In Part One of his romantic misadventures after the first Brexit Referendum, Peter Jukes and his best friend discover a mysterious dark Continent.
It was 1977. We were 16. Two schoolboys from a provincial town. But Britain had just voted ‘Remain’ in the first Brexit referendum. We had exams coming up and a long summer holiday ahead. And we were both obsessed by the idea of Europe.
Personally, I blame Ernest Hemingway. If we hadn’t just read For Whom the Bell Tolls, Markie and I would never have planned to hitchhike all the way to Spain, where we expected to find some life and death battle between right and wrong, and some gamin-haired girl for whom we’d make the earth move.
We’d sit on Markie’s veranda (his was a working-class family living in a detached middle-class house, while I was from a middle-class family living in a working-class terrace), smoking Gitanes cigarettes, strumming Am G F E on our Spanish guitars, before dancing around the electric fire with its fake flame effect, imagining the real fires and shadows of flamenco.
The Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli is also to blame. Romeo and Juliet was our set text for exams that year, and we’d gone to the local cinema on a school trip to see Zeffirelli’s new version. So did the girls from the high school next door. While they guffawed and squawked at the actor’s codpieces, most of the grammar schoolboys were misty-eyed and mournful. Soppy romantics, Markie and I would finish our exams, and then onto Verona to fight for our lives like Mercutio in some hot dusty Italian square.
Forty years ago, Britain still had a manufacturing industry, and our London overspill town was ringed by light industrial estates. Markie got work in his dad’s aerial factory, bending bits of aluminium, plastic and wires together, while I got a summer job at a turned parts factory where my Dad was employed as a lathe operator after his multiple bankruptcies. They paid 50p an hour. After six weeks, we’d have enough to get across the Channel, and then flamenco and Juliet awaited.
But then along came Gunter Grass to ruin it all. I was in the town centre bookshop, warily looking for something to read. Back in those days, you couldn’t even open a book without being forced to pay for it. Then along came a social worker friend of my mother’s who pointed out a paperback with a golden cover. She knew I’d just finished the whole of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and told me that this was the closest she’d come to reading anything so fantastical.
I bought it: The Tin Drum. It should have come with a health warning. Gunter Grass’ wartime classic was like a bad trip on cannabis resin – and I’d had a few of those. It started in Gdańsk on the eve of the German invasion of Poland with a dead horse’s head wriggling full of eels – and went downhill from there. I used to try to read it while cutting metal strips in the turned parts factory. I would look up from my book at the strange beauty of the light bouncing off steel rods from the grimy skylights of the factory. And regularly explode the circular blade in a spatter of coolant fluid and sharp metal.
After six or seven lost blades, the foreman was furious. He called me a “f*cking student” and explained how he’d gone to school with no shoes. My Dad kept quiet at his lathe, with his usual Buddha-like detachment. He’d risen up to being a management consultant and, after a series of disasters, was back on the factory floor.
The workers, wearing overalls and eating fish and chips in the canteen, were completely separated from the management, who arrived in flash Rovers, wore pastel shirts, braces and ties, and were served by waitresses in their own restaurant. I didn’t know how my Dad coped with the snootiness and segregation, having once promoted Scandinavian theories of small egalitarian work teams as a consultant. But he smiled enigmatically still turning the lathe and said “happiness can come from making a perfect cup of tea”. This was my Dad: a walking, talking copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. If I couldn’t read my book, I’d learn his way of alleviating the tedium.
They moved me on from breaking circular saws to polishing steel tubing. Every few hundred or so I’d select for special treatment, filing carefully so every edge was smooth to the touch, and burnishing so lovingly they shone like moonlight. Then I’d sneak them home. This was my revenge on class-ridden 1970s British industry. They’d make perfect slides for an American-style guitar. But, when I gave one to Markie, he pointed out that the steel was heavy for his finger, and made a wrenching sound on nylon strings like an exploding saw.
The tubes rusted unused in my bedroom. We had more important things to plan. Markie had nearly finished The Tin Drum and was trying to teach me swear words in German, Hungarian and Serbo-Croat. We agreed not to take our guitars because of the extra clutter. Rather than busking our way to Spain, we’d do some grape picking near the Spanish border to top up the £120 we’d both saved. (Because of exchange controls, anything over £100 had to be stamped on the back of our passports.) I told my mother we’d be gone for about six weeks and we booked our ferry tickets. Nothing would stop us now. We were making the crossing to that vast unexplored place: the Continent.
On the platform for the night ferry at Victoria station, I first saw her. It was just like Dylan’s song One More Cup of Coffee. Her skin was white, her hair was black and her eyes like two diamonds in the sky. But she wasn’t Mexican or Spanish. She was from north London. Her mum had spotted us waiting for the train and, since we were about her age, asked us if we could look after her daughter for the crossing. Clara. Her name was Clara. And her heart was like an ocean, mysterious and vast.
Unfortunately, Clara – whose diamond eyes were dimmed by thick glasses – didn’t quite see things that way. We arrived that morning shattered at the Gare du Nord in Paris and helped her negotiate the Metro to the Gare Montparnasse which would take her away to where she was staying for a summer exchange. She gave me a brochure of where she was staying, some vast chateau near Angoulême. I promised to write and come and find her in the dark forests of Aquitaine. And then she was gone. To the valley below.
As we took the Metro as far south as we could, the main thing that told us we were in Europe were the exotic overtones of digested garlic from sewers and fresh bread from shops. If not quite the Idea of Europe, this was the Smell of it. No matter, soon we’d be in Spain surrounded by the scent of orange groves. But first, we’d have to inhale petrol and diesel fumes as we pitched up on a main road heading south and put our thumbs out.
