Saturday, 24 October 2009

Chapter 11 - Kids!!

Dick with Charlie Arran 1982
Kids (1983 – present)

Night arrives with her purple legions
retire now to your tents and to your dreams
tomorrow we enter the town of my birth
I want to be ready (Jim Morrison)

Your children are not your children
They the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself
(The Prophet Khalil Gilbran)

When Katharine and I bought Charlie, our idea was to travel via the fashionable ‘hippie trail’ through Europe and the Asian sub continent, and arrive back in in back in Oz, or more specifically in Dubbo. There we imagined living in rural splendour & sunning ourselves for the greater part of the year whilst doing the odd days work here and there to keep ourselves in style and suntan lotion. Having seen Katharine’s reaction to a two week holiday in Spain in 1999; average temperature about 35 degrees during our two week holiday there, I’m kinda glad that our Aussie odyssey never became a reality. To say she visibly melted would be an understatement! She never really liked the heat, being after all a Mackem (if you don’t know look it up); a native of a a place where they shun central heating and during the depths of winter fling open the windows as if it were a bright sunny day. If I told you that male football fans there will cheerily dispense with their replica shirts – ones they’ve paid half a million quid for - even in February you might get an inkling of what I’m talking about.

Anyway, I know for a fact (cos she’s subsequently told me) that she never had any intention of going overland to Australia, because, actually, she had other ideas. Or one idea – to get herself as pregnant as she could as quickly as she possibly could, and begin raising a family. So, one day after we’d been married about a year, she announced that she was indupitably and beyond all shadow of a doubt with child as the books coyly put it. Now this is what most blokes in their 20’s (I was 29) dread happening as a result of a ‘permanent’ relationship. Loss of freedom, loss of ability to sit round in the boozer talking about footie and birds; loss of ability to shag around; loss of ability to take off at a moments notice and disappear into the sunset; loss of chances for getting very stoned and listening to very loud rock music. Everything in fact, that a young virile male imagines to be necessary for a complete lifestyle – swept aside in instant to be replaced with howling infants, dirty nappies, endless nightly disturbances to feed, change or placate the small monster you’ve blamelessly spawned, and later the dreaded pipe and slippers, Steve Coogan cardies and teenagers who behave like Harry Enfield’s Kevin, communicating only in grunts.

Gosh, nobody then, was more surprised than I to actually feel a great sense of adventure and challenge from the expected arrival. Was I ready to give up my former pleasures? Only time would tell, but I had a good feeling about being a dad (although I’m still, even 26 years later, not really able to believe I’m a father).

Nothing prepares you for the joy of being a parent; the almost unbearable elation when you take part in the birth; for the first smile; the ridiculous interest in every tiny gurgle and noise; for being fascinated with what this small being eats (and more worrying, produces at the other end – yeuuch!) Later there is almost real communication – listen I’m sure she said your name, I think he just asked for more. Actually these are random noises but later become real, distinguishable, words, and then the fun starts. Ellie’s first word was pussy, but by the age of three she’d progressed to words like camouflage, shocking our friend Simon so much he nearly choked.

Being like, er, radicals man we agreed that we didn’t want a nasty fascist, oppressive, male dominated birth for our first child in some soulless hospital where Katharine would be subjected to the indignities of being treated like a patient or a number. No, we wanted the joy and nutaral-ness of a home birth (and up yours to the authorites). After all; we kept reminding ourselves that we’d been told that Chinese peasant women could give birth in the rice field they were working in and carry on with their toil unhindered – total bullshit of course but we believed it. All the magazines, pamphlets and booklets we read (one was by the Radical Midwives Association) assured us that birth was the most natural thing in the world, and that we must shun at all costs the nasty patriachial male doctors with their shiny steel implements of torture and gas and air etc.

Our doctor took a very dim view of this approach, pointing out – not unreasonably – that hospital births are safer than flying by plane or some such thing, and that if anything does go wrong we would have access to the best help available. His protestations fell on deaf ears, we were young, deeply in love, immortal and on a mission. As a result he made us jump through a number of what we saw to be totally unjustified hoops in order to secure the home birth we wanted so desparately. In fact, it transpired that the only thing he could find to quibble about was Katharine’s deficient iron level, and this was soon sorted. We discovered afterwards, when Parents Magazine arrived to interview us, that this had been the first home birth in Wandsworth for 35 years, we began to understand why the doc had made such a fuss about it.

As the date of the confinement drew close we began to plan the music, invited friends (really), attended the odd NCT class, bought various books by child experts and gurus such as Sheila Kitzinger. There was a short lived plan to keep the placenta and cook it and eat it while dancing around in the moonlight, but mercifully we thought that this was a bit extreme and loopy even for us and the idea was quietly shelved.

What we didn’t do was worry, have Katharine go on strange diets or study the most auspicious times for birth, and I certainly didn’t give up smoking or drinking! Nowadays expectant mothers are beset with all sorts of dire warnings about eating the wrong foods (this kind of fish is OK but that kind will cause the baby to go yellow and have eye problems in later life etc etc) along with a huge number of possible complications and crimes against the potential long - term health and mental stability of the unborn infant.

Where does Charlie come into this, you may be asking, and I’m going to tell you. We were determined not to let the arrival of the firstborn cramp our style; we would still party with the best of them, still go see all our mates at odd times of the day and night, still go to gigs and festivals, take unplanned trips to nowhere in particular and generally live a free and unfettered lifestyle. There is a small problem here, as any experienced parent will tell you. Small babies and children require feeding, having nappy changes, sleeping and being entertained. You can’t just go out of the house on a whim. You are required to take a panoply (look it up) of baby support systems and items: cots, pushchairs, bottles, milk, changing mat, clothes etc etc.

So…Charlie became a kinda travelling nursery on wheels. We equipped him with nearly everything required for baby life support, even down to a travel cot which folded neatly away when not in use. Ellie invariably went to sleep in the cot almost as soon as the engine turned over, as did her sisters after her, which afforded us at least four hours of untroubled travelling time. This enabled us to venture forth to, well, pretty much anywhere that took our fancy. This usually overnight stops or festivals. I’m sure our girls thought of Charlie as a second home in the same way that Simon and Paul were their second dads (yes I know 1+1+1 = 3 and doesn’t add up if you include me, but I had to get a mention in here for them). I’m also sure that the distinctive chuga chuga sound of an aircooled engine also helped to induce sleep, and even years later if I hear one I get a sort of secure feeling of warmth and comfort.

Actually, in the depths of the English winters, Charlie was not particularly warm, given the inadequate level of heat from the heath robinson style ‘heat exchangers’ which ducted the warm air all the way from the engine (at the back) to the cab (which was at the front), thus affording it time to cool down to a point where it was only actually useful after a journey of about 50 miles or so. Also in summer they didn’t seem to turn off completely, which gave more warm air when it was least needed. Despite the fact I have huge admiration for all things VW and German in terms of mechanical engineering, I think they got this one wrong, and I searched in vain for the fabled petrol (petrol!) driven heater which had acquired urban myth type status among VW enthusiasts, but my search was always in vain.

