Christine

My claims to fame as a publisher are small-to-nonexistent but if I’m known for anything it’s as the one responsible for Christine Keeler’s book Scandal which was made into a very successful movie in 1989.  In the process I got to know Christine pretty well, and even now people sometimes ask me what she was really like.

Christine in 1963, by Lewis Morley Copyright © Seymour Platt

I’ve tried a few times to write about her but found it difficult. The thought of summarizing the whole Profumo Affair of 1963  by way of introduction seems superfluous since there have been so many books, movies and tv series about it and anyone who’s only casually interested can find plenty of material on Wikipedia and elsewhere, and a further problem is that although Christine herself is now dead she has relatives and friends still living and I wouldn’t wish to embarrass them, especially her son Seymour whom I got to know and like, so I’ll confine myself to a few brief anecdotes.

Background: The producers of the movie Scandal wanted to tie it in with my publication of the book, which was good news for its prospects (it became a best-seller, earned Christine quite a lot of money and got me the house I still live in) but meant that Christine would have to do a lot of promo, and having parted company with her agent she asked me if I would take on that job as well. I should also explain that although we had some tricky moments I liked Christine very much and deplored the way she had been treated, so I felt obliged to look after her interests as best I could.

OK, here are the anecdotes.

  She was scheduled to appear on the BBC’s prime-time chat show which was then being hosted by Sue Lawley, and the day before there had been the usual briefing in a hotel with an assistant running though possible questions Christine might be asked and assuring us that it would be a friendly interview.

Next day at the Beeb the makeup girl was applying cream to Christine’s face and Christine liked the results. “That’s marvellous stuff!” she said; “What is it?” “Oh, I’m afraid this is only for sale to professionals,” said the girl, and we were hustled on to the green room where we got to meet John Hurt who was also appearing on the show, having played Stephen Ward in the film. Fine actor, very nice guy.

John Hurt and Christine on set
John Hurt and Christine on set

Just before Christine was due to appear the assistant from the previous day arrived in some distress. “I’m so sorry,” he said, “but I’m afraid that Sue Lawley has decided to take a much tougher line of questioning. Really sorry.”  There was no time to reconsider so we made our way down to the set and if the camera had panned a bit wider I might have been seen more or less shoving Christine onto the stage hissing “Good luck.”

I thought she handled it pretty well in the circumstances — judge for yourself here — and as we left I felt a tug on my sleeve and slowed down. It was the makeup girl: “I didn’t like to tell her,” she whispered, “but that stuff was actually hemorrhoid cream.”

  I got to see a bit of the high life myself. I wonder what the neighbours would have made of me in full evening dress being picked up from our quiet backwater by a chauffeur-driven stretch limo to take me to the movie première, but I don’t think any of them were watching, damn it.  There were a few other such glitzy occasions too, and I remember:

  • Noticing a famous newsreader sneaking out of an awards ceremony with a full bottle of scotch in each hand.
  • Seymour wearing jeans to the star-studded Scandal première.
  • Finding myself alone in a lift with Britt Ekland who was looking fantastic in a shimmering and very tight-fitting outfit. “I can’t sit down in this dress,” she said with a dazzling smile.  I’m still trying to think of a suitable reply.
  • Escorting Christine to some function and being asked by the paparazzi outside “Who are you?” and telling them that I was nobody in particular and certainly not the new man in Christine’s life, though I did look rather carefully at the newspapers the next day …
  • Feeling rather miffed at never getting to meet Joanne Whalley, who had done a beautiful job of playing Christine in the movie.  She missed all the Scandal promo by going to the US to make another movie and marrying Val Kilmer.  So selfish.
  • Walking through the West End and hearing a cry of “Richard!”  It came from John Hurt, who was sitting by himself drinking coffee at a table outside a pub.  I was amazed that he remembered me and even knew my name, but I joined him and we had a friendly chat, mostly about Scandal and Christine, whom he had liked very much.  As I said, a nice guy.

