Computers and I go back a long way. When I came to London as a research student in 1967 the whole of London University was serviced by a single huge computer. It was called Atlas and it occupied an entire building in a street alongside Euston Station. It looked like something from a science fiction movie, with rotating tape reels and flashing lights but no keyboards or screens and nary a mouse to be seen as they had yet to be invented. Atlas was staffed by young men in white coats — I don’t recall a single female operative — and mere students weren’t allowed anywhere near it. The data from our experiments had to be fed in on punched cards, and at UCL there was a special shed full of hole-punching machines where distraught researchers like me cussed as they punched holes in the wrong places and had to start all over again. If you were lucky you’d find that there was an existing programme to analyse the data on your cards, but if there wasn’t you had to write one yourself, and I was sent on a programming course to learn how to do this in a language called FORTRAN IV. There was a waiting-list for data processing, and when you eventually got your results they came in the form of numerical print-outs: reams and reams of paper. Not even the science fiction writers predicted that in the future all this would be miniaturised and made affordable for home users.
It took a while, however. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the publishing firm I worked for could obtain sales figures from the warehouse via a dial-up modem attached to a telephone line, which was a slow and highly unreliable process, and once again I was allowed nowhere near it. More years went by, and I started my own publishing company. Towards the end of the 1980s some of our authors were writing on Amstrad computers with green lettering on black screens (no graphics), saving their writing onto floppy disks and expecting us to be pleased about receiving these state-of-the-art submissions. A decent-sized novel could occupy three or four disks and we had no computer to sort out the damn things, so people quickly acquired daisywheel printers and sent us stuff that we could actually read. We saw no reason to get one of these crappy computers or printers for ourselves.
I didn’t acquire my own computer until 1995 when, feeling I ought to be learning about these new-fangled things I enrolled on a basic computing course, which I got for free being theoretically unemployed at the time. Windows 95 was hot news at the time, and while it was ok for processing text its graphics capabilities were pretty well non-existent. The course was fun, though. Most of the other students were college-leavers trying to get a first foothold in the job market, and some of them were female. They all watched Friends, in which Monica was just embarking on an affair with Richard, played by Tom Selleck, an older man with a moustache, which seemed to give some of them the idea that getting to know an older man might be a neat idea.
I was certainly no Tom Selleck, but I was an older man called Richard with a moustache, and two girls in particular started being very friendly to me. One of them was clearly unstable (you don’t have to be clinically insane to fancy me but it helps, as the saying doesn’t quite go), but the other was tall and slim with closely-cropped black hair like Louise Brooks and she’d just graduated in Art History. I’ll merely say that we got on extremely well, and if she hadn’t had this boyfriend back home in Warwick … I still think of her sometimes. She was lovely: intelligent, beautiful, gentle and kind. Damn it, I should have fought much harder for her. Anyway, in amongst all that I bought a second-hand PC running Windows.
This computer didn’t last much longer than the course and the romance, but computing for me changed vastly for the better when my friend Bob who was supporting a big project that I was working on gave me an Apple Mac together with a matching scanner, laser printer and modem. Astonishingly kind, and I lost no time in enrolling on another course, learning Photoshop, Illustrator and Quark XPress over a period of eight months and copping an NVQ Level 2 into the bargain, boast boast, and connecting to the internet for the first time, which was not then plagued so much by advertising. This enabled me to do most of the things that we now take for granted on our Macs and PCs, and as not many others were doing desktop publishing at the time it helped me get going as a freelance editor and designer, and saved my bacon financially. Since then we’ve got much faster computers and near-universal broadband and — well, you know the rest as well as I do.
