The establishment we know today as Wandsworth Prison was opened in 1851 as the New Surrey House of Correction. Men, women, and children—some as young as seven years old—served sentences there of between seven days and two years, with or without hard labour. The Surrey magistrates responsible for the institution decided that it should operate a new system of discipline known as the Separate System. The basic premise was that all communication between prisoners was forbidden, and this would act as a considerable deterrent. However inmates would have contact with the prison chaplain as well as various teachers and instructors of trades, and this was supposed to ensure that the punishment of imprisonment would be tempered by some real rehabilitation of the offenders.
Prisoners were let out of their cells for around one hour per day for exercise; some of them had to perform hard labour turning cranks to pump water, or grind corn. Others were required to work in the laundry or kitchen, or clean the prison. While out of their cells, strict silence was observed and the prisoners wore masks over their faces to prevent other prisoners recognizing them. For religious worship on a Sunday, masks were considered inappropriate, so in order to effect separation the chapel was fitted with 400 vertical coffin-like structures with one prisoner inside each. Only their heads and shoulders were visible, and the sides and back of the ‘coffin’ prevented them from seeing or communicating with their neighbour...
Most prisoners would spend twenty-three hours of each day in their cell. There they slept, washed, ate, and worked, and a few of them studied. Work could be picking oakum—shredding old rope for use in caulking—shoe making or mat making. Prisoners on hard labour were provided with a labour machine. This consisted of a crank turning a wheel, which was fitted with weight-operated brakes to make it hard to turn. Around 12,000 revolutions per day were usually required to ensure three meals per day...
An obvious consequence of near twenty-four hour occupation of the cells, was that heating and lighting were needed during the winter months, and sanitary arrangements had to be provided all year round. Wandsworth prison had around 750 cells when it opened in 1851. With the exception of a few punishment cells, each one was air-conditioned and heated, lit by gas, and had en suite facilities and room-service. The prison was plumbed throughout for water—pumped by the prisoners from a deep well into tanks on the prison roof. There was also a small gasworks providing coal gas for lighting in the cells and elsewhere. In the corner of each cell was a lavatory pan complete with ‘soil trap’ with the output connected to a down-pipe which emptied into storage tanks. Water from a tap filled a washbasin, which drained into the lavatory; water for ‘flushing’ was provided by a separate pipe plumbed into the pan. The contemporary illustration shows the layout of a typical cell with the prisoner working the ‘Crank’ labour machine. The room service was a bell pull which operated a bell and little flag outside the cell to indicate which bell had been sounded. The warders were required to operate the water taps in order not to waste water, and very probably provide a light for the gas lighting.
There was much debate in the press and elsewhere regarding both the merits of the Separate System and the efficiency of its practical implementation. The use of masks outside the cells was abandoned after a few years as being both impractical and ineffective. A report to Hampshire magistrates in 1861 regarding the stalls in their chapel at Winchester, stated that each one was covered in obscene graffiti, and the prisoners ‘whispered’ to each other during services; sometimes they made a ‘great noise’. Shortly afterwards, the stalls were removed. Perhaps there was better control at Wandsworth; their individual chapel-stalls were not removed until 1880.
However, urban myth number 492, which I have seen repeated on numerous web pages and in print, is that the lavatories were removed from the cells at Wandsworth ‘in the 1870s’ and replaced with ‘slopping out’ pails in order to free up space for multiple occupancy. It is quite clear from the picture that the lavatory occupied just a corner of the cell; no more room, in fact, than a slopping out pail. Furthermore, when beds were finally added to the cells—previously the prisoners had slept in hammocks strung between hooks in the walls—they were bunk beds. These took up no more room on the floor than a single bed, and present day pictures of cells at Wandsworth show that they were placed along the wall where the labour machine stood. Reference to the reports of the inspectors of prisons shows that the individual lavatories in cells were removed from Wandsworth between 1885 and 1886. But two years later, the record shows that separation was in most cases still adhered to, with the average number of prisoners very close to the number of cells. Exceptions were ‘the mentally affected’, and those suffering from depression or physical infirmity; they were deliberately accompanied by an able-bodied prisoner for companionship and assistance. Furthermore, overall prisoner numbers were falling, and since 1877 the prisons had been under national government, rather than county, control. Excessive numbers could be shipped around the country to wherever there was room.
So if the lavatories were not removed to make room for more prisoners, why were they taken away? The answer is simple and prosaic: they didn’t work...
