My Pop Life #222 : Little Wing – Jimi Hendrix


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Little Wing – Jimi Hendrix

Well she’s walking through the clouds with a circus mind that’s running wild, Butterflies and zebras – moonbeams – and a fairy tale

When I was 16 years old, in the Lower Sixth at school, and doing my A-Levels : Geography, English Literature, Economics, I still had not had sex with any girl.  Pretty much all of my friends had, some for a while and with more than one partner.  I was clearly a deep romantic because I felt that before I had my first sexual experience, that I wanted to be in love.  That even though I had “got off” with girls, kissed and “felt up” and “messed around” with various girlfriends, that none of them had been people I swooned over.  Or had sex with.  I was prepared to wait it seems.

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Me in Hailsham back garden, aged c 16 years

It was late 1973 and my home life was as chaotic as ever.  Mum had re-married, split up, got back, got pregnant, fought, kicked John Daignault out and was living alone once again, now with my one-year old sister.  The constant fights and complaints and visits to the phone box to call the doctor “my Mum needs some different tablets” were stressing me to the point of not going home after school some nights – because I had “band practice”.

But I really did.  I’d been practising the saxophone for almost a year (see My Pop Life #18) and I had on the strength of this rudimentary knowledge been allowed to join a band – with Conrad, Tat, Tigger and Andy Shand.  We were called Rough Justice and we had band practice at Conrad’s house in Kingston. I’ve written about this moment a few times notably in My Pop Life #80 Heartbreak Hotel and My Pop Life #172 In My Chair a little.  What I didn’t mention in any of those blogs about Rough Justice is that I would usually end up staying the night at Waterlilies after band practice because I lived 25 miles away in Hailsham by then and went to school in Lewes, 2 miles away across the Downs.  There was a spare room which I started to be able to use – or I would be in Conrad’s room which was fairly large too.

And this meant I would wake up in the morning and have breakfast with the family as they all got ready to go to school.  Conrad was the youngest of three brothers.  They were all very tall and clever, and all studied different things.  This struck me as interesting.  Martin, the eldest, was a Scots Pine at Oxford reading English. His A Levels were English French and History. He was also the tallest and was a regular at Brighton & Hove Albion games over the ensuing 45 years. I still see Martin for a few ales before or after a game when I’m back in Sussex.  Then Cym pronounced Kim was a flowering Horse Chestnut who was studying Biology Chemistry and Physics A-levels and was the handsome one, a bass player and had the best girlfriend a certain Shirin Pezeshghi.  He became a doctor.  Conrad was an Oak solid English sheltering all, fair and even-handed, rarely angry, gentle giant. He chose Economics, Geography and Art. No overlap with each other at all !

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Martin Ryle 

Rosemary and Tony Ryle were the parents, almost aristocratic but very earthy and nurturing, very generous to me, who was somewhat of a waif and stray.  Rosemary was a social worker, and Tony was a psychiatrist at Sussex University.  On one memorable occasion he offered to talk to my mum who was having another series of breakdowns.  We all drove from Kingston to Hailsham and he spoke with her for about an hour.  I can’t recall any action or conclusions being made, but at least they could see my environment – it was no longer in their imagination, and I was profoundly grateful for the intervention and the effort and the love it represented, especially when I later realised Tony’s status in the psychiatry world.

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Tony Ryle

And then there was Miriam.  Younger than Conrad and I.  Tall and shy but confident.  Her Mum called her Mindy, so I did too, or “Min”.   Like “Crod” the name didn’t stay into adulthood,  Three older brothers meant she stood her ground and she had a very close relationship with her mother.  Over time that year I would find myself in conversation with Miriam in the garden or washing up after a meal.  Miriam was always very confident which I liked very much.  I’ve always responded positively to confident women.  It’s attractive and a challenge, which I accept.  Her gentle taunting questions hooked me in, and one afternoon while sitting in the front room overlooking the lane and the front garden I unspooled my childhood for her revealing a jagged patch of my shadow history which undid her, and me.

The Ryles were the third family in Lewes who had adopted me after the Smurthwaites (My Pop Life #84) and the Korners (My Pop Life #64).  What they had in common was a loving generous embrace of this teenage boy whose family was constantly being divided, separated and fractured by the forces of dysfunction.  They invited me into their homes, fed me, gave me a place to lay my head and a key to the door.  They included me.  I was a very lucky teenager – all of my family could have ended up in care on numerous occasions.   Pete Smurthwaite died earlier this year sadly and over the years I’d lost touch with him, but Conrad Ryle and Simon Korner became my North and South Poles and still are.