  It promised to be an exciting day out, a glimpse into the world of rock stars, movie-making … showbiz!  Christine had been approached about making a cameo appearance in a video promoting Bryan Ferry’s new single ‘Kiss and Tell’, which meant a trip to Pinewood Studios with the full star treatment. The call was for 12 noon with a chauffeur-driven limo laid on, so we left Christine’s council flat in some style with Christine’s son Seymour, then a rather stage-struck teenager, and my assistant Liz.  On the way we listened to a tape of ‘Kiss and Tell’ and by the time we got to Pinewood we were sick of it.

Christine was given her own spacious suite there.  We settled ourselves in and waited … and waited.  At various times people came in and told Christine that she was wanted in make-up or wardrobe and she disappeared for a while, and Bryan himself popped in to say hello, and we went down to the set to see the guitarist miming his solo, but mostly we just waited.  We were told that we could help ourselves to food from the buffet downstairs, and we did — the Beef Wellington was excellent — but mostly we just waited.

Liz and I snuck off to have a look around Pinewood and found that the door to the huge James Bond set was open, so we went in and Liz took a photo of me climbing up a rope that was dangling from the high roof, 007 to the life, then we wandered around some more before returning to Christine’s suite to find that nothing was happening. More food, more desultory conversation …

Evening came and as it was clear that it would still be some time before filming would start they put the limo at our disposal for a couple of hours, and we cruised around the Berkshire countryside for a while before going to an historic old pub that I knew in Penn, but none of us wanted to drink — Christine was on her best behaviour — so we headed back to Pinewood and yet more hanging around.

It was midnight before Christine was eventually called to the set.  Dressed in furs she looked very stylish but for some reason there was a wind machine, and Liz and I were ordered off the set when her hat blew off and we laughed.  The video did get made eventually (Mandy Smith played the younger woman who had also supposedly kissed and told.  She was beautiful and friendly.) and the result can be seen here and there’s a bit more of Christine to be seen in the extended version here.  The limo took Christine and Seymour home in the early hours but dawn was breaking by the time Liz and I got back to Crouch End.

Seymour and I agree that what had looked to be so exciting turned out to be one of the most boring days of our lives, and neither of us ever want to hear ‘Kiss and Tell’ again.

  During the course of the Scandal promotion strange things were happening back in the office. There were repeated phone calls from a man wanting to set up some sort of meeting with Christine in the Birmingham area. He wouldn’t say any more to my secretary so I took the calls. He said that a group of businessmen wanted to set up this rendezvous and that there would be money involved. It sounded extremely dubious but Christine was always pretty keen to earn money and this was her moment in the spotlight, so trying to be a conscientious agent I tried to find out exactly what would be involved, but the man was vague and wouldn’t even tell me his name. In the end I just told him that we didn’t take anonymous phone calls and hung up on him whenever he called.

I still wonder what was really going on with those calls. Was it an attempted newspaper sting or, worse, MI6 poking about trying to find out whether I’d be tempted to act as Christine’s pimp, the new Stephen Ward?  The publicist Max Clifford wasn’t so well known then but it soon became apparent that he wanted to get in on the Scandal buzz, and he signed up a woman called Pamella Bordes who had been ‘seeing’ various famous men and soon she was being prominently featured in the newspapers as ‘the new Christine Keeler’, not without substantial payment I imagine.

Max Clifford died in prison in 2017 after a sex scandal of his own so I guess I’ll never know if he was the mysterious man from Birmingham. Ms Bordes appears to have changed her name and retired into private life.

♦  When she wasn’t telling her story for the umpteenth time Christine had a great sense of humour.  Whenever we met she usually had a new joke to tell or a new bit of scandal to share, and she liked to tease me.  “Why aren’t you married, Richard?” she once said mischievously; “You’re such a nice chap.” [I’m not making this up, honest]  “Well, how about it then, Christine,” I replied; “You and me. You could teach me such a lot.”  “Oh, I don’t think so.” she laughed … and so on.  She could be great fun.

