Date: Sat, 4 May 2002
On Eel Pie IslandOn Eel Pie Island travellers from India would come
and beguile my mind with tales of the East,
so much so that I longed for the day
when I would set off to that fabled land.
This was the sixties and all was afresh,
all was a-bubbling and the talk was of better life,
often elsewhere but still within reach,
visited maybe by journeys of the spiritual kind,
guided by psychedelia or by gurus from afar.
Our eyes looked up, no longer interested in
traditions wrought by fathers' fathers
that seemed often restrictive, deadening the soul.
Our eyes looked up, outside of ourselves
to worlds and realms tantalisingly new.
India among them floating before my eyes.
Everywhere from Portobello Road, High St. Ken,
down Middle Earth, in bedsits and head shops all,
images of India ghosted through my excited mind
like the promise of a life fulfilled.
Krisna and his milkmaids, Siva and Parvati,
Ganesh with his elephant trunk, they gazed upon me
from posters glimpsed thorough the incense haze.
It seemed to me that in India I would do no wrong,
that I only had to breathe, to fit in.
There all my wrongs would be righted,
my insufficiencies filled.
Yet it was the traveller, returning from India,
who set it all in stone, who made it so attainable.
He had been there and he was flesh and blood
I touched him often for the tingle that was his.
I remember such a one on Eel Pie Island,
an American obviously transformed by experience.
He wore strange bangles, his skin had darkened,
his dress was simple, but so authentically Indian.
His mannerisms were austere, a discipline acquired,
he would not lounge but sat upright, ate with hands,
every movement ritualistic, a serious manner,
seriously transformed by India.
We had been living for a year or two
on Eel Pie Island on river Thames down Twickenham way.
A commune housed in a derelict hotel,
not squatted for we paid our rent to Mr Snapper,
who did not care as long as the money came in.
Twenty or so rooms with floating tenants
numbering sometime up to sixty,
at other times down to a hardy core.
We bubbled with the naivety that only the Sixties had,
declaring no rules, no restriction of any kind.
I remember once we removed all doors
for they were seen as barriers,
until the cold forced us to hang them again.
We were a disparate bunch with disparate ideals.
Some of us held fashionable and political ideas of the time,
often serious young men with beards and glasses.
One or two were anarchists, others there for the ride.
Yet most of us were intoxicated by youthful Sixties ideals,
believing deeply in music, dance, expression of spirit,
exploration of mystic ideas from Jung, Leary, Ram Dass
Zen Flesh Zen Bones and the beautiful Way of White Clouds.
We ate, danced, sang and tripped together
trying with a seriousness that belied our age
to forge a consciousness anew amid what we saw
as the ruins of Twentieth Century Schizoid Man
I remember a few that come vividly to mind.
Dear Lorna now long dead from heroin abuse,
she would walk in my room with her Mandrax eyes
and we would make love in a slow, slow silence.
With her beret and her coyness and sad, sad eyes,
she was a starlet from a Luc Godard movie.
Next door lived Anna, earnest young mother,
beholden to Brennan but in search of another.
Ray, laid back bassist, formerly of Pete Bown,
a Taurean earthiness with an appetite for dope.
Dear Inger and Helle, Scandinavian seekers,
innocence in earnest, practical to a tee.
Cerebral Peter, gushing with ideas of music and art
but often more talk than do.
Sometime imperial, haughty and proud
he flipped out on acid and took to the streets
where he invaded a church during Sunday congregation
and read to the worshippers from the pulpit
a driving licence he had stolen from Jumbo.
His desperate Anthea beside herself with worry
took to dressing in Jim's old clothes,
an attempt to bring him back to her.
I cannot remember when but last I heard
they were still as one and living in LA.
There were others. Irish John wild on guitar,
English John sober on the same.
And Scots John. Why was he there?
His idea of community spirit to get blinding drunk
and fall on little Angie as she rested after work.
I have to give mention to Lancashire Dave,
mad as a brick, mystical gobbledegook,
astrological symbolism in all he saw.
I remember the day when some drunken mods
tipped him headfirst into the Thames.
And how he appeared drenched and shivering
scraggy beard, scraggy hair, old black duffel coat
still ranting, still raving.
Most of these I have lost touch with now.
But the Sixties were coming to an untimely end,
whiffs of aggression were in the air.
The Black Panther movement was on the rise
and politics was replacing our mystic ideals.
The island was visited all too often
by leather clad bikers and those
who appeared as coarse and crude.
It was time to move and in a slow exodus
we headed west as many had done before
to the quiet green hills of Wales
to live the rural life and bake brown bread,
have goats and chickens, to sit round fires
and play guitars - the Incredible String Band our muse.
And that would last until one day Sally hitched down,
inadvertently taking a lift in a plain clothes car.
They smelled the dope and soon returned
warrant in hand to bust us all for smoking in peace.
We lost the house, were put on probation
and moved, some of us, to the ruin at Dolwyllum.
It was not an easy time for we were seen
as city dwellers unused to the sensitive ways
of the country freaks who had lived there for some time.
I was ill at ease and when Consuela rejected me
I packed what little I had and left.
On the Road
Where the road forked a few miles off
I threw the I Ching to decide my way.
It was abroad or to friends, it came up abroad
and I headed east across the plains of England.
