Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love) – The Stylistics
…If I had money I’d go wild buy you furs dress you like a queen
And in a chauffered limousine
We’d look so fine.
But I’m an ordinary guy and my pockets are empty
Just an ordinary guy
But I’m yours till I die…
In July 1975 I hitch-hiked to Hungary with my friend Martin Cooper. In our last year at Lewes Priory he’d been Head Boy, and I’d been Deputy Head Boy, voted by the students of the sixth form. This really only meant that every now and then we had a meeting with the headmistress about things that have entirely slipped my memory, but probably involved social events and smoking in the toilets. An honorary title really, but there was a channel open at least. Martin was a carrot-topped football fanatic and we would often go to the Goldstone Ground together to see Brighton & Hove Albion playing in League Division 3 against the likes of Preston North End, Gillingham and Aldershot. We’d finished 19th that season. Coops was also captain of the school football team, being the son of a vicar and a sensible sort of chap, head boy and all that. We played on Saturday mornings – Coop was in midfield and I played centre forward in that last season at school. I did about three good things over the course of the season in my recall. I may be placing this event in the wrong year – but for some reason – perhaps because his reasonableness was in fact a curse – Martin Cooper put his foot through a train window one day and severed his achilles tendon. To say we were all shocked is an understatement. Completely out of character and rather more violent than anyone else in the school would have managed, even under stress. He spent a few months hobbling around in plaster poor chap, and John Trower, star of the javelin, took on the captain’s mantle, and the sexiest girl in the school Sarah-Jane.
I’d got a job at Sussex University for a few weeks and stayed at Waterlilies in Kingston at Rosemary Ryle‘s insistence, despite her daughter Miriam having finished with me. I had my own room (see My Pop Life #47). I think Rough Justice, the band I played in with Conrad Ryle and Tat and Andy Shand played one last gig at school but were somewhat upstaged by a new band from the lower 6th who covered Jo Jo Gunne’s Run Run Run rather impressively.
And as The Stylistics started to climb the charts with this magnificent single, Coops and I started our thumbs-only journey through Europe. The first part was easy – ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. We had a two-man tent and erected it somewhere or other that night. I cannot really remember the French section of the journey, but we got to Grenoble on day three amidst stunning Alpine pastures. Thence through the Great St Bernard Tunnel to Italy and the Aosta Valley, then right across North Italy. We ended up in a small car with a funny old bloke who only said one word to us : “Udine“. Ooh-Dinn-Ay. We checked on the map and there it was just north of Trieste. After a frankly bizarre lift where the little man kept saying Udine every five minutes we got out and pitched the tent on the Trieste road. Next day we got as far as Ljubljana in western Yugoslavia which felt pretty foreign, (very pretty, very foreign), and so we stayed a couple of days in the Youth Hostel. Nice place. Next up was Zagreb which we skimmed and then headed north for the Hungarian border which we reached at about 6pm. There was a little cafe just before the border post, so we went in and had some food.
The locals were aghast. We were going to Hungary ? Alarmed looks all round, heads shaking, pitying glances ! They insisted on buying us a farewell drink each – our last taste of freedom I believe it was called, except that it wasn’t our last – there were about three more. Each. As dusk fell we staggered under the sudden weight of our rucksacks and with the waves of our new comrades ringing in our ears, walked in a drunken manner to the border post, showed our visas and stepped over the Iron Curtain.
Now what? We knew there was a campsite about ten miles up the road. How we knew this I have absolutely no idea but pre-internet it actually was possible to discover things you didn’t know. We stood there and hitched as cars drove past us, then started walking as the light faded. Before ten minutes had passed a huge army truck stopped just in front of us, full of soldiers. The Hungarian Red Army. Now bloody what. We’d been intrepid to plan the trip and then we’d actually got there, had no idea what to expect. Hungarian words v English words. Soldiers. Sixth formers. There was only one word that all of us, me Coops and the soldiers all knew. “Camping”. Nods. They gave us seats in the back of the truck with them and drove us to the campsite. I think we managed to share the simple fact that we were English, on holiday, but I’m not sure they understood the holiday bit. When we pulled into the darkened campsite, they took our rucksacks from us, unpacked the tent and proceeded with military efficiency to erect it there and then, shook our hands and jumped back in the truck, headlights disappearing into the night. We looked at our little tent and thought: “Bloody communists“.
No of course we didn’t. We thought “Welcome to Communist Eastern Europe” The next day, with a Yugoslav liquor hangover, we hitched to Lake Balaton and met some East German girls in the youth hostel. Detente. Stayed a few days in that beautiful part of Europe, and thence to Budapest where our A-levels results were going to be posted in a few days time.
We ate in restaurants with live bands playing Hungarian folk music, using an instrument I’d never seen before called a cymbalom which is like a stringed vibraphone-type thing, or perhaps a piano on it’s side played with padded sticks; alongside violins, cellos, bagpipes. Then a huge display on weaponry along the Danube one day, with red flags alongside every Hungarian red white & green flag – gunboats, a flotilla bristling with armaments. A local told us that the red flag was Russian. Our A-level results were collected on time the next day, poste restante Budapest – we both got what we wanted, which means I got an A in Geography and two Bs in English and Economics. I’d be going to LSE in a year’s time, after taking a break from education for a while. A few days later we took the train to Vienna and separated, I was heading for La Chaux De Fonds in Switzerland, which is another tale, and Martin was going to Germany. When I eventually got “home” which was nowhere really, but anywhere in East Sussex in actual fact, The Stylistics were number 1.
The Stylistics were one of my favourite bands in those days – long before I decided that I liked soul music, they just had a string of amazing singles between 1972 and 1975. The voice of Russell Thompkins Jr is a thing of great sweetness joy and beauty and twice now I’ve had tickets for a live show and been unable to make it on the night. Such are the vagaries of self-employment. They are a Philly soul band, a symphonic soul band, initially under the wing of Thom Bell at Avco Records who produced all of their hits up to 1974, when Van McCoy took the reigns and gave his signature sound to Can’t Give You Anything. The opening trumpet glissando and melody with that twinkling piano arpeggio behind it is breathtaking every time I hear it. And the voice! The Stylistics are still playing together, still performing. Catch them when you can, these old soul guys really know how to put on a show. But be warned – Russell Thompkins Jr. is singing with The New Stylistics which he formed in 2004.
Meanwhile, Hungary is now in the EU and not such an exotic destination as it was in 1975. It was always a more independent country than a lot of the Eastern Bloc, but now it has swung violently to the right, has a popular fascist party (Jobbik), and anti-Roma feeling is running high. There’s also a strong organised crime element to Budapest, as there is with Sofia and to a lesser extent Bucharest, all places where I’ve worked on films. The border where we crossed is now open all day. And Ljubljana is now the capital of new country (old country) Slovenia since the break-up of Yugoslavia, and Zagreb the capital of Croatia. Am I mourning the old communist bloc then ? Well what do I know ? Hungary 1975 was very warm and friendly. You have to watch yourself these days.
I think Martin Cooper and I saw each other once, maybe twice more after that. Ever. Martin got married and I wrote to him (at Durham University) or maybe he settled in the North-East, anyway I got his wife’s name wrong, called her Bridget, his sister’s name, he got annoyed and we haven’t spoken since. Such are the chapters of life. We come together, we separate. Now read on dot dot dot…