The crisis of 2008 and its aftermath did nothing to cause capitalism to either weaken or to accommodate the needs of ordinary working people.
In the period following the financial ruptures in the autumn of 2008, there has been a tendency among some on the left to talk, yet again, about a “crisis of capitalism.” If such talk is not to be dismissed as pure rhetoric, then we must examine whether we are indeed living, or have lived, in a period of crisis and whether any good can come out of it.
So what is a crisis? A crisis in a politico-economic system occurs when the practices, behaviour and structures that have allowed the system to reproduce itself hitherto are no longer comfortably able to do so. Crises may eventually resolve themselves in the restoration of the current system, or they may lead to the breakdown of the existing system and the establishment of a new state of affairs.
In the autumn of 2008 the market fundamentalist form of capitalism suffered a major ideological setback - we might even say crisis - when the banks could only be saved from meltdown by state intervention. Gone in a matter of a few days was the ruling ideological axiom of market fundamentalism, dominant for a generation, that the economy functioned best with only a night watchman state enforcing contracts, but otherwise allowing full reign to the market. The state came out of the shadows to save capitalism and received a new lease of life.
The convulsion was not just ideological. The Blair boom of the mid-2000s was fuelled by an accumulation of private and public and debt. The impossibility of the continued financing of private consumption and public expenditure through borrowing led to falling living standards, unemployment, cuts in social welfare and widespread disenchantment. Most heavily hit were the poorest and the young.
Yet, perhaps paradoxically, if we look at the situation in Britain today, capitalism is extremely strong. Never has a lower percentage of national income been allocated in wages and salaries; and the percentage is still falling. And these mega levels of inequality see next to no political threat to their continuation, with the political situation for the left worsening.
The Westminster Labour Party, led by the insipid Ed Miliband, has made no meaningful break with its own past in government 1997-2010, and is ensnared by its own market fundamentalist inheritance. Electoral organisation to the left of Labour is virtually non-existent. Yet, the political right has strengthened in three ways. In the 2010 General Election the Conservative party emerged yet again as the largest party and re-entered government. The Liberal Democrats, who through much of the New Labour years had masqueraded as an alternative centre left party, entered government in coalition with the Tories and demonstrated their commitment to market fundamentalism, anti-working class politics and state authoritarianism. And thirdly, the only new development in English party politics has been the growth in the early 2010s of UKIP, a right-wing xenophobic party.
The 2011 riots aside, popular protest against existing conditions in favour of equality and liberty has so far been the preserve of the educated young, and has taken the form of theatrical demonstrations and occupations of public squares and private offices and shops. The so-called Occupy Movement based its strategy on grabbing media attention through circus-like protest, which often involved the participants engaging in masochistic displays, such as camping in public places in sub-zero temperatures, as if the amount of discomfort they were experiencing equated with their level of political success.
Occupations and demonstrations, particularly those by students, were crushed and contained by a combination of police violence and harsh penalties. Demonstrators faced arbitrary beatings and containment for hours in street holding pens (kettling) and even the slightest misdemeanour, e.g. throwing an empty plastic bottle, landed the culprit in jail for several months. Political activity itself attracts the label of “domestic extremism” and is monitored by intrusive police photographing, internet surveillance and the deployment of police spies in civic organisations. The result is that political protest ends up as a ludic-tragic duel with police that does nothing to engage ordinary working people or build a political movement.
Yet by the mid 2010s even these forms of protest had more or less petered out. At the same time 2014 saw modest levels of growth in the economy as the recession bottomed out - but with wage levels still falling in real terms none of the benefit ends up in the hands ordinary working people. The worst off stave off starvation thanks only to charity food banks.
Socialism and social democracy are disappearing as ideas from popular memory. Three decades ago if you has asked people in Britain the meaning of socialism - or Labour’s then version of social democracy - a majority could have told you, whether they themselves agreed with the aims of the left or not. The idea of organised structural social improvement based on notions of equality was embedded in the populace, and it was a narrative to which even the Tories had to respond. Today, mostly thanks to New Labour, the idea of socialism has vanished from popular consciousness. We cannot move forward to a place when ordinary working people do not know where that place is.
Yes, capitalism has gone through a kind of crisis, but to me, it seems improbable, in the absence of socialist organisation or ideas, that capitalism - or even the market fundamentalist variation of it which has been dominant in the past three decades - will implode in the near future; and even if it did, it seems even less likely that any kind of socialism would emerge from the ruins. How one responds to that situation is a matter of choice. One can join or support the anomic protest movements, go into one of the far-left micro-parties, work with a single-issue campaign, write comments on Facebook, make jokes, or do nothing. We can enjoy with Schadenfreude the current difficulties of capitalism, but to think that those difficulties will deliver socialism - or even a better world is a delusion.
1 September 2014
He that his whole youth denies
Is surely dead before he dies
The strangest thing about Jill is that I can remember neither the first nor the last time I met her. Thinking back from 2014, my earliest recollection of her was in our fourth year registration group classroom, presided over by the eccentric nose-picking maths teacher and retired naval officer, Commander Campbell. We were fifteen years old and it was 1977.
She sat near the window towards the back of the room, sharing a desk with her friend Frances O. My attention rarely fell on her. She was neither the most attractive girl in the class, nor the most vociferous, so she tended to blend into the mass of girls that teenage boys are apt to ignore. Yet she did emerge out of the crowd, and I grew to love her.
From the summer term of our fourth year my memories of her are now vague. Gradually she became an occasional member of the circle of four or five boys in the registration group who took school subjects seriously; she like us was a member of the top set for both English and maths. In breaks we started chatting and joking with her. But of our conversations, I now remember nothing.
In September 1977 we began our fifth and final year at Woolmer Hill Secondary School. All fifth year registration classrooms were in a separate modern building known as Upper School, and there we tended to roam freely from room to room on the breaks and during the lunch hour. I sought her out for conversation and we became closer; and slowly I developed a deepening attachment to her. Yet for now it remained constrained by the rules of normal school comradeship. We were not yet a couple in anybody’s eyes.
Girls and sex before Jill
If it had been in my character, I would have asked Jill out directly, but I was too reserved and confused in my motives. My sexual imagination until then had been directed at girls, perhaps more classically beautiful and a little older, but none had shown the slightest interest in me.
Throughout secondary school, I had waxing and waning, but totally unreciprocated, love for my classmate Darryl B. But I was probably not the only one. Had there been a poll to choose the most attractive girl in our school year, Darryl, tall and slender, with her distinguished facial features and long blond hair would have won easily. I first saw Darryl when she joined our primary school in our last year. Aged eleven, I fell in love with her instantly. She sat in front of me in class; her flowing golden hair easily in reach. I was mesmerised by her beauty, and on some days I even took to discreetly following her home after school to the veterinary practice her father owned on one of the main roads that led out of the town. When I found myself alone, I day dreamed all kinds of absurd childish scenarios that would bring us together. It was never to be.
As the years went by, I never received a single kind word from her. Much to my shame, aged thirteen, I once came across Darryl at a bus stop alone. I hurled every abuse I could at her, mocking her arrogance and physical beauty; she just looked ahead. In the late 2000s I found her on Facebook, then still proudly single, though she would marry in 2014. She had started her working life in tourism, but had now gravitated to commercial psychology. In her free time she was interested in amateur dramatics and kept cats at home. She did not accept my friendship request. Perhaps that was for the best, as we lacked any kind of interest in common. All I would have done, if she had acknowledged my existence, is to have apologised to her.
So in my immediate post-puberty years at secondary school - apart from a totally imaginary relationship with Darryl - I had no connection with girls. Even casual encounters through conversation were rare. From the age of fourteen or so, my fantasies became focused on young women and girls in their later teens, young women, of course, who had no interest in a young teenager like me.
In my mid teens, focusing my desires on young women four or five years older than me was hardly abnormal. My orientation was reinforced, though not created, by the ready availability in the mid 1970s of so-called girlie mags, which featured young women of this age as models. Censorship at that time prohibited spread legs shots, men with erections and anything other than obviously simulated sexual activity. In the majority of cases, these magazines chose to feature women alone in sexually provocative poses. Their main use was to facilitate masturbation, and that was how I used them.
Aged eleven, I had first come across girlie mags when playing in some woodlands near the High Lane housing estate, where many of pupils of Woolmer Hill lived. One magazine had been partly ruined by rain, but was still readable. I was immediately fascinated by the pictures, but Michael W. informed me that the written parts were the most sexually arousing. Left alone at the end of the afternoon, I took the pictures home. Such was my interest and excitement that I cycled back to the woodland to retrieve the rest of the magazine. That night in bed I was conscious of having my first ejaculation.
For the rest of my time at Woolmer Hill, I kept a stock of wank mags in a small locked suitcase under my bed. My parents never inquired about the case and, when I think back now, it is impossible to believe that they did not know what it contained. Their attitude to sex was not informed by either religious beliefs or moral conservatism, so at no stage did I feel guilt about the possession of the magazines. Instead, my mother viewed sex - or at least made my sister and I view sex - as something dirty and not to be talked about, rather like one would not discuss defecation. So the unspoken rule at home was that providing nothing was said or publicised, anything was possible.
The accusation that in my mid-teens I viewed the girls of my age merely as sex objects is only partially true. I certainly did wish to have sexual relations with females and was quite capable of seeing that as an end in itself, but I fantasised just as much about being able to share an intellectual and emotional intimacy with a girl who would become my girlfriend, and by the time I was fifteen that desire was firmly embedded in me. And that was what eventually led me and bound me to Jill.
Quite unexpectedly at the end of the hot summer of 1976, my father, even then in his late sixties, offered to take me to Paris for a day. We travelled overnight on the ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg. Leaving him to sleep, I wandered alone onto the deck and looked over the railing at the dark waves lapping against the sides of the ship. In a cabin opening directly onto the deck, obviously reserved for maintenance staff, an irritated exchange of words took place in French and a woman in her late teens or early twenties emerged onto the deck. The top of her was covered by an anorak, but beneath that she wore a short loose white skirt which flapped around in the sea wind, periodically revealing her thighs and bottom. She lit a cigarette and leaned over the railings a few metres away from me, totally unaware of my growing lust for her.
Then in the spring of 1977, I had finished my newspaper paper delivery round early one Saturday morning. A weak sun was shining, giving a bright welcome warmth to a still deserted town centre. Caroline S. was sitting alone smoking on a bench next to the town hall. She had a Saturday job in one of the town shops, which she would go to later, but now, before opening time, she was sprawled on the public bench deep in thought. Much attracted to this young woman, I imposed my presence on her.
I knew Caroline by sight; she was a year older than me and was a popular choice of companion among the more adult fifth formers. We somehow struck up a discussion about depression and she offered me a cigarette. It was a painful moment because I had to decline it, as I didn’t smoke. Yet, as we talked on about intimate feelings, I felt increasingly aroused by her. I was captivated by the tightness of her jeans around her thighs and the white skin of her neck. I put my arm round her and kissed her on the cheek.
She did not push me away immediately, but disentangled herself diplomatically. There was no scorn only an embarrassed pity. Her message was clear; she did not want a relationship with me, the introverted middle-class boy; she was interested in men. She told me that there were many more suitable girls at school, and she turned out to be right in the end.
The Biannual Haslemere Funfair
In the 1970s - and maybe before and afterwards - a funfair came to Haslemere in May and September. It took over a car park on Wey Hill, the main road which ran through the west of the town. The funfair site was clearly visible from my bedroom, so from my earliest childhood, I could see the flashing coloured lights and the illuminated arms of the octopus as they whirled the revellers around. The fair ran on Thursday and Friday evenings till ten and then on Saturday afternoon and evening until eleven at night. As a child my parents, sister and I always visited the fair on the Saturday afternoon.
Now aged fifteen, I told my parents that I was going to the fair alone on the Friday night. They had no objection. Dressed in my white woollen pullover and tight velvet jeans, off I went. I had no plans to meet anyone, so I roamed the fair rather at a loose end. Then my spirits rose: getting off the switch-back were three girls I knew, Sue T, the academically most successful girl in the school, Morag M. and Jill. I was struck by how attractive Jill looked, no longer wearing her school uniform, but made up with delicate eye-shadow and powder, and wearing a dark skirt and top under a flowing white coat.
