Part 2 : An Adulthood in England
Chapter 20 : London Calling
The one thing I remember is the smell. All the countries that I stopped at on the way from Rhodesia to England had particular smells.
South Africa was hot and dusty and rather dirty. (That was Johannesburg.)
Luanda in Angola had a very odd smell – it smelt of shit. Probably because of the Gents’ toilets in Luanda airport at that time. It was 1966, yet in this otherwise modern airport, you opened the door of the Gents’ lavatories and went straight out into the jungle. That was the Gents’ toilets. It was quite weird, quite bizarre. The Ladies’ was a properly constructed building, but (as Daph told me later) it was full of dogs eating sanitary towels. Pretty awesome, really.
Then I arrived in Paris. And Paris smelt of diesel and cigarettes (which I later came to know as Gauloise, though at the time I’d never heard of a Gauloise cigarette).
And when I arrived in London it smelt damp, even though it was July. We flew in over rows and rows of chimney-pots, and all I could think was, ‘God Almighty! Heavens above! Such a lot of bloody people all living in one place!’
At 18 years old and wearing my much vaunted white Prince Edward colours blazer, I was met at Gatwick airport by the Sutherlands. The Sutherlands were friends of my brother John and they were quite the most wonderful people. Graham Sutherland was a furrier who owned George Smith’s, the big furriers in Regent Street. Before that, he’d been an engineer working for British Aerospace when they developed the major BAC 125 executive jet. He wore a bowler hat to work and he always smoked a pipe. His wife, the improbably named Dare Sutherland, was always in the kitchen in a pinny, being mumsy and nurturing. Their daughter, Karen, was John’s girlfriend before he met his (now) wife, Louise Burnett. They all lived in a place called Tewin Wood in Hertfordshire, and as we drove from Gatwick Airport past building after building after building, I looked out of the window in awe.
‘Are we still in London?’ I asked.
‘No,’ they said. ‘We’re in Hertfordshire now. And now we’re in Watford. And now we’re in Hatfield. And now we’re in Wellyn Garden City.’ But the terrifying thing for a boy from Africa was that there was no space in between these places. I was used to 200 miles between one town and another, so when I arrived in England, I was completely freaked out.
A few days after I arrived, I took a trip down to London to visit the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I had an appointment with the Registrar, Richard O’Donoghue, who told me what I had to do in order to apply for an audition. ‘You’ll have to present a Shakespeare speech and a modern piece,’ he said.
‘Is George Bernard Shaw modern?’ I asked, as Androcles the Lion was all I’d read in the Salisbury library on that afternoon when I’d left school.
Richard O’Donoghue looked at me curiously. ‘I suppose we’ve had more modern writers than Shaw...’
‘And while you’re about it,’ he added, ‘it might be a good idea to get a drama coach...’ (I was oblivious to the impact of my thick Rhodesian accent.) He handed me a book called Contacts, which was full of names of drama coaches and agents and all sorts of things. Not wanting to take up too much of Mr O’Donoghue’s time, I chose the first coach at the top of the list, scribbled down the name and handed back the book.
But before I could sort out a drama coach, I had to move to London, and before I could move to London, I had to earn some money. Jock had already written to me saying, ‘Well, young man, have you found yourself a job yet? Don’t be impatient about it and don’t forget that the salary is not everything – amiable workmates, distance from your accommodation, your ability to earn your wages honestly – I mean, by giving value – and lastly, bear in mind that conditions in Winter in England are very different from those you are now experiencing.’
True enough, the summer weather was very balmy. The Sutherlands had a caravan which they let me stay in with their youngest son, Barry, and before long I got myself a job as a petrol pump attendant at Waters’ Garage in Hatfield. The Garage is still there but it’s on the By-Pass, so if you’re on the A1, you miss it altogether. But in 1966, you could run across the road from one garage to the other to collect the tottings-up at the end of the day’s business. I wore a set of overalls with ‘Waters’ Garage’ on them, and I used to act as if I was a petrol pump attendant in Africa. I’d salute the drivers as they drew up in their cars and say, ‘‘Good morning, Sir. Can I fill you up?’