It’s astonishing to realize that the cheapest modern laptop is more powerful than Atlas was. The other day I was relating all this to another twenty-something woman, a freelance writer — I’m a fascinating conversationalist — and trying to persuade her that if things could change so much in the last 50 years computing would be vastly different 50 years hence when she’s a granny, but she was reluctant to believe that items like keyboards, screens and mouses would disappear and be as forgotten as card-hole punchers, floppy disks and modems when they’re superseded by all the data and imaging going directly to the brain. It’s already happening. I read in the newspaper the other day that a dog has been trained to move things about on a screen merely by willing them to do so, and I believe that Elon Musk is working on direct connections to the head. I’m glad in a way that I won’t be around to see the fruits of these researches, though I’d quite like to return to this young woman as a ghost saying in spooky tones “I tooold you sooo.”
As I’ve been writing this piece I’ve found Pulp’s ‘Help the Aged’ playing in what’s left of my brain. Can’t think why.
I recently posted some photos of myself on my Facebook page and was surprised at the number of Likes they got. The pictures showed me playing my saxophone — or pretending to play it — in 1963 shortly after I’d acquired the thing from a family friend. I’m somewhat diffident about posting pictures of myself, but people do seem to be interested in these things and I may post more.
Incidentally, my record number of Likes on Facebook has been 528 (plus 65 Shares) for a little snippet that I posted in a forum called The English Language Police, probably because it mentioned Neil Gaiman who appears to be enormously popular these days.
When he was a young wannabee Neil and another guy submitted a book proposal to my fledgling publishing company, and I turned it down. Oh dear…
But the photos set me reminiscing to myself about my various musical endeavours, which have been many and various, and wholly unsuccessful. They started with Saturday-morning piano lessons taken at my mother’s insistence when I was a schoolboy in Leeds. The teacher was Miss Banbury who lived in a rather gothic-looking house in a sort of park nearby. To get to it I had to open a huge creaky garden gate then walk up a long path snaking through overgrown rhododendrons to the house, where the door was opened by a maid who ushered me into the drawing room which housed the grand piano to await the arrival of Miss Banbury. She had leg-irons so I could hear her clanking towards me long before she arrived, which added to the Gothic qualms I was feeling — but she was actually a nice old lady, if rather strict.
For homework she gave me a booklet called Forest Fantasies which contained simple little tunes for piano which I dutifully worked my way through with no enthusiasm at all, but I pored over the cover which was by someone called W. Heath Robinson. I had shown some little talent for drawing and I thought that if I ever got good at it that was the kind of thing I’d like to do. A seed had been planted, albeit a non-musical one. The original booklet is long gone but much later I got hold of another copy which is now framed and hanging on my wall.
Miss Banbury got me through Level 1, which was quite an achievement as playing the piano was for me just a grim duty, and when I was packed off to boarding school at the age of twelve I flatly refused to have any more lessons. My mother told me that I’d regret it later and she was right, I do.
Music for me as a child consisted of the hymns we sang in church, the choruses and songs we sang as Boy Scouts (‘Ging-Gang-Gooly’ etc.), and Uncle Mac on the wireless who played a seldom-changing selection of so-called children’s records every Saturday morning. My sister and I were plonked down in front of the radiogram for this supposed treat, but I hated all those songs, especially the ones that left us little listeners hanging: there was The Runaway Train who ‘came down the track and she blew’ which ended ‘For all I know she’s blowing still’; the Three Little Fishies who swam and swam right over the dam and right out to sea, and the Billy Goats Gruff and the troll … and some of the records were downright creepy, like My Grandfather’s Clock which ‘stopped short never to go again / when the old man died,’ and of course the Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly (‘She’s dead, of course’). Uncle Mac was much later revealed to have been a suspected pædophile.
The radiogram housed a small collection of records — 78s in those days — handed down from my Harrogate grandparents and supplemented by a few that my father had bought. His taste was for the lighter sort of classical music, Mozart and Gilbert & Sullivan plus a few sacred songs, which I sometimes played when it was raining outside and there was nothing else to do. My favourite was one of my grandfather’s, ‘(I Got Spurs that) Jingle Jangle Jingle’ by The Merry Macs, but I secretly quite liked ‘All In the April Evening’ by the Glasgow Orpheus Choir and its flipside ‘By Cool Siloam’s Shady Rill’ which I heard as ‘… shady Rhyll’, the North Wales resort which we’d visited and which hadn’t seemed particularly shady to me.