I was determined to attach myself to the girls and Jill made it easy for me. Very quickly Sue and Morag drifted off together leaving me alone with Jill. I had recently discovered pacifism as an ideology and was expounding my views to her; it became a handy excuse not to go to a shooting range to win a trophy for her. When she praised my clothing as in keeping with my beliefs, I felt an understanding flow between us. I wanted her all to myself, so I complained about the noise of the fair and suggested a walk. Rather to my surprise she agreed. We set off into the warm late summer evening.
We walked past the shops of Wey Hill, then past the then still standing Rex cinema and some way up the steep main road leading out of the town towards Hindhead. It all took place in a trance. I had no plan, nor any real idea where we were going. I was simply captivated by her; never before had a girl to whom I was attracted wanted to be alone with me. What we talked about I have long forgotten, but I remember that she listened. And somewhere up the Hindhead Road, I unintentionally stumbled into her and steadied myself by putting my arms around her. And, as if in a single movement, I kissed her, with my tongue searching out hers. There was no reluctance or resistance, but a mutually felt desire to touch and hold. Never before had a girl responded positively to my advances. And at that moment, I felt I had crossed a bridge in my life; she became my emotional partner.
A bank with tall trees stood between the footpath and the main road. Next to us, a bed of fallen leaves covered the sandy soil and tree roots at the edge of the path. We collapsed onto it.
The fair was reaching its end by the time Jill and I returned; Sue T. and Morag M. had long gone. Our minds were now in different places: I felt possessive and protective towards Jill and was reluctant to let her go, while she was irritated that her friends had gone home without her and with a tale to tell. I saw her onto the next bus to Hindhead and made my way home.
I wondered then, as I still do today, whether my parents could sense the emotional turmoil inside me, and if so, whether they could guess the cause. Even though I felt no sense of having done wrong, I had a sudden urge to clean my shoes, something which must have amused my parents.
Never formally boyfriend and girlfriend
Even before our intimacy on the evening of the town funfair, I was aware that Jill already had a boyfriend. She made no secret of the fact to me, and almost certainly shared the information with people in our friendship group, particularly the girls, though I never asked her about this.
I never met Ken. He was three years older than Jill and was a first year economic student at Exeter University. His parents lived in a village some forty kilometres away, so even when he returned home from Exeter - presumably at Christmas, Easter and then in the summer - he was hardly nearby. Jill had met him though her elder brother, and Ken and she must have become acquainted in the summer of 1977, when Jill was fifteen and he had not yet started university. We hardly ever spoke about Ken, and by the time Jill’s relationship with him ended in the summer of 1978, my own relationship with her was coming apart.
At no point in my year-long helter-skelter relationship with Jill did Ken’s existence limit my intimacy with Jill, though his existence did profoundly affect my expectations for the future. It very rarely occurred to me, even in fantasy, that Jill and I would pair up for life: and we lived the relationship one day at a time. Ken was irrelevant to the communication which flowed between us and the meaning I created out of our friendship, but his existence had a huge effect on our external behaviour and how we presented our relationship to others.
I had little problem playing second fiddle to the invisible Ken at school. The fact that Jill and I were paired up through much of the school day was plain to anyone who cared to look. My immediate male friends did not have girlfriends and accepted unquestioningly that I was having some sort of relationship with Jill, as indeed I was. The details didn’t matter. With Jill’s female friends, I always felt a tinge of embarrassment, as I suspected that Jill had emphasised to them that I was not her partner, but against that I was reassured by two simple facts. First, at school I competed with no other boy for Jill’s attention and we spent a great deal of time together, as if we were a couple; and second, Ken was never there. So, whatever Jill might have said, observable facts, at least to some extent, spoke otherwise.
Where my status did cause me hurt and embarrassment was with my parents. Even if Jill and I had declared ourselves a pair, matters would not have been easy. My mother did not believe in Victorian propriety between the sexes, but she did believe, hypocritically, in the appearance of such values. In addition, having anyone visit our home, male or female, was difficult on account of her acerbic tongue directed at the pretentions of youth. Once I remember a teenage friend of my sister’s, who was wearing make-up, being asked whether she “smeared that stuff all over face in an attempt to make herself look attractive.” I avoided bringing anyone from my peer group to our family home and maintained an apartheid-like divide between school and home life. The fact that Jill did not consider herself my boyfriend only added further weight to my determination of keep her out of my parental orbit to avoid the disapproval, scorn and sarcasm. Of course, my parents knew that I was having some kind of relationship, but, except for the occasional snide remark, the matter was never spoken about.
Jill’s parents were of a younger generation and unlike mine were still in work. Her mother I only met once on the street after walking Jill home after school. She was polite, pleasant and inconsequential. Her father, a peripatetic music teacher, emitted a permanently angry and disapproving manner towards me, perhaps mostly because he took the view that his daughter should not date two boys simultaneously, rather than opposition to me personally. I recall clearly the fact, though not the circumstances, when he took the phone away from Jill to tell me with mock concern that she already had a boyfriend. Immediately, the statement cut like knife through me, but then I already knew that, and anyway I saw Jill every day during and after school. Yet to be fair to him, he never prevented or forbade Jill from seeing me, if only because attempting to do would have been pointless most of the time.
Her father developed the opinion that I had been adopted, which explained for him in some strange way what he regarded as my obsessional attraction to his daughter. He even managed to impregnate the adoption theory into Jill’s mind for a while, so she asked me on several occasions if it were true. It was not. And even if it had been, it would hardly have altered the overall situation. But most of all he upset me on a couple of occasions by phoning my parents to leave the message that Jill could not meet me when we had planned a weekend rendezvous. That Jill and I couldn’t gallivant on this or that Saturday was disappointing, but to be given that information by my mother was deeply embarrassing. Yet, save for one incident in the summer of 1978, when I had a major run-in with him, Jill’s father played little role in my relationship with his daughter.
What role, then, did the ever-absent Ken play for Jill? I suppose having an eighteen year-old boyfriend when she was fifteen and sixteen gave her a pedestal to stand on among her female friends, which helped propel her mentally along the route to the adult world, a place which she seemed keener to enter than any of her peers. Perhaps, too, Ken served as a means of restraining me and my uncontrollable love for her, for which she always felt an element of ambiguity. Or perhaps it was all of those things. For me, Ken was sometimes an embarrassment, but was usually an irrelevance. But later on at the end of the summer of 1978 his ghost-like restraint on my relationship with Jill also helped me to accept the end of an affair which was becoming increasingly pointless and destructive.
On that Monday in September 1977, following the departure of the town fun-fair, I felt a great deal of weight on my shoulders as I sat on the bus on my way to school. Of course, it was possible to ignore my experience of the previous Friday evening and simply carry on as before, but I did not feel inclined to do so. A new chapter had opened in my life and I wanted to explore it. I completely repudiated the idea that our intimacy would lead nowhere.
In school Jill was distant, a little cool, but not rejecting. No doubt Sue T. and Morag M. had spread the news that Jill had eloped from the fairground with me, and although Jill was not a keen socialite and gossip, she would have had to explain herself to her female peers. Among the boys, though, I was not aware of any rumour or insinuation having been disseminated, so I was free in breaks to seek out Jill as I normally did without any male whispering behind my back.
I cannot now remember whether it was that Monday or a full week later that I took the plunge and invited Jill to the cinema. Even today, I can recall the strength of my desire to keep up the momentum and not let our relationship fall back into a mere school friendship. I had to do something. Never before had I asked a girl out and it seemed particularly hackneyed to invite her to the cinema, but I could not conjure up an alternative location. At first, and momentarily, I thought she would refuse from the nonchalant look in her eyes, but in fact she quickly consented. We had a date.
That Monday night we agreed to meet at the bus stop on the Hindhead Road, only a few metres from where the old red-brick, cube-shaped Rex cinema then stood. I had chosen Monday because it was my chess night, and instead of turning up at the chess club, I could spend the evening with Jill, without alerting my parents to my plans. Then, aged fifteen, I was not free to wander at will. An understanding was in place with my parents about going out, namely that during the day I could go in and out as I pleased, but in the evenings, except for short walks in the neighbourhood which I often took and enjoyed, I didn’t leave the house without saying where I was going. However my plans for that Monday night didn’t work out quite so smoothly.
My mother almost casually informed me that my father might also be going to the chess club that evening. As Dad never attended the club, I was momentarily shocked, but almost immediately realised it was a ruse. Quite obviously, my parents knew about my plans - and they could only have known about them from Jill’s parents. I didn’t make any decision to change my agreement to meet Jill because I still felt it unlikely that my seventy-year-old father would wish to walk the two kilometres or so on a cold autumn evening, merely to call my bluff and I was right. But my parents devious method of informing me that they knew my plans also tied their hands. They couldn’t ask me about my evening, without admitting that the whole idea of my father coming to the chess club was disingenuous. So in the end nothing was said on either side.
Darkness had already fallen on that late September evening in 1977 when I arrived absurdly early at the Hindhead Road bus stop. I stood on the other side of the road and watched as several buses deposited a handful of passengers and then drove on. I grew progressively more disappointed, until finally I saw a young woman walking down the brightly-lit aisle of an approaching bus. Though I failed to recognise her immediately, the attractive woman on the bus was Jill. I crossed the road to meet her. I remember her long coat, heavily powdered face, her perfume and her loose woollen polo-necked sweater. I felt overwhelmed because she had made so much effort to dress so attractively; yet I also felt an anxiety and distraction radiating from her, as if she were with me only reluctantly, or had paid a very high price to be there. In retrospect, I suspect that her parents had criticised her rendezvous with me, though they had not vetoed it. In the cinema, we played out the traditional roles: I put my arm round her, we watched the film whose title and content I have now forgotten, and we kissed and cuddled. The evening ended with a bus to Hindhead taking her away from me.
The evening was neither a great success nor a disaster. Even if there was parental disapproval and elements of doubt on Jill’s side, our teenage relationship had survived a week. I had established that we could go out together, despite the obstacles and objections. That I wanted to deepen my relationship with Jill was not in question, but it was clear, too, that Jill enjoyed and accepted my company and wished to continue the relationship. She had invested heavily in it, too. Strangely though, until leaving school in June 1978, Jill and I never formally went out again in the evening.
Our main meeting place was our daily contact at school and the hour or so after the school day. In the lessons themselves, we sat apart. Our places in the classrooms had been chosen and established long before I started my relationship with Jill, so I continued to sit with my male friends and Jill sat with her friend Frances O. I did not regret this: most subjects interested me and the idea of canoodling with Jill at the back of the class did not appeal, even if I had been allowed to do it. There were only two exceptions to that basic pattern: German and Physical Education.
The pupils studying German, as with most of the minor subjects, were divided into two classes. The higher class was destined to take the O Level examination, while the lower class was condemned to trying for the near useless CSE qualification. In every one of my eight subjects, I was initially in the O Level class, but that changed thanks to Mrs James, our German teacher, who was convinced that the only way to get anybody through the O Level was not to examine her own teaching methodology, but to set continual tests and demote people who performed badly, until she had only a handful of pupils whom she felt could pass. Jill and I survived most of these periodic purges, but in the end we both fell victim to demotion and ended up swelling the numbers in Mrs Green’s CSE German class.
Immediately on entering that class, I realised that amid the chaos and disorder that all future learning in German was impossible. For the first time at school, I joined with the mass of pupils talking throughout the lesson and learning nothing. I had anticipated sitting next to Jill, but she ended up sitting next to a quiet and sensitive boy, Steve M. I felt left out, and though I never suspected anything more than friendship and an exchange of confidence existed between Jill and Steve M. I felt somewhat miffed at missing out by not having Jill sitting next to me. Thirty-three years later in 2011 Steve M was to recall:
[Jill] was probably the first girl that I felt able to really talk to. At this distance in time I've no idea what we used to talk about though... It was a joy to find a girl other than my sister that I didn't feel looked down on me. That could say more about myself than Jill. You and Jill are the only 'couple' I remember from the fifth form.
Things didn’t work out too well in physical education, either. In our final year, thanks to the reforms brought in by the new head Mrs Hollingdale, we were able to chose each term our sporting activity for the weekly games afternoon. Among the options was swimming. Though I wasn’t particularly fond of swimming, visiting the Haslemere municipal swimming pool had a number of advantages. Jill and I could leave school after lunch and walk to the pool together. Watched over by the easy-going Mr Sellars, we could swim for as short a time as we wanted; and then have the rest of the afternoon to ourselves. Stupidly, I overplayed my hand.
