('On-line' text of)
- A HITCH-HIKER'S TALE'
An account of hitch-hiking from England to Europe,
North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan & India in 1970
by Paul Mason
© Paul Mason 2006, 2015
* Dedicated to John Vaughan *
Hovering about in a state of indecision, drained of all energy, I have begun to feel that I’m really cracking up. I can’t recollect a time when decisions were so hard to make, or a time of such deep anguish. Until recently I had been going through one of the happiest periods of my life. I have now become muddled, introverted and quietly desperate, a shadow of my former self. However, in the notion that through travel I might re-discover myself causes a ray of light and hope to probe the otherwise gloomy reaches of my mind.
As a child (youngest of four) cherished by my parents, I enjoyed myself immensely, indulging in the normal games and pursuits of my years. Summer holidays, attending the Cub Scouts and visits to the swimming baths being my favourite treats, not to mention sweets, of course. Through bus-spotting and train-spotting I got to know my way around London whilst still at primary school.
Academically I showed some potential, though my distaste for school’s imprisoning atmosphere prevented me from realising it. Much of the time at school was spent in daydreams that I wove to entertain myself, to distract myself from the tedium. My lack of enthusiasm did not go unnoticed, and I was gradually becoming a rebel! I recall the headmaster of Roehampton Church School (a Church of England primary school), Mr Whitacker, on discovering I had torn up my dental check form, had phoned my mother to tell her what was in store, ‘That boy will be a juvenile delinquent. Just you wait and see!’
On returning home for lunch that day, my mother told me, ‘I was making marmalade at the time, and his phoning made it stick to the pan. It all got burnt, I was very annoyed else I would have been behind the front door waiting for you with the copper stick.’ She smiled at me indulgently; for we had no such item in the house. I didn’t know what a delinquent was, but I doubted this was the time to ask.
The headmaster also made another prediction, namely that I would fail my ‘Eleven Plus’ exam. He seemed really put out when proved wrong, but after finding out what grammar school was like, I felt mine to be a hollow victory. The facilities this elitist single-sex school offered proved to be truly desperate, resulting in most of the teaching coming from the blackboard. At Westminster City School I was taught at by formidable masters in black gowns, routinely exposed to jibes and insults, and all-too-frequently subjected to humiliation. With opportunities to express myself being so severely limited, I began to loathe the place intensely.
As with most adolescents, image meant a lot to me, and with the trend towards wearing the hair long, I was determined to let mine grow at least over my collar. Encouragement to do this was offered from an unlikely quarter - an oil painting that hung in the school’s main hall. Of immense size it portrayed the school’s founder King Charles II, his hair, his crowning glory, flowing over his shoulders in a cascade of tightly wound black curls, majestically framing his face. Draped in fantastic finery, rich and colourful raiment, shoes of satin, he presided over morning assembly day after day.
Charles II (1630-1685)
Painting by Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680)
Seated on the stage and flanked by his
cohorts - a sea of mortar boards - the tall stooped figure of the headmaster
would rise, step to the lectern, make his address, and on that day he paused
dramatically, a pained expression pinching his grey features, his eyes staring
‘Will the following boys see me after assembly... Brooks, Mason....’ he reeled off other names but I suffered temporary deafness!
Sitting in the wood panelled vestibule, I pondered on what he might want with me. But on this occasion, having a clear conscience, I took the opportunity to relish these moments of calm, pleased of a valid excuse for being late at first lesson. When the door to the study opened Brooks emerged and fixed me with a conspiratorial grin then gestured me to go inside.
I stood in front of the Head, hands clasped, and waited for him to speak. Springing from his seat he at once ordered me to put on my cap. Obediently I removed the tattered object from my blazer pocket and proceeded to perch it on my head.
‘Ah, just as I thought,’ he snapped, ‘I can’t see it! Get your hair cut immediately or I will suspend you. Do you understand? Return here for my approval, now go boy!’
Having been cast in the role of the ‘black sheep’ it became increasingly difficult to take my schooling seriously. Cooped up and listless, I did not apply myself, ‘Has the ability’, ‘Must try harder’ and ‘Could do much better’ were phrases I became very familiar with.
The usually joyless lessons in chemistry provided the ingredient for a most enduring fantasy. When the rest of the class left the room, I would extract a large piece of phosphorous from its stoppered bottle and leave it smouldering on the bench top, eventually setting fire to the classroom, and the resulting conflagration would rid me of this hated institution.
