"Innocence in Hamburg", the second in a series of seventies-themed writings takes place in 1973-74 in a variety of locations. Among these are London and its suburbs, the French city of Bordeaux, Murcia's Costa Calida, and the port of Hamburg, current capital of the German province of Schleswig-Holstein. It was first published at Blogster on the 26th of March 2006 as "A Dandy in the Land of Blue Denim 1", and then definitively nearly two and a half years later.
Toilers of the Thames
In late summer 1973 the minesweeper HMS Thames set out for Bordeaux in Gironde in the south west of France. It was my first voyage as an Ordinary Deckhand with the RNR and I was just seventeen years old. During the trip I made my best-ever RNR friend in the shape of a fellow OD Colin who called me only a few years ago from his east London home to talk about old memories, including the time we became trapped by a gang of mangy-looking stray dogs late at night in la Rochelle in 1975 while searching for our ship after a wild night spent with locals at a bar, then a night club.
Even more recently, another good RNR friend Taffy, who sailed with us to La Rochelle by way of the Ile de Re got in touch with me though Blogster. He could have knocked me over with a feather. After all the last time I'd seen him was close by to Waterloo Station when I was on my way to the Old Vic as an actor in the summer of 1980. Colin and his fiancee came to see the show, Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", shortly afterwards, but I can't say how long. However, he did mention having spoken to Taff, who was his best friend. But I digress.
I also became quite friendly with one of the most unlikely pair of cronies I ever came across in the RNR or anywhere else. One half was Jimmy, a tough-talking but essentially kind-hearted working class ladies' man of about 23 who was rumoured to be a permanent year-long resident of HMS Thames. The other was an older man, possibly in his mid thirties, but just as wildly social as Jim even though he boasted the super-posh accent and patrician manner of a City of London stockbroker or merchant banker. Jimmy took me under his wing with a certain intimidating affection: "We'll make a ruffy tuffy sailor of you you yet!" he once told me, even though we both knew that that I'd never be anything other than the most useless sailor in the civilised world.
There was one occasion below deck during some kind of conference when, after having been asked by an officer what I thought of minesweeping, I replied that it was a gas...another when the ship had been prepared for a major manoeuvre and everyone onboard had retreated to their respective allotted positions, when I was found wandering on deck in a daze only to casually announce that I was taking a stroll. Incidents like these made me an object of good-humoured banter on the part of Jimmy and others onboard Thames. I was a sort of latter-day tow-headed Billy Budd but without the seamanship.
The crew spent its final night together in a night club in the port of Portsmouth, although it might just as easily have been Plymouth. The main attraction was a limp-wristed drag artiste who tried desperately to keep us entertained by singing cabaret style numbers in a comic falsetto, and telling bawdy jokes in a deep rich baritone, only to be remorselessly heckled.
At one point he turned his attention to me, that is I think it was me; I was trying not at attract too much attention to myself at the time, because I was wearing glasses and I hated the look of myself in the cheap horn-rimmed specs that were the only pair I had in those days. My short sight always made me feel somehow defective, incomplete; so I refused to wear glasses except for when I really needed them until I was well into my thirties. "Ooh...you look pretty, what's your name?", I think he trilled. "Skin!" was what some of the sailors bellowed back, this being a nickname of mine, perhaps as in "a bit of skin" or something. It's all a bit of a blur to me now.
Before too long, the bearded sailor seated next to me had collapsed face down onto the table with a thunderous crash. Only a short while earlier, he'd performed the theme from Rossini's "William Tell" on his facial cheeks while I held the mike for him. I don't know whether he ever appeared as a musician in public again, but he was certainly a star that night. The DJ said something about his next appearance being for Radio Thames, which was popular at the time.
A Dandy in the Land of Blue Denim
Back onshore, I resumed my growing passion for louche and shady music, art and culture. Increasingly throughout '74, however, I turned away from what I now saw as the old hat tackiness of Glam Rock, convinced that Modernist outrage had nowhere left to go. Instead, I turned my devotion to the more stylish glamour of previous Modernist eras and particularly the twenties and thirties.
At some point I started using hair cream to slick my hair back in the style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, sometimes parting it in the centre just as my idol had done. I started building up a new retro wardrobe, which came to include a Gatsby style tab-collared shirt, often worn with black and white college-style tie; several cravats and neck scarves; a navy blue blazer from Meakers; a fair isle short-sleeved sweater; a pair of grey flannel trousers from Simpsons of Piccadilly, a pair of two-tone brown and white, or "correspondant", shoes; and a belted fawn raincoat straight out of a forties film noir.
As the seventies progressed my passion for the decadence of the West and especially the continental Europe of the golden age of Modernism of ca. 1890-1930 grew to fanatical proportions. This was especially true of its leading cities, in terms of their being beacons of revolutionary art, and of style, luxury and dissolution, such as the London of the Yellow Decade, Belle Epoque Paris, Jazz Age New York, and most of all Weimar Republic Berlin.
There were those cutting edge Rock and Pop artists who appeared to share my European love affair, such as Sparks and Manhattan Transfer, and Britain's own favourite lounge lizard Bryan Ferry. Much of the latter's work with his band Roxy Music was haunted by the languid cafe and cabaret music of the continent's immediate past. What's more, some of Roxy's followers sported the kind of nostalgic apparel favoured by Ferry himself, but they were rare creatures in mid-seventies London. As for me, I wore my bizarre outdated costumes in arrogant defiance of the continuing ubiquity of long hair and flared jeans.