  Pam the PR woman was in a panic when I arrived late at the Hilton: “Where the hell have you been, Richard? They’re chasing Christine all over the place.” I’d got caught up in the traffic in Park Lane — some royal event going on down the road, I was told — and found that there was indeed a sort mobile scrimmage inside the hotel with a pack of photographers pursuing Christine, who showed a remarkable turn of speed for a woman her age.  Pam was annoyed because although she’d summoned the press she’d told them that there was to be no photocall and she’d pretty much lost control of the situation: a pity as she’d been hoping to be voted Publicist of the Month.

I joined the chase and confronted the leading paparazzo and told him that if he didn’t stop it I’d smash his camera to pieces.  We stood there glaring at each other for a moment, then we both burst out laughing and went our separate ways while Christine disappeared.

The event was the monthly lunch of the BSME [British Society of Magazine Editors] with Christine and the US singer/actress Diahann Carroll as the guest speakers.  It was a fairly dull occasion, though Pam was impressed (“Just look at the power in this room!”) with Diahann making a pretty little speech and Christine answering a few polite questions from the editors, who had realized that Christine was no speech-maker.

Pam didn’t get to be Publicist of the Month, but the experience gave me one little insight that I pass on freely to any future biographers: despite her protests Christine had absolutely loved being chased round the corridors.

  When the fuss had died down Christine and I met for coffee in a West End hotel to tie up a few loose ends and have a chat. As I’ve said, when the pressure was off she was good company, and I occasionally caught glimpses of the Christine of 1963 who had been so irresistable to men.

By now I had sat with her through many interviews and knew her answers to most of the questions she had been asked. In some circles she was now being seen as a sort of socialist heroine, “the girl who had brought down the Conservative Party”, but it occurred to me that no-one had ever asked what her own politics were, so I did.  “Oh, I’m a Tory,” she said; “People like me do better under the Conservatives.”  I looked to see if she was making a joke, but she wasn’t.

Note  The use of hemorrhoid cream on the face is not recommended, but anyone trying it should be sure to use a fresh tube.

  • Many thanks to Seymour Platt for good-naturedly allowing me to publish these memories of his mother.  His own elegant tribute site is here and has much biographical information about Christine and many rare images.  Seymour is also mounting a campaign to overturn her conviction for perjury (here) which I fully support.

  • Retrospective thanks too to all who helped during a busy and rather testing period: to all at Palace Pictures, especially Stephen Woolley who dealt with a very amateurish agent very kindly and patiently; to Desmond Banks who handled Christine’s legal affairs very capably for all of her adult life; to Tiffany Daneff who skilfully turned a scrappy manuscript into a publishable book; and to my staff, especially Liz (wherever she may be), who supported me patiently and so well.

NOW IT CAN BE TOLD

My sister Carol, then aged 13, had got a holiday job as a waitress in one of Southport’s big department stores, the sort of place where ladies of a certain age would go for afternoon tea. One particular old biddy was there every afternoon for a toasted teacake and a pot of tea for one (she appeared to have no friends) and she was proving to be distinctly unpleasant, constantly finding fault with the food and the service and never leaving a tip.

Carol aged 14
Carol aged 14

Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant — I never have but I’ve known several ex-waitresses over the years and they all have shocking tales to tell — will know that upsetting the serving staff is not a sensible idea.  Revenge may be taken, sometimes in terrible ways: the ‘sneezer’ in Friends was a mild one. My sister was not a vindictive person but the kitchen staff didn’t like to see her treated this way, so before toasting the teacake they would play football with it behind the scenes, then slice it in half and toast it before having another kickabout on the kitchen floor, then Carol would take it to Miss Miserable and serve it with a flourish and a little curtsy (¨Your teacake, ma’am¨) trying to keep a straight face, which was difficult as she had a keen sense of humour and a broad grin.

