It is the summer of 1966 and the location is The London Free School in Notting Hill Gate.
All names have been changed. John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins is ‘Scipio Hawkins’ and Smith is Smith.
Morning comes to the Free School, but precisely what morning is a consideration long abandoned by the faculty and whatever guests they are entertaining, who themselves have been drawn here by their desire to attain the same exalted state. At the Free School; or ‘School of Freedom’, as Smith prefers to think of it, the ruthless eye of this collective regard had quickly identified the first major obstacle to that freedom, and time, together with day of week, has been entirely excluded from their discourse and eradicated entirely from any serious consideration.
Serious because the occasional visitor, wandering into the cellar on some local errand might innocently enquire: ‘What time is it?’ To be met with much mirth from the faculty. However, this nameless morning infiltrates the blanket of sleep which enshrouds the recumbent forms and first one, and then another yawn their way up into a sitting position and begin warily watching each other to see which will succumb first to the desire for tea.
P. B. Rivers sits up and runs his hands through his hair.
‘Why have we woken up?’ he asks the room at large.
P. B. Rivers teaches 24hr existentialism at the school and frequently starts the day with difficult questions of this kind. Smith, always ready to stick his neck out says the first thing that comes into his head.
‘Well why not?’ he asks. ‘You’ve got to start the day somehow.’
P. B. Rivers fixes him with a long, cold look.
‘Have you ever considered,’ he says. ‘That there may be other ways to start it?’
Smith hasn’t considered this and it is way too early to do so, what he wants is a cup of tea and he leaves this challenge to the others. ‘As Jane Austin might have said,’ he thinks, ‘P. B. Rivers has no small talk.’ Finally, conceding defeat, young Nick gets up and puts on the kettle and before long is handing round the cups.
Nothing is now heard for a while but the grateful slurping of tea until a bell rings out twice. Everyone looks at P. B. Rivers, for had the bell rang once it would have been Smith who received this attention. As a small notice on the doorbell indicates: One ring for a music lesson. Two rings for a dose of 24hr existentialism from P. B. Rivers. Should Smith be called upon he will begin at once explaining the fundamental laws of music to the visitor. ‘Music,’ he begins on such occasions, ‘can only do either one of two things. It can go up. Or it can go down, no other direction is possible.’ So far he has not been refuted, although sometimes among the contentious he encounters a suggestion of volume or speed as alternatives, but these he easily dismisses as secondary considerations.
However, this morning the bell has rung twice and P. B. Rivers goes to open the door. It is Scipio Hawkins, one of the prime-movers in setting up the school, and he seems to be the bearer of some exciting news. But P. B. Rivers forestalls him, he has a duty to perform and he takes the role seriously.
‘Why did you wake up this morning?’ he asks. But Scipio nimbly fields the question.
‘To come and tell you something, I only rang the bell twice because I didn’t want a music lesson,’ he says.
‘Then speak on,’ says P. B. Rivers magnanimously.
‘There’s an event coming up next week in Oxford,’ says Scipio. ‘International Times is supporting a movement for spontaneous street theatre which a group of undergraduates are fomenting. A few of us are going up to give our support and some music would be really cool.’
P. B. Rivers is interested in none of this, his mind focused entirely on the present he has no room for such poncey notions as some “other” place called “Oxford”.
‘If that’s all you got up for then you should have stayed asleep,’ he says dismissively. ‘But now you’re here you can have a cup of tea, which is the real reason that you and everybody else wakes up.’
Smith’s ears have pricked up on hearing of this opportunity to take his guerrilla music to the streets, for now that the Portobello is closed to him he is at a loose end.
‘I’ll see if I can get a couple of Moonjelly men’ he says, and later, when the London contingent arrives at Oxford, Dick and Zen have come to stand shoulder-to-shoulder.
Through the warren of narrow streets the revellers march, their banners waving amongst a sea of hippy flowers and a whiff of incense is in the air. Scipio, his silver lamé jacket discarded and dressed now in an outrageous suit of psychedelic camouflage moves here and there, flickering through the crowd like a crackerjack with camera at the ready. And Zen, somewhere behind Smith is punctuating the whole thing with his alchemical beat.
