Johnnersintheraw's Blog

May 21, 2010

Idiot’s Delight

Lost friends and lovers who were there just because they were there.

His name was not Montague. He has been dead for a great many years and all those who knew him are long gone as well.  Who knows why I think about him now and again?  I don’t know.  It’s not that he and I were ever lovers.  But even so I remember him far better, and with far more detail that I remember any of those with whom I did actually share my bed at the time.  In fact, I don’t even remember most of their names – which probably shows how seriously I take my entertainments.  Do I even recall what their faces looked like, or what their bodies looked like, or even whether there was anything special about the parts of their bodies that I had so enthusiastically fondled?   Where have they gone, those ghosts of the flats and rooms in Cadogan Gardens and Kinnerton Street, and Gloucester Road and Courtfield Road, as well as all those other streets and crescents and terraces in which my willy ran rampant, but in which I never ever fell in love?  I simply cannot conjure up a single one.  Not even the better parts of the very best of them.  I don’t recall what cafes or restaurants we frequented, or the clubs or the new boutiques that were springing up along the King’s Road.  For I was not a Carnaby Street sort of person.  We were Mary Quant and Biba – back when Biba was a tiny shop, and long before it grew into its present megalith in what was in those far-off days, Derry & Tom’s, on the Kensington High Street.  There was another new boutique on the King’s Road – Queen – but, unlike most of the others, I still can picture it and remember its founder’s name.  Glenda.  Glenda SomethingorOther. Glenda, who – or so I was told by a mutual friend, Leon – fancied me enough to go to bed with me, but she wasn’t going to wait for me forever.  At least that’s what Leon said.  He also made it clear that she was getting fed up, because I wasn’t taking the hint.  And although I seem to recall that she was tall and dark and, of course, had hair like Mary Quant’s, it didn’t occur to me to test out Leon’s theory. Why should I?  Although I didn’t say so at the time, it was really Leon I fancied; not her.  In fact, I was – if not exactly drooling – desperately hoping that Leon would go to bed with me. He was more to my taste than Glenda (but he never took my hint, either).  What I realise now was, although it may have been at the end of the swinging sixties and in the middle of the sexual revolution, homosexuality was not something one talked about.  I never knew there were such creatures as openly gay people.  As far as I was concerned, I was straight.  We were all straight, no matter what else we did.     

Around about the time of Leon and Glenda and the many others who were floating in and out of my radar, Leon and I and a couple of others were sharing a flat on the Cromwell Road, more or less across from what was then the West London Air Terminal – the bus terminal from which one caught coaches to Heathrow Airport.  For Gatwick, then as now, one caught a train at Victoria Station.  But nobody in my crowd would ever think of flying out of Gatwick, any more than they would flying by BEA.  Any more than one would move far enough to the west of Gloucester Road so that one’s telephone exchange drifted over to the dark side.  In other words: FRObisher.  FREmantle was as far west as any one us ever went.  And as far as Chelsea was concerned, no one ever lived in the wilderness beyond the point where one turned south to Cheney Walk.  Distant World’s End was no man’s land, well past the end of civilised man.  Only swamp creatures lived there.  And rats.

I don’t really know how I met Leon and Glenda and that crowd.  I suppose as young people have always done, we simply drift together.  None of us were Beetles fans, but we all partied with the Rolling Stones and with the wonderful Marianne Faithful, who now lives in Ireland and sings the songs of Brecht and  Weill in a raspy, lived-in voice – like no one else since Lotte Lenya.  At the time I knew her (and I didn’t know her well), she was recording albums and playing Irina in The Three Sisters at the Royal Court Theatre.  Or perhaps it was Ophelia.  I can’t remember which.  I only remember her as being very lovely and very special and that her face always wore a wistful expression.  I believe her father taught some subject or other at the London School of Economics and that her mother was Austrian – or something like that – but that her parents were separated.  Something not as usual then as it is now. 

Leon never did show any interest in me, and neither did one of our other flatmates – the one who used to answer the door naked and with an erection in case the caller happened to be his girlfriend.  And although I don’t remember this flatmate’s name or even his face, I do remember his penis, but mostly because it was circumcised and I was – at the time – more attracted to the other kind.  But you have to remember that in the days before Princess Diana, circumcision was the way to go if you were middle-class or upwardly mobile. It was something that – if not universal – was taken for granted. 