‘Oh, yes, please,’ they’d reply.
‘Can I check your oil and water?’
‘Oh, yes. Thank you very much.’
‘By the way, Sir, your battery needs topping up.’ And I’d top up the battery, check the oil and water, put the bonnet down, wipe my hands, take the money, and go to the till. Then I’d come back and they’d give me a little tip. And I used to think, ‘That’s the way!’ I rather liked it at Water’s Garage and after I’d been there for three weeks, I was considered trusty enough to go round and tot up the pumps at night.
The other pump attendants had never seen such behaviour in their lives. One of the guys was 45 and still a petrol pump attendant. I thought, ‘Christ! You want to have done that job for the whole of your life?’ I was only aiming to do it for eight or ten weeks – just long enough to earn enough money to be able to get to London. I wrote to my parents to tell them of my plans and immediately set some cats among some pigeons:
‘You mention leaving Tewin to live in London,’ wrote Jock. ‘Miles, I would think very seriously about this before you burn your boats. Your keep is going to cost you a lot more and whatever you do, don’t give up your day job before you have found an alternative. There is probably going to be quite a lot of unemployment in Britain soon and even temporary jobs may not be so easy to get.’
Of course I understood Jock’s concerns about letting his middle son loose in the Metropolis – especially one who’d come from the bush of Rhodesia – but within two months I had arrived in London. I was on my way to fame.
The first thing I did was to buy the Evening Standard and start looking for rooms.
‘Why don’t you look in Clapham,’ said John, ‘Clapham’s supposed to be quite cheap.’
So I looked up Clapham in the small ads and I found a room on Clapham Common North Side for £1.10 shillings a week. I thought that was vastly expensive, although I could have had one for £2, but I didn’t want to spend that much cash. I thought it was far more sensible to go for the cheaper room at the back of the house. Besides, Jock’s words were imprinted in my head: ‘Well, my boy, good luck in your new venture. Live up to our principles and don’t squander your money.’
I shared the bathroom with a guy called John who worked in the Box Office at the Royal Festival Hall. He was a sweet man, who introduced me to ‘folk’. I didn’t know about ‘folk’. I knew about Elvis Presley, but John introduced me to The Carter Family, The Dubliners, Joan Baez, and all sorts of Kum-ba-ya. He’d ask me round to his room for a cup of tea, and we’d listen to ‘folk’. ‘This is “folk”’, he’d say, and I kind of liked it. But I knew it wasn’t really going to move me, really get me in the groove. Not like Spokes Machiani and his Cape Town pennywhistle.
Now I had a room, all I had to do was get a job. Jock had said that if I got into RADA, he’d fund my fees and give me some money to live on, God bless him! But I wouldn’t get anything from him until I’d secured a place. That was the deal; so I had to find myself a job until I got into drama school. And it wasn’t just rent and food I had to budget for: I was going to audition-training once a week and that was quite expensive.
My acting coach lived in Kensington. On my first visit to see her, she’d taken one look at me and said, ‘I think Hotspur.’
I was more than happy to take her advice as I didn’t know anyone who’d played in Shakespeare. I mean, I knew there was a chap called ‘Laurence Oolipheer’ (that was how they pronounced it in South Africa) and John Gielgud whom I’d heard on a record and didn’t like very much. Daph had once bought me a book called Great Acting and it featured Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft, Sybil Thorndyke, Edith Evans, and Flora Robson. There were four Dames and four Knights, and the book was all about their famous performances and the plays they’d done, and there were big black and white pictures of them in various roles. I was frightfully taken by it all.
My acting coach lent me a copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare and I thumbed through it a bit (as one does) and I didn’t understand a damn word that any of the characters were saying. She told me to take the book away and read it, and come up with a Shakespearian piece. Because she’d suggested Hotspur, that seemed like a safe bet, so that was what I plumped for.
In order to pay for my classes – and despite my father’s anxieties about Britain’s rising unemployment – I managed to get a job at Selfridge’s in the food department. They gave me a week’s training, and then on the Monday morning the head of the food department handed me my name tag with great pride, saying, ‘And you’ll be on Frozen Foods, Mr Anderson.’