The swimming pool had a rule against petting in the water, and much to our embarrassment, but particularly Jill’s, we fell foul of the regulations. As a general rule, Jill and I did not engage in public displays of affection. The circumstances of the relationship and our predispositions meant that our behaviour tended to be discreet, particularly so in school. For instance, on the school premises we never attempted to kiss, cuddle or hold hands, though I have many memories from school of briefly touching her arms as acts of affection. Out of school in public places we were a little more demonstrative; and therein lay the fault. I behaved in the pool as if we were not at school, and when the attendant blew his whistle and highlighted our delict in front of everyone, including Mr Sellers, the damage was done. Whether of her own volition, or under pressure, Jill selected another sport. Not only was that in itself a humiliation for me, but by travelling alone to swimming pool one afternoon a week, I was no longer able to see Jill after school on that day of the week.
At lunchtime and breaks we did not live in each other’s pockets, either. I retained my circle of male friends and Jill hers. Before school we never met. Jill was often late, rushing down the path from the Upper School building and arriving in morning assemblies just as it was about to start. Her inability to be on time and the indignity of having to rush disturbed me. At breaks, I would seek her out and we would talk as a pair or else she, and sometimes her friends, would join our circle. I have no recollection, though, of ever talking to her amongst only her female friends.
In the Upper School building, the commercial skills room (i.e. the room with the typewriters) was set aside at breaks and at lunchtime for girls alone, making it a boy-free zone. Nothing irritated me more than Jill ensconced in that room with several of her female friends, her back to me, with me indicating that I wished to speak to her and Sue T. and Morag M. who could see my desperate efforts to contact Jill, sadistically taking their time to tell her. If Jill responded positively to my summons, I felt vindicated, but if she turned round annoyed by the disturbance I felt humiliated. But she never ignored me or failed to come to the door.
Fortunately, Jill spent very little time in that mostly empty room, but either spent time with me alone or with my friends. Our school environment in our final year was much more comfortable than earlier. How much that had to do with our being in our final year and how much it had to do with Mrs Hollingdale’s humanising reforms of Headmaster Anning’s cold grey regime is unclear. The upper School Building was ours to roam, and we could take refuge in the long lounge which ran the full length of the building. At one end was the coffee bar where volunteer pupils sold tea, coffee, and oxo for five pence; it was also possible to purchase chocolate bars. In the corner stood the TV that served the small quantity of lunchtime TV available in the 1970s. Soft chairs enable pupils to lounge. And it was here in relative comfort, otherwise unknown at Woolmer Hill School, that we could talk, debate and argue. Even without public displays of affection, Jill was linked to me; everyone knew that. Around us we had friends, and to a greater or larger extent we were happy.
From September 1977 until June 1978, when I left school following my exams, I very rarely discussed my relationship with my male friends. Later I did, but not then. Jill could be part of our male dominated circle and things continued as they did before our relationship. At other times, Jill and I sought out each other’s company at school, so we were clearly seen as a pair. I felt at ease with myself in the situation and my relations with my fellow pupils were trouble free. Nevertheless, while the vast majority of teachers ignored our relationship - or else their comments never reached my ears - there were exceptions.
Our relationship and the teachers
Among the teachers of teenagers a favourite topic of staffroom chat has always been spotting and predicting romantic attachments among their pupils. Of course, I have no information at all about any of those staffroom conversations at Woolmer Hill 1977-78, but I have no doubt that they occurred. Over three decades later, I can only recall the actions and comments of the four teachers who intervened in some way in our relationship.
The most serious intervention was by our English teacher, Mrs Blewett, whom we were compelled to meet nearly every day of the school week. Middle aged, middle-class and heavily opinionated, Blewett sought not only to instil good spelling and elocution into her pupils (which she regarded as the essence of English), but also attempted to chisel her way into the developing personalities of those she taught. She purported to act as gatekeeper to an adult world, defining and imposing the entry requirements. Those who adopted her world view Blewett labelled as mature; those who rebelled or thought difficulty had their adolescent self undermined by being publically written off as immature.
Lessons with Blewett thus tended to be psychologically stressful. Jill and I sat apart, so we avoided any public comment about our relationship. But still, the matter came up in a parent-teacher evening, which my mother attended. Normally, the events surrounding these meetings followed a routine: my teachers said generally positive things about me, but added the comment that I could do better; and when she came home my mother would stress only the negative aspects, which I would ignore. However on this occasion, my mother returned and told me that one of my teachers had described me as immature. Not wanting to highlight the issue, I appeared uninterested, but inside I was in turmoil: Who had said that and why?
Of course, Mrs Blewett was the prime suspect, but I was not sure. I began to feel as if there might be parallel worlds: the one I thought I was living in at school and then a real one. Quite simply the idea was driving me mad and I wandered around for a couple of days in a state of zombie-like distraction. In the end, I approached my mother to demand the teacher’s name and, as I had expected, the culprit was Blewett. I felt a great deal of relief even as my anger focused on Blewett. Apparently, Blewett had been surprised to learn from my mother that I had never spoken of my relationship with Jill at home and then she had, unsurprisingly, labelled my behaviour immature. Of course, Blewett knew nothing of my home situation, nor anything about the complications of having a relationship with a girl who purported to the world to be having a relationship with someone else. Blewett’s ignorant arrogance caused me much pain and embarrassment. But I coped with it, so did Jill and the problem melted away.
The other teacher with whom we spent the most time during the week was our maths’ teacher, Mrs Myall. Diminutive in stature, Mrs Myall was perennially angry about some misconduct, real or imaginary, but would then transform the whole situation into a joke, allow camaraderie between herself and her pupils, before suddenly pulling rank again. She took maths teaching seriously and I was in the small informal group of male pupils that took maths seriously, and in return Mrs Myall treated us favourably and granted us licence in class.
Unlike Mrs Blewett, our maths teacher did not normally try to delve into our private lives, and even if she criticised pupils more than Blewett, Myall generally attacked the behaviour rather than the person. When I learnt through Jill that Myall had taken her aside and warned her that I was having a bad influence on her, I was extremely surprised. I saw neither reason nor evidence for such a claim, yet, paradoxically, her remark boosted my confidence because Myall’s criticism of me implied that I was the stronger party. Hitherto, my worry had been - particularly after the comments by Blewett - that I was perceived by teachers as the exploited party, or as being immature and emotionally dependent on a girl, whose interests lay elsewhere. Now, I was the one supposedly wielding the influence, and to my further amusement Jill herself utterly dismissed Mrs Myall’s opinions as an invasion of her privacy. To this day, Myall’s behaviour in this matter remains an utter mystery to me.
At the start of the academic year in September 1977, Mrs Hollingdale was promoted from deputy to head teacher. Her style could not have been more different from her aloof predecessor, Headmaster Anning. Hollingdale not only endeared herself to the pupils and staff, but also to parents, who felt they could talk to her as equal human beings. Hollingdale never taught me, but for some reason she spoke to my mother at a parent-teaching evening - whether it was the same one as Mrs Blewett’s infamous comments were made I now can’t remember. She summed up her comments about me with the remarks, “Ah yes, well he is in love.” But unlike Blewett, when my mother informed Hollingdale that I said nothing of this at home, she was silent and said no more.
What was common in the comments of all three of these female teachers was that none had spoken to me directly. Two had spoken to my mother and one to Jill. The role of Mr Jimpson was quite different. Jimpson did not teach either us, as his chosen expertise was in tutoring low-ability classes in every subject. His main interest, though, was in rules and discipline, which extended to the whole of schools, with special emphasis on the final year. What Jimpson really yearned was respect from pupils, so those intelligent enough - and I include Jill and myself in that - did two things: first, keep out of his way, and second, if we did encounter him on his patrols, we showed him the respect he sought, however hypocritical our behaviour.
I recall no formal rule in the school regulating the behaviour of teenage relationships. There existed an informal understanding on the matter that if pupils did not engage in public displays of affection their private lives would left in peace. But much to my annoyance, once while walking in front of the Upper School building, Jimpson came up behind us and told us to separate or else he would through a bucket of water over us. Of course, there was an element of humour in the command - and had the remark come from a fellow pupil we might have laughed - but from a teacher, the remark was deeply humiliating to us both. I remember turning to him with a painful half-smile - and on that occasion, much to his credit, he just walked off.
Leaving the school premises was a liberating experience. During his long reign, Headmaster Anning had developed the irritating habit of periodically positioning himself on the grassy bank which overlooked the main entrance to the school in order to view the departure of his pupils. He and his successor, Mrs Hollingdale, had often stressed in assemblies that school authority bound pupils until they reached their front doors, but in reality leaving school did signal an end to the grip of school rules, particularly if you were on your own, in a small group or otherwise not incurring public attention.
Without doubt it was the hour - or sometimes longer - that Jill and I spent together and alone after school that cemented our school teenage relationship.
Nevertheless, a geographical difficulty had to be overcome. Jill cycled to school and her direct route home to Hindhead was to peddle a few hundred metres west until the small road in front the school met the A3, and then to carry on north to Hindhead. My route was the exact opposite: to head east into Shottermill, and then onwards to Haslemere itself. A couple of options for being together presented themselves.
Jill’s route home, before meeting the A3, ran through some heathland and some light forestation, all of which was open to the general public for recreational purposes. As the vast majority of pupils, whether on foot, by bike or bus, headed eastwards into Shottermill and Haslemere, the wooded area to the west was often deserted, even though the school was only a few hundred metres away. In good weather we could prop the bike against a tree and find a secluded spot near bushes with the only disturbance coming from the occasional pensioner walking a dog.
Cold and rain, though, often made the heathland inhospitable, but - as if a gift from heaven - on the junction of heathland road with the A3 lay a Little Chef cafe. To this day, I do not know why no other couples from Woolmer Hill School used it, seemed to know about it - or indeed why there were no school rules governing it. A mere five hundred metres from the school gates, it was already in another world. And there, armed with a cheap cup of Nescafe, we secluded ourselves at a corner table and talked as time ticked away.
Strictly speaking, there was no need for me to return home until the family ate, which my mother planned for seven in the evening every day, though usually we ate later than that. Nevertheless, there was an understanding that I would be home before six, and a later arrival would prompt notice and questions. That left me with two hours after school. So occasionally, unable to separate myself from Jill after our time on the common or in the cafe, the three of us - me, her and the bike - meandered up the pavement alongside the A3 to Hindhead. From there, I needed to use my precious paper-round money on the bus home or else have a very long walk.
Even after the swimming pool fiasco, there was one afternoon a week when things were different. Jill earnt some pocket money by babysitting for the Cohens. Gabriel Cohen had been our music teacher for a while at Woolmer Hill before taking up a position in one of the private schools in the area. He lived with his wife Myra and baby son in the small settlement of Camelsdale, immediately adjacent to the wider Haslemere area. Happily for me, Camelsdale was only a short detour from my quickest route home, and often - given the rather large distance between Camelsdale and Jill’s home in Hindhead - she was not accompanied by her bike on those afternoons, but relied instead on a lift from her father to school in the morning and lift home by Gabriel Cohen in the evening after babysitting.
The walk to the Cohens from Woolmer Hill involved a little used path which ran from Sturt Road to Camelsdale and passed a scout hut. Try as I might, I can no longer remember the beginning of the path, though I have found what looks like the path on Google Maps. My memory is of a winter’s evening, probably in late November, with darkness falling. The ground was too cold and wet to sit on; removing clothes was not an option. Against the wooden side of the scout hut we discovered together what cold fingers could do. I recall Jill’s face and I am in no doubt that what we did was not just for my gratification.
For a long time I neither went into the Cohens' house, nor did I meet the Cohens. I left Jill at the corner of the street and then made my way home. However one evening - and I can’t remember exactly when, and it may have been just after we left school - I knew that Jill was babysitting in the house and I walked to Camelsdale to spend the evening with her. It was a powerful experience as we had never been alone in a house before. We could have made use of the comfort afforded by soft sofas and bedrooms, but we did not. There was the practical problem of not knowing exactly when the Cohens would return, but also a psychological difficulty. We were in someone else’s house and I clearly had no right to be there.
When the Cohens returned they found us both sitting together on the sofa. I could see in their eyes that they were surprised and somewhat put out, but they hid their feeling behind politeness and, up to a point, friendliness to me. They offered us a hot drink and biscuits, but immediately realised that we had already helped ourselves earlier. Gabriel recognised me from school and we sat uneasily as four to talk. I told him my choices for A levels and we discussed rather unenthusiastically some of the logical problems surrounding the notion of correlation in sociology. The subject that would have bound the other three, music, was something of which I was entirely ignorant.
