Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 7 March 2009

Free spirit

Low Life | 7 March 2009
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An oppressively cold, overcast, drizzling sort of day. The headline in the rolled-up Sun newspaper I’m carrying is ‘Ender a Legend’. Next to that is a tribute to Wendy Richard from Jade Goody. ‘Bodmin crematorium please,’ I tell the taxi driver waiting at the station rank. On the short drive up the hill, the taxi driver points out spots on the notorious stretch of road where deaths have occurred lately. ‘Mother and daughter, that one,’ he says, rather pleased, pointing out a sodden bunch of chrysanthemums fastened to a metal fence.

When he drops me off, I’m half an hour early. I inspect the wreaths on display outside the chapel and then I go and stand, alone, in the waiting room. The waiting room has blue velvet curtains, pink sofas, a tea and coffee machine. Via a loudspeaker above the door, highly emotional tributes, being paid to what sounds like an adored Mum, are relayed from the chapel nextdoor.

An official in a dark suit enters, introduces himself as Dave, and asks me if I’m here for Terry. I tell him I am. He is Terry’s ‘Civic Funerary Celebrant’, he says. We shake on it. I ask Dave if this means that he will be leading the service. Dave wouldn’t exactly call it a service. It’s more a celebration, he says. He’ll ‘do’ religious if he’s especially asked to. He’ll go with a hymn if he’s asked for one. But a prayer — well, he wouldn’t be very keen on doing one of those. The nice man isn’t apologising for his lack of religiosity, he thinks he’s reassuring me.

Now Puff Daddy’s ‘Every Move You Make’ emanates from the loudspeaker. Am I family? Or a friend? If Dave can, he’d like to work my name and any thoughts I have about Terry into his elegy. He’d like to include as many people in it as possible, he says.

I tell him I was one of the Riverside people. I used to go there 30 years ago, I add, when I used to hitchhike around the country thinking I was living like Jack Kerouac. Dave manages to look blank and encouraging at the same time. He’s obviously not been told about Terry’s famous squat in the late Seventies. Riverside was the most enviable squat I’ve ever seen, let alone lived in. It was a wooden bungalow on stilts perched beside a secluded, picture-postcard bend of the Thames at Caversham, near Reading. Well water came from a pump, heat from a woodburner, light from paraffin lamps, and there was an apparently limitless supply of marijuana from the beautiful, chest-high bushes in the kitchen garden. We felt like pioneers, or something.

This small, highly select commune was presided over by the smiling presence of Terence George Spiers. I met him when I was 18 and he seemed already ancient, though he was only 31, when we were both employed on a piece-work potato-picking job. We went to the pub after work and afterwards he took me back to Riverside. I stopped there for a month or two.

At that time, and in that middle-class area, a place like that could have been depressingly full of hippies. Indeed Terry’s self-sufficient cottage economy, his devotion to marijuana, and his practical approach to the acquisition of property, drew hippies to Riverside as though it were one of their pilgrimage sites. But Terry was above all a practical man and far too independent-minded, and I think working class, ever to sign up fully to their flabby nostrums. Also he’d served with the Royal Greenjackets in Malaya and Borneo, where target practice, he told me, was on live, tethered goats. He’d been around too much to make hippies too welcome.

At Riverside, joints and bongs were passed around the huge pine kitchen table continually. I can see Terry now, rolling one of his perfectly constructed, chillum-shaped joints, and craning forward, elegant as a heron, to ignite the end in the invisible heat coming out of the glass chimney of the carriage lamp. He loved grass more than anything except women, did Terence. At Riverside there was always someone skinning up — and always a beautiful woman. And the conversation, led by Terry, sometimes took a literary turn. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

But instead of expatiating to Dave on Riverside, I tell him that to be honest I merely flitted in and out of Terence’s life a very long time ago, and in a very different place, and ought therefore to be mentioned in his elegy only if he’s desperate for stuff. Now they’re playing a Stevie Wonder track next door. Dave looks at his watch. Fifteen minutes to go. We both look out of the window and scan the rainswept car park to see if anyone else has arrived. ‘Or if I’m the only one to turn up,’ I add worriedly.