Sept 1956-July 1958
The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) can be found up a poky little lane, Houghton Street, just off the Aldwych. As a building, it lacks the ancient grandeur of an Oxbridge college, but in terms of intellectual activity it easily held its own. Not that intellectual activity was my main concern, at least in the first and second year of studying geography and social anthropology. Far more exciting were the many student clubs I joined – idealistic (LSE Pacifist Club), sporting (LSE Ballooning Club – we had everything, except a balloon) and cultural (LSE Drama Society). Within weeks we were rehearsing a full length production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding in which I played the rather weedy, “wronged” husband. Drama activities therefore took up much of my time, especially as we were also preparing five short scenes from Macbeth, to enter just before Christmas in a Sunday Times sponsored national competition.
With five other university drama societies, our Macbeth did well enough to reach the finals at the Bristol Old Vic, spread over two days during a bitterly cold patch in the winter vacation. Being very short of cash though, and waiting till everyone had left and locked up, I bedded down in the Old Vic theatre itself then partially unrolled a red plush curtain, dusty from ten thousand shows, and wrapping it round me, sneezed my way through two nights on that venerable stage.
And then again, there was the world to set to rights. Autumn 1956 saw LSE students – and many, many others – take to the streets on three major humanitarian & political issues. First: the abolition of the death penalty in the UK. A majority of the population still supported capital punishment while the rest of us, and fortunately a majority of MPs, wanted to bring the barbaric practice to a halt. Then, there was the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt in response to Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. Our Government claimed that British soldiers were being sent out to keep the peace between Israeli and Egyptian forces, but this was clearly a ruse: Israel had attacked with the connivance of the British and the French precisely so that we could then invade. Prime Minister Anthony Eden was lying as blatantly – and as transparently – as Tony Blair was to do nearly fifty years later, as he connived with the United States to invade Iraq. It is amazing how those in power under-estimate the intelligence of the electorate. Finally, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary hoping to prevent it from emerging from communist control – generating 20,000 refugees – many of whom came to Britain (to some of whom my father taught English, and was disappointed to find a fair number holding neo-Fascist opinions).
Of course, no red-blooded student could let these major events pass without queuing outside Parliament to watch the Commons debates and later, in protest, with banners and placards, thronging the streets to confront the mounted police with their batons. With all this excitement, frankly, geography studies found it hard to compete.
So I was rather taken by surprise in January 1956 when we had to write a few mock-exams to see how we were coping with academic life. In the morning, I had tackled geology and climate, both requiring some mathematics – not my strongest area – and had then popped into the Students’ Union for a nibble and a couple of pints of cider. The afternoon test was in human geography, more up my street, and the questions seemed easy. So easy, in fact, that I wrote expansively but swiftly, inserting a personal reminiscence here, a quip there, and ending with a flourish – a rather clever pun. This pun was so witty, so apposite, that I could hardly stop sniggering as I left the room.
A day or two later, our seminar group met to receive the marked papers and discuss them with our tutor. Oddly enough, he returned scripts to every student but me, and when I queried this, he asked my patience while he went through the others’ work with them. Immediately, a sixth sense suggested all might not be well, and this proved well founded for as the others left he turned a baleful eye on me. ‘Well!’ he began, ‘Your first papers were, let us say – acceptable – but what in Heaven’s name …?’ And here I must draw a veil over the incident.
My first year at university ended reasonably well, though I was already finding social anthropology (my minor subject) more interesting than geography, which felt much like a continuation of the subject back in Yorkshire. By studying the anthropology of “less-advanced” societies, I began to see social institutions in Britain in a different light. One such institution was formal religion, which I studied with a girl, Bernie Spain, who came from a very Catholic family in Manchester. And I mean very Catholic. Poor Bernie! As we studied, week by week, the function of religious rites and beliefs in traditional African and Asian societies, and saw the astonishing parallels with her Church, the girl was in torment. Intellectually, she could no longer accept the doctrines that had been central to her and her family, and this led to grief and conflict. Bernie and I were very close for two or three years – I even ‘kidnapped’ her and took her to Paris for a week (with her room-mate’s collaboration and full consent) but after University we drifted apart. She went into clinical psychiatry, which can be slightly worrying in itself, but also campaigned vigorously and successfully against the Corporate Development (i.e. office blocks replacing working class housing) that threatened her residential area just north of Waterloo Station. She died young, having taken a train to Aviemore one winter and walked out into the Scottish snowfields. Nobody quite knew why, and her family rejected any suggestion of suicide. After such a tragic end, it was scarcely a consolation to hear that the Bernie Spain Gardens, located close to the Thames today, are named after her.
