Beautiful Delilah and the Damned: B8, 1961

by Peter Fowler

The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

                                                                                                    F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack Up

Richard Cartwright was a creep. He walked awkwardly, as if he would fall over at any moment; he looked like a rabbit caught in the glare of car headlights, blinking heavily and exaggeratedly, always looking at you from a sideways angle; and I remember sitting next to him in an English lesson and watching his face turn greener and greener until he exploded sick all over the desk. I had to move my hands swiftly from my own desk as the regurgitated mince splattered in my direction; and I went to the toilets at the end of the lesson to wash my hands in case of any contamination.

Richard was the sort of boy you avoided if you wanted to maintain your credibility with the rest of the class. He was good at work, though, and finished the fourth year with six straight Grade As, all of the sciences, Maths, and the obligatory English and a foreign language. He worked phenomenally hard.

By the time he started hanging around me, he was in Lower VI Science and I was in Lower VI Arts. For some reason unbeknown to me and my deviant friends, he started coming into our room, A1, at lunchtimes - that pokey apology of a room on the lower corridor near the school’s official entrance. Here he would find two sets of activities in continuous progress – a perpetual game of table tennis, played with books for bats and on the teacher’s table, in a year long series of competitions that were generally won by David Griffiths, extraordinarly given the fact that Griffiths only had one useful arm, having suffered from polio as a small child; and, in another corner of the room, the first attempts at forming a rock group, involving me, Geoff Woolf and Martin McCausland, in which we would mutate into black cottonpickers on some remote southern farm and scream out what we thought of as the blues. Each of these parallel activities would be watched over by Clive Smith, sitting at the back of the classroom reading a book - a 16 year old like the rest of us, but very much 16 going on 40 and always with the air of a country priest disdainfully looking down on the heathen activities unfolding in front of his very superior eyes. Sometimes the activities all collided as they did when the authentic blues hollerers composed the Clive Smith Blues (‘I got the Clive Smith blues, the Clive Smith blues/ from the top of my head to my walking shoes….’) and the main table tennis players (Griffiths, Laurence Samuels and someone I only remember as ‘Eldridge’), momentarily entranced by the idea of a song about the heavenly presence at the back of the room, put their books/bats down for a few minutes to join in the song written by the young grammar school white boys in their preposterous guise as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.

Cartwright gradually wormed his way into these proceedings and developed, as part of his entrance fee, a passion for the music that had become our very reason for being. Given the fact that he had, hitherto, spent none of his pocket money, this conversion of the creep into the soul devotee proved, for the rest of us, enormously useful. We would tell Cartwright to buy this single, and that single, and, come Monday morning, he would dutifully trot into our room with a clutch of records that we would have killed for. By the time we entered AVI Arts, Cartwright had easily the best record collection of any of us; and, being appropriately deferential, it was all too easy to con Richard into lending us anything we fancied. He acted as a public service for the boys-who-mattered; and each time we thought of doing, as part of our rock group repertoire, some obscure Slim Harpo song, or Bo Diddley or Jimmy Reed, it was all too easy to ask Richard both to buy and then to lend us the required material.

What this was doing to Richard’s head was of no consequence to any of us. Worse than this, when we, the school vandals without the real guts to commit vandalism, came up with an idea of some existential act that would shock the school to its foundations, it was often Richard who jumped, too willingly, into the lead role.

In AVI Arts, for example, we were located in B8, one of the nicest rooms in the building, with a front view over the Outer Quad, the School Field and the Refectory. Here, at lunch times, and by now with the school gramophone at our disposal, we began what we called the Be Bop A Lula ritual. In this, each of us would pick up a chair, form a circle and then pull our school jumpers over our heads. We would put Be Bop A Lula on the gramophone and begin dancing in a circle, waving the chairs above our heads. There is a point of what I can only describe as orgasm in the track where Gene Vincent, the singer, breathed and stuttered extremely heavily before bursting into the line ‘she’s the woman that loves me so….’…..a moment, incidentally, identified by Ian Drury as one of the greatest moments in the history of rock’n’roll.

At the point of orgasm, we, the soul boys, blindfolded by our jumpers, would charge forward into each other, chairs used as weapons, and chairs there for breaking. Richard was always the keenest, wanting to prove, no doubt, that he was the leader of this strange gang; and, on one occasion, he not only smashed two or three chairs but also, Samson like, brought down an entire bookcase at the side of the room, with multiple copies of Murder in the Cathedral and Pride and Prejudice spilling out onto a classroom floor already littered with chair pieces. An observer of this scene, the winner of the English prize, muttered something about symbolism and took a photograph. Richard just laughed and cackled, delighted at the completion of his gang apprenticeship. The rest of us scurried round the room picking up the chair pieces, furtively taking them down the corridor and throwing them onto some flat roof; and then replenishing our chair stock from the rooms along the B corridor.

It never occurred to me, as we played the fool, that this might well have been the highspot of Richard’s life. As the madness of the year faded into the necessity of studying for the summer A levels, the various activities went on hold and we began to lose touch with Richard. For us, it was relatively easy to switch mode and act both as blind blues singers and A level entrants; but Richard was quite unable to cope. That he had begun to fade himself, deprived of the oxygen of friends, was not known by any of us. He became invisible.