I had not only entered the Cohens' home uninvited, but I was almost unknown to them. The sense of unease was accentuated by the Cohens' being half a generation older than Jill and me, so they could neither treat us as peers, nor as surrogate parents. Jill, though, had adopted Gabriel and Myra as confidants, but I stood outside that relationship. Yet, despite the obvious tension in the situation, the short meeting in the Cohens' house had a profound positive effect on me, both immediately and in the long term.
Whatever Jill had told the Cohens about our relationship, my intimate presence with her in their house demonstrated our togetherness. The experience of sitting next to Jill on the sofa while talking to the Cohens roused in me a desire for recognition and permanence in our relationship to mirror that between Gabriel and Myra. At that moment, we were not just a couple in my own eyes, but I saw us as a couple vicariously through their eyes, too. I did not want the evening to end.
After that evening, I never saw the Cohens again; our whole conversation had probably lasted no longer than half an hour. Yet, Gabriel and Myra’s home and relationship established in my mind something akin to an ideal or goal for me in my future life, not just then, but for long after my teenage years. The Cohens peaceful terraced house embodied practical comfort for a man and women living together, intellectually open to the world, yet with privacy, intimacy and security - not to mention a freely available biscuit tin. Later, I would discover that same supposed ideal again in the life of a teacher at Godalming College. Of course, I knew nothing of the real life of the Cohens - it may or may not have been as I imagined it to be - but it was not the reality of their lives that mattered, only the reality of my mind at the time. However, after leaving university five years later, with Jill long gone, both the wife and the terraced house eluded me.
In June 1978, before leaving school, Jill and I faced our O-Level examinations. We had both already taken our English language and French O levels the year before and for both of us obtaining a maths O level was a near certainty. The rest were mere decoration or point-scoring, though I was determined to pass them all and get A grades in Maths and History. Jill, who didn’t wish to continue her education further was more relaxed. But for both of us the revision and exam period extended our free time, as we were no longer obliged to be in school from nine to four every day.
The weather was also getting warmer as the crisp spring sunshine gave way to early summer. After leaving the school premises we stayed out longer and wandered further afield. It became increasingly normal for me to spend most of my day with Jill, and in many ways the long afternoons of early summer in 1978 were the height of our relationship. One afternoon we ventured off the A3 to visit Waggoners Wells, a beauty spot consisting of several idyllic woodland ponds connected by streams. On our way a dog suddenly appeared in front of us, prompting Jill to take refuge behind me; her reflex action appealed to my teenage sense of masculinity. Then returning to Hindhead on the Grayshott Road, we saw coming towards us the small car of our judgemental English teacher, Mrs Blewett, who nonchalantly waved to us, a gesture which confirmed the naturalness of our being together.
Through all this Ken, Jill’s self-declared boyfriend, was never there, but never went away either. In school and during our hours together after it, his existence hardly mattered. It did however continue to prevent any mention of Jill at home. I continued to feel the shame of ever having to introduce Jill to my parents as someone else’s girlfriend. For that reason, I could never even ask for permission to go out in the evenings to meet her. Of course, if she were nearby - such as when she was at the Cohens - I could say I was going out for a walk and return as late as ten perhaps, but that was all.
But Jill aside, the freedom and restrictions that were imposed on me by my parents when I was sixteen and a half were more nuanced. Compared with many in my cohort, I enjoyed more freedom to travel, but a ban - never really spelled out - prevented me from participating in teenage gatherings. Discos, parties and youth clubs were ridiculed and placed beyond the pale. My mother seemed to believe that as a boy, I was capable of looking after myself as I went to places of my own choosing, but I was liable to be corrupted by meeting up with other young people from my peer group. All of this came to a head with Sue T’s party.
Sue T., outward-going and by far the most academically gifted pupil in our year, was having a party, and, on account of my friendship with Jill, I too received an invitation. From the very first, I knew I would go, but everything lined up to make it difficult to do so. Geographically, it was a nightmare: Sue T. lived in Grayshott, several kilometres beyond Hindhead. Even if my parents had been willing to see me go to the party, they had no car to bring me home. My host had invited me because she was a friend of Jill’s, so I couldn’t talk to my parents about that either. And finally, the whole concept of a house being given over to a teenage child for a drunken party was an anathema to my parents.
Yet, more and more, it seemed to me that Sue T.’s party was the crowning event for our wider friendship group, who were leaving school, and it was a ceremonial event that I needed to experience with Jill. The idea of Jill being there without me sickened me, so my resolve to go was firm. One small task that lay ahead was to purchase some alcohol to take with us to the party. Then as now the law forbade persons under eighteen years of age purchasing alcohol, though in the 1970s much less energy and enthusiasm was expended on enforcing the law. The main obstacle was the price which then, relative to earnings, was considerably higher than today. Nevertheless Jill recommended a bottle of whisky, and I duly purchased it without any trouble. I handed it to her and she transported it to the party.
It was a massive walk from Haslemere to Grayshott, but at sixteen I accomplished it without difficulty. Jill had arrived at the party before me. Unlike school, which was the only other place where Jill and I were together with other people, nothing here prevented public displays of affection between us. Nevertheless, despite the intimacy that had developed between the two of us when we were alone that summer, Jill was slightly cold with me because, I suppose, the fact that we were not formally a couple had to be proved to Sue T and everybody else. Even so, Jill and I spent most of the night together - or at least when I was not talking to my male school friends and she was not in conversation with Sue T. and the other girls.
The party itself had the format of teenage parties which we had inherited from the generation before us and has endured to the present day. One room was set aside for music, dancing and drinking and another contained every cushion and pillow the house could provide. The warmth of the summer night allowed the participants to spill out into the garden, which was also later used as a male toilet and vomitorium. As Jill and I were not exactly “getting to know” each other, we had no need to make use of the smooching facilities, and most of my memory is of our being outside. As this was my first teenage party, the situation was new to me and my behaviour was not the best for two connected reasons.
Alcohol and being inebriated was not something which appealed to me; it was ugly and produced symptoms which I didn’t find attractive. Strangely enough, the only occasion previously that I had become drunk was on a visit to Paris with my near teetotaller Dad when I was fourteen. At each cafe when I was asked what I wanted to drink, I had asked for beer and had been given it. But here there was no restriction, so I drank the punch laced with spirits until the room was spinning. Worse, though, was to follow. Irritated by the lack of public intimacy with Jill, I started dancing with another girl which ended with the two of us in the room with the pillows and cushions. Even as I caressed the strange body, I knew I didn’t want to be doing it and I politely extricated myself. I spent the rest of the evening rather sheepishly with Jill, who was mildly irritated by the event.
By the end of the party around midnight, my drunkenness had alleviated, but a terrible task lay ahead, the trek home and facing my parents. Even today I can remember being utterly shattered while negotiating the endless Hindhead Road which led into Haslemere. When I was halfway up the stairs, my parents came into the hall; they were concerned about me, angry and had called the police. My mother was in tears and my father calmly phoned the police to say that I had returned home. Soon their anger and relief turned to making the simple point: why can’t you tell us if you go out? I should have realised that a change was taking place: no longer would they try to stop me going out (from time to time at least) at night, but they reasonably enough wanted to know, if not where I was going, when I would be back. Much to my discredit - for the first and last time in my life - I told them to “fuck off.” The following day the incident was brushed under the carpet and was never spoken about again.
Reflections on our relationship as we left school
Throughout my discussion of my relationship with Jill from its inception in September 1977 until leaving school the following June, two issues have been skirted around and not addressed. Time and time again, I have said that Jill and I were immersed in conversation but have never said what we talked about; and I have also omitted to say very much about what I think Jill thought of me. It is now time to address those two issues.
The reason I have great difficulty in remembering what Jill and I talked about is that we talked about everything: the relationship between men and women, politics, modern life, our friends, relationships, sexuality. Our views largely coincided, but there were two strands of difference. On matters of individual life style and choice, Jill was far more unorthodox than me: for instance though she was academically successful and highly intelligent she planned to leave school immediately, wanting to survive on the fringe by giving music lessons. She had far more time for the hippy-like, the alternative and for mysticism. I, by contrast, sought the standard academic track of A-levels to be followed by university, and outwardly at least I epitomised normality. On politics our views also diverged: her background was in the southern English lower middle class; the TV series The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin spoke to her and to many of my classmates. Despite the unorthodoxy of her personal plans, she took refuge in lower middle class conservatism and welcomed the prospect of Margaret Thatcher’s authoritarianism, which was waiting to triumph before the decade was out. My liberalism and social democracy tied me to left and led me to support the Callaghan government over the Tory opposition.
If in social and political affairs I tended to view Jill’s views at times as naive and underdeveloped, then Jill thought the same of my personality.She harboured the myth that she was more attuned to the adult world than I was, believing that she would soon be admitted into full adulthood. In that her largely phantom, but highly symbolic, boyfriend, the first year university student, Ken, played a facilitating role. Beside him I was constructed in her mind as a child, whom she could associate with and emotionally care for whenever she felt the need. Yet that was far from the whole picture. Much of the time we were what she said we were not: boyfriend and girlfriend. I might have sought her out more often than she did me, yet she did want me to hear her worries, to comfort her and for me to love her. Her relationship with me was propelled forward by that ambiguity in her thinking. My feelings towards her were perhaps simpler.
Nevertheless, the idea that I was not Jill’s girlfriend and that she judged me to be childlike in relation to her is amply demonstrated in a poem that she wrote and handed to me in the early summer of 1978. A copy of the poem has survived until today among my papers - the only document that I retain about Jill. I reproduce here the poem in full. Where there are obvious mistakes in the text, I have correct them, but where something is wrong, and I do not know what was intended, I have left the original. The mistakes might either have been in Jill’s original or in my typing it up in 1978.
My loving friend
I feel a body,
Warm with humanity,
With imperfect love.
I feel the warmth of lust,
I see the hot tears,
And of despair.
Tears made too beautiful by suffering,
And by the strange untouchable innocence,
Which dwells in and behind them,
In misty brown depths.
I see eyes crying out for me,
Open, unashamed, imploring,
Searching my soul,
Like a child’s eyes.
They search for love.
A warm mouth,
Your mind is alive with thought,
Your heart with love,
Your body with lust,
And your soul with anguish,
And tiny moments of happiness.
All these may be misguided and confused,
But they throb like the heart that throbs against my body,
With sincerity and humanity,
With warmth and life.
Never cynical about your love,
Nor ever expecting it to meet perfection beyond its donor,
You are too straight,
To be anything but beautiful.
There is strength in your tears,
For they come readily,
Like your love,
Your search for love,
And your moments of happiness.
Your simplicity is sometimes childlike,
But there is strength in that.
I see in you complexity of mind,
Overshadowed by simplicity of the heart,
Which is how it should be, perhaps?
You have the courage,
To follow your heart,
To serve it loyally,
Never sneering at its joys and pains,
And to pronounce its message,
Without holding back,
Without coming prey to consideration, self-consciousness?
This I admire.
And when I look into your troubled face,
I feel my worry, my self-pity, my petty concerns, and my cynicism,
And down in those exquisite, hot human tears,
I feel calm, and full of acceptance of pity.
I need you.
I need the security of your arms,
The reassurance of your ardour,
The constancy of your devotion.
I want to comfort you.
I want to be sure that you will always be there,
At the other end of a phone,
In a superficial plastic restaurant.
Always ready to want to put your arm about me.,
When I need you,
To talk to me,
To try to kiss me.
Perhaps your love for me is superficial?
Like the restaurants.
But it is good enough,
And you believe in it,
For the moment,
I write this,
Because I never need you, want you, love you,
When I’m with you,
But always when you are gone.
That is the irony.
I love the gestures of your mouth, your face,
And I love the charm which I see ever more clearly in your company.
You make love crudely,
But honestly, simply, warmly, with sincerity,
Fierce with the ruthless virility of youth.
And raw masculine strength,
I observe you,
A portrait of basic humanity.
With its greatness and weaknesses.
(I see pride, bitterness, selfishness,
But there is generosity, too)
You have taught me that the confusion of good and bad,
Gives beauty, pathos, bitter-sweet agony.
I love your faults and well as any other qualities you possess.
I see sweat on a brow,
I drench my lips in it.
Warm arms enfold me.
A body throbs with life,
Its heart pounds,
In the aftermath,
A voice whispers,
But the alone speaks.
