‘Who’s this?’ my mother’s mother, Eva, a staid Presbyterian matron with grey hair in a bun, demanded accusingly when she opened the door of her Victorian flat in Corstorphine, one of Edinburgh’s most respectable suburbs.
‘Timothy, my husband,’ my mother retorted as bold as brass. She had just returned from London with my father, instead of the man she had been engaged to – and my grandmother had been eagerly expecting to greet – less than two months previously. My grandmother, the strait-laced daughter of the factor to the duke of Northumberland, was so scandalized that she slammed the door in their faces, and they spent the night under a hedge in a field at the foot of wooded Corstorphine Hill.
My father had a shilling in his pocket . . .
Her fearlessness had first shown itself in childhood. When she was five, her father, an altruistic, kind-hearted doctor, had taken her on a brief flight in an open-air Tiger Moth biplane with Sir Alan Cobham, at the time a world-famous long-distance aviation pioneer.
Five years afterwards, neighbours rushed to let her parents know that she was playing on the six-inch wide ledge outside the third floor of their elegant Georgian house in Edinburgh, oblivious of the thirty-foot drop to the pavement. Three years later, her father had been horrified when, on a cruise with her to Madeira, he had spotted her balancing perilously on railings at the stern, directly above the propellers. Then, in the mid-1930s, soon after he died, an appreciative patient bequeathed her a legacy of £1,000. Without further ado, she packed her typewriter, cashed the cheque and announced to her horror-struck mother that she was going to the continent to ‘write some articles’.
She spent six months travelling by herself to Budapest, Vienna, Venice and Palermo in Sicily – a remarkably courageous thing for any woman to do at the time, when Mussolini was at the height of his power, far less one of barely twenty . . .
Seeds of Rebellion
All too soon, my years of childhood innocence ended. Three years after moving into our new house, I succeeded at my second attempt in being accepted by George Watson’s College, one of the city’s best private schools. A stupendous neoclassical pile with a separate, equally palatial junior school, it had four boarding houses, a stadium for rugby and athletics, tennis courts, an indoor swimming pool, a gym and about a dozen rugby and cricket pitches.
Initially I was placed in one of the three top classes, but still heavily under the influence of the William books, I had come to believe school existed exclusively for my entertainment, and masters were there solely to be made fun of. Soon, in imitation of Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men, a popular children’s television programme at the time, I was clowning about with two new friends in the seemingly limitless marble corridors crying ‘Weed, weed!’ In the class of my bungling mathematics master I flicked chewed paper pellets at the ceiling to see if I could get them to drop onto the heads of unsuspecting pupils . . .
During the summer holidays came what proved, in hindsight, to be the turning point of my life, when my sister and I were selected to go on a student expedition from Edinburgh overland by bus to India. When we finally reached New Delhi, the expedition drove in a regal procession down India Gate to Gandhi’s tomb, where we laid wreaths. Then we were introduced to Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India.
A serene, dignified-looking woman, she shook hands with every one of the 320 students, before, a week later, we split up for a month to travel throughout India. Sadly, when the bus from Durham University was in a horrific accident in Yugoslavia, the expedition’s journey back to Britain was marred by tragedy. As an approaching crane drove by, the 23-year-old student driving the bus heard an ear-splitting crash. When he turned round, he saw that all fourteen students on the left-hand side of the bus had been decapitated. Paralysed with horror, he lost control of the wheel, and the stricken bus veered into a field before it overturned onto its side . . .
Adrift at Sea
One afternoon we were having drinks at our favourite café in Marbella, when Michel got chatting to Sally, a young girl at an adjoining table. Despite looking not more than sixteen, she was clearly attracted to him and, before she left, she invited the three of us to her mother’s house in Ronda. The following afternoon we drove up the road that winds into the alabaster-coloured mountains behind Marbella. Ronda was a dazzling white town, and the house, which was on the main street, and just before a bridge over the precipitous gorge that divides the town in two, was strewn with books and crumpled clothes.
