“The society which has abolished every kind of adventure makes its own abolition the only possible adventure.” Paris, May 1968

Friday, 10 June 2011

Jolly Eton Boating - but not as we know it.

With the General Secretary of the Socialist Worker Party outed as an Old Etonian it's only a matter of time before the Trots seek revenge and all kinds of people are revealed to have far posher backgrounds than they would care to admit to. I might as well make a clean breast of it-I was at Eton. Perhaps I had better explain.
In 1958 I departed the broad sunlit uplands of Leyton for the small Essex port of Brightlingsea where I took up a position as apprentice to a small firm of boatbuilders. I think that my parents quite liked Brightlingsea but it was a pretty dull place for a teenager and I was not proving to be a naturally gifted boatbuilder. Some people have even suggested that it was largely due to me that the industry switched to fiberglass and after a while it was generally agreed that I might be better suited to being a machine operator in a local engineering factory. I had not yet met anyone with horizons that extended beyond earning enough to get some new clobber and get pissed. I suspected that there might be more to life than this but it was not yet clear to me how someone like me might find this "more". I think that I just assumed something would happen eventually. Day dreams and reality came to merge with the arrival one morning a strange vessel crewed by yet stranger people. The Totmorgan was a converted ships lifeboat, and I use the word converted in the loosest sense, crewed by bohemians; scruffily dressed bearded beats who talked about jazz and coffee bars. They might have come from another planet as far as Brightlingsea was concerned but in fact had set off from Eton and Windsor and sailed downriver and along the Essex coast. They probably intended to voyage to foreign parts but by the time that the lifeboat towed them into Brightlingsea a return trip to the safety of the Upper Thames seemed more realistic. Post peace convoy and the crusty boat scene none of this seems that unusual, but believe me, for the late 50's this was living on the edge. Of course you don't need to be told that I soon got to know these malcontents and didn't need to be asked twice when they invited me to leave home and job and join them in their adventures. By today's standards the Totmorgan was criminally unsafe and leaked like a sieve. One of the more interesting features of this Heath Robinson craft was the old lorry engine that had never been fitted with a marine gearbox. This meant that maneuvering the vessel involved three people going through the gears, double declutching, adjusting the throttle and steering. Unbelievable!
Eventually, and far more by luck than judgment, we arrived at Windsor. For those of you who don't know the geography Windsor and Eton are separated only by the Thames and a two minute walk over Windsor Bridge. For all the talk of castles and colleges, the dominant feature of the area was actually the industrial estate in nearby Slough where most people worked. I had no intention of going back into a factory but instead was soon immersed in two very different and distinct scenes. The first revolved around Windsor Jazz Club and a coffee bar in Eton High Street that I was later to live above. Here I was to learn about CND, weekend ravers as opposed to real beats and such middle class esoterica as the fact that spaghetti was available in forms other than tinned. The local paper shop owner had sent his son and daughter to a school called Summerhill where the kids organised and governed themselves. These two had gone into acting and could be seen on TV from time to time. All this was well and good but I also needed to earn a living and that's how I came to be involved in the second scene. Windsor was home to a large fleet of river steamers and it was here that I found a job. The skippers tended to be local men but the boys who crewed were recruited from as far afield as Southampton and lived in cramped quarters below deck. After we had finished for the day the skippers would go home and leave this huge gang of fifteen to eighteen year olds to more or less run wild. It was a totally working class environment and very different to the beat scene happening a couple of hundred yards away. I think that I was one of the very few people with a foot in both camps. I was still only seventeen.
At no time did any of us, boat boys or bohemians have anything to do with Eton schoolboys who I think were forbidden to fraternise with the locals. They probably felt the same contempt for us that we felt for them. It was to be years later before I met anyone who had been educated at Eton. I was to learn that as well as producing a disproportionate number of Prime Ministers Eton has also turned out it's fair share of junkies, although quite why heroin should hold such an attraction for these privileged sons of the ruling class I don't know. The beat world is long forgotten and I don't think that I have ever read anything about that unusual marginal world of the steamer boys. Just a footnote in the history of the real people who lived in small twin towns dominated by a castle and a posh school.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ray’s class struggles in the Eton/Windsor area are worth the read for sure, as if the brave lads were smart enough to not risk a flogging by the Snooty boys’ henchmen. And what has changed in 50 years of class struggle? My own particular struggle in that area that day was more inter-species than intra-class. I had this posh bird from Kent (a bit thick but beautifully built) and I had just bought a super suave MGB GT, overdrive ‘n all. I should say that the posh bird was the boss’s daughter so being a working class northern lad this was an F word and a half. So, back to the M4 - near Windsor/Eton. Me (I know that is not proper English) and posh bird were stuck in a dreadfully tedious traffic jam (inordinately so in fact) and then being a sporty kinda chap I gets outta me jalopy to scan the horizon, what the heck is the delay you chaps style. Then, as if out of Dante’s Inferno I sees this mangy old dog running up the central reserve (we was stuck in the fast lane of course). Being a rugger type (well, league but no time for details) I dived on the dog that was being pursued by men in space suits with lassoes and heck, just nearly but not quite did not catch the slippery old stinky thing. My posh bird was mightly’ impressed at my heroics and gaspsed with adoration as the robot suits raced on and trampled me under the crash barrier. Worst luck was that the bloody dog bloody bit me in the scrum, then I thought heck it has bloody rabies and must have escaped from the RSPCA compound at nearby Heathrow. Oh no, I mean rabies can kill a chap. So me n boss’s daughter posh bird trek off to Slough A&E. “Now tell me again, how did this dog really bite you young man?” said the triage nurse. I stared longingly at posh bird for a quick and convincing repartee answer, in vain. Posh people cannot dance it’s true and are even more hopeless at making up stories, I mean servants lie through their teeth if it suits them. I hope this story passes the Cultural Revolution test.