A Vignette of London in the Winter of 1967-1968

One magical Christmas in 1967 my life was about to be forever changed.  I underwent a transformation myself although it did not become permanent.  Ten months later in September of 1968 anyone who heard me speak might have believed that I had grown up in South Kensington.  Indeed I was such a curiosity to the other nine and ten year old boys and girls it became a source of some embarrassment.  I quickly reverted to my natural Southern California drawl.

 

My father had been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the astronomical sum of $5,000.  Being a tenured professor, he was also due for a sabbatical.  The family had just spent the night near Los Angeles International Airport a few days before Christmas and witnessed the rarest of Southern California snowfalls.  Snow had fallen in the beach communities of San Diego, La Jolla and environs and on up the coast, even sifting down onto the desert sands east of the mountains.  To my knowledge it was the only time it snowed on the beaches in the last century.

 

And so we celebrated my ninth Christmas in frosty London town.  The windows of the shops and the vast department store displays of toys presented a child’s wonderland to the eye.  English dinners in the lower level of the hotel were punctuated with Christmas poppers and readings from Dickens’s, “A Christmas Carol,” as each family member would read a few pages or a chapter.

 

My sister and I were to complete the school year with the little Cockney children in South Kensington whilst father shared the fruits of his satellite experiment research into the Earth's magnetosphere with the venerable physicists of the Imperial College.  Mother had taken us children to Harrod's and Selfridges to buy appropriate clothing for the mild London winter.  For the sunnier days she had bought me short wool trousers and tall knee socks.  That wouldn't have been so bad, but I had a great bright yellow rain slicker that looked like it had been issued by a fire department.

 

My first day in Year Four at the Bousfield Primary School I caused quite a stir being the first Yankee to show up that year.  My costume didn't help me much either.  I was dressed like Edmund, Peter or Eustace Scrubb of the Chronicles of Narnia.  The kids at school more resembled miniatures of the rougher types found in, "To Sir with Love."  It was the rain slicker, however, that put me over the top.  As I struggled to remove it, I remember my wonderfully jolly teacher crying with exuberance, "Smashing!"

 

It did provide me a wonderful introduction.  It was the grandest experiment of my young life.  I remember so vividly each child.  My Italian friend Giulio who told me about the lakes in Italy.  Thomas and Arthur who taught me the finer points of football which we played in the yard every day.  The little boy from Helsinki.  A boy from Israel who looked like a portrait I had seen in a children’s book entitled, “The Story of Painting.”  I’m sure most readers have seen this picture in Janson’s History of Art.  I made a true friend in Michael Boyce who lived with his family in a long, narrow flat.  The girls were forever skipping rope or playing jacks.  And the girls!  I was in heaven.  The disarmingly coquettish Miranda.  The tall Lorraine with her luxurious long tresses.  But I only had eyes for Emily.  I loved her secretly.  By some time in May she had discovered my crush.  She made up a game wherein she would catch my eye, smile quite sweetly and then run away into a crowd of girls disappearing completely.

 

This was London in 1968, when Andrew Lloyd Webber was still a young hipster.  It was some swinging times.  Heady.  Austin Powers stuff.  Hippies with bell bottoms and hair down to their waists. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” came out that year.  “Hey There Georgie Girl!”   Oh how we loved riding the double decker buses to Picadilly Square or Oxford Street.  Children usually had to stand up and grab a pole or a strap.  I remember one elderly lady who would bang her cane against the floor of the bus whenever the centripetal acceleration caused me to lean in too close to her.  Our tube stop was the station at Gloucester Square.  We were renting a flat on Ashburn Place.  On the tube I surreptitiously studied people’s faces as they were reflected in the bright windows with the dark bricks of the tunnels as background.  I recall my astonishment riding deep down into the very bowels of Olde London to reach the lowermost lines that ran through the Brompton Road Station.  The quick taxi rides only seemed to cost a few bob or a half crown.  Even the money was fun and easy to calculate as one pound sterling equaled $2.40 U.S.  So a penny was a penny, a shilling was twelve cents, a half crown was thirty cents.  But the pennies were the size of half dollars.  I collected as many years as I could find.  The oldest bore the likeness of the aged Victoria and was dated 1907.  I even found a Scottish silver shilling with King George VI.

 

I kept a journal, but it had precious few entries.  Instead I used it as a sketchbook.  I drew marvellous studies of the London hippies who must have been growing their hair since at least 1964.   I particularly enjoyed sketching the English cars.  The British VW, the Morris Minor.  The longitudinal, expansive bonnets of the Bentleys.  For some reason I enjoyed drawing the large, upper case “L” appearing in the windows which denoted, “Learner.”

