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from A Squandered Life / London '68
Three bar electric heaters were the central heating of the day....
I utilised this freedom to the full as, my trusty "A to Z" in hand, I got to grips with London and the Underground and the differing parts of the great sprawling mass. Apart from Carnaby Street, I didn't go looking for the usual tourist sights. For one thing, Carnaby Street itself was a huge disappointment. Just as in San Francisco, the charm had already worn off and it just seemed grotty and expensive and full of pan-handlers. Instead, I simply found myself wandering into interesting looking streets and lanes and alleyways, following my nose until I got completely lost. Out would come the old "A to Z" and, with an identified street corner, I would become re-oriented and simply lose myself again.
But I also sought out old buddies. My friend Jeremy rang me at my auntie's to establish contact. As luck would have it, I was alone in the house at the time and, picking up the phone I said “Hello”, heard some strange beeping sounds, and hung up. This happened about three times before I waited a little longer, to be rewarded by Jeremy saying, “Don't hang up you bastard.” He was calling from a traditional archaic British phone booth which required him to ring, make contact, and then feverishly stuff coins in before the idiot at the other end, not knowing the score, hung up again. I of course was in stitches but Jeremy was not a happy man. Sixpences were big currency in those days. He had a job with Heinz Foods and lived in a “bedsit” in Ealing and wanted, or had wanted, to invite me over.
The next day I was over there, but I was horrified by his living conditions. I discovered a bedsit was exactly that - a bedroom that doubled as a sitting room, and a kitchen to boot. Manky bath and toilet were down the hall and shared with other bedsitters. He cooked on a two ring Baby Belling electric cooker which glowed menacingly as he poured shillings into an antiquated electricity meter the size and demeanour of an ancient slot machine. Three bar electric heaters were the central heating of the day but one rarely switched on all three bars. We sat huddled in front of his one glowing bar and discussed the shortcomings of the British standard of living. In particular, we reflected with astonishment on the waxy toilet paper to be found in the public lavatories of the nation. “Here they operate on a smear principle rather than on a wipe principle.” he said sagely.
My cousin Henry was now a responsible adult with a job and a flat and an Australian girlfriend. He overcame his shock neatly as he clocked me standing at the bottom of his stairs. He took me to his local for drinks and introduced me to my first Indian meal. His flat seemed small and dark and it was a while before I could see what a bargain it was - located just off the Chalk Farm Road and a stone's throw from Camden Market. I could only see rattling single pane windows and the quaint ever-present electricity meters which consumed enormous amounts of shillings for negligible returns.
My biker friend Alex lived near the Angel tube station with a BBC producer called Charlie and a beautiful hippy chick called Kate. I could never quite figure out how the relationships functioned, but they seemed to work fine. They were very hospitable and welcoming and Alex didn't seem to mind that I wanted to pick his brain about motorcycles again. “You mean a brand new one?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. I was going to get a brand new man-sized British bike and drive around Europe. “Sounds like a plan,” he said. But he advised me against getting a twin. “Twice as many things to go wrong,” he reckoned. But I already new a single wasn't enough. I was hooked on the sound of a British twin, and I didn't like the visually implied imbalance of only one exhaust pipe. That's how my mind worked in those days.
© 2013 Deacon Martin