(Those of a sensitive disposition might wish to skip the next few paragraphs...) Virtually everyone in the so-called ‘developed’ world uses a flushing lavatory with a cistern. In times of drought, we used to be exhorted to put a house brick in our lavatory cistern to reduce the amount of water used in each flush. Most lavatories these days have a double-flush facility, allowing the use of less water when ‘solids’ are not present. But anyone who has used a flushing lavatory knows that there are occasionally times when two or even three flushes are insufficient to remove the offending material. Then, and in the absence of Billy Connolly’s famous ‘Jobbie Weecha’ (Google it if you have no idea what this means; his speculation is hilarious), it is necessary to resort to desperate measures, frequently to the extreme embarrassment of the person concerned.
The pioneers of modern flushing lavatories—take a bow Thomas Crapper—realized early on that proper, consistent, and hygienic operation required a large volume of water to be delivered in a short time. The main reason for this is that ‘solids’ have to negotiate the famous ‘U’ bend. The U bend is necessary since it provides a water seal against unpleasant smells emanating from the sewer. The early sanitary engineers recognized this issue, but for them far more important than ‘unpleasant smells’ was the ‘miasma’ theory of disease transmission. This was the belief that foul air could carry infectious diseases like cholera.
The design adopted for the units in the prison is shown in the picture. A variation of this arrangement, known as a ‘bottle’ trap, tends to be used for sinks and wash-hand basins today; it takes up less space than a U bend and operates quite satisfactorily with liquids. A smooth U bend without joins, as used in all modern lavatory pans, offers a minimum of mechanical resistance to solids. It is clear from the picture that that is not the case with the ‘soil pans’ used in the prison. In fact the whole story becomes clear from the illustration—which is from a book published in 1844 by Colonel Joshua Jebb, the designer of Pentonville prison and consultant for Wandsworth.
The units were manufactured in two parts—the joins and fixing points are clearly visible—probably because they were easier to fabricate that way (and also to enable them to be disassembled in order to deal with ‘blockages’). The first thing to notice is the inefficiency of the trap itself, and the strong likelihood of blockages. The bottom of the vertical part barely touches the water, and while this reduces to some extent the chicane effect of the trap, it means that the seal is barely made. Any variation in the manufacturing process, or a poorly assembled (or reassembled) unit could easily break the water seal rendering it ineffective. The two dots near the top of the unit are not faults in the printing process, but the inputs for two water pipes—one is the drain from the wash-hand basin, the other is water for flushing. From one of the other drawings in the book, it is clear that the larger hole is the connection for water for flushing, which comes directly from the pipes with no cistern to provide an adequately large and rapidly-flowing volume of water. A contemporary report from Pentonville, which used the identical system as Wandsworth, states that the ‘water closets’ were replaced by ‘communal, evil-smelling “recesses” because they were constantly getting blocked...’
On the question of the effectiveness of the Separate System of prison discipline itself, it was observed even before 1850—after Pentonville had been operating the Separate System for some years—that the process of isolating the prisoners from their fellows resulted in a rate of insanity ten times higher than in the population at large. Even at the height of the Separate System at Wandsworth, vulnerable prisoners were provided with cell-mates. One by one all of the specific aspects of ‘Separation’ were dropped, including the sole occupancy of prison cells. Although even now, as a recent Freedom of Information Request demonstrates, of 1,562 prisoners at Wandsworth Prison, only 835—just over half—are sharing cells, and in no case are there more than two persons to a cell.
This analysis also demonstrates the importance to us of the invention of the efficient flushing lavatory, a considerable ‘convenience’ to all. It was realized in the late nineteenth century, and the experience at Pentonville, Wandsworth, and elsewhere probably contributed to the conclusion, that for proper operation, a really substantial flush was needed. Thomas Crapper’s main claim to fame was the invention of the syphon flush which delivered the volume of water required, while the cistern would then seal, allowing a slow refill without water leakage. When he died in 1910, he left nearly fifteen thousand pounds, worth close on to £2M today.
As Thomas himself might have said: ‘It may be shit to you, but it’s my bread and butter...’
Exodus, Chapter 12, verses 29 and 30:
And it came to pass, that at midnight the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle.