We had another on-again/off-again flatmate, whose name was Nicky.  Nicky was incredibly cute with one of those perfectly proportioned bodies that are a gift from God, and which he certainly hadn’t earned himself.  And he had a face to go with it.  I seem to remember at the time he was sleeping with most of the girls in our crowd,  but no one was ever jealous of Nicky, for he was gentle and he was kind and he never took himself seriously, and he had a great sense of fun.  I cannot for the life of me recall what Nicky did for a living.  I rather think Leon did something or other in the city, for I remember him leaving every morning in a suit. And the same holds with the other flatmate as well – the one with the circumcised penis but with nothing else to remember him by. But Nicky?  I have no idea.  You see, none of us ever talked about our work or our plans for the future, or even anything to do with our pasts.  Of course, it had everything to do with all of us having at least a certain amount of money.  Plus the fact that the late sixties and early seventies were, indeed, a ‘different country’.  And for our little group – and for groups like us – such ‘inconveniences’ as social upheaval and student rioting and endless strikes were not even a blip on our radar.  In other words, we were straight out of one of Evelyn Waugh’s novels.

Most nights, all of us slept in the same bed, an enormous affair that stretched from one side of the bedroom to the other. Way over on one side, right next to the window, there would be the nameless flatmate with his girlfriend, making love all night every night without uttering a single sound.  Not even a moan or a squeak.  I used to wonder how they did it, and I also wondered if they actually enjoyed it.  It certainly went on long enough (the phrase ‘forever and ever’ often passed through my mind), but there was scarcely even any movement on their side of the bed.  The only thing I could think of was that neither of them knew much about what they were doing, for although we were in the middle of sexual revolution, as far as I know there no such things as a sex education class.  Mostly one talked to one’s own doctor, but I don’t think most doctors knew much about orgasms or how to achieve them.  They would simply hum and haw and give you a little pamphlet. However, everyone seemed to be doing ‘it’, but the ‘it’ they were doing was pretty much hit and miss.

That was also about the time when LSD was easily had, and everybody knew someone who knew   how to get it.  And, even more importantly, everyone – at least in our crowd – was very careful where they got it, trusting no one but their regular source (which was probably the first person they saw on the street that didn’t look like ‘the fuzz’). Nobody ever took it alone.  I never knew anyone who ever had a really bad trip, which only shows how lucky we were.

Now, I have always been on the outside of things and never really part of a crowd.  And lucky for me I have never been interested enough in drugs to actually find out how and where to obtain them.  For if truth be told, that whole scene bored me.  It was all foreplay, followed by a letdown – very much a case of “Is That All There Is?”  Where some things are concerned, it is better to be bored than dead.

However, in this case, the purveyor was none other than the black-suited, nameless flatmate.  The one with the circumcised penis.   

I do remember one night, and it was obviously on a Saturday, because no one in the flat had to be up early the next day for work.  All of us – Leon and Nicky and the nameless flatmate and I – together with all the riffraff that routinely crashed on the floor – took our tabs and settled in to wait for something to happen.  On the top of the television set was a sculpture formed by the intertwining chrome-plated bumpers of three cars.  We called it ‘George’ – for, after all, it was like a member of our household and (unlike that one flatmate) had to have a name.  Eventually, of course, we all got stoned; we turned up the music and at least pretended to act like stoned people act (although – to tell the truth – all of our trips together were depressingly boring and middle class, as befits a group of sons and daughters of mothers who made jams for the Women’s Institute).  At about two in the morning, ‘it’ happened.  For no particular reason except perhaps it was the only object of interest in the room, everyone started to concentrate on ‘George’.  And we concentrated and chanted and concentrated some more and, all of a sudden, ‘George’ apparently became offended by our laughing at him.  For he fell apart and collapsed into several chrome-plated segments on the floor.  And we could never put him together again.  We had killed him! Anyway, that was that as far as the trip was concerned. As so, of course, we all piled on to the one enormous wall-to-wall bed in the  bedroom, where the nameless flatmate immediately and without preamble launched into one of his all-night-long sexual ‘encounters’ with his girlfriend.  And the two girls next to Nicky – who obviously did  know a thing or two about orgasms – proceeded to do things to him which made him produce a great many very loud noises indeed, and which resulted in his leaping from the bed, clutching himself desperately, and making a mad dash for the loo.

Six months or so later I took a mews flat in Kinnerton Street, Belgravia, in a remarkable old Mews house that is sadly no longer there (it was just a few steps away from what was then the smallest pub in London).  For a short while, Nicky moved in with me and  into my wobbly narrow bed.  And for a time we did very nice things together.  But then, as with all things, he moved on and I moved on, and the next time I saw him was a few years later in Piccadilly Circus, in front of Boots the Chemist. He was still as beautiful as ever, but he had grown out of his youthfulness and was now a handsome young man.  And what is more, he had a young woman beside him.  He introduced her as his fiancé and it was obvious they were very much in love.  In other words, Nicky had grown up and moved on.

Somewhere along the line, I did have one or two more encounters (neither of them sexual) with Glenda, and both of them in tandem with her mother.  One was for Glyndebourne, and the other for the racing at Royal Ascot.  In both cases I was asked to be their escort, and since the mother was footing the bill, and since the Ascot meeting included passes to the Royal Enclosure, plus hotel and meals and free everything, I said, “Yes!” Besides, I had the clothes.