‘Crikey!’ I thought. I’d just come from Africa and it was nearly October and there was a bit of a nip in the air. I was already feeling the cold and now here I was, surrounded by fridge cabinets and people saying, ‘Could you tell me where the Findus peas are, please? Could you tell me where the minted spinach is?’ The head of the food department would say, ‘Mr Anderson, could you go into the cold rooms and get four more crates of cod fish fingers?’ And I’d go into the cold room and I’d nearly die! I’d never experienced such cold in all my bloody life! All I had on beneath my white uniform coat was a thin jersey and a collar and tie, and at the end of that first Monday, I handed in my notice. I’d had enough, even though I’d only done my week’s training plus one day’s service (though how on earth we trained to be assistants in the Frozen Food department, I really don’t recall).
After giving up my job at Selfridge’s, I quickly got another job – this time at the Army and Navy Stores. This position was much better because I was put in the Clothing department – on Men’s Underwear. Mr McDonald was my boss and he wore a nylon shirt which smelt by 11 o’clock in the morning. (He had terrible B.O.) He smoked Capstan Full Strength. (I smoked Number Six, which were about the size of a match and cost tuppence for eight.) And Mr McDonald used to nip out for a crafty fag. His teeth and fingers were all yellow – he really sucked hard at his fags.
Mr McDonald was an angry man, who’d been in Men’s Underwear for years. Customers would come in and say, ‘Morning...er...I’d like six pairs of…er…my usual…please.’
‘Ah,’ I’d reply. ‘So…what exactly would you like, Sir?’
‘Well ... you know ... my usual…’
And I’d take out a few samples from the drawer. ‘Are they Boxer Shorts, Sir?’
‘No, no, no!’
‘No, come on!’
Then I’d suddenly get a tap on the shoulder and there would be Mr McDonald. ‘It’s quite all right, Mr Anderson. I’ll deal with this. Good morning, Mr Jones. Six of your usual, is it, Sir?’ And he’d reach into the bottom drawer and take out a box of purple G-Strings. Or jock straps! G-strings and jock straps! In the Army and Navy Stores! These frightfully pukka men in their suits and ties and Marks and Spencer’s checked white shirts and Houndstooth jackets and their brogues and a cap! These county gentlemen were buying six pairs of all this bloody weird underwear!
During my employment in Men’s Underwear, I learned something terrible about the Army and Navy Stores at the time, which brought to mind my father’s words: ‘earn your wages honestly – I mean, by giving value for money’. And from that moment on I despised them. It was all down to the fact that at ‘Sales’ time, we were sent to the stock room in the cellar, where we’d sit for days on end labelling goods with ‘Sale Price’. But the trouble was that none of it was from the Army and Navy Stores at all, it was all just bought in. ‘Where do they get all this stuff?’ I asked. ‘Has it come down from the warehouse?’
‘Don’t be stupid,’ they’d say, ‘it’s come here in the trucks.’
Yes, truckloads of the stuff would arrive and it wasn’t in the sale at all. It was brand new stuff that the management had bought on the cheap and were flogging in the Army and Navy Stores sale. People thought they were buying Army and Navy Stores products and so assumed it must be good. But really it was some rat-cheap piece of stuff that had probably come from Hackney or some sweat-shop in Brick Lane. In my darkest moments, I trusted that my acting career would soon take off so that I wouldn’t have to endure the dishonesty for long.