The Israelites were spared the tenth plague that God visited on the Egyptians, because they had smeared lambs’ blood on their doorposts; the Angel of Death ‘Passed Over’ their houses. As a consequence Pharaoh relented and let the Children of Israel leave—only to change his mind soon after, and have his army drowned in the Red Sea... The celebration of 'Pass-over' takes place on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan and is a major event in the Jewish calendar, commemorating the first step on the journey to found the Promised Land of Israel. Jesus was celebrating Passover during the Last Supper.
I was privileged this year to be invited to a Seder, which is the ritual meal celebrating Passover. My wife and I have been to Seders before, and our hosts on this occasion were very old and dear friends, so there was no awkwardness or discomfort during an event that was conducted with almost as much ritual as the Tridentine Mass—of which I have chilling childhood memories. The table was set as I remembered from previous occasions. Pride of place in the centre was Elijah’s Cup, a goblet filled with wine, in case the prophet should arrive; the front door was opened later on should he have been minded to come... Also there were the various ritual foods, including Matzo—unleavened bread—a bitter herb, a shinbone, a roasted egg, another herb dipped in salt water—usually parsley—and a mixture called charoset, used to symbolize the mortar used by the Israelites during their bondage in Egypt.
Our host and a friend shared the reading, most of which was in Hebrew, and much of which was sung. There was the eating of the ritual foods, drinking of four glasses of wine at appropriate places, a recitation of the ten plagues, and the singing of the traditional song Chad Gaya about a kid that gets eaten by a cat, which gets bitten by a dog and so on. There were seven of us at the meal plus a number of others taking part via a Zoom link. Everyone except my wife and I was reading the Hebrew from the texts, and joined in the singing most heartily. The rhythms, melodies, and cadences were decidedly Eastern European, and we were all surprised and delighted to discover that the special large Passover Matzo we were using had been manufactured in Ukraine.
There was a real feeling of joyous community about the occasion. I have encountered this before at previous Seders, a Bar Mitzvah, and a Jewish wedding that I attended decades ago as a member of the band providing music. On that occasion, the jovial host came up to me saying, ‘You’re a Catholic boy? Never mind! Snip! Snip! We’ll soon turn you into a good Jew!’ I particularly remember doing Hava Nagila for them—to great applause when I played the chorus with the guitar over the back of my head...
I envy my friends the joy of their religion. I was brought up in Catholicism, where any sort of pleasure was regarded as a sin. There were no community events like the Seder or Bar Mitzvah. We named ourselves after martyrs, people who had been tortured to death for their religious beliefs, and believed in eternal damnation in Hell for relatively trivial misdemeanours.
Peter Hennessy, Lord Hennessy, journalist, academic, and constitutionalist, gave his verdict on the Prime Minister on Broadcasting House, today on BBC Radio 4, around 9:30 am. He was reading from his diary entry for 12 April. The following is a transcript:
"Tuesday, the 12th of April 2022, will be forever remembered as a dark, bleak day for British public and political life. It is the day that Boris Johnson became the great debaser in modern times of decency in public and political life, of our constitutional conventions, our very system of government.
The moment was captured on film for ever. Just after 6 pm Johnson, in a panelled room at Chequers, clutching a prepared statement which he reads to the cameras for Vikki Young of the BBC. He apologises, says he’s paid the fine, and refuses to resign. He was, he added, speaking in a spirit of openness and humility.
If there were cocks on the chequers estate when all this was going on, they would’ve crowed at their very loudest at this point, as the prime minister sealed his place in British history as the first lawbreaker to have occupied the premiership. An office he has sullied like no other, turning it into an adventure playground for one man’s narcissistic vanity.
Boris Johnson has broken the law, misled Parliament, and has in effect shredded the ministerial code which is a crucial part of the spinal-cord of the constitution. And the great weakness of the system is that the Prime Minister, the wrong’un in chief, is the guardian of the code and with it the supposed protector of accountability and decency.
The Queen’s first Minister is now beyond doubt a rogue prime minister unworthy of her, her parliament, her people, and her kingdom. I cannot remember a day when I’ve been more fearful for the well-being of the constitution."
I had thought that the government reached rock-bottom when both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor were issued with police fines for attending parties during lockdown. On many occasions in Parliament and elsewhere, the Prime Minister repeated again and again: ‘All Covid guidance was followed ... no rules were broken ... no lockdown parties were attended’. It is clear that the person who leads this country is incapable of recognizing the truth, even when it is presented to him by his local police station.
