In August 1963, I rented my first bedsitter in Kensington. I was eighteen, and after a spectacular row with my parents, I had travelled down from Lincolnshire to find work and somewhere to live. Sitting on the platform at Kings Cross, I found the room in the accommodation pages of the Evening Standard. The weekly rent was three guineas, and 2, Grenville Place was just down from the clergy house where Eliot had moved thirty years earlier when he left his wife Vivienne.
The next day, I had an interview with the Covent Garden Bureau in Fleet Street. I had shorthand and typing, and they fixed me up with temping work while they looked for something permanent. I temped with ICI in Cheapside, and with a travel journal in a square off Holborn. Luncheon vouchers saved the cost of eating in the evening. After two weeks of temping, I was taken on as a trainee with a Lloyds Broker in Houndsditch, just opposite St Mary Axe.
To celebrate finding work and somewhere to live, I bought tickets for two Duke Ellington concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. Tubby Hayes joined the orchestra during the second concert. I’d seen Hayes at the 100 Club in Oxford Street a couple of years before, stumbling down into the darkness one afternoon and sitting for three hours, enthralled by Hayes’s extraordinary improvisations. To play with Ellington must have been one of his greatest nights. It was certainly one of mine, and I began making regular visits to the various clubs that offered jazz. Ronnie Scott’s was still in Gerrard Street then, moving to Frith Street in 1965. The Flamingo Club in Wardour Street was another favourite for jazz lovers. I couldn’t afford a record player, but didn’t need one living in London.
Living in Kensington and working in the City, I knew I was following in Eliot’s footsteps, though I travelled beyond Russell Square to Liverpool Street for my own work. Every morning, walking down St Mary Axe to Lloyds, I passed St Helen’s and shadowy Winding Lane where Shakespeare may have lived when he moved from Shoreditch to Bishopsgate. Stone House, where I worked, was built on the site of the Dolphin, a favourite inn of the players from the Curtain and the Theatre. My weekly salary was £7.00 plus luncheon vouchers, which guaranteed a fine lunch in one of the nearby pubs: stuffed heart or steak & kidney pie, treacle puddings and thick custard. On that wage, with a rent of three guineas, I managed to save £1.00 a week during my first year.
I even enjoyed the discrepancy between the two lives I was living. In the City, I wore a three piece suit, a bowler hat and carried an umbrella. I took to reading the Financial Times because everybody else did. Lloyds was a wonderful place to work: the red-coated door staff with their top hats, the wooden boxes in the Room where the underwriters met with the brokers, the steady hum of urgent business from around the entire world. The Lutine Bell was still rung in the early 1960s to announce losses, the Caller sitting at the rostrum beneath the bell at the centre of the Room. You never saw a woman, certainly not in the Room. The first female broker was allowed to broke risks after 1972, the first female underwriter to work in an underwriter’s box the following year. Only in 1974 were brokers generally allowed to send female staff into the market. I loved the City, and especially the Liner in Lime Street, but I knew every footstep took me over the graves and ghosts of my literary heroes. In the 1960s, I worked for brokers in Bishopsgate, in Adelaide House on London Bridge, and finally in the Minories. You couldn’t really escape the ghosts of great writers walking in those streets.
But after work and at weekends, I still returned to Gloucester Road and my favourite London. On my first night, a resident from the floor below mine arrived with a bowl of Turkish coffee. ‘A welcome,’ he smiled, bowing slightly, a plump, greasy-haired man in his twenties, clearly waiting for me to invite him inside. This was the first of constant visits, always with the gift of coffee or food or tickets for the theatre. From the start, Fakhry Kostandi became my guide to London and one of my closest friends. He was working for his doctorate at the University of Manchester with a dissertation on the influence of Ibsen on Arthur Jones, Pinero, Wilde and Synge, and would soon return to Egypt to a distinguished academic career at the University of Cairo. His life when I knew him, and until his death in July 2009, was dominated by friendship, and a passion for the theatre.
Within days of our first evening, he introduced me to another of his many friends, a research student working for an M.A. on Keats. Amin lived round the corner in Emperor’s Gate in a flat with a balcony. He had a wife in Cairo, but shared the flat with an Irish girl called Bernie who played recordings of Yeats whenever I called round on my own. She was married herself, with a young daughter, but separated from her husband. The four of us went to the theatre whenever Bernie could find a babysitter. An amateur production of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan had the audience marching up and down in the aisles, Fakhry leading them and chanting. One late summer afternoon, sitting on the balcony in Emperor’s Gate, we heard a flute being played, and saw the blind player making his way along the middle of the road, a young boy collecting the coins being thrown down from the flats and bedsitters.
It was in Emperor’s Gate that John Lennon had a flat, and Tom Maschler used to visit from Jonathan Cape’s to help edit In His Own Write. Walking to Gloucester Road Underground, I would see a large car arriving in Emperor’s Gate to collect Lennon, the other Beatles waving from the back to the hordes of girls who were there day and night. In the autumn of 1963, a friend came to stay with me for a London weekend you can’t imagine experiencing today. In three days we saw Susannah Yorke in The Wings of the Dove, the film of Pinter’s The Caretaker, Vanessa Redgrave and Peter Finch in The Seagull, Tennessee Williams’s Period of Adjustment, Olivier’s film of Hamlet and Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour. The weekend finished with a Samuel Beckett Symposium funded by John Calder, chaired by Martin Esslin, with readings by Jack MacGowan and Patrick Magee.