Our family members will aways point out a VW van when we drive past one (usually in the overtaking lane, boom, boom!) and a general chorus of approveal will be registered with a resounding ‘There’s a CHARLIE VAN.’ That’s just how important Charlie is to us, and wherever I am in the world any site of a VW T2 is a good exultant feeling. Part of the extended Charlie Van family, if you like.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Chapter 10 - A Place Where Dreams really Do Come True

Arwen & Charlie at Trowbridge festival

(A Place Where) Dreams Really do come True – France 1995

Katharine and I have three kids (and just a few weeks ago a grandchild). All of them are girls, all three feisty and full of hell. When younger, Arwen (the middle & most noticeably ginger one) was notoriously difficult to impress. Even at the tender age of three or four she’d summarise any experience: films; food; festivals; parties; TV programmes; games; days out, with the catch all expression s’pose it was awright, and that would be that. We gave up trying to do anything impressive safe in the knowledge that she was one of the most contented and placid people we’ve known. Her baby years were mainly spent playing happily for hours with pieces of string and pay doh – something she has pretty much continued latterly into her career as a sculptor.

So imagine our shock and amazement when at the age of nine she announced in hushed tones that implied an absolute sense of wonder, and which brooked no argument, that: this is the place where dreams really do come true.

Now what do you think that she might have been talking about. The Planetarium? Madame Tussauds? The London Dungeon? The Tower of London? Durham Cathedral? Alton Towers? No, these were all places that had elicited the usual response, and she had even reserved particular scorn for the Tower of London, since on the one day we’d visited, the room housing the Crown Jewels was closed and to add insult to injury a Beefeater had made her accompany him up the 100 stairs to see for herself the room that was closed, and count them all. Just for a laugh (ahahaha).

Need a clue? At the time an attraction across the water that was so glittering and wondrous it could only be entirely American in origin, was about to be unleashed on the unsuspecting Europeans and in particular the people living near Paris. For weeks the TV had regaled us with adverts, and although there were rumours that not all was financially well in fairyland, we were cheerfully told over and over that it was -a place where dreams…… – well I think you can guess the rest for yourselves! Our three sat glued even closer to the television than usual for the adverts announcing the launch of Disneyland Paris, and as a result we were subjected to almost continuous Bart Simpson style exhortations like Dad will you take us to Mount Splashmore, only this one went mum and dad, please take us to Disneyland Paris…please, please, please etc and on and on.

So of course we just had to go! At the time I cordially disliked the Americans - with their glitz and glamour and relentless proselytising of the capitalist dream – viewing them with the kind of disdain that you might expect of an anti-nuclear activist and practising hippie, and I warned all who would listen (which amounted pretty much only to the cat and she didn’t have much choice in the matter) that it would be total rubbish. Even she was right to doubt me, and despite the fact that I’d made up my mind not to like Disneyland Paris, it only took a sight of the golden Edoras glimmering in the distance, the luxurious reception area and a turn on one ride – Pirates of the Carribean (long before it became a film) – to completely change my mind! I mean, any organisation that can make water flow upwards, as it did in the ride that subsequently inspired the Johnny Depp version of Pirates, must be capable of some pretty awe inspiring feats of engineering and some serious inspiration and creativity, not to mention the application of extremely large sums of the old green stuff!

I was bowled over, as were all of us, and during a rest stop, taking shelter from the remorseless heat of an August afternoon, Arwen made her pronouncement – one that has passed into family mythology, and usually signifies something like, well, really, really, really special. We had been – or were about to go – on it’s a Small World After All; Big Thunder Mountain; Space Mountain; Star Tours; a replica paddle steamer straight out of Huckeleberry Finn, and at midnight there was a firework display of such magnificance and duration that we could only gasp in wonder. It had been timed – we thought wrongly, especially for us, since it took place at nearly midnight while we were taking the last trip of the evening on the the paddle steamer, and were in the middle of the enormous artificial lake that had been created for it to sail on. Our trajectory had taken us to to the middle of the lake, and the fireworks illuminated the night sky over the spot our craft had reached with luxuriant and undreamt of splendour.

We went back to the campsite, exhausted but exultant, tucked ourselves into Charlie and dreamed the dreams of the innocent. For the girls, I think it was what childhood should be about, and for Kath and I it was a return to a time of comfort, wonder and heedless laughter, and I think whoever coined the phrase ‘there’s a child in all of us’ wasn’t far wrong.

In contrast any journey in Charlie was usually edged with a degree of uncertainty and a small amount of danger. Even the ferry companies conspired to get in on the act. They could never decide whether Charlie was a large car, or having six seats and an elevating roof was in fact a small mini-bus and therefore should be charged for accordingly. In the days before the internet we were required to spend an eternity on the phone answering questions about our beloved vehicle, whilst waiting endlessly for lackeys in what we imagined to be windowless, dust filled rooms to pronounce upon the cost of tickets and the type of insurance that would be required. Height; length, width; number of seats; weight; elevating roof; spare tyre on front – all required further consideration by the powers that be, and our phone bill grew so large and my patience so thin that I eventually resorted to lying. A useful tactic, which proved entirely successful! Naivley, I believed that my deception would eventually be found out, and we’d get turned back at the ferry port, but very few, if any employees of ferry companies check to see if something that appears on their docket as a VW Station Wagon, is in fact a large 2 ton Kombi Van, so fortunately this never happened.

Then of course there was also the uncertainty that Charlie would deign to let us go where we wanted to. Breakdowns (fortunately rare); the often frequent need for the old screwdriver trick referred to in a previous chapter; the lack of heating in winter and cooling in summer; the reluctance to start on chilly winter mornings; the lack of power steering; all contributed to being what I fondly imagined to part of the adventure. The journey – according to the buddah – is more important than the getting there. I still firmly believe this but now we have a powerful and pretty reliable Audi with all mod cons, and I enjoy the journey just as much!

There was from time to time an agreebly sociable element to Charlie’s need for large amounts of TLC. Breakdowns usually elicited help from VW enthusiasts, some of who we stayed in contact with for many years; AA Patrols invariably went ‘above and beyond’ in their attempts to resolve the problem, doubtless taking pity on a bunch of helpless hippies and their young offspring, all of who would begin crying and sobbing on cue when such an events happened; complete strangers would stop and chat; people would offer us large sums of money for Charlie (which we invariably refused); and on one occasion Charlie drew larger crowds than our campsite’s entertainment menu. Admittedly this comprised a listless and not at all glitzy karaoke with a completely out of date song list, a tired ‘talent’ show and some films that dated back at least several centuries before even Charlie Chaplin. Even so, I felt quite chuffed in a way at being with Charlie the centre of attention.