Craning the LSE van off the ferry
As the summer vacation began, twelve members of the LSE Drama Society piled into an ancient van and a slightly newer car, loaded with costumes, props, and a few sticks of scenery, and lumbered off to Folkestone. In Boulogne, each vehicle was lifted off the ferry by crane – this was long before the days of Roll-on-Roll- off and we headed south to Germany, Switzerland and Northern Italy. We put on a shortened version of Twelfth Night, in which I played Feste, the clown.
Sir Toby, Maria and Feste
These performances could take place in a park, a college, a church hall – anywhere that would have us and which could attract enough English speakers to make up an audience. Surprisingly, school and university venues proved the least successful. For street performances, casual onlookers stood around and enjoyed the show, but for organised evenings, academics had often brought along their own copies of Twelfth Night, intent on following it line by line. However, we had seriously abridged Will Shakespeare’s version, and every time we skipped a dozen lines, or indeed a page or two, confusion reigned. With a great shuffling of pages, the whisper went round, ‘Wo sind wir jetzt? Where are we now?’ and the play hung fire as we waited for our audience to catch up.
Back in London, I lodged at the Bede House Settlement in Southwark, a hostel providing cheap accommodation for students willing to run volunteer activities in the working class district of Bermondsey. I elected to help with a couple of youth clubs. The middle-aged Warden of Bede House, Dorothy Furness, proved to be a very wise woman and although I could not share her Christianity I certainly admired her human values and we exchanged letters over several years.
Three of the fifteen residents remain in my memory. Rosemary, a young white woman from South Africa, had just started work in a local library, but was so deeply indoctrinated by her apartheid upbringing that she could hardly function whenever a black Londoner approached her for help with a book. Nevertheless, Rosemary could really zip the washboard in our Bede House skiffle group, The Poor Boys.
Rosemary, Ted, Glyn and other members of The Poor Boys
Tamus Kharegat from India shared a room with me. He studied architecture and designed hugely artistic and imaginative constructions that had little prospect of ever seeing the light of day. Unfortunately for Tamus, his maths – essential for calculating the stresses on load-bearing structures – let him down time and again. When I left Bede House two years later, he was retaking these exams for the third time. I never expected to see him again, but we did meet once more, eight floors up on a half-finished tower block of his design, in Bombay.
Finally, I remember Ted, another Poor Boy musician: an indiscretion on his part completely altered the course of my life.
As time went by, I had to take life more seriously. For a start, I became President of the LSE Drama Society, which gave me the chance to select and produce a couple of plays. My first choice was Jim Dandy by William Saroyan, which had never before been premièred in Britain. In those days the Lord Chamberlain’s Office censored plays that it considered too rude for public performance. Being unsure as to which parts might be banned, I left a script of Jim Dandy at the office and a fortnight later received it back with several bits of text crossed out in blue pencil.
Youthfully indignant at such censorship (though quietly rather pleased, too), we responded by declaring the LSE Drama Society to be a private club (albeit for three nights only), which members of the public could then join and so see the play in its original form. The ploy worked well. We had packed houses (who doesn’t want to see a banned play?) and our only problem was, as noted in a Times review, the diminutive stage of LSE’s Old Theatre, on which eleven actors had to perform at once, also housed a lion’s cage, a public library, a throne, a tree, a caravan and a giant egg shell. Most notable among the cast was Martin Dyas, an excellent actor playing “Fishkin” with the skill and confidence of a professional. Martin then became a close friend for many years, and our paths led us both into Overseas Development work.
Jim Dandy: Martin Dyas far left; Bernie Spain 2nd from right
Another dream exercised me during my second year at University: to find and live on board a boat. This became a real passion. But before seeking a boat, I needed a mooring place, and this was not easy. The Thames at Chelsea looked fine, but was way beyond a student’s means. The Regent’s Canal worked out cheaper, but was dingy and overcrowded. And the Docklands – today packed with pleasure boats – were then still operational, their warehouses smelling wonderfully of spices, teas, timber and much else. I also learned that the Port of London Authority had jurisdiction over both banks of the Thames as far as Teddington Lock, and it banned all small boat mooring apart from those on the fashionable Chelsea Reach.
