In 1985, aged 16, I fell in love with a girl who lived 80 miles away. I didn’t know what to do, so on a free day between O-level exams I took my NHS glasses off and cycled down through Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Surrey to her home town in the off-chance I’d run into her.
Love’s a terrible thing when you’ve been brought up shy and square, a boffin in ill-fitting unmatched clothes and NHS specs. Life’s great music is about to start, and you are not ready. The vast Shakespearian oak on the hill laughs itself into leaf, you can hear the drums of summer and there’s a new scent on the air – for them, but not for you. Unless you do something drastic, and fast.
If you don’t know what to do, they say, do anything, but the early part of the 150 mile round trip didn’t go well, to be honest. Without my glasses, road signs were hard to read in the dawn light of what had begun an overcast day. By half past seven, a series of errors in my navigation had taken me into the vicinity of Ivinghoe Beacon (if you know it, you’ll know that it isn’t ideal cycling country) and I had to endure the charms of Dunstable before I was back on track.
Nor was she there at the other end, of course. The return trip was from hell, even before I faced the inevitable music (I hadn’t told anyone where I was going for obvious reasons). But my memories of the day aren’t about any of that now, and there are two reasons for that: Ascot Week, and the Rolling Stones.
Well, it WAS Ascot Week, and the traffic queues back then began just south of Beaconsfield. From there, where the sun had finally come out, and all the way until I’d passed right through Windsor Great Park, cars were bumper to bumper. One of them was a Rolls Royce Silver Spirit.
Every few minutes, the traffic jam would open up and the Silver Spirit would draw away from me, but it wouldn’t be long before I caught it up again, and as I overtook them for the third time, the window rolled down and a cheerful face called out to me.
In the hour it took us to get from Beaconsfield to the spot where the Windsor Great Park statue appears in a gap in the trees, we became friends. I’d told them the truth about what I was about and instead of laughing, they solemnly saluted me with champagne and wished me well. In turn, I was fed, piecemeal, glorious Kings Road stories from the Sixties. Sometimes the things you have never experienced can feel more natural than what you are really accustomed to.
This was one of those times, and it fitted well with me that day because I’d borrowed two things before setting out: my sister’s Walkman with the foam on-ear headphones, and my stepfather’s Rolling Stones Greatest Hits.
The album began with “I Can’t Get Started”, which had made sense in Dunstable. It ended with “Paint it Black”, but it wasn’t that sort of day at all. Instead, the crisp, optimistic drum intro to the splendidly rude “Get Off Of My Cloud” caught me:
I can only just remember the 1960s: a great, generous sunshine as thick as cream, smiling through the long blonde hair of the miniskirted girl who has leaned over my pram to coo at me. It’s gone, now, that light; it’s in Monkees videos and Kodachrome photographs of 60s California but you never meet it outside.
But I do remember meeting it, on this one day, when a skinny scared boy, half blind on a bicycle, was urged on into his future first by a lewd rock band, then by the best, most wonderful wealthy drunks in a big car who ever lived. On that one day in which I now realize I had – and thank goodness, because I might never have – embarked upon my real life.
Ten years later, long after the girl and I parted ways, having escorted each other safely out of our teenage years, another dark passage of life ended in another journey. It was to Edinburgh this time, by overnight coach, and, killing time before boarding at midnight, I bought another Walkman, and a copy of the same Stones album as before. And what that started..
Sometimes it’s the wrong road that can get you to the right place, but you have to get onto the wrong road first. So it’s not as though the Sixties reached back to help me those times. It’s more that – well – if anyone knows where the wrong road is, it’s the Sixties-era Stones. If that’s the road you need, ask them (especially if your glasses are still at home and you can’t read the roadsigns.)
That Stones Greatest has been my Devil’s Road Atlas, my Devil’s jumpleads. And I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t time to buy it again.