THE GIRL IN THE BLUE DRESS 

 

111 Ivanhoe Road,
Peckham, London
Saturday 16th June, 1962

The week leading up to Rhona’s 16th birthday was hot. Very hot. I was still undecided whether or not to attend her party. It would be quite a big step for me to take. Then fate, and the weather, took the decision out of my hands.

I got a touch of sunstroke – it was my only stroke – while playing for SOAS on the Wednesday. Its effect caused me to miss lectures for a couple of days and return to my parents’ to get over it. By Saturday my mother was fed up with me moping about the house and suggested that I should go to the party.

“It will cheer you up” she said.

There was also Rhona’s intriguing remark about her school-friend, Hopelyn, wanting to meet me. I couldn’t let the young girl down, now, could I?

I walked in the burning sunshine from Herne Hill station all the way to the house where East Dulwich borders on Peckham. And still I arrived hours before the others guests. (As yet, I was still new to West Indian ways of time-keeping). To get me out of the way Rhona sent me with her young brother Llewi to buy ice cream and other bits and pieces for the party. Then I had to sit back and wait for the others to arrive.

About a dozen people had got there by the time a very short girl in a blue dress poked her head around the door and said: “Hello, Ian”. (That was the name by which I was still known even to Jamaicans).

Although she had paired us as an “item” Rhona explained that the arrangement lasted only for that evening. If we found that we didn’t like each other we didn’t have to take things any further once the evening was over.

Well, we did stay together throughout the party. That was a good start. The music played was a mix of Jamaican artistes, including Laurel Aitken and Owen Grey, and an international flavouring of Ray Charles and Nat “King” Cole. We danced a little to that but generally sat chatting.

Hopelyn and myself found that we had absolutely nothing in common. Our background, interests and characters were so different. Nevertheless we seemed to get on well. As far as I was concerned, that was a good recipe for spending a lifetime together. Although Hopelyn was three years younger than myself, having only just turned 16, I knew immediately that she was the person with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life.

Is that what you call “love”? That seems to be too mild a term. How did Hopelyn feel about it? You had better ask her yourself, because I didn’t leave her with a chance to say “no”.

My love for Hopelyn was unconditional – in spite of the fact that she did not like cricket. That failing, alone, should have been an insurmountable obstacle to any meaningful relationship. By this time I had taken up Jeff Crawford’s invitation to play for Brockley International Friendly Association on the days I was not committed to SOAS. “International” indeed?  As the only white player
I could be sure of selection, however bad my performance, if only to give validity to that word.

When I told Hopelyn that I would be playing the following day at Hillyfields, she replied: “That backs on to our house at Tressillian Road. I shall come and watch you. After Sunday-dinner I shall take my younger sister and brother, Julie and Bernard, for a walk as a pretext of getting out of the house”.

 

Hillyfields,
Brockley, London
Sunday, 17th June 1962

For the game I dressed in my finest whites. All neat creases and cravat. It was important to make a good impression on the young lady whom I considered already to be my girlfriend. As the train drew into St John’s station, New Cross, I threw open the door and stepped out smartly. The door sprang back on its hinges. It smacked me on the nose causing the blood to spout.

It continued to spout for a couple of hours. Hopelyn spent her afternoon bathing my nose and face with wet handkerchiefs. Young romance could not have been made of sterner stuff.

The blood was staunched in time for me to take my place at the wicket.  The bowler, a short leg-spinner of Asian heritage, was tying our batsmen in knots. I played forward to the first delivery, missed and was struck on the pad. The bowlers, and all of the fielders, appealed – somewhat vociferously. I could not bring myself to look at the umpire.

“Not out” he called out with some conviction.  That was a relief. It gave me some idea where my leg-stump was.

The next ball pitched on the same spot. Confidently I pushed out my leg.

“How’s that?” demanded the bowler.

To my dismay the umpire signalled “out”.

“It can’t be” I protested. “The ball landed exactly where the previous one did”.

“I know” the umpire confirmed. “I was wrong the first time”.

 

Strawberry Valley,
Hartley/Longfield, Kent
Summer, 1962

Soon afterwards Hopelyn visited my family at Longfield for a weekend. While we were walking through Strawberry Valley, she told me how her unusual date had come about. Because at birth she was premature and very small her parents and the medics “hoped” that she might live. So they named her “Hope” with the “-lyn” suffix which seemed to be obligatory for most Jamaican girls’ names at that time. If her mother’s pregnancy had run the full term, she would have been called something different – probably Elaine, which is her second name.

“We shall call our daughter Elaine to make up for the Elaine you weren’t” I said.

