We loved our time in Holland Park. As long haired hippies we’d thrived in Newquay and Swinging London afforded so many more opportunities. Holland Park tube station was just across the road, just past the gloriously named Fags and Mags papershop and it didn’t take long to realise fare payments on the tube were purely voluntary as ticket inspectors back then were unknown as long as we were happy to take the back stairs avoiding the barriers.
We travelled all over London, but in fairness it may have been wiser to just buy a ticket as some of the staircases were very demanding. 320 steps at Hampstead tube station, we didn’t go there very often. We liked Covent Garden, but with 195 steps to climb it was easier to get there by jumping off at Charing Cross and getting there by strolling along The Strand.
A few days after we arrived in London we went to view an event everyone was talking about: 200 or so squatters, described as ‘hippies,’ in the press, but people in the crowd who knew many of them personally called them the Dilly Dossers, had recently occupied 144 Piccadilly on Hyde Park Corner.
The building was an 18th century five-storey mansion, once the home of former Prime Minister Lord Palmerston. Next door (number 145, and built at the same time) was the childhood home of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret before the Second World War. The house was surrounded by a dry moat over which the intruders built a makeshift drawbridge.
Squatting was a comparatively recent phenomenon, but finding free accommodation, usually in derelict houses was common enough and we knew a fair number of people who did that. Moving on to occupy empty houses was a comparatively short step and when I eventually returned to an established career pattern my new job brought me into contact with a great many of them.
Arriving at Hyde Park Corner we joined the hundreds looking on from the opposite pavement and were enjoying the (mostly friendly) banter between squatters and spectators when suddenly matters escalated. As the drawbridge was briefly lowered to allow assistance for a, as it turned out later, fictional medical emergency a couple of hundred police charged in. A hail of missiles rained down on the police, but the resistance was very short lived.
As they were taken away we commented on how they were mostly our age or even younger. Just kids mucking about as one person in the crowd said. Most of the squatters were arrested, but released later as the police action did not have the correct paperwork in order.
The building stood empty for three years and then was demolished despite its listed status. It is now the site of the Intercontinental London, Park Lane which is very smart indeed. Not that we have ever stayed there, not even as squatters!
When arranging to see friends for a night out, we usually met at the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. Buskers, dancers, rent boys, prostitutes and pickpockets all congregated there every evening. It was never dull. I remember being told, in haughty tones, by a very drunken man wearing a Brigade of Guards tie as a bandana that although the statue is generally known as Eros, it was created as an image of his brother, Anteros. It turned out he was right.
We loved the vibrancy of Speakers Corner where the racist, sexist and homophobic outpourings of those brave enough to stand on a soap box would have horrified the present ‘woke’ generation. We made friends with a man tattooed from head to foot, including his face, who told us he had taken these drastic changes in his appearance after once being wrongly identified as a murder suspect and decided to become uniquely distinctive.
Portobello Road was within easy walking distance, and there we discovered Seed, the UK's first macrobiotic restaurant and shop, and later Ceres where the bread was baked on the premises and ‘something from Ceres’ became our Saturday morning treat.
The owners were Craig Sams and his brother Gregory. Nebraska-born, Craig Sams imported Afghan coats that he had spotted on his travels in Asia to sell on Chelsea's King's Road. Among his first customers were the Beatles and a fashion trend was born. Craig Sams was a pioneer of the ‘organic’ movement and without his influence the supermarkets and high street shops of today would be very different. There were sacks of flour, lentils and rice inside the doorway and freshly baked bread on offer.
On September 18, 1970, his girlfriend found the great guitarist Jimi Hendrix unresponsive in her apartment at the Samarkand Hotel in Lansdowne Crescent, Notting Hill. One of the first instances of what would become the classic rock star death from drug overdose.
We walked past the hotel that evening; it was thronged with people standing several rows deep in silent mourning. Three weeks later, October 4, 1970, our wedding anniversary, the legendary rock star Janis Joplin was found dead of a suspected heroin overdose in her Hollywood hotel room.