Now, it seemed that the French on our particular campsite liked nothing better than the sight of an air cooled engine & carburettor being stripped down and (badly) re-assembled by someone they clearly regarded as being a bit like an English Gerard Depardieu, but not as the handsome devil he so obviously is, but rather of him in his Cerano de Bergerac incarnation as a bumbling if good natured fool. As I toiled in the blazing heat of the day to rectify a fault which had developed in the carburettor, a large crowd of French blokes, all wearing pencil thin moustaches and implausibly large cheery bellies, diverted from their usually endless game of boules and gathered to proffer advice, pass me screwdivers and wrenches, help turn the engine over, all accompanied by an amused air of tolerance and eyebrow jiggling that plainly said (in cod French if you please), ‘aha, ze English fool knows nuzing about ze carburettor, n’est pa’).

Larger crowds gathered whilst wives and partners of the assembled multitude spread picnic blankets nearby and produced French sticks, ham cheese and wine. Kids wandered round and tried to use Charlie as an adventure playground, and all the time the merciless sun blazed down, raising the temperature to a very un – English 35 degrees. Fortunately, the campsite was well equipped with a large number of sizeable willow trees, and Charlie had come to rest under the shade of one of them before signalling carburettor exhaustion and refusing to budge any further. My task was made slightly (and I stress, only slightly) easier by this, but by the time the bread, wine and cheese had been consumed I kinda didn’t care much anymore for my mechanical assignment anyway, so having agreed that my days labours had pretty much been in vain, I agreed to a re-run the next day. This time an even larger crowd assembled and even larger pic-nics were produced, but this time I nailed it; mid way through the afternoon one of my able assistants turned the key, put his foot on the gas, and eventually the engine turned over merrily accompanied by great cheers from the crowd. I did a sort of victory lap of honour, shaking hands with the foregathered multitude, and giving Macca style thumbs up signs to all in sundry.

I think they were visibly disappointed that the entertainment had come to an end, but the next day I managed again to become the centre of attention by cutting my foot in the river and bleeding copiously. A doctor was called for, but there were none on the campsite, nor were there any first aiders. Now what’s the best thing after a doctor or first aider when you’re bleeding to death – of course I hear you say – a Vet!! A vet duly arrived (no campsite should be without one), and pronounced me in me in the pink – literally, given the amount of blood I’d lost, and told me in a louche tone that no French vet should be without, well that, actually he didn’t really know, not having his vet’s bag and all, but that the cut looked clean, and that a hospital visit was unlikely to be necessary. How would I know if this was the right decision? Possibly by having my leg turn green and drop off in the night, but fortunately this didn’t happpen. So I was bandaged up and again became of no entertainment value whatsoever. The crowd once more dispersed and I was unable to rise to the dizzying heights of interest & debate again. I don’t think I was entirely disappointed no longer to be the centre of attention – I prefer not to be in the spotlight wherever possible.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Chapter 9 The great Irish Potato Famine of 1983

Simon & Charlie in Ireland 1983
Chapter 9 (or: Be Prepared)!

I look at the side of your face as the sunlight comes
Streaming through the window in the autumn sunshine

And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking
Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time (Van the Man
So the next time we had a notion to go to Ireland we had a cunning plan. We’d go in luxury, comfort and motorised style in Charlie. To help avoid the arguments we’d take our good friend Simon – who was always up for a jaunt, and whose general amiable steadiness and common sense contrasted starkly with our somewhat tiggerish approach to everything. Anyway – he was great company, and is one of the most knowledgeable and intelligent people we know. The other part of the cunning plan was that rather than spending the whole two weeks on the road, we’d rent a cottage near Westport in County Mayo, and there explore the surrouding countryside and climb Croagh Patrick, the mountain named after Ireland’s patron saint.

Every year thousands of pilgrims make the not particularly perilous ascent to the top of the 765 metre high peak in honour of the great man, and for a long time they insisted in making it far more dangerous by not wearing shoes. Whether this was just out of a spirit of adventure, or because of deep seated religious beliefs, I’m not sure, but it wasn’t till a few unfortunate souls had taken a tumble off the mountain, and gone straight to meet their maker, that the authorities twigged what was going on and put a stop to it. They also had to change the time of the climb from Lent to summer after a particularly vicious storm in 1113 killed 30 pilgrims.
Typically, the Christians actually stole the whole sacred mountain concept from the pagans and subverted it. There are many recorded instances of pagan artefacts which pre-date Christianity on the mountain, and, according to ‘it was common for early Christians to view pagan religious practices as devil worship; thus the legend of Patrick slaying dragons and demonic forces on the sacred mountain is actually a metaphor for his subjugation and conversion of the pagan priests.’ Fairly typical that a place viewed by the pagans as a ‘sanctuary for the giving of thanks and the celebration of life's abundance’ was turned by the Christians into yet another manifestation of the fear, guilt and control excercised by organised religion generally. Anyway, climb it we did, and I can reliably report that the view from the summit is breathtaking.

I digress. Back to Charlie & Ireland it is then. The great thing about Charlie is that he not only had a bed and a cooker and a table you could get four people round to eat at. There was also a sink, an elevating roof which gave much needed space when erected, a top of the range radio cassette player, and two bunk beds for use by kids or guests. He was literally a home on wheels, and it was hugely reassuring knowing that if we couldn’t find a campsite, we could always pull off the road into a field, and had everything we would need for a comfortable, well fed evening. Put the roof up, turn on the gas canister at the back, put the kettle on, groove on down to some sounds and presto! We used to say that if only we could find the right button, Charlie would fly; something that later fascinated our kids, who would spend hours looking for the magic flying button, until boredom intervened or another more interesting game came along. Charlie also had the equivalent of a priest hole. In the space above the cab, a space just big enough for a small child would reveal itself once the roof was elevated, and, as each of the girls grew up, until the age of about four they saw it as their right and privelige to use the space as a play room by day and as a hideout and sleeping area at night. At festivals this meant that all the under 4’s from nearby fields would be drawn to Charlie like moths to a flame, each desparate to join the accepted elite and be able to make the ascent to the promised land. For those who made it, there was the promise of cookies, chocolate and the kinds of fizzy drinks now banned for their lead and arsenic content, and the van was often crammed with hordes of small children, all of them high on sugar, and many in various states of being, as Private Eye would have it ‘tired and emotional.’ Our trip to Ireland in Charlie was about as perfect as any holiday could be, almost the polar opposite of our previous cycling fiasco. We revisited some of the places from that trip – Wexford, Waterford, Tralee, but at each place we went sailing imperiously through, mindless of the little undulations, impervious to the wind and rain, cowed no longer by thoughts of not finding a campsite; truly masters of our own destiny.

At this time Katharine was pregnant with Ellie, our first child, and somehow this added to the romantic and mystical significance of the Celtic and spiritual aspects of Ireland. Planxty have a song called The Pursuit of Farmer Michael Hayes, and whilst playing it one day we noticed that the towns and Counties mentioned in the song reflected almost perfectly our own itinerary: Dublin, Tipperary, Kilrush, Lisdoon, Miltown Malbay, Galway, Westport, Tralee, Clare, Mayo, Castlerock – we can still map our trip that year by playing the song. Of course we assumed Planxty had written it just for us, and it became a firm travelling favourite. It not only tells a tale of murder, mayhem and madness, it finishes the way most great travelling songs finish – with a solo whipping up a storm; pushing you onwards towards the next destination before the grass under your feet grows too green. In this case the solo comprises pipes, a bodrhann, and I think there’s something called a blarge in there as well, although for my money you can’t beat the classic rock guitar & bass type climax with several false endings and the kind of pounding drum fills that indicate the drummer’s imminent departure from the stage through the floor or disappearance in a puff of smoke.