Booma, booma, dinga, booma
Booma, booma, dinga, booma
Dick is prancing well ahead, his trombone swinging from side-to-side as he bellows out a military march, which, conceding a little to Smith’s musical approach, he is making up as he goes along. Smith is playing in precise five second bursts, a sudden swirling cluster of random tones, followed by five seconds of silence; he finds these kinds of yogic disciplines a satisfying contrast to the exuberant circumstances.
The grey stone walls of church and college echo back the trombones roar and the piercing squawk of saxophone. Back and forth from steeple to tower the echoes ring and Dick is in his element. Forgetting all his good intentions and carried away in his excitement he now begins putting in a bit of elephant.
‘Oh, no,’ thinks Smith. He had warned him about this. ‘Whatever you do, don’t put in any elephant,’ he had told him. ‘Oxford is a quiet city and if you start rampaging it could lead to serious trouble.’ In his next five seconds of silence Smith moves forward to restrain him.
Dick however, is far beyond any constraint; he is unleashing the raucous trumpeting of a mad bull-elephant as it lays waste to all around. Smith gives up, resigned to the disaster that must surely follow. Then, the wild bellows suddenly cease, and Dick stops dead in his tracks. He shuts his slide with a snap, turns, and runs off down a side street as fast as he can. Smith stares after him wondering what has got into him.
‘Maybe he left the gas on,’ he thinks, and is about to formulate more theories of this kind… but he is only allowed the one shot, for the next moment he feels a firm grip on either arm and he is in the hands of the police.
They bundle him roughly into the back of a van and through the back window he watches as a line of policeman link arms and attempt to funnel the crowds into a side street. Suddenly from amongst the students a huge roll of ‘Mellomex’ silver plastic film appears and begins to unroll. The students take it at either end and hold it up like a long mirror stretching from one side of the street to the other. The police cannot get past this barrier, for as they attempt to push through in one place it only tightens it in another, and now the two ends begin an outflanking movement. Getting behind the police they start to roll up their line and try to wrap them up like a gigantic parcel, but just in time to avoid this they withdraw to mount an offensive elsewhere. Smith sees no more for the van starts up and he is on his way to the police station. Sitting in the back he is puzzled by only one thing. How did Dick get warning in time to do a runner?
At the station they push him towards a heavy iron-sheeted door and his saxophone, still slung around his neck, tilts forward and a bunch of daffodils, slipped into the bell by a young hippy girl during the march, slides out and falls to the ground. Smith stops abruptly, and the policemen who surround him come to a halt and watch, as slowly and deliberately he bends down, and collecting up the daffodils places them carefully back into the bell of his saxophone. He is just about to put the final touches to the arrangement, wondering how long he can spin it out, when he receives a violent push from behind. He is launched forward straight at the iron door and only just manages to get his hands up to save his face, but his saxophone, hanging loosely before him smacks into the unyielding door with a nasty crunching sound.
The delicate shell-like bell crumples on impact. ‘Well, I suppose I asked for that,’ he thinks, and having conceded this, wonders if the gesture had been worth it, and then… ‘Probably not,’ he thinks.
The police station is small and ill-lit and the desk-sergeant looks up as they enter, his nameplate, gold lettering against the varnished wood says: Sergeant Hillter.
‘Name?’ he barks and then… ‘Address?’ Smith gives him both and the Sergeant looks at him with narrowed eyes. ‘London,’ he says. ‘Come down here to stir up some trouble have you?’
Smith doesn’t answer; he no longer feels so bolshie. ‘Have you got any identification?’ asks the Sergeant next, but Smith has nothing of the kind about him, he knows no one in Oxford and cannot even provide a phone number to check on.
‘Then we shall just have to keep you till we find out who you are.’ says the Sergeant, handing a bunch of keys to one of the constables, and Smith is taken along a short corridor to a cell and locked up.