In a bid to find freedom I absorbed myself in my hobbies, my interests and in my growing social life. Lucky with girl friends, I enjoyed the reassurance that I could be valued, and even desired. In a climate of changing social values I was allowed considerable scope to pursue my desires. Seizing this freedom, I set out to discover the world on my own terms.
Though from an early age I had attended Christian Science Sunday School, lessons concerning the nature and existence of God puzzled me greatly. As time wore on, I started to realise my incapacity to benefit from this tuition. At fourteen years old, this forced upon me a need for self-reliance and independence, soon causing me to question and dismiss the disciplines imposed on me, lock, stock and barrel. Openly rebelling against authority and convention, I flaunted well-intentioned guidance regarding diet and alcohol. Temptation to taste the pleasures of sex and drugs then craved my attention. In the following few years considerable rein was given to my appetite in these fields.
Influenced by the flourishing music scene, I tried to find my place in it. With its commitment to innovation and experiment there was room for anyone with enthusiasm, myself included. The burgeoning growth of interest in the arts brought interesting books and magazines within my means and grasp, filling my mind with new horizons. In this literature I discovered a rising tide of optimism of international proportion, springing from and gripping the young. To a lesser extent this openness was evident in or at least affecting the older generations too.
London - the capital of the world - appeared to be sharing and participating in a mood of easy going optimism, For many Londoners, even acquiring work during this period, presented no real problems though the pay was not good.
A new vocabulary was being adopted, the usage of which conferred a status upon its users most readily sought. New terms and concepts abounded and amongst them appeared those such as ‘Mind Expansion’ and ‘Self-Realisation’, ideas which really stirred my imagination. Eagerly I sought to familiarise myself with the means of their fulfilment.
The ‘Love and Peace’ years were good times for many, strident optimism accompanied by quaint naivety, when being sweet natured was considered positively trendy. On us however were heaped the hopes, dreams and aspirations of our elders. Could we do a better job than they were doing? Dubbed the ‘Now’ generation we were, for better or worse, watched and listened to with unprecedented attention.
All too soon though, many of those so eager to espouse this new cause became sidetracked, some falling prey to the degenerative effects of hedonism. It seemed to some that we were neither discovering new answers, nor paying much heed to the old ones.
I left off education at the earliest opportunity and began working for a hip poster company in Portobello Road - in the summer of ‘68, where else should I work? My father had recently left his secure and I assume, relatively well-paid position in industry to become self-employed, opening up a light engineering and electronics company. He now offered me to work for him.
I took the job as High Vacuum Technician, and indeed, I was (high) most of the time. Working alongside Rudi (Jimi Hendrix lookalike and good buddy) and the rest of them, I was happy in my work. Even Jimmy Young on the Beeb, with his incessant cheerfulness sounded pretty good most days. I worked quite contentedly though I held no great store by the work ethic, I placed greater importance on my private life, never thinking much further than the next pay day, basking in the belief that things would always sort themselves out.
After a year or so of happy workaday association, my father intimated to me that I might one day take over his business. This set me thinking. Whilst the business was prospering, he was not. He had little time for anything other than business, a shame since he had many outside interests and a home eager for his attention. His health too was suffering; he needed more time for himself. After a minor disagreement between the two of us, I found myself seeking new employment.
My lack of enthusiasm to settle down stemmed from my thirst for new experiences, and a wish to make my own way through life. Coasting along I added pastry cooking and epoxy resin casting to my list of talents. I enjoyed myself, after all if you don’t take life too seriously; you can always find a laugh, can’t you? Besides which, there is always ‘life after work’ isn’t there?
By 1969, the year of my seventeenth birthday, the trend was quite definitely towards indulgence, indulgence to excess! The ‘Swinging Sixties’, if not quite over, were definitely on the wane. The business world had by now awoken to the commercial possibilities of an affluent youth market and were seizing their opportunities unhesitatingly. The young for their part, myself included, provided easy targets. Any strong desire to do other than slavishly conform to new trends was not particularly evident. This is not to say these were bad times, quite the contrary in fact. As the music found a harder edge with groups like the Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin gaining prominence and showing the way, I was really in my element. I enjoyed too the unending atmosphere of partying that for me characterised this era. Nevertheless, the excesses that had now become the norm sometimes caused me concern.
This concern seemed to be shared by the Chelsea based magazine Gandalf’s Garden, which bravely sought to redress the balance. The magazine pointed a rather nervous finger in the general direction of macrobiotic food, yoga and meditation, carrying articles on mysticism alongside interviews of the likes of Marc Bolan of Tyrannosaurus Rex and disc jockey John Peel. Personally, I bought the magazine on account of the attractive graphic images contributed by John Hurford and Michael English, and having done so I necessarily cast my eyes over the text. Though not particularly enamoured with the magazine over all, I did like its direction.
