The BC (Before Charlie) Years Part 1 - Uni
In 1970 my mum decided that she’d had enough of Australia, and decided to settle back in the ‘old country’ in Brighton. At the time I had just ‘matriculated’ (very painful Australian way of passing exams) to Sydney University, but Brighton’s proximity to Sussex Uni led me to apply to do a history degree there instead. I was accepted, having been interviewed by a cigar smoking FEMALE professor (hi, Carol Dyhouse), and started in 1971.
The main trouble with University is that it’s just stuffed full of girls. Well, GUURLS and DRIIINK as Father Jack Hackett would have it, but mainly girls. In the summer they’d sashay by in tight fitting see through cheesecloth shirts and impossibly figure hugging blue jeans, in winter would resort to velvet dresses with chokers and afghan coats, and all had long blond hair and were called Sarah, or Deborah, or Natasha, or Katharine, or anything from a Dostoevsky novel. They’d simmer in provocative style in tutorials for which I was more than adequately prepared, having read myself into a stupor of knowledge the night before, but on catching site of them my mind would descend into a fog of fevered ‘cor baby’ style Austin Powerisms, and I would have to be led out later, dribbling and drooling and muttering incoherently.
Girls were the main reason that I did absolutely no work in the first two years at Sussex, although I must also confess that my copious ingestion of ‘mary jane’ didn’t help matters. Oh, that and hanging round the Virgin record shop for hours on end listening to mind altering albums by Can, Gong, Matching Mole, Caravan and Joe Cocker (are you sure). I think Richard Branson came in one day and tried to buy some weed off me, but then, people always (mis)took me for yer average friendly neighbourhood dope dealer in the Virgin shop, so I could be mistaken.
At the time I think the store in Brighton was one of only two, and may well have been the first. Absolutely no expense has been spent researching for this, so loads of you are going to write to me telling me that hey man, the first Virgin shop was in Bognor Regis or Outer Mongolia or something, but that’s not the point. The point is that the place was absolutely fantastic. It had a long semicircular reclining area where you could sit on cushions and listen to the music of your choice, and staff who were actually interested in music, and could tell you the exact chronology and track listings of all Jimi Hendrix’s albums, or the exact year Spirit recorded ‘The Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’ (not difficult really - 1970) as well as the lineup and the reason that one of them looked so old: he was someone’s uncle apparently.
They would also take pity on you if you could plead poverty skilfully enough. ‘Like well man, my grant cheque’s late this term, my rent’s late but I gotta have this cool album by Pink Floyd, I’ll pay you when the dosh comes in’ usually elicited a favourable response, and as a result the shop ran on a level of trust and understanding impossible to believe nowadays apart from in some remote rural areas, where they’ve resisted the coming of post modern urban cynicism and mistrust quite successfully. I always paid my tab, but then I’m an honest geezer.
From this grew the mighty Virgin empire we know today. Although they’ve long given up on the music side, it often strikes me as sad that today’s glass and chrome flagship stores have almost completely betrayed the original vision of what was once musical innovation and passion, content as they are to flog us X Factor nonsense or offerings by Boyzone or Take That by the bucketload. Charmingly however, I have discovered a couple of staff buried deep in the bowels of the Oxford Street store (that’s in London, England for all you American readers) who still love music in all its forms, who understand the ‘deep magic’ and are as conversant in John Coltrane or Charlie Parker as they are in Led Zeppelin or Roy Harper or the Clash. These are people to be treasured, lest they become extinct.
The other big problem with university is that from day one you just know that everyone there is sooo much smarter than you are. In fact, logical evaluation will reveal that you are a completely moronic idiot who is lurking on campus under entirely false pretenses – like those guys who live in airports for years on end – and that you are likely to be found out and thrown off site at any moment. This feeling usually reaches it’s zenith (or nadir or whatever) on your first day. You don’t know where anything is, what the hell is ‘Cultural and Community Studies’, why is everyone else ‘reading’ applied geo - astrophysics or studying the ‘alliteration, metaphor and resonance inherent in the writings of J R R Tolkein?’ What will I do if Asa Briggs (revered historian and Vice Chancellor of Sussex at the time) pops out of the bushes and questions my bona fides by setting me a multiple choice quiz on the rise of the British trade union movement between the wars? All I’m here for is to ‘do’ history, and I don’t even know which period of history I’m supposed to be ‘doing.’