But now, the United Kingdom, a country that prides itself as a liberal democracy with a strong moral code and a belief in charity and compassion and 'doing the right thing', has instituted a policy to transport asylum seekers to a small African country ten hours flying time from London. I thought this was a sick joke when I first read about it. Apparently our humanitarian home secretary has used a rare ‘Ministerial Direction’ to push the plan through against the advice of her civil servants. How on earth can we lecture others on how to behave in the modern world when we are doing this? I actually start to wonder whether Ms Patel is not slightly mad.
The transportation of convicts overseas ceased in this country in the 1850s; now that our government has brought it back what is next I wonder? A new Poor Law? The Workhouse? And what about providing our prisons with treadmills—couple them to electricity generators and our energy crisis would be solved...
Almost worse that the policy itself, is having to listen to it being defended by the apologists, including Johnson, elevating hypocrisy to new heights of total moral bankruptcy. They talk about the ‘evil’ people smugglers preying on 'innocent victims', and the ‘terrible danger’ and ‘loss of life’ that results, and what do they do? Prepare to punish the victims!
If the government is really serious about stopping this dangerous cross-channel traffic, all it needs to do is provide a simple legal way for asylum-seekers to come here. Set up a reception centre in Calais—I’ll bet the French would be falling over themselves to help. Organize a simple checking process and 95% of the crossings will evaporate. If demand drops like a brick, the people smugglers will find other ways to make money. The last time I looked, there were 1.25 million job vacancies in this country. If ever there was a time when we needed more workers, it is now; what we do not need is people like Johnson and Patel.
The penultimate item on the Antiques Road Show yesterday caused me to do a double take; it was a hat, accompanied by a face and voice I knew well. I was at school with Mick O’Donnell, known to the world at large as Don Craine, leader and guitarist with the Downliners Sect. The Road Show was at Ham House on the Thames, not far from Eel Pie Island where Mick’s band used to alternate with the Rolling Stones in the island’s ‘jazz club’ in the early Sixties. Don was showing some memorabilia of those times, and it was all very poignant for me, because Don died just a couple of weeks ago.
We both started at Gunnersbury Catholic Grammar School in 1956, but it was early 1960 when I got to know Don and his mates well. I had started to learn the guitar, and took my instrument to school one day, playing ‘The Rose of Tralee’ during the lunch break. Don had a band called The Downliners, named after a Roy Orbison song, Down the Line. The band needed a guitarist, I could play a few chords tolerably well, so at the tender age of 14, I was co-opted.
The centre of gravity of the band was Don’s house in Twickenham where he lived with his mother and father. Don’s father was a gentle Irishman, of whom Don was the spitting image; his mother was a fairly terrifying English lady who reminded me a bit of Miriam Karlin. She became the ‘manager’, and I must admit she was very good at it.
I was young for my age, looked it, and behaved it. I was decidedly not streetwise, so my single qualification, my entrée into the fast set that revolved around Don, was my ability to work out the chords of the various material we performed—all covers of popular music—and play them. In parallel with our musical activities, I was inducted into the band’s social life: Seedy coffee-bars, hanging around street corners, illegal entry into 'X' films, occasional dances, and the very occasional, and highly illegal, consumption of alcohol...
Over the next year or so we rehearsed music together, acquired better guitars and amplifiers, and beginning in the summer of 1961 we started to get paid gigs around the home counties in dance halls, clubs, and American Airforce bases. I recall playing at Walthamstow Assembly Rooms when the manager announced us saying that, extraordinary as it may seem, we were all only sixteen years old. (This was a slight fib, Barry was nearer 18.)
There were various changes to the line-up, but the ‘regulars’ between 1961 and 1962 were as shown in the photograph: from left to right, Kevin Buley on bass, Don, Barry Allmark, vocals, Pete Coulson and me. Kevin and Don were in my class at school.
We played at least twice at the Saturday Night 'club' in Chislehurst Caves, a completely wild event. There were usually three or four bands in different parts of the caves, and the noise level approached pain threshold. And I can now reveal to the world that it was Don, when we were playing in a large hall on the sea front at Dovercourt, who plugged one of the hall’s expensive moving-coil microphones into the National Grid, the delicate innards promptly evaporating into an ephemeral puff of smoke.
