‘Lord Rowland of Chelsea’, a tall gaunt beat of some standing, whose hair fell down his shoulders in lovely colpons, was our guide.
‘Let’s pull out then,’ he said. ‘Listen, Jerry, watch it carefully, will you? The Dicks have been around again, and journalists too, you know, trying to make the scene, you know, so play it cool till you get the feel of it.’
We continued to stride at great speed through the darkened streets. Crates of garbage stood on the pavement.
A young man was sorting through them, transferring old vegetables into a sodden paper bag. ‘Ah,’ said Rowland, ‘There’s a beat. There’s your first genuine beat.’ The beat wore boots, blue jeans, filthy dirty and riddled with holes, roller-necked brown jumper, and black duffle coat. His hair was cut in a low fringe just above his eyes, rising to a thin parting from ear to ear at the top of his skull, cascading down in luxuriant black curls two inches over his dirty collar at the back. ‘Dicks have been round again,’ he said. He spat.
We turned a corner and now the street was thick with beats, lounging against walls, poking through dustbins, some short like the one I’d spoken to, others tall and impassive like scarecrows. Most of them had the haircuts I’d previously noticed, though a few had beards or the more conventional Presley sideburns. Pushing through them we entered a pub. It was crammed. A scattering of kid girls wore the same outfit as the men, only cleaner, their hole-filled jeans washed to faded blue and letting through chinks of white thigh, their gold hair falling over torn duffles in fairly clean cascades.
Rowland said, ‘They scrub their jeans for days to get them that real sick colour, then they get a cig or a razor to put the holes in ‘em. Then they fray ‘em at the ends. But not all of them here are real beats. A load of just weekend variety.’
Introductions took place; ‘Raich from South Ken ... Bill from Liverpool ... Sol from Denver ... Jim from Belfast ... Bunter and Mike from Poplar ... And this is Jerry and Rog.’
‘You coming to the party tomorrow on the circle?’
‘No, me I’m pulling out for Liverpool, this scene’s gotten to be a drag.’
‘Liverpool’s a drag.’
‘Everything’s a drag.’
‘Man, I could use five shillings.’
Rowland said, ‘This like is dying. They’ve all gone down to the seaside. I’m pulling out. I’ve been here too long. This mate of mine and me are going to Alderney, stay there a season, live off the land.’
‘What will you live on?’
‘There’s a dug out there that the Jerries put up, and real swinging people, they give you bread.’
A drawled voice said, ‘... so then I went up to Tewkesbury, I rode the trucks for many nights. Picked up a chick in a youth hostel in Manchester. Had a rave right up to Hull, then she pulled out.’
A pleasant looking bearded character broke into the group. ‘How are we all doing here?’ he asked. ‘Man, I can tell you how I’m doing. I’m high,’ he said, smiling sweetly and continuously. ‘Man, I’m high on nothing. On nothing. I’ve been eating, sleeping, and things.’
I took another look round the room. Some of the girls were wearing floursacks with armholes, prominently smeared with Ban the Bomb insignia. A white-faced boy wearing black corduroy leaned across, ‘Hey, where’s the party?’ he asked, as a young man with a Grecian look jumps up and seems about to leave us.
‘Dunno,’ said the Greek, disappearing.
‘He does,’ said Rowland.
‘Thought you had the address,’ said Diane. Strictly at odds with her beat appearance, she had a smooth rather ‘Kensingtonian’ voice.
‘Not the address,’ said Rowland. He explained: ‘If anyone gives a party then they take care to circulate a false address. So that everyone doesn’t crowd it out. By the way, you coming out tomorrow night to this party on the metro? Gonna be a rave. Sick Mick’ll be there.’
‘Who’s Sick Mick?’
‘He’s one of the big raving characters. We also call him Spastic Mick. That’s because he’s always thinking out these sick jokes and telling them to people.’
Later that night we returned along the decrepit street to a semi-derelict house of the late Georgian period. The door giving onto the street creaked back on heavy hinges and the cold snuff of a direlict house wafted out to us. ‘Mind the corrugated iron,’ said Rowland, as we clanked heavily across a sheet lying directly under the door. Absolute darkness along the narrow passage. There was an oppresive reek of damp and excrement.
‘Why the corrugated iron?’
‘Oh, they put it up to keep us out. Now the boys leave it there so that they won’t be surprised.’
‘Oh, I dunno. Council. Police. Now there’s stairs. O.K. Now the bottom two steps are gone. O.K. Jump!’
In the dark cellar room directly to the left at the bottom, my first impression was the gorgeous blaze of several chairs and banisters burning in a toothless brick chimney whose surrounds have gone. Several floorboards had also been ripped up, for a similar purpose. A fantastic tramp-like figure was leaning, with eccentric flourish, one grimy hand against the brick breast above the fireplace, the other holding a frying pan containing porridge. Five or six other shadowy figures were crouched in the furniture-less floorboard-lacking room. One easy chair remained.
‘How’s Irish Mick?’ shouted Rowland.
Long-haired, savage looking, he sang as he tended the fire, tossing on more banisters. Periodically he withdrew his saucepan and filled it from a drizzle of water down the wall. His old filthy shirt, open to the waist, flopped over his gaunt mis-shapen chest. The characters down here, I noticed, were different from those I had seen in the pub. They were real tramps or dossers, men of about 50 to 60 years old.
