‘But George Orwell had something to fall back on. He had money behind him’.
I didn’t want to admit it but I could see that my Dad might be right. Washing up day in day out might eventually get boring.
But what about about W. H. Davies? ‘The Autobiography of a Super Tramp’ had been so persuasive. The company of honest souls, straightforward people with simple needs. The dignity and honest fatigue from physical labour, the scholarly volume for secret study stashed inside a bedroll.
This was my own decision though, the first time I wasn’t going along with somebody else telling me what I ought to be doing. How could being an apprentice draughtsman, my Dad’s suggestion, bring any meaningful and deep fulfillment? Guaranteed employment, enforced conformity, marriage to a local girl who worked in a shop. Fifty years of that!
I told my father that I wanted to be a tramp, an intellectual one. I could so clearly imagine myself at reading tables in public libraries, working my way methodically along the stacks. I would be warm and dry. I wouldn’t want for anything more. And I would learn infinitely more than I ever could from grinding on through a final year with ‘A’ levels.
‘And where would you sleep?’
‘In hedges and fields. Wherever I ended up that night’.
‘Don’t talk so wet’.
But it must be possible. Davies and Orwell had managed through the storms, the rain and the snow. Had written the books to prove it. All it needed was some of the initiative that school and my Dad were always on about – the officer material stuff, the leadership potential. But not in the service of Queen and country, respectability and a soulless life. In the pursuit of poetry instead, philosophy, the camaraderie of the trail, the grit, grime and freedom of voyages without destinations.
South Dorset Gazette 22nd June 1964
‘Mohairs’ get a welcome cuppa
Weymouth has always been famous for its record numbers of summer visitors. But this year a new group of arrivals has set local people talking.
The ‘Mohairs’ – so called because they have ‘more hair’ than the average person – are a group of young people who arrived in the town in May after being cleared out from St Ives, Cornwall, following a purge by the local town council. There are some 15 to 20 of them currently here but the town has been warned that many more could be expected if the word gets around that Weymouth offers them a warm welcome.
Pictured enjoying a cup of tea at the Early Bird Café on Park Street is Mohair Sammy Easterman, 20, originally from Birmingham. He is currently looking for temporary holiday work and says he will consider anything, from lavatory cleaner to bank manager. He adds ‘It’s a free country and we just want to live our lives in the way that we want to’
Also pictured is Albert Watts, proprietor of the Early Bird cafe.
‘A lot of people don’t like the look of the Mohairs, but they should take the trouble to get to know them. Under the surface, there are some very nice young people here and they will always be welcome in my café,’ Mr Watts told the Gazette.
‘Older people only think about material possessions and mortgages and things,’ said Linda, another Mohair from the West Midlands, who did not want to give her age or surname.
‘Weymouth is rightly proud of its reputation as the ideal holiday resort for families and people of all ages,’ said Cllr Frederick Watson, Chair of the Tourism and Leisure Sub-committee of Weymouth Town Council. ’We have been placed in the top ten British seaside towns for the past five years running. The Council will be monitoring the situation with these young people very carefully,’ he told the Gazette.
In late July that summer, I obtained a job in the kitchen of the Solent Hotel up on the seafront. On my first day, I was shown around, my basic duties were explained and I was set to work to pull up the dishes from the floor below by means of the dumb waiter. In the open lift shaft, the top of the wooden case creaked upwards only minimally despite all my pulling and I wondered whether I had the strength for the job.
‘Here, let’s give you a hand,’ said one of the kitchen staff and, with him also pulling firmly on the rope, we managed to raise the contraption further. Our final attempts lifted the open fronted box up to the level of the hatch. But, instead of plates, compacted inside and inches in front of me, knees up to his chin like a foetus and with a long kitchen knife between his teeth, was a wild-haired, mad-eyed homunculus. It was Sammy, the Mohair whose photograph I had seen in the newspaper. When others had eased him out, he ran about the kitchen, bent at the knees, the knife now waving in the air.
