Married on 7 September 1969 in Grimsby, Lincolnshire
My years at an English boys’ boarding school had taught me how to pass exams but not how to chat up girls. When I arrived at Wintringham Boys and joined the Lower Sixth I was tongue-tied and clumsy in the company of the opposite sex. They attended Wintringham Girls on the other side of the playing fields. Our paths crossed occasionally at the Debating Society or Film Club both of which I joined for that express purpose.
The prettiest girl in the school was Sandra, the daughter of the Town Clerk. She had long, straight, carefully-ironed hair and wore mini skirts as was the fashion personified by Cathy McGowan on ‘Ready, Steady Go!’
Sandra already had a boyfriend, Chris, a Merchant Navy cadet training to be a radio officer at the College. Resplendent in his Naval uniform he easily outshone a gangly schoolboy in cap and blazer.
Sandra’s best friend, Ann, didn’t have a boyfriend so to make up a foursome, I would travel into town on the bus sitting behind them as they chatted. We were heading for the Yarborough Hotel next to the railway station where Chris worked evenings as a barman. The real action was across the Old Market Place at The Pestle and Mortar where pints of cider and blackcurrant or Hewitts bitter were thrown back or all over the place. In the staid, silent cocktail bar of the Yarborough we three sat sipping whatever concoction Chris was able to sneak over to us. Eventually, I asked Ann out and we went to the Green Lantern in Freeman Street, a Chinese restaurant close to the red light district of Riby Square.
The fishermen who trawled the northern waters would come ashore after three gruelling weeks at sea with pockets stuffed with cash which they spent over a few nights in the pubs and brothels around the docks. Then they headed back out to sea again for another trip.
The Park Drive cigarettes that I was learning to smoke were soaked in saltpetre for the fishermen to make them burn evenly and prevent them going out in gale force winds.
Ann’s father, Jack, born in 1900, was a soldier who had lied about his age and joined the Royal Field Artillery in 1916 to fight in France. Olwen was as surprised as her husband when she found out she was pregnant in her mid forties. Ann was their first and only child and they doted on her.
I was unsettled at Wintringham. On leaving KEGS I had wanted to study Medicine but Mr Gill, my new headmaster, insisted I became part of what Harold Wilson referred to as the ‘white heat of technology’. The Prime Minister wanted to ‘replace the cloth cap with the white laboratory coat as the symbol of British labour.’ The prospect of going up to university to study Engineering filled me with dismay. I answered an ad in the personal column of the Sunday Times asking for a ‘young Tarzan’ to help sail an old schooner called the Pomona across the Atlantic. The fact that I knew nothing about sailing and had never been under sail didn’t seem to bother the elderly lawyer who offered me a bunk. That he wanted to share the bunk with me was a bit tricky but I decided to give it a go. Ina and Godfrey were horrified and insisted I give up any idea of going abroad before I had finished my A Levels. Chris Orpen, my father’s boss at Laportes in Stallingborough, advised me to study Chemical Engineering.
“A chemical engineer talks about chemistry when he’s with engineers and engineering when he’s with chemists,” said Chris.
“And when he’s with other chemical engineers?” I asked.
“Rugby! Well, that’s what Capetown University was like,” he said.
Good enough for me.
I applied to half a dozen redbricks and was offered a place to read Chem Eng at all of them. I even won a Shell scholarship to read Oil Technology at Imperial College.
Whilst waiting for my exam results in the summer of 1967 I applied to VSO as a cadet volunteer. I was successful and on 21 August 1967 I stepped off an Air India 707 onto the boiling tarmac of Delhi Airport. Grimsby, Wintringham and Ann were now a distant memory. Shell refused to defer my scholarship. The redbricks knew nothing of ‘gap years’ and offered my place to other students. I didn’t care, I was having the time of my life.
I returned to London a year later on a BOAC VC10 from Calcutta. Despite writing me a ‘Dear John’ letter whilst I was in India, Ann was at the airport to welcome me home. After a year in the jungles of Orissa I was suffering culture shock, jet lag and another bout of amoebic dysentery. Our meeting didn’t last long.
Birmingham University decided to offer me my place back and I started Fresher’s Week a month later. Ann was taking a bilingual secretarial course at Coventry Tech and we bumped into each other at one of the many parties that my hall of residence hosted every weekend. I had already acquired a new girlfriend so there was no passionate reunion. Student politics had replaced lectures and I failed my end of term exams. I transferred to Geology as they had only 12 hours of formal lectures a week unlike the 38 in the Faculty of Chemical Engineering.