‘Fawkin’ law been down again!’ shouted Irish Mick. ‘Said we got no fawkin’ place to be here. My fawkin’ grandmother was the last fawkin’ woman to be hung in fawkin’ Oirland.’
‘He’s God,’ said Rowland. ‘Tell us how you first found out you were God.’
‘It was when he prayed and found he was talking to himself,’ said Rowland. Another dosser asked, ‘You sleeping here for a rave or because you have to?’
A gaunt figure with curls round his off-white collar said, ‘People expect extraordinary things to happen here, but nothing ever happens at all. They come to the door asking for the black mass.’
Another dosser entered. He wore plus fours. His yellow-grey hair radiated from his head like sunrays. He seemed overwhelmed at what he saw. ‘Oh no! Last time I was here this was a decent place! Furniture! Chairs to sit on! Pictures! Radio!’
He turned and addressed the room angrily. ‘What have you done with them?’
‘Burnt the fawkers.’
‘Yes, what I mean is, it was a decent house –‘
‘Yes, before these beatniks moved in ...’
We fumbled our way back up the shattered staircase to ground level. ‘That’s the studio, want to look in?’ I peered through a door into a room lit by one candle, containing dirty mattresses, about fifteen people, a radio. Two girls were dancing in mid floor.
‘Who’s house is this?’ I asked as we continued up the stairs.
Rowland explained. The owner met a beat in a coffee bar and got on well with the charming young man. As he had to go abroad for a month and the charming young man had nowhere to go, he asked if he would like to stay there to look after it while he was away. The only mistake that he made was that he didn’t realise that the young man was a beat, or didn’t completely understand beat habits. No sooner was he across the channel than the beat let in fourteen of his friends who also had nowhere to go. Each of these asked three or four others, and to make ends meet they began to sell small items, the telly, books, saucepans, furniture. By the time I arrived, most people in the house had sleeping bags, and the house was stripped.
‘And doesn’t he know?’
‘No. He’s travelling.’
‘Can’t he be reached?’
‘No. We keep getting postcards from Rome, Naples, through his own letterbox. “Having a wonderful time.”’
We groped our way up further darkened staircases. More corrugated iron on the stairs. When we banged on the door a voice said, ‘Who is it?’
‘We don’t want him in here.’
‘He’s alright. Let him in.’
We arrived at a minute garret at the top of the house. Old packing cases smouldered in the grate. The tiny window was stuffed with pillows. Some of the floorboards were missing in there as well. I counted eleven people lying on dirty mattresses on the floor.
We huddled ourselves on the filthy floor, leaning our backs against the whitewashed wall. A couple of comely girls in tweeds stood by the fireplace. ‘Better stake your claim now,’ said Rowland. ‘Maybe filling up later on.’ In the further corner a group was passing a reefer between them, drawing at it with hissing breath. A fresh hammering on the door and the bearded character I saw before came in. ‘Man, am I high! I’m pulling out to Liverpool.’
Rowland said, ‘There’s a market outside. We get the vegetables from the gutter when it’s closed, boil them up into a fabulous stew.’
A dosser, unexpectedly caught in the wrong room, snored a little as he slept on pieces of newspaper.
‘Hope the law doesn’t come tonight,’ said the tweeded girl. ‘Mummy said she was going to ring the police.’
Two hours later it had grown cold. Many people were asleep in the tiny room. A character in the corner was thudding lightly with his fingers on an African talking drum. ‘You ought to pack in that drum,’ said someone. ‘That’s what’s bringing them up here.’ People had been packing into the room for some time now, more had been turned away. Another room had been colonised next door. The drum continued to talk quietly.
‘What do you think of that crowd downstairs?’
Someone said with scornful distaste, ‘Beats listening to the top twenty!’
‘You ever had Amyl Nitrate?’
‘The boys use it to get high.’
‘Is it something you sniff?’
‘You’re meant to sniff it. Actually we break it, you get it a hundred percent stronger. It’s a rave. You can’t stop laughing. Rolling about. It’s a rave. Like to try some?’
‘Can we? At this time of night?’
‘Sure. Boots in Picadilly.’
We strolled over to Picadilly and bought some. The four and sixpenny tin contained twelve glass capsules.
‘Irish Mick is one of the great characters,’ said Rowland. ‘He used to always foul up the toilet. Then one night he said, “I’ve seen a big light. If God made the toilet, then he must clean up the toilet!”’
‘That’s a dick,’ said Rowland, pointing out a thin-faced youth in a mackintosh sitting, legs astride, reading. ‘He’s a dick but he don’t know we know it.’
Two policewomen came in and stood in the centre of the room talking. Then they beckoned to the youth and he went out. ‘They’re going to pump him for information.’
The jukebox sang:
I ain’t going home no more no more
No more no more no more no more
Back in the derelict house Lord Rowland distributed the capsules. We sat round in a circle and each broke open a capsule and stuffed it up our nostrils, wheezing, taking deep breaths. The talking drum pattered persistently. At once I began to feel ill. Rowland lay back, artificially laughing. The grotesque candle-lit figures leaned forward then back as they gasped at the Amyl Nitrate. A girl rose up from the floor, clasping the capsule to her nose and began to undulate in the centre. Everyone was wheezing, laughing.
The old dosser woke, peered up at the high jibbering laughing circle and the twitching undulating girl with blank astonishment. He lived in a world where people do skippers in ruins because they have to.
Jeremy Sandford FanClub Archives
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