This all changed dramatically in 1958 when the family moved from Yorkshire to Bromborough on the Wirral where I soon fell in with a bunch of kids who were into rock ‘n’ roll. One of them, Graham Noble, had an older brother who was a big fan of Elvis Presley and between them they had a collection of records by Elvis and a few others. I was vaguely aware of Elvis but hadn’t liked ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ — too slow, too morbid — but when Graham played ‘Hound Dog’ at full volume I was an instant convert. Our old radiogram had been discarded when we moved house and my father had bought a portable record player which would play these new-fangled little 45 rpm records, and I soon started collecting them myself whenever I could scrape together the money for one. After a few false starts — the very first record I bought was ‘Big Man’ by The Four Preps, and to my subsequent shame and the mockery of my friends I even bought a Pat Boone EP — I soon tapped into the real thing, and for the next few years rock ‘n’ roll became something of an obsession: not much Elvis as Graham and his brother had all his records, but Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, Bo Diddley, Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis and, best of all and partly because he was the one my otherwise tolerant parents couldn’t stand, Little Richard.
Rock ‘n’ roll in those days was regarded as a plebeian taste and at my posh boarding school it was frowned upon, but I soon found that there were a handful of boys who shared my passion for this degraded music and we formed a little rebellious clique. The records we collected were I suppose a form of escapism, seeming like mysterious messages from another, much more interesting world — the USA — and apart from their sheer excitement we learned from them that there were such things as sock-hop balls, red bluejeans and girls called Moronie. We puzzled over some of the more mysterious lyrics much more assiduously than we did over our French irregular verbs or the more obscure passages of Shakespeare. What on earth was ‘Jambalaya’ on about, for instance? Gotta go do a what on the bayou?
Back home in the holidays I soon discovered that the best record shop in the Merseyside area was NEMS in Liverpool, and I soon became a regular and rather annoying customer — annoying because having come a bit late to rock ‘n’ roll I was always looking for the more obscure records invariably to be told that they were deleted. (There were no ‘golden oldies’ or reissues in those days and once a record had had its few weeks in the charts it was removed from the catalogue, seemingly forever.) I remember being served by a polite, smartly-dressed young man who who addressed me as Sir seemingly without satirical intent and who asked if I’d like him to order it for me, which never produced the goods. It got to the point where I had only to show myself on the stairs leading down to the record department in the basement for the rest of the staff to yell out “It’s deleted, it’s deleted,” which was embarassing for a self-conscious 14-old, but I was on a mission and it didn’t deter me. A couple of years later when the Beatles were becoming famous I recognized their manager, Brian Epstein, also becoming famous, as the smart young man who had sometimes tried to help me in the shop.
Like many other kids on Merseyside I wanted a guitar and there was excitement when my dad came home from a church bazaar with an interesting-looking parcel, bulgy at at one end and tapering at the other which turned out to be … a banjo. It was an ancient instrument with five strings, one of which disappeared down a sort of tunnel half-way along the neck. This sure as hell wasn’t what I wanted as I had no enthusiasm for trad jazz or folk music, but I did what I could with it until my teenage pal Brian Patten (not the poet, another one) called round and saw me through the window posing with it in front of the mirror, trying to make like Duane Eddy. When he came in he was laughing so hard he actually fell over. But Brian had a schoolfriend who was looking to sell his guitar, and my dad obligingly bought it for me. It cost £3 and it was a wretched thing, a Spanish-style acoustic with plastic strings and a very wide fretboard, but at least it was a guitar: much better for posing purposes and on it I managed to teach myself some basic chords and was soon able to play a few simple songs and even compose a couple of my own. But I was on my own with that. Brian and Graham had no musical instruments of their own, and on my trips to Liverpool I didn’t happen to meet John Lennon or Paul McCartney who might have helped me.
