A Tangent and a Half
One April evening in 1965 I received a phone call that was to send my life shooting off at an unpremeditated tangent from which it never returned. If not for that phone call – and if I hadn't acted upon it – several marriages and relationships would not have taken place, seven children (to date) would not have been born, I wouldn't have lived in any of the fifty or so places I have lived in, and by direct or indirect association a great many other people's lives would have gone in very different directions.
I was 21, and living in the home of an Austro-Hungarian baroness of my acquaintance which she, being engaged elsewhere at the time, had offered me rent free on condition that I feed her cat. In order to do this, and feed myself something other than cat food, I'd taken a labouring job with a firm called Ideal Casements. Much of the job involved carrying massive window frames on my shoulders along the factory floor and handing them up to men on enormous lorries – back-breaking work only relieved by several hours each day working on a conveyor belt. Almost everyone at the factory supplemented their earnings with overtime. Advising me to do likewise, they were surprised when I nipped off smartly at the end of each day. I made one friend in the weeks I was there, a cheerful Jamaican who invited me to his house for dinner with his wife and little girl. The rest must have thought me an odd cove, sitting on my own during tea breaks reading a book, and at lunchtime taking myself off to the edge of the compound to eat my sandwiches facing a field of cows where, factory behind me, I might have been anywhere.
The life-changing phone call came from a friend called Little John. 'This might interest you,' he said. 'Butlin's are advertising for photographers for the summer season.'
'Butlin's?' I said.
'The holiday camp people.'
'They want photographers to work at their camps?'
I laughed. Of course I did. Me, work at a holiday camp?
Until a few months earlier I'd been a freelance photographer in London, working on advertising campaigns, taking book jacket pictures for publishers, press shots of politicians, promotional sequences of pop stars. But all that was behind me now. I'd given it up. With Sixties London approaching full Swing, I'd gone to Paris to try my hand at writing while starving. I'd turned out to have a real gift for the second of these, but a little before completing the starvation process I'd managed to crawl back to London, and, after a bit of a lull in someone's bed, to the baroness's house and Ideal Casements. I still didn't want to go back to commercial photography, but suddenly I was presented with an amusing choice: spend the summer lugging bloody great window frames around a factory in Reading, or strut about in the sun day after day, on beaches.
Where there would be girls.
With very little on.
Within forty-eight hours I was at Butlin's head office in Oxford Street, being interviewed.
They offered me the role of assistant press photographer at their North Wales camp, I gave notice at the factory, and a week or so later, after handing over the cat-feeding duties to neighbours, I was standing at a main line ticket office trying to pronounce the name of my destination for the benefit of a surly bloke in a cap who only spoke Swahili.
All I knew about North Wales was that it was probably somewhere above South Wales, but I imagined the train driver knew the way. Once we'd crossed Offa's Dyke, however, I began to have serious doubts because the engine slowed to a ponderous chug as if looking for something, stopping not only at every deserted station on the line, but every hut, every hedge, chicken, blade of grass and leaf. Cows passed us. Another time, I vowed, I'd go by bike.
It was well into late afternoon when we crept into the camp's own private station. It had been an overcast day, drizzling on and off, and now the drizzle was turning to a steady rain. The several dozen people who disembarked (incoming holidaymakers, most of them) were greeted by a small, depressed-looking man in a vague approximation of a Batman costume who, going by his bleary eyes, had snapped to attention from a sly kip the moment he heard our approaching chuff. Hoarsely remarking on all the scowls and buttock-massaging, the Camp Comic, as this apparition was called, directed us through a megaphone to another train standing just outside the station. We trailed after him in silence.
The new train was not part of British Railways' fleet. Nor did it run on rails. Each of the carriages, about five feet in length, bore the Butlin's logo. The lack of glass in the window-spaces denied travellers shelter from rain such as today's, but nevertheless the shoulder-high engine, which wore a half-cut smirk, whistled and hooted cheerfully as it rattled through the vast site at a breathtaking five miles an hour. As we raced along, the Camp Comic insisted, in spite of staunch apathy from his weary audience, on telling perking-up jokes that perked up no one.