Sitting on a bench in the splendid grounds – spoilt only slightly by the weird Henry Moore sculptures – of Sussex University on a crisp Autumn morning in 1971, all these thoughts, and more, were going through my head. I was rescued from my internal reverie of negativity and self abasement (look it up) by a tall, thin, impossibly English sounding guy with huge amounts of hair, flares and a smile as big as the moon. ‘Mind if I share your bench?’ he enquired in the plummiest sounding accent I’d ever heard. I immediately thought ‘ah – this is a proper English hippie come to talk to me’ and the cares of a few moments ago melted away as we got chatting, realised that both of us were interested in ‘folk’ music, and discovered that he felt as unsure and lacking in confidence as I did. His name was John, and we became, and remain to this day, firm friends.
John introduced me to English pubs – bear in mind I wasn’t long off the plane from Oz, where we still had sawdust on the floor – and to a level of musical sophistication I’d not thought possible before. Mind you, on the way there was the pub where time stood still, dominated as it was by one of those huge mock antique timepieces with faded nicotine stained yellow edges and slightly disfigured hands, which had permanantly stopped working at just short of 11pm one night. Whether this was in homage to chucking out time, or simple mechanical frailty, we never discovered, but the ale was good, and I resisted John’s attempts to get me to drink wine fell on deaf ears, because in Australia, wine was for blokes who are ‘really comfortable’ with their sexuality, or for sheilas, and I was neither. Nowadays I’m much more comfortable with both my sexuality, and wine, of course.
He was more successful in his musical choices, all of which were folk flavoured. Overnight, Planxty became one of my favourite bands, and Alan Stivell and the Watersons weren’t far behind. One misty, magical night we went to a student party somewhere in Hove via the Victorian England of Sherlock Holmes, Hound of the Baskervilles and all. The people hosting the party only seemed to have one album – but what an album! Leige and Lief by Fairport Convention played continuously, and we were transported back in time to a land of jesters, minstrels, earth spirits, duels to the death and medievil banquets. It was the very apotheosis of merrie England I had imagined in Oz, and I became a Fairport fan for life.
John also introduced me to Lewes Folk Club, and the Lewes Bonfire. One night every year the good people of Lewes come together to have the most extravagent ‘no popery’ celebration, commemorating the memory of 17 Protestant martyrs who were burnt at the stake in the town during the Marian Persecutions of 1555–1557. This is an ancient tradition going back many years, and involves fireworks, blazing tar barrels being rolled through the streets, various floats based on topical subjects, hog roasts and at least one huge effigy which is burnt as the evening culminates, usually accompanied by even more fireworks and much rejoicing.
To mark the demise of the 17 martyrs, 17 burning crosses are carried through the town, a grand and slightly surreal sight. The whole evening assumes a dream like quality, possibly as a result of the constant effects of large amounts of smoke from the fireworks, the blazing torches, loud explosions, steam from the tar barrels which end their journey in the river, and the reduction in vision that results from all this. In 2001 an effigy of Osama bin Laden ensured that the annual event received more press attention than usual, and unfortunately, over the years the evening has become such a huge attraction that the little town of Lewes is swamped each year in a welter of tourists it cannot possibly sustain. The Lewes Bonfire Society website now pleads with would be visitors, urging ‘people living outside the town not to try to attend the annual 5 November celebrations.’ More encouragingly, it has safety advice for people who are likely to ignore this, so I guess the public nature of Bonfire carries on.
This was also the decade where because of the striking miners the lights and the tele went off at 10 each night, everything came in either brown, cream or orange, Leibfraumilch was the height of wine drinking sophistication, and holding fondue parties or holidaying in Spain was something to aspire to. This all passed me by – I was too busy enjoying my version of merrie England.
The Students are Revolting
University authorities in England in the early 70’s were running scared, and Sussex was no exception. Looming large in the background were the student riots and protests of 68, and the powers that were had decided to liberalise the curriculum in an attempt to appease the ‘revolting students.’ What this meant for me was that I was given an impossibly diverse choice of courses to sign up for, even though my major subject would concern Britain Between the Wars. As a result I found myself studying, amongst other things, The Cultural Revolution in China, Epistomology, The Romantic Poets, Ancient China and Understanding Children.
I’m not sure why I did this, other than that I could, but I’m glad that such eclecticism was available; it helped shape my world view in a way that my narrow and confined courses in Australian High School never would have. I had gone from a fairly staid and somewhat oppressive background to an environment where people discussed Marx, Engels, Mao, the rise of the working classes, philosophy, music and politics, with enthusiasm and real insight, and I loved it. We once spent a whole morning discussing whether or not the tree outside the lecture room really existed (Epistomology), and were then asked to write a poem about how it made us feel. Scary stuff for a country boy from Dubbo, but at the same time, brilliant!