We did hear about these Beatles quite early on, however. Some of Brian’s schoolfriends had been to this place called the Cavern Club and Brian wanted us to go (“Apparently they play songs by Little Richard and Buddy Holly — all the stuff we like”) but our parents wouldn’t let us, thinking that as a club the Cavern would be serving alcohol which was strictly forbidden to us young Methodists, so we missed out on that treat though we did get to a Beatles concert in Southport a couple of years later.
At the time though (1959-62) we only very occasionally got to hear some live music. The first time was at the Liverpool Empire early in 1960 with a bill shared by Duane Eddy and Bobby Darin. I had all of Duane Eddy’s records including his first LP and was delighted to find that on stage he was as good as he sounded on the records. This wasn’t always the case: when British acts performed live on tv backed by some hastily-assembled session musicians the results were usually dire, but Duane had brought his own band The Rebels with him and they were terrific, filling the theatre with sounds that it had probably never heard before. Bobby Darin was excellent too. Graham and I went back a couple of nights later and got their autographs at the stage door.
Back at school in Bath in term-time there was even less opportunity to hear visiting Americans, and I ached with frustration when a package tour with Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent played at a theatre in the city. There they were, these legendary figures whose records I knew by heart, performing just down the road while I was stuck at school doing prep with absolutely no way of getting out. It got even worse when it came on the news the next day that their car had crashed shortly after the gig and Eddie Cochran had died in a Bath hospital. Happily, Gene Vincent survived and I was able to see him a bit later when my school friend Chris phoned me in the holidays to ask if I’d like to join him seeing not only Gene Vincent but also Jerry Lee Lewis doing a show in York, where he lived at the time. Indeed I would and it was a great experience, with the two stars supported by two emerging British groups, The Animals and The Nashville Teens. Chris and I had a bet on which of these groups might make it big. I opted for The Nashville Teens …
… And there I must leave it for the moment as I find I have much more to say about music than I originally thought. You’ll have gathered that it means a great deal to me and I’ll write more soon.
Will Richard abandon rock ‘n’ roll when it goes all soft in 1961? How and why did he get into jazz? Did he ever learn to play that saxophone properly? Why does he now have several guitars lying around the house, and where does Bob Dylan fit into all this? Has Richard’s enthusiasm for music been passed on to the next generation on the other side of the world? Don’t miss the next thrilling installment of My Musical Career, coming soon to a blog near you.
I don’t think my taste-buds are any less sensitive or less educated than anyone else’s. I’ve dined in some fancy places in Paris, Rome, Madrid, New York and many in London, I’ve commissioned and published books on fine food and wine, I’ve eaten and enjoyed superb meals served by kind friends and now and again I’ve even attempted some fairly exotic dishes on my own account and I know the good stuff when it finds its way into my mouth, but there are times when nothing but a plate of bacon and eggs will do. It would be mad to go to l’Escargot or the River Café for such basic fare, so this is my little song of praise for the places that have provided me with such things at reasonable prices over the years. There are three that I remember with particular affection.
The first, unlikely as it sounds, was a Chinese restaurant called The Rickshaw in Sheffield, just down the road from the university where I was a student from 1964-67. After six years at boarding school I was heartily sick of institutional life so tended to avoid the students’ union cafeteria, since for the first time in my life I could make my own decisions about where and when I could eat. The Rickshaw offered OK food at very cheap prices — sometimes it was indeed bacon and eggs but more often it was their three-course lunch which offered soup, sausage and chips with gravy, and a pudding for one-and six (7½p). I never once had Chinese food there.