My own involvement in the food-serving business was brief and dramatic, and not in a restaurant.   I had got a few days’ work at the Southport Flower Show as a bar porter. It wasn’t exacting. I had to take the full crates from the car park over to the beer tent in the morning then bring back the empties during the course of the day. There was a lot of hanging-about time, and on the final day the Catering Manager summoned me. “You’re a public-school boy aren’t you?” I admitted that I was. “I thought so,” he said; “You see, you were lounging about with your hands in your pockets, and an ordinary chap wouldn’t dare to do that here. Come with me, I have a special job for you.”  It was a curious method of selection but I said “OK, sir” and tried to look pleased and a bit honoured.

My special job was to carry a dish bearing a whole poached salmon over to the trestle tables on the far side of the field where the Lord Mayor was holding a celebratory lunch for the high-ups of the Flower Show plus various wives and assorted dignitaries, all dressed up to the nines. The dish was quite heavy but off I went, and I’d got about half-way across the field when I tripped and fell, sending the salmon spilling in fragments onto the grass. I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed this unfortunate mishap and expected cries of outrage from the Manager and anyone else who might have seen, but in the afternoon heat everything seemed to have gone strangely quiet, the Mayor and his party appeared to be miles away on some far-off horizon, the beer tent was merely a distant buzzing and time seemed to stand still, so I did what any decent, honest, godfearing public-school boy would have done: I bent down and scooped up the chunks of salmon with my bare hands, plonked the fragments back onto the platter and then patted and moulded them into the approximate shape of a fish, looking nervously about to see if I was being observed. I hoped that any odd bits of grass or other greenery clinging to the reconstituted salmon would pass for garnish.

I wiped my hands on my pants and made it to the high table without further incident, where I placed the dish gently in front of the Lord Mayor praying that he wouldn’t notice anything amiss, but he just said “Ah, the piéce de resistance” and started serving it.  I muttered “Bon appétit” and went over to the beer tent as quickly as I could without actually sprinting, and there I lurked for the rest of the afternoon doing my best to turn invisible. It seemed only a matter of time before one of the diners would discover a fag-end, or worse, in their salmon, and it would be all too obvious who had been responsible.  But there was no immediate outcry, and it soon transpired there were other things to experience behind the beer tent:  I was a fairly naïve youth and rather shocked to find that the bar staff, who to my young eyes seemed at best middle-aged and some of them actually old and distinctly ugly, were having sex back there, usually opting for what was then and maybe still is known as a knee-trembler, doing it standing up against one of the tent-posts, and if there was a height difference there were plenty of boxes and beer crates around for the smaller partner to stand on. And I’d thought that sex petered out at the age of about 25.

Back home with my guilty pay packet, I kept quiet.  I watched the local tv news expecting to see reports of an outbreak of botulism or salmonella poisoning at the Flower Show, and scanned the local paper the next day expecting headlines like

FLOWER SHOW FATALITIES

POLICE SEEK BAR PORTER

I didn’t tell my parents what had happened because I knew that if I had done my father, with whom I wasn’t getting on too well, would make a big deal out of it, making me write a letter of apology to the Lord Mayor or something like that and blowing the whole thing wide open. I didn’t even tell my sister Carol because I knew that she would find it hilarious and tease me about it, probably concocting a little performance of me effing and blinding while desperately scooping up the salmon.  I wouldn’t have minded this because we got on very well and Carol could be extremely funny, but I knew that my mother would soon be in on the joke, and then my dad …  I said nothing, but the headlines in my mind grew worse:

SOUTHPORT SENSATION – MISHAP OR MURDER?

Me in disguise
Me in disguise

After a couple of days with still no hue and cry I began to venture cautiously out into the town with my shades on and my collar turned up, looking nervously about for passing policemen and steering well clear of hospitals and flower shows.  I started growing a beard.

