VT Coughtrey

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Chapter 30: Mild Ale with Linda
Chapter written 2001 & last revised 2013

There are no notes for this chapter yet.  Some of the notes on other pages are based on info YOU send me.
Having walked on past the Star Road hostel for a couple of miles, I began to wonder where I might be heading.  The world was wide open.  This is something strongly felt by wanderers in big cities, where you have roads leading in all directions and have no idea which corners your feet will choose to take you round.  It is either an exhilarating or a terrifying prospect according to mood and circumstances.  On this occasion, as I have said, it filled me with joy.
Since I had found myself crossing Putney Bridge, it looked as though my next areas of adventure were going to be south of London.  For some reason that I can't remember I didn't get far on the first day.  I spent the first night lying on the open ground of a playing-field somewhere off the Kingston By-Pass.  I remember this as a nice experience, so it must have been a warm night.  When I awoke the sun was shining and I continued on my way feeling curiously optimistic about the future.
It was when I remembered one of the residents of the Star Road hostel that a destination began to suggest itself to me.  Sunshine Joe was a celebrity tramp.  Whenever a newspaper, magazine or TV producer wanted to do a piece on tramps, they generally went straight to him.  For one thing, they knew where to find him and, for another, he was willing and able to act perfectly for them the role of the old-fashioned self-sufficient tramp-by-choice, just the image they were looking for.  He was a small, chirpy character around fifty, had a leathery tan, a straw hat, a neat beard and an air of independence.  The truth is that he was no sort of tramp at all, in the old romantic sense the media were interested in.  He lived for nine months of the year at Star Road, but spent every July, August and September in Brighton, dossing under the West Pier and plying his trade of Chief Media Tramp.  Journalists were prepared to pay for his services, but only in the summer months, when editors were inclined to run such stories.
Shortly after I first arrived at Star Road, Sunshine left for his annual stay in Brighton, but not before he had impressed upon me the wonders of the place.  According to him, casual work in the kitchens of the numerous hotels was very easy to come by and dossers were so important to the economy of this popular seaside resort that the police had instructions to leave them alone, in the summer at least.  He also spoke of there being a lot of wealthy eccentrics there who were easy to tap.  Recalling all this, as I lay in the dawn sun on that playing-field, it seemed to me that as I was already heading vaguely south, I might as well aim for Brighton.
I had no real idea of how to get there, nor did I feel inclined to hitch (so far in my dossing career I had done remarkably little hitching).  I just kept walking, carrying on all night, with short rests now and again.  I still had the Book of Taps in my pocket.  It was my one possession apart from my glasses and the clothes I was wearing.  I had not ceased to note in it every scrap of useful information about the road in just about all regions of Britain, as given me by dossers or overheard.  It enabled me to locate convents and monasteries in Surrey and Sussex.  The NAB, however, was a dead loss in this affluent part of the country.  Their offices were few and far between and they gave dossers very short shrift.
Because I had been trying to come at Brighton from an awkward angle, I in fact landed on the coast a bit to the west of the target, at Shoreham-by-Sea, and walked from there into Brighton.  The walk of nearly 60 miles, by way of Dorking and Horsham had taken about 48 hours - not a record perhaps, but I hadn't been in a hurry.  I went straight to West Pier where I found not only Sunshine Joe, but an assortment of strange characters.  Despite having barged uninvited into their little encampment under the girders of the pier, I was immediately offered food and cigarettes (not that I smoked).  They were an entirely different breed of dosser from any that I had encountered so far.  They were young (Sunshine was by far the oldest of them and some were younger than I) and unlike most of the older dossers I had met, saw themselves not as would-be conformists fallen on hard times or unable to cope because of war experiences, etc, but as rebels with no intention of conforming.  Another difference was that some of them were women or girls.
I was pleased to find that all the men had beards, although I had got rid of mine some time ago.  They also had hair that was outrageously long by the standards of 1965, though definitely short by the standards of a few years later.  Since disappearing from home some six months earlier, I had not often had the money for as many haircuts as society demanded.  As I may have mentioned in an earlier chapter, I had long been puzzled and frustrated by the general obsession with the length of men's hair.  After all, to be so close cropped was a fairly recent fashion in the scheme of things, yet it had become an unwritten law - one of the most important ones for many people, it seemed.  Any man who let his hair grow slightly longer than the regulation 'short-back-and-sides' was generally regarded as a criminal lunatic and sometimes treated as such by the police.  The Beatles were just beginning to have some effect on this lunacy, with their early 'mop' hairstyles, but there was a tendency to excuse them on the grounds that it was just a publicity gimmick, not to be copied by lesser mortals.  Every time that more than a couple of weeks elapsed between visits to the demigod barber, I began to attract angry comments and insults from a wide range of people.  It was one of the reasons I felt instantly at home among these beach people.