After the return of an Italian girl friend to England on New Years Eve December ‘69, I found the thought of resuming work in a factory quite untenable. For several weeks I gave my job a miss, and popped in one day to inform them that I was leaving to form a rock group, for indeed that was my intention.
Yolanda and I had been writing to each other whilst she had been in Italy, this had convinced us of our need to know each other better. Over the next few months I enjoyed myself immensely. We shared a mutual fascination in each other. Set to enjoy each others company to the full, day after day she would come to see me. Yolanda and I spent our time regaling each other with our life stories, discovering shared opinions, sharing our love. I perceived a deep abiding affinity with each other, which reassured me that we were made for each other. Certainly there was no doubt in my mind that I was in love. Realising that we were fortunate to have found each other, we committed ourselves to a lifetime together. The bond being so desired and so strong that we wished to be treated as a married couple though we weren’t bothered about it being ‘official’, there was time for all that, perhaps when I became rich and famous! Such was my happiness that I could see nothing but good fortune and happiness for us. A fairy tale romance in a modern age, two souls destined to share and love each other eternally. I believed that my most treasured desires would gain fruition. My cup ran over, or so I thought.
Then it happened, a lecture on fidelity. According to Yolanda, it was unacceptable to retain a fondness, let alone a love for old flames or sweethearts. ‘If you love somebody, you have to give them all your love, you can’t share it with other girls!’ she blistered.
I stared at her in disbelief but discovered to my alarm that she was not joking - she was in deadly earnest. On this occasion I shrugged the topic off but this bone of contention was to surface and re-surface time and time again.
Though it was usually a lot of fun to be with my girlfriend, this question came to vex me greatly, an unwelcome intrusion on my emotions. Maybe this was all part of the age-old game of love, an act of courtship? Perhaps hers was a valid viewpoint? I couldn’t be sure; I had no way of knowing. Whichever way I looked at the matter, I was reminded of how much she meant to me. I even began to feel guilty at not having saved myself for her (as if I could have known we would meet!). I took her rebukes as flattery, as promise of a higher and more precious love that perhaps she alone could give. Love letters from other girlfriends and mementoes from them were duly jettisoned, I felt safe from further attack.
But there were further disagreements yet to come. Carefree times became punctuated by hot intellectual debate. My interest in music, clothes, and nostalgia et al had all to be justified. Beliefs, opinions and hopes, all were discussed. I sensed a challenge in her words. I was being cross-examined and it made me uncomfortable. I found myself fighting for beliefs I didn’t even know I had, defending not only my own viewpoints but those of my friends and family too. The discussions became more fervent, more intense. In consequence I would re-examine every possession, every thought, weighing up its’ origin, worth and function. Every vestige of my life seemed to undergo this treatment. In doing this I felt blessed by its purging influence for I had accumulated a lot of clutter over the years. I discovered old toys, long discarded, hiding away in a cupboard. The hand-made model of a shop, beautifully crafted for me by my father, a toy garage with Dinky cars and the like, Minibrix and old tea cards. How much they had all meant to me as a child! As I tidied out the cupboard, many happy recollections of my childhood came flooding back to me.
No room for sentiment though, for what does the Bible say? ‘When we were young we played with childish things, now we are grown we cast aside those things’, something like that I’m sure. Ruthlessly I pursued a vigorous and thorough purge of records, clothes, guitars, books, comics and other items, some were given to friends or sold to strangers, others returned to their rightful owners. I got quite a buzz out of it all. On presenting one particular friend with some of these goodies, he commented, with poetic licence, that I resembled a snake shedding its skin.
It was during this period of re-evaluation that I made the monumental decision to abandon the use of ‘artificial’ stimulants. I had convinced myself that I could reach a higher level of happiness without that sort of help. This decision didn’t go down too well with my friends. Who had heard of such a thing? Well my late father for one, with his commitment to the Christian Science faith. I’m sure my mother was relieved that I had gone straight.
For a time things went well after this decision. The only threat to my resolve came from Leo, a guitarist friend, and a good buddy from way back. We both shared an ambition to form a group to rival even The Beatles. These days his visits became characterised by his repeated wish to play on our upright piano. Thumping out the chords to ‘Let it be’ and crooning its hymn-like lyrics extremely loudly, he would give a serviceable rendition of the song and usually raise a laugh. On these occasions he would attempt to challenge me, ‘Go on Man! Join me in a drink Man! Just one glass!’
‘No. I’ve already told you, told you repeatedly in fact. No.. No... No!!!’
