Early in my days at a minor English public school in the southwest of England, I was confined to isolation for weeks in the San with a chest infection. I thought I had been forgotten by the world until I heard a tapping on the window. It was a boy from my boarding house who was, as yet, more an acquaintance than a friend. His name was Christopher Graham-Hogg and he
had illicitly climbed a drainpipe to come and see me. This came as a surprise since Chris was a model schoolboy when I first met him. In stark contrast to me, he excelled at sports and won prizes and house colours. His father had been something of a fabled pupil at the school before him. Chris told me his dad had won first prize as a kid in Singapore when he had come on stage at a musical contest dressed as a grasshopper singing the Burl Ives hit, “The Ugly Bug Ball”.
Chris had a theatrical bent like his father and swept others along with his infectious good humour, often coming back at the start of each term with a spray of freckles on his arms and shoulders from visiting exotic places with his globe-trotting family, his slanting oriental-seeming eyes crinkling with amusement as he recounted tales of his adventures with local girls. He always seemed undaunted by whatever challenges life kicked up. One time, he managed to get punched in the face at rugby and nearly bit off the end of his tongue but it did not trouble him at all, Instead, he amused everyone by exhibiting his wound and waggling the blackened stitched gristle for our entertainment.
From the time of that visit in the San, a strange alchemy drew us together. I often spent holidays and half-terms at Chris’ parents place, Kandy Lodge at Hampton-On-Thames. Their home was named after his father’s Ceylonese birthplace. Mr. Graham-Hogg, whose first name was Denis, worked for Shell, though exactly what his job was there always remained vague. He was the youngest of three brothers from a family of tea planters in Ceylon, and had been the only one to survive the war. In the course of my many visits to Kandy Lodge, I learned of how one brother, an officer in a Gurkha unit, had been killed in the Japanese attack on Malaya, while another, an R.A.F. pilot, had gone down in his bomber over Holland.
Denis was a polo player, fisherman and a crack shot. As a Squadron Leader in the RAF, he had taken part in the epic low-flying raid on the Rotterdam docks of 16th July, 1941. He was shot down two days later in a Blenheim bomber while strafing enemy shipping. He pressed home his attack through a hail of fire from German flak ships but managed to glide his crippled aircraft into the channel off Ostend. He told me he placed his boots on the instrument panel when they smashed into the water so he could exit more easily. He tried to save his full crew but lost one in the welter of sea water pouring in through the flak holes. The other survivor, he helped into a dinghy. He was captured and sent to Stalag Luft 111, the infamous P.O.W camp for aircrew. I still remember how once, with Chris at a steakhouse in Leicester Square, Denis pulled a piece of aircraft cockpit glass out of his face while we were talking.
As soon as Chris and I arrived at his home, Denis would greet us with brimming G&Ts. He treated us like adults, but didn’t suffer fools and I could tell he was always scrutinising us for signs of weakness of character. I had already formed the view that conventional families tended to be pathological and repressive yet Chris’ parents overturned all that. My own family were cool and reserved and it was a pleasant shock to be woken in the mornings by Chris’s mum, Gillian, who’d give me a hug and ask, “How are you, darling?” I fell in love with the whole family and was swept along by their joi de vivre.
If they worried about their son’s friendship with me, they didn’t show it, though in private there may have been unease that their golden boy had fallen into bad company. Indeed, over time my ingrained anarchism and hostility to institutions did begin to rub off on Chris. He started slacking in lessons and began to miss games. Masters began to mutter that I was a bad influence since I could always claw something out the bag in exams, whilst Chris needed to study to get results.
Though Chris and I remained opposites in many ways, we dreamed together of the freedom we’d enjoy once we said goodbye to school. In our last year, we would bunk off and cycle to the River Exe near Bolham or Broadclyst to fish. When we grew tired of fly fishing, we’d go swimming in the river, letting the current take us for ages. We had a fantasy of swimming all the way to the sea that summer term. It was the last time I ever played cricket; I can still see the red ball spinning forever in the air, rising to meet my bat. Swifts went scything and screaming round the library buildings interrupting our exam revision, not that we did much.
Chris and I preferred to hang out together in the booths of Clapp’s Café on Gold Street, where the giant silvery Gaggia breathed out steamy shots of espresso and the juke box kept playing the hit of the season, Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit in the Sky’. Chris had inked the word ‘WHY?’ on the back of his RAF greatcoat. I think it was his comment on the Vietnam War. It drove people wild. They often barracked us in the streets and youths yelled, “Why effing not, you little cunt?” Such was the trouble it caused us, I begged Chris to remove it but he never would.
Sometime in 1970, Chris and I sneaked out of school and illegally saw the now classic Western film, The Wild Bunch, at the Electric Cinema. The film had a fabulous score based on the hymn-like Mexican song of exile and farewell called ‘La Golondrina’ (The Swallow). We loved the film, not so much for its groundbreakingly graphic depictions of violence, but because it seemed to be about the romance of failure and a celebration of how men can live without women. Also, centrally, the film was about the betrayals implicit in friendship, the way friends inevitably, if unintentionally, let each other down, then reconnect and forgive.
On our last half term break, Chris and I went to Guildford, where he had a girlfriend who brought along one of her friends as a double date. We saw John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers at the Civic Hall and afterwards walked in Stoke Park. My girl was called Sarah, a gamine lass with a spiky fringe, very forgiving of my awkwardness. Chris disappeared into the trees with his date and I plucked up the courage to say to Sarah, “Can I kiss you?” I heard Chris and his girlfriend choking with suppressed laughter off in the bushes at that.
Waiting at Waterloo for the train back to Tiverton