As a trainee at the Army and Navy Stores, I was paid one pound less than the proper staff. So my weekly wage was £9.10. After I got my first pay slip and saw the ‘Stoppages: Tax’, I realised my take-home pay would be £8.20. Here began my life of frugality. I was paying £1.10 for my room and another chunk went to my acting coach, so there wasn’t a lot left over to live on and look after myself. Fortunately I was well set up because, before I left Rhodesia, Daph had given me a book she’d written: it’s a book that every boy should have before he goes to England. In this book, she explained: ‘How to do your laundry’ and ‘When to do your laundry’: ‘You find that you mustn’t mix the colours with the whites because you end up with something vaguely greyish.’ It was a beautifully-written little book, including lots of economical recipes: ‘How to make a cottage pie’ and ‘How to make kedgeree.’ How to do these various little cooking things, all invaluable pearls of wisdom: ‘If you want to give yourself a treat, buy best end neck of lamb. It’s very, very cheap and you can do marvellous things with it, like a stew. First, chop and fry an onion, then add the pieces of neck of lamb. Ask the butcher to cut them up for you. (‘Don’t buy the whole neck,’ she would add in brackets, ‘because otherwise you’ll spend the next two days trying to get through the bone.’) Throw in a few potatoes and some carrots, and some stock (if you can find a stock cube) and then you’ve got a stew that’ll last you for two or three days.’
My mother regularly added to these handy hints in the letters that she wrote to me in London:
‘Have you tried Crosse and Blackwell’s tinned steak and kidney pies – I can recommend them, they are super if you follow the instructions properly. And as meat is so expensive, do you ever buy cooked chickens? By far the best value – and don’t forget to eat plenty of salads (buy chicory – it’s better than lettuce).’
Following Daph’s tips, I would cook on a two-ringed Belling cooker in a kitchen which was little more than a cupboard. Sometimes on a Saturday night, I might treat myself and go to a place called ‘The Stock Pot’, which was a cheap eatery where you could get a really good meal for 5 shillings and sixpence.
During my days off from the Army and Navy Stores, I went on a variety of little jaunts into London Town. I was violently against South Africa. So, whenever I could, I’d go to South Africa House and sign the petition – yet again. ‘Have you signed the petition?’ they’d ask.
‘Yes, I’ve already signed your petition,’ I’d reply.
‘Would you like to sign it again?’
‘Well, I’ve signed it quite a lot really, I’ve signed it every week – at least three times!’ There must be more of my signatures on the South African anti-Apartheid book than any other name.
Once I went to the Overseas Visitors’ Club in Earl’s Court where Daph had told me that all the old colonials went. So off I trotted to Earl’s Court and I walked in and there they were – South Africans and Australians and the odd Rhodesian. I looked round at them and I thought, ‘Why did I want to come here? They all talk about the “bungs” and the “kaffirs”. And I don’t really like any of them anyway.’ So my association with the Overseas Visitors’ Club was very short-lived.
My life in London continued, and I regularly wrote to my parents letting them know of my situation and reassuring them that the Metropolis hadn’t scarred me yet: ‘Morally, I am still the same, pure virgin like Roderick, undefiled in this huge immoral city – believe me, some of the sites one sees would make you blush.’ I told my mother of the culinary concoctions I was rustling up and my new running regime on Clapham Common. I also kept them up to date with the political situation: ‘Wilson’s pay freeze seems to be discouraging people from ever voting Labour again. But when one looks at it, what other alternative could he have chosen? Inflation would simply have meant a great depression.’ I was getting sudden musical urges so I asked if they could send my guitar over, and I reassured them that I would follow up the various contacts they’d given me: ‘It seems to me that in the acting world especially it is more of “who you know” and not “what you know”.’ I was clearly learning fast.
At last the date for my audition at RADA arrived in the post: it was to be Monday November 6th and now my preparation began in earnest.
‘Well,’ said my acting coach, ‘did you know that Hotspur had a speech impediment?’ And I didn’t, but apparently – historically – he had a stutter. ‘When So-and-so played the part [and she named some actor who I guessed was famous, though I’d never heard of him], he used to stutter on the letter “P”.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘that’s very good. I like that.’
‘And you do know that Hotspur was from Northumberland, don’t you? A Northumberland accent is like a Yorkshire accent.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘that’s very good.’ (I liked that even more.)