My family knew nothing of my fish fiasco but when the parents weren’t around I told Carol about the goings-on behind the beer tent expecting her to be a bit shocked perhaps but also amused — big bro being a bit sophisticated y’know — but she had a better story.  She said that she had gone to the basement toilet in the department store and pushing open the unlocked door had found one of the kitchen hands “having a bit of fun with himself”, as she put it.  (The expression “having a wank” was not yet current in 1963, at least not in respectable Southport.)  Other young girls might have found this traumatic and needed councelling in later life but Carol just found it wildly funny, and suggested that perhaps he might have been making a special ingredient for the Cream of Mushroom soup ordered by the snooty couple at Table 12, and there were more variations on this theme (“Was our home-made mayonnaise to your taste, sir?”), and I realized that li’l sis was rather more wordly-wise than I’d suspected.

I never did tell the family about the salmon —  indeed, I’ve never old anyone about it until now, even as a joke.  I’d like to say that confessing it has been a relief, an unburdoning of a guilty secret carried for far too many years, and beg the forgiveness of those ancient diners, but after all this time who gives a toss.

Who was Betty?

In the north of England, Bettys Cafés1 are famous — indeed, they are celebrated.  Well-known people such as Alan Ayckbourn, Jilly Cooper, Alan Titchmarsh, James Herriott and Ian McMillan have all sung the praises of Bettys. and Alan Bennett has namechecked the Harrogate café in one of his wonderful plays.

Bettys is celebrated because it’s good: “the nearest thing that Yorkshire can do to produce one of those lovely continental pastry shops … But more than that, it caters for the northern appetite, which is very, very important, and offers value for money. High tea –- that is a very northern thing. And it’s getting better and better — their cakes are lovely and it is very well done. It is elegance at its best –- you have your little tea strainer, your pot, your lovely cake stand and I think it is beautiful. The staff are very courteous and it suits the smart town of Harrogate.” 2

But who was Betty? My family was closely involved in the creation of the cafés in their early days (there are now six of them, all in Yorkshire), but since no-one seems to know about this let me tell you what I can and who I think Betty actually was.

According to the official version of the story Frederick Belmont, a baker and confectioner, arrived as an emigré from Switzerland in 1919 speaking little English, and somehow found himself in Bradford. He liked the Yorkshire countryside and decided to stay and start his own shop in Harrogate, which became the first Bettys.  Since then it has gone from strength to strength. So the tale goes, but in fact Mr Belmont had a partner: my grandfather, who bore the illustrious name of John Smith.3

How this began I know only in bits and pieces from what my mother told me. She was proud of having been involved in the formative years of Bettys and often boasted about it.  To her it was always ‘our firm’.  She had spent her childhood in the village of Laycock, where my grandfather had a small farm and owned the village bakery. He probably had other business interests in the area too. By all accounts he was a very kind chap, a good man to do business with. He was certainly very kind to me as a child. Anyway, at some point he met Freddie Belmont and they evidently hit it off, becoming partners soon afterwards. To him Mr Belmont was ‘Binkie’ by analogy with the theatrical impresario Binkie Beaumont who was well-known at the time. Binkie Belmont married a local girl who was known to them as Bunny.  Binkie and Bunny.

As Bettys prospered the Smith family moved into a spacious house in Harrogate, where my mother spent her teenage years. She told me that she accompanied her father on scouting expeditions for new premises for Bettys and, once they were established, helped out as a waitress and in the kitchens during the school holidays. Among her effects after her death I found a bound carbon-copy of the original Bettys recipe book, which she used from time to time when making cakes etc. in later life. She kept this in her bedside cabinet and obviously regarded it as very precious.

