Extracts. The Singer’s Tale. Roots.
War Bombs Marches and listening to Music. 1962-1963. CND. Activism.
We have been here before and before and before
‘When will we ever learn?’
The Hospital I was born on April 7th, 1944
‘Please, Please me.’ The Beatles.
She liked it and thought that George Harrison was rather lovely. She played the Jazz records that Fred had given her, Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk and remembered that she had wanted to be a Beat. Poetry and Jazz, did Liverpool Beat Groups cut it?
‘Make up your own Mind!’
Jazz Beatles? Beatle Jazz?
‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’ and ‘Un-square Dance’, not four on the floor; rhythms she had not felt before, she liked it, danced to it without trying to analyse what it was. It was simply seductive.
The music of Thelonious Monk, the Piano keys sounding like they were being pounded with passion, exciting and dangerous, Blue Monk, Monks Dream and Round Midnight. She had not pleased Fred or the traveling salesman, she had not pleased the Lowestoft Family, or the Pointers or the dreadful Dowes and her family were far away and barely acknowledged her existence, she had not pleased anybody really, she may as well please herself.
One afternoon when the autumn weather could not make up its mind she walked into the cafe by the Station. It was her half day, October 14th, nineteen sixty-two. She had heard a fragment of ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ that morning on the radio, and it had unsettled her. What was it? She was eighteen years old, and the War baby had heard War talk.
On that day, the world seemed to be frozen on its axis, poised, like the air before a storm, as Russian Nuclear Missiles, ninety miles off the Florida coast, generated a global crisis so utterly alarming people could talk of nothing else. Voices filled the streets, the pubs, offices and factories and this coffee bar where she sat on that long afternoon.
She felt in her coat pocket for the bar of Cadburys milk chocolate she always liked to have at hand. Stuffing two squares into her mouth she remembered the time she had run away, remembered the policeman who had picked her up, sat her on the high wooden counter in Lewisham Police Station and given her a square of chocolate for the first time, oh bliss, and that was that. In times of trouble, when all was not well in her heart, she ate chocolate. Fred was gone, his dad had died, and he had gone to London, gone to fight the system, he said, gone to find a girl who would give him some loving.
A cacophony and then a murmur and back again. It climbed the walls, dropped from the ceiling, sneaked across the floor and crawled up into her head. Words. Strange words. Words she had not heard before. Nuclear War, Missile Crisis, Atomic Age, pollution and radioactive danger, World War Three, Committee of one hundred. Ban The Bomb. She sat at her table as if she were witnessing a grotesque and terrifying drama caught in slow motion. The world was about to be blown to smithereens.
The feeling crept under her skin and into her veins like some unwanted nauseous disease. She ate some more chocolate and ordered another cup of coffee. In the background, a radio tuned to The BBC The Home Service; Oxbridge voices, serious and solemn. The Gaggia gurgled and hissed spitting steam, making cups of frothy coffee as cutlery rattled, as the door continuously opened and closed and chairs scraped across the wooden floor, as people arrived and joined friends at already crowded tables.
The Jazz and Folk music that usually flowed from a Dansette Record Player that sat on a shelf behind the counter was silent. No Miles Davis, or Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan or Joan Byas. Posters for jazz and poetry events pinned the walls, leaflets for political meetings, musical instruments sat upon shelves and hung from the ceiling, guitars, mandolins, violins, a tuba, a banjo and an old French horn. All hung silently as if waiting for a musician to stroll in and pick one at random and begin to play. Books were stacked in dusty corners, bottles with candles, the wax droppings around the green glass as thick as clotted cream.
On that afternoon she picked at the wax until she had a little wax-mountain pile on the table. She swept it all into her bag. It was pouring a hard rain outside, and a dank smell mingled with the coffees and teas, cheese on toasts, eggs, and chips as rain wet wool dried in the steamy heat the hats, duffel coats and scarves lay draped over chair backs as little puddles of water gathered beneath umbrellas in a stand by the door and blue cigarette smoke curled about the cafe more densely than was usual.
Marooned in her corner, fenced in by chairs and tables, she watched and waited. For what she didn’t know; something, a sign that this was a bad dream, or a hand to reach out to bring her into company but the tables were full of people who knew each other, heads close, an arm around a shoulder here, a hand held there, and so she remained at a corner table with a cup of tea and the remains of a currant bun on the one chair that remained, the three that had made up a neat four had been taken away to other tables.
‘I’m dying here; hey I’m DYING HERE.
She shivered, somebody, stomping on her grave?
‘The bomb will drop. Duck under the table. Do you think they hear you? Do you think they care?’
Two hours passed and people began to drift away, judging by the conversations as goodbyes and hugs took place, to their families, to friends or lovers, and she remained in her corner as condensation dripped down the windows in erratic streams obscuring the shadowy figures outside. She felt as if the whole world was crying; drip dripping and drowning itself into oblivion and she felt unable to summon the will to walk her legs out into the street. Someone had drawn a face with a finger in the wetness of the glass, and it was sliding downwards, a smile slipping on a melting face.
Then, the sun appeared from behind a cloud and raindrops glistened on the other side of the face. Puddles outside on the road shone with petrol rainbow brilliance. She ordered another coffee, more froth than coffee. The man behind the counter said, in a gentle sort of way as he draped a tea towel over the coffee maker, and began stacking chairs upon tables.
‘We’re closing soon.’
The sky darkened again like someone had switched off the all the lights in the world. And in a month or so London and the south-east would be in the grip of a very cold winter and like 1947 the sea would freeze once more in Kent. Except for today, it felt like the last day in the world. Gathering inside her stomach was another battle, and as she gathered her bag, her coat her hat she ran without looking back.
He didn’t take her money. In that running, an unbearable sense fear took her, as she knew with absolute certainty, that if the world was about to come to an end, she had nowhere to run to, and no one to run to.
In the Easter of 1963, I marched with friends for two days to London and Trafalgar Square. The world had not ended on that day in a Coffee Bar.