A Chinese restaurant in the daytime is not always the prettiest place but I’ve never minded a bit of sleaze and the Rickshaw had that all right, for apart from the shabby décor it soon became apparent even to my still rather innocent eyes that the upstairs, accessed by passing through a bead curtain at the foot of the stairs, was a brothel. Every so often as I and sometimes a friend tucked into our chips a businessman would quickly enter the place looking neither to the left or the right, disappear behind the curtain and ascend the stairs, to emerge equally speedily about twenty minutes later then disappear into the midday throng outside. Highly diverting, though in the three years that I dined there we never saw anyone there who looked remotely like a prostitute, which made it all the more intriguing. I liked to imagine that the upstairs rooms were decorated in ornate Oriental style where might be found a seductive maiden perhaps named Precious Jade or Lotus Flower, but I suspect that it was more likely to be some down-to-earth local lass called Doris.
Another attraction of The Rickshaw was that just across the road was a traditional pub, The Hallamshire, where good ale was served and where I became acquainted with the poet William Empson as I’ve already mentioned, and just recently I was surprised to find The Rickshaw mentioned in the autobiography of David Nobbs, the creator of Reginald Perrin and many other wonderful comic characters on tv and in his novels, who had patronised the place when he was a cub reporter in Sheffield. That was before my time, but it’s rather nice to know that he remembered it too.
I came to London in the autumn of 1967 ostensibly to do a Ph.D but I soon got involved with a magazine called New Worlds [see my earlier post ‘Nigel aka Simon’] and we often worked late into the night to get the magazine out on time at the office in Portobello Road, and on one of these occasions Charles told me that he had designed a menu-board for a café that was opening next-door-but-one in return for a couple of free meals. This was The Mountain Grill, and as it seemed to be open and we were hungry Charles suggested that we go there and have those meals. As I recall, this was a fairly dismal experience: we were the only customers — possibly their very first — and the place was distinctly lacking in atmosphere, though the food was OK.
Soon after that Charles moved to the USA but I still spent a lot of time at the nether end of Notting Hill, as many of the people associated with New Worlds were still around, including my friend Bob who roped me in to help run the adventure playground that he and a few others had built in one of the bays underneath the newly-built Westway flyover. By now I had a full-time publishing job in the West End, but on Saturdays Bob and I helped to run a stall in Portobello Market to raise funds for the playground. The Mountain Grill was our local hangout and It soon became known to us as Maria’s after its roly-poly proprietress, and after several hours on the stall on a freezing winter morning it was great to be able to go and get warm and stuff our faces there. Our favourite dish was chicken pilaf which was served on white oval plates with rice AND chips: a really good big plateful for a couple of quid. When husband George introduced sheftalia — spicy little Greek sausages — onto the menu we sometimes had those, and very tasty they were but not as filling as the pilaff.
The lunchtime clientele was interesting. Apart from the other stallholders, playworkers and assorted locals, members of the newly-formed space-rock band Hawkwind often hung out there. I knew some of them through Michael Moorcock, the editor of New Worlds who was working with Hawkwind as lyric-writer and occasional performer, and Mike sometimes joined them there. He once decribed Hawkwind as ‘like the crazed crew of a spaceship that didn’t quite know how everything worked but nevertheless wanted to try everything out’. They sometimes performed under the motorway when the stalls had been cleared away, and an added attraction was Stacia who danced to their music in a creative and often naked way, and I suspect that some of the crowd came less for the music than for a glimpse of Stacia’s magnificent boobs, or perhaps they were keen students of modern interpretive dance.
We were thrilled when Hawkwind actually scored a top ten hit with ‘Silver Machine’ with its vocal by Lemmy and appeared on Top of the Pops (“Hey, I know those guys!”) Here they are doing their thing, though Stacia is rather restrained on a tv appearance. The café gained a degree of fame for itself with Hawkwind’s punningly-titled album The Hall of the Mountain Grill with fine cover artwork by Barney Bubbles, and in one of Mike’s novels he included a seating-plan showing where he and each member of the band would sit.
Maria died young. George carried on for a while and even had his own name painted on the sign-board outside, but after a while he turned the café into a fast-food joint and soon after that it closed, to be taken over and re-opened in various trendy guises (latterly it was called Talkhouse) as Notting Hill became gentrified. Google Street View currently shows the place closed and boarded-up, another victim of the pandemic I guess, but Mike is still writing fine novels, Hawkwind are still recording and performing, and Stacia is now one of my Facebook Friends.
