Our last offering left you with Chris seemingly heading off to Galveston. Things in life, however, do not always go to plan…. read on..
My Little Runaway
We headed South by train and that evening, after Cary had interceded on my behalf, I was taken on as a cabin boy by the skipper of a merchant ship berthed in the Brown and Poulson wharf on the Manchester Ship Canal. It was bound on the ‘morrow for Texas, which being Buddy Holly’s home State, suited me perfectly as, upon arrival, I intended to abscond and set out in search of my hero. The strange thing is that Holly had actually died in a plane crash earlier that year, but for some reason, I hadn’t found out, so while a young Don McLean was delivering papers with the tragic headlines sinking into his subconscious, ready to float to the surface twelve years later as American Pie, I was apparently in my own blind little bubble dodging school in parochial Glasgow.
That night, I shared a four-bunk cabin with Cary and a teenage sailor who owned a collection of American teenage magazines about the dead movie star, James Dean. In them were articles about his films, his cars, his girlfriends, and interviews with young women who claimed to have been visited at night by the ghost of the dead icon. Now today, this may not seem all that strange, but in the UK back then, there were no such magazines. Jimmy Dean had died and simply disappeared. He was gone, and with no new films and no mention of him on our two TV channels or in the newspapers, he was quickly being forgotten. And that, in a nutshell, was life before the Internet, for information was only available if some publisher deemed it important enough to print, and if you happened to be a teenager back in 1960, their idea of what was important rarely coincided with yours.
So here I was, lying in the still of the darkness, on the brink of the unknown. The fact that my parents must be going through an emotional shredder didn’t faze me. I was running away from the brutal Jesuit system, not the happy suburban home they had worked so hard to provide for their family. The fact was, they had put me in harm’s way by delivering me into the hands of these elitist English priests, so as far as I was concerned, all bets were off. But as well as this obviously sociopathic behaviour, what amazes me, looking back, is the fact that at this point I had no musical nous whatsoever. The fact was, I had never so much as held an electric guitar in my hands, so even if Buddy had actually been alive and I’d ever got to one of his shows, the best I could have hoped for was to get his autograph.
It’s funny how some things stay with you, though, for years later I could still recall the smell of raw custard in that Brown and Poulson’s wharf on the Manchester Ship Canal. At the time, it seemed to be the olfactory equivalent of my sudden found freedom, but when Cary brought me my cooked breakfast next morning, he also brought some disturbing news. There had been a change of plan. Instead of Texas, the boat was now going to Saudi Arabia. There was a pop as the air escaped from my fantasy bubble. I said ‘thanks but no thanks’, bummed ten bob off him, then hitched to London, where I handed myself in to my Uncle Phil, or to give him his religious title, Brother Christopher.
Phil lived in a community of Camillans in a large house in Hornsey Lane, in the North of London. Along with his spiritual duties, he was a district nurse who spent his days cycling round the area, visiting the elderly, sick and dying. His immediate reaction to my appearance was relief, followed by an uncharacteristic show of anger and, incensed at my thoughtless escapade, he decided to teach me a lesson. Next day, as he set off on his rounds, I was beside him on the pavement, running alongside his bike. At first, I managed to keep up but, as the morning progressed, it got harder and harder. At each stop, I would collapse on the ground, gasping for air, but just as I was approaching recovery point, he’d re-appear, and off we’d go again on the next lung bursting stage of the Tour of Haringey. By the time his round was finished, so was I. A bit extreme, I hear you say, but as a form of punishment, it beat the shit out of the Jesuits’ methods. Needless to say, though, I never ran away again.
Back in Glasgow, I bit the bullet and settled for a reduced total of six Ferula, rather than the fifteen I’d originally been given and by way of appeasement, my Dad announced that he’d get me a guitar. After I got over my excitement, it turned out to be a Spanish model, which he had bought as a kit. Anxious not to appear ungrateful, I got stuck in, helping him with the gluing etc, but when it was finally assembled, it would have taken Charles Atlas to hold down the strings. That said, it did let me practice simple chords and develop a degree of dexterity. Meanwhile, on the education front, some of my school buddies had left St Al’s to go to a state secondary school called Holyrood, and they urged me to join them in what was a Ferula free zone with the added incentive of lots of girls.
