No Fixed Abode
Adrift in the UK and France
My golden age of travel provided memories that sustain me to this day. Golden, in hindsight, but also desperately lonely.
Exactly forty-four years ago, in May 1977, my huge orange backpack was the only bright thing waiting for a bus that mightn’t come, to take me to somewhere uncertain, to impose on some tenuously connected Kiwis. The air was laden with diesel and petrol. My eyes were red. Then it started to sleet.
In the interests of adventure, I had just £100 when I arrived in London. My vague plan was to strike out to the countryside, find work, and see what I could learn.
I bought a £30 push bike. You’re probably thinking that at £30, it must have been a heap of junk. Not so. It was a perfectly OK ten speed, which never gave me a spec of trouble. (At the time, the average weekly wage was £65).
London did my head in. In New Zealand, I had grown used to being able to do anything (eg. swimming, tennis) on the spur of the moment, at little or no cost. In London, I suggested a game of tennis to someone; they said “Sure, we should be able to get a court in about five days”. With people and vehicles everywhere, no job and no prospects, London drove me insane. After less than a week, I had to get out. I reasoned that if I set off really early, the traffic would be light and I could ride out of town. Big mistake. Suicidal. On a main road, I was mauled by trucks. Retreating to the nearest train station I bought a ticket, and a train took me north to Kings Lynn. There, I slept for eighteen hours.
The next day I started cycling west, making for the Isle of Anglesey. It is a land of my forefathers, and I had an idea that this might provide me with some kind of spiritual epiphany.
I was taken in by a farming family with my last name. This was not remarkable. ‘Owen’ along with ‘Jones’ are the two most common names in Wales. But that didn’t stop us from speculating that we may be related. I suppose Richard and Susan Owen will be dead by now, so I have lost my chance to express how deeply grateful I am to them for providing me with a safe haven.
I applied for job as a horticulture instructor for a training scheme being run from the University at Bangor, less than twelve miles ride from the Owen’s farm. The selection panel of one, was a man with whom I had immediate rapport. He was a scout leader, as was I. I believed the second interview was a formality, and the job was mine. I turned up on my bike, flush with good health, wearing shorts. The other applicant was a stolid Welshman, ten years older than me. I wrote him off. Looking back, I now realise how completely unsuitable I was. I would be required to teach and hold the respect of men and women while I was still a boy. It was a crushing blow. I had never considered the possibility that I wouldn’t get the job. To process what hadn’t happened for me, I rode and rode; eventually circumnavigating the Isle of Anglesey.
It was time to move on, and my next stop was Glan Conwy. Life could have been very pleasant. A widow called Duxie, was delighted to have me stay in a caravan parked in her paddock, and I found work at a nearby nursery. Duxie offered more than once for me to stay in the house, and started calling me ‘Pet’. It didn’t feel right, and one day while she was out, I loaded up my saddlebags and rode away, leaving a note. She wrote to me later saying she understood.
After Wales, I cycled to the English Midlands, and found work.
I had known loneliness before, but never so enduring as at this time in England. There were two old guys who came to the farm each day. All I ever remember them says was ‘All right?’ except once one of them did say to me “The evening must be long”. So true.
Initially my accommodation was an unused fruit stall, then I progressed to what had been a smoko room. After the sun went down; to the north I could see the glow of Birmingham, and that of London to the south. Millions of people were just over my horizons, and I was so lonely that I found it hard to look people in the eye, lest they see my lack.
The owner would turn up most morning in his Mini, open the door and read the newspaper. It seemed that the two old guys ran the place. This was my first taste of the UK class divide. I surmised that the boss had money to burn, so he wasn’t motivated to make anything better of the farm than what the two old guys were doing. Or perhaps he was going through a depressive phase.
I made an attempt at remedying my friendless state by presenting myself at the local cricket club. Bearing a resemblance to Richard Hadlee, the locals had high expectations, which I quickly doused with my ineptitude. I returned to the farm never to return.
My boss ran out of work, and organised a job for me on a bigger farm. There, I made a good friend. He was bright, irreverent, full of fun, and going places. I looked forward to being invited to his home, but that day never came.
In hindsight I realise that unless you’re of the upper class, inviting people home, is not the ‘done’ thing. Homes of the lower classes are small. If you want to meet, you go to the pub.
The days were bliss, roaring hither and fro on one of the dozen or so Massey Fergusons. (Women folk did the manual work). But as the old guy said ‘The evenings were long’.
As a colonial, the brits would have found me difficult to pigeon hole on the basis of accent. I had more than one opportunity to move to a higher strata, but never did. I could not join in with referring to my workmates as ‘Them’.
Summer was drawing to a close and my mother wrote to me about an opportunity to join the son of a family friend on a vineyard in the South of France. I didn’t have to think long about that.
I took the boat from Folkestone to Calais, then train to Paris, and then another train south to Avignon. From there I pedaled to the iconic village of St Remy, and the vineyard to meet Neil. He had arrived, also on a bike, a week earlier.
I had braced myself for long days of hard work. The reality was the opposite. The vineyard was very small. The owner, ex-airline pilot, James Barring, had a created for himself an excessively relaxed lifestyle complete with an attractive girl-friend who took care of him and any hangers on, of which there were three, after I settled in. The days passed pleasantly with a few hours of leisurely work, then lounging in the afternoon. There was no payment.
After a few days, I said to Neil, that this is not what I had expected. Nor did he. We were both expecting to be doing proper work. This lifestyle was, however, like an opiate, and Neil agreed that if you stayed too long it would become difficult to leave.
‘Fortune favours the bold’. Just as I had done in London, and not unlike my exit from Glan Conwy, I got up early and set off on my bike. Three years of French lessons were of little benefit. I spotted a sign which said Bureax de Informique . This, I reasoned, must be an Information Bureau or Visitors Information Bureau, so I went in. It turned out it was a data processing centre and nobody spoke English. They did however know someone who did, and after a phone call, Paul Claud Rebier arrived in his Citroën. He was to be my saviour, and Neil’s. He lived alone in a grand house dripping with art. Once, when I returned from a wind and rain thwarted attempt at cycling up Mount Ventoux. he said ‘I was his wings’.
Paul teed up proper work for Neil and I on a proper vineyard. After the loneliness of the UK, I was euphoric in France. The daily bottle of vine ordinaire may have contributed to this, but Neil consumed a lot more than me. No. It was the stimulation of everything so different, and everyone so natural. Sometimes my mind takes enduring snapshots. One of them is the vineyard matriarch (Wife of the owner), stocky and rosy cheeked, dressed like a peasant, tipping buckets full of grapes.
The harvest was drawing to a close and soon I would be returning to England. On a stary stary night I walked away from from the sheds and considered my future. It occurred to me that I would be returning to a grim winter on low pay. OR. OR! Because I was still a Canadian citizen, I could fly to Canada, and make big money in the frozen north. It took less than a minute for me to resolve that, that was exactly what I was going to do.
TO BE CONTINUED