The original Betty's Cafe (left) and as Bettys today (right)
The original Betty’s Cafe (left) and Bettys today (right)

The Smiths were good friends with the Belmonts as well as business partners, taking several holidays together in Switzerland before the war. On the walls of the house in Harrogate were pictures of the Swiss lakes and mountains — tinted photographs in gilt frames, as was the style of the time — and various souvenirs. One of these particularly delighted me as a child. It was a carved wooden match-holder in the form of a hollow tree-stump with a wolf beside it, a momento of Berne. This eventually came down to me, and it sits on my mantelpiece now.

My mother was very bright, and on leaving school she went to London to work in the Civil Service — but war was looming and the family wanted her back home, so she returned to Harrogate and trained and worked as an accountant, marrying my father during the war and having me when the war was over. My sister followed four years later. We lived first in Wakefield and then in Leeds, and made frequent visits to Harrogate to visit the family there.

On one of these visits I was taken round the Bettys factory by my grandfather — I’d have been 4 or 5 at the time — to see the cakes and sweets being made. Great to have a grandpa with a chocolate factory! but those were less indulgent times and at the end of the tour I was allowed to help myself to just one sweet.

From the same period I also recall a gathering at my grandparents’ house in Harrogate, where I was presented to the assembled Bettys clan. Mr Belmont and his wife were there, of course, and some others too, probably relatives of theirs. My main memory of this is of the ladies present, who all seemed to be dressed in black and lace in a very old-fashioned style, but what really fascinated me as a gawping child was their wobbly double-chins. Too many cream cakes, perhaps! My apologies to their memories.

My grandfather had married a young woman named Elizabeth Gill, a teacher in Keighley. According to family legend he had courted her by walking five miles to chapel every Sunday in the hope of having a few moments with her after the service, then walking the five miles home again afterwards. To him she was Betty; to my mother she was Mum; to me and my sister she was Nana. I can’t be sure, but my mother insisted that she was the Betty after whom the original café had been named, and in the absence of other plausible candidates I think it quite likely.

Sadly, my grandfather died suddenly in 1951 at a relatively young age . There was no-one then to take over from him, as his son (my Uncle Ray) was committed to farming and the outdoor life, while my mother was now married to a clergyman and busy being the minister’s wife, and of course a mother to me and my sister. So the Belmont family bought out my grandmother’s share of Bettys and our connection with the firm ended.

My mother was very regretful about that. The settlement gave us a little nest-egg, certainly, which probably paid for my education, but in later years she would sometimes say ruefully that if my grandfather had lived longer I would have had a secure future with the firm. I wasn’t so sure that I’d have wanted that or been very good at it so I tended to keep quiet at these times, and since Bettys seems to have been extremely well run since then I think it has worked out fine, though I’m sorry that my grandfather has been written out of the firm’s official story when he did so much for it.

As for Betty herself, I have been greatly amused by the speculation as to what she was really like — there has even been a book about her 4 — but I can tell you what our Betty, my grandmother, was like. She was not at all the buxom, rosy-cheeked lass that some have imagined her to be, but a tall, slender, extremely intelligent and sophisticated woman. Photographs of her taken in the 1920s show a very cool presence, elegantly gowned and hair shingled.

John and Betty Smith

She occasionally smoked Du Maurier cigarettes, a rather superior brand, and spoke fluent French. She was very kind and generous, though she would stand for no nonsense, and she was modest, never wanting any publicity as the ‘real’ Betty. She would have considered that vulgar.

I knew her well, as she came to live with us after my grandfather’s death and continued to do so until her own death many years later, and I came to love her dearly.  When I was young she helped me with my homework and let me watch cartoons on TV, which my parents disapproved of.  When I was a music-mad teenager I built a super-powerful hi-fi from kits and bits of wood that I salvaged from here and there, but the one thing I couldn’t make was a turntable. Nana kindly stumped up for a very good one, and the completed sound system annoyed the neighbours for years afterwards.