One day I’ll write something about travelling songs – these need to conjure the spirit of the open road, get the passengers headbanging in true Waynes World fashion, and have the kind of beat that reflects the thrum of the motor and the slap of tyres on the tarmac. So Michael Hayes fits the bill perfectly, as does Night Moves by Bob Seger, Crossroads by Cream, Jammin or No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley, Voodoo Child by Hendrix, Coyote by Joni Mitchell, Cinnamon Girl by Neil Young, And it Stoned Me by Van Morrison and others too numerous to relate here. Doubtless you’ve got your own favourites. Let me know and I’ll incorporate them in a book, make a podcast, whatever.
In Dublin – what a fabulous city – we called into the local record shop, and there purchased, on the original Tara Label, a vinyl copy of the album which contains The Pursuit of Farmer Michael Hayes. Up until that point we’d only had it on cassette (remember them), and our tape was becoming very worn. Beside, we needed a souvenir of our visit, and what could be better than some of the native music? Some people return from holiday with all sorts of artefacts – flags, dolls, biscuits, gold bullion, STDs, valuables of all kinds. Our sole item of value on return was this album – called After the Break, and we’ve still got it and its still great.

At one point, high up in the mountains near Cork, we stopped to pick up a hitch-hiker. She told as a fantastic tale of how she was on the way to meet her boyfriend and that on a nearby plot of land, hidden deep in this magical wooded countyside, they would begin building a house. The fantastic bit resided in the way they had come by the land. For years, she told us, she had looked after an old man who lived near her village and had vaguely known her parents. She cooked and shopped, cleaned his spartan house, and from the frugality of his existence, never suspected that he may be wealthy, or that he may view her as anything more than an unpaid housekeeper. Yet when he had died, he’d not only left her a large sum of money, but also a plot of land and detailed instructions of how she was to build a house and there bring up a family. Well, when some old geezer you hardly know goes and leaves you tons of dosh, a large tract of land, and directions about what to with it, you just have to get on with it don’t you?
At the time I thought this was a manifestation of a peculiarly Irish phenomenon – people who are related only through necessity leaving each other lots of cash, and somehow this magnified the romantic notions I had about the country. Wow, they’re that cool they care nothing for money! I’ve since learnt that there’s an honourable tradition in many societies for this kind of thing to happen; particularly where there is old man, young girl interface, but that it isn’t necessarily always to do with some kind of sexual tryst or motivation. The old man in question had left our hitch-hiker a long letter, apparently detailing the many kindnesses she had shown him and how much these had inspired him. In life he had been, apparently, somewhat taciturn and withdrawn, but in dying had shown himself capable of having a generous and resposive nature. Demonstration, I guess, that we should all express our emotions and thoughts a little more, and not wait for when our wills are being read to reveal them.

‘Where does a potato famine come in to all this?’ I hear you ask. We all know of the desparate history of Ireland and the potato famines, and I really don’t mean to make light of any of this, but it is an engaging story, and indicative of the unfortunate effects of so called ‘globalisation.’ Where’s one place you ought to be able to buy potatoes? Ireland, right, they grow them by the cartload. Well wrong actually; they do indeed grow them in large quantities, but then they all get exported to South Africa or Australia or even England. See, the imperialist oppressors are still at it! What this means in effect is that the Irish themselves get to eat none of their own crop and have to import often substandard potatoes at artificially inflated prices from Holland or somewhere equally unlikely.
This was bought home to us one evening when we attempted to buy some spuds to accompany our evening meal in a shop in a small town somewhere in County Cork. ‘Aint had no potatoes in a month’ the shopkeeper cheerily informed us; ‘and even if I did they’re usually rotten and cost too much.’ This led us into a general discussion of the iniquity of the worldwide potato trade and how many Irish farmers are paid handsomely by the EU to leave their land lie fallow, competing with each other with the determination of prize fighters to earn their place on next years ‘fallow’ list. Wine lakes, potato mountains, the net result was that night we had no root vegetable to go with our *bean stew (Don’t ask what its bean, ask ‘what is it now’, boom boom).

So that was it; our first real travel in Charlie, and it kinda defined the style of most future journeys. Late breakfasts, unpressured forays to places of local interest or towards our next stopping off point, evenings with sunsets unseen in the city, pubs where the wine, music and conversation flowed, and late nights, often fairly inebriated, before the snug refuge of our tiny sleeping compartments took us to the land of far flung dreams for the night.

*Bean stew joke courtesy of Dave Young, of whom more later

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Chapter 8 Travels With Bikes

Charlie in Arran 1984

When you got a good friend, that will stay right by your side
When you got a good friend, that will stay right by your side

Give her all your spare time, love And treat her right


One of the first trips Katharine & I took in Charlie was to Ireland, in 1983. We’d been to Ireland once before, disasterously – a year or so before. I’d woken up one morning just after we’d gotten together, and smitten by my new partner and a rekindled desire to see the world, had perused a map of (Southern) Ireland cursorily enough to decide that it appeared to be small enough to cycle round. Conducting exhaustive research – well, consulting our friends Janet and Malcolm, who were keen cyclists, revealed that it should be possible to travel about 50 miles a day on a bike. Great, that meant we could go nearly all the way round in two weeks, and still be home in time for cucumber sandwiches and a nice cup of tea. How wrong can you be?

Janet and Malcolm weren’t just keen cyclists; they were fanatical. We had of course failed to notice their equipment was hi-tech enough to launch several Challenger moonshots, their cycles made of such gossamer steel that they weighed practically nothing, and more ominously, that the pair would often disappear on their bikes for days on end, returning with bulging biceps and well developed outdoor tans. They had also perfected the obscure art of map reading, referring to Wainrights and elevations and sea level, kmph and OS maps and other technical mumbo jumbo that we knew would not possibly be useful in our quest round such a tiny country. To give Malcolm his due, he tried to warn us: ‘Listen you two’, he’d said ‘ Ireland has some serious elevations, make sure you can cope with them.’ I pretended this was gibberish to me, and patted him on the head as if he was a slightly errant – but much loved – dog, assuring him in cheery tones that the ‘elevations’ would easily be dealt with.

We arranged to borrow a couple of bikes, studiously failing to notice when they arrived that, in comparison to Malcolm and Janet’s sleek machines, ours not only weighed approximately five tons each, but that they also appeared to lack the requisite 25 gears in each direction, whilst sporting straight out style handlebars, unlike the racing ones favoured by our (soon to be erstwhile) chums. The term bone shakers probably described them best, but to us they were a portal to another dimension, and the promise of delicious adventures to come.