In the seat opposite me, wearing an expression that easily matched mine for unadulterated misery, was a youth of about twenty. We exchanged names. His was Laurence. Laurence was about to become the Camp Barber. As the train swished through the spreading puddles at the nerve-centre of the camp and the sky began to rumble in preparation for a holy deluge, we embarked upon a desultory conversation that to the casual listener might have sounded like the first draft of a suicide pact. Slumped over our cardboard suitcases, Laurence and I shared doubts that we'd done the right thing here. If there was any comfort at all it was the knowledge that on this, the first day of what was beginning to feel like a five month sentence in an Enid Blyton nightmare, we were not alone.
Abandoning the merry little chuffer at last we splashed about for a while in the rain looking for the Allocations Office (passing it several times, it being disguised as an army latrine), where, in exchange for half a crown (refundable on departure), we were handed our chalet keys. Laurence and I weren't actually Butlin's employees but 'concessionaires' working for independent companies on contract to the management, which meant that we had non-staff accommodation. However, our keys fitted locks in different parts of the camp, so we went our separate ways.
The half dozen chalets reserved for the photographic staff were situated on the first floor of a very long accommodation block, directly above a bingo parlour. When I let myself in I found my room-mate-to-be snoring energetically. The brown trilby hat he'd placed over his eyes had fallen sideways onto his pillow. In his mid-forties, with a pencil-thin moustache, he had the look of a man who might sit up without warning and flog you a suitcase full of toy dogs. Even in sleep he must have sensed my presence, for the snoring ceased abruptly with a sharp snort and his eyelids flew up. Seeing me he gave a strangulated yell, threw aside his coverlet, and lurched towards me. I jumped back. Apart from his baggy off-cream vest and long wrinkled socks he wore nothing. Stopping just short of me, he demanded in broad Liverpudlian to know who the fuck I was and what the fuck I was doing in his fucking chalet. When I told him he clutched his chest and sank back onto his bed. 'God, lad, you almost gave me a heart attack.' He reached for his hat, placed it over his genitals, and introduced himself.
His name was Bill.
Milk Bottles at Dawn
Until the late eighteen nineties Abraham Stoker of Clontarf, a coastal suburb of Dublin, was known primarily as the manager of London's Lyceum Theatre and personal assistant to the actor Henry Irving, who owned it. But in 1897 Stoker published a novel which considerably boosted public awareness of him. I mention this for two reasons. The first is that a little over a century after the appearance of Bram Stoker's most famous work a host of people who knew next to nothing about the man became indirectly indebted to him – 'indirectly' because in 2002 I published a children's book for 'reluctant and dyslexic readers' about Dracula as a boy. A boy who preferred milk to blood. That little book, 'Young Dracula', was optioned by the BBC for development as a children's TV series, which eventually became five series, sixty-six episodes in all, which earned the Beeb an award or two and everyone involved a great deal of money. Everyone but me. My sole benefit after a niggardly dip into their petty cash was an end credit so tiny and fleeting that no one ever saw it.
My second reason for mentioning Bram Stoker is not for my story's association with his rather more complex, dark and memorable novel, but because, until a few months before I set off for the Butlin's camp in North Wales, I rented a flat in one of the four and five storey white stucco townhouses of St George's Square, Pimlico, where Stoker had also lived. Lived and died. Yes, Bram Stoker died in St George's Square.
Not in my flat, though.
My flat in St George's Square covered the entire first floor and cost me six pounds a week, unfurnished. You may laugh, but this wasn't cheap at the time. The previous tenant, a graphic designer I'd worked with, had paid half as much before passing it on to me. My living room was broad and lofty and light, with a white marble fireplace and two pairs of folding wooden shutters over tall French windows which opened onto a stone balcony overlooking the square and the private garden in the middle of it. The flat below mine was occupied by a wild-haired private dentist who had a habit of leaving terse notes for me and sometimes flinging his door back as I passed and bellowing up the stairs after me. The reason for his agitation was that my living room was directly above his surgery and that, as I possessed neither carpets nor slippers, he could hear every move I made; every tap, every creak, every scuff. It must have driven him mad when the ever-expanding island of dead wine and gin bottles in the corner went spinning across the bare floorboards. Another bone of contention was my record player. My record player also sat on the floor. On this I played Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, Mahalia Jackson, Champion Jack Dupree, Mahalia Jackson and Sonny Boy Williamson. Mose Allison got all worked up about sitting over there on Parchman Farm, Memphis Slim conducted a Chicago Rent Party and, Abbey Lincoln screamed and wailed on Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. And there was Bob Dylan. I loved young Dylan, who was only a couple of years older than me, as I'd loved the young Elvis in my teens. I couldn't understand why the dentist didn't just tilt his patients back and let them enjoy itthe music while their mouths were open.
The Sixties London I knew was not the heady amalgam of Sodom and Narnia it seems to have been for some. While I contrived to be anywhere but home for most of the hours between midnight and dawn – seemed a waste to spend my nights in bed when I could spend my days there instead – I had little taste for nightclubs and rave-ups and most of the other sweaty shenanigans that were oxygen to many, preferring the undemonstrative company of other insomniacs and the downing of alcoholic beverages in some relatively quiet drum that wasn't my own. In such company, with such fortification, the night would dwindle gently down to the spreading stain of first light on the rug, my companions would fall asleep one by one in a sitting position, and I would at last haul myself to my feet and stumble homeward, not caring if I was mugged, arrested for looking dodgy, or sold an Aga.
A bit gritty round the eyes after one of these all-night floor-decorating sessions but still reluctant to hit the hay, I strolled over to my friend Mike Harris's. Mike, an American, was picture editor of the Financial Times, and we spent a fair bit of time together. Just getting ready for work when I arrived that morning, he cracked half a dozen eggs into a pan of butter and divided them down the middle. While we were eating he showed me a short story he'd been working on, a domestic tale with lots of snappy American dialogue.
'Tell me what you think,' he said. 'But the truth, no bullshit.'
I read the story while he waited – and found myself stuck for a comment. Domestic or not, it wasn't set in a world I recognised.
'Do people talk like this?' I asked.
'The people I know do, don't the ones you know?'
It was a fair question, but how did I know how people talked? What did I know about anything? I hadn't done anything. Yet, ignorant as I was of the world, I too was trying to string written words together at that time. I'd read stories and novels for as long as I'd had access to them, and since starting work in London and discovering the wealth of bookshops there I'd rarely moved without a paperback in my pocket, to haul out when waiting for a bus or train or lounging in a café. A couple of years earlier I'd begun to wonder if I might be able to write the kind of stuff I was reading, and bought myself a portable typewriter on tick and taught two of my fingers to type. I was making progress too. Another month or so and I'd have completed my first paragraph.
Mike Harris's occasional weekend photo sessions might not have counted as experience, but they were a step in the right direction. Particularly when they involved girls. We liked girls, Mike and I. Girls were different to us. They were female. One such session took us to Hyde Park on an overcast Sunday morning, where we directed a long-legged American girl blonde up a succession of leafless winter trees. I had a theory that Mike spent most of his free time hanging round Heathrow just to get in first with visiting Americans. How else could he have known so many in London?
This particular visiting American, though chirpy enough, looked rather bemused by the whole thing, clearly wondering why no one back home had told her that the first thing they did when you got to this quaint old-fashioned country was order you up trees. I'm not sure why she had to be up all those trees myself, but looking at the pictures today I imagine it was because our earthbound vantage point provided such a glorious view of her buttocks. Her buttocks were like a brace of eager cannonballs in a muslin bag. Her green skintight leggings plunged into unzipped leather boots, while her unruly peroxide hair, tumbling about the shoulders of her black jumper, was punctuated by an enormous pair of impenetrably dark glasses. It was a grey day but she didn't once remove these glasses. We didn't remark on this. They suited her, made her look like a Star, and we enjoyed the envy that came at us in waves from all the men out walking dogs. It was amazing how many shoelaces had to be tied suddenly, how many sticks and balls got accidentally tossed our way and had to be retrieved – by the men, not the dogs.
As our model descended from the last tree (below which Mike and I considerately stood with raised hands in case her buttocks needed support), she toppled sideways and, though we clutched at her like madmen, we missed her. She fell into a sprawling-sitting position, in which she remained, stunned, for the ten or fifteen seconds it took her to regain her equilibrium. Then, realising that her shades had come off, she groped about her with the frantic desperation of the newly blind. But not before her naked gaze had met ours. She was shaken. She was stirred. She was cross-eyed.
Another of Mike's brilliant weekend sessions was conducted at his flat. In his bedroom. Mike Harris's bedroom wasn't what you'd call an exotic setting for sophisticated photographs, not unless your idea of exotic was 25 drip-dry shirts hanging from a picture rail. But the look of the place hardly mattered. Whatever was uppermost in our minds, it wasn't photography.
The two models Mike had lined up for this session weren't American girls straight off the plane. They were English girls straight off the plane. Air hostesses. These two made me nervous the moment they came in, particularly the big one with the billowing red hair, the mass of freckles, the shoulders like a Boeing. I put her and her friend's expressions down to jetlag. Didn't people with jetlag always narrow their eyes and curl their lips when they glanced your way? If it crossed my mind to wonder why such a pair would even consider changing into the negligees Mike had asked them to bring along, I kept it to myself.
While the girls were in the bathroom changing, we angled our lamps at the off-white ceiling and walls in order to provide a soft light for photography and anything else that might come up. Then the girls reappeared. Mike's jaw dropped. I felt mine go too. 'Negligee' meant skimpy, wispy, transparent. These were Bedouin chastity robes. Our jaws remained firmly on the carpet while the girls, who had obviously been hissing things over in the bathroom, informed us in no uncertain terms that if we thought they were there for what we'd hoped they were there for we were living in the Hundred Acre Wood with Piglet and Eeyore. Adopting expressions of utter mortification we spluttered our earnest assurances (commonly known as lies) that such crass thoughts had never entered our heads. This seemed to do the trick, for one of the girls cast herself upon the couch while the other took to the bed, sitting bolt upright with one hand behind her head. Mike, as session organiser, allocated himself the one on the couch, who had dimples and possibly a mother somewhere. That left me with the big redhead who looked as if her favourite pastime was biting off testicles and spitting them at the budgie.
But in a while, thanks no doubt to the alcohol we drip-fed them, our models relaxed a little, became more amiable, responding without too much demur to our requests for ever more exotic poses. Eventually even the Arab tent wear became more appealing as buttons worked loose, material got rucked up or caught in fleshy crevices, starchy hems became limp, displaying extra inches of thigh.
Mike winked hotly at me.
'How ya doin', Mike?'
'Fine, Mike. You?'
'Fine, Mike. Fine!'
It seemed a fair assessment too. His air hostess was now standing on the couch demonstrating how to put on an invisible parachute, while on the bed the redhead's garment had just fallen open to reveal substantially more than freckles. My camera went wild. The redhead noticed this; looked puzzled; saw the reason.
'Darling, you might have told me my nipples were showing!'
And that was the end of that, for all four of us.
My relentless pursuit of untaxing activity and company during the hours of darkness once saw me spending the second half of a nightthe night with a depressed out of work actor, drinking coffee at the West London Air Terminal. He carried had about him an autograph book which he said was his girlfriend's. It was full of signatures of actors and pop singers. John Lennon and Mick Jagger were there, and to alleviate the tedium of trying to keep awake for no good reason, the actor and I copied their autographs and a few others onto serviettes, which we then planted at strategic points around the terminal. Soon small groups of souvenir-hungry fans would be trailing in for the day shift, hoping to catch a glimpse of their idols in transit. They would pounce upon our efforts with moist delight and cart them off as rare treasures to show to their children someday. We didn't know it but we were doing them a favour. Before two decades were out collectors would be paying silly money for those serviettes.
In the grey light of that particular dawn I took a taxi home, stumbled through the latest batch of nice new milk bottles in the porch, hauled myself up the stairs to my flat, and found my bed occupied by a disgruntled girl I vaguely recalled giving a key to without quite remembering why.
'Where have you been?' she demanded. 'I've been waiting for you all night!'
My eyes rolled in their sockets. All I wanted was to crash out with a pillow over my head – alone! – till late afternoon. But the girl in my bed was flexing her thighs at me. She knew her rights. These were the Swinging Sixties, all the papers said so. What was a boy to do? It was a bastard, but you had to go along with it.
A Tale of Two Cities and One Madhouse
In my time I have been a TV script reader, a painter, a printer and the author of quite a few books for young readers, but I started out as a photographer in 1960s London. As a young photographer I worked for The Financial Times, advertising agencies, pop music managers, and hand-printed hundreds of the personal 'glamour' pictures of Bob Guccione as he limbered up to launch Penthouse Magazine. In the course of all this I asked Judy Garland to get off my case at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, had my fortune wrongly foretold by Coco Chanel on a Paris catwalk, slept in Marianne Faithfull's bath, and shared a Butlin's chalet with Christine Keeler's biological father. Most of these things are described in this book.
The first two chapters may be found below.