A BRIEF BIOG
Prolix… Now I didn’t know what the word meant until recently, either; but it means wordy, long winded, verbose, excessively loquacious etc etc… and it’s what I am. I know this because it was suggested that I write a brief biography of myself (thus of course an autobiography), to complement the more detailed pieces that I’m writing. I intended it to be about a page, five hundred words… but it didn’t take me long to find out that it’s just too much even to think of compressing fifty eight years into a page. So please accept my apologies for my prolixity, bearing in mind that A. I can’t help it, and B. you don’t have to read it. If you do, then I hope fervently that this presumptuous exercise in self trumpet blowing may amuse or enlighten you rather than cause offence.
The author, that is to say me… was born in Faygate, Horsham Sussex in the spring of 1951, if I remember rightly.
I was instantly, and always thereafter, surrounded by women: mother, grandmother, sisters, nannies, a Labrador bitch called Candy, and a character now dimmed by the shades of time, who was called Auntie Eyson even though she wasn’t an aunt at all. My father was mostly away at work, trying to build a business which one day I, as the only son, would supposedly take over.
At the age of eight, after an undistinguished academic start at St Christopher’s PNEU school in Horsham (Richmond Road round the back of the Grammar school), I was torn from the family bosom and sent to The Abbey school at Ashurstwood near East Grinstead. Here there were only boys and men. I was hideously bullied, with a certain justification, as my ears stuck out; I was a little on the effete side as a result of too much early exposure to women, and I didn’t care much for foolish manly sports. Had I not had such thick skin I would have borne deep emotional scarring from this.
My mother wept every time my sisters and I went away to boarding school. Later in life I asked her why she sent us. “It was what people of our class did,” she replied with a little sniffle.
At the age of thirteen I took the advanced entry exam to Charterhouse, a public school in Surrey. A felicitous mix-up over the papers landed me with a scholarship to that august institution, and I was accordingly placed in Special Remove with the swots. Unsurprisingly I came twenty fifth out of twenty five in the end of term running order. I was moved down to Remove A, where I came twenty fourth out of twenty four. Although I considered this a marginal improvement in my academic results, this view was not shared by the school authorities, who proceeded to demote me to Remove B. Once again I came twenty fourth out of twenty four, and it was only the next term when I was booted into Remove C, with the real desperados, that it was deemed that I had ‘found my level’; I had excelled myself and come twenty fourth out of twenty five. Somebody has to be bottom, as the saying goes, but it was no longer me. I’m not boasting about this; it’s just the way it was. Neither am I ashamed of it; some of us are good at some things; others at other things.
It was at this time that the Genesis connection happened. I had learned to play military drums, as a scam to avoid the worst excesses of the crass activities of the ‘Combined Cadet Force’. Peter Gabriel (q.v.) asked me to play drums for his band, so that he, who had started as the drummer, could keep his hands free to play the flute and wave about while he sang. They kept me on for a bit because I was enthusiastic and amiable, and I even got to fool around for an afternoon in a recording studio and cut a couple of tracks. But the writing was on the wall and the famous Jonathan King, the manager, persuaded the lads to throw me out.
This was a wise decision, as I was, to put it mildly, a crap drummer. Also the others were allowed by their parents (we were sixteen and seventeen) to leave school to pursue what looked like a promising career in pop music. My parents saw no future in this notoriously unreliable business, and made me stay on and take my A-levels. The consequence was that whereas Peter, Mike, Tony, and to a slightly lesser extent, Ant, went on to become multi-millionaires, I left school to become a sheep shearer. I didn’t mind; I loved shearing sheep… still do.
Crawley College of Knowledge
I left school with poor results, and enrolled at Crawley College of Further Education in order to improve my A-levels and get into university. This was where the shit hit the fan, as I had my first experience of co-education. I simply could not for the life of me fathom how it was done… to concentrate on the matter in question while being subjected from all sides and constantly to the most appallingly blatant feminine provocation. Accordingly I dropped out of my studies, became a hippie and dedicated myself to editing the college magazine, an unedifying rag called ‘Codpiece’, which was shamelessly copied from an American mag called ‘Horseshit’.
I left with Ds in English, French and Fine Art, on the strength of which I was accepted, unaccountably, by Leeds University to study fine art. I decided to take a gap year, and in order to finance this, took a job on a building site.