I made it down to Dover and from across the channel
to thumb my way to Denmark where Helle lived
and who I knew would give me a bed.
In Germany I sold for food and a place to sleep
my precious copy of Hendrix's Electric Ladyland
till I reached at last the border crossing to Denmark.
After hassles with immigration I arrived in Copenhagen
and from there to Helle's basement flat.
She was off to India and would I like to come.
With no hesitation I agreed.
We hitched on down through Europe
to arrive at the Bosphorus and Istanbul.
From there we took the famed Magic Bus
across the plains and hills of Asia.
I remember Iran as a place of fear,
the eyes of Savak supposedly everywhere.
Thirty years in jail, possibly execution
for possession of a few grams of dope.
We sat cold with apprehension on the bus
peering into the streets of Tehran
for signs of the dreaded secret police.
From Mashad to the border with Afghanistan,
the sighs of relief were palpable.
On to Herat the first town of this rugged land,
with its opium dens and hashish aplenty.
What a strange race these bearded Afghani men.
Smiling, friendly, welcoming even, a contrast
from the fear ridden faces of Iran.
And yet that flash of steel within the smile
to suggest that they are not to be fooled with.
Indeed we had heard that in far off Bamian
two Westerners had been stabbed for some discourtesy.
Best not to stray too far in this wild and remote land.
At about this time I got to know Paul,
traveller on the bus, gentle soul, sitar player,
well travelled on many a magic bus,
on his way as usual to Goa.
Many years later I would see him in a rock and roll band
on the beach at Anjuna in the full, full moon
and a year or two after that I heard of his death
of tuberculosis in Kodei Canal.
Into Pakistan and our introduction to
being hassled and hassled, those staring eyes,
harder for the women aboard the bus.
From bustling cities - Pesharwa and Lahore
onto finally the border with India.
At the little border town as we sat awaiting
interminable immigration formalities,
we saw rising upon the Indian side
the huge red full moon of October.
It sat there hanging in the eastern sky
rich and pregnant with promises of fulfilment.
I can see it now vividly in my mind
and often I think about it.
'Welcome to India' said the friendly Sikh
as he waved us through the border.
at once I felt my clothes of restriction
fall away as my mind called out,
'Made it! Made it! Here at last! Made it'
It was warm, it was magic, everything and more.
I could not believe such a place could exist.
The driver played a Grateful Dead song
and we headed off to New Delhi.
Mrs Colaco's was the place
where New Delhi travellers stayed.
A formidable woman if I remember right,
large, imposing and in control.
Her husband more on the genial side,
with more than a fancy for a drink.
There we met others, many well travelled
with knowledge to share of where to go,
where not to go, what to avoid, what to see.
Thus the network, so valuable in those times
before the onset of Lonely Planet guides.
I had in my mind to travel to Varanasi
to return a bracelet to the Ganges,
a bracelet from India I'd been given on Eel Pie,
one of entwined metals whose head was that of a snake.
Varanasi was in my mind as the holy city,
so many images rested in my head,
formed from books and tales and legends,
that to go there would be initiation
into the magic world that was India.
I would cast the bracelet from the shore
into the waters of the Ganges
while chanting Ganga Ma, Ganga Ma.
As I think on it now it was daft idea
and not without embarrassment
but at that time it had stayed with me
and it was what I had to do.
I told Helle of my plans and that we must part,
something that to this day I feel bad about.
She had fed and housed this penniless soul
and took him on a trip to his promised land.
Now she needed his companionship
and he was off on some strange pursuit
to the exclusion of everything else.
A novice in India, I decided to hitch
the hundreds of miles to Varanasi.
On the edges of Delhi I stuck out my thumb
and waited to be given a lift.
The roads were narrow and ill defined
populated only by trucks, cycles and bullock carts.
I did not see a single car.
eagerly I held aloft my thumb
as the colourful trucks came roaring along.
Some slowed down and curious drivers
peered at the peculiar sight
of a Westerner on the side of their roads
with thumb held high in the morning air.
Yet none would stop.
After some time I was approached
by a curious young man who asked me
what I thought I was doing.
When I explained he pointed out
that the thumb was not recognised
as a request for a lift in India
and that I should try flagging down,
and to make the point he demonstrated
with a waving motion of his arm
before going on his way.
I copied his wave and before long
a largish truck screeched to a halt.
A bearded Sikh peered down at me
and with a smile waved me aboard.
He was a jovial type and soon we were rattling
down the road at a frightening pace.
Trucks, I discovered, hug the centre of the road,
scattering to either side dogs, cows, pedestrians
and should two trucks come face to face,
only seconds before impact do they swerve to the left.
My jovial Sikh asked many a question
about life in the very wealthy west.
He was keen to impress and produced a gun
from somewhere above the dash.
'Dacoits!' He cried. 'Dacoits?' I said.
'Bandits! Many bandits on the road.'
And he waved the gun with gleeful menace.
Inwardly scared I smiled, nodding my approval.
Often we would stop for a wayside chai
in wooden chai shops, ramshackle and dark.
Never would he let me pay but with proud flourish
waved me away and paid the bill.
As I think back now he was the first
of many an intimate acquaintance in this magic land
and I was not to be disappointed.
To be continued (hopefully)