One event stands out. We were coming back from a US Airforce base gig in Suffolk, transport being provided by an old van complete with driver. Mr and Mrs O’Donnell were with us for some reason so there were eight people crammed into the van—six in front, and me and Mr O’Donnell in the back, separated from the rest by drums and amplifiers. The driver saw fit to tell an absolutely disgusting joke which Mrs O’Donnell laughed at. It was so awful I could not possibly repeat it. Mr O’Donnell, normally a quiet, gentle, and reserved man went completely incandescent. Unable to get at the driver he shouted “Stop the car! Stop the car! Stop the feckin' car; stop the feckin' car!” Wisely, the driver did not stop, and I managed to calm Mr O’Donnell down eventually. “Stop the feckin' car” became a bit of a catch-phrase thereafter.
Don had those indefinable qualities, style and originality. He reformed the band as the Downliners Sect, and adopted his signature headwear, the deerstalker hat. He also kept a penguin in a pool in his back garden. “I wanted a leopard”, he told me, “but the council would not allow it...” The new band made a name for itself as a rhythm ‘n’ blues combo, creating a significant following. I saw them once in a club in the West End and they were a very good indeed. They even had a No 1 hit in Sweden; some of their later CDs are very entertaining, and I have several.
The last time I met Don was in the gents at Waterloo Station about five yers ago—not by appointment. I wondered who the aged, long-haired hippy was, and we greeted each other with great amusement.
Mick O’Donnell changed my life. He introduced a shy and spotty nerd into his circle, broadening his horizons enormously and opening up a world previously unknown. I left the band in 1962, before the ‘Sect’ times, and eventually joined another band. When that folded, I did other things. Don made his living from the band from that day to this, doing live gigs and selling CDs and other merchandising. I regret that a quite recent attempt of mine to organize a reunion of some of the old band members and other pupils at the school failed.
Last week, I made a brief visit to Stonehenge. The weather was cold and windy, and it was only possible to spend five or ten minutes contemplating the stones. But what stones!
It is easy to run out of superlatives when considering the age of Stonehenge, and the human effort—intellectual as well as physical—needed for its erection. Consider: the great Sarson stone ring with its tongue and groove, and mortise and tenon joints was erected around four and a half thousand years ago. This was the time when the great pyramids in Egypt were being built. It was more than two thousand years before the time of Plato and Aristotle, and two and a half thousand years before the Romans invaded Britain. The monument was more than a thousand years old when Moses was said to have taken the Children of Israel out of Egypt.
Stonehenge has been the subject of study and speculation for hundreds of years, but the last fifteen years or so have been particularly fruitful. For anyone interested in the details, Mike Parker Pearson’s book Stonehenge, is essential reading. He conducted the archaeology that has made such extraordinary strides in the understanding of the monument.
Of the many astonishing facts to emerge recently three are worthy of note. The main stones at Stonehenge are so-called Sarcen Stones, that were transported somehow from the Marlborough Downs around twenty miles away. But there are also smaller ‘bluestones’, that may have formed an earlier ring. They have long been known to come from the Preseli Hills in Wales, and the physical and organizational problems that must have been overcome transporting them more than 100 miles, five thousand years ago, have generated many ingenious theories. But Mike Parker Pearson has not only found the actual outcrop—with clear evidence of stone being cut—in the Preseli Hills, but the remains of a stone circle close by, in which one of the stones at Stonehenge—identified because of its trapezoidal shape—was probably used first before being relocated to Wiltshire.
Excavations immediately north of Stonehenge have found large deposits of Sarson chippings resulting from the tedious work of shaping the stones by hitting them with large stone mauls or mallets. By carefully registering the position of 6,500 individual stone chips, the straight edge of one of the stones is clearly visible, indicating that they were worked in the vicinity of the monument.
But for me the most intriguing revelation from Pearson’s work is the identification of the very reason why Stonehenge is where it is. Every midsummer day, the TV channels report crowds who have assembled at Stonehenge to observe the midsummer sun rising in line with the axis of the monument. What is less well known, is that midwinter sunset takes place 180 degrees in the other direction. It is one of the very few ‘why’ facts about the stones that we know with a very fair degree of certainty: they were deliberately oriented to that compass direction. What has perplexed archaeologists, is: why was Stonehenge built where it is?
Anyone who has been there knows that it is on a slope. The first view from the A303 driving west is looking down on the stones. Henry Browne was an early self-appointed guardian of Stonehenge in the 1820s. He proposed a rather charming theory regarding its age. He accounted for its fairly damaged state by noting that Stonehenge is built on ground sloping down from the south west, and shows a number of stones on that side leaning in the other direction. He suggested that it was the torrent of water from The Flood, gushing downhill, that caused the damage. His hypothesis is consistent in one sense; Archbishop Ussher had famously dated The Flood to around 2,300 BC, and this is somewhat later, as we know now, than the great Sarsons were erected...
