The Youngest Cadet
After having left London's French Lycee in 1968 I'd been a boarder at Pangbourne College, a public school near Reading, Berkshire, between (officially) the 9th of September of that year and the end of the summer term of 1972.
Pangbourne was founded in 1917 as Pangbourne Nautical College, originally preparing boys aged 13 to 18 to be officers in the Merchant Navy, and then the Royal Navy. When I joined in 1969 aged still only 12 years old and the youngest cadet in the college, it was still known by its original title, but by 1969 it had become known as Pangbourne College. However, the boys retained their officer status and spent much of their time in full naval officers' uniform. Furthermore, naval discipline continued to be enforced, and thence Pangbourne combined the rigours both of a military college and a traditional English boarding school. In 1996, Pangbourne became fully co-educational.
By any standards, Pangbourne College was a deeply Christian school, with regular Divinity classes, daily prayers, and compulsory chapel on Sunday morning. Moreover while at college I was baptised and confirmed as a member of the Church of England under the aegis of the chaplain who was also my Divinity teacher. And yet sadly in '73 whatever faith I had was wholly powerless to prevent me from embarking on a full-blooded quest for earthly experience which began in earnest as I see it in that year. At the same time, surely it can't be wrong to suggest that a seed had been planted.
Glam Rock Stomp
In the summer of 1972, it was mutually decided between my longsuffering father and the authorities of Pangbourne that it was best I leave after a year in the fifth form and four years in the college itself.
My parents, brother and I had moved to a little village suburb some dozen miles from the centre of London at the turn of the decade. Thence, I was something of a fish out of water, being no longer either in west London where I grew up, nor at the boarding school that had been my whole world for four long years and where I'd formed so many intensely close friendships.
1972 could be said to be the year in which the infamously anticlimactic 1970s began in earnest following the sixties twilight. The sixties were finally good and over and as absurd as it might seem today, for many the early seventies were like the hangover following a long wild party. Long hair was now omnipresent, and being sported by innumerous jack the lads across the land including one-time skinheads. Many of the popular songs of the era reflected this trend, being like football chants set to a stomping glam rock beat.
I had long looked askance at commercial chart Pop, being a typical product of a boarding school background and thence a lover of rock, especially of the progressive kind. However, little by little I was warming to the brash new epoch. I saw a former Bubblegum outfit I'd once scorned on a long-forgotten teenage programme in late '72 called "Lift off with Ayesha" and was fascinated by their prancing antics. And some time after watching a certain nascent Glam luminary on the chat show Russell Harty Plus in January 1973, I wholeheatedly entered into the spirit of this strange culture.
I'd been a would-be lout at Pangbourne, but were I to have attempted to play the little tough in the London of '72-'73, I'd have run the risk of being battered. The spectre of impending menace was omnipresent or so it seemed to me, fresh from a boarding school cocoon, this being the age par excellence of the newly hirsute soccer firebrand. I had to learn to know my place.
At the behest of my father I embarked upon an intensive programme of self-improvement. So, from late '72 until the following year as I recall, I studied various forms of self-defence in Hammersmith, west London. Among my fellow students were young working class men with distinctively styled shoulder-length tresses of hair, which were fashionable back then. I also went to swimming classes at a local pool, and picked up some guitar tips from a warm, soft-spoken man called Gary V. who incredibly still teaches today. Furthermore, I set about atoning for the fact that I'd left Pangbourne prematurely with only two GCE "O" levels* to my name through home study, fostered by private tutors. Then in late '72 I joined the London Division of the Royal Naval Reserve as an Ordinary Seaman, attending classes once a week on HMS President on the Embankment. At some point soon thereafter, some of the older salts, Able Seamen perhaps, or Killicks, pointed the fact out to me that compared to them, I was distinctly cherubic of feature, like some kind of latter-day Billy Budd. This came as a shock as I'd always poured scorn on softness of any kind. And yet when I surveyed my face in the mirror back home, I saw that the tars had a point. I was surprised, and not a little intrigued by the metamorphosis that had seemingly overnight transformed me from scrawny scruffy urchin into elegant ephebe. Not that that was actually the case, as the change had of course been gradual, and there had always been a sensitive and refined aspect to my character.
Oh Santiago, Where My heart Goes...
The introspective tendencies that had probably been growing since the dawn of my adolescence became increasingly marked in 1972--73, and I dreamed of fame and glory as actor or Rock star more than ever before. Throughout '73, I constructed a foppish Glam persona, spiking my hair, and even at some point peroxiding it. I had also taken to daubing concealer on my face, which was troubled by acne blemishes. In contrast to me, my brother took to the area with far greater facility. Where I was dreamy and refined, he was a rough-spoken extrovert and part of a local youth scene until about the middle of the decade.
However, I came into my own in Spain, or rather Santiago de la Ribera on the Mar Menor near Murcia, where the family had been vacationing since about 1968. It was towards the end of my summer '73 holiday as I remember it that I had finally begun to be noticed by the local young people, most from either Murcia or Madrid, and so la Ribera became vital to me in terms of my becoming a social being among members of both sexes. A group of us became very close and remained so for four summers running.
Spain was such a sweet and friendly nation back then in the relatively innocent early seventies, and the youth of La Ribera as happy and carefree as I imagine southern Californians would have been in the pre-Beatles sixties. What a time it was. A gentleman had been born, who was charming, courteous and refined, although of course I had been capable of courtly behaviour before, but the terror in me had been somewhat sidelined, exiled, consigned to the wilderness for a while.