Monday, July 14, 2014

40 years ago/the lost summer

I returned to Britain from Israel around the 7th or 8th of July 1974. I can't date this exactly, but I do remember shopping for records a day or two after my return; one of the records that I bought - 'Like an old-fashioned waltz' by Sandy Denny - is marked as being purchased on 10 July.

I spent the first week after returning in a daze, moping around and doing very little (such as trying to wrap my head around Sandy's new record which was recorded in a style very different to The North Star Grassman). My parents had returned to Cardiff from Bristol the year before (before I had finished at school) and so we were living in our new but old house. It was a Victorian three floor building in which we had lived when I was a small child. Then (and presumably in the few months between Bristol and Israel), we had lived on the ground floor, but now, we were living on the second floor and it was all very strange.

After about a week, my friend Danny got in touch (he too lived in Cardiff) and told me about a weekend camp which was going to be held. These weekend camps were held about a week or so before the main Habonim summer camps and were intended to be the climax of the year for each local group; it enabled everyone to get into the right frame of mind before the national camps. These camps were more of a laugh than anything else, possibly a chance for the older members to remember what it was like to be an ordinary camper and not a leader.

We escorted by train a group of youngsters from Bristol to Rugby (I think) where we joined other groups. I was quite pleased to see these youngsters taking part in national activities as in the few years that I had been responsible for them in Bristol, they had been geographically challenged and had never had the chance to see how other Habonim groups had conducted themselves. Of course, once we arrived at our destination, I promptly dropped them and went about meeting people that I hadn't seen for a few years.

After this weekend, there was probably another week when I did nothing which has stuck in the memory before I set off to the national summer camps, this time as a cook. I don't remember where the camp was situated - probably in Staffordshire - but I do remember that it rained a lot during the first few days. I didn't have any experience in cooking and especially not for a hundred people under canvas, using only gas rings, but I quickly learnt. I soon discovered that I was unable to eat the food that I prepared, not because it wasn't tasty (it probably wasn't) but because after toiling on it for several hours, I couldn't stand the sight of it! Instead I was introduced to the delights of peanut butter, interspersing peanut butter sandwiches with omelettes.

When I was the age of the campers -12 and 13 - we carried our own bivouac tents when we went on a three day hike. But in the intervening years, the children had become softer and they simply walked between predefined sites where the tents (not bivouacs) had already been erected for them. Normally cooks didn't walk with the groups but this year we were trying out a different organisational structure (as I would put it now) and the cooks were part of the groups and indeed were responsible for buying and cooking food during the hike. This leads me to consider how and what we ate when I was a happy camper and I have absolutely no recollection of this.

The first day of the hike must have been a Sunday, for I remember being told that a shop in the village which was our destination would stay open especially for me until 4pm. At around 2pm, I saw that the group was moving too slowly for us to arrive on time, so I set off on my own in order to get to the shop before it closed. I did arrive in time, ordered whatever I thought was needed - for supper, breakfast and lunch the following day - then went off to find the campsite. Once I arrived and the food was delivered and stored, I laid down to rest - I fell asleep but awoke when I discovered that cows were inspecting our food store! The rest of the group must have arrived shortly after.

My 18th birthday fell on one of the days of the hike; I remember that there was a nearby pub, and the leaders in our group were taking turns to go to the pub and use its toilet facilities, as well as possibly having a small drink. I got my chance to celebrate my birthday along with a girl called Jenny ("Jenny, penny for your thoughts" - Peter Hammill, "Slender threads"), with whom I shared a now legal half pint of cider (although she was under-age).

The last day of the hike stays in my mind for some reason: we were camped in a flat park, and the children attached to me had decided that we would eat fish fingers and baked beans - something quite easy to cook on a gas ring. I set up one dixie (as we called the pots) on the gas, poured in a little oil, then started frying fish fingers. Obviously I couldn't cook enough at the same time for everybody so I had to cook in batches. I remember that the first batch took forever to cook (obviously the oil wasn't hot enough) whereas the final batch 'was cooked before I even put the fish in the dixie', as I used to tell it (the oil was now very hot).

When the camp finished, I returned to Cardiff for another month before starting my new life in London. In this period, I worked in a bakery for minimum wage; this served as my introduction to the food industry - after all, I was going to study food science. At first, I worked a shift of eight hours, but after a few days I was working twelve hours a day. I was capable of this, after my work experience in the kibbutz, but discovered that it left me with no life of my own. There were grown men with families working twelve hours a day, six days a week - obviously the pay must have been good, but what about quality of life?

I earned enough money to purchase a good quality stereo cassette deck which was equipped with both microphone and RCA jack sockets. This piece of equipment was to serve me for at least the next ten years as the basis of my 'recording studio'.

At some stage in mid-September, I packed up and moved to the Smoke, but that's another story in itself....

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