I moved to Crouch End in 1977 and have lived mostly in the same area ever since, during which time I think I’ve checked out every greasy spoon — no offence — within walking or short driving distance. My favourite for a long time was a very basic café in Middle Lane, which if it had a name I’ve forgotten it. Here the bacon and eggs were good and after running errands in Crouch End I liked to go there — since my Rickshaw days I’ve never minded lunching on my own (dinner is a different matter) — and have a tuck-in with a mug of strong tea and a couple of fags, have a glance at the redtops (provided by the café) then have a stab at the Guardian crossword. I got to know the proprietor and shared his misery as the place quickly lost most of its customers, driven away by the triple whammy of the smoking ban, draconian parking restrictions and soaring business rates. Crouch End was a shabby area when I first came here but it too has gone up in the world, and this unpretentious greasy spoon became the rather precious Wisteria Café. I tried it once — not my scene, maaaan — and now it’s The Haberdashery, which is even less appealing.
More recently my favourite breakfasting place has been the one nearest my house, which has changed its name and ownership and appearance several times over the last couple of decades and is currently Café Carmel. It’s nothing special, no great atmosphere, no rock bands and no sign that it does double-duty as a whorehouse, but it’s clean and the food is good enough which is really all I want these days. My last breakfast there was a year ago on the day of the general election.
I’d gone out mid-morning to cast my vote and decided to take a detour on the way home to visit the café , and wandering back after a good feed I began staggering and had to cling onto walls and lamp-posts to support myself. I nearly made it home but at the garden gate my legs turned to jelly and I measured my length on the pavement. I didn’t lose consciousness but I couldn’t get up and there was no-one around to help me, so I had to crawl up the garden path to the stoop and managed to reach up to the door handle and drag myself indoors. I’ve fallen down a couple more times since then and bought myself a walking-stick which makes walking a bit safer, but it’s very frustrating; I used to be a great walker — I even used to climb mountains — and thank goodness I’m still able to drive.
My hope for 2021, apart from world peace and all that, is therefore a very modest one: to be able to walk unaided to this café and have another late breakfast there.
The prospect of a Zombie Apocalypse, which I’m assured is imminent, raises the question “Who would you most like to see returning as one of the undead?” which takes its place alongside other topics for late-night debate such as “Where would you go if you had the free use of a time machine for 24 hours?” and “Are you happy? No, really happy?” God, we have fun. Anyway, here’s my candidate for zombiehood.
1977. A crowd of around 150 people gathered in the cemetery at San Antonio to see a large wooden crate being lowered into the pit that had been excavated to receive it. Inside the crate was the corpse of a beautiful young woman named Sandra West seated at the wheel of her favourite sports car. This is her strange, sad little story.
Born and raised in southern California, Sandra Ilene Hara had a fairly prosperous childhood. Her parents ran a store selling classy children’s clothes and Sandra often saw wealthy customers coming and going, which may have given her ambitious ideas about how her own future should be. Details of her schooling and adolescence are scanty but she was bright and grew into an attractive young woman, soon becoming popular on the local dating scene.
She wanted much more than casual dates, however, and her first serious shot at bagging herself a rich husband was by starting an affair with a guy named Sol West whose money came from extensive cattle and oil interests in Texas, but Sol was a womanizer and serially unfaithful — and Sandra had discovered that his older brother Ike was the real heir to the West fortune, so she switched her attentions to Ike. On the face of it he seemed even less promising than Sol as husband material, having been banished by his family to Mexico to try and cure his booze and drug dependency in the care of a sort of bodyguard, but Sandra was not deterred; she travelled to Mexico to meet Ike and ‘with loving patience’ (as one account puts it) she helped him to clean up and convince the family that he was fit to take charge of the business, with Sandra by his side of course. They married soon afterwards and moved to California to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle together.