The others stood back to allow his manic passage as he slashed at the air mimicking a crazed pirate. After a circuit of the central aluminium storage unit with the others laughing but allowing him a considerable berth, he stopped right in front of me. Still crouching low, he turned one eye upwards. It seemed bulbous beneath his spectacles and somehow swollen larger than the other.
‘What brings you here? Are you friend or foe? Answer for your life!’
I struggled to match the mood and find the words, unsure whether I should speak at all. Then the swing doors to the corridor burst inwards and a tall moon-faced man entered, stiff legged and swaying slightly from side to side. He was dressed in a gold lame suit and wore a large stetson hat. His hands were making circular movements as if twirling six guns.
‘Just back off from the boy and put down the knife,’ he drawled.
The laughter intensified, splitting into an echoing gaggle of shrieks and yells.
‘Come on, I’ll show you what to do,’ said a quieter man in a brown T-shirt and denim jeans. ‘I’m the other washer-upper, Billy. Don’t worry, they do that to all the new people, it’s nothing personal’
‘We have a laugh here,’ he added. ‘Most of them are alright. Just one or two you need to look out for’.
I was introduced to the first laugh early the next morning in the rush to prepare breakfast for some eighty guests. Sammy, still an unpredictable character, shouted from the bank of gas rings near the serving surfaces, a raised sticky ladle in his right hand.
‘Porridge is ready!’
‘Come on, get in the queue,’ said Billy as people lined up beside the large cauldron of molten porridge that burped and belched occasionally in the pan.
‘Okay,’ said Sammy. One of the waiters was first in line and he came forward, bent over the pot and pretended to spit into it. One by one, kitchen porters and waiters stepped up beside Sammy, acknowledged his lop-sided grin and made their donation to the pot. I was trapped and had to comply as they all watched me, the new boy. I gave a limp imitation, nothing compared to the exaggerated hawking and retching of some who provoked squeals of appreciation and mock disgust, but I seemed to pass the test.
‘I can’t see what’s so good about a crowd of layabouts,’ my Dad said when I enthused at home about my new workmates.
‘But they’re real people, Dad,’ I complained. ‘Billy’s even been in prison but he’s really kind. And genuine’.
‘Genuine? You want to watch yourself or you’ll end up in the clink with them’.
One morning, after I had been at the Solent for a week, one of the younger waiters approached me in the corridor.
‘Are you the grammar school boy who’s working here?’ He spoke in the broadest Irish accent I had ever heard. ‘What do you study?’
I told him it was maths and physics but did not mention my disappointing GCE results and the fact that I had only just scraped into the sixth form.
‘No philosophy, no literature?’ he fired back. ‘Do you study Plato? Euripides? And what about Irish writers? Shaw, Wilde and Yeats?’
‘Our school doesn’t do philosophy,’ I replied ‘but I have done a bit for myself’.
‘What? What did you read?’
‘I got Gilbert Ryle’s ‘A Concept of Mind’ out of the library last year’.
‘What did you think of it? What struck you the most about it?’
‘Well, I didn’t read all of it, mainly the first few chapters. I remember it was something about what’s real and things. About perception and stuff’.
‘Huh. Metaphysical ramblings. You need Joad, ‘An Introduction to Philosophy’. It’s a ‘Teach Yourself’ book. It’ll get you started. And literature. Shaw’s ‘Man and Superman’ probably. And what about Thoreau? ‘Walden’. You must read that straight away, before anything else. Oh, and Colin Wilson, ‘The Outsider’.
My new personal tutor – there had been no opportunity to decline the rapidly lengthening reading list – was called Bernard. He was only a couple of years older than me and dressed conservatively in dark trousers and a long-sleeved white shirt. He had dark hair, already slightly graying and combed sideways with a cartoon-like set of rippling small waves. He and his friend Nick had come to Weymouth following the clear out from St Ives earlier that summer. Their plan was to move on at the end of the summer season to spend the winter in London and then the following spring in Montmartre where Bernard intended to settle as a full-time painter.