“Our daughter!” Hopelyn exclaimed with some surprise. “You haven’t even asked me to marry you yet”. 

I got down on my knee and did just that. She accepted. Were we just a couple of kids messing around? I was very serious, and took her acceptance seriously.

Any steady relationship, let alone marriage, seemed to lie so far into the future. Her parents weren’t over-enthusiastic about the attention I was giving Hopelyn: it was taking her mind off her family chores and her schoolwork. Our time together was generally restricted to furtive meetings on the school bus as she returned room school at Sydenham, and to sharing a few minutes on Hillyfields afterwards before she reported home. Even that had to stop when a nosey neighbour told her father and mother about our trysts.

Mr and Mrs Mills, her parents, allowed me to visit on some Sundays and to take Hopelyn out on the occasional “date”. Her father was a very short man of unpredictable mood and temper. He enjoyed the power his cat-and-mouse tactics gave him over us, especially when it came to deciding whether, and wen, we could go out together.

 

Woolwich and Hammersmith, London
Autumn of 1962 and throughout 1963

Most of the top entertainers of the day performed at nearby Woolwich. Hopelyn and myself saw Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, and a young Billy Preston. A little later there were the Ronettes, who were a visually stimulating female vocal trio whose movements, away from the television’s fixed camera, seemed to be shockingly sensuous. These Americans topped the bill ahead of the up-and-coming local group the Rolling Stones. The boys have come a long way since then. In my opinion, the Stones have been by far the best British group of that era – or any other. Besides, the schoolmaster father of Mick Jagger, their iconic lead singer, had once taught Auntie Pat, my mother’s youngest sister. We were lucky, too, to hear Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson perform at Lewisham.  The audience there was so sparse that Trini Lopez who was on the same bill remarked:

“I feel like I am back in Texas – with those large, empty spaces”.

We got to see our favourite artiste, Ray Charles, at the Hammersmith Odeon. That was after a previous false-run for his concert at Finsbury Park when, on the afternoon of the show, Hopelyn’s father found a domestic error for her which prevented us from going. It was worth the wait. Ray Charles was on top form. His popular song of the day I can’t stop loving you summed up our feelings for each other and became “our song”.

With so many encores the concert lasted well over the allotted time. Because so much of London’s public transport had stopped running at such an hour we were extremely late getting back to Brockley. I expected to get a bawling out from Mr Mills and being thrown into the street. To our considerable surprise he provided us with a cooked supper as he knew that we would be hungry – and he even extended the offer of a bed for the night to me.  Yes, he was indeed unpredictable.

 

Camberwell Baths, South-east London, and
Rutland Road, Harrow
October 1963

The Brockley International Friendship Association annual dance for 1962 was held at Camberwell Baths. Christopher Chataway, the local MP and famous former athlete, was the guest of honour. Laurel Aitken, dressed in his gold lame suit, led the entertainment on the stage, as he did at most major Jamaican shows that year. As Hopelyn and myself said good-bye afterwards, we had every reason to fear that it would be our last farewell.

The world itself stood on the brink of annihilation. The Americans had countered the Russians’ act of putting nuclear rockets into Cuba, which was not far off their eastern coast, by enforcing a strict naval blockade. If the Russian ships tried to force their way through the Americans would open fire …. And that would set off Armageddon.

All the while the Russian ships were getting closer.

I had now returned to my parents’ home from my lodgings in North London. Consequently I had to make other arrangements for accommodation whenever I found myself stranded in London after the last train to Kent had departed. That meant usually staying with Auntie May, my mother’s eldest sister, in Harrow. The last train had gone, and it was to her that I went that night. We sat up into the early hours talking about trivial family matters, frightened to go to bed and trying to hide our fear that we might “wake up dead”.

Thankfully we were still alive when morning came. Making my way back home to my parents’ I joined the other train-passengers in scanning the sky to see if the expected rockets were about to fall on us. On my report I found that my parents were in the garden weeding. I went straight into the lounge and switched on the radiogram. The announcer interrupted the novelty number Nut Rocker by B.Bumble & The Stingers to report that Nikita Khruschev, the Russian leader, had ordered his ships to turn back.

The world was saved ….

For the time being.

 

South-east London
The years 1962 to 1964

Before long I summoned up the courage to ask Mr Mills for permission to marry his daughter. He agreed to my face – probably because my temerity had caught him on the wrong foot – but had some stiff words to say to Hopelyn after I had left. My parents accepted the news without emotion.

“You were young, impetuous, and we didn’t think you could be serious” my mother told me some time later.

