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.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs