Ruminating on Roy Harper – Chapter 4 extract

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Chapter 4 – quarks in the strings of time

Things were moving fast in 68. The Underground had blossomed and we had our own scene. We lived in a parallel universe with different rules. I was no longer an adolescent. I felt old and worldly beyond my years. The streets were mine. I drifted through the backstreets where the druggies, whores and down and outs lived – and they were just ordinary people like me. I shared the apartment block with a motley crew and they were all great with tales and stories that filled you with empathetic grief.

When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. I felt safe on the streets. I could blag my way out of trouble. I was hip, cool, young and though poor in financial terms I was rich in friendships, ideas and experience. The desperate left me alone. There was no point in robbing me. They could see I had nothing.

I shared a bedsit with Pete, who was on my course, in a house run by two lesbians, one of whom was very feminine and one extremely macho. The macho one dressed like a man in a suit and trilby. One of the lesbians got pregnant which made for an interesting few weeks of intrigue as the tensions built between them. We thought it strange that it was the macho one that got pregnant. Life is strange.

This was a million miles away from the flower beds of suburbia with its twee chintz. These were the dingy streets of Ilford and the reality of urban life.

There were four of us living there, two of whom were called Pete and three of us were called Smith, and the nights were spent knocking the spots off cards and rapping or picking the gigs. There was a lot of laughter. The Welsh Pete had a series of lines that he’d exclaim when he occasionally won a hand – ‘Drop ‘em Blossom – you’re on next’, ‘A red hot tip’ and ‘Suck mine for one and nine’ were some that come to mind. It was all very sexist and alien but rather amusing in a school boyish manner.

There was IT and OZ to peruse, events, happenings, and festivals.

College was a part-time side issue of little importance. Life was too full to fit in studying. I did enough to get by.

All of this was carried out to a backdrop of music – not as a bland background but right up there, upfront, to be listened too and cherished, discussed and argued over, and loved.

Like electrons we could exist in two places at once. We were connected by a cosmic telepathy. That’s all bollocks but it was how we felt. We were Freaks. Our minds were freaked out. Our eyes were open. We saw what was going on. The straight world, with its politics, social inequality, aspirations, careers, wars, greed and selfishness existed in another plane. I felt sorry for them all trapped in their drabness of experience and shackled with such narrow horizons. My own limits were the extent of my own imagination. Life was a smorgasbord. It was richer than the most opulent meal in the most lavish restaurant. I walked through the streets with straight society but felt that I was walking on a different planet.

Besides I was in love. I was floating anyway.

Liz was a dancer at a college the other side of London. When she came to stay I’d clean the place up so that I didn’t come across as a complete slob and pick the bits off the carpet. We didn’t have luxuries like a Hoover but we had something much better than that.

Pete and I moved to a squat and then another bedsit in Ilford. Pete was a genius who had come back from Africa with full blown culture shock. He made no sense of the packed streets and concrete jungle. The distance of strangers was disconcerting. The structure of this huge morass of society was daunting.

I felt the same and I’d never lived in the African outback. We were strangers in our own strange land. But we were happy voyagers who chortled our way through an endless time where years were decades.

Pete, in his spare time, collected and built musical instruments. The tiny bedsit was full of harmoniums, mando-ukes and guitars. Pete plucked and we rapped and thrashed around like demons as we attempted to make sense of the crazy journey our society was heading down. The walls were adorned with posters we’d made on social and political themes. Pete made light-shows out of polarised sheets that flicked and changed when you moved them. Music filled the seconds. Everything imbued with intensity.

My pet rat Lipher sat on top of her cage and listened in to our mad rapping like a serene Buddha. She knew best of all – but was not saying.

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