The building site catapulted me into the real world, and, although this came as a bit of a shock to my system, being, as I was, fresh out of public school, I loved it. It was tough and dirty and grown men used the sort of language I had never dared imagine. I shovelled sand and gravel till my shoulders screamed; I shook the living daylights out of myself on the end of a jackhammer; I learned to talk dirty, drink tea from chipped enamel mugs and laugh like a drain at the most questionable jokes and pranks. My public school refinement acquired a complementary coarseness, while my etiolated body took on a certain bronzed and muscular tone. This was perhaps not the future my parents had planned for me, but, seeing as how I was so happy, they let it slide, in the hope that it would be just another phase.
I earned sixteen pounds a week “working for the man” (Farrs of Westbury, Wilts). This was for five and a half days of gut-busting physical labour out in the sun and the rain and the wicked frosts of winter.
With all the pay packets of sixteen pounds that I hoarded, I went travelling. We had a hippy bus, a gaily painted Morris Commercial Ambulance. In it I headed for India, which was what one did in those days, without any very clear idea of the way. I took with me Mary, a girl I adored and upon whom I wanted to make the right sort of impression. Unfortunately, in Zagreb, confused by signs in Serbo-Croat, a language I never mastered, I rammed a tram and knocked it off the rails. All the passengers alighted and berated me in that same old Serbo-Croat. I stood and accepted their contumely with bowed head until the police turned up and threw me in the slammer for the night. I didn’t mind; I was young and resilient and it all seemed part of life’s rich tapestry.
Facilities in Zagreb in those days were not such that you could get a wounded Morris Commercial fixed up overnight; so, leaving it in safe hands, Mary and I continued on our way variously by Shanks’s Pony, hitching – which was not easy in Eastern Europe in the sixties – a bullock cart, and finally the Orient Express, which took us in the slowest and filthiest imaginable squalor, as far as Istanbul. We were dazzled by the beauty and strangeness of the Orient, but decided that India was just too far, so we turned round and headed back.
During those years I travelled, hitching mostly, over all of Europe… all except for Spain, which was burdened at the time by a thoroughly disagreeable dictatorship, and seemed altogether too unappetising.
I had been sufficiently piqued by the Genesis débacle to do a little work on my drumming. To this end I engaged a teacher in Brighton, one Sammy Davis, who put me through my rolls, flams, ratamacues and double and triple flam-paradiddles. I practiced passionately ten hours a day, seven days a week, and at the end of a few months I achieved a certain competence. Accordingly I placed an advertisement in Melody Maker: “Gentleman, 21,” it read, “seeks position as drummer.”
My eccentric advertisement drew two eccentric replies: one from a ‘rehearsal and drinking’ Glen Miller band, that played every Thursday in the Hare and Hounds, and the other from Sir Robert Fossett’s Circus. I sat in a couple of times with the Glen Miller band, but my sight reading was feeble, and besides, I didn’t drink. The ability to sink huge quantities of beer seemed, for some reason that escaped me, to be the essential quality required for membership of the band. So I went off with the circus on its 1972 North of England tour. (See Parrot in the Pepper Tree).
I shared the circus experience with my then Swedish girlfriend, Kjerstin (pronounced ‘chest-in’ more or less). Shortly afterwards Kjerstin met a much more reliable and suitable sort of bloke, a Swede, and very sensibly gave me the boot. I was devastated and resolved to go and work on a kibbutz in Israel to repair my wounded heart. At the last minute I saw in the local paper an advertisement seeking an under assistant pigman on a farm in Bramley, near Guildford. Now Guildford was a lot nearer and a lot less politically problematical than Israel, so I went along and, being the only applicant, secured the job.
Within days I fell in love with farming; I knew that this was what I had always wanted to do, and although at the beginning I barely knew the difference between a sheep and a pig, I threw myself with all my battered heart into learning and living agriculture. I loved the smell of it, and the joy of living outside in the fresh air through all the days of all the seasons, and the beauty of the Surrey countryside, and the sun and the rain and the pure physicality of it.
One summer day the shearers came. My job was to catch the sheep for them and roll the wool. I was so entranced by the business of sheep shearing that I persuaded them to take me with them on my free days, and in return for rolling the wool and catching the sheep, they would teach me how to shear. It was something about the grace and the beauty of the work… and the sheer physical hardness, the manliness of it, that attracted me. It was, along with agriculture itself, something of an epiphany; I suddenly knew my destiny.