After my first pay day, Bernard came with me to W H Smiths where we presented a list of books to an attractive girl with long blonde hair who had been in the year below me at school.
‘We don’t have any of these in stock but we can order them for you,’ she said, giving no indication that she recognised me as she consulted a large, well-thumbed catalogue.
Bernard advised which should be asterisked as priorities. The assistant remained immune to the list’s aura of gravity.
When the books finally arrived I decided to tackle Thoreau first, drawn by the title and even more by the tone of rebellion in the title of the final extended essay, ‘On Civil Disobedience’. The text was dense and there was no respite in levity or short, snappy sentences. But I was determined that this was to be a period of study unlike all those before when my attention had rushed in every direction except along the lines of a text book’s printed sentences. This would not culminate in another humiliation stretched across slow, silent hours in an examination hall.
‘I’ve never read anything like this before,’ I said one day at home of Joad’s ‘Introduction to Philosophy’. It makes you question everything, everything you’ve just taken for granted’.
‘Don’t read it then if it’s upsetting you,’ said my Mum. ‘Read something else instead’.
‘It’s not upsetting me. It’s the most amazing – ‘
‘It’s a pity you can’t show the same enthusiasm about something that might actually help you get a job when you leave school,’ interjected my Dad.
I held back a furious desire to scream that the human race could never hope to improve itself in the face of such … such … I didn’t know what.
Over the next few weeks, Bernard and I occupied ourselves with our books in between shifts, first in the Early Bird Café and then, when the proprietor announced that he was banning ‘low-life’ from his premises, tucked away at the back of Fortes Corner House in the centre of the town. Bernard would open his creased and battered copy of the volume under consideration to reveal sections of ink and pencil underlining. Never before had bookish analysis possessed such dramatic import for me, – the writer as revolutionary, the reader as acolyte. I lost myself among outsiders, wanderers and seekers and left my former school friends to their bars and dance halls. My ignorance and lack of application were revealed by questions that I now longed to be able to answer.
‘What are the deep themes?’ ‘How does the author bring home his argument?’
I also took to underlining as I read and my pages were soon extensively scored with only occasional passages left white and unmarked like glimpses of accidentally revealed flesh.
Returning home one night after a dizzying extended tutorial spent scrutinising the preface to Shaw’s ‘Man and Superman,’ I found Uncle Sid sitting with my parents in the living room.
Both my parents spoke of Sid with an unqualified affection. He worked as a gardener and wore checked open-necked shirts, a slowly weathered tan and a wide smile. When a meal was placed before him he looked down at it in silent pleasure as if saying a personal grace before starting to eat. When beckoned to an armchair in front of the television, he approached it with what seemed a glowing and genuine gratitude.
Somehow that evening I found myself quickly on from stilted pleasantries.
‘But if I’m looking at something, this tomato for instance, and I’m seeing what I think of as the redness of it, what I’m really seeing is rays of light coming off this thing and striking my eyes which then get transmitted to my brain and that sensation in my brain is what I call the redness’.
Sid seemed to be following, his head was bent forward slightly.
‘Now, what we don’t know, is whether exactly the same is happening in your brain. You’re getting your own rays striking your eyes which are then going through to your brain and creating what you call redness. But what we don’t know, is whether your redness is the same as mine. How can we? We just assume they’re the same and we use the same words but that doesn’t mean that anybody’s experience of redness is the same as anybody else’s. We have absolutely no way of knowing’.
‘Well, I don’t know, Andrew,’ said Sid. ‘You make it all sound so complicated. All I know is that that tomato is red, that’s it really’.
‘But that’s my point. You don’t know that! Well, you don’t know that it’s the same as what I call ‘red’’.
Sid looked even sadder and my father quickly intervened, silencing the evening.
‘He’s going through one of those phases,’ he said sharply. ‘Reading Bertrand Russell and what have you. They all go through it’.