It took me a couple of months to wear my mother down, though my father could see the upside, as there would be no more school fees. But when I got there, I discovered that though there were lots of females, and as advertised, no Ferula, this did not make up for the fact that I still had to sit in class all day listening to crap about Logarithms, Latin pluperfects and Litmus tests. Indeed, the only subjects I could bear were English and History, so I took the easy way out and resorted to truancy. However, this time there was no clinic attendance card, so instead, I just phoned up the school and, in my best toffee nosed accent, told the Secretary that Christopher was in bed with a cold and would be off for a few days. I pulled this stunt several times over the next few months, until Uncle Phil, who was here on one of his visits, decided to check up on me with the school and found to his surprise that I was in bed with a cold! There followed an interview with the Headmaster who said that, in forty years of teaching, he’d never come across anything so insolent and threatened expulsion if I ever crossed his path again. Happily, though, Phil didn’t pass any of this on to my parents.
Fate then intervened on my behalf, for a brand-new comprehensive school was opening near my home, and it was decided that I would go there after the Summer break. It would mean I’d have to repeat Fourth Year, but as I hadn’t done much work first time round, this made sense. St Thomas Aquinas was a big airy school with good teachers and, as there was only a dozen of us in Fourth Year, we were all made Prefects. Here I met a chap called Bill Meagher, who arrived one day with a guitar which was a close cousin of the ones I had drooled over a few years before in the House of Clydesdale. It was a Gibson Kalamazoo, with a really wide body and those elegant f holes and, what’s more, Bill could play it. He was also a patient tutor, and, under his guidance, I began to make musical strides.
So, life was now much more agreeable. I could cycle to school, and be home in fifteen minutes. There was no uniform, so I looked like any other young adult, and perhaps, because of the fact that I had a degree of responsibility as a Prefect, my attendance record was almost perfect. I should have known it was all too good to be true, for life has a way of undermining our comfort zones. As it happened, the end came suddenly, for the dozen starters in Fourth Year had been reduced to ten and when another fell by the wayside and our number dropped to single figures, it was decided we would all have to move back into Third Year. Now, by this time, I had completed one and a half Fourth Years, so I was now in danger of becoming the only pupil in the history of Scottish Education to pass through the system backwards.
My friend Bill plumped for a large Comprehensive called St Augustine’s, but this was even farther away than my boyhood Primary, so I opted for St Mungo’s, a school run by the Marist Brothers. This, it transpired, was a bad mistake, as I found the very first morning when I entered a Victorian quadrangle, and saw the huge gate bang shut behind me at nine o’clock. Claustrophobia had never been something I’d suffered from, but it was to loom large in this portion of my academic career. I won’t go into the eccentricities of the place, which were many, and mostly Dickensian in nature. Suffice to say that a few weeks of this and I decided it was high time I caught a cold. Standing in a callbox at Charing Cross, I phoned the school, got through to the Secretary and announced the magic words that would mean freedom for a few days. The woman asked me to hold, and a moment later a male voice came on the line that I recognised as the Deputy Head.
‘Right, Adams! The game’s up!’
‘I beg your pardon?’ I said in my best Mummy voice.
There was a tiny pause as he considered for a split second the remote possibility that this was indeed Mrs Adams on the line, then he snorted.
‘Get your arse in here!’
As the line went dead, I fumbled in my pocket for some coins, fed them into the slot, then called home. My mother answered, sounding a lot less toffee nosed than my version of her.
‘Mum, I want to go to St Augustine’s!’
By this time, both she and my father were almost past caring, so St Augustine’s it was, and of the five schools I went to, I have to say this one worked best for me. Again, there was the added incentive of the opposite sex, and, though I can’t claim that I was always there, I did get some qualifications and, more importantly, some good friends.