Then, a stroke of luck: a kindly clergyman told me that St Paul’s Cathedral exercised ancient rights over a tiny wharf near Tower Bridge. ‘It’s called Puddle Dock. The Port of London Authority has no jurisdiction there,’ he told me, ‘Contact St. Paul’s.’ I inspected Puddle Dock and found it packed with driftwood, jerry cans and dead rats, but to me it seemed a snug and central – only a few minutes bike ride from the LSE. I wrote, rang and visited offices at St Paul’s and finally received their written approval. Triumphant, I wrote to my parents telling them of this miracle and that I planned to live on a boat of my own!
To my surprise, each replied in a chilly manner, my mother more forcefully than my father. No, they didn’t think it was a good idea. My final exams were only eighteen months off, and hadn’t I better be getting down to some work? This came as a bombshell, as they had always been so supportive, but with bitter heart I shelved my plans. Perhaps it would indeed be better to buckle down, get a decent degree and then become a free spirit, living where and how I pleased.
One advantage of a geography course is that you can head off to foreign parts, make notes, and then argue that you have been on a geographical fieldtrip. I used this ploy at the end of year two when a genuine LSE fieldtrip was arranged to cover the Ruhr industrial belt and lower Rhine Valley. It so happened that the Drama Society’s summer tour that year was through Holland, Germany and Denmark, presenting Point of Departure, a play about displaced people, herded by soldiers into in a German theatre at the end of World War II.
Returning from this tour to Calais, where the others sailed for Dover, I picked up an old bike and a folding canoe that I’d left at the port and pedalled off towards Luxembourg, canoe pulled behind on an improvised wooden cart. After juddering 200 metres on a cobbled street, the cart collapsed into a pile of planks and buckled wheels. I dragged the canoe to a railway station and sent it ahead as freight to the city of Nancy on the river Moselle, a tributary of the Rhine. Once more, I set off towards Luxembourg, through terrain that grew increasingly hilly. Even without cart and canoe, for which I was grateful, the going got much harder, to the point where swooping downhill gave no pleasure because it wasted all the precious height gained climbing out of the previous valley. Finally, in the late afternoon, grinding up an endless slope, I was overtaken by a tractor towing an empty trailer. It moved little faster than I, but the lure of a free tow uphill was powerful, though I knew the risks. I caught up, lent forward, grabbed hold and let the trailer take the strain – wonderful!
I glided along, carefree, relaxed – until a dangling chain caught in my front wheel and I was down on the road. Somehow, in falling, my leg jammed through the frame of the bike and would not disentangle. Of course I shouted, dragging along behind the trailer, but the driver kept his eyes on the road ahead.
Bumping along and in pain, I still found myself thinking, almost calmly. Could I work my leg loose? Why didn’t he stop his damn tractor? Would papers at home headline, ‘British student’s grim death on Luxembourg road’? How would my parents take it? Would news reach the field trip students and how shocked would they be?
A couple of cars overtook me and I thought that now, surely, the tractor must stop; but, no. Either they had not seen me, or they had signalled to the driver, but he had not understood their gestures.
At last an overtaking car brought the tractor to a halt and I lay there, spread-eagled on the road, in blessed stillness. The driver looked down as I got to my knees, asked, ‘Ça va?‘, then shrugged, turned and fired up his tractor. I dragged my bike into a field, lay down behind the grass verge, nursed arms and thigh, grateful for the warmth of the last sunlight, grateful to be alive and swore never again to be so stupid.
Nancy YHA – my room
In Nancy, I collected my canoe from the station, but still had almost a month to wait before joining the official LSE Geography field trip in Aachen in Germany. I slept in a tent in the grounds of the Youth Hostel and looked for work, keen to improve my French. My first job took me to a noisy engineering shed where I was put on a grinder, given a thousand small steel cubes, and told to remove the eight corners off each, to a specific angle and precise depth. Forget Health & Safety: I took each lump in my bare fingers – they were too fiddly to grip with gloves – and pressed it onto a whirring industrial grindstone. This ripped off the metal corners, but also skin and fingernails. Long before I had finished, each cube grew too hot to handle. Every half hour or so, they called me away to help five other men carry large sheets of steel – perhaps six feet by four – three men a side. But this was worse than the cubes! The sheets were so heavy that they started to slip out of our fingers however hard we gripped. But we also knew that if one of us let go, the increased load for the others could mean disaster; so we did the impossible and held on.