Sally introduced us to her mother, Hilly, a middle-aged, bohemian-looking woman still in her nightdress. While she slopped about the house, smoking continuously, Sally chatted to Michel. After two hours, Jacob, Michel and I drove back to Marbella, where Michel told us that he felt Sally was too immature for him. Years later, I read the writer Martin Amis’s account of how his younger sister, who was only in her thirties, drank herself to death. It was only then it dawned on me that she was the young girl we had happened upon in Marbella, and the older woman in Ronda was Hilly, Martin Amis’s mother, and the first wife of Kingsley Amis . . .
Apart from the port, Ios had only one village. At the top of an apparently unending flight of steps, it consisted of brilliant, meringue-white, Cubist-looking houses. Further up, in its heart, a miniature, barrel-vaulted church perched on top of a monumental, precipitous rock. There were two cafés in its diminutive square, where weather-beaten old men sat at little square tables drinking retsina or playing tavli (backgammon). At the time, there was only a smattering of foreigners on the island – where there were virtually no cars and roads, let alone an airport – most of who were hippies going to, or returning from, India. For two months, Michel and I lived in a cave on a craggy headland at the eastern end of a golden beach.
Shielded by a knee-high wall of boulders that shepherds had built to provide shelter from the frequently stormy meltemi wind, it was a tiny cave under an overhanging outcrop of rock where Michel and I slept alternately on the stony ground or a smooth rocky platform that mirrored the shape of the human body . . .
By the time I got back to Crystal Palace it was September. Set on leaving London once and for all, I turned my sights yet again to Canada. This time, instead of trying to find another job on a pipeline, I planned to go to Saskatchewan to teach English, which was also reputed to be ridiculously well paid. However, I wasn’t only lured by the name – I had developed an unmistakable romantic streak – but it was near the Rocky Mountains, which I had long wanted to see. I was still deliberating about it when Sebastian and Aidan invited me to go with them for the weekend to Amsterdam to stay with friends . . .
Despite that, I was so enchanted by the cobbled streets, canals and doll-like houses that, instead of going to Saskatchewan, I resolved to go and live in Amsterdam. There were several reasons. Disenchanted with conventional politics, I was convinced by now that the most radical form of action was to take ‘the revolution’ onto the streets, and the freethinking Dutch capital seemed a great place to make a start. It would give a boost to my writing, in which I was becoming more and more interested. It would be an unmissable opportunity to live on the continent, as opposed to simply visiting it. Lastly, Dirk, Jaap and André, Dutch friends of Rob and Marijan whom had I got to know in the Achterburgwal, told me that they had just gekraakt (squatted) a building in the Kerkstraat and asked me if I would like to have the garret there. When I had a look, I found that it was right in the centre of town, and it was a four-storey, semi-derelict gabled house propped up by three twenty-foot-high pillars . . .
Songs of Sirens
I was on the Amsterdam-Milan express going down to spend the weekend with my sister, when I first noticed Hannah, a small but shapely young woman sitting on the other side of the passageway. She had a broad face, straight fair hair, sapphire eyes and heavy breasts underneath her blouse. Instantly attracted to her, I plucked up my courage.
‘Got a light?’ I opened in English, blushing at being unable to think of another way of engaging her in conversation.
‘Yes, I do,’ she said with a demure but encouraging smile.
She told me that she was from Düsseldorf, and was returning to Cologne, where she was a second-year student at university. Before I got off the train at Wesel, a town on the River Rhine where my sister now and then collected me, I asked her to give me her telephone number, which she did. When I phoned her at the weekend, she sounded pleased to hear from me, so on Monday I took the train to visit her in Cologne, where she lived in a down-at-heel suburb chiefly consisting of Turkish immigrants. That evening, we downed innumerable beers in a local bar, and, an hour later, we made love in her bed.
After a short time, she was coming up at weekends to visit me in Amsterdam. She was ten years younger than me and she had a somewhat stilted personality, but I liked her bashful innocence and sweet smile, and I couldn’t get enough of her voluptuous body. I would pick her up at Centraal station and take her back to the Kerkstraat, where we made love in the armchair with sawn-off legs by the window overlooking the attic next door . . .