The black curls wet with seat where they meet the face I know so well,
Rest against my breast,
Upon my lap.
I see my hand stroking a back,
And black curls.
I watch through a mist of tears I have not yet cried.
You find the strength and life in me.
I need you.
He is not you.
He will never be you.
I need you my loving friend,
For this second at least,
I need you.
And it is a very big second.
It contains the whole universe and all its emotion.
I sometimes wish I could fall in love with you,
- For ever and ever, perhaps?
But it cannot be.
You mean so little and so much,
My lovely loving friend.
I can no longer recall the circumstances in which I was handed the poem, but I do recall typing it up soon after receiving it on my mother's typewriter when my parents and younger sister were out one evening. It is my typed up version which has survived until today. Looking at the poem now in 2014, I can see that Jill had an admirable grasp of the English language for a sixteen year old although the message of the poem is in fact simple and is stated somewhat repetitively, “I’m very fond of you but you can’t be my partner.”
A day out in Bognor Regis
After thirty-five years, I can no longer recall the last time I walked through the gates of Woolmer Hill School as a pupil. The day I put down my pen in my last O level examination felt like the practical end of school life; and Sue T’s drunken teenage party in Grayshott marked my psychological departure from the school. Towards the end of June 1978, Woolmer Hill School fell away from us: we turned up for our exams, but otherwise we remained at home. In their minds, the teachers moved us into the category of former pupils, and became shy and distant towards us, having lost their role. Then one June day we left the institution for the last time. Our five years spent in the school were over for ever. I neither celebrated, nor lamented the fact, but just waited for the future to come to me.
Within little over a week, my emotional state would change fundamentally, but the for the first few days life seemed just like the start of an early and long summer holiday. And it was in those first few days that Jill and I made our emotional and botched excursion to Bognor Regis.
The seaside town of Bognor Regis, with its 23 000 inhabitants, lies some forty kilometres south of Haslemere on the south coast. As a holiday resort in the 1970s, the town, was distinctly lower middle-class with its rows of boarding houses, putting greens and tea shops. During several summers in my childhood, my father, mother, younger sister and I had either stayed in bed and breakfasts or rented flats in the more bourgeois west end of the seafront. The east of the town with its Butlin’s Holiday Camp was considered by mother as far too plebeian. But from those childhood memories and experiences, I had formed an emotional attachment to Bognor Regis. My desire to spend a summer’s day in the seaside town with Jill in June 1978 stemmed from some inner need to bring her into another part of my life - one tied to me and my family, but without my family's presence.
The logistics of travelling to Bognor Regis were not straightforward. Our first step was to take the then hourly bus from Haslemere Railway Station to the small market town of Midhurst in West Sussex; and from there a more frequent bus ran to Bognor, via Chichester. While the idea and impetus for the excursion came from me, Jill was clearly up for it. Both her parents were at work, so she scribbled a note and then took the four kilometre bus ride from Hindhead into Haslemere, where the two of us met up. For me simply telling my mother that I was going out for the day, gallivanting in the surrounding countryside, needed no further explanation, though of course I said nothing about Jill. We met up in front of Haslemere Railway Station and set off.
We got there easily enough and the weather remained warm and sunny. The idea of the trip, the planning of it and the getting there, was everything, so when we arrived I felt a strange sense of disorientation from wondering what to do next. There was no question of swimming in the cold water and the shingle beach with its oil-stained stones was uninviting for sitting. We could have wandered around the shops, but, with little money in our pockets and little interest on my side for doing that, I suggested that we walk along the coast to Pagham, a small settlement with a lagoon and sprawling caravan site. The bus home went through Pagham, so it seemed a reasonable enough project.
Even this walk was steeped in family history. In 1969, aged seven, I had come with my family to Pagham on our first ever holiday. We stayed a few days in a caravan belonging to friend of my father’s. One day my mother and I had done the reverse walk along the beach into Bognor, while my sister, then aged three, and my already sixty-year-old father had gone by bus.
If I had to select the highest point in my relationship with Jill, it would be during that walk. Before that afternoon, despite the occasional interruption and setback, our intimacy had seemed to move forward. Admittedly, it had no future; there was Ken, and behind that stood the fact that Jill’s plans for the future diverged so significantly from mine, but on a day-by-day basis our relationship, at least in my eyes, had become stronger and more meaningful. I had become more attached to Jill in the spring and early summer, and perhaps even psychologically dependent on her. After Bognor, our relationship continued to produce strong emotions in me, but the underlying issue became its collapse - even if its demise would be more through a series of ups and downs followed by a withering away rather than by rupture. But that afternoon, as two sixteen-year olds made their way along the beach hand-in-hand in weak English sunshine, time stood still. Jill was at my side, as I wanted her to be. I recall trudging through the shingle, watching the varied blues and greens of the sea, the sun casting its rays over the water and being truly lost in contentment.
Even six years later, aged twenty-two, the elation of that walk along the beach remained in my mind. In 1984, with some time on my hands, I penned a novella, and memories from Pagham beach were the driving force behind the following passage:
They dressed and went outside into the spring sunshine which shone brightly but was still not warm. They walked along the beach kicking stones with the sea breeze blowing into their faces. Brian’s resolution went round and round his head, ‘Helen I love you and I’ll never leave you.’ They sat on a rock having left the village some distance behind. They looked out to sea. A large ship was on the horizon but between it and them was only sea in different shades of blue. The smell was of the sea; the sound was of the waves. Their knees were touching and Brian had his arm around Helen's shoulders, while she had her arm around his waist. They turned towards each other and kissed; their tongues going deep inside the other’s mouth. Brian loved Helen. ‘Helen, I love you and I’ll never leave you.’
Yet despite my euphoria and Jill’s collusion in it, Woolmer Hill School was no longer there to bind us together. Whatever the rest of the summer would hold, for me the autumn would bring Godalming Sixth-Form College, study and A-levels, and inside me I was willing and mentally preparing for that. Even if I were growing up, I was doing so within the framework of established bourgeois late adolescence. And even though I would start work within a week, my job would be a temporary excursion into the adult world for pocket money and experience. For Jill, by contrast, was about to start her adult life in a clerical position in an insurance office in the nearby town of Farnham. For now her spending money came from an adult source, the dole, which in the 1970s school leavers could claim, but I could not. My meagre income still came from my newspaper round, which I had done since I was thirteen.
On Pagham beach, a shingle road ran inland, bordered by cafes and souvenir shops. I headed for the cafe where nine years earlier my father had bought the family plaice and chips. I remembered how he had been knocked sideways when presented with a bill for one pound two shillings and eight pence. We drank our coffee at a corner table and I looked into Jill’s eyes. At that moment I wanted her to be my publically recognised girlfriend; we had left school and there was no longer any other way in which we could now see each other on a daily basis. I suggested further excursions. She replied that soon Ken would be around. Though the remark hit me hard, it knocked me back only so far, out of my dreaming of course, back into the practicalities, as they had always been. I would continue to see Jill, continue to love and need her, at least for a while, but our relationship would not endure. She planned her life elsewhere.
Taciturn in disappointment, I walked with Jill to the main road and the bus stop. The bus to Midhurst duly arrived and our journey was uneventful. It was in Midhurst that we received a shock; we had missed the last bus to Haslemere. Three options presented themselves. The first was to walk the ten kilometres or so, which would mean arriving in Haslemere in the middle of the night, and then Jill would have an added walk to Hindhead. Jill suggested hitching, but that was something I had never done before, and in any event the road to Haslemere branched off outside Midhurst, so we would still have had to walk some distance. The third option, and the obvious one, even if humiliating, was to telephone Jill’s father and ask to be picked up. That was what we did.
The wait was a tense one. Though I could see that asking for parental help was the most sensible option, I hated having to do it. I was also not sure that I would be picked up too. Having Jill collected by her Dad and driven away, while I hiked home would be humiliating, but so was the alternative being driven home by Jill’s father. He arrived and opened the doors of the car without getting out. Jill climbed into the back seat and told me to get in too; it became clear that I was not going to be left behind. The front passenger door had been opened, but I had failed to take the cue, as it seemed arrogant in the extreme to get into the front of the car. But clearly Jill's father, now burning in silent anger, wanted most for me to be sitting apart from his daughter. I got in. We drove towards Haslemere in total silence.
I didn’t want to be driven to my front door, and even less for Jill’s father to make a scene in front of my parents. And fortunately that didn’t happen. About a kilometre from my house the direct route to Jill’s house in Hindhead diverged from my own way home. The car pulled up at the side of the road and I was told bluntly, “I think this is your nearest point.” I was relieved to get out the car, though I feared for the earful that Jill would now receive. I said goodbye to a somewhat depressed Jill slouched in the back seat and thanked her father for the lift; he almost choked in anger. I then walked home, anticipating the next row.
If I had phoned from Midhurst to tell my mother that I had missed the last bus home and would be walking, but not be back till the middle of the night, I might well have been told I was a “silly chump” and left to get on with it. But arriving home much later in the evening than I usually did, and having missed dinner, left my mother angry and worried. My father was out that evening. I felt her anger and pain, as she pointed to my cold dinner on a plate - and I felt sad, helpless and somewhat ridiculous.
In mid June there was ten weeks until I started my A-level courses at Godalming College in September 1978. I had no plans for a summer holiday away from home, so I was free to take up a job to increase my earnings beyond the meagre sum coming in from my morning newspaper round. Even though I got what I wanted quickly, the sudden change of circumstances from school life to the world of work affected me deeply and in ways I hadn’t predicted.
In the Haslemere area in the late 1970s finding temporary summer work was not difficult; more of an issue was the amount of pay a school leaver would receive. The town jobcentre was in a room above the public library in Wey Hill, but the office also had a noticeboard in the library window. Advertised there was a job as a temporary worker in a small woodwork firm paying £40 a week. I was apprehensive, never having applied for a job before, but the woman in the office made everything easy, and even sorted out the interview for me. I was asked to go to the firm immediately.
The small one-room workshop, with a small office near the entrance door, was in a building resembling a Nissan hut, and was stuck in the corner of the small fenced-in Blackdown Rural Industries industrial estate. Surrounded by National Trust Woodland, the industrial estate, a former military base, was about a two-kilometre cycle ride uphill from my parental home. The firm, which manufactured replacement wood pieces for Morris Traveller cars, was owned by two young ex-public school entrepreneurs, Gavin and Rusty. I was interviewed briefly by Gavin, who asked whether I wanted a weekly wage, as had been advertised, or whether I wanted to be paid piece rate for the work that I did. When I opted for the former, he agreed but abruptly informed me that he didn’t want me pissing about.
Very soon, though, I was entrusted with a large amount of responsibility for a sixteen-year old. I often opened-up in the mornings, I learned step by step how to work the woodwork machines, and I often dealt with the phone and customers in the office. Much of the time, I suffered from being alone for huge stretches of the day. My two bosses treated me well, but often I felt their condescension towards me, which resulted not just from their being older, but also out of a sense of class superiority on their part. I worked hard: my day started at 6.30 with my paper round, then home for breakfast and to make sandwiches for a working day that would end at five or later. I also worked on Saturday mornings till lunch-time.
One obvious benefit in my new routine was the improvement in my financial situation. With my paper round money and overtime counted in, I was earning double the normal wages of a sixteen year old. Of course, simple things like travelling by public transport in the area and buying refreshments were no longer impeded on financial grounds. I could buy books and clothes, whenever I wanted, but realising that my income would decimate in the autumn, I saved heavily. Financially, only one dispute arose: my mother, very pleased that I had found a job, suggested that I contribute to the family bills. But my father thankfully opposed the idea. He knew my job was temporary and that I would need money in the coming year at college. My mother, who always had a strong philistine streak, entertained the idea that I might actually abandon full-time academic education.
Yet my financial security did not stop the onset of mental strain. Part of the problem was undoubtedly having to spend most of my day alone with huge amounts of responsibility at work. But being wrenched out of a school environment also meant that I lost regular contact with my friends. One exception was the strengthening of my friendship with Martin S. who lived in the Haslemere satellite village of Grayswood. On Sunday afternoons I would sometimes cycle the three kilometres or so to visit Martin in his home. He like me was starting Godalming college in the autumn and we knew that in the year ahead we would have much in common.
