Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
THIS LITTLE ZIGGY 2 / CHAPTER FOUR
The Summer of '75
“Take care of yourself, Zap. There are soldiers on zis train. Eef zey see your long 'air, zey might want to fight.” Mlle. Roche / Arles Railway Station / June 1975
When I left St Botolphs station in Colchester on the first day of June 1975 it was snowing wet sleety snow. By the time I got back from France, three weeks later –having escaped the potentially dangerous attentions of a platoon of French commandos just up the corridor – it was nearly as hot in England as it had been in Montpellier. Such are the caprices of English weather.
Picture is me and Mlle Roche's friend, Mireille, somewhere in the south of France
Despite having bust up with my girlfriend of the past year, it would turn out to be one of the best and most carefree summers of my life. Within a week or two, I'd moved in with Plod's former roadie, Nik. Nik's own girlfriend of three years had just moved out. He needed to make up the rent, I needed a place to live and now that the band had broken up we both had nothing much on ‒ except for dead-end part-time jobs which would just about pay the bills.
The mid-Seventies, that musical Dead Man's Gulch between glam rock and punk rock, gets a lot of bad press. Yes, the fashions were awful and yes, Britain was in an economical pickle and yes, pop music seemed to have lost its way. But hold on here a minute. What music was I listening to? Well, I seem to remember a bloody good album called Next by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Go and listen to that. It still sounds as good as it ever did. Dr Feelgood's second album Malpractice was another perennial favourite. There were also a couple or three pretty good singles which I bought at the time. Elvin Bishop's Fooled Around Fell In Love was one. George Mcrae's It's Been So Long was another. 10CC's I'm Not In Love was something which I played about a dozen times a day, even when it was at the top of the charts and never off the radio.
Older records which I continued to listen to, included Steely Dan's Countdown to Ecstasy, Steve Miller's Number Five album and quite a bit of exotic French stuff which I'd been given on tape by Mlle. Roche's nice brother, who was a medical student at the time.
But I now, in a John Boy Walton moment, and only for your ultimate edification, I will really rack my brains and try to remember how we actually lived back, in those honeycombed wealth-free days. The flat which I moved into was near the top of East Hill, Colchester and was what I imagine Americans would call a 'cold water apartment'. It was the ground floor flat of a sub-divided and reasonably well-maintained Victorian townhouse. Nik had moved in there at some point in 1972. It had been mostly unfurnished, which meant the rent was marginally lower than a mostly furnished one. There was a loo just off the corridor. There was a kitchen with an electric stove and a very small electric water heater, its bent outlet pipe, located just above the sink. The bathroom was two floors up and although we could use it, we mostly didn't, because it meant giving notice of some sort to the people who rented the flat on the second floor. It was a communal bathroom, but, it being on their floor, they sometimes got a little bit proprietorial about it. The main living room, which had a large bay window looking out onto East Hill, had a sort of grandeur about it. It had generous proportions and high Victorian ceilings. It was separated from an equally well-proportioned bedroom by two wooden room-partitions on hinges, which could be bolted closed for privacy. These might rattle and thunder if anyone was say, involved in any casual carnality in the bedroom itself. More on this, later.
The bedroon boasted a large double-bed and a coldwater washbasin. Of the bed, which, when Nik was out, was available to any band member who'd managed to acquire a girlfriend, it was said. “You can do what you want in there. You can hold World War Three in there if you want. But it's got to look exactly as you found it when Nik gets back.”
Unusually, for rock and roll creatures anyway, Nik and I were both fastidiously clean and tidy. We kept clean by washing in the basin or the kitchen sink, the sort of thing which many of our working-class grandparents had done before us. Even in winter, if this meant ferrying hot saucepans of water down the corridor to the bedroom, then that's what we did in order to stay fragrant. Nik, being more fearless than I, used the upstairs bathroom more than I did. Instead, I opted to walk up the road, once or twice a week to a Portakabin located in what is now the Culver Precinct. Here were Colchester's public baths. This ammenity was, and so far as I know still is provided by the Borough Council, for those of us without facilities, although, even then, not many people of my acquaintance knew about them. In those days, many flats, bedsits and houses within the budgets of poor boys like us, didn't actually possess a proper bathroom. So you went to the public baths. They were usually located in the town centre, adjacent to the main public loos. Now you knocked on a door saying Baths. An old attendant, usually, came to the door and would take a shilling off you, then give you a clean towel and a little cake of soap. Now, he switched an electric heater on and ran you a bath in one of the cubicles. You took your own shampoo and a change of clothes. You got clean, got dried, picked up your bag and went home. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how the more respectable bohemian stayed clean in the broke-but-cheerful mid 1970s. Or else, the respectable bohemian simply went round to his mum's place and blagged a bath there. Remember this well, young bachelor; your mum will rarely object to you taking a bath. The remainder of the time, however, Nik and I strip-washed, either by the kitchen sink, or the bedroom basin. It must have been cold and inconvenient sometimes, but I don't remember it as such. It was just what we were used to.
Laundry in those days, was also done in the standard and time-honoured bachelor fashion. Smalls, shirts and other stuff we soaked in a bucket, ragged around in a sink, rinsed and then spun dry in an ancient second-hand spinner. Bigger stuff was taken, along with a book and a few shillings, to a launderette on the other side of town ‒ usually on a Sunday afternoon. This was after the pubs had closed and when everyone else was having their Sunday lunch.
Heating was interesting. There was no central heating and we weren't able to have an open fire. We used a paraffin heaters, which, to this day, I still retain a nostalgic affection for. Sometimes we used an electric fan heater, which my mum lent me and which was good for a quick blast of warmth when the place was freezing. It was a bit expensive though and ate up the shillings in the meter. The electric meter was in the kitchen. We fed it with shillings or florins. Sometimes it ran out and the place would be plunged into darkness until the correct coin was found. Nik and I mostly, were quite on-the-ball with shillings. It wasn't uncommon though, to come home sometimes and find a fellow musician sitting in the darkness, waiting for someone to arrive who'd have a spare shilling to restore light and sound. Boys such as Nik and I had been brought up with paraffin technology and knew well how to keep the burner flames blue, the wicks trimmed and the tanks full. To this day, in fact, such is my confidence in them, I still keep one well-maintained paraffin heater, one small paraffin cooker and a couple of spare gallons of parry in case there's a power failure.
If you wanted paraffin in those days, almost all garages sold it. You took your fuel-can and forty pence for the paraffin dispenser, then you walked down the hill to the garage. While you were about it, you bought twenty cigarettes, some chocolate for your girlfriend and...oh yeah, does anybody else want anything, while I'm down there? Thirty-five years later, paraffin technology is all but forgotten, those dispensing machines have gone and the garages on whose forecourts they stood are long-closed.
Pic: On East Hill, Colchester in 1975. Lovely isn't she? The girl's quite pretty too.
In Nik's living room was a ceiling-high,varnished wooden bookcase with glass doors. On its shelves, rather than books, Nik kept tins of beans, tomatoes, Irish Stew and all sorts of other storeables. These were kept for when we were broke. Anyone could use them, but if you had a bit of spare money, you were encouraged to replace the tins or even put extra ones in there. This meant we always had food, even in hard times. The numerous musicians and guests who drifted in and out were occasionally nagged by Nik into buying the odd bag of sugar, bottle of milk or box of teabags for the house. Nik ran everything on trust and the door of the flat was hardly ever locked – not even when we were both out. The first thing Nik said to people, even people who'd never been to the place before, was: “Put the kettle on, then.”
I can hardly remember what we ate in those days. Not very much, probably. Nik sometimes made stews and casseroles. If I was working I ate my main meal at the restaurant at lunchtime, usually leftovers from the day before. In the mornings though, I always had a cooked breakfast, usually an egg on toast and a half a fried tomato. I don't remember going to restaurants very much, apart from the one I washed up in. We probably went to the Chinese restaurant down the road every once in a while. Food, though, didn't generally loom very large in my life in those days. It was just fuel. Back then whenever I met middle-class people of my own age, they often seemed to be obsessed with holding little dinner parties. It was an alien culture to me, one which seemed to be the scary beginning of staid adult behaviour.
The best it got with us, was to invite a few people round after the pub, with some cans and bottles and some extra packets of fags. We never had a dinner party. Actually, I can't even remember whether we had a table or not. Having spent two years in a rock band, I'd sort of missed out on such things as dinner parties and all the stiflingly formalities attendant upon them. I now had to learn how to be a normal human being. It took me about another two decades, by my reckoning.
My whole life, from spring of 1973, when I joined the Mighty Plod, until summer of 1975, when I moved in with Nik, had been taken up with rehearsals, gigs and all the stuff that people in close-knit bands usually do. In that blazing summer of 1975, with no band, no group of comrades to conspire with and no girlfriend, I was going to have to do something. But what? There was quite a lot of spare time but also, there was hardly any money. The sun was out, however and I was living in a nice place in the centre of town. Now I think about it all, I really didn't have a care in the world. Apart from my instruments, my clothes and a box of books and records, I didn't own anything. I'd come from nowhere. I was going nowhere.
Quite soon after moving in, I also moved my sound-on-sound tape machine into the flat, along with a pedal harmonium and my guitars. I recorded and wrote songs incessantly. I occasionally helped other bands record their demo tapes. I went over the road to The Ship, where I drank bottles of Oranjeboom lager and played bar billiards every night. I washed up dishes, four short days each week. A small parade of young women visited Nik and me, throughout the summer. Nothing really serious happened though ‒ such as either of us becoming involved in a relationship. Some nights, when it was really hot, I'd lie on the couch in the living room, with the huge sash window open, listening to the sounds of the night. East Hill at night, for a main thoroughfare, used to be pretty quiet. The church clock of St James would chime the lonely small hours in, a single car would sometimes drive by, its engine sighing and eventually fading into the night. Occasionally there'd be the hoot of an owl, or the sound of a cat fight in the churchyard. And for many weeks, the nights were warm, endless and scattered with stars. There was something else which I could hear, too ‒ something idefinable and rather disconcerting. At twenty-two years of age, I think it may have been the melancholy sound of my own youth, shuffling slowly past in the night.