Naturally, it had gone pear shaped right from the start. Owing to some obscure by-law applicable only to English hippies riding bicycles weighing more than a ton, we were forced by the fascists working for British Rail to accompany our bikes in the luggage compartment most of the way to our destination - Fishguard, I seem to remember - thereby having to forego the comfort of the seats in the proper carriages. We eventually took our places on the ferry to Rosslare with the kind of smouldering indignation felt only by the seriously oppressed, and crossed solidarity with BR staff off our list of politically ‘right on’ characteristics to adhere to. This was one of the first times I’d heard the phrase ‘only doing my job’….it seems to be one I’ve heard now far too often.

We had also studiously timed the beginning of our grand adventure to ensure that our arrival in Rosslare co-incided with nightfall. Far too late to pitch our tents, even if we could find a campsite in the gloom of the dwindling day. Similar meticulous planning had also suggested from the comfort of our flat in Croydon that we were unlikely to need to resort to staying at hotels during our holiday. For one thing, we couldn’t reallly afford it, for another only the bourgeous stayed in hotels, for another, we were outdoors people, hardened to the call of the outside, honed to the exigencies of camping and ready to take on anything. Anything, except that is, the driving rain and howling gale that greeted our disembarkation at the ferry port.

So, a hotel it was, and after a thoroughly bad night’s sleep and a major dent in our budget, we set off the next morning to cycle to the nearest big town, Wexford, there further to refine our plan of campaign. We’d cycled only a few miles when we began to see notices advertising a Music Festival at Carnsore Point – not far from where we were. It was an anti-nuclear festival (what more could we ask for), and lured by promises of ‘Christy Moore, Planxty and the Chieftains’ we arrived at the Festival site to find a large muddy expanse of, well, muddiness really, and not much else. In the distance a few disinterested people looked like they might be about to embark on the perilous and tedious job of erecting a stage, once they’d finished their beers that is. ‘The Festival’ said the first person we made enquiries of ‘oh, that doesn’t start till Saturday, but if you like you can camp here and get free admission in exchange for digging the toilet trenches.’ This sounded like a great deal, and we readily agreed.

Carnsore Point

Now, dear gentle reader, I need to take you on a mini-detour within a detour
(yes I do realise this chapter is supposed to be about going to Ireland in Charlie – we’ll get back there, promise). You see, this will come as a shock to the more sensitive of you, but in the days before Glastonbury became world famous, there were no such things as portaloos at festivals. To go to the toilet, you squatted under a canvas awning over a trench, supported only by a rudimentary platform, and went that way. People fell in – a fate much worse than death, but it was all taken in good spirit, and no one had yet realised that they could make fortunes catering to the toiletary requirements of a bunch of unwashed hippies.

Anyway, we made camp, helped dig trenches, and joined the stage hands in consuming the seemingly inexhaustible supply of (free) beer. Somehow the stage got built, amplification arrived, food & beer tents were erected, and a general air of jollity began to prevail. Now, I can’t remember much about the music – I’m pretty sure Christy Moore did play, and possibly Planxty and Van Morrison at some stage, but alcoholic intake and fading memory have erased most of the proceedings after the first night. Doubtless, there will be someone out there with a festival programme and a studiously annoted set of critical reviews pertaining to all the performances (do send me a copy if you have one), but I can provide no such enlightenment. I do have a rather fetching photo Katharine took of me on the nearby beach, wearing just my birthday suit, but I realise that this will not be much consolation to most of you, and its certainly not suitable for publication in this family oriented tale.

There’s Gold in them Hills

The festival duly ended, and we were forced to confront the unpalatable truth that had been nagging away in the dim recesses of our minds all weekend. Namely, that we’d have to get on with cycling round a country which now seemed far larger than it had from the leafy comfort of our pad in Croydon. Also, that the so called ‘elevations’ were really hills. Now, having received a reasonably ‘proper’ education, I had known this all along, but like all obsessive control freaks; and I make no apologies for this, I had chosen to ignore the facts that didn’t fit in favour of my own idealised version. Why, Ireland was a country of thatched cottages, winding country lanes, pubs where musicians were not only welcome, but given free beer by the publican & clientele whilst ‘jamming’ till dawn. It was full of colourful gypsy caravans & emerald wearing characters who were always ‘up for the crack.’ Why should a small detail like hills get in the way of all this?

Well, mainly because the so called hills turned out to be small mountains, which we encountered with monotonous regularity every few miles. What appeared on the map to be a few gentle undulations turned out in reality to be a rollercoaster of peaks and troughs between one anonymous collection of American ranch style houses and the next. Riding bikes which weighed a ton and had no gears to speak of, whilst heaving rucksacks weighing a similar amount up these inclines very quickly became more than we could endure; the first day I think we managed eight miles, and this amount decreased steadly day by day from then on. So of course we started doing what any new couple encountering problems does, we blamed each other and argued ferociously. It was nearly the end of a beautiful friendship – one that fortunately has now flourished for over 25 years!

There were a couple of really low points. One came in Waterford – where we came across a fair and I thought it would be fun to go on one of those rides which spins you round at a hideous speed whilst simultaneously rising and falling in gut wrenching fashion. I’d kinda forgotten that such things do me no good at all, and Katharine said I looked green when I got off, which I think was probably an understatement given how near to death I felt for some time afterwards. It was an experience I vowed never to repeat, but when you have kids, and they’re clamouring for you to take them on ‘California Screamin’ or ‘Space Mountain’ or some other such fiendish contraption at Disneyland, and they can’t go on without an adult, well you have to overcome such fears. This of course happened years later, and you can read all about it in the chapter entitled ‘Dreams Really do Come True.’

The other down point had an upside as well as a downside. We’d been cycling steadily for hours, going uphill all the time, and at about lunchtime we realised thet we would never make it to the nearest sizeable town – Clonmel – before the banks shut at 3.30. In the days before cash machines this meant something, and what it meant for us this day was that we wouldn’t have enough money to pay for a campsite when & if we found one. Sometime after we reached the top of yet another massive ‘elevation’, and the view stretched out before us was truly resplendant. Mile upon mile of sun drenched summer countryside, and our holy grail dimly illuminated by the heat haze, nestling in a valley far below us. It would take hours to reach it, even down hill (as it was) all the way. Seething with impotent rage I threw down my accursed tormentor – bike, not partner that is - and went off for a pee in some nearby bushes. There, twinkling in the sun, but generally hidden from view lay a crisp untarnished £20 note. It was truly manna from heaven and meant that not only could we afford a campsite that night, we might even be able to stretch to a hotel room. In the middle of a jumble of memories, this one sticks out most clearly, maybe because it confirmed my long held belief that, in the words of Bob Marley: ‘Don’t worry, cos every little thing’s gonna be alright.’