Nothing, however, caused me anguish more than my now enforced separation from Jill. I longed to be with her; in my lunch breaks I could wander in the woods, or go to the nearby out-of-town recreational park a few hundred metres from the factory, and just dream that she were there. Of course she never was. I stored up multiple topics of imaginary conversation to share with her. As I worked I tried to imagine, often jealously, what she was doing, not confined yet to a routine job, and perhaps sharing her time with Ken. I was in love with Jill and I had become emotionally dependent on her. At times the strain of separation overwhelmed me and I would start to cry in private. I also developed an occasional nervous laugh which I couldn’t control. My parents never commented on my mental state and I didn’t want them to. Things however were set to get worse.
At least during the working week my unhappiness was distracted by the constant pressure of work duties. From Saturday lunchtime and on Sundays, when I spent half the day in bed, the emotional pain of loss was acute, made worse by the summer sunshine. It never crossed my mind that immediately opposite my own workshop on the industrial estate was a packing sweatshop, staffed mainly by young woman. It was Jill I wanted.
Among our wider circle in my last year at school, the only self-declared couple were David K. and Debbie S. They were quiet, respectful and friendly. Jill was much closer to Debbie than I was to David, and it was through Jill that I learned something of their relationship. What struck me, and what lay behind their assured confidence, was that their parents supported their relationship, with Debbie’s mother even going so far as to ensure that her daughter had access to contraception.
I was never entirely out of contact with Jill. Careful not to overuse the opportunity, I would phone her from the office at work, and after a couple of weeks of separation, we made vague plans to meet one hot July afternoon. It didn’t happen. I learnt in the evening that Jill had accompanied David and Debbie to the outdoor swimming-pool at the nearby Olivetti offices, where Debbie’s father worked. That Sunday I wandered the streets of Haslemere with tears running down my cheeks. I would have given my right hand to have lain in the sun, gone swimming and be with Jill. That she preferred to be the third person with a couple rather than have me with her cut like a knife through me.
Jealousy and loss drove me to ever more desperate behaviour. Perhaps the nadir was reached one sunny weekend when I trekked up to Hindhead just to stand at the bottom of the cul-de-sac where she lived in the hope that Jill would come out and I could catch a short conversation with her. Finally, she did emerge but with her brother and Ken - I had never seen him before, nor would I again - only for them all to get into a car and drive past me. Humiliated and dejected I walked home.
My home situation was paradoxical. On the one hand as a working boy, something that my mother in particular highly respected, I had a great deal more freedom of manoeuvre than previously. Yet my sadness, limited me to largely to home, to my room, reading and to television. Since childhood the house next door had been occupied by a childless couple who adopted my sister and me, rather as an uncle and aunt might. In return, I felt deep affection for them and when they were there - they worked and lived in London, Monday to Friday - I often went round to chat. One evening, while sitting in their kitchen I mentioned that I was feeling depressed and contemplated explaining why, but something stopped me. The next day my mother triumphantly told me that my courtesy uncle and aunt had told her that I was depressed. I said it was nothing, dismissed the matter as a misunderstanding and no more was said about the topic. My closeness to the couple was never fully restored.
Although I didn’t know it then, my relationship with Jill was about to pick up, if only for a short while.
The week when everything changed
In the 1970s my parents had developed a growing fondness for taking their holidays in Bognor Regis during the last week of August. The previous summer I had been allowed to join them later by cycling to Bognor while they went with my sister on the bus, and to return a day earlier, too. For the summer of 1978, I did not have to go at all on account of my work, but knowing my parents would be away for a week, I had other plans. I wanted to sort myself out. Of course that involved seeing Jill, if I could, but the week alone was also to involve me in an internal journey of self-discovery, an attempt to get over my depression and to prepare mentally for starting college. To that end, I informed the newspaper shop that I was taking a week’s holiday, and I handed in my notice at the woodwork firm, though I would retain the job on Saturday mornings for the next six months.
On finding myself alone and with time on my hands, my first task was a practical one. I wanted to buy a moped, so I would be more mobile in the area. I knew that Jill had purchased one and was using to it to commute the ten kilometres from her home in Hindhead to her newly acquired clerical job in Farnham. By pure chance, the second-hand moped of the age and type that I wanted was for private sale in Bourne a small settlement on the outskirts of Farnham. I agreed with the seller that I would come and see the moped and had every intention of buying it.
Even mopeds, with their small engines required insurance, a road tax certificate and for the driver to have a licence. I had applied a few days before for a year-long provisional licence, enabling the driver to practise on the moped, but I was anxiously waiting for it to drop through the letter-box. I could easily buy the road tax and purchase the insurance, but without a licence I would be breaking the law in riding it. In need of assistance, I desperately phoned Jill, who much to my surprise and delight readily agreed to help.
On the Monday afternoon I travelled to Bourne by bus, and found the seller’s house easily enough. A rather haughty father and son were selling the hardly used moped for £85, less than half the price of a new model. The moped seemed to work, so I handed over the money; they transferred the moped and the registration papers to me. I wheeled it down the drive and along the pavement to the bus stop. Jill soon arrived. I was overwhelmed but somewhat sheepish to see her again, but this was no time for spilling emotions, but for getting the moped back to Haslemere. She set off on it, while I waited for the next bus. The next half-hourly bus duly arrived and I got on happily that everything was going to plan, but a couple of kilometres further on, the bus passed Jill at the side of the road, desperately trying to re-start the moped. Of course, I got off the bus at the next stop, irritated that the moped was somehow defective and annoyed at wasting my bus ticket. But as I was walking back along the road, along came Jill on the moped. Apparently, the moped was working, but tended to easily “konk-out.” She drove on and I waited for the next bus to Haslemere.
When I finally arrived home, Jill was there already waiting for me. She was tired, understandably irritated and anxious to get home herself. I was very grateful to her and didn’t pour out my emotions to her. I accompanied her to the bus feeling a little difficult, with a great deal of newly acquired admiration for her, but with a sense of regret that our relationship was seemingly at an end. As a last-ditch attempt to resuscitate our relationship, I asked her out for a meal in a restaurant the following night. Much to my surprise, she accepted without hesitation and we had a date. In fact, we were to meet three further times that week, and on each occasion our relationship morphed into something else.
It was Jill who suggested a restaurant in Beacon Hill, a small village a couple of kilometres beyond Hindhead. I decided to wear my new tight jeans and coloured open-necked shirt that I had recently purchased and set off. The upmarket restaurant, perhaps somewhat mischievously chosen by Jill, was of a kind I had never visited before. My memories of the meal were few, but Jill had made herself look extremely elegant, making me feel young, and inexperienced beside her. I was impressed and proud to sit opposite her. For an hour or so it was as if I had stepped into a different world, with only one incident causing me some amusing embarrassment. When the waiter brought the wine, a small quantity was poured into my glass for me to sample. I had no idea what he was doing standing there holding the bottle with a mere mouthful in my glass. Jill knew the score and diplomatically told me what to do. I do, however, remember the shocking price of the meal - £6.10.
The night was warm and dry so we ventured into the woodland opposite the restaurant. Being outside was difficult and the sandy earthy soil, leaves and tree roots limited our freedom of manoeuvre. I still wanted her deeply, so I made another offer that later in the week she come to my temporarily empty parental home in Haslemere. Again she accepted readily. I felt happy at the end of the evening going home, but for Jill our date that night led to embarrassment. In the piece of woodland, Jill had managed to drop her bracelet. She was forced to return the following morning with her family to look for it.
Meeting Jill in my parents home a couple of days later was a strange and illicit experience. In my head it was hard to bring to the two worlds together. The age of my parents and their relatively low income was reflected in the furniture, layout and household conveniences, all of which had a feel of the 1950s about them. Jill’s life and my relationship with her was of the 1970s. I could sense Jill’s disdain for the furnishings of the house which merged with her residual feeling of annoyance stemming from her humiliation in having to involve her family in the search for her bracelet. Though I regretted her embarrassment, which was of course partly my fault, I instinctively felt the pull of loyalty to my parents and sought to defend them and our house - a task made all the more difficult by my knowledge of how much they would disapprove of Jill being there, if they ever found out. The evening felt strained before it had started.
I had taken the decision to have our meal in the spare room on the ground floor, and had moved a table and chairs down there. What I had cooked - and with what culinary skills - now escapes my memory, but I had set up the room with candles and the meal progressed without event. Hanging over the whole meal was the expectation that we would get into a bed together for the first time. We went upstairs to my bedroom; and, as I had never previously invited anyone outside my family into my bedroom, I couldn’t help but feel as if my private space were being invaded. We undressed and squeezed into my single bed and together without a shade of embarrassment started looking through my stack of pornography. Suddenly, out of sense of mischief, Jill told me nothing more would happen unless I could defeat her in a game of cards, but I could select the game. I chose a card game of chance which my grandmother had taught me as a child, and time slipped by as I had to explain the rules to Jill. We played the game twice, but luck was not on my side; I lost twice. Jill relented, but nothing went well. I walked Jill down the road to Haslemere station from where buses left for Hindhead with my only consolation being an agreement to go out on Saturday afternoon. I didn’t realise then how that day would change everything.
Saturday was a beautiful hot August day. We had arranged to meet in Hindhead and travel the few kilometres further by bus to a National Trust nature reserve called Frensham Ponds. Ever since childhood Frensham Great Pond - in reality a small lake - had cast a magic spell over me, and now that I had a moped it would become a favourite destination for my walks of self-contemplation on summer evenings over the next couple of years. In my childhood, I had gone there once with my mother, grandmother and sister for swimming on the small sandy beach reserved for that purpose, but my mother generally had an aversion to swimming in freshwater and had vetoed any further such excursions.
The lake was mostly surrounded by sandy heathland, except for one small wooded part where the elegant Frensham Pond Hotel and the boathouse were secluded. The easiest access to the lake, though, was on the opposite bank, where yellow sand ran from the water’s edge up to the busy road running from Farnham to Hindead. On the other side of the main road, which dissected the common, rose a hill of heathland, where from the top one could see over the hill to Frensham Small Pond. So in the summer heat, Jill and I set off, hand in hand, walking up that hill, following the zigzagging sandy paths to view the panorama of the two ponds from the hilltop. We then strolled down the far side towards the smaller pond and started walking around it along a woodland path. A sense of calm descended over me as for the first time that summer Jill and I were together, but not pushed for time, and nothing in our environment made demands upon us. Yet, however close I felt to Jill, I nonetheless realised that the peak of our affair had passed. Yet gradually a bodily need imposed itself upon us, thirst.
The woodland path led into a leafy lane which meandered along to the main road past affluent Surrey mansions. Jill urged me to ask for a drink of water from an elderly woman who was busy tending to her garden. I asked and she kindly collected us both drinks. The woman was curious; she asked us how long we had been together and what our plans were. Jill was silent, but I answered politely and in the most general terms, as telling her that together we had no future was embarrassing for us and disappointing for her. Yet, just as with chatting with the Cohen’s in their home some weeks earlier, I could see how the old lady saw us, and silently I cried because her image of us as a loving youthful couple was not true.
Setting off again towards the Great Pond, I recall telling Jill how the woman had seen us. Quite strangely for Jill, she mocked me, for usually she took seriously comments and arguments made to her. Her dismissive mockery made me irritable and disappointed. And I can still recall in some detail the conversation which followed, as we started to circle the Great Pond in the setting sun.
Following a rather pointless discussion about whether one was infatuated with or by somebody, we shifted to talking about hedonism - and as is often the case between close friends and lovers, practical considerations lie under the theoretical debate. Jill maintained that to live authentically was to pursue pleasure, and that should be the prime consideration at every moment. My argument was that acting for immediate pleasure was neither moral, nor did it lead to happiness in the long run. To this Jill countered that I was too influenced by the older generation, was old-fashioned and out of date.
Such unusual tension between us brought something else up to the surface. I don’t remember whether I was actually told this before, but it was increasingly obvious that Jill's relationship with Ken was coming, or had come, apart. If during the university holiday’s - one of the few times in the year when she could see Ken - Jill instead preferred to spend three evenings that week with me, then the writing was on the wall. Yet that didn’t mean that Jill was drawing closer to me. Next week I would be starting Godalming College and studying deliberately chosen academic subjects, while she would be seeking pleasure in what she considered the real world. The branching in our life plans had acquired philosophical roots.