That summer, much against my mother’s wishes, I set off to hitch-hike to the South of France, hopefully to pick grapes in the vineyards of the Midi. My companion, John, was a late replacement for a school friend called Dennis, and he’d never hitched before, but all went well till we reached Paris, which we crossed by Metro. Once we hit the southern outskirts, we found ourselves on a stretch of dual carriageway where no-one would stop for us. Undeterred, we walked a few miles in the cool of the evening and slept under a copse of trees. Next morning, we were thumbing away, when a police wagon pulled up. In schoolboy French, I explained where we were heading, and got a curt response to the effect that this was an Autoroute, where stopping was ‘Interdit’, i.e. forbidden. Of course, back then there was no such thing as a Motorway in the UK, so a road where cars couldn’t stop was not something we had ever encountered. Happily, the cops invited us into the van and drove us to the first exit, but the thing I remember most about that short ride was the fact that they were both packing guns, and not just of the pistol variety.
In hindsight, long distance hitching becomes a blur, as one lift merges into the next, the hours of waiting squashed by the accordion of time. So, when I think about that epic trip down through France, I get a potpourri of smells and sounds, Gitanes mixed with klaxons, the sheer strangeness of the towns, the heat slowly rising the further South we went. Then, near the city of Lyon, after another soul-destroying wait, we met two sisters, whose English was as bad as our French. Despite the lack of vocabulary, we established that their destination was Cassis, a little village on the Med, and we agreed to split into two couples, on the basis that females get lifts more quickly, but need protection. What their mother would have made of this arrangement, I shudder to think, but having agreed to meet up at the Cassis Youth Hostel, off I set with the younger one, a petite brunette with big dark eyes.
The gambit did work when it came to getting lifts, but any romantic imaginings I may have had were sadly to be stillborn, for our brief relationship remained stubbornly platonic. Whether this was down to my relative inexperience with the opposite sex, or maybe that she just didn’t fancy me, I know not, but the outcome was the same. The only moment of magic in the time we spent together came as our truck driver crested the hills above Marseilles and there below us was the sun slowly setting into the blood red Mediterranean, the coastline etched against it in impenetrable black. Even now, fifty odd years later, I can see this scene incredibly clearly, though oddly, the girl’s name has slipped through the slats of memory.
We spent the night in a Youth Hostel, but next morning as we emerged onto the streets of Marseilles, the shopkeepers were already hosing the pavements, and coming out of the shade into the sun, the heat hit me, as T.E. Lawrence put it, “like an open sword”. It has to be said that, in my woolly beatnik sweater, I wasn’t exactly dressed for the occasion and it says much about my mindset that, despite the searing temperature, I continued to sport it, more concerned about the image I was portraying, than a little thing like comfort. But when we boarded a bus and the doors closed behind us, suddenly I was in a crowded furnace with no air and I could feel the panic rising as I tried to get a breath. All around me, people were standing, totally unconcerned, yet here I was on the brink of fainting. I gripped a plastic strap, aware of my companion’s eyes on me and, by her look, I knew she’d come to the conclusion that instead of a protector, she’d found herself a woose!
I waited two days in Cassis for John and the other sister to turn up, spending most of my time in the hostel to escape the burning sun. By now money was running dangerously low and the very idea of picking grapes out in these searing temperatures frazzled my brain. Fact was, I couldn’t come to terms with the heat and I was now very much on my own since the female hitcher was hanging out with her compatriots, who all seemed to be in on some joke that I appeared to be the butt of. The situation was surreal. Here I was, a teenage traveller in a stunning Mediterranean setting, living the dream I had long nurtured, and yet I felt like some poor clown in a hair shirt locked in a set of Medieval stocks. So, given all this, I decided that the best option was to run for home.
My adventures on this return journey were many, and bizarrely, most of them had to do with the ongoing Algerian War of Independence which had been raging for a few years. At first, though, the trip went well. I got a succession of lifts that took me up to the town of Orange by nightfall and, after I had bought myself a plate of soup, I headed out along a tree lined road into the countryside. Here I was to unexpectedly catch sight of my inner self for, as I left the streetlights behind and strode purposefully into the darkness, quite suddenly I was overcome with terror. Behind me, the lights had disappeared and the trees around me were like black spiders in an all-enveloping web. I stood for a moment on the cusp. Should I go on into the unknown, or back to the bosom of the town? Then, from somewhere close, came a sudden unexplained sound. With my heart pummelling, I turned and ran for safety.