‘Well, maybe a smoke then? It’s really good stuff, really strong.’
‘Look I don’t want to. Thank you but No!’
‘Huh,’ he said, turning to address Yolanda, ‘I remember when young Paul here would never have refused a joint. What’s up with you Man?’
Yolanda looked annoyed. She had heard it all before. No longer smoking or drinking herself and feeling a loyalty towards me, she sought to make a response, but confronted with his over-bearing manner she found this difficult.
‘Yes, Yes, I know. I was there too, you know!’ she answered Leo hesitantly. Silenced, he wandered out of the room - a trip to the bathroom in order.
Emerging some minutes later he asserted his wish to play ‘just one more time’ his favourite tune of the day. Seated at the piano his fingers plunging at the keys, he embarked on yet another journey through its seemingly endless verses.
‘When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me, whispering words of wisdom, let it be. let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. Whispering words of wisdom....’
Other friends too, showed considerable surprise at my decision to give up ‘turning on’, looking upon me with concern, curiosity, even suspicion, since I had now become something of a recluse. Stepping out of line apparently I had to pay the price, but stubbornly and wilfully I stuck to my guns. I was rewarded by all but a few of my friends giving me a wide berth. No, that is not totally fair or even true. I had the occasional visits and jaunts, but I sensed that unless I re-adopt my former values, I was destined to an isolation of my own making.
At first I didn’t really notice this isolation, and when I did I wasn’t really too bothered about it. However, as time wore on however, it placed a considerable onus on me to re-think my situation and amend it; but I failed on both accounts. Yet, as cut off as I was, I couldn’t help thinking that I must respond as a matter of urgency to the seemingly natural calling to heed the spiritual questions that arose in me. Else were they forever to be ignored and unanswered?
After a few weeks’ abstinence from stimulants, I felt no ill effect or deficiency - quite the opposite in fact. But thereon I perceived a gradual deterioration to my normally cheery mood. I didn’t know why. It was as though that old proverbial carpet had decided I was for it! The last couple of years had been an unexpected party; but the ‘morning after’ had now arrived.
I realised I was fortunate in having a particularly loving, caring mother, a large circle of friends and many absorbing interests. In fact with my obsession with music I found a fountain of pleasure in listening to records and playing guitar. Then of course there was Yolanda; she still seemed to think the world of me.
Somehow though, all this did not prevent me from falling prey to an intense feeling of vacuousness and melancholy. Unfamiliar as I was to this mood, I fought long and hard to cast away these feelings, to rediscover my former identity. Fitfully I would regain some semblance of the joyfulness that I so long took for granted, only to return repeatedly to a well of despondency.
Happily it was not a permanent condition though my changes of mood were quite unnerving. I felt certain that no one would understand my predicament; I therefore sought my own solution. Like a scientist looking for an antidote to some disabling disease, I wracked my brain for an answer.
Many reasons could be offered for the condition that I found myself in. Was it the effects of reckless indulgence finally catching up with me and wreaking their vengeance? As an incurable romantic and unswerving idealist, maybe I had pinned too much hope on the fruits of true love. Emotional attachment seems to promise much in the way of fulfilment, but it could be that this is the source of my psychological unrest. However, there might also be another reason for my dilemma, that having been raised in an environment strongly inclined towards religion, I had been primed to try to discover the truths of Christian literature and so must attempt to discover God.
Long I toiled with the problem, days turned into weeks, stretching into many weeks. Though I drew a blank, how was I to resign myself to accepting the situation? Was this state of hightened self-awareness the Higher Consciousness I was seeking?
Undeterred I cogitated long and hard, the questions kept coming at me...
Who am I?
Why do we live?
What should I do with my life?
Is there more to me than just body mind and ego?
Is God really watching me, watching over me?
I was near to breaking point and possibly close to breakdown when I first felt the glimmer of the idea enter my mind. It took time before it actually took a firm hold on me and captured my imagination. Perhaps I need to ‘see the world’, to ‘see how the other half live’. Because??? Well, perhaps they’ve got a few answers!
But how could I? How could I afford to jet around the world with only a few pounds in my Post Office account? But this was not the only doubt that beset me. I resented that I should I have to journey to find my peace of mind? Surely, I argued, wasn’t I as likely to find peace of mind right here at home, in the environment that had given me security and comfort for so many years.