Still keen to improve my French, I quit the noisy, dangerous workshop and found employ in a quiet warehouse stacking innumerable cartons of soap-flakes and detergents. Unfortunately, all my workmates turned out to be North African and spoke Arabic, with only a smattering of French. Two days later, I suffered such an allergic reaction to the detergent dust that I had to quit on the spot.
For two weeks I worked alone as a window cleaner, earned a few Francs, sold the bike, unfolded my canoe, packed sleeping bag and rucksack on board and pushed off into the gentle current of the River Moselle. My goal: the small town of Cochem, 150 miles away down the river. I paddled north towards Trier and the deep winding gorge that would lead me to the Rhine – downhill all the way! Downhill technically, but with a breeze in my face it could be hard to advance despite a helping current. Still, for a week I made progress, mostly between woods and fields, sleeping one night in the engine room of a dredger, filthy but still warm from the day’s work. By midnight though, all engine heat had gone and the metal floor turned bitterly cold. Also, the canoe had sprung a slight leak and a quantity of Moselle had penetrated my rolled-up sleeping bag at one point. So, once unrolled and laid out, it offered alternating patches of dry and wet.
The Moselle gorge itself – curling in great backward loops and meanders – is a beautiful valley, with ancient villages appearing on either side (some, like Bernkastel, internationally renowned for their fine white wines) and vast vineyards sweeping several hundred feet over the slopes. From time to time a romantic castle tops one of the vantage points. Three nights in a row, I beached the canoe, took my sleeping bag, climbed up above the chilly mists forming over the river and slept among the yellowing vines. By day, not bothering to paddle when the current was stronger, I played flute or guitar, or simply drifted while making sketches and notes on the passing landscape. After all, this was serious Geographical fieldwork.
A sketch made from the canoe
Ten days after the launch at Nancy, I left the Moselle at the small town of Cochem, with its Germanic castle high on a hill and, with a week still to go before meeting my co-students, I set off to hitch-hike with the canoe towards Achen. A canoe, even folded in half, is quite an obstacle and I stood some hours, lightly strumming the guitar, believing it would improve my chances of a lift. Finally a lorry stopped. Canoe lodged in the back, I clambered aboard, puzzled by the unusually long wait. ‘Well, the canoe, of course,’ said the driver, ‘but people won’t like the gun sticking out of your bag.’ ‘GUN? What gun?’ I protested, and then saw the metal flute poking out of my rucksack.
That afternoon, I approached a farmhouse with a snarling dog tugging at its chain and asked in limited German if I could work there, just for food and a bed. Had I known that all the men were down with Asian ‘flu, I might also have tried for some wages. Too late: the farmer’s wife hired me on the agreed terms. But I was still happy to drive the cows to graze after milking, harvest apples in the orchard by day, and play the guitar each evening in the local Gasthaus. I scarcely needed money, as people seemed to like the music and I had only to sing a couple of songs before steins of beer would line up beside me – far more than I could ever drink.
The week over, I joined the group from London University. Presumably we studied the Ruhr industrial belt in great detail and made copious notes – but I can remember nothing of it today.
My third and final year of studies began in the autumn of 1958 and I worked rather more diligently for some months, though in the spring of 1959 I did produce Jean Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos – also banned by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. To perform, of course, we used the same ploy as before. Other things cropped up, too: prospects at the BBC, for example. The BBC Home Service advertised the launch of a new teenage programme, Younger Generation, and to host it they needed two young presenters. On interview day I arrived at Broadcasting House to learn that 500 applicants had been pruned down to fifty, to be interviewed that morning. Those who passed would get voice tests, and the successful ones from this would be interviewed again. My first interview went fine, but I worried that my northern accent would let me down in the voice tests. Apparently not: six of us made it through to the final interviews. By then, it was early evening and all were tired and nervous. At last it was done, and I was selected, along with a girl called Judith Chalmers.
