In 1953 my parents bought a TV so that my mother and sisters could watch the Coronation of Elizabeth II.
The first time I saw my father take any interest in the 9-inch LV30 Pye screen was two months later when the BBC broadcast The Quatermass Experiment, the first science fiction series ever on British television. If this interested him, then maybe it interested me too.
For six knee-knocking Saturdays, I peeped from behind my mother’s armchair. With its theme music of ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ from Holst’s The Planets, the series was about a rocket. Sent into space from Earth, it crash-landed in Wimbledon, containing not a tennis trophy or strawberries and cream, but an alien intent on destroying life on Earth.
As head of the space programme which had launched the rocket, Professor Bernard Quatermass had to save us all. I still shudder at the memory of him placing his hand in a pipe which contained an intelligent, 100-foot vegetable which had somehow made its way to Westminster Abbey. The brave professor succeeded in destroying the thing. Now it sounds more Monty Python than Alien, but at eight I was paralytic with fear. I was sent to bed as soon as each programme ended and had nightmares.
A few years later at Canford, I saw Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which was shown as part of the school’s annual film festival. This was the first movie I ‘read’. It had an equally powerful effect. The knight, Antonius Block, played by Max von Sydow, tries to escape death in a plague-ridden country whose people see mystical omens everywhere. He is pursued by the Grim Reaper whom he challenges to a chess game, demanding, ‘If I win, you let me live.’
The knight, no Bobby Fischer, joins a line of dead as they are led by the hooded Reaper across hills, silhouetted against dark and rushing clouds.
The film deals with superstition and the inevitability of death. As an impressionable schoolboy, it deeply marked me. From a young age, I was superstitious and knew that I would die. Even now, I never walk under ladders and cross myself when I take off and land in a plane.
When I spilled salt as a child, my mother would tell me to throw the grains over my left shoulder three times and make a wish. I still do this. Salt was a valuable commodity in earlier centuries and the first wages were paid in it. A mineral to respect, not squander.
Many other superstitions and religious practices also have a logic behind them. Take the Muslim and Jewish prohibition on pork. We are told that this is because pork is unhealthy, but all carcasses are unhealthy and pork is no more dangerous than lamb or fowl. In fact, the reason pork was proscribed is more interesting. The pig is a village animal and the Semitic peoples were nomads. Anyone who kept a pig was a threat to the tribe because it would mean settlement and an end to movement. So ladders can fall on you and pigs can threaten to halt communal migrations. Reasons to be wary.
In March 1964 my father returned from a tour of West Africa where he’d been researching medical services. He brought back a present for me from Nigeria: a pair of Yoruba Ere Ibeji wooden dolls. He told me they were always carved in twos and given a special place in the home, even fed and talked to.
This custom of the double carvings and the respect afforded them is said to be because the Yoruba have the highest twin birth rate in the world. The statuettes of the Ere Ibeji are invested with supernatural powers and can bring bad luck if mistreated. Mine were sisters, ten inches high and coated with red sandalwood powder. They had red-and-white bead necklaces which my father told me meant they were devotees of Shango, the protector of birth.
My bedroom was now full of memorabilia collected from my time in Argentina: bolas, mate gourds and pipes, a whip and lasso. I put the Ibeji women on the only space left: the windowsill. One day when I opened the window, one of them fell to the street below. Her neck was broken and the beads scattered across the pavement.
I threw the damaged doll in the rubbish and felt ashamed when I looked at her surviving sister. I hid her at the back of my cupboard. I couldn’t bring myself to throw the carving away as I felt uneasy about the accident and remembered what my father had told me about their powers.
The only person I talked to about the doll was Jenny Earp, a pretty 16-year-old brunette who I’d met the year before while camping in Cornwall. She thought I should return her to the windowsill. ‘It’s what her sister would have wanted. Not to be shoved away because you feel bad about it.’
Jenny lived with her parents and sister in a big house overlooking Dorking Golf Club. At weekends, I would borrow my parents’ Ford Cortina and drive the 20 miles to see her.
We drank in local pubs with her friends and went for walks on the North Downs.
When I took Jenny home, her parents would make an excuse and leave us alone in the house. ‘Just popping round to the club for a drink,’ her father would say. ‘Make yourselves at home.’
We did. Her bedroom was more comfortable than the Cortina.
I remember travelling with Jenny to Osterley in West London to meet a friend of mine and his girlfriend. We’d arranged to play bowls at a bowling alley near Heathrow Airport. I don’t remember the bowling, but I do remember ending up in a house owned by my friend’s father that was used to make porn films. Our lovemaking was like the movies made there. A lot of simulation.
In May 1964 I bought two tickets for a Chuck Berry gig at the 100 Club on Oxford Street. I was excited. I was a big fan of rhythm and blues and was looking forward to seeing him perform ‘Memphis, Tennessee’ and ‘Johnny B. Goode’.
Jenny had never heard of him so it was going to be a new experience for her. The club was packed out, hot and sweaty. I bought her a Babycham and myself a Double Diamond beer. She was wearing a grey lambswool sweater dress, her waist waspishly tucked in with a white belt. I remember taking off my rayon sweater because I was so hot (and a little ashamed in front of my stylish partner). It was thrilling to see Chuck Berry sliding across the stage with his guitar almost touching the ground as he got to ‘Go, go, go Johnny, go, go’.
Everyone was dancing, but Jenny was clinging to me. She said she needed fresh air. As we went up the stairs, she collapsed. I thought she had fainted from the heat because she quickly recovered.
I took her to Waterloo station to put her on the train home. She apologised for ruining the evening and kissed me goodbye. I said I’d call her the next day.
I never made that call because I’d started dating another girl. Two weeks later, Jenny’s mother rang to say that she had died. A brain aneurism. She apologised for not telling me about her daughter’s condition earlier, but that she and her husband had wanted Jenny to live a normal life for as long as possible. So that’s why they had left us alone in the house.
I wished I’d contacted Jenny, even if it had just been to say our relationship was over. She’d been the first girl who had shown love for me and I was her first boyfriend. I was certainly the first person she’d been to bed with, and she must have been distressed that I’d dumped her so brutally. I’m sorry, Jenny. The cruelty of youth.
At the time, I thought her death was the long hand of fate, stretching into my life from the broken Ibeji twin. But I was going to learn that our lives are not determined by spirits, ghosts or wooden carvings. Each of us are each responsible for our own destiny.