So, this begged the question, despite the fact that I had been brave enough to set out on this mad adventure in the first place, was a I coward at heart? The strange thing is, hitching by myself had given me an exhilarating sense of independence and as I set off into the darkness, it had never entered my mind that I’d lose my nerve so dramatically. But, even as I approached the now welcoming lights, I was already rationalising what had happened. No cars had come along the road in the ten minutes I’d been walking, and anyway, it had been a bad tactical mistake, for drivers do not usually pick up strangers in the dark. Better to go back and stand beneath the streetlights to give any prospective lift the chance to see what they were stopping for. All of which was true, but it wasn’t the reason I’d run.
As it turned out, even with the streetlights, no lift was forthcoming, so I unfurled my sleeping bag and curled up on the grass verge at the edge of Orange. Next morning found me stiff and thirsty, but both these malaises were soon forgotten when a car pulled up. The driver was Algerian, and it turned out he had just arrived in France, having had to flee his home in Algiers. All his belongings were in the back of the car and he was heading for Lille to rejoin his family. Incredibly, this meant that I’d be within touching distance of the Channel ferry at Calais in just one lift! The phrase ‘too good to be true’ must surely have appeared deep down in my subconscious, and so it turned out.
For a start, it became obvious that he’d picked me up to help keep him awake, as he’d been on the go for nearly thirty hours. He described the chaotic scenes at the port in Algiers, and told me how he’d had to leave both house and career as it was no longer safe for him to be there. I knew little of this colonial war, though he insisted that Algeria was not a colony, it was actually part of France. As proof, he explained how the last two digits on French license plates showed which Department they were from, so Paris was ‘75’ and Algeria ‘99’. As if by magic, another car with this suffix passed us and, yelling with delight, he rapped out a five-beat tattoo on his horn, which was answered in kind. This, he said, meant ‘Algerie Francaise’, and it was obvious from the passion with which he spoke the words that, despite being North African by birth, he felt himself to be one hundred per cent French.
After this brief history lesson, he seemed to calm down, though the horn hooting had obviously pumped enough adrenalin through his Gallic veins to keep sleep temporarily at bay but, as the sun rose higher in the sky, gradually his eyelids began to droop and soon he was beginning to display all the classic signs of narcolepsy. By this time, I was desperately scanning the passing cars for ‘99’ plates, hoping to prod him back to life. You’ll notice I say ‘passing cars’ for the sleepier he got, the slower we went, which would obviously be good in the event of a crash, but bad if I ever wanted to get back home any time soon. Eventually I suggested that we stop at the next town for a coffee, to which he shrugged apologetically and said sorry but he had no money!
Now this was long before the era of plastic, but chequebooks were widely used, so if he had one, then going into a bank and cashing it would not have presented a great problem, but I wasn’t really in any position to start second guessing him. I still had a few francs and buying him a strong black coffee was obviously a better option than being cut from the wreckage. By this point, we had reached the outskirts of Valence, a reasonably large town, and on each side of the road, factory workers were sitting eating their lunch. As we slowed for a traffic signal, another 99’er hove into sight and, like Lazarus from the grave, my driver sat bolt upright and battered out the magic five note motif. Quite suddenly the workers were rising from the pavement and next moment I heard a series of whacks as a hail of stones hit the car. I ducked instinctively, waiting for the windows to smash, but the driver was now in his element and, as the lights changed, he hit the gas pedal, rapping out a whole string of Algerie Francaises, laughing maniacally as rocks and pebbles came raining down on us.