I had abandoned the drums; it didn’t seem to fit with agriculture. Instead I took up classical guitar, and during the long lonely agricultural evenings I would pore over weed identification charts and work on my guitar playing. At the end of the year of my term, which coincided with the return of the real under assistant pig man, I decided on a whim to go to Spain. Sevilla in the south, apparently, was the place to go for a young man mad with guitar. Accordingly with not a word of Spanish I hitched to Paris, and joined a bus load of vendangeurs on the way to Cognac, where I financed my journey by picking grapes.
Later I continued over the Pyrenees and set out on foot and with the aid of my thumb, into this curious new African land. In Valencia I stopped for a while to pick oranges… Weeks later (see Parrot in the Pepper Tree) I arrived in Sevilla, the most romantic city in the world. I practiced guitar ceaselessly… and fell in love with the city and Spain itself, with its language and its culture and its vast and improbable cast of Spaniards. The spell was woven, and it seemed inevitable that one day I would come here and stay for good.
I stayed in Sevilla for months, until my money ran out and I had to go back to England to replenish my resources. For many years I would work in England and Sweden and save money to live the rest of the time in Andalucía, where the money went a lot further. I ought perhaps to say here that in spite of my Herculean efforts with the guitar, I didn’t really get anywhere. Some people are born to be musicians; others not. I’ve been at it for more than forty years now, and although I know my way around the guitar… well, I’ve still got a long way to go.
Back in England there was, oddly enough, my other love: sheep. Deep down I knew that I wasn’t going to cut the mustard as a professional musician, so I decided to be a shepherd instead. Accordingly I bought some sheep and rented some land, in Sussex, where my family lived.
At a party on Christmas Eve – a party that was so bad that everybody sat around and watched television – I met my future friend and wife, Ana. She was the only other person not interested in the telly, and thus some sort of liaison was inevitable, I suppose. I told her of my passion for sheep… and little by little over the years she came to share it. Eventually we ran a big flock of sheep together, ranging over the Sussex countryside.
For many years we ran the sheep, and I would shear in England and Sweden to make ends meet. But we never made any money at it and eventually we had to sell up just to pay the extortionate demands of the bank. I was heartbroken and went to sea (see “Three Ways to Capsize a Boat”).
Back on dry land, at another party, I met Mark Ellingham, who had just started the “Rough Guides”. I told him that I spoke Chinese – which was only partly true – and he sent me east to write the Rough Guide to China.
When I got back from China Ana and I got married. We’d been knocking around together for twelve years and more and figured it would be a good excuse to get dressed up and have a party, which we did. On our honeymoon in rain sodden Wiltshire (we had planned to go to Kashmir, but the troubles there had just started) we talked about our plans and dreams, and discovered that we both had dreamed of living in Spain. And so, seeking something from life a little more challenging than our easy existence in Sussex, we bought an abandoned farm in the Alpujarras, south of Granada (see “Driving Over Lemons”) and in November 1988 moved here lock stock and barrel.
Little by little we adapted to life on our remote farm in the mountains, and the farm adapted to us. We had a daughter, Chloé, and lived a life of some considerable hardship, but great happiness, trying mostly in vain to scratch a living from the unyielding earth. To make ends meet we collected seeds and I sheared sheep all over the Alpujarra. This made us enough to scrape along, and took us to the wildest and remotest parts of our new country. After eight years of struggle Mark Ellingham came to visit us one summer, and suggested that I write a book about our experiences. With great reluctance I agreed, and set about writing “Driving Over Lemons”. The book was a great and unexpected success, but even better than that, I discovered what it was that I really wanted to do with my life: I loved the writing, and although there’s a part of me that’s a little sad no longer to be a sheep shearer, or a sailor, or a musician… and although I still find it hard to take seriously the idea of work that doesn’t get you dirty, I have a wonderful time being a writer.
Epilogue and Excuses
Well, if you’ve got this far, I hope you’ve enjoyed it. My plan is to expand bits of this brief – but not that brief – biography. Why? you might ask. Why would a person be presumptuous enough to assume that anybody else would be interested in the wretched minutiae of his existence? It’s a good question, and one that I can’t answer easily. After all, it’s not as if I were some great statesman, the kingpin of some essential
historical movement, or even a particuarly fine example of Homo sapiens… and you certainly wouldn’t want to emulate a person like me! Oh lawd no… Well, I do it because I love the writing, because it keeps me at it, and because, judging from the sales of my books, there are quite a few people out there who, unaccountably, enjoy reading this stuff. And that, for me, is one of the greatest pleasures, and a good enough reason to keep on doing it.
El Valero 1st September 2009