Wanderings West and East
The mid-1970s were a very dangerous time to be travelling in South America, where practically everywhere right-wing military regimes were in power. After being stopped continually by gun-toting soldiers at roadblocks, we drifted down through Peru and Bolivia to northern Argentina. There we had heard rumours that, under the particularly vicious junta that had just overthrown the legally elected President Allende, people were already disappearing (the desaparecidos). Nevertheless, unaware that we were stepping straight into the middle of the ‘Dirty War’, during which, so it later transpired, over 30,000 students, intellectuals and trade unionists were killed, we decided to continue south. We were having breakfast in a café near the railway station in Jujuy, where we had just purchased tickets for the midnight train to Buenos Aires, when a headline in the provincial newspaper caught my eye.
‘BORGES EN JUJUY!’ it blared.
I shot bolt upright . . .
Blown off Course
There were other reasons, too. I still enjoyed working in the Melkweg, where there was without exception something enthralling to see or listen to. During my breaks in the bookshop, I would go to the Oude Zaal, where many undiscovered, although subsequently famous, African and Afro-Caribbean bands played. It was similarly the venue for outrageous ‘happenings’. One in particular is branded in my mind. First on stage was Patti Smith, in those days still a little-known young punk poet. Next was Ken Kesey, who recounted how, hallucinating on LSD, he and his Merry Pranksters had travelled across America in their psychedelically painted ex-school bus.
Last came an emaciated, peaky-looking man wearing a suit, tie and fedora. He was the image of a used-car salesman, but it was the cult writer William Burroughs . . .
The seeds for him being so emotionally crippled, my mother, my sister and I were convinced, lay in his childhood. The Richardsons had originated in north-west England, where my paternal great great-grandfather had been a QC and the mayor of Bolton. However, an uncle of my father who was interested in the family’s genealogy maintained that the Richardsons were related to Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III and empress consort of France. For years, the rest of the family dismissed this as hokum, along with the rumour that, via my paternal grandmother, my sister and I were descended from sailors in the Spanish Armada whose ships had foundered off the west coast of Ireland. In fact at least the first Spanish connection was indisputably true; my grandfather, apart from being a Richardson, was a Kirkpatrick, and hence related to Doña Maria di Montijo y Kirkpatrick, a 26-year-old Spanish countess who, known as Eugénie de Montijo, had married the French emperor.
Into the Whirlpool
One balmy evening we decided to climb the brooding volcano. Steering around thorny cacti, we laboured up its flanks of black ash until, two hours later, just below the summit, we reached a surreal, lunar plateau which we traversed until we were only fifty feet from the rim. There, trying to dodge falling embers, we crouched cautiously watching the eruptions. These are amongst the most predictable on the planet, so, aware we had ten minutes before the next one, we inched towards the edge and peered dizzily down into the mouth itself. It was a stupendous sight. As the giant, bottomless, yawning orifice sucked and gurgled greedily, it was like watching a monstrous, breathing, elemental being as it retched huge puffs of ashen, sulphurous smoke and sent molten lava whooshing hundreds of feet into the atmosphere . . .
Journeying through Grief
Throughout January, staying in Buddhist monasteries in northern Japan, I waded through two-foot snowdrifts before I flew to Hong Kong, travelled on to remote south-west China, and sailed down the River Yangtze.
Two months later, on my return to Britain, I was appalled to see how emaciated Alistair had become. He welcomed me back with open arms, of course, but I reproached myself bitterly for having left him in the first place. He was, however, distressed not by my absence but because, after he had been to Utrecht for the triumphant opening of his photography exhibition, the remaining Dutch botanical gardens had, pleading cutbacks in subsidies, scrapped his tour . . .
After a few years, he and Brenda started going to the Canary Islands. Then, because they loved its warm, sunny winters, he bought a holiday apartment in Playa Blanca in the south of Lanzarote, where he once more invited her to stay. Looking down to the glittering sea and the distant mountains of the island of Fuerteventura, it was very appealing. Like all the island’s other houses, which were designed by César Manrique, the local, internationally acclaimed architect responsible for Lanzarote having avoided the high-rise development so characteristic of the Canaries, it was white, with green doors, green windows and a green balcony, and overlooked a square built round a pale blue artificial football pitch . . .