Had that been everything our evening might have ended amiably, but there was something else, too. Jill started telling me of her interest in a man who played in a band and was a friend of her brother’s. I am no longer sure of his name, but I shall call him Dave. Two separate mutually reinforcing negative thoughts ran through me. While I had largely ignored Ken for a year, the idea of playing second fiddle to someone else, suddenly seemed to me humiliating and unnecessary. At the same time, I cynically saw a benefit in Jill pairing up with another man: I was free to do as I wished, if I wanted to.
What happened next was a silent emotional implosion of our relationship. Jill nonchalantly told me that Dave and her brother were having a drink in a pub in Farnham, and she wanted to join them. If I wanted to come, too, I was welcome. Of course, I rejected the suggestion: the very idea of sitting with Jill in a pub while she wooed another man was in a zone of humiliation, where I was not prepared to go. But also, I had no wish to waste time and money in pubs drinking and becoming drunk - another repudiation of hedonism on my part. Jill was adamant that she was going and walked over to the main road to hitch a lift into Farnham. Irritated, I stood opposite her flagging down cars in the other direction. My first ever hitched lift arrived almost immediately, and I left Jill standing at the side of the road.
It might seem that my week living alone at home and not working was entirely preoccupied with Jill, but that was not the case. The vast majority of the time I was on my own and making good use of my time. I had chosen to three subjects in the humanities for my A-Levels sociology, economics and history; the first two were entirely new. I visited the town library and collected a couple of books, and also went into “Book and Basket,” one of Haslemere’s small bookshops and bought a few books which still sit on my bookshelves today. Little did I realise then that those days of study - and the ideas and insights gained from them - would quickly propel me to the top of the class at college. But more importantly I started on a life-long journey to inquire academically about the world around me. I realised that the world was bigger than my personal relationship with Jill.
Even if I valued Jill’s company, and might have wished her to be with me more often, I nonetheless enjoyed my own solitude. After a summer of work, the opportunity to rest without responsibility was bliss, and I could think and dream freely. When it was dark, and before going to bed, I would set myself a couple of themes to think about, personal or academic, and set out on long walks around the now deserted streets of Haslemere. I was calm and happy.
In my bedroom stood twenty or so bottles of beer. In the early summer I had decided to make it on account of the cost of beer in pubs - and the fact that I was still underage and not technically permitted to buy it in supermarkets. Though each bottle contained several centimetres of sediment after brewing, the taste was good, though its alcohol content was far too high for normal beer. While working in the summer I had planned to drink it in the evening, but unless I wanted to throw the whole evening away with being drunk, there was little point in doing so. At the weekends too I rejected it - and so it remained there in the corner for some weeks until being moved to the cellar of the house for next quarter century, but never drunk.
When my parents returned I must have seemed like a reformed person, more calm and measured. They never knew anything about my week alone, and my father probably thought - not incorrectly - that my living by myself for the first time in my life had helped me to grow up. My thoughts were now on starting college. It might have been better if my last meeting with Jill had been at Frensham, and our final separation had come about on the main road by the lake. But no. I would see Jill several times in the autumn of 1978, but our relationship would be fundamentally different.
On one September morning the long summer holiday of 1978 came to an end, and in weak autumn sunshine, I walked down my street to Haslemere railway station for the train to Godalming, some fifteen kilometres away. Now free of school uniform, and dressed in jeans, open-neck shirt and trainers, I felt confident in myself. I looked to the future, both academically and in terms of new friendships. Jill and the events of the long summer inevitably moved into the past. I had not rejected her, and would be happy to see her again, but she could no longer occupy the pivotal position she had possessed only a week or so before. If the parting of ways, which had so abruptly taken place at Frensham Ponds, had proved final, I would have accepted it. But that was not to be; we would meet a further few times that autumn.
Godalming Sixth-Form College was unlike Woolmer Hill Secondary School. It was larger and all the pupils were of roughly the same age, sixteen to eighteen. At Woolmer Hill, to be fair, the majority of teachers did treat us, at least by our final year, with a measure of respect, but there was little one could do when some of them didn’t. At Godalming College, the default setting was that staff treated their students with civility - and I appreciated that deeply. I started to be myself and felt able to say what I wanted without fear of humiliating reprimand. But perhaps most importantly of all, building on the reading I had done in the late summer, I became intoxicated with academic study, particularly sociology - and apart from casual conversing with my classmates in breaks and while commuting on the train, I very much turned in on myself. My overriding memory, looking back from today, of my two years at Godalming College, in terms of non-academic life at least, was of a monotonous rotation of days in which nothing happened - so unlike my emotionally helter-skelter memories of the last year at Woolmer Hill.
My interest in sex did not disappear, but I felt differently from those of my male classmates who had never been intimate with a woman. I had experienced a year of sexual activity with Jill, and while the relationship had conveyed many benefits, it had also had its pains and costs. I had acquired a very personal experience, and while I certainly would not have rejected a new relationship, if one had fallen into my lap, I now displayed a sense of hesitation in seeking out women just for the sake of seeking out women. And on top of that, it was not easy, at least among my immediate classmates, to find a girl who could and wanted to play anything like the role that Jill had played. The girls in my peer group at Godalming College seemed younger and less world aware, irrespective of their academic abilities.
The college in no way prohibited or discouraged the expression of teenage sexuality - and was even brazen about it. Not long after I joined, a college disco was organised around the theme of vicars and tarts, but I felt no desire to attend and felt no affinity with those fellow pupils who sniggered about the daring of it all. In the previous year Jill and I had never visited a disco; we enjoyed our privacy instead. And the idea of a disco organised by teachers - albeit college teachers - seemed to me outrageous at the time.
Only once in my two years at Godalming did I have any kind of sexual relationship. Those of us studying sociology were offered the opportunity to visit a two-day conference in Birmingham. I had never stayed away overnight on a school trip before and had never ventured further north than London, so whatever happened it would be a memorable experience. We were to be accommodated in twin-bedded rooms in a motel on the edge the city.
On the evening of the first day we took over the hotel bar, and though we were formally forbidden to drink alcohol, as most of us were under eighteen, the beer flowed readily with the cokes and lemonade. Fired up by Marxist theory, I sat around a low table and my ideas flowed forth, but progressively my comments were being made and listened to by only one girl, whose name I have now forgotten, but whom I will call Jane. People gradually moved away and then it was only Jane and I talking, but as it became clear that she knew little about Marxist theory and completely lacked any genuine interest in it, the conversation turned to more personal topics.
Jane and I went to her room, and somehow a message was conveyed to her room-mate not to return too quickly. We kissed on the bed, but she had clear limits on how far she wanted to go: no clothes off and top-half fondling only. Subject to these conditions, we did what we could and when her roommate finally returned we left as the best of friends. But the following day on the train home she clung to her group of female friends and ignored me completely, leaving me feeling utterly dejected and somewhat confused. In the next few days, our paths didn’t cross at college, so I finally phoned her at home. She was out, and her brother took the call. But even by then I had already realised that the relationship would never start.
I never knew why I didn’t try with Caroline F. She sat in the row behind me in my sociology class; she was left-wing and intelligent. The few times we talked her eyes shone. On one occasion I handed her some notes that I had written on why Marxism was the correct approach to all sociological issues. She thanked me and promised to read them. The following day she told me that they were interesting but, as she couldn’t understand everything I had written, she had given them to her father, who turned out to be a university sociology lecturer. He’d said they were promising but needed much more elaboration before they were of any real value. I felt intimidated, and foolishly I let my relationship with Caroline cool.
For the most part my sexual activity during my two years at Godalming College was a sad affair. On returning home from college I barely greeted my parents, made myself a Nescafe coffee and a sandwich out of white sliced bread, Flora margarine and cheap raspberry jam. I then went upstairs to my room and locked the door. With or without the aid of wank mags, I masturbated before getting down to my homework and reading.
My last meetings with Jill in the autumn of 1978 were erratic and were set against a background of what can only be described as personal failure in her life, tinged with mental illness. Her attempt to jump into an adult world was ending in hopelessness. As the autumn days were becoming colder, I must have seen her some half dozen times. But there was no pattern to it; I had no easy way of contacting her and our interests and concerns were diverging ever more widely.
At the end of the summer, after quarrelling with her parents, Jill moved out of her family home and found lodgings in Hindhead with the very middle-class Gee family. I no longer recall when I first knew this or how I came into contact with Jill again, but I do remember visiting her in her new home. My clearest memories were first of all in the large well-equipped kitchen, where Jill made me coffee. Her milk and her other food in the fridge had rubber bands round the containers to distinguish them from the Gee’s food. In the past we had seldom met in a domestic setting, but here, in this large kitchen, the rubber bands proved Jill’s right to be my host, while at the same time underlining her estrangement from the household in which she lived.
While the kettle boiled, she leaned against a cooking surface. Not having seen her for a while, I looked at her rather like a divorced husband might see a former wife. She was dressed smartly in fashionable well-fitting jeans and jumper; but she also looked older and more serious. Yet within moments of starting our conversation something of the intimacy that we had shared in the previous year returned. And we moved closer to each other. She told me of her desire to teach the flute for a living, and of her parents’ disapproval. I felt sympathy for her, even though I thought her plans unrealistic. With the coffee made, we went upstairs to her bedroom, the only place in the house which was exclusively her territory and not subject to sudden intrusion by the Gees.
We talked more because we had a great deal of news to catch up on, but little was said about Dave, her boyfriend from the end of the summer. He seemed to me to be a vague and distant figure. At that moment I was glad to be with Jill, and I wanted to see her again, even if she was no longer the emotional cornerstone of my life. Now I could live easily without her even though I enjoyed her company. Nevertheless, as we talked about our lives and feelings, we started to make love. Her large bed was a leftover from the 1950s with springs that creaked so loudly that they could reduce lust to laughter. Much to our surprise and annoyance either the commotion itself or our merely being together brought Mrs Gee repeatedly to the door to ask Jill one contrived question after another, which barely concealed her nosiness - or, as she would no doubt have expressed it, her concern for Jill’s welfare.
Sucumbing finally to Mrs Gee’s pleas, we moved from the bedroom to the living room, where I had an opportunity to talk to Mr Gee. He was an intelligent man, who seemed to take a genuine interest my comments on politics and social sciences. In fact we seemed to get on so well, that Jill was almost excluded from the conversation. And then the evening came to an end and I went home, thinking wrongly that Jill had moved on in her life and was happy. I did not foresee the mental crisis that was developing within her. I pondered, but never really understood then, or indeed now, why this seemingly affluent family had rented a bedroom to Jill - nor the effect that Jill would obviously have on the Gee’s son who was two or three years younger than we were. The situation was strange, but my meeting with her in the Gees’ home was also memorable because it was the last time I saw Jill in anything resembling a sane situation. In September 1978 I met Jill on two more occasions while she was still living with the Gees. Neither occasion was happy.
One afternoon, probably a Saturday, by pure chance, I met Jill coming out of a phone box in Wey Hill. I invited her to go for a drink and we both made our way, presumably on our mopeds, to the Wheatsheaf Inn in Graywood, a couple of kilometres outside Haslemere. In the 1970s, if you seemed to be around eighteen and behaved in an adult manner, most pubs would serve you alcoholic drinks. I bought us both beer and we sat down at a table, but then my stress level started to rise. Jill, though I had never known her smoke in her life, took out a pipe and lit it. In this affluent Surrey village such behaviour was drawing disapproving attention to us, and I didn’t like it. Nothing was said but I felt eyes in my back. To make matters worse, sitting with his back to us, was my father’s friend, the local merchant and shopkeeper Denny Stone. I was banking on him not turning round as he was absorbed in conversation - and even if he did I hoped he would not recognise me. He did not.
Nevertheless, I felt increasingly uncomfortable, and then for some reason Jill decided to pour the contents of a pint beer glass into a half pint one, causing some of the beer to spill onto the table and floor. I was embarrassed and desperate. I stopped her physically from making more of a mess, and gulped down the surplus drink, and walked out of the pub. She was not coping with life, and I had no experience of dealing with mental illness. I was unsympathetic to her behaviour and dismissed out of hand her protestations about wanting to challenge conformity in society. Thinking back, I should have realised that her life was coming apart: her career in music was going nowhere, all her friends were still in education but she was not, and she was being threatened with homelessness - or perhaps returning to her parental home on humiliating terms. But I was angry, so we parted and went our separate ways i bad moods.
Some days later Jill phoned me at home in the evening. I was surprised as I was not expecting to hear from her, and in any event during the previous year she hardly ever called me. She told me she was at her friend, Frances O’s house, some two kilometres out of Haslemere on the road to Petworth, and she wanted to see me urgently. Going there was not easy; both my parents were out and I was nominally looking after my twelve year old sister. Yet, I decided to go.