Another memorable moment came when, in a town whose name now eludes me, we were confronted by a river which had no bridge over it. Tied up to a small jetty, there was a rudimentary raft come ferry, with a board adverting crossing times as being every few hours. We duly waited for the next scheduled crossing, but no ferry-man was to be seen, and after having waited another hour or so we began to make enquiries. ‘Oh – he’ll be in the pub’ came the reply from the first person we asked: ‘he only crosses when he’s got enough people.’ By now a few other hopeful punters were hanging around the jetty, so we felt emboldened enough to go in search of the pub. Sure enough, that’s where we found him, and he good humouredly agreed that six of us was just about enough to constitute ‘enough for a crossing’, put down his unfinished pint and ambled outside. The crossing itself took a matter of only a few minutes, but the prevailing mist and huge swathes of trees on either side made me fancy that we could well be crossing the River Anduin, or perhaps have journeyed back to Arthurian times to join the court of the King.

I think the furthest we got that holiday was Tralee on the East coast. It was a distance of less than a hundred miles as the crow flies from Rosslare, it had taken us over a week to get there, and bedraggled, angry and humiliated we gave up and caught the train home. It taught me the virtue of proper planning – a virtue I’ve studiously continued to avoid ever since!

Monday, 20 April 2009

Chapter 7 No Nukes

Chapter 7– The BC (Before Charlie) Years Part 2 - No Nukes

(in which our hero fights the good fight, smells Jonathon Porrit's feet(!) and generally gets up no no good).

It was a fairly thankless task – attempting to save the world in 1979. By day my journey to ‘work’ would lead me to a dingy and unprepossessing room in a large community building in Clerkenwell, where the Anti-Nuclear Campaign had its offices. Here I planned the next demo, schemed the next outrage against the establishment, and plotted what should appear on posters, leaflets, placards and t-shirts. I didn’t get paid for this, but believed passionately in the cause, one that would see the ‘squares’ and ‘death dealers’ swept away and replaced by the peace lovers of our generation. Next to our office the sisters of ‘Spare Rib’ resided, and my abiding regret was that I never met Germaine Greer as she swept majestically to – or from – editorial meetings. I actually had no idea whether or not Germaine had any connections with Spare Rib, but I just assumed she must have.

Sam had moved in with me by then, and by night, the large kitchen in our Croydon flat would be occupied – if not overrun - by revolutionaries of all denominations and sizes. Endless meetings on a variety of subjects were fuelled by copious quantities of coffee, tea, fags, blow and vast amounts of righteous indignation - booze of course was completely bougeous and therefore generally to be avoided. This rule could be broken only if working class ‘ale’ was imbibed in the local pub, OK because that’s where the ‘real working people’ met, and the ‘real working people’, heck, they were going to be the harbingers of the revolutionary tide that would soon dispose of the tyrants and oppressors.

These get togethers, which sometimes lasted all night, generally resulted in more disagreement between the various factions (SWP, WRP, Militant etc) than actual concrete planning, but we all felt that, well man, we were making a stand. We once argued until three or four in the morning about whether or not Nuclear Power stations could be construed to be a ’good thing’ as long as they were run by workers who were armed, and could therefore, at the moment of insurrection, sieze control and execute the bosses. The weapons it was generally agreed by those in favour, could be stashed safely in broom closets, away from the prying eyes of the idiot bosses, who obviously were too stupid to tell the difference between a broom and a bren gun. I was violently opposed to this whole idea (as much as I could get violent about anything), but failed to recognise the completely delusional nature of the discourse in general.

Don’t Believe What you Read in the Papers

Alexi Sayle tells a marvellous joke in his stage show about how his parents, being members of the CPGB, were charged with selling a certain number of papers every week. This they signally failed to do, and would put the unsold papers under his bed as a way of ‘hiding’ them. ‘ I woke up one morning with my nose touching the ceiling’ runs the punchline, and I think that one reason there is so much enthusiastic appreciation of the gag is that a lot of his audience have been there, and got the same scars. Week after week Sam and I would pretend that we’d sold the requisite number of ‘Socialist Workers’, and week after week we’d be in meetings or otherwise engaged – sometimes going down the pub and engaging in questionable supping of non-approved substances such as the aforementioned ‘ale.’ Almost anything, in fact was preferable to standing in the cold and rain of Surrey Street Market, competing with the woman who would shout in approved fishwife fashion every thirty seconds or so ‘get yer luvverly mushrooms ‘ere. Only 20 pee a panhnd! This injunction to purchase the old edible funghi was always followed with the complete non-sequitur ‘Yer must be berlind.’ Why she was insulting the visually impaired element of her clientele we never found out, but trying to sell Socialist Worker was a non starter in terms of competition. In fact, we were quietly secreting the papers in a box room in our flat (described in the agency particulars as a ‘bijou second bedroom’), and secretly hoping they’d just go away.

This mad irresponsibility could only have one outcome – a demand from the local SWP branch organisesr for the requisite amount of money to back up our claimed sales. This poor man – who in another life might have been a used car salesman, pencil mustache, ferret face and all – was sympathetic but firm in a way only bureacrats the world over can be. ‘I’m sorry to hear about your problems’ he’d whine at us, after listening patiently to our latest range of pathetic excuses, ‘but I really need the money to give to the Central Committee by next week.’

Ah – the Central Committee. How we hated them. Every week they dispatched one of their faceless minions to our meeting, and this soulless and often acne ridden individual would spend an hour and a half telling us about the latest position on Russian grain harvest production, and what to think about the crisis in Afghanistan. How little times really change – this is now a hot political issue once again. We’d listen with bored indifference, and hope he’d go away quickly, but unfortunately there would always be one brown-noser in the audience who’d ask interminable questions and vigorously nod in agreement when treated to the interminable replies.

I think the crunch for me came with the SWP when we were exhorted to support the ‘Right to Work’ march which would be coming through Croydon that week. As a result of my involvement with an organisation called NATTA (Network for Alternative Technology), I had spent weeks before researching renewable energy (before it became cool), reading Undercurrents magazine and getting fired up by the brilliant example of the Lucas Shop Stewards - who had put their bankrupt factory to use making kidney machines. With my head stuffed with ideas about sustainability and socially useful work, I mildly enquired of our latest Central Committee visitor what sort of work he was thinking about. ‘Any work where they can unionise and overthow the dictatorship’ came the stock reply. ‘Crap’ I rejoined wittily, ‘what about socially useful and enjoyable work. Why can’t that be a priority? What’s wrong with trying to make stuff that benefits everyone?’

This mild and inoffensive plea was greeted with what can only be described as a tirade of abuse and derision. I was by turns accused of being a ‘revisionist’, a ‘Trotskyite’, a ‘capitalist’, and judging by the escalating hysteria in my accusers voice, the most heinous crime of all, ‘a Bennite.’ ‘Oh yes’ thought I, ‘in that case I’ll find out more about Tony Benn – sounds like a good guy.’ I did, and he was, and still is. A quintessentially decent, honest and principled English man, not to say gentle-man in the true sense of the word, unfortunately fast disappearing as a species in a way that, if replicated in the animal kingdom, would bring David Attenborough out in hives.

My inability to fake political orthodoxy, allied to the ever increasing and completely unpayable amounts of money owed for the non-existent paper sales combined to end my tentative relationship with revolutionary politics. I resigned there and then, a move away from delusional politics that I never regretted.