The next months were very full as Judith and I were whisked off on various adventures, recording them for the next week’s broadcast. I remember in particular a caving expedition and the problems of cold and dragging recording gear through painfully narrow rock passages. Next, it was gliding at Lasham airfield in Hampshire, on a calm day with no thermals to help the gliders stay aloft. A Land Rover towed as at speed down a runway, the glider rose some hundreds of feet before casting off. We stayed up circling for only a couple of minutes and had to be re-launched several times until we had recorded enough material to make a programme. In those short minutes aloft, though, I experienced great elation, a wonderful feeling of buoyancy, with only the free, swishing air to be heard beyond the cockpit. We made two especially interesting programmes with John Betjeman, later to become Poet Laureate, but already by then a respected national figure. Our first programme took us to Trafalgar Square, our second to Wigan. His subtle appreciation of British architecture contrasted with our naïve views, and I was delighted that he commended northern industrial Wigan with the same enthusiasm that he had shown for the most famous square in all London.
A life in broadcasting had its huge attraction and at first I flirted with the idea of a broadcasting career, but the more I saw of the BBC, a huge bureaucracy where you needed contacts and patronage to be noticed and to get ahead, the less attractive it felt. But what should I do with my life after LSE?
Ted, of Poor Boys skiffle group fame, suggested that I follow his example and apply for a scholarship to do a Master’s course at a foreign university. He had already written to several foundations, one of which had offered him a grant to study in Sweden. Grateful for his advice, and for some envelopes and writing paper that he gave me, I too sent off a handful of applications for funding. In a twist of fate, Ted stayed at home – having got his girlfriend pregnant – while I went on to study in Sweden.
Our geography final exams came in June, although by then we were also preparing the Drama Society’s summer tour. This took us to Spain with a version of the York Mystery Cycle – basically, several mini-plays about Adam & Eve, Noah & The Flood and more, ending with the Nativity.
Exams over, we drove our van through France and over the Pyrenees. Some say, ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’ and this rang true as we drove into the blinding sun, the heat and aridity of central Spain. All went well, though I recall a nervous hour near El Escorial when a soldier flagged us down for a lift, clambered into the back of our van, and sat with his rifle on his knees pointing straight at my stomach as we jolted in and out of the pot holes. Another run-in with the authorities occurred in Valencia when we were rounded up and questioned by the Guardia Civil for skinny-dipping at night on a beach; we had offended public morality in Franco’s Spain.
One evening, in a small sun-baked town, the name of which escapes me, we were performing in a lovely old stone hall, possibly part of a monastery. With no stage, we opted for theatre-in-the- round, with the audience nearly encircling us. With the Garden of Eden, Noah and other biblical scenes safely out of the way, we retired for the interval in a small anteroom, unwisely enjoying several carafes of warmish wine. Back in the hall, our performance rounded off with the Nativity. Martin Dyas (“Fishkin” in Jim Dandy, and now “A shepherd”) needed to present the baby Jesus with a woolly toy lamb that he had left some distance away from the crib. But now, a small girl cuddled it. Martin approached her and asked for it; girl clutched tighter. Martin removed lamb from girl’s grasp; girl howled. Martin carried lamb to crib, but was already starting to giggle. At this, Joseph sniggered, Mary doubled up and the rest of us began to convulse. Such “corpsing” on stage is unprofessional at any time; here, it felt even worse at the high point of the Nativity story in a strongly Catholic country. Corpsing is also painful! Your chest convulses, you can’t breathe and you don’t know where to look. All you can do is avoid eye contact with other actors and squeeze out your lines from pursed lips.
On the way home, at traffic lights in Toulouse, the temperature up in the thirties, our van drove gently into the back of a truck, which holed and emptied our radiator. The one garage able to repair an English Bedford van lay right across the city, so we negotiated its dusty streets and leafy boulevards pouring water into the radiator from every container we had – steam and water spurting under the bonnet like an Icelandic geyser.
Disaster to our radiator in Toulouse
All that afternoon we waited on a patch of bare ground near the workshop as vast clouds piled up. Then the thunderstorm exploded and we sought shelter under a large tarpaulin, part of our stage scenery. We crouched there with gusts tearing at the cover and water cascading from all four sides of our makeshift roof. Around eight o’clock, the storm rumbled away and we crawled out. With no money for lodgings, the ten of us spent that night sharing the dry patch where our tarpaulin had lain and I awoke next morning to my twenty-first birthday: 1st August, 1958.