The situation which confronted me when I arrived was the maddest I had then encountered in my life. Frances O. lived in small cottage some way from the main road; and her mother, a nurse, was upstairs asleep. Jill informed me in a matter-of-fact manner, with Frances sitting beside her in the small living room, that she had decided she would have a child, and I had been chosen as the father. At first, I suspected a joke - and I suppose it would have been a good one - but the obvious stress and trauma that Jill was in demonstrated perfectly clearly that no joke was intended. The living room couch was to be made available for the act, and Frances O., it seemed, would watch from the armchair.
Although there was something immensely sexually intriguing about the whole set-up, at no point, not even for a single second, did I intend to go along with this insane plan. Jill thought that with a child she would grow up faster and be granted some kind of recognition in status and resources. Though her friend Frances was a polite, kind and mild mannered girl, I wanted her out of the way as she impeded my ability to speak frankly to Jill, but as I was in her home this was hardly something I could insist on. Towards Jill I felt a blend of affection and sadness, but also satisfaction that my life was not, and would not be, entangled with this kind of insanity. When Jill finally realised that I had rejected the whole project she became cool towards me. We both decided to leave.
My walk home along dark footpaths was irritating but clearly manageable. But hers would involve the whole of my walk plus the long trek out of town and up to Hindhead. However, Jill informed me that a bus to Hindhead ran from the bus stop on the main road near Frances O’s cottage. I was deeply sceptical and attributed her belief in this bus to delusion. After all, buses to Petworth only ran along that road every two hours Monday to Friday and the last bus was in the late afternoon. No buses from Petworth ran through Haslemere on to Hindhead. Yet I agreed to wait with her for this bus. Then round the corner came double-decker bus with Hindhead on the front. She was right and I was wrong. The late bus, only running that route so it could return to a depot, pulled up beside us. The driver had already closed his accounts, so he took no money. Off we went home, speaking little and again we parted on less than friendly terms. I had the further ordeal ahead of me of being admonished by my parents for leaving my twelve year old sister alone and going out.
Just as after our parting at Frensham ponds at the end of August, this latest sad episode could easily have marked the final parting of our ways, but it didn’t. The initiative to see Jill sprung from me. I believed that the insanity of our last two meetings - the spilling of the beer in the pub and the suggestion that I father her child - were aberrations and that underneath Jill hadn’t gone crazy. Nor did I want our last meeting to have occurred under the auspices of Frances O. But more generally in my happy but mundane life at Godalming College, I missed Jill - and came to believe that I could rediscover in her the girl whom I had known during my last year at Woolmer Hill. I was to see Jill two or three more times. I can no longer distinguish one time from the other, as they all occurred in the same place in similar sad circumstances.
In September or October 1978 Jill moved to a Hampshire town some twenty kilometres or more from Haslemere. Public transport for travelling there was sparse, so if I wanted to see her I was reliant on my moped. At first I only had one piece of information, namely that Jill had found a job working in a local betting shop, so one afternoon I set off through the country lanes for the town. I went in to the shop and asked to speak to her; the owner, who obviously had his own designs on Jill, was displeased to see me, and I was forced to wait outside the shop until she finished work.
There was no joy in Jill’s face that I had come to see her. World weary, she just accepted that I was there. With little enthusiasm on her part we headed for the caravan in which Jill now lived with her boyfriend. Old and shabby, it stood in a muddy field and was an untidy tip inside and, worse still, the caravan was foul and stank dreadfully. Her boyfriend, Dave, worked in the afternoons and evenings, she said, at a local health farm providing massage services to the guests. In this desperate home, paid for by her miserable job, Jill had finally taken control of her life - no more school, parents or the Gee family to interfere with her.
Whatever my earlier intentions, no means existed to reconcile my current life or future plans with hers. During my visits we had to live for meanings we could create in the present, or abandon the idea of meeting. About a third of the caravan space was taken up by a double bed, covered with dirty sheets - for what proper means were there for washing them in that place? On one occasion when I was there, the day before Jill had returned from London with several pornographic magazines to supplement the ample stock already strewn about the caravan. Our sexual activity was pursued utterly selfishly, trying to gain what pleasure we could from the other one. And in this, one moment is cemented into mind: her bottom being thrust into my face, only for me to realise a moment too late that it was caked in filth.
And one of those occasions in that decrepit caravan was the last time I ever saw Jill. I no longer remember the final meeting, because of course it was never intended to be the final meeting; it just worked out that way. Circumstances and intentions came together to break up the contact between us. Jill’s job in the betting office and her occupancy of the caravan were temporary, and if too long elapsed between my visits she would no longer be there. As the weather became colder, using the moped to travel became more painful. Jill neither invited me there, nor ever tried to contact me. The school girl I had loved a couple of months before had become someone else, living a life entirely at odds with mine. Everything conspired to drive us apart and it did. After October 1978 we never saw or had contact with each other again.
The shadow of Jill in the following years
As life went on my relationship with Jill moved further and further into the past without me really reflecting on it. Nothing which I did at college or university practically connected me to Jill or the people who knew her. Yet the relationship and its effect remained in the background of my mind for several years.
From October 1978 I became almost completely silent about Jill and the role she had played in my life. I had never discussed her with my parents, and though I had confided many of my thoughts in the summer to my friend Martin S. on my irregular weekend visits to his parental home in Grayswood, after the autumn I mentioned the topic no more. One factor was that my new cohort of acquaintances at Godalming College did not know who Jill was, or, if they did because they had been to Woolmer Hill, they saw her just as a former school mate who had gone her own separate way. But there was more than that. In me there was a source of shame stemming in the first place from the fact that Jill and I, despite our intimacy, had never been a self-declared couple. I could never reminisce about a girlfriend which I had never actually had. And it always seemed that there was no single word in English to describe the role she had played in my life. Moreover, the circumstances in which our relationship ended, her mental instability and the foul caravan was hardly something that I wished to advertise. So the silence about Jill and the impact that she had on me continued silently in the background through my college and university years, even as her influence was superseded by newer experiences in my life.
If I had to single out Jill’s largest influence on my life, it would be acquainting me with intimacy. Sexual activity, though important and enjoyable, was always subordinate - except perhaps in the caravan at the end - to our closeness and our ability to share thoughts and feelings. Both mentally and physically we could stand naked without shame or embarrassment beside each other. Not until several years afterwards could I do that again with a woman - and my experience of intimacy with Jill from the age of sixteen gave me an additional criterion apart from sex itself to judge potential relationships.
In acknowledging our intimacy, I am also admitting that despite the pressures driving the relationship onto the rocks, there was an essential compatibility between us. We shared an critical intellectual outlook on life which drove us to bouts of introspective nervousness. We shunned noise and public space in favour of the quiet corner for a chat and our lovemaking was without guilt or regret. But against that is the perennial doubt that I never understood Jill, not just in her rejection of me but in her outlook on life - the internal force within her that led her to reject family and school for that dirty caravan in a field.
In many ways the helter-skelter life with Jill upset my inner-self. I tolerated the emotional ups and downs because at least until the end of the summer I believed that they could ultimately result in an inner peace and security for me. Emotional turbulence was not attractive in itself, and my experience of it allowed me to appreciate the quiet, regular and largely introverted life which I had at Godalming College. Nevertheless, at no stage did I feel regret that my relationship with Jill had taken place. It was part of me.
Another emotion was a feeling of guilt on my part. My last meetings with her were in terrible circumstances and I often wondered whether I could have done more to help her, but what could I have done in reality? By the end she neither sought my help or company, and my means to help her were incredibly weak, living with my parents and earning a pittance from a paper round and a Saturday job. I even lost the ability to contact her.
Even if I no longer had any contact with Jill - or even with people who knew her - the places where we met remained saturated with memories. Yes, some places like Haslemere rail and bus station I visited so frequently that they lost any special association with Jill, but others retained a special status. And they would still do even today, if I were to visit them.
Frensham Ponds and Common where Jill and I separated so suddenly in August 1978 have changed little in over three decades. In the summer of 1980 on the day before my A level results arrived, I used my same old moped to transport me to the beauty spot. I circled the larger pond and then walked up the hill on the far side of road, just as we had one some two years before. But my mind was more on my exam results and how they would affect my future life - university or not - with Jill very much in second place. Then again in 2006, just before my parental home was sold, I visited the ponds with a friend for the same walk. Afterwards we drove to the restaurant in Beacon Hill, where Jill and I had dined. It was still there, horribly expensive, but with no tables free at Sunday lunchtime.
Bognor, the seaside town of our botched excursion of June 1978, retained its special role in my heart. In the 1980s and 1990s my parents continued to select it for a week’s holiday in the summer months. And at some point at the end of the 1990s, I visited them there and drove to Pagham. Still there was the small cafe, though now extensively renovated and moved upmarket, where my father had bought us fish and chips in 1969 and where in 1978 for a single moment I had seriously thought Jill and I could formally pair up.
But the real home of our relationship was Woolmer Hill School, even though, of course, the school itself carried so many memories of people and events that the significance of Jill blended in with everything else. Christmas 2003 was the last one I spent in Haslemere, and taking advantage of that that deadening quiet of Boxing Day, I walked up to Woolmer Hill School, my first return since 1978. New prefabs had gone up and the buildings had new windows and doors, but the architecture was the same. The woodland where Jill and I had sought our privacy was still there unchanged, as was the Little Chef restaurant. I went in and ordered a coffee, now of much higher quality than the instant brew of 1978, and I thought back to the hours that we had chatted away in there. At one point, with nostalgia getting the better of me, I even expected Jill to walk in through the door, though no doubt I would not even have recognised her if she had. The Little Chef restaurant itself disappeared in the Hindhead A3 tunnel project a couple of years later.
And that’s about it. Everything written in this essay is composed from personal memory and was typed up in 2014, more than three and a half decades after the events which the text describes. As a middle aged man I have to recall and reconstruct my thinking from a time when I was sixteen years old; and there is inevitably a tendency for me to rationalise with my current mind rather than an adolescent one. But even if that is true I have been as faithful to my own memory as I can. When In 2008, Jill’s friend, Debbie S, wrote to me and said, “I never realised that you felt so strongly about Jill,” I was taken aback. For a time I wondered if I had exaggerated the relationship, but based on the factual events I have been able to describe here I don’t think so.
Research and writing this essay
At the end of the 2000s the idea of writing this essay came into my mind. I jotted down a few notes, and I thought I would try to contact Jill. Her given and family names (the latter she might have changed anyway) were common, so internet searches yielded nothing. Of her friends from school I knew only one, Debbie S, and fortunately in 2008 I was able to contact her through a social media site. She had met Jill in the couple of years after I last saw her. Debbie was able to tell me the following:
Jill and I had some raunchy times in the fifth year [the last year at Woolmer Hill], but we drifted a bit when I went onto college and she decided that she didn't want to do that. ...she was very bright and I never really understood the reasoning behind the decision to stop further education. I'm sure she would have gone far, especially with her music. As far as I know Jill had a rather troubled life after School. She … tried to set up her own business teaching flute. But I don't think this went very well and her parents felt she was sponging. She left home and tried living with her boyfriend, which put a huge strain on their relationship … I had a big gap in contact with her and only saw her once after that a few years later. Tragically she had lost her first husband to depression and suicide and was suffering from Anorexia, when she met her second husband, who I believe was an alcoholic and also died young. The last time I saw her she was well on the way to recovering from her anorexia and we had a whale of a time, out on the tiles in Haslemere.
The information from Debbie S. completely coincided with the kamikaze lifestyle Jill was falling into during my last meetings with her in the autumn of 1978. Debbie’s last meeting with her couldn’t have been later than the early 1980s, so it still left a huge gap from then until now.
My only other means of access was to trace down her brother, who had a profession which made him easy to contact. In June 2012, I wrote to him and received the following reply:
I regret to tell you that Jill is estranged from the family now and lives in an unknown location which she will not disclose to us, we have no phone number or address for her at all and I have not seen her for three years.
Short of launching a search with private detectives - and why would I do that? - I have no means of contacting Jill and of sending her this essay. No doubt if she saw it she would add to it, dispute parts of it - and have very different feelings about the events which I describe. But if she desires her privacy, even from me, she should have it; and on account of the large amount of very personal information in the text I have not used her real name. Jill is a pseudonym.