We stopped on the other side of Valence to inspect the damage, and I noticed that my hands were still shaking. The driver, however, was a man transformed. Coffee was no longer needed because all sign of sleep deprivation was now gone. Here was a man who had lost just about everything, apart from pride in who he was, and this quick patriotic fix was enough to keep him going. As we hit the road again, he began to prattle on about the Socialist traitors who were handing part of France back to a bunch of foreigners and I found myself reflecting on the strange effects of War, wherein a lethal barrage of stones could be caused by nothing more than a succession of beeps on a car horn. Obviously, some deep symbolism could make men react in a way that was otherwise unthinkable and for some reason I was reminded of that day in St Aloysius College when those young boys came running into the classroom, voices shrill with excitement as they announced the onset of a new conflict.
But, though the drama had provided emotional fuel for the driver, the same could not be said for his old Peugeot and, as the miles rolled by, I could see the gauge slowly descending into the red. Then, just past Avallon, he gave a big yawn and pulled into a Filling Station. I watched as he filled the tank, asking myself if his chequebook was in the glove compartment, or maybe in the pocket of his jacket, which was lying on top of a pile of his belongings in the back seat. The answer, however, was neither, for having returned the fuel hose to the pump, he calmly got back into the car, started the engine and drove out of the forecourt. Looking back, I saw a man rushing out of the office, hands waving, and when he retreated back inside, I knew his next step would be to call the local Gendarmes who, if you recall, tended to sport machine guns.
The only remaining question was whether he had managed to clock our licence plate, with the tell-tale 99, though that was probably academic, for how many dark blue Peugeots with pockmarked bodywork were currently driving up the main artery towards Paris? I was, as they would come to say in a later decade, ‘twixt a rock and a hard place. I reckoned I had at most about an hour to resolve the situation and began to frame an exit plan, but as I was doing so, the driver gave another yawn and in no time at all, he was beginning to resume his zombie posture. This time, I refrained from offering coffee and insisted he get some shut eye. Even now he seemed reluctant, but I remonstrated with him, saying it was at least four hours to Lille at normal speed, but double that in sleep-mode. Finally, he saw reason, and when a Parking sign appeared up ahead, he pulled into the layby, put his head on the wheel and minutes later he was snoring away peacefully. I left quietly, not bothering to close the door behind me. Bu,t with visions of him coming upon me further up the road, I decided to double back, so once again I set off South. After a ten-minute walk, I found a promising junction and two hours later, as the sun began to set, I was being dropped off in Paris.
I had been here previously on a school trip with St Al’s, staying at the Sorbonne, but this time my circumstances were so reduced that I couldn’t even afford to ride the Metro across the metropolis. Luckily my lift had taken me almost to the centre of the city and I had steeled myself to the idea of walking miles to the Northern outskirts, when a cop on a moped pulled up. By this time, my French was passable enough to tell him I needed to reach the road to Calais, and he invited me to hop on. There followed one of the most terrifying journeys of my life as the barrel of the sub machine gun slung over his shoulder somehow managed to lodge itself under my chin. No matter which way I moved, it followed me and pushing my head back to free myself was not an option, given that I was hanging on for grim death as he roared through the darkening streets. The denouement to this nightmare came when we hit the famous Paris cobbles, at which point I surrendered myself totally to the vagaries of fate, as many a condemned aristocrat must have done in this very setting.
It was to be well over a decade before I saw Paris again, not that I was bothered, for I reckoned I had used up whatever credit the City of Romance doles out to young romantics. Once on the Calais road, I was on the final stretch and by noon next day I was standing in the Ferry Terminal, staring at a dark hirsute stranger in the washroom mirror. A few hours later, I stepped onto British soil, marvelling at Dover’s finely trimmed hedges and rows of neat terraced houses, features I had never fully appreciated before. I was, to put it mildly, all Franced out and what I needed now was a good solid lift from some friendly truck driver, preferably with a homely Kent accent! Reaching a suitable spot for hitching, I stuck out my thumb and instantly a silver Merc drew up. As I walked towards it, the window slid down and the whiff of Gauloises hit me. ‘Ferr are you going?’
I shrugged in resignation. As the old Scots saying goes, ‘what’s for you won’t go by you.’
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