  Glyndebourne was, of course, wonderful and relaxing.  Glenda’s mother had ordered our hampers from Fortnum’s, and so our picnics were a delight.  Royal Ascot, however, was another matter. 

Glenda’s mother had booked seats on the special train, and had checked all her luggage with the conductor before we boarded.  Unfortunately, the special train to Ascot – then as now – is a somewhat crowded affair, and it is not uncommon for luggage to be lost.

Well, we arrived on schedule, but there was no sign of Glenda’s mother’s hat boxes.  And you see, she had brought enough hats for two changes a day for the entire week.  One of her suitcases did arrive, but the others – along with the hat boxes and the lovely bespoke hats nestled within them, were never seen again.  Believe me, it was a miserable week. I spent so much time with the mother prowling around Windsor and trying to find a couple of extra decent-looking hats for her to wear, that I missed all the racing – even the Gold Cup!  And the mother was so devastated that she spent all the rest of her time in the bar getting drunk. And Glenda deserted us and went back to London in a huff.  I always wondered if any of those striking miners and rioting students ever spared a thought for the misery that I was going through! 

It was also around about this time that I met Montague.  I was working at a small film studio in London doing continuity and acting as general dog’s body for some awful horror flic.  One day, when I was eating lunch in my small office-cum-storeroom (the ‘lunch’, by the way, consisted of rare roast beef, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and the only cabbage I’ve ever eaten which can be called ‘orgasmic’ – the producer of the film may have been  lousy producer, but he was an amazing cook and always made us lunch – as a way to make up for the niggardly salaries we were being paid) when a very elegant elderly gentleman with a goatee peered in a me and  asked  if I would like to share his bottle of wine (a very fine claret from, I believe Lynch Bages).  Needless to say, I said, “Yes!”  And thus began quite a strange and wonderful friendship.

At the time, Montague was working on some television production or other which was in another sound stage around the corner.  He had seen me around and since at the time I was always well-dressed and well-mannered, he thought he would like to get to know me better.  And so he invited me to lunch at his tiny little house south of the Thames.  It became a standing invitation that lasted for about three years.

At the time, Montague was seventy-two; I was twenty-two and only recently down from university – from which I had qualified in nothing at all.  In the roaring twenties he had been a playboy dilettante and nightclub singer in France – both in Paris and – during the season – on the Cote d’Azur.    When the Wall Street crash came in 1929, he – like most of the expats – found that their meagre talents were not wanted.  So he returned to London, only to find that his father and mother – who had previously been living in a large house in St. John’s Wood, were now living in that part of London known as Brixton. Theirs was a tiny house, but into it they managed to squeeze everything of value that they had managed to salvage.

By the time that I met him, his parents were long-since dead, but he had remained in the house and had kept it like a time-capsule. Not in honour of his father and mother, but because – even though it was small and in a tumbledown part of the city,  the cramped, airless rooms held memories of elegance and beauty that – in the world outside those four walls – had largely disappeared.  The chandeliers were still lit by gas, he still bathed in a copper tub in front of the coal-fired kitchen range, and on every wall were the exotic rain forests and animals of William Morris.  And having myself grown up surrounded by William Morris, I felt very much at home.

After several weeks of swapping tales and getting to know each other, Montague mentioned that he was in the throes of writing his memoirs.  Would I like to work with him as a sometime ghost-writer-come-commentator?  And, if so, would I be free to live in Paris for six or eight months.  To which, of course, I said, “Yes!”  I believe we left the next week.

Now, the whole of our little collaboration deserves an episode of its own, but let us just say that it was glorious fun.  And not only because he was a delightful human-being, but that he himself had never grown up, and enjoyed anything and everything that came his way.

When Montague had been strutting around in his white tie and tails in the twenties, so too had a very very remarkable assortment of people, many of which were still very much alive. And that is why we were in Paris.  Among those in my new ‘circle’ were Man Ray, Dali, Josephine Baker, Jean Renoir, Ionesco (who I later was lucky enough to work with), Jean Wiener and, of course, the amazing Stephane Grappelli (who, incidentally, made the best marinara I have ever tasted).  There were, of course, many others, many of whom – being extremely French about the whole business of aging – had taken to their beds and entertained us from the midst of dozens of faded, hand-painted cushions.

During our stay, Montague and I rented a couple of rooms on top of a brothel on the rue Houdon.  However, since that delirious place became so much a part of my life for so many months and had so much character of its own, it too shall be given a later hearing. For now, let me just say that ‘Madame’ – who was eternally encased in corsets and rustling black bombazine – was the most outrageously respectable woman I have ever encountered in the course of a life of encountering outrageously respectable women.  Every inch of her considerable bulk fairly quivered with respectability. In other words, she was a born Concierge.  And it is also worth noting that, right across the street from the house was a girl’s school.

I loved every bit of that year!

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