Usually when I pick up The British Book of Hit Singles, it’s to clear up some question in a trivia quiz, but tonight my intention is more serious. I want to find a day in 1965 which remains burned into my memory with remarkable clarity. I can do this because someone took along a transistor radio, and I remember four songs that were playing that day: the songs are Ticket to Ride, The Times Are a’ Changing, Catch the Wind and True Love Ways, and their highest chart positions are at the end of March and the beginning of April.
As the Beatles always entered at Number One, the date cannot be earlier than April 15th, with the other songs still hovering around, holding their positions or descending with dignity. This means that I was two weeks off my fifteenth birthday, and just starting the summer term of my fourth year. It is the right sort of date to confirm other details in my memory like the daffodils in Clifton Grove. I was glad to find they were a product of memory rather than retrospective imagination.
This is the problem with non-fiction – being truthful. There are no such constraints on fiction. At least, if there is truth in fiction, it is of another order- a truth of the emotions, of character, of probability- not fact as such. Fiction freely admits, even celebrates distortion, exaggeration and downright misrepresentation of the literal truth. If I were so inclined, I could cook up a good piece of fiction based on the happenings of that Spring day thirty seven years ago. You would never know and you would have no cause to complain.
But I don’t want to embroider or exaggerate in this case, because I want to know what it was that made this day, a Sunday in mid- April 1965, an exceptional day for me. I want to ask myself if that can be done without resorting to any of the more blatant devices of fiction.
The beginning is commonplace enough. A group of boys, perhaps fifteen of us, have assembled on the narrow footpath. It runs along the river side of the flood wall which stands between the school playground and the River Trent. Also present is Father Roger Killeen, our awesome and saintly grouch of a headmaster. For some reason that escapes me now, he had decided to take a group of boys on a hike up the river for the day. There was little planning involved. The strategy just seemed to walk as far as you could and then think about getting home. Father Roger, or “The Horse” as he was commonly known- a tribute to some uncommon facial characteristics - may have been there on other famous outings, like the time when “boys” wandered unsupervised into a crevasse near Zermatt, or the much earlier occasion, when it was decided to take the whole school to Paris. This trip justly became a part of folklore, when a teacher, an over enthusiastic ex-pilot, hired a converted WWII bomber and flew fifty or so boys over The Channel. Because there was no heating or pressurization, the boys, in caps, blazers and short trousers, arrived suffering from hypothermia and altitude sickness. This is a good story, but I do not have to vouch for its authenticity. All I have to say is that I heard it on good authority. However, it seems to me a likely example of embroidery, which I wish to avoid here. In comparison, this outing promised to be a tame affair. There may have been some ulterior motive, like nature study, but this remains dim in my memory.
The walk starts with a series of bridges – the attractive foot suspension bridge next to the school, then Wilford Bridge, a utilitarian box-girder affair, and finally the recent Clifton road bridge.I can describe this part of the journey well because I covered the ground many times on cross-country runs. It was a scrubby country of fields hemmed in by low hawthorn hedges, territory well within the flood limits of the river and consequently muddy and grim. Nowadays, much of this ground has been built over, but then it was semi-derelict rough grazing.On the other side of the River Trent is the misty grey outline of Nottingham beyond Wilford power-station. However, the day had a hazy anti-cyclonic feeling, unusual for the time of year and we were in good spirits as we reached the last bridge we would encounter on our way up river.
Just after Clifton bridge, we came across a reach of the river where, from our higher vantage point, twenty or so yards of shallows made the bottom visible. Beyond the low bushes and the “pegs” of anglers – muddy platforms close to the water – we could make out a series of sordid objects in the shallow water – an old tyre, a few bottles and an old teddy bear or doll lying face down. We joked about the way this ran ironically counter to our day communing with nature.
We were walking away, when, by some overwhelming instinct, I caught the eye of my friend John Hayes. He returned my look, and we knew we had to retrace our steps to the shallows. Everyone else walked on. It was the teddy bear that had troubled us. An instinct much deeper than common sense told us that the bear was not a bear, but a body, the body of a small child. We broke off a long branch from an alder tree and made our way down to the water. The bear/body was easily dislodged and steered into the bank. John grabbed the little jumper and pulled onto the bank the body of a two or three-year old child. I remember the eyes staring pure white out of a bloated face. There was a whiff of decay and we both shied away. The strange thing is that sweet, dirty smell of death, which you know even before you have experienced it.
I ran along the bank and called the rest of the party back. Someone’s persistent transistor radio was turned firmly off.One of us was sent to phone the police and The Horse arranged an impromptu service for the dead while we waited for them to arrive. He asked us to pray for the parents too.This is a key memory, as vivid as yesterday, the circle of faces against the dark trees and the vividly blue sky- the buzz of indifferent traffic on the bridge a hundred yards away. In religious terms, I’m certain that most of us were sceptics, despite the enforced Catholic regime of the school, but possibly for the first time in our lives, prayers meant something.Death was doubly shocking on a bright, warm spring morning, at the beginning of our jaunt up the river, at the beginning of our adult lives.
I suppose we were subdued as we continued our journey. I can’t remember. It is also possible that we were subject to that nervous, jittery hysteria that sometimes accompanies tragedy. However, I do remember the steady rise of the ground towards Clifton Grove, a massive wooded bluff on the south side of the river. The path rises through trees on both sides until you emerge at the top, perhaps a hundred and fifty feet above the river that curves away impressively to the west. All the way up, the hill was carpeted with daffodils and beside the path, primroses and the starry shapes of wood celandine. Was it poignant then? It seems so now.