It was several months or so after this, after I had left the school, that I took a bus over to North Harrow to see him. The reason for me going at all was predictably selfish – I wanted, and couldn’t get, a copy of Chuck Berry’s Beautiful Delilah, and I knew I could rely on Richard.

The door was opened by his mother who, surprisingly, was pleased to see me. She took me into her front room and started talking.

"I’m so glad you’ve come, Peter……I often thought of ringing you, but Richard told me not to…we were so disappointed by his A levels…."

I’d known about that one. Richard had completely screwed his exams, and his straight As at O level had been followed by a bare pass and a couple of fails at A level.

"We’ve had to have the doctor a lot….he won’t come out of his room and he won’t comb his hair…after all we’ve done: we’ve done everything for him, given him everything he wanted…and now he won’t leave his room, won’t leave the house…we’re at our wits’ ends…we don’t know what to do with him"

Richard shouted down from upstairs; he’d heard my voice. I walked past his mother, visibly crying, opened the door and looked up the stairs. Richard was barely recognisable: his hair, uncombed and unwashed, was at least six inches below his collar; he was noticeably thinner; and his face was a portrait of defeat and terror. His tee shirt was filthy and he wore no socks or shoes.

He shouted at me as I climbed the stairs.

"Go and wash under your armpits!" he screamed, "and don’t come up here until you’ve done it…and wash your hands as well…don’t forget your armpits!"

There are times in life when it is instantly understood that an order has to be obeyed, and I slipped into the bathroom and actually did what he had told me to do. Even then, before I was allowed into his room, he asked me to hold my arms in the air so that he could sniff the scent of soap: only then would he be satisfied. Richard’s sniff was loud and crude, almost certainly to wipe out the sound of his mother’s snivels as she stood, distraught and desolate, at the foot of the stairs.

I hardly stayed 10 minutes. Inside the room, he ordered me not to be too agitated, in case, he said, that I might begin sweating again. I saw his rows of records, in precise order and, seemingly, not played anymore: there was no sign of a record player.

"The thing is", he said, looking at me full-on, "the perspiration from your sweat could warp the records…it’s a fact, you know…..there’s some I’m throwing away because my mother came in here and they were out on the bed and I know they’ve warped….they’re going in the bin…..there’s one here that’s useless. Look, it’s not only warped, there’s a mark on the sleeve, it’s her thumbprints. I told her not to make the bed. MUM (he screamed at the closed door, but she would have heard) MUM I’M TELLING PETE ABOUT YOU MAKING MY BED AND HE AGREES! HE AGREES!…

"Richard" I said, "I never said that….and in any case that record looks perfectly good to me. God, Rich, you know the state of my records…"

"Take the fucking thing then".

He threw me a pristine copy of Chuck Berry’s Beautiful Delilah, the record shooting out from the London label sleeve onto the floor. There was no way in the world I could tell him this was the very reason that I had come here.

Pathetically, I stood up to leave the room: I had , at the age of 17, nothing to say. He told me (quite rightly, as it turned out, but not for the reasons he was giving) that I would lose my hair because I insisted on combing it and washing it.

Walking down the stairs, he followed me, bellowing his advice.

"Have you ever looked at the plughole in the bath after you wash your hair? Yes, you know, you’ve seen it, it’s full of hair….washing your hair does that….and have you ever looked at your comb after you’ve used it…same fucking thing, full of hair…."

"Richard!", said his mother, "that happens to everybody…the hair grows again"

"That’s the trouble with you, you old bag….you believe everything you read in the papers!"

I left the house hurriedly, deciding, because it was earlier than usual, though already dark, that I’d walk back to Hatch End. For the first part of my hour-long walk, I thought of Richard: nothing made any sense to me at that time and I had no hint of an analysis. It was years before R.D.Laing, The Divided Self and Ken Kesey. It was, simply and brutally, a great story to tell the others. As I walked down George V Avenue, on the home-straight to my house, I decided, even though it were dark, to take the short cut across the fields.

Here, thoughts turned to girl friends and records, and, clutching my single from Richard’s, I broke out into a run, my mood as light as it was dark along the narrow path. There was a party the next night. Mary would be there. I had my new corduroy jacket. I’d got in at the LSE. Jo Jo Gunn was on the other side of Beautiful Delilah!

Running faster and faster, I never saw the barbed wire fence across the field, and it brought me crashing down to the ground. My hands were stinging but I got up straight away and ran home.

Back at home, I crept into the house - but my parents were out. I walked into the front room, heading for the record player, and pulled Beautiful Delilah out of its sleeve.

It was then I saw that the wonderful sky-blue of the London record sleeve, an artefact that itself became highly collectible twenty years later, was not only covered with the thumbprints of Mrs Cartwright – it was splattered with patches of deep red.

I ran into the bathroom to wash the blood off my hands.

 Peter Fowler

November 2000

(Richard Cartwright is not his real name….even now, 40 years on, it wouldn’t be fair to name him. I so hope he pulled through. Most of us – to use a modern word – surfed through the pressures, but there were those who couldn’t handle the twin imperatives of wanting to be a teenager in the early 60s and, at the same time, needing to work at the pitch required to pull in A and B grades at A level. To live, that is, with two opposing ideas at the same time…)

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