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The Warp

Eel Pie Land

Nell was devoted to London. I however didn’t find it easy to live there. One by-product of our being there was that we were getting involved with its South Western underbelly.

Now the foliage was dark, frondulent in the night. Rain-drenched laurel slashed across our faces. Amidst the bushes, a scuffle of silent fighting, or of love. Ahead, seen through the branches, the hotel, glimmering like a perforated lantern.

Eelpie Island was at that time a dream world of the soft south-western underbelly of London, haven for students, labourers, layabouts, mouldering like something from the American South beside the dry tall trees of the bird sanctuary. The island is half a mile long, in the midst of the Thames at Twickenham.

Club members lounged about the blue and white cracked diagonal tiles in the moonlight in front of the hotel as we approached. Across a small unkempt lawn the Thames waters glided, and across that the lofty trees of Eel Brook Common. The hotel was heavy with collapsing balconies, running round it on the two floor levels, the tiled roof too seemed to be sagging down onto the interior. Beyond, the trees shook in the night wind. We pushed past the youths in the doorway and arrived in the hall where a jukebox blared. The room was crammed, even above the jukebox I could hear the golden beat of the ‘Riverside Jazzband’.

Dave led us through, along a narrow hardboard walled passage to where, at the end, three youths guarded the entrance to the ballroom. Young women in Hawaiian skirts were holding out their wrists to be stamped with ‘EELPIELAND’ and the date. I crushed beside them, stumbled down into the room. It was wild, beautiful. A lovely young woman was dancing in mid floor with a succession of partners, sometimes she collapsed into someone’s arms beneath one of the pillars at the side of the room, then returned to the floor, dancing amid the five hundred odd others.

Dave shouted to me, ‘The boys here have a particular way of jiving, they call it the island jive, and we’re known, people from the island are known when they go somewhere else, by this peculiar flinging their arms and legs about. It’s slow, there’s a handbeat on the offbeat and there’s a lot of stomping.

‘The difference between the actual jiving to mod jazz and trad jazz is that the modernist doesn’t set out to imply that he’s enjoying himself. He doesn’t smile, he doesn’t have a rave, that’s not part of the act, as it were. Both types release the energy you’ve collected during the week. It’s a way of relaxing, you know, and releasing all of the emotions that are pent up inside of you.’

‘The theory is,’ said Ray, ‘that the girls who come here are more intelligent than the girls at the Palais and the modern jazz clubs. This is becoming increasingly untrue as time goes on because all those girls are deserting the Palais and the modern clubs and coming here. But there’s still a few left you can talk to, and until we can find where the really intelligent girls go we’ll just have to keep coming here I suppose.’

Jim, an Irish boy with clear ringing voice, hair cut in a fringe across his forehead and black deep affectionate lost eyes, said, ‘The main reason that I come down here is I think it’s a form of escapism. I am a student, and I’m really fed up with it and the boring job, you know, that I’m having at the moment, and I find that coming down to the island you can relax and you can meet people, all different types of people. The relations with the metropolitan police though are not very friendly. I have found on several occasions when I go out with my girlfriend to go necking in the woods, the police come along, you know, suddenly appear in bushes and from behind trees saying, you know, this is not allowed here, which I find wrong, completely wrong, it’s a bloody liberty actually!

‘This being an island helps you to think you’re going into your own little world with your own people surrounding you.’

‘Some articles came out in the press,’ said Ray, ‘you know, the weekend Mail and News of the World. After that, it was very sad really, hundreds of middle-aged men came down here, left their motors on the shore, with chauffeurs I wouldn’t be surprised, business men, you know, with neatly furled umbrellas. Queueing in the bushes.’

‘What were they queueing for?’

‘Dunno. But some of the pictures in the press were, you know, luscious. Neckin’ in the bushes, you know.’

‘Did they get into the club?’

‘Dunno. Don’t suppose so.’


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