We had just done a celebratory ‘big shop’ at MacFisheries on the corner of Kensington Church Street and the Evening Standard seller outside was bellowing, ‘First Jimi, now Janis, is it the end?’ Enigmatic, but perhaps because of this I remember it vividly. Barefooted, long haired, kaftan clad locals milled about, clutching at each other for support on hearing the news and when I went to my usual kiosk to buy the current Rolling Stone magazine the girl behind the counter was in tears. Seven years later Elvis Presley would die in similar circumstances at age 42, promoting a worldwide surge of grief, but for our age group, in this era, these two untimely deaths were pretty devastating.
After surviving a few temporary jobs Marigold worked in the West End as secretary to an eccentric, but high powered, solicitor with many VIP clients. In those early days of ‘temping’ we used to set out on a ‘recce’ every Sunday evening, plotting her route for the following day.
Three stops on the Central Line, change at Earls Court for the Eastbound Circle Line, then again at Trafalgar Square for the Northern Line, then it’s the third stop.’ That sort of thing, all carefully written down in readiness for the Monday rush hour dash to a new job.
On one of these trips I said something like, ‘not long to wait now, our train is next, due in three minutes.’
Marigold: ‘how do you know that?’
Me: ‘it says so on the notice board.’
Okay, Marigold didn’t actually say ‘what notice board,’ but she couldn’t read a word on it. An urgent trip to the opticians for some distance glasses was called for!
As for Swinging London fashions we eschewed the tackiness of Carnaby Street but adored the Kings Road where we spent many weekends browsing and exclaiming at the shop fronts, the cars and, best of all the peacock styles of our fellow pedestrians strutting their stuff. Garishly painted psychedelic Minis, pink Cadillacs, Rolls Royces painted decidedly non standard colours ruled the roads while the pavements were even more colourful.
Celebrities received far less attention than they do now. Pop stars, footballers, actors, we saw so many it scarcely warranted a mention. The Granny Takes a Trip shop was never dull and Bazaar, the store owned by Mary Quant, was always busy. She claimed to have invented the miniskirt, whether she did or not she certainly did more than anyone else to make it a ubiquitous item of clothing. We loved the Mary Quant philosophy when applied to clothing, ‘rules were invented for lazy people who don’t want to think for themselves.’
It’s not a bad slogan, is it?
Perhaps our favourite store front belonged to a shop at the far end of the Kings Road. Let it Rock appeared in 1971, selling uniquely wacky clothes, bits of fetish wear and with a (very loud) jukebox playing non stop, attracted an ‘off the wall’ clientele. It was not so much a shop as a meeting point and an opportunity to explore the outer regions of fashion and music.
Set up by two acknowledged geniuses of the day, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, this was where the Sex Pistols and the punk era began. We weren’t great fans of punk, but we thrived on the excitement surrounding it. Let it Rock has long gone, but was succeeded, in the same place, by Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die, then SEX which was almost entirely devoted to fetish clothing and objects – we never went in there – and is still there, now called Worlds End.
Away from the Kings Road, that infamous fashionista Marigold loved Biba for its fashions and unique style and we were frequent visitors, firstly to the chaotic shop in Kensington Church Street where Marigold bought a favourite classic minidress* and later after Biba moved to what used to be Derry and Toms department store with its brilliant roof garden in Kensington High Street.
Polish born Barbara Hulanicki began her career in fashion in the early 1960s. Her husband, Stephen Fitz-Simon, (whom we knew slightly as the friend of a friend,) was an advertising executive. They opened a mail order clothes shop and her designs were so successful the Biba shop phenomenon took off. Biba dresses, often accompanied by the signature black lipstick, swept London and then all of Europe in the late sixties and early seventies.
*We saw the exact same zig zag patterned mini dress a few years ago at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
We often walked through Holland Park, where there were ‘real’ peacocks, past the copper roofed Commonwealth Institute building to Kensington High Street. There was quite a small marble slabbed fish counter shopfront on the right hand side, one of the early branches of Sainsburys.
Our supermarket shopping choices were few and far between in 1969 and MacFisheries accepted luncheon vouchers as cash so we went there in the main. I’m aware the concept of luncheon vouchers, a perk of Marigold’s job at the time, may be alien to many readers, but like Green Shield Stamps and ubiquitous electricity meters they were part and parcel of life in that era.
Barely scratched the surface of our time in London. Our next move would be to Bayswater and a flat once owned by Peter Rachman, the infamous slum landlord who included both Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davis amongst his ‘mistresses’ as the newspapers of the day always termed these arrangements. That will have to wait for another time.