In 1975, I attended a concert at west London's Queen's Park football stadium in striped boating blazer and white trousers, while surrounded by hirsute relics from the Hippie era. The headliners were my one-time favourites Yes, whose "Relayer" album I'd bought the year before; but my passion for Prog Rock was a thing of the past. I'd moved on since '71, that is, towards far greater love of darkness and loss of innocence.
Take to the Sky
It was while I was sitting Spanish "O" level in June 1974 in central London that I became deeply infatuated with a pretty slim Dutch girl called Maria. She didn't look Dutch, in fact, with her tanned complexion and long dark brown hair, she was Meditteranean in physical appearance, and even had the name to match. It was probably Maria who first approached me, because I was so unconfident around girls in those days that I would never have made the first move. Over the course of the next few days, I fell ever deeper in love, but I didn't have the courage to make my feelings known to her. This was so typical of me, to assume an attitude of diffident indifference when confronted by something or someone I truly desired. So, once we'd completed our final paper, I allowed her to walk away from me forever with a casual "I might see you around", or some other cliche of that kind.
For a week or thereabouts, I took the train into London and spent the days wandering around the city centre in the truly desperate hope of bumping into her. One time I could have sworn I saw her staring coolly back at me from an underground train, possibly at South Kensington or Notting Hill Gate, just as the doors were closing, but typically I was powerless to act, and simply stood there like a lovesick loon as the train drew away from the station. In time of course, my infatuation faded, but even to this day certain songs will recall for me those few weeks in the summer of '74 that I spent in hopeless pursuit of a woman I didn't even know. They include Sweet Soul standards, "I Just Don't Want to be Lonely" by The Main Ingredient, and "Natural High" by Bloodstone, with its pathetic lines: "Why do I keep my mind on you all the time, and I don't even know you, why do I feel this way, thinking about you every day, and I don't even know you..."
Later on in the summer I found myself once again in Santiago de La Ribera by the Mar Menor or little sea, this being a large coastal lake of warm saltwater off Murcia's Costa Calida in southeastern Spain, and the summer of '74 was one of the most blissfully happy summers I spent there. Every afternoon, we used to meet on the balnario or jetty facing our apartment on the Mar Menor which was more or less deserted after lunch, that's myself and my brother, and Spanish friends both male and female, to listen to music and talk and laugh and swim and generally enjoy being young and carefree in a decade of endless possibilities.
To some youthful Spanish eyes back in '74-'76, I appeared as an almost impossibly exotic figure from what seemed to them to be the most radical and daring city in Europe, which of course London was. I played up to my racy image to the hilt, where in truth I was barely less sheltered and innocent than they were. There was a change with Franco's passing, and the birth of the so-called Movida, which could be said to be the Spanish and specifically Madridian equivalent of London's Swinging Sixties revolution.
By my last vacation in La Ribera in the summer of '84, it was I who was in awe of the local youth rather than the other way around. They seemed so cool to me, dancing their strange jerky chicken wing dance to the latest New Pop hits from Britain. By then of course most of my old friends had vanished into their young adult lives, and my time as Charly the English prince of Santiago de la Ribera had long passed. I was yesterday's man, and I was sad about it, but I couldn't expect to be chased forever. Some people have to actually grow up.
Innocence in Hamburg
I returned to London in late summer '74 with a deep tan and hair bleached bright yellow by the sun, and hanging long over my ears and down over my forehead. Within days I found myself on HMS President, moored then as today on the Embankment near Temple station. This entailed my passing through Waterloo mainline station, which wasn't tourist-friendly as it is today, with its cafes and baguette bars, but a dingy intimidating place complete with pub and old-style barber. There I was I was accosted by a hoary old Scotsman, a former sailor who kept going on about how good looking I was. He even told me that he loved me; but he was harmless...just a sweet lonely old guy who wanted someone to talk to for a few minutes, which I was happy to do and then move on. It was all very innocent. I even went so far as to agree to a meeting with him the same time the following week, not that I had any intention of keeping it.
Only days afterwards, HMS Thames was on its way to Hamburg, second largest city of Germany and its principle port. Once we'd arrived, one of the NCOs, a Chief Petty Officer I think advised me not to wander alone in the city. I duly fell in with a group of about three or four, and on our first night ashore we set off on a voyage into parts of the city such as the red light district St Pauli with its infamous Reeperbahn, the so-called "sinful mile" which is lined with restaurants, discos and dives, as well as strip clubs, sex shops, bordellos and so on. On St Pauli streets and in St Paul bars I saw things I'd never even suspected could exist. It was all in such stark contrast to the pleasant outer suburbs to which a coach trip was organised at some point during our run ashore. We ended up in a park where I had my picture taken on a bridge by a reporter for the Surrey Comet; then a group of breathless giggling schoolgirls asked me to be in some photos with them. I of course said yes, ever happy to oblige, and it was a bit of an ego boost for me, as if I needed one. On the way back to the ship, one of the sailors remarked that I'd been a hit with the Hamburg teenyboppers, while another snapped back that it was only because I was blond and blue-eyed, Teutonic-looking in other words. Whatever the truth, there was something deeply moving about these sweet suburban girls and their simple unaffected joy of life, especially in the light of what girls barely older than they were subjecting themselves to in the sad lost northern Babylon of only a matter of miles away.
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