Then it started to rain.
I learned later that Paris is one of the rainiest cities in Europe, worse than London and we weren’t prepared. Markie had a relatively cool-for-the-’70s cagoule. All I had was a thick bright yellow fisherman’s cape that smelt of an inflatable kids’ swimming pool someone had packed away without cleaning many summers ago. The only way to wear it was to pull it over my rucksack – a grey canvas lump my oldest brother had first used in the ’50s — until I looked, in Markie’s words, like some huge drowned bee.
The sight of a 16-year-old with his thumb out accompanied by a huge drowned bee didn’t help with the lifts. It took hours to get the first ride. And every lift was just for a few miles. By the time evening came, we were dumped near some outlandish suburban development near Corbeil-Essones called Evry. If this was Europe, Evry was more like some dystopia from a ’70s science fiction novella – half-completed tower blocks surrounded by diggers and mounds of mud.
After hours walking around the modernist nightmare, we managed to find some shops open in a nearby village and bought what we thought was roast chicken from a local store (spoiler alert — it wasn’t chicken!). As night fell, we bumped into some equally lost Spanish hitchhiker, and all decided to camp in a local field. It wasn’t till morning that we discovered the field was actually a rubbish dump. The Spaniard only had a one-man tent and, out of sulkiness or chivalry (I can’t remember which), I’d given up my place in it for Markie. Instead, I climbed up a tree and tied my belt to the trunk to stop me falling (I must have seen this in some film).
Though I barely slept, lashed semi-upright, I had a better night than Markie. He’d slept head-to-toe with the Spaniard without appreciating that the tent was pitched downhill. With his head sliding out of the tent, he became an irresistible lure for slugs. From time to time, I heard screams in the night when Markie would lash out with the scout knife he’d borrowed from our friend Paul Lennon to fight off the attack of killer slugs.
We started to hitchhike again. It started to rain again. And there were no cars here. Only one every half hour. Two years of unprecedented summer heatwaves stuck in the dull English provinces, baking in its multi-story car parks and municipal tennis courts, and now what? The wettest summer in western Europe for years. We stood on the bleak hard shoulder and shivered. By now something very Gunter Grass was obsessing me: a strange, herbal, meaty smell emanating from my sleeping bag, the bottom of my rucksack, my underarms. What was it?
Then the first car for an hour – a beaten up De Cheveau – suddenly put on its brake lights and reversed. Where did we want to go? the two young men inside asked. ‘Le Sud’ we said, tentatively. They laughed. They were going all the way to Provence. Well, it wasn’t quite Spain, but it was our first proper lift for any distance. We were on our way.
The heavy clouds began to break up as the two students drove us south and over the Massif Central. They picked up another hitchhiker – a girl, the first girl I’d talked to since Clara. I thought of her thinking about me somewhere in the wilds of Aquitaine. Some runny cheese was handed out with fresh crusty bread. This Europe was cool – they had a guitar and smoked Gaulois and played political ballads on their tape machine. We started singing along. Monsieur, Le President, il fault t’ecrit une lettre. It was like being driven back into the ’60s, that decade our older brothers enjoyed but we’d only experienced like some bad Monday morning hangover.
Some 12 hours later, once we’d said goodbye to our radical friends at a service station somewhere near Avignon, we hitched another ride south. The driver and his passenger were turning off at a place called Sète, many miles short of the Spanish border. It was well past midnight as he dumped us on the verge of the Autoroute and we looked for a place to sleep in an adjacent field: a rocky, rutted hillside, with lines of gnarled vines. The grapes were small, hard and inedible. But we ate them anyway. We’d made it to the South! It wasn’t raining and below the Mediterranean was glistening in the moonlight. Instead of the meaty herbal smell in my sleeping bag, I could smell rosemary and pine…
Markie told me to shut up. He couldn’t smell anything, or at least anything new. For some reason, the roadside car fumes or the sleeplessness, his sense of smell had seized up and the runny Camembert we ate with the students had lodged permanently in his nose. He’d tried everything – coffee, chocolate, cheap red wine and now these bitter unripe grapes. “I can’t smell anything anymore, Pete!” he said. “All I can smell is that cheese!”
Many years later, Markie discovered he had an extreme lactose intolerance and that polyps had formed in his nostrils. I thought it was just a Gunter Grass moment and fell fast asleep almost immediately. But, invaded by a universe of Camembert, Markie didn’t sleep at all and the next thing I knew he was shaking me: “Pete. Get up. Someone is coming.”
A serene blue sky and bright sun. The blue Mediterranean coast below. Then a shout, a whistle and a clink of iron. I sat up to see a tough, swarthy looking farmer bringing his horse and a plough towards us. In a second or two he would see us. What’s the punishment for trespassing down here? What if we got done for scrumping his grapes? Moments later, the peasant and his horse must have seen something extraordinary: two pale, unwashed teenagers running down his vineyard towards the motorway and the sea.
We kept on running, right over the junction towards the coast. I wanted to stop and start hitching to Spain, but Markie had had enough by now. A second night in a row out in the open, a third night in a row he hadn’t slept; the Smell of Europe was invading him. He needed a bed, a youth hostel, a roof over his head and now my rucksack was broken.
So, we kept on going on the road till we hit the sea.
In Part Two – only available exclusively in Byline Times’ February print newspaper – Peter and Markie get caught up in a knife fight with Germans, are whisked back up north towards a nation they’ve never heard of, and encounter an existential crisis with an Albert Camus character in a Swiss railway station... To read it, subscribe for the print edition HERE.