My last memory of her is from Christmas 1967, when the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was first aired. She had a colour TV in her room and we had only a black-and-white one, so the whole family gathered in Nana’s room to watch it in colour. When it was done she said “Well, I didn’t think much of that.”   A blunt Yorkshirewoman to the end.

1  The name was originally Betty’s but the apostrophe was dropped somewhere along the way.
2  Quotation from a comment by Frances Atkins on the Bettys website: https://www.bettys.co.uk/timeline
3  No connection with the brewery of that name. My family were all staunch Methodists.
4  Who Was Betty? A Whimsical Collection of Tall Stories edited by Samantha Gibson (2011)

 

Nigel aka Simon

The phone call came out of the blue one Sunday afternoon, and it changed my life. It was Charles Platt asking if I’d like to be the Art Editor of New Worlds. I said that I would and continued reading Gormenghast, which was just reaching its exciting climax. This was in 1969.

I had been doing occasional illustrations for this New Worlds, which had started out as a straight science fiction monthly years earlier but under Michael Moorcock’s flamboyant editorship in the 1960s had become the leading forum of what would soon be termed the New Wave, rejecting most of the well-worn SF ideas in favour of more experimental, avant-garde writing with J.G Ballard at the helm. Those of us who cared about such things found it wildly exciting and I — a PhD student at the time — was thrilled at the prospect of being an integral part of it. Charles was officially the designer but he also acted as a sort of business manager, doing his best to make sure that the magazine appeared on time each month, and it seemed that he liked my work.

The only problem was that New Worlds already had an Art Editor in Nigel Francis, a young fellow that Charles had recruited from his old school. “Don’t worry about that,” said Charles, but I felt uneasy as I mounted the stairs to the New Worlds office for the first time. It was in a very run-down terraced house at the shabby end of Portobello Road, and the banisters had been removed (for firewood? We were all desperately poor) leaving a sort of cavity below the upper flight. This was filled with a heap of what looked like old clothes, but as I passed it the heap stirred (rats?) and from it emerged Nigel. “Hello,” he said, seemingly without rancour.

It transpired that although Nigel was a neat and careful designer he was very slow. He had apparently spent the best part of a fortnight creating a small title-piece from smoke, spending hours waving a candle beneath various pieces of art board that he had treated with gum. Somehow it worked and his smoke-lettering did appear in the magazine, but for Charles it had been the last straw as deadlines had come and gone, and I was soon installed at the design table in the corner of the main office.

Nigel evidently lived in the heap under the stairs, and over the next few weeks as I beavered away getting the magazine out on time he would occasionally materialize behind me, looking at what I was doing but saying nothing. This wasn’t particularly disconcerting, however, as Nigel proved to be a gentle, amiable soul who never gave any hint that he might resent my presence. I came to like him a lot. He was certainly eccentric, though. After consulting some sort of guru he shaved his head and changed his name to Simon. OK, now we all have to call him Simon.

With winter approaching he decided that he needed an overcoat and penniless as usual he decided to make one. He had noticed that right-handed people wearing jeans rarely used the left back pocket and vice versa with the left-handed ones, so on weekends when Portobello Road was crowded with tourists there would be Simon armed with a small sharp pair of scissors asking people if he might carefully remove one of their jeans pockets for this coat he was making. He did it too, and we’d occasionally see him out and about wearing his patchwork coat of many colours, all of them blue. Charles, meanwhile, had decided that shoes were unnecessary and was walking the streets barefoot. He soon gave that up, however (“broken glass and dog shit”). Strange and rather wonderful days.

I lost track of Simon soon after that, but Charles told me that he had started earning money repairing people’s bicycles from a squat in Kilburn, then that he had got married — and to a lady doctor — but it wasn’t long before he was killed in a traffic accident in the West Country: a nasty end for an odd, sweet guy fondly remembered by the dwindling band of people who knew him.

And how did that phone call change my life? Well, the idea of a PhD had lost some of its allure but now I was learning new skills which would eventually lead me to a career in publishing. Another story.