So armed with this audition speech from Hotspur, in which I stuttered and attempted a Rhodesian version of a Northumberland accent (which really meant I said ‘ooop’ instead of ‘up’), I strode off to my RADA audition ready for the fray. I also had a modern piece – Freddie from Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea – which my acting coach had also chosen for me. I’d written to my parents the night before, saying that I wasn’t really nervous: I’d been waiting for this moment since June and I was glad that it had come. I arrived at the RADA building in Gower Street, wearing a suit and a shirt and a tie. I looked around at all the other guys who were simply wearing their jerseys, whereas I was very smart. And I thought, ‘This’ll get me in – being smart. I’ll say, “Good afternoon, Sir!” and I’ll be very polite. That should do the trick.’
The format for the day was that each auditionee had to walk into the Little Theatre at RADA, stand at the front of the stage and say whatever his or her name was. My turn came, and out I strode with far more aplomb than at the New Boys’ Concert, and I announced, ‘Miles Anderson,’ in a polite and confident chime.
‘And what are you doing for us?’ came a voice from the auditorium.
‘Hotspur, Sir. From Henry IV Part 1.’ And I started my Hotspur. I got to the stutter (I rather enjoyed the stutter), and I used it on all sorts of letters, not just the ‘Ps’ but the ‘Ds’ and the ‘Ws’, and the ‘Gs’.
The speech took quite a long time to get through.
‘Thank you,’ came the voice from the auditorium. I was just about to say that I had Freddie and The Deep Blue Sea to do next, when the stage manager tiptoed on to the stage and quietly said, ‘Thank you.’
‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘maybe I’ve passed already. Maybe I was so good with the first speech, they don’t need to see my modern piece.’ And off I strode back home.
We’d been told that we’d hear by post in two weeks’ time whether we’d got a place or not. So for the time being my life tootled along. I was still working at the Army and Navy Stores, and now my social life was beginning to take off. I’d already been to John’s 21st birthday party at the beginning of October, where I’d got ‘rather tight’ according to John with a number of ‘rather tight girls’, including a Polish Countess. (I’d given John a leather attaché case for his birthday which had eaten up quite a chunk of my meagre wages.) Sometimes, I’d go to up to Tewin for the weekend to stay with the Sutherlands, and some weekends I’d go down to East Sussex to stay with the Yeos with whom we’d spent our holidays in Nyanga on the Mountain of the Moon. Colin Yeo had moved to England with his wife and three daughters, Sue, Cathy and Annabella, after leaving his position as the military attaché in Rhodesia. Cathy, my Jean Harlow look-alike, had matured into a jolly good soul, who was always there to help her friends. She lived in a flat in Victoria with three other girls and everybody loved her. She still had that blonde hair and those beautiful eyes, and she was one of those sunny open people, who you never see being miserable.
I’d also met a tall girl called Charlotte (though nothing like the car-crashing ‘Harlot’) who was a fellow Rhodesian. She was studying at St Martin’s School of Art, and I took her to a medical party at St Thomas’s Hospital. It was the biggest party I’d ever seen. Every floor was a different dance room with all sorts of music playing. I was frightfully impressed by it all.
In the middle of this busy life, the much-awaited letter from RADA arrived. The gist of it was: ‘Thank you for coming to RADA, but unfortunately, you have not passed the audition. Should you wish to apply at another date, we will be pleased to see you then…’ It was one of those set letters that they send out to thousands of applicants a year, and I got one of those thousand. I went straight to the Post Office and sent my parents a telegram:‘FAILED ADVISED TRY IN APRIL. MILES.’ They were absolutely speechless for a day. They didn’t know what to do. They thought, ‘Christ Almighty! He’s killed himself!’
Not, ‘FAILED. LOVE YOU. HOW’S THINGS?’
Just ‘FAILED. MILES.
My sense of the dramatic was already beginning to develop and I wasn’t even at drama school yet.
From that moment on, London seemed a lonely place. I would stand at the station entrance of Clapham Common North Side and ask struggling passengers if I could help them with their bags, but all I received were alienating looks as they scurried on by and knitted their brows. I would say hello to people on buses and try to start conversations, but they’d simply turn away from me as if I was some Dostoyevskian madman. I sought solace in churches where I would sit and pray in the hopes of hearing answers. It had never really occurred to me that I wouldn’t get into RADA, and in my alienated solitude, I wondered what on earth to do next.