The position is not, therefore, either on a hill or in a valley so why was it built there? Pearson and his team noted that the entrance to Stonehenge—facing the midsummer sunrise—is positioned at one end of a pair of natural linear gullies caused by glaciation; the gullies, by pure coincidence, line up with the midsummer sunrise.
I wonder whether the builders of Stonehenge thought that the gullies—which they could see pointed towards the rising sun at midsummer—had magic significance; perhaps that is the reason that the bluestones were brought there all the way from Wales to a place of great magic...
The events of yesterday took me straight back to the summer of 1968, a turning point in my life. I was driving around Scotland in my own car, having just passed my driving test, and in the autumn I was due to start university. Not long before, my mother had told me that although she had been born in Vienna—which I had known for a long time—her parents were both from Czechoslovakia. The so-called ‘Prague spring’ that year, spearheaded by the reformist leader Alexander Dubček, seemed likely to lead to more liberal governance in the country. It was as though even hardened communist regimes were not immune to the ‘summer of love’ effect.
Then as I was driving home, the news came through that tanks from Warsaw Pact countries, headed by Russia, had rolled into the capital and crushed any possibility of a democratic rebirth. They crushed my hopes too, because I had the vague idea of trying to track down my grandparents.
And so to yesterday, when the pleasure of doing a very well-received talk on my book about the Red Barn Murder to a local U3A, was completely overshadowed by the appalling news from Kyiv. It is pointless to repeat all the reasons why this is a brutal and cynical crime against the entire free world. The Iron Curtain falls again, as Putin starts to construct Soviet Union v 2.0.
I had thought that when the original Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the world would be able to forget about ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’—wondering whether our children would ever grow up—and concentrate on more useful things like feeding the planet. Swords into ploughshares... Now we are back to the bad old days. It is difficult not to be very, very depressed.
I wonder whether Liz—don’t call me a surgical appliance—Truss realises just how ridiculous she looked lecturing that wily old war-horse Sergei Lavrov in Moscow this week. Moscow has more troops around Ukraine than the UK has in its entire army... The days of the Great Game are well and truly over, and it really is time that people like Johnson and Truss realized that. I wonder if many others, like me, could not get out of our minds the vision of Truss’s indignation at the Tory conference on the discovery of how much cheese the UK imports...
Russia needs to be treated with great care. Putin may be a barely disguised hoodlum not chary of sending murder squads to this country, but the Russians are a proud people with a distinguished history. Twenty million Russians died in world war II, and they sustained 300,000 casualties in the storming of Berlin alone. The national pride was badly dented on ‘losing’ the cold war, and I suspect that the West was too busy congratulating itself to have been aware of that.
The way to deal with Russia is by quiet—even secret—diplomacy, like Kennedy did with Khrushchev after the Cuba missile crisis, not by making absurd threats that everyone knows are as empty as the drawer where Boris Johnson keeps his morals.
Fifty-six years and a few days ago, I returned home after a moderately lengthy stay overseas.
In late May of 1965, the band had arrived in Rome to take up a one month contract to play at the Piper Club, a prestigious nightclub in Via Tagliamento near the Villa Borghese. The paradise of several weeks in the eternal city in summer, was such that when our contract came to an end, we decided to stay on in Italy. We believed that there was a good living to be made. But by the winter of that year, now lodged in a decidedly dodgy hotel in Modena in the north of the country, it was becoming clear that we could not earn sufficient money to support ourselves.
Reluctantly, we decided to call it a day and go home. We had a booking to play at a club on the shores of Lake Garda near Verona in mid-January 1966, and decided that it would be our last in Italy. When the gig was over, we planned to drive north to the Brenner Pass, cross the border into Austria, and thereafter via Germany and Belgium back to England.
Our transport was a Ford Thames 15 hundredweight two-seater commercial van. The back of the vehicle had a plain wooden floor with only our equipment and suitcases to sit on. We were very short of money, having barely enough for fuel and the price of the channel crossing, so we decided to drive in relay stopping only for petrol and scratch meals. There were three drivers and me. I did not drive then, so the plan was that the two resting drivers would sleep or doze as best as they could in the back, while I got to sit in the passenger seat, navigate, provide company for the driver, and keep the windscreen clear. There was no heater, so the condensation from our breath quickly froze on the glass if not promptly removed.