Staring at rocks and fossils to ‘learn’ them did nothing for me so I joined a West German guerrilla theatre troupe and disappeared. After a series of performances at the Midland Arts Centre in Cannon Hill Park which involved pig’s offal, a shop window mannequin, blood in a plastic bag, nudity and an axe, they smuggled me to Cologne. There we continued our struggle to overturn the State but as it was all in German I hadn’t a clue what they were on about. I caught a train to Berlin where I was asked to make a film which involved crawling across an open field on my hands and knees whilst undressing and copulating with my then girlfriend, a mad woman called Virginia who had shaved her head and wore bright orange wigs. After being held at the crossing point between East and West Berlin for a while by the Grepo – grenzpolzei or border guards, I finally gave up and returned to England with my tail between my legs.
I was dropped off in Coventry by a helpful lorry driver having hitch-hiked halfway across Europe, from Berlin through East Germany, Holland and Belgium. It was thus, at two o’clock in the morning, I found myself outside Ann’s student house. Not having anywhere else to go, I knocked on her door and she took me in. I dropped out of university and applied to become a tea planter in Assam. Unsuccessfully.
I moved back to live with my parents and worked in a frozen fish finger factory, hitching a ride on a fish lorry every Friday night to Coventry. Although Ann allowed me to stay for the weekend she would not consider living together whilst unmarried as it would offend Jack and Olwen.
IBM offered me a job in their sales office in Birmingham. In six months I had gone from revolutionary sociopolitical performances aimed against the Vietnam War and capitalism to white shirt, dark suit, black shoes and socks conformity with the very system I had opposed. I decided to throw myself wholeheartedly into this conservative, responsible, sensible way of life. The only way to live with Ann was to marry her so I did. The wedding was a formal one in the parish church. I threw up behind the gravestones before the ceremony. I begged my best man, a fellow IBMer, to help me call it off. He said it was usual to be a bit nervous on one’s wedding day. I knew it was a mistake but didn’t have the guts to walk away. Our honeymoon was spent playing Monopoly in my old bedroom at my parent’s house.
We moved into a flat above a filling station on the Alcester Road in Moseley. I had affairs with a succession of secretaries and temps from the office. I was promoted to salesman. We bought a house out in Kidderminster. My sales training was brilliant but failed to make me any good at selling. Without commission the debts continued to pile up. Barclaycard sent a car to the house to take away my credit card. We sold the house, paid off our debts and moved to Sutton Coldfield. I would spend my working day in some cafe in West Bromwich or Wolverhampton doing the Telegraph crossword. I suggested we bought a Land Rover and drive across Africa to Capetown. Ann was not keen. Finally, in December 1972 I’d had enough. I turned back from a sales conference in Manchester, drove to the office on the Hagley Road and handed in my resignation. They asked me to work out my notice. Three months later I bought a cheesecloth shirt, flared tight trousers with a python skin belt and bottle green patent leather platform shoes then caught the train to London.
Richard was at RADA and living in a hostel in Earls Court. We put the mattress on the floor and on alternate days he would sleep on the bed base and I would sleep on the mattress. We decided to rent a room in a shared house. As he was studying I went to the agency to make enquiries. I explained that we were brothers, one of whom was an actor and the other out of work. They suggested a double room at the top of a townhouse in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. The agent would meet us that evening at the flat. We rang the door bell and as we waited I had to tell Richard, “Oh, by the way, I’m actor Richard and you are out of work Michael.” The Sloane Rangers loved us but we didn’t love them. A month later we had found a bedsit of our own in Highgate at 419 The A1 just where the HGVs changed down a gear to creep up Archway Hill. The windows rattled all night but we had our own beds and a little kitchenette in the corner behind a curtain.
I saw an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph asking for ‘Latin American Spanish speaking Air Stewards wanted for BOAC.’ The night before my interview Richard cut my hair. Badly. I turned up the next day at Heathrow Airport with a smear of boot polish on my neck to hide the ‘Whoops’.
During my training I moved into a house in Hayes with three other new crew members which we rented from one of our course instructors, Andrew ‘Shakin’ Stevens’ McCarthy. He had survived the BOAC 707 Whiskey Echo crash at Heathrow 5 years previously and still suffered the after-effects.
Richard graduated from RADA and was working at the Redgrave Theatre in Farnham. I had moved to Barnes when I received an official looking letter from the Lord Chancellor’s Department containing Ann’s divorce petition.
After I had walked out on her in Sutton Coldfield she had gone back to Lincolnshire and her old friend Sandra who was, by then, married to Chris. Chris and Ann hit it off and were shacked up together in Louth, little Zoe on the way and would I consent to a divorce on the grounds of two years separation?
Yes, I would.