The Poetry Society in Earls Court Square was one of the places I visited most regularly. Alan Williamson had already published some of my poems in The Voice of Youth, junior to the Poetry Review, and Odette Tchernine ran workshops for young writers on Tuesday evenings. The Poetry Society was still the home of pipe-smoking fans of the Georgians, tweed-jacketed men with leather arm patches who had known Laurence Binyon and Walter de la Mare, Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden. The Children of Albion had not yet arrived, with their sandals and joss sticks, the hint of marijuana drifting up the wide elegant stairs. In the workshops, Odette was generous and other-worldly, an inveterate traveller in search of the Yeti, easily distracted from our poetry by talk of Tibetan rituals.
By the time Fakhry left for Cairo, I was involved with the girl who became my first wife. She had spent the first twenty years of her life in Bangalore, qualifying as a teacher and then teaching briefly in Calcutta. Her childhood, surrounded by Hindu culture and speaking Urdu, Hindi and Tamil contrasted sharply with another of my friends in Grenville Place. Salah u Din had the room next to mine, and invited me round for a meal almost as soon as I moved in. Though from a Muslim family in Pakistan, he seemed to follow no religion I could identify, except finding girls. His favourite seduction music was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, an ironic as well as noisy way to get girls. I think the first invitation to a meal was by way of an apology, a German girlfriend waking me up the previous night, dancing exuberantly on his table. When I knocked on the door, she was still on the table, naked except for a pair of high-heeled shoes. Salah clearly thought I’d come round to complain, but I was just curious. We had regular meals after that, usually with groups of his friends, sitting on the floor and eating with our hands from bowls of rice and curried lamb.
My girlfriend didn’t think much of the curried lamb. Bangalore is famous for its hot vegetable curries. She also disapproved of Salah’s way with women. We were married in Christ Church, Victoria Road, Kensington, just round the corner from Grenville Place. The priest we went to see to arrange the wedding was Ian Robson, a glamorous and much-talked of young man famous as a portrait painter because he painted his French wife in the nude. Stories about him appeared in the William Hickey gossip column in the Daily Express. This was in August 1964, and Fakhry had gone back to Cairo by then, writing alarmed letters about ‘the pram in the hall’ and the artist’s duty to circuses before bread. He had clearly forgotten Brecht’s ‘first bread, then ethics,’ let alone Lenin’s ‘bread and circuses.’ We went on writing for some years, the letters interrupted for decades by the 1967 Six Day War. He had already retired when I finally got in touch again, in a new century.
By 1968 I was with another broker in the City, and with another girl. Helen was a poet, painter and eventually children’s writer. We still lived in Kensington, eating most weekends in the first Dino’s to open, in Gloucester Road. You could sit out on the pavements in fine weather, reading the Sunday papers. We watched Jane Asher filming in a car showroom one weekend, Paul McCartney waiting in a nearby car with smoked windows. I’d got involved with Ruthi Blackmore’s Paperway by this time. Ruthi was the niece of Philip Burton. When Paperway evolved into Oyster in 1969, Philip Burton asked Richard Burton and Liz Taylor to help out with funding, which they generously did. Ruthi and her co-editor Jaci Wilde published Elizabeth Jennings, Marguerite Edmunds, Anna Scher, Peter Porter, Mike Horovitz, Jeni Couzyn, Bernard Kops, John Horder, Peter Redgrove, Vernon Scannell, Brian Patten, Alan Brownjohn, Douglas Hill, and Edward Lucie-Smith. There were readings at the Roundhouse in 1968 and 1969. At one reading, Burton and Taylor sat on the back row, coming round to see Ruthi when the event finished. That evening had a chaotic spontaneous feel to it, unlike the Poetry International readings, the first of which was promoted and directed by Ted Hughes at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1967. The Roundhouse always reminded me of jazz concerts. Ronnie Scott’s had moved to Frith Street in Soho by then, and Helen frequently bought tickets for the last set on Saturday nights. For one of my birthdays, she managed to get tickets to hear Miles Davis. The poetry and the jazz seem confused in my mind now, fifty years later, the improvisational poetry readings in pubs involved with jazz and everything else that was going on in London. If there was a found poetry, you could find it anywhere.
By 1968 and 1969, protests against the Vietnam War had erupted around the world. May 1968 in Paris seemed to start things off. In London, the first great demonstration at the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square took place in March 1968. The more famous march was on 16th January 1969. Helen and I were living in Cranley Gardens by then, and made our way to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. I’d seen Bernard Levin and Vanessa Redgrave there in 1961 or 1962 addressing a huge CND gathering. Levin gave a wonderful speech about the Home Office leaflet telling you what to do in the event of a four minute warning: advice involving tons of sandbags and lots of brown paper and vinegar. Vanessa Redgrave was at her most beautiful and politically powerful, though to me she would always be Nina in Chekov’s The Seagull, playing opposite Peter Finch’s self-obsessed Trigorin. Helen and I found the main march, and joined a group right behind Tariq Ali. Accidentally part of the splinter group that marched determinedly into the massed ranks of police in Grosvenor Square, it was the sort of experience you boasted about ever afterwards.
My London ended in the early seventies, when a lot of things ended. My personal sixties finished with a directorship of a large brokerage, and two failed marriages. I was often in the office until midnight, and to cope with the work and the writing, I was drinking and smoking heavily, taking two or three Benzedrine to wake me in the mornings, Durophet and Drinamyl to keep me going through the day. I don’t think we had Seconal, but I was certainly taking some form of barbiturate to help me sleep. When the stress led to a breakdown, I rented a cottage on a tulip farm in South Lincolnshire. The setting was pure Dr Zhivago, the isolation of Varykino. I finally recovered, and decided to make a move to academic life, and writing. Fakhry would have approved of that.