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Lewis, Gaynor who married Conrad (centre) and Simon Korner 1990

Mealtime in the Ryle house – Waterlilies – was always announced (inevitably) by Rosemary with an Indian war whoop, created with a flat hand over the open mouth.  Later I would hear this noise being made by hundreds of women at Greenham Common as we protested cruise missiles being stationed there in the 80s – an eerie powerful sound – but as heard in Waterlilies delivered by Rosemary it was comforting and welcome.  The mealtime was always relaxed (with one classic exception below) and I always felt welcomed and wanted.  It became my home from home.  Especially when Miriam and I started to walk out together.

It was gentle, it was innocent, sweet and lovely, it was wild flowers in bunches on the windowledge, it was Diorella and Laura Ashley and eyelashes and shy smiles.  Skin.  The warmth of the sun.  Picnics with strawberries in a field beneath the Downs on a cheesecloth blanket. Walking to school over Juggs Lane (before the bypass was built).  Seeking each other out in lunch periods.  Looking for her face at Rough Justice gigs, where she would stand with her friends.  We both swooned ever so wonderfully in young love with each other.  My first girlfriend, my first love.

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We listened to a variety of music around that time – The Doors LA Woman LP was always on the giant wooden stereo, as was The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and The Beatles’ Abbey Road.  Other favourites of ours were Carole King’s Tapestry and Jimi’s Axis Bold As Love & Hendrix In The West from which this live version of Little Wing comes.  Originally recorded for the Bold As Love LP in 1967 the track is simple in the very best way.  I bought a book in 2015 called Jimi Hendrix : Starting At Zero which is a wonderful thing written all in his own words, and this is how he described Little Wing :

“It is based on a very, very simple American Indian style.  I got the idea when I was in Monterey and I just happened to be looking at everything around. So I figured I’d take everything I’d seen and put it, maybe, in the form of a girl and call it Little Wing.  It’ll just fly away.  Everybody was flyin’ and in a nice mood, like the police and everybody were really groovy out there. So I took all these things and just put them in one very very small little matchbox. Keep it just like that. It’s very simple.  I like it though. It’s one of the very few I like.”

The live version is from The Royal Albert Hall on February 24th 1969 and is possibly Hendrix’ finest moment ever in his short sunburst time with us. Delicate, assured, sighing with desire but as controlled and precise as a cat stalking a bird. It is a live recording, you can hear the crowd, and he sounds relaxed as if extemporising but I believe every second is elegantly designed and positioned and delivered.  An astonishing piece of songwriting, singing and playing from the genius.  I know every note, every breath of this piece as if the song were inside my bones which it possibly may be.

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My rough book at the start of the Lower Sixth in 1973

Tony and Rosemary allowed us to share a bed at some point in this journey, perhaps feeling that things in the open were preferable to secrets.  But the morning after this first night together (which came after our first fumbling afternoon delight) the breakfast table was set for what turned out to be a very strong memory for all of us.  Tony was all bluster and bark even though his heart was certainly in the right place.  (I remember one occasion later driving through Stoke Newington with him and Conrad seeing a policeman or two looming over a black man on Church Street – “Shall we intervene?” Tony instinctively asked. We didn’t.)  But he was a gentle chap at times despite the bark, (he had three big sons !!) and he found most things funny or preposterous and had a loud laugh. A big guy too with big hands.  Witheringly intelligent.  He had an obituary in The Guardian when he died in 2016.  Rosemary was gentle and kind and sweet, really loving.  Anyway the morning after that first night together, I sat down to crack open a boiled egg and slice my bread into soldiers and drink the plunger coffee (another novel experience) when Tony announced : “Good morning everyone. Congratulations to Miriam who has had her first orgasm.”  Mindy flushed bright red and left the room and I was just embarrassed as fuck.  I never quite recovered from that strange flag planting from Tony.

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Further rough book doodles

It didn’t “really” affect Miriam and I though.  I don’t think. Or did it?  We would go out with each other for over 18 months, and I’m fairly sure I asked her to marry me at some point.  I was happy.  But it wasn’t to be.  I wrote briefly about our ending in My Pop Life #47.  Miriam instigated it.  I was devastated.  This post isn’t about that.  It is about our sweet humble beginning, losing our virginity in tender love with each other, wandering through the Sussex countryside hand in hand reading poetry and listening to music, picking flowers, laughing, swooning.

I have no photos of Miriam or Mindy Ryle.  I remember one glorious summer day taking some pictures of her in a summer dress by the pond with the waterlilies which gave the bungalow its name.  She was making a daisy chain and her eyelashes and legs were long.  I took the film into a chemist in Lewes High St to develop them and one week later called back to pick them up.  When did you bring them in? Nah.  Can’t see them. Sorry we’ve lost those.  Lost ’emSorry mate.

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