They were known to the townspeople as the Beachniks, but they called themselves the 'Beach Scene'.  They spent the nights under the West Pier and the days, if the weather was fine, on the open beach or prowling round the town 'conning' as they strangely called begging.  The strongest character and therefore the leader of sorts was called Tugboat.  He wore a sea captain's hat.  No-one was called by their real name.  I was immediately named 'Suit'.  This was because the garments I had chosen from the free clothing store at Star Road had included a dark green, very ill-fitting suit and it was this, getting progressively crumpled of course, that I now wore around the clock.  You had to be wearing eccentric garb to fit in with this community and what could be more eccentric, in the circumstances, than a suit?  It helped greatly with my general acceptability on that first encounter.
The youngest member of the Beach Scene must have been under 16, because she had run away from a children's care home in Croydon.  One of the others told me that children absconding from the home usually made their way straight down the A23 to Brighton, and soon discovered the Scene.  So the Brighton Beach Scene was always the first thing the police checked.  They had inevitably come looking for this girl, but their enquiries were limited to asking her how old she was.  She naturally replied that she was 16.  They looked her up and down and judged that she was telling the truth, so couldn't be the missing girl.  Everyone, especially the girl herself, had found this highly amusing.
I can't remember what the girl's Scene name was, but she confided in me that her real name was Linda.  She voluntered this information remarkably quickly, during only my first night of lying on the large tarry pebbles of Brighton beach, under West Pier.  In fact, by the early hours of that same morning, we were kissing and cuddling.  We might have gone further, but for the inhibitions imposed upon us by the communal nature of the bedroom and the intermittent loud farts of Sunshine Joe.  This sonorous accompaniment to our amorous activities caused us to giggle hysterically, but it definitely put paid to any further hanky-panky, thus preventing me from breaking the law.  By morning I was besotted with her, despite the fact that I was 22 and she was no more than 15.  She ordered me to go begging for her. I tried it briefly, but was very bad at it and only drew verbal abuse.  But then I hit upon a better idea - I would get a job and support her on a far grander scale than could be done by begging!  Casual work in kitchens would not be good enough, so I set out to find a factory.  Near the Steine I came across Tamplin's brewery.  As one so easily could then, I strolled into reception and asked for work.  The girl called the foreman and that was it.  Never mind the state of the suit, worn continuously and dossed in for four days and nights, the stubble or the grime - these were days of desperate labour shortage and you grabbed whomever chanced along without asking questions (unless, of course his hair was too long, which mine was not, at this precise moment).  When I told Linda about the job, due to start the following morning, she seemed very pleased and another unsatisfactory attempt st 'heavy petting' ensued.
Next day at the brewery I was issued with a boiler suit, a hugely oversized donkey jacket and a pair of gumboots.  I've no idea what the latter were for, since my job was nowhere near the overflowing fermentation vats.  I was stationed at one end of a long empty room on the top floor of the brewery, near a hatch in the floor. Every minute or less an empty keg popped up out of the hatch and my job was to kick it the full length of the room, aiming at another hatch at the far end. If it missed, you had to run down to that end and shove it down, then run back in time for the next one. This was a good incentive to improve your aim.  Big aluminium kegs on the concrete floor of a vast empty space meant it was a noisy job.
The great thing about the job was that every worker was allowed two pints of mild a day, to be consumed during the breaks.  An even greater thing was that most of the workers seemed to be teetotal and the foreman seemed to fret more about emptying the allotted free keg each day than about anything else.  He therefore encouraged the few of us with a respectable thirst to acquire empty flagons and fill them from the keg for consumption between the breaks, to supplement our official allowance in the breaks.  This was, of course, against the rules, but had apparently been going on ever since anyone could remember.  I took it a stage further.  Having drunk four pints during the day, I walked through the gates every evening with two more full flagons under the voluminous donkey jacket.  (I had abandoned the suit and shoes that I had first arrived in and had taken to wearing the full brewery gear round the clock - it gave me a strange feeling of importance on the beach).  The ale I walked out with every evening was for sharing with Linda under the West Pier.  The trouble was that she was sometimes hungry and there was nothing I could do about that until my first pay packet, after two weeks.  I have no recollection at all of how I managed to acquire food for myself.  All that ale must have made me ravenous.  I can only assume that the brewery canteen gave new workers credit until their first payday. This was certainly the case in some factories.
The great day of my first pay packet finally arrived.  That evening I bought a lot of provisions on the way down to the West Pier.  When I got there, only Sunshine Joe was there. "Where's Linda?"  I asked in great alarm.  The reply was shattering. "Oh, Tugboat ordered them all down to Newquay in Cornwall.  He said there was a huge beach scene there.  They set off hitching one at a time throughout the day.  Linda was one of the first to leave." Stunned and desolate, I drank all the ale and shared the food with Sunshine (who didn't drink) before curling up on the oily pebbles and trying to sleep.
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