Looking back, Monty Python got it completely right in ‘Life of Brian’ on at least two counts – the ludicrous divisiveness of The People’s Front of Judea versus the Popular People’s Front of Judea type non-distinctions so beloved of the left as well as religious zealots everywhere, and the endless need to have meetings which reach no conclusions, but look good in the minutes. Since my split (splitter!) with the SWP I’ve adopted Groucho Marx’s dictum that ‘I wouldn’t be a member of any club that would have me as a member.’

Ha Ha Ha. Smelly Socks, Camberwell Carrots and other Assorted Wierdness

Still, there were some lighter moments: ‘I had that Jonathon Porritt geezer in the back of my kitchen once.’ The now Sir Porritt, adviser to that paragon of green, sustainable thinking David Cameron, graced our flat to take part in a Croydon Friends of the Earth meeting, but I’m afraid that my abiding memory of him was not his rapier like dissection of establishment failings, but rather that he took his socks and shoes off and put his feet on our kitchen table. Not very well bought up, I thought, subconciously reverting to my mum’s social mores, and I haven’t spoken to the man since.

It was a lot of fun living in Croydon. By then we had acquired friends like The One Armed Bandit, and Mark, a stoner very like Danny out of Withnail & I (‘If I medicined you, you’d think a brain tumour was a birthday present…’). Mark rolled joints a lot like Danny’s Camberwell Carrot, and having smoked a few we would invariably repair to the Blue Anchor (‘Eric Clapton played here once you know’ the barman informed us every time we went in) or to the flat owned by the aforementioned ‘Bandit.’ This was a weird one, in all the other wierdness: the Bandit wasn’t called that for no reason; he had indeed lost an arm in a motorcycle accident. Thing is, he’d also lost part of a leg, on the same side as the missing arm. If ever anyone had an excuse for a lop-sided and bitter view of life he did. On the contrary however, in between consuming alarming quantities of dope and smiling a great deal, he was to be seen every night down the pub, or by day out at the market or record shop, letting his disability trouble him not a jot. His cheerful demeanor may have had something to do with the dope, but I think the fact that he was always surrounded by multitudes of gorgeous women, hanging on his every word and tending to all his needs, probably helped as well. There were two in particular, lithe limbed, bronzed, implausibly wholesome godesses, who to the amazement of every male around, seemed to share the Bandit without jealousy or rancour, and would regularly repair to bed with him for a threesome. Every red blooded male’s dream, but alas, one we were never destined to participate in.

The Bandit also liked his animals. He kept a number of ferrets, but unlike most people who have small furry creatures in their houses, he let these athletically supercharged friends have the run of his flat. A visit then, was quite an adventure, between the Bandit hopping around on one leg, the two godesses floating serenely by in the background preparing food and rolling joints, and everywhere, lightning quick flashes of fur zipping in between bits of furniture and diving in graceful pirouettes off the sofa. I was petrified, in line with the joke about ferrets and trousers, that one of them would indeed try to invade my nether regions, but fortunately it never happened.

One of the Bandit’s favourite tricks was to wear what appeared to be an oversized jewelled brooch on his velvet jacket. He would hold court in the pub and wait with barely suppressed anticipation until the ‘brooch’ moved. The general merriment that ensued was generally down to the fact that whilst most of the regulars were in on this little trick, there would always be some hapless punter who would choke on his beer at the sight of a moving ‘brooch.’ The brooch was of course a small animal – a monitor lizard – renowned for remaining motionless for considerable periods. Unfortunately for the Bandit, these pesky creatures kept getting too large to be of use in the trick, so he had to continually replenish his supply of reptiles.

Camberwell Carrot Mark also favoured cold blooded friends. In his case, a six foot python which he kept in a large glass case in his tiny bedsit room. Local children would be drawn from miles around when the python was given its weekly meal of a live mouse, but I could never bring myself to witness what I regarded to be a somewhat over the top spectacle of barbarism and bad eating habits. What’s wrong, for goodness sake with a good vegetarian bean stew? The python unfortunately nearly got the better of Mark one day when the latter had one of his regular epileptic fits, and fell aginst the glass case, breaking it and releasing the reptile. The python, with an asounding lack of gratitude for all the live wriggling mice Mark had fed it, proceeded to attempt to do away with him, and it was only the fortuitous intervention of a would be punter – come to share some Carrot that saved Mark from a terrible fate. The snake subsequently had to be destroyed, and we could all see that it affected Mark quite deeply. If you can’t trust your pet snake for goodness sake, who can you trust?

Freedom for Tooting - er Croydon

I never did cotton on to the innate ridiculousness (is there such a word?) of trying to save the world whilst based in Croydon. Land of imposing grey concrete monoliths, home to the ugliest and most exposed shopping centre ever (the Whitgift Centre) and boasting several impassable underpasses, Croydon has been unfairly maligned as being bland and tedious, like Worthing only without the beach and the night life (alright, I made the night life up). To my mind however it was the hub of the counter culture, having as it did a variety of ‘head’ shops, a wholefood co-operative which had a zen tea garden out back, and a great market – the aforementioned Surrey Street Market. In my imagination I was the Wolfie Smith of Croydon, every day just minutes away from bringing the whole capitalist conspiracy crashing down, putting the pig dog conspirators and running dogs of imperialism to the sword, and having my handsome mug tie-dyed onto a million t-shirts just like good old Che Guevara.

Besides, being a revolutionary was also a brilliant way to get girls! Jo had left me, and Sam was soon to follow in her footsteps, but Ruthie, Becki, and most importantly Katharine – all fell at my feet in adoration! But more of that later.

Why am I boring you with all this political nonsense in a missive allegedly about VW camper vans? Well for one thing, I need to pad out the number of words in the vague hope of turning this whole exercise in self indulgance into a successful book, for another I hope you might find it interesting, but mainly, because it gives me a great excuse to show you pictures of Charlie with our range of huge smiley sun No Nukes stickers. Every so often we’d get one in a new language, so ‘Nuclear Power – No Thanks’ gradually morphed into ‘Nucleaire – Non Merci’, and just to show that we’d totally gotten over the horrible war and all and loved the Germans really, ‘Atomkraft – Nein Danke’! I haven’t been able to find any pix of the last one, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Also, and let’s be frank about this, the title you’re dealing with here is ’Travels With Charlie – Life with a Volkswagen Van’, so elements of my life in general are bound to creep in somewhere along the line. And, if you don’t like it, you know what to do.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Chapter 6 It's Been a Long Time

Dick and Sam - Croydon 1980

Sorry I haven't added anything to the blog recently, but I've been away somewhere there is NO ACCESS to the internet! Unbelievable, until I tell you I was in hospital -a place where they haven't heard about the internet, let alone wi-fi networks.