It didn’t last long. They moved into a Beverly Hills mansion and spent lavishly on the fine things of life, including the blue Ferrari 303 America that would eventually become Sandra’s coffin, but Ike’s bad habits soon returned and he died at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas in 1968 ‘under mysterious circumstances’ according to my source, which gives no more details. Whatever had happened, Ike’s demise left Sandra a very wealthy widow. She wasn’t shy about flaunting her new wealth and soon she was dating the likes of Frank Sinatra, Nicky Hilton and even Elvis Presley, and her behaviour became flamboyant. She was liable to appear in public dressed as a Texas Rodeo Queen, and she once drove up to exclusive Chasen’s restaurant, made a grand entrance, ordered a single hamburger to go, then drove off at speed into the night munching it. She bought more cars — she had a bit of a thing for Ferraris — and wore more and more jewellery. It looked as though she was having a fabulous time but people who knew her said that she was lonely, and as the years went by she became increasingly reclusive and her behaviour more eccentric.
She became fascinated by the Ancient Egyptians, especially their practice of being buried with their worldly possessions, and she made a will insisting that she ‘be buried next to my husband in a lace nightgown seated in my Ferrari with the seat comfortably slanted’. She crashed the car in 1976 but the damage was fairly minor and she didn’t bother to have it repaired as she was now pretty much a shut-in heavily dependent on drugs, which like many rich Californians (and Elvis) she was able to obtain easily despite being under the supervision of a nurse, and her death in March 1977 was due to an overdose of barbiturates and codeine.
There followed a long legal battle over her will. No-one disputed that brother-in-law Sol — remember him? — was the only realistic heir, but Sol wanted the money without going to the trouble and expense of interring Sandra in her car, so while the wrangling went on she was buried in a temporary grave until things were resolved. The California court eventually ruled that Sol would only get the dough if Sandra’s wishes were carried out to the letter, so the blue Ferrari was sequestered and Sandra’s body was dug up and both were transported to San Antonio in a large wooden crate, where Sandra was dressed as she had wanted and placed in the car: an unusual job for the morticians who presumably did it. Diggers made a large pit in the ground and a large crane was brought in to lift the crate into it. The grave was then covered with a thick layer of concrete to prevent anyone getting at the crate and its contents — not so much Sandra as the Ferrari which would now be worth around $2 million. The site was marked with a simple stone slab placed alongside that of her late husband Ike, and it has now become something of a tourist attraction in the local area even though there’s nothing much to see.
Come the Zombie Apocalypse, when the dead rise from their graves, I would love to see the turf part and the concrete shatter and the crate splinter, and Sandra come roaring out of the ground in her Ferrari (also miraculously restored to life) to wreak a terrible revenge on the people who had treated her so shamefully.
As I was drafting this piece I heard from my former colleague Isabel Lloyd who by an odd coincidence has recently published Gardening for the Zombie Apocalypse subtitled ‘How to Grow Your Own Food When Civilization Collapses (Or Even If It Doesn’t)’, which within a humorous framework is a thoroughly researched and superbly presented guide to growing vegetables and fruit in extremis. Click on the picture for more info on the book, and here for the website.
Isabel worked with me for a few years until my company folded, and subsequently went on to much greater things in the field of magazine publishing. I’d like to take credit for talent-spotting Isabel but It’s clear that she’d have done extremely well anyway, and her husband Phil Clarke (co-author of the book) has progressed from being a scuffling stand-up comedian to one of the UK’s leading comedy producers (Big Train, Brass Eye, Peep Show, I May Destroy You and many more) now running his own very successful production company.
Personally I’d welcome the Apocalypse. I’m old and my life doesn’t matter much but I’d like to hang around long enough to see a bunch of annoying Millennials have their smug little brains sucked out by zombies and their toned, tanned bodies ripped to shreds. Bring it on!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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)
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.