and immature individual.
In the Bleak Mid 1970s
1975, and my self-defence, guitar and swimming classes had long dried up, but I persisted with the private tuition, notably with a taciturn but sympathetic young guy called Mark, then resident in the sumptuous outer London suburb of Richmond in Surrey. A successful musician as well as a teacher, he exerted a strong influence on me in terms of my already passionate interest in European literature. Mark had a special love for French Symbolist poetry, but it was Spanish literature we studied together...Quevedo, Machado, Lorca, and others. He was also an early encourager of my writing, a passion of mine in the mid bleak mid 1970s that was ultimately to career out of control so that I was unable to finish project after project. I clearly suffered from a chronic case of cacoethes scribendi. That means the irresistible urge to write.
'75 was also a predictably maritime year for me, and no sooner had one ocean voyage finished than it seemed that I was setting sail again. The first of these was destination Amsterdam via Edinburgh and northern France on the square rigger TS Sir Francis Drake of the Society for the Training of Young Seafarers. Among my shipmates were my 17 year old brother; several young men from Scotland and the north of England; a couple of youthful naval ratings, perhaps more; a handful of "mates" who'd been given authority over the rank and file of deck hands; and the ship's captain, who also happened to be an Old Welbournian like myself. It was an all-male crew, and I was initially quite well-liked, but little by little my popularity died. However, there was a southern lad with dark shoulder length hair a little like the young Jack Wild...he liked me after we'd bonded over an attempt at romancing two girls during a brief stay in France and stayed loyal, bless him. I'd come on a bit strong and spoiled everything with Solange, the one I liked. I was desperate for her address, and I think he eventually got it for me. I was elated...walking on air.
The Drake was a tough experience...which saw us being roused out of our hammocks in the middle of the night on more than one occasion to help trim the sails (or something), but character-shaping. However, I only climbed the rigging on a single occasion, and that was just before we entered the port of Amsterdam...
As for Edinburgh, I remember being warned by one of the more easy-going lads not to go strutting about the city in a striped college-style blazer with jeans tucked into long white socks. Unfortunately, these were the only clothes I had with me. This was before our first or second stay in the city, I can't remember. The kid was right to warn me, because while Edinburgh may be one of the most beautiful and cultured capitals in Europe, it can still be a pretty tough town. I refused to listen of course, and was duly rewarded with a pretty hairy situation which took place in a pub, which may not have been the type of lieu to go lording about with an English accent in a flash boating blazer. Soon after setting foot in the place in broad daylight, a hard young Scotsman with long reddish curly hair wearing what I remember to have been a menacing grin asked me if I was from Oxford. It was probably touch and go for a while, but somehow he ended up leaving me alone. He may even have liked me, or admired my nerve.
In the Waters of the Kiel Canal
Within a few short weeks of our returning to London by train from Edinburgh, my brother and I were onboard ship again, this time a yacht taking us to the Baltic coast of Denmark via Germany's famous Kiel Canal as part of the Mariners' Club of Great Britain, and once more we were supervised by "mates", or the equivalent. We wasted little time in recruiting a pleasant young guy from Gloucestershire called Cy as our closest friend and crony. Soon after setting foot on Danish soil all three of us sought out the company of two classically Scandinavian blondes. This caused the Captain, who was a real character, to have a go at us with tongue firmly in cheek about selfishly keeping our dates to ourselves. Little could he have known how innocent our efforts at romance had in fact been.
A rather less than sweet and innocent incident took place towards the end of the trip, which saw me in pursuit of a pretty German girl, Ulrike. I liked her so very much, and she clearly liked me, and yet I'd senselessly dumped her for the sake of a night of drunken idiocy with my brother and Cy. Suddenly, overtaken by the sickly pangs of remorse, I set out to find her, and at some point during my search, while walking along some kind of wooden pontoon I lost my footing and fell fully clothed into the waters of what must have been Kiel Canal. I wrote to Ulrike, but she never wrote back, and I can't say I blame her. To this day I can't understand what possessed me to ignore her so callously, just in order to tie one on with the boys which I could have done any night of the week. Self-sabotage was fast becoming a speciality of mine.
The Sweetness of Wrens
It was later in the year I think that I took my friend Norma, one of the London Division Wrens but originally from the north of England, to a dinner dance at London's Walford Hilton Hotel. At some point we were joined there by a couple of Norma's close friends, a fair, bearded man in a suit, and his dark, extrovert wife. The husband was one of those deeply gentle men I came across from time to time in the 1970s. They weren't all bearded; but I can think of two who were; and several who weren't. What united them was that they behaved with special protectiveness towards me. Early in the evening, Norma became incensed when a group of older seamen started teasing me from their table. But it was all a big joke to me; and I didn't see it as in any way malicious or threatening.
It was only a matter of weeks after returning from the Baltic that I sailed with the RNR to La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast of France; and then shortly after that I was with the RNR again, this time in the Pool of London, subject of a famous British crime film directed by Basil Dearden in 1951 and referring to that stretch of the Thames lying between London Bridge and Rotherhithe.
Still in '75...yes, my life was actually pretty full back then...I attempted to pass what is known as the AIB or Admiralty Interview Board in the hope of becoming a Supply and Secretariat officer in the Royal Navy. This entailed me taking the train down to HMS Stirling, the Royal Navy's specialist training centre in Gosport, Hampshire, where I spent three days attending various examinations and interviews intended to assess my potentiality as a naval officer.
On one occasion early on in the long weekend shortly before one assignment or another, I was looking in the mirror, putting the final touches to my dress, at which point one of the guys I was sharing a dorm with reminded me that I was at an AIB not a fashion parade. Something like that anyway. Not the sort of man I wanted coming with me to the disco that night to get to know some Gosport girls. In the event two of my fellow interviewees were up the task. I asked one of them what he was expecting out of the night, and he told me whatever he could get or something, but he really didn't seem to keen. I know now that he was uncomfortable being out so late and understandably anxious to return to base. As things turned out I was left alone at the club dancing with a soft-spoken local girl called Shirlee. A little later I accompanied her along a busy main leading back to Stirling, with several cars sounding their horns as I kissed her good night, only to discover that the main entrance had been locked and was now being manned by an armed guard.
If the young man nervously trying to reach someone in authority within the training centre on a walkie talkie was wondering exactly what kind of person returns to base dressed to the nines after a night's disco dancing when he was supposed to be in the midst of three days of gruelling tests and interviews that were vital to his future career, then he gave no indication of it. He did however eventually make contact, and I can vaguely remember passing through an officer's mess soon afterwards and briefly engaging in some genial conversation with its occupants. Their actual opinion of me of course they kept to themselves. It may just be me, but I can't help thinking that had I returned to Stirling that night before being locked out, I might have been in with a better chance of passing the AIB, that is, as opposed to failing it, which I perhaps rather predictably did. But then again, not necessarily...
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