It was well after midnight before we left the club in slushy snowy conditions. The distance to Brenner was around 150 miles, and given the conditions—dark, hilly country, relatively minor road, snow and slush—progress was not very rapid. We had heard that snow-chains were required to cross the Brenner Pass, which is higher than Ben Nevis, so we bought some and fitted them to the tyres when we judged the snowfall on the road was thick enough. It wasn’t, and whether they were cheap chains or just only useful for thick snow, they broke well before Brenner. It was probably five or six am when we arrived at the pass, chainless, and were mightily relieved when they let us through into Austria.
Innsbruck was around twenty miles further on, and it was important to turn left there and then right to take the shortest route north westish towards the German border and Stuttgart. It was early morning, still dark, and I had been awake for twenty-four hours. Whether the map was bad, there was poor road signage, or I dozed off I don’t recall, but we did miss the turning, and found ourselves driving east. After twenty minutes or so I realized the mistake. I had to decide whether to turn round or keep going. The map showed a turning north in a few miles and I elected to take it.
By now it was broad daylight, and the road became steeper and started zig-zagging; we were getting higher and higher and passed through a ski resort. We also skirted a beautiful alpine lake, The Achensee. But what was astonishing, and almost made up for the anguish of adding at least two hours and more than sixty miles to our journey, was the appearance of the trees. Many were pines, and the snow had accumulated on their branches turning the whole into a series of beautifully decorated Christmas trees. It was a winter wonderland. The effect was quite magical and one I will never forget.
Finally we arrived at the German border. This was a minor crossing; we were very high up and I was more than a little anxious. The guards looked askance at our battered van—it had endured several close encounters with Italian traffic, including a tram, in Rome. I was worried they would refuse us entry. We had already been stopped by the Italian police on the Autostrada who told us that the van was in a dangerous condition—the nearside front was badly dented with some bits missing...
We could speak no German and the guards had no English; fortunately, this was the Tyrol with considerable Italian influence, and one of the guards spoke that language—as did I, albeit very badly. I explained that we had been driving all night and only wanted to go home; we were not vagrants and would drive right through their country to Belgium and thence to the Channel Ports. After some discussion among themselves they allowed us through but insisted that we purchase insurance for the van. We drove all day through Germany and it was dark when we finally arrived in Belgium. By this time I had been awake for thirty-six hours, and while driving along the motorway from Brussels to the coast, I started to hallucinate. It was frighteningly real and took the form of walls built across the road; time after time they appeared and dissolved as we drove through them.
I don’t remember the crossing from Ostend to England—probably to Dover. Being mid-winter we were obliged to wait some time for a boat, and it was night-time again when I was finally dropped off at my parent’s house in Ealing. We had divvied up the remaining cash, and had a £1 note each to show for more than eight months in Italy.
I rang the house bell; my mother came to the door and greeted me with a “Good God!”. And during my absence, my father had converted my bedroom into a printing shop; for the next few months or so, I was obliged to sleep on a couch in the living room.
It is a pity that a number of Barry Cryer’s best jokes have been told so many times in the newspapers and on the radio over the last couple of days, because endless repeats devalue the comedy effect. Nevertheless, that does not stop me retelling my favourite, although the following gag I have only heard the one time, and told by the man himself.
‘Bazza’ was being interviewed by John Humphries on the Today Programme quite some time ago; I was walking to work listening on headphones, and delayed going through the gates so I could hear the punch line:
After his great days in the Marx Brothers’ films, Groucho Marx was quite well-known as a talk-show host on American radio in the 1950s. He would interview all sorts of people including the general public. On one occasion he was interviewing a ‘man in the street’. After a few preliminaries the questions proceeded thus:
Groucho: So Mr --- are you married?
Man: Yes I am Mr Marx.
Groucho: And are you happy?
Man: Yes very happy!
Groucho: Do you have any kids?
Man: Yes sir, I have ten lovely children!
Groucho: Ten children, good grief! That’s fantastic! How do you come to have ten children?
Man: Well sir, I love my wife!
Groucho: Well, I love my cigar, but I take it out once in a while...
Humphries dissolves into laughter saying: “I’m not sure you can say that on prime time radio ... well, you just have!”
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs