You could say that I had it easy when, at the age of fifteen, I walked straight into an office job. Many of my neighbourhood contemporaries followed fathers and uncles into ‘the print’ (nepotism was and is not the exclusive practice of the upper classes it is portrayed to be today). Still they earned comparatively vast sums, sharing the cash proceeds of additional & fictitious men signed on for the particularly lucrative Saturday night-shift under such names as M. Mouse & D. Duck. Little did they know their future as they waited unknowing for Messrs Shah and Murdoch to make dinosaurs of them. Well, perhaps I did have it easy at first; with unemployment hovering around a genuine level of 350,000, competition for jobs was low. But did it ensure I was set up for life? Did it mean career success would surely follow? That was something else, which as we’ll see was far from straightforward.
Work in the swinging sixties started well for me. Learning the basics of clerical work in the world of industrial and consumer finance at the Mercantile Credit Company was easy enough. The language, culture and scams of the industry were quickly assimilated and I was soon made assistant to the office manager and commuting into central London on my first motor bike (my first experience of the NHS A & E service following soon after). The routine was stultifying and even the typists were boring. One highlight full of excitement was being despatched to repossess an ageing Lambretta from an unsuspecting debtor. But parallel to my commercial endeavours was a social world that was exploding into espresso bars, pubs, rock and roll, jive, miniskirts and a growing lack of deference to the establishment that was especially refreshing to an ex catholic organ pumper fluent in church Latin pronunciation. Penguin’s publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover did much to provide additional and extremely relevant study material.
London’s music scene was exploding. My haunts soon became the 100 Club, the Marquee, the Flamingo, the 51 Club and Eel Pie Island. Flush with money, or so it seemed, I lived a double life. I spent money on sharply tailored bespoke suits for the office where I tried hard to appear successful, but office hours over, a carefully cultivated downbeat style was adopted for nights out. I still drank with my old South London friends in various local and East End pubs on Friday nights but my alter ego would meet with a group of more eclectic friends in a variety of West End and Hampstead coffee bars and pubs. I was never much of a drinker though, and it would be a rare occasion when I was not sober. A hard drug scene had also blossomed into the mainstream of the London club scene but it never, ever, even tempted me. My avid reading of the lives of my jazz and blues heroes had taught me that it was drugs that usually destroyed talent.
Carried away with the London jazz scene, I bought a trumpet and having soon gathered sufficient fellow adherents to the New Orleans style, I formed a band, the Storyville Shakers. With enthusiasm exceeded only by an execrable lack of talent, we tried hard to swing into the London scene with a Sunday lunchtime appearance at a pub in decidedly unfashionable Lambeth. The experience soon provided my first encounter with an iron law of music; organising a band is worse than herding cats – leadership 0, anarchy 1. I continued playing, sitting in with any bands I could. A highlight was an afternoon spent playing in a band on the Aldermaston CND March. I still remember a soaring solo I made (cribbed note perfect from a treasured record) on ‘Just a closer walk with thee’ as we marched past the Houses of Parliament. I had rebelled enough to have made a statement (or so it seemed at the time).
Soon, a serious manifestation of the World’s risky existence settled on my consciousness in the form of the Cuban Missile crisis. Huddled over a pint in the Lamb & Flag in Covent Garden with the Evening Standard trumpeting imminent nuclear annihilation, I feared my life was over before it had begun. However, a few long days later, the crisis passed when Khrushchev blinked first.London resumed its swinging and I was able to concentrate on succeeding in both job and social life. But, despite the success of the social revolution, there were still only 24 hours in a day and every one was taking its toll on me.
On a rare evening when I had actually gone to bed before midnight (if at all), I woke choking and coughing violently. Switching on the light revealed a scene more a slaughterhouse than a bedroom; I was haemorrhaging. The coughing itself was nothing new; it had been with me for months along with a severe reduction in weight. A few days before, finally realising all was not right, I had taken myself off to the doctor, been examined and referred for an x-ray that same day (things in the NHS worked back in the Sixties). Seated that afternoon in front of a fatherly looking consultant, he informed me that I had a shadow on my right lung and that it was TB. The shock ratcheted up when he wanted to hospitalise me that same afternoon. Blind panic set in; my world really was ending. How could I just go into hospital that same day? I argued and pleaded for a few more days to pull my mind and my affairs together. My pleading worked and I spent the next few days telling my girlfriend, band, other friends and employer that I was going to be away some time. That delay was a big mistake.
Whisked away in an ambulance with bells clanging (that’s what they did in those days) I was incarcerated in Grove Park Hospital, a TB sanatorium in South-east London, for what was an indefinite period. Originally built as a workhouse over a century before, the building retained an all pervading grimness throughout. The initial shock of restriction of liberty was far greater than that of the bloody incident itself. Once I adjusted and gave myself over to my narrowed horizons, life was not too bad; apart from my backside which was fast becoming a pincushion from daily injections of the then wonder drug streptomycin (which was going to have very unfortunate side effects years later).
Daily ward routines were made tolerable by a delightful young Irish trainee nurse who used to chat to me (whenever Sister was safely out of sight) and share tales of her fumbling attempts to learn the art of injections with the aid of an orange. Several days later Bridget arrived looking exceptionally nervous. Sister declared that nurse would be giving me my injection that day. Oh, shit! Her very first live attempt! Buttocks bared, teeth & cheeks clenched and desperately trying to remember which of the many saints to whom prayer was likely be the most efficacious, I was most painfully impaled. Slowly, over the next few weeks, the cough departed and weight started coming back.
My fellow inmates and I soon settled into a routine of sorts. We all had to produce a urine sample on a weekly basis and much discussion and ribaldry centred on the varying colours and hues of our productions, lined up on the window ledge in the bathroom on Monday mornings. Ours was a large ward with few patients, simply me and a young Jamaican lad, two Pakistani seaman and a middle aged Greek shopkeeper whose command of English seemed to be based around the ceaseless use of the interrogative “innit?” One day a month or so into my confinement our tranquil existence was shattered by the arrival of an Irishman of the peripatetic persuasion. Possessed of a particularly aggressive nature, he soon disrupted our harmony and confirmed the stereotype by disappearing one afternoon only to return late that evening. He was not just drunk but roaring drunk, alternating bouts of atrocious singing with random acts of aggression. The night sister merely attempted a feeble admonishment before locking the ward doors and leaving us to it. A wretched and sleepless night followed. My first encounter with the caring side of the nursing profession.
One afternoon my old boss arrived and stayed long enough to tell me that I had been fired, leaving me with my ‘cards’ and a bag of grapes. After several months I was informed that I would be able to take short walks in the grounds; oh, joy! Clad in now ill-fitting clothes I wandered the gardens surrounding the hospital soaking in a state of semi freedom. Illcared for and downright scruffy the gardens might have been but to me they were a paradise found for reflective thought. I soon decided that life was going to have change completely.
One bright winter morning some weeks later, I was discharged back into the world as a changed person with no career. What now?
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