 

One fine day, we took a bus out to the countryside and I learned that the rural buses were a lovely shade of British Racing Green.  I still remember a footpath which travelled through four distinct meadows.  The mad colors, fresh grasses and many flowers tug at my memory as I wish to discover such a place again.  One of the English astrophysicists lived a train ride outside of London in Reading where I was treated to a sled ride.  Even the trains were wondrous with the private compartments of six armchair size seats with fresh linen for the back of your head and a carafe of water by the window.  In another enjoyable visit to a house in the country I found endless fascination before bed in reading the madness of, “Punch,” magazine.  The English, “New Yorker,” if you will.  Antiques were another source of pleasure.  I bought copies of, “The Illustrated London Times,” from the 1860s.  We visited Spink and Sons where I bought some King George VI farthings and silver threepences, as well as coins from ancient Rome.

 

The biggest change it made in my life was a superior knowledge of football, or soccer as we call it.  It was just beginning to catch on in California in the 1970s.  It was an edge that I used to advantage.  I loved to play halfback or goalie.  As a halfback I had the run of the entire field.  I never could dribble with the finesse and control my little chums displayed those ten years ago, but I could move the ball safely down the field and pass it or kick a goal.  As a goalie I was fierce.  One particularly strong player was barreling down on me undefended.  It looked like he had a powerful shot all lined up.  I spun around and the ball hit me square in the arse and flew about forty feet.

Comments

Maureen Foster Added Jan 1, 2018 - 8:13pm
Good writing but I was annoyed by your title.  In the content of your article not once did you mention anything about coal, soot, fog or whitewashing. 
Flying Junior Added Jan 1, 2018 - 9:04pm
Thank you for the suggestion.  It was a hasty idea for a title.
 
The old stately white stucco houses of Kensington built in the 19th century, which have largely been sub-divided into flats, were very dirty with coal soot that had been burned excessively until at least 1956.  In 1968 they had not yet been scoured and whitewashed but still showed a very dirty appearance.  Now that London is a low emissions zone, the old houses have all been whitewashed a beautiful, alabaster white.  When I visited in 2002 I was amazed to see the difference.
The Burghal Hidage Added Jan 2, 2018 - 2:53am
Nice piece. Thanks for sharing the experience :)
opher goodwin Added Jan 2, 2018 - 4:09am
Flying Junior - a great piece of writing and interesting perspective. I was probably one of those long-haired hippies heading up to London to a Pink Floyd or Jimi Hendrix gig at Middle Earth or the UFO Club or off to Soho to Les Cousins for Roy Harper, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn.
My life then was the London Underground. This was the time of OZ, IT and revolution. We were ditching all that old outdated stuff. We wanted a new world.
There were no more of those pea-souper fogs. The clean air act had sorted that. But the buildings were still soot begrimed and there were many bomb sites. It was only twenty years on from the end of the war and about ten since the end of rationing. We were a poor country now recovering from the ravages of a war economy and destruction of the blitz.
It is interesting to read your view of it. I was zooming about on my motorbike and living in the hippie bubble.
Stone-Eater Added Jan 2, 2018 - 9:03am
FJ
 
Fun to read :)
 
Even A Broken Clock Added Jan 2, 2018 - 10:53am
Great piece. We need more like this in WB instead of all politics (although the next post I make will be political).
Flying Junior Added Jan 2, 2018 - 2:51pm
Thank you for the comments.
 
It was an awakening to me as a youngster from La Jolla.  The grocery stores of my early childhood were already being replaced by supermarkets.  It seemed quite refreshing to walk to a small market and only bring home what you could carry in a knapsack.  I remember little things like eating Familia and Wheetabix and oranges from Spain or Israel, the delicious Gloucester cheese.  It was a window into a much deeper past as well.  Dining at Veera Swami's was a model of elegance and sophistication.  Perhaps my favorite attraction in the city was the Science Museum.  I eagerly revisited it during my 2002 trip, but I didn't find nearly as many well-oiled antique engines and inventions that would start whirling and pushing pistons and rods at the push of a button.  The British Museum seemed much the same as it had been thirty-six years earlier.
 
When people started caring more about their politics than American football I knew that something really dangerous was going on.  It's a type of addictive behavior.  It's also a hive or tribal thing.  It's really out-of-control.
Leroy Added Jan 2, 2018 - 9:36pm
Quite an enjoyable read, FJ!
Mark Hunter Added Jan 4, 2018 - 3:08am
Nice read, and educational! I'd love to have a time machine to go back and visit that period.
Shane Laing Added Jan 5, 2018 - 11:53am
Your story brings back memories. I used to live in Reading in 68. We may even have been sledging on the same hill.  Those trains you speak of are  a distant memory. I used to love travelling up to London to see the sights and visit the museums.  It was a time I remember with affection.
Flying Junior Added Jan 5, 2018 - 2:32pm
Thank you for the comments, friends.  Yes, wouldn't that be something to go back and live a few hours or days in that time?