Many years later, I was to take a school party there to locate the exact place where Paul Morel made al fresco love to Clara Dawes in Sons and Lovers. It was the sort of academic joke that might raise a laugh with sixth formers.
“No – too many nettles.”
“No, too steep.”
I remember telling my students about the body we found many years before. I think I always knew that I would write about it one day.
We stopped for a while at the top of the hill. I remember looking out over Beeston, the jigsaw of the Boots factory site and the cakey grey symmetry of the University. To the left, the unglamorous Western suburbs melted away into an indeterminate grey- green. The radio was on again. Bob Dylan was singing The Times are A’Changing. None of us sitting there that day realised just how much things were about to change – not just in our lives, but in the life of the whole planet. In less than five years, Mr Dylan’s imagined revolution would be reaching its heady climax of hedonism and leftist politics.
It was along haul over the fields to Barton, a small riverside settlement with a few pleasure craft and caravans. There’s probably a pub involved in it somewhere. Strangely, I have a clear memory of the tussocky ground we were covering, looking down and watching out for the occasional water channels that crossed the fields. I was up beside Roger Killeen and I wanted to engage him in conversation. I think I wanted to challenge him on something – some aspect of religious belief. This was almost certainly brought on by the events of the morning. I had the reputation of being something of a philosopher. Another priest had caught me reading Ulysses under the desk during a particularly turgid XD(Christian Doctrine) class, and as a sort of revenge, I had been awarded the XD prize that year, to my shame. I was a fly in the Catholic ointment, a fully fledged atheist from earliest memory, although timidity and a conventional respect for authority kept me on the safe side of open rebellion.
When you look at the statues in church at the age of eight and realise that it’s all a terrible mistake, this leaves you with a lot of time on your hands to think. Once you have scoured your mother-of-pearl effect plastic covered missal for anything of interest and not found it, this leaves more than five-hundred hours of thinking. My calculations are based on mass once a week for ten years, and I’m not counting under the age of five. So what do you think about? For me, it had resolved into the problem of suffering, of divine providence. Was there any sense in it? Where was divine justice when the innocent suffered? The lurid icons that surround you as a Catholic – the stations of the cross and the ghastly Sacred Heart surely contribute to this line of thought.
It was probably along these lines that I was attempting to engage The Horse in debate, but he was having none of it and I remember feeling thwarted. In his own way, he was probably involved in a similar internal debate. Years later, when several of his colleagues had left the priesthood in the early seventies, he was to embrace the dark saintly path of self-sacrifice and run a hostel for down and outs in Nottingham, while a circulatory disease claimed parts of his body one by one. It may be that he considered I was intending to exploit the gruesome discovery of that morning to support some sceptical view of providence. Maybe he just needed more time to take it in himself. In the end I gave up.
Barton loomed into sight, Nottingham at play by the water. A water skier was irritating the anglers who threw fistful of maggots at him and told him to “bogger off” as the local phrase would have it. Peroxide blonde grannies with upper arms as thick as tree trunks scoffed ice creams while skinny, ivory- white kids took headers from a wooden landing stage. A huddle of small motor cruisers called things like Stella Maris and Sandpiper bobbed close to the bank in an iridescent sheen of oil. But this is extrapolation and not strictly memory. I’m working on a few visual impressions, that’s all. On the other hand, experience tells me that this kind of memory is usually accurate. Places tend not to change that much.
It was mid-afternoon when we walked up through Thrumpton back to the main road, eventually joining it at a high saddle of land that looked west to the power station, south into Leicestershire and east towards Nottingham and home. We were tired and thirsty and slightly pissed off. We must have stood there by the main road for some time waiting for a bus that didn’t come. It was Sunday afternoon, and the charts were playing on the radio. I remember two songs. As I looked down across the brown fields towards Gotham, it was Donovan’s Catch the Wind. My memory of the wooded slope to the north is still underscored by Peter and Gordon’s True Love Ways. It was just an ordinary place – one that I have passed a hundred times in my car since then and never given it a second thought. But somehow, combined with the music, it has become a permanent vivid fixture of my memory. Eventually, The Horse used his priestly prerogative to get us a lift on the back of a lorry. This is the kind of risky venture that might earn any teacher a severe reprimand nowadays, but The Horse was no stranger to adventure. During WWII had he not escaped from Occupied France across the Pyrenees disguised as a nun or was it a washerwoman? Another piece of embroidery – not mine. As we sat in the back of the open backed truck with the wind blowing through our hair, we listened to Ticket to Ride.
When I got home, I didn’t tell my parents about the body. I don’t know why. Perhaps I thought they would find it indecent in some way but more likely, I wanted to mull over an experience that had made a big impression. I went into our front room, put on Tchaikovski’s Pathetique and started to tackle my homework. The swirling tragic cadences of the last movement summed up a day of contrasts that somehow signalled the end of childhood.
The process of triangulation that occurs between times, places, people and objects is the stuff that memory is made of. Once you get locked into that system, everything within it is mutually supporting and that’s why some memories stick.
My elements were the river, the discovery of the child’s body, the unusual warmth of the day, the songs on the radio and the lift on the lorry. Each one becomes a girder in a frame that can never be separated, because the more elements, the stronger the frame. I have tried to keep that frame intact. But beneath this factual construction is a strong current, a dark dichotomy involving life and death in stark contrast. Perhaps it was that day that it started to flow in my imagination with all the sluggish power of a great river. Even now I balance the sickly sweet smell of death with the scent of the cool, fresh daffodils on Clifton Grove. In the background, Tchaikovski is playing, and I know what he meant, even if the music now seems appalling sentimental.
Originally published in May 2006 in Literary Potpourri