Part 1 - Harvest Time and a Special Lady

On arriving at the farm, armed with only a handwritten introduction to the the proprietor, we gathered that the Vendenge had already begun, and that he had all the hired help he needed. Our friend had been meant to phone her uncle to let him know we were coming, but had forgotten to do so – this was the first he knew of the arrangement, and thus he had obviously not prepared for it. Something in our pitiful expressions touched his romantic French heart however, as after a whispered conversation with his wife he announced that he would take us on. This would mean shortening the harvest, which in turn meant less work (and pay) for the others, but ‘c’est la vie.’ We were inordinately grateful to the other hired hands who accepted with incredible generosity and modesty being worse off financially in order to be hospitable to a couple of strange English people. We were totally useless as grape pickers of course, and the work was back-breaking, but we enjoyed three weeks in idyllic surrounds, adjourning from our labours in the vinyard every day at lunchtime for two hours to sit beneath awnings and scoff copious amounts of bread, cheese and wine. At sunset, we lolled in the back of the cart containing the days harvest, as it slowly wound its way via winding country lanes to the local co-operative wine pressing plant. Not much beats passing slowly through Dordogne countryside as the sun sets, in a rustic cart being towed by a French vintner who really did wear a beret and smoke endless Gauloises. At night the food and wine would flow even more freely, neighbours would drop by, the labourers would bring out a variety of instruments and play Gallic jigs and reels, whilst political discourse wound around us in crescendos of passion and friendly disagreement. The level and intensity of this, and the readiness of the French to become deeply immersed in political debate was truly wonderful to behold, even if I understood very little of what was passing. Our exemplary host had no land free to use as a campsite, but instead directed us to a neighbour, who had a field and some rudimentary washing facilities.

One morning I woke to the chugging sound of a VW engine – a sound which would one day become only too familiar – and gazed bleary eyed out of the tent to see a golden yellow split screen camper van, and a driver whose long hair was only marginally less golden alighting from the cab. In a moment, I was transported back to my parent’s place in Australia all those years before. ‘Another reminder’ I thought ‘how many more do I need……’
The driver’s name was Trevor – he and his girlfriend hailed from Leicester, and were touring France in a van which nowadays, being an original split screen variant would sell for tens of thousands of pounds (think of Jamie Oliver’s purple version), but which Trevor had picked up for just a few hundred. It was battered and rusty and I guess that VW purists - such as I would become - would be outraged at it’s generally poor condition, but in those days VW campers were primarily seen as a useful, and cheap, mode of transport, rather than the icons of cool they’ve now become. As our new friends prepared dinner on the tiny built in two ring cooker and regaled us with stories of faraway romantic places they’d visited – Malaga, Frankfurt, Rome, Manchester, Slough, Bradford etc - a vision began to form in my mind. Not only would I own such a van and drive it round Europe; I would embark upon the overland trail to Australia, known at the time as the ‘hippie’ trail. There and then I renewed my vow to own such a vehicle on our return to England. It would be another three years before the idea became a reality.

Part 2 - Heartbreak in Suberbia

On arriving back in England on a cold dismal English summer day my girlfriend suggested we could talk to her dad about finding somewhere to live. He was a carpet fitter, and worked for a property company in south London. Without too much difficulty, he found us a top floor flat in a large house in Croydon, and there we settled down to a life of cosy domesticity – or so I thought. Bear in mind that this was my first serious relationship, and I worshipped my girlfriend with what could retrospectively be diagnosed as puppy like sycophancy. I was pretty boring really, always agreeing with her, always doing what she suggested, and never wanting to engage in argument or conflict. So it should have come as absolutely no surprise when after about eighteen months, she announced she was leaving me for an Irish bloke she had met in the pub. There was also an incident with my best mate from Australia which is probably best glossed over in what is supposed to be a cheery tale about campervans (remember them? Don’t worry, we will get back to the main topic in hand, promise).

So she moved out, and left me in solitary, so to speak.
This was around February or March in 1979, during one of the coldest winters since records began – oh well since 1963 according to a particularly informative website about weather I’ve found ( It had snowed for what seemed like weeks although in fact was just a few days, and I wandered the slush encrusted streets of South Croydon, my mind hotwired like spaghetti, going over and over in my head what I had done to deserve such calumny and what I might have done to avoid it. Not putting her on a pedestal about ten foot high would have helped, but I was unversed in the ways of the world in those days. Also, there’s nothing quite like your first love, that is until you meet your soul mate, which I did a few years later. My torment seemed never ending, I was stuck in a loop - with the snow renewing itself each morning - just like in Groundhog Day, and me seemingly fated forever to plough a lonely and desolate furrow through the bleak midwinter landscape. Well, you can’t really call South Croydon a ‘landscape’ – this term conjures up images of fields, cows, daisies and butterflies and other rural delights whilst South Croydon is more in keeping with post modern ironic industrial chaos, but whatever you want to call it, I was marooned in it, and began to despair of ever finding refuge. Salvation arrived one night several months later in the form of a ring on the door-bell. I scuttled downstairs, eager to converse with a visitor – any visitor – and was practically binded by a golden haired vision of beauty, framed in what seemed like a halo, but which was in fact, the light from the streetlamp behind her. ‘Hi’, she intoned in a part cheeky, part demanding manner; ‘Do you wanna talk about socialism. I’m in the Militant – ‘I’m selling papers. Wanna buy one?’ Did I want to buy one? I would have been mad not to! I would also have been mad not to have invited her up to the flat, and mad not to have used my ultimate weapon of seduction – a nice cup of tea and a biscuit. Her name was Sam, short I learned later for Fidelma, and she favoured a style of dress which I guess could be called ‘military lipstick chic.’ Her endless tresses of blond hair would have done credit to the ads of the time ‘I bet she uses Harmony hairspray’ etc etc,…except Sam would never have been caught dead using anything so obviously part of the anti-feminist, pro-capitalist agenda. Having quickly succumbed to my wiliest cup of tea and biscuit overtures, she decided to stay for dinner, and of course after that we spent the night together…..talking about the best way to bring about revolution, the true nature of communism, the innate unfairness of the class system, why England were rubbish at football and so on. Erotic stuff. Sam was just the tonic I needed. She moved in with me after about a week, and proceeded to turn the flat into a cross between an artist’s attic studio and a social centre for all the revolutionaries, misfits and dodgy characters in Croydon. She would sit up late at night, long after I’d tired and gone to bed, discussing consumerism or Trotskyism or some other ism with an a phalanx of mostly male admirers, or crouched over an easel, painting, which was her other great love. She told me, with a frankly furtive air of intrigue, that she had once been married, but that her husband had died a horrible death by drinking huge quantities of beer whilst dosed up with antibiotics. Her real name was Fidelma, obviously Irish and with strong religious connotations, but she thought it decadent and old fashioned and renamed herself after a bloke. She tried to appear tough and ‘artistic’ but she had a smile of huge intensity, and when happy her eyes would laugh with light hearted mischief. I was inordinately happy with her, even though she had quite a temper, and would often shout, rage and throw things when annoyed with me. The kitchen wall in our flat bore the marks of a teapot which only narrowly missed my head for years after she hurled it at me, for all I know the indentations are still there.