The environs of the London Free School are a maze of narrow streets, stretching to the north in a fine network and lined with the humble dwellings of Irish canal-diggers and railway navvies of a long gone era. The houses, dark and cramped, now house the riff-raff of the area; a shifting population of Irish voices tempered by the quasi-criminal jargon of the streets, and overlaid with the lilting patois of the West Indies.
A crow flying northwards from the school across the maze of streets, might take at most a minute or two before alighting on the roof of Lettie Ronson’s house, which stands in a seedy street close by the railway line. It is the summer of 1966, and the small gang of scruffy hippies who emerge from the school to head in this direction take, however, some time longer. They are conferring urgently together over an unforeseen crisis which has arisen in their midst.
An idea for a local hippie newspaper had emerged, and soon bursts into print. It is called: ‘The Grove’, the name of the area around Ladbroke Grove, and bears articles on the latest “happenings” and verse from a plethora of local poets. Significantly in this case, many of these poets — perhaps carried away by the spirit of the times — have made oblique references to certain illegal substances in their poems which in the current milieu seem not out of context.
Lettie Ronson is a local community worker with a great deal of clout in the area. She also runs a boarding-house for Irish labourers over whom she wields a formidable discipline. She has however, a heart of gold and many times — when the lead has run out or busking fails — she has provided the denizens of the school with thick sandwiches of the heavy-duty spam which she feeds to her lodgers. The lodgers are a surly lot who regard hippies as scum and cannot understand why Lettie lets them into the house.
Now however, Lettie has displayed a hitherto unsuspected facet. ‘The Grove’ has been printed up and is ready to go onto the street, carrying the hopes and aspirations of the community at large. Being a respectable house-holder with a proper address, it had been arranged for the entire first issue to be delivered at Lettie’s house. But then, travelling like a flash along the grape-vine came the outrageous news that Lettie had decided to ban and confiscate the whole issue, on account of its references to these “certain substances”. It is a situation which demands instant action. Negotiation favours the status-quo, and by now the school faculty are well aware of this.
‘But the paper isn’t about drugs,’ Smith had protested. ‘It’s about art and creativity. Anyway, it doesn’t actually mention drugs directly, just the odd obscure reference to Congo bush and the delights of tripping, which could mean anything.
‘We should just go and take them,’ says P. B. Rivers, who runs a course on twenty-four-hour existentialism at the school. ‘She’s assumed a right,’ he says, ‘and by doing so confers the same right upon us.’
It is a brilliant argument and Smith is easily won over, but Nick has his doubts. He has enthusiastically joined Smith through the crowded streets of Notting Hill, when the Saturday processions erupt on the stroke of three and parade downhill to the kind of music that you can’t quite put your finger on. But now Nick has some reservations.
‘We can’t just take them,’ he says. ‘Her lodgers are just waiting for us to put a foot wrong. They’ll tear us apart and Lettie would show us no sympathy.’
It is a sobering thought and each contemplates this outcome without relish, until P.B. Rivers snaps his fingers. ‘Given the circumstances,’ he announces with existential finality, ‘We have no choice but to try’.
This kamikaze strategy galvanises the trio into action, and before Nick can voice further doubts they set out to raid the enemy camp.
Now the rescue expedition nears Lettie’s house, and P. B. Rivers adds a Machiavellian flavour to his usual existential approach.
‘We could send in a couple of decoys,’ he suggests. ‘All we have to do is keep Lettie occupied in the kitchen while someone else looks around for the papers. She has probably dumped the lot in her hallway.’
This sounds reasonable, and soon a strategy is outlined. Nick will ask Lettie for a sandwich and with P. B. Rivers’ help try to keep her in the kitchen as long as possible, leaving Smith free to search for the confiscated paper. Conspiring thus, the small but determined band makes their way towards the dragon’s lair, whilst finalising the details of this plan.
‘Let Nick do the talking,’ says P. B. Rivers. ‘She has a soft spot for him.’
Nick is a fresh-faced young lad and Lettie clucks over him like a mother hen. P. B. Rivers maintains a convincing facade of politeness over his existential nature and Lettie thinks he is a gentleman. Smith she regards with suspicion, there is something about his looks she does not like.
Arriving at her house they ring the bell and Lettie opens the door. She steps back when she sees who it is. P. B. Rivers stands close behind Nick, while Smith, trying to keep out of sight stays to the rear.
‘We thought you might give us a sandwich,’ says Nick. Without hesitation Lettie leads the way along her narrow hall to the kitchen, while Smith enters and closes the front door quietly behind him. From the kitchen comes the sound of cupboards opening and knives rattling as Lettie brings forth her great block of industrial-strength spam and P. B. Rivers is in full song.
‘How fortunate,’ he gushes, ‘that such unlucky persons as ourselves can still find kindness amongst our fellows.’ He is fond of making these elaborate and stentorian remarks. But Lettie loves it, and she watches indulgently as Nick, making the most of the situation, gets as much spam and bread down him as he can.
Smith, lurking in the hall, listens for a while to see if there is any movement from upstairs where the Irish workmen have their abode. One or two floorboards creak, and only a single rough voice comes from above.
‘Jesus and Mary,’ it complains. ‘Will ye get off me foot now?’ But there seems to be no immediate threat.
He quickly scans the hall. The papers are not in sight but a wooden chest stands beneath the coat-rack. He checks it out and finds it contains only shoes. There is nowhere else they could be hidden and he glances up the stair; no way is he venturing up there. To his right is the door to the front room, and he quietly turns the knob. It is unlocked and the door swings open to reveal the parlour, a sacrosanct place from which even Lettie’s lodgers are barred. He dare not enter. The old polished furniture menaces him with its unquestionable respectability, while photographs of Lettie’s obscure relatives gaze down in stony silence from the discreetly papered walls.
He stands in the doorway gazing with sickened fascination into the awful room, and is about to close the door when something beneath a plushy chair catches his eye. It gleams whitely from the shadows beneath and looks to be a large bundle of newspapers. In a moment he overcomes his reluctance and valiantly faces down the disapproving furniture. Darting beneath the cannon of hostile family faces he reaches quickly under the chair and pulls the bundle out.
It is tightly bound in string, but the topmost paper proclaims all he need to know. The Grove, it announces. He picks the bundle up and tests the weight. It is quite heavy, but he will manage as long as he doesn’t have to run. Emerging clumsily from the parlour the front door seems far away. He can hear P. B. Rivers and Nick, like courtiers skilled in the fine art of flattery, buttering Lettie up for all they’re worth, and from above the lilting voice again comes wafting.
‘I said: WILL YE GET OFF ME FECKIN FOOT NOW!’
Smith staggers along the hallway as quietly as he can. This is the most dangerous part. To have been caught in the parlour would have been difficult, but his ever useful ploy of saying the first thing that comes into his head might have stood him in good stead; but here… He won’t stand a chance. Bereft of any excuse, with Lettie’s screams raging in the background he will hear the dread clump of Irish boots on the stair. He is half way down the hall before he is able to devise a strategy to deal with this misfortune should it occur.
‘I’ll do a runner,’ he thinks. ‘I’ll just drop the papers and run.’
Now he feels marginally better, and soon his ponderous steps bring him to the front door. With great difficulty he gets it open and emerges into relative safety, then closing the door behind him with his foot he makes off down the street.
The paper retrieved, retribution from certain fearful quarters may follow fast and they dare not take the time to sell it. But by that evening it has been distributed free along the Portobello Road, where for a few days it causes a stir amongst the local hippies. However, this single issue is also the paper’s swan-song, and the impulse for such an organ, passing into more capable hands, finally brings forth another radical publication with the title of ‘International Times’. With a firm foundation and wide support this paper is a great success; flourishing its psychedelic values not just under the very nose of the establishment, but even venturing at times to go a considerable way up it.
However, these bolshie expeditions generate a growing reservoir of affront and irritation from the powers that be. Until, unable to contain itself any longer, it overspills and sends the police in to turn over and close the paper’s office, while fitting up the editor, Scipio Hawkins, with a large spoonful of porridge for his trouble. This show of municipal righteousness however, is far too late. The paper had done its work and the baby has flown, while the establishment is left with nothing but the bathwater. The Free School however, had thereafter given Lettie Ronson’s spam sandwiches a miss.
From ‘Tales from the Embassy’ all names changed.
Pic: Nick Victor