Living in suburban South London, in Putney, there were plenty of parks and common land to wander through at leisure where I could contemplate my innermost thoughts. I didn’t see myself as a traveller, more a Bilbo Baggins figure, preferring to be within easy reach of the kettle and of course the ‘biccie barrel’. Tolkien depicted in this Hobbit character the very conflicts I now felt. I desired to see new lands and witness their wonders, and to experience the thrill of adventure but also craved the reassurance that home, family and friends can offer. Unlike Bilbo however, I received no visit from a personable wizard to offer direction and advice.
Loyalties were another issue to consider. How could I tell my mother I was entertaining such an idea as I hadn’t even any ‘proper’ plans or destination as yet? I wasn’t at all sure how she would take the news, my father having only recently passed away. My mother doted on me.
Actually, how could I even raise this notion with anyone else?
Clearly I could not afford to fly anywhere, so I had to be more resourceful, it would take to stow away on a ship, and even then how would I get about? I had done a certain amount of hitchhiking with my good friend Henderson, and also on my own, visiting places like Cornwall, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Wales. Oftimes I had popped down to see my sister in Brighton where she attended university. Travelling to foreign parts though! Now here was a different kettle of fish altogether. Hampering my new desire was also an almost total lack of knowledge concerning the geography of the world!
My mind was in turmoil, for other than in flights of fancy I hadn’t the faintest interest in the idea of travel. But now, well it looked as though I was set to embark on a journey of ‘epic’ proportions. The more I thought about it, the more my system collapsed under the pressure, and as I revived I was again and again thrust back into an enfeebled condition. The choice, quite surprisingly, was made the easier because of this predicament. Stated clearly the decision was now markedly between going ‘on the road’, or going ‘off the rails’!
I recognised the severity of the situation and realised that to procrastinate further could well lead to my entire undoing. Since I still had a streak of self-preservation, my instinct was just to accept and GO!!
So, the decision is made, but where am I to go?
I am curious about the Holy Land and Egypt, and notwithstanding the ubiquitous advertising campaign to gain funds for Oxfam, which utilise the photograph of an emaciated tearful child, I feel inexplicably drawn to India.
In a moment of inspiration, I remember the ornamental Globe in our front room. Finding it I perch it on the table, instinctively I give it a spin. Travelling at thousands of miles per second the continents and seas become a grey indistinguishable blur. As it slows I contemplate and ask; does the world really look like this? Ascertaining the whereabouts of South America, I find myself muttering the names of the countries there as I scrutinise their shape, colour, and size. Moving my attention elsewhere I discover many other countries, such as Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Greenland and the United States of America. I then discover the Soviet territories.
‘Wow, they take up about half of the world,’ I exclaim.
Playing with the orb, I rapidly absorb the relative positions of the continents in relation to the Polar Regions.
‘Now.. I wonder where we are? Ah, here’s Britain!’
I am shocked to note that Great Britain is, according to this Globe anyway, very small indeed.
My eyes scan across Europe slowly, then the Middle East and further eastwards, before homing in on my target.
‘Ah India!’ I exclaim aloud.
Since I haven’t much money and will therefore have to resort to hitchhiking, I start to plot a route that will entail the minimum amount of sea travel (I can’t imagine thumbing a ride across the sea from Portsmouth Harbour, nor am I tempted to try!). I wonder if I plot a trail that would take in Israel, Morocco and India?
When much younger, my father once asked me a question related to travel. ‘Supposing you could travel back in time Paul, where would you go and what would you like to see?’
Hesitating for a moment, I soon find an answer. ‘That’s easy,’ I say confidently, ‘America, to see the Cowboys and Indians. What about you, where would you go?’
My father looked at me in a thoughtful and serious manner. He answered in a quietened voice and with evident emotion, ‘To the Holy Land in the time of our Lord.’
I felt ashamed of myself as I recognised just how devout a Christian my father was, it really humbled me. Me with my dreams of Cowboys and Indians!
I would like to visit the Holy Land too but I would also like to see the rest of the world, so planning the route turns out to be fun. As I consider the options a rough idea of a possible route become clear. Popping over to France, I could cross into Spain, then over that little bit of water into Morocco, and if I nipped along the coast of Africa I would come to Egypt, that land of archaeological dreams. One of my principal childhood interests had been in following in the footsteps of renowned archaelogists Leonard Wooley and Sir Mortimer Wheeler in going on local ‘digs’. I feel suddenly re-energised.
‘Egypt, now that’s a place I’d like to see,’ I murmur.
Next stop Israel.
I had heard rumour that a friend had gone to stay there on a Kibbutz.
And after Israel? Well, if I turn right, then crossing the area here would take me to where I would want to get to eventually, India!
A wave of exhilaration now casts aside my anguish.‘Perhaps Yolanda would like to come with me?’
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