Thursday, 25 January 2018

My life as a Tapestry – 9 (the underground years)

My late twenties (1973-76) passed in a haze of tobacco and dope smoke - daydreaming on platforms, buses and tube trains across London as I circulated between Newham, where I worked, and North Kensington, Oakwood, and Riddlesdown, where I partied. The bad Latin title is meant to say ‘Here one is transported, to work and in reverie’. At that time it seemed to me that absolutely nothing was happening in my life. In retrospect the period actually seems to have been quite active and creative, as the images in this panel (drawn far too small in order to get everything in) might suggest.

For a start, global events were fairly momentous. The Vietnam war ended in humiliation for the US and Richard Nixon got hounded out of office. The IRA was carrying out a bombing campaign in London  - over 40 explosions in one 14-month period. Considering how much time I was spending in stations I was probably quite lucky not to get caught up – the nearest I came was the Camden Hill Square bomb in 1975 which I heard go off, 3 miles away in Westbourne Park. In 1972 Idi Amin threw 40,000 of his citizens, who happened to be of South Asian descent, out of Uganda and in 1973 27000 of them who also had British passports came to live in the UK, fueling Enoch Powell’s self-serving paranoia and the rhetoric of right-wing press.

My friend Dave who was doing a drama course at Trent Park invited me to be in his production of Peter Shaffer’s one-act play ‘The Private Ear’. I played Bob, with a Buxton accent I’d picked up from another Dave who I’d shared a room with at college. Dave and I would rehearse the play in the evening and then spend much of the night getting stoned and playing chess. Chess was a small metaphor for my life – it always started promisingly but ended with me losing my concentration and…well, losing. In the mornings I’d stagger onto the tube at 7am in order to be at Little Ilford School by 9 – ready to spend the day blagging my way, totally unprepared, through ‘drama’ lessons with crowds of feral 3rd and 4th years.

I lived in a series of bedsits and flats in east London, and during the week when I wasn’t at school I spent my time sitting around smoking and writing plays and recording songs, in between stuffing electricity meters with 50p pieces. For a while in 1974, due to an economic crisis, the government tried to persuade us not to use any electricity at all for half of the week. Mostly at weekends I took the tube to Westbourne Park and stayed at a communal house McGregor rd, where Peter lived, who played Irish jigs on the fiddle and introduced me to Marxism. We smoked and drank a lot and I spent quite a lot of time sitting in the toilet with the whirling pits - Peter knocked on the door from time to time to see if I was OK, and everyone else in the house had to use the upstairs loo.

When I didn’t go west I went south, via London Bridge, to sit at home and drink Dad’s whiskey and eat Mum’s shepherd pies. My sister Gillian was an aloof and guarded teenager by this time, no longer the child I used to tease and have rough-and-tumbles with.

After a year at Little Ilford I left and went to work with Tony at a much smaller school for boys, behind Newbury Park bus station (astonishingly now a grade 2 listed building). He ran a creative activities department in a separate annexe from the main school, where we put on a whole load of classes and workshops in music, art and drama, plays, events, happenings, and general creative mayhem that quite often involved cutting-edge technology such as reel-to-reel tape recorders. One event that captured the headteacher’s imagination was a reconstruction of the battle of Rorke’s Drift (as featured in the film ‘Zulu’) for which boys dressed up as Zulus and charged other boys dressed as British soldiers while Tony made rifle volley noises on a tambour. Our great achievement was to train them to do it in slow motion so that it wasn’t over in an instant and no blood was actually shed.

For a while I lived on the 7th floor of a tower block in Walthamstow, in the flat of a middle-aged woman who was a primary school teacher with a five-year-old son. She used to let some drug dealers she knew use her hallway as safe house for suitcases full of hashish recently smuggled in from Morocco. I think she was looking for a father for her son, but I disappointed her by bringing my girlfriend Jean home to stay. I eventually disappointed Jean too – she gazes sorrowfully out of the picture and I feel a twinge of shame.

Tony and I joined Teachers’ Rank and File (actually International Socialist Party entryists in the NUT) and went around being militant about wages, conditions, and the right-wing backlash to the progressive education movement.

Towards the end of 1974 I started going out with Berta, also a Newham drama teacher, who lived in a tiny one-room brocade cave on the first floor of a house in Ilford, with an outside toilet. Berta played me her Bill Evans records, and got me interested in modern jazz. This was to complicate my musical development for quite a few years to come.

My career as a teacher came to an end in the summer of 76 when I left my job at Tony’s school to go and join a political theatre group.