Things took a turn for the worse almost immediately as the reality dawned on both sets of parents. It wasn’t so much that Hopelyn and myself were too immature to enter into a mixed-race marriage but that our parents were too immature to get their heads around the circumstances of their children being in a mixed-race marriage. Nobody mentioned the word  “race”. Not publicly, at least. Neither, too, did anybody say:

“You may be able to handle it but think of any children you may have”.

That was what was usually said to couples of different cultures who were contemplating marriage.

Nor, come to that, did our families refer to our young age.

That was the trouble. Nobody said anything relevant at all. Even so the atmosphere with our parents cooled.

My maternal grandfather, Harry Pennicott (who within the family was always known as “Mick”), whom I idolised, had no time for racist sentiment. He had seen service – and had been badly wounded – in the First World War and the Second South African War. In peacetime he worked in the London docks. When fighting for his life in the front-line Mick asked of the man next to him only that he was reliable, would not run away, and could shoot straight. His race, his religion, his social class, or even his sexual orientation did not come into it. The same considerations were relevant for the sometimes dangerous quayside work. If such things were not important when life itself was threatened when life itself was threatened, then why should they matter in less testing times.

It makes sense to me in even those tender years.  And not only because everything my grandfather said to me made sense.

It still makes sense today.

Hopelyn and myself travelled together regularly on the bus and train.  We walked openly on the streets. We visited shops and cinemas together. To make our love we even bought an engagement ring at Sanders, the high-street jeweller in Peckham Rye. The affection we felt for each other could not have been more obvious.

Yet nobody made any adverse remark or mocked our friendship. A few black youths on the street at Peckham shouted abuse. They were of the type who would shout abuse at anyone for whatever cause, or for no cause at all, and we ignored it. What was important was that our friends accepted us. It could well have been different in the more difficult years which followed.

This, though, was still Camelot before the traumas of later in the decade set in.

 

Wherever I went
Summer 1964

By the summer 1964 educational uncertainties added to the family pressure. Respectively Hopelyn and myself faced school GCE and university Finals examinations. I didn’t really want to obtain the B.A. Hindi degree if it meant me being drawn into living in India. I had given up that concept three years earlier. Nevertheless I did not relish the stigma of failure and the loss of four years’ scholastic effort. Also I felt that I had could not let down my parents and their dreams. Hopelyn was reluctant to lose the momentum she had achieved in exceeding her modest background by winning a half-scholarship to the prestigious Merl Grove School in Kingston, Jamaica. However success for her would bring its own troubles. Her father held the old-fashioned view that a daughter’s duty was to go out to work to bring money into the family budget- not to go on to college or a profession.

All four parents agreed that we should not let our relationship “get in the way of our studies”.  Whatever that might men. They suggested we should separate until Hopelyn was 21 years-old in three years time when she could marry without her father’s permission (which he had now withdrawn). They argued that if our love was real it would endure the separation. That’s what they said – but did they believe it?  Was it merely a formula to catch us “off-side”?  Only the future could tell.

For the time being we had no alternative than to go along with that decision. If we had tried to battle on Hopelyn and myself would have inevitably that we would have been set against each other. Her relationship with her mother, her brothers and her sister would have been put to the most severe test.

With much reluctance, we accepted the situation and went our different ways.

I did something then for which there was no explanation either then or now. I destroyed my favourite photograph of Hopelyn which had been specially commissioned. The conviction got into my head that if I held on to the picture I would never have the real thing. We agreed to part for three years, and come together again just before Hopelyn’s 21st birthday in May 1967.

There were no conditions. If at that time we found that our love had cooled – so be it. We were not committed. Each was free to go out without other partners in the mean time. Before parting we pledged that wherever we were, no matter whom we were with at the time, whenever we heard Ray Charles singing I can’t stop loving you we would stop what we were doing and think of each other.

It was “our” secret. Events many years later showed that it would not remain so much of a secret as we had thought.  That, though, is another story to be told at another time.

By co-incidence, just as were separating, inter-racial romance came onto the national agenda with the first televised inter-racial kiss. Jamaican actress Joan Hooley, in her part as a doctor, kissed her white counter-part in the very popular soap-opera Emergency Ward Ten. It was shocking enough for a black actress to have the role of a doctor instead of that of a more humble nurse without the programme having to go that far.

In July 1964 opinions were not enlightened. Three months later the general election would be smeared by a notorious racist slogan. Because of the public criticism, as voiced mainly by newspapers not known for their liberal attitudes, Joan’s character was written out of the series very quickly.  The scriptwriters had her killed off while on holiday in Africa.

 

 

   
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