The cell has a small barred aperture through which he can watch the reception area; he doesn’t even want to think about his saxophone. A long boring hour has gone by when a sudden flurry of activity seems to electrify the dark-uniformed denizens in the reception and a swirl of bright colour lights up the gloom. Smith catches a flash of something at the front-desk and the Sergeant stiffens in his chair. It is Scipio Hawkins, his psychedelic camouflage amplifying the low-wattage bulbs of the room to mesmerise the Sergeant with its dazzle.
‘I think you’re holding a friend of mine here,’ he says. ‘A certain Mr Smith.’ His manner is confident and there is the suggestion of an edge to his voice.
‘We do have such a person here,’ says the Sergeant stiffly. ‘But he has no identification.’
‘I can vouch for him,’ says Scipio.
‘Oh, yes,’ says the Sergeant. ‘And who might you be Sir?’
Scipio takes out his wallet and hands over his card. The Sergeant takes it and reads:
Mr Scipio Hawkins.
Editor. International Times.
The Sergeant frowns, he has never heard of the paper, but these are London people and the International sounds impressive.
‘There will be a report in tomorrow’s paper about today’s event,’ says Scipio, ‘I shall write it myself and it can come out one of two ways. We can thank the Oxfordshire Constabulary for their wise forbearance etc., since I don’t suppose anybody wants to be accused of Gestapo tactics. And,’ he goes on, placing a significant finger on the Sergeant’s nameplate. ‘Names might well be mentioned, and typographical errors are endemic in the newspaper world.’
The Sergeant makes no answer to this, Scipio’s psychedelics seems to have completely thrown him, after all, anyone with enough bottle to wear such a garment might well have a lot of clout and he wants no trouble. Getting to his feet he retires to an inner-office from where, after a brief conference with its occupant he returns with a bunch of keys. ‘We’re letting him go,’ he says, and his tone gives nothing away. Smith watches as the Sergeant comes to his cell and he hears the welcome sound of a key turning in the lock.
Outside, evening is falling and the setting sun paints the old stones of the ancient city in a ruddy glow as Scipio and Smith walk back to a flat where their friends are gathered.
‘What happened to your saxophone?’ asks Scipio, noticing the smashed bell of the horn.
‘They ran me into a door,’ says Smith, regarding the ruined instrument. It is a bad omen. ‘There’s something about me the police don’t like,’ he thinks, and looking at his damaged horn he sees immediately what the finger of fate has so obviously pointed out: It is not he the police dislike. It is his saxophone.
‘It’s my saxophone!’ he bursts out. ‘I must be playing the wrong instrument.’
Not being party to Smith’s inner thought processes, Scipio has to take this at face value.
‘Yeah. Wow man,’ he says.
But Smith has plunged once more into his latest revelation. The saxophone. The most bolshie instrument on the planet. Its associations with jazz making it decidedly hip, and hipness raises the hackles amongst the Philistine. The status-quo represents the fixed; while the hip is fluid and changeable, and change is anathema to the powers-that-be. Now Smith can almost hear the voice of the establishment raised to admonish.
‘If there’s any changes to be made around here, we’ll make them. All right? Then we’ll tell you about it.’
Smith is now at the edge of a major shift; his saxophonic days are over for sure. But what next? ‘Something you don’t have to put in your mouth,’ he thinks ‘The Banjo? No. Something more respectable like the violin. Then… That’s it; the violin of course.’ Having made this decision, the mere intention has given him an inner gravitas. As a violinist his credentials will be assured, already he feels the sense of dignity appropriate to such a respectable member of the musical community.
‘I’m going to take up the violin,’ he announces, and Scipio, a man who has rung many changes himself, takes it in his stride.
‘Wow man, yeah,’ he says.
Back at the flat Smith catches sight of Dick and Zen.
‘How did you know they were coming?’ he asks when he gets Dick alone.
‘I saw them reflected in my trombone,’ he says. ‘The bell is like a rear-view mirror and I saw them coming up from behind.’
‘Why didn’t you warn me?’ asks Smith.
‘There wasn‘t time,’ answers Dick. ‘You had just started a burst and I wasn’t going to hang about counting up to five till you’d finished.’
But Smith is not mollified. ‘Well if you hadn’t put in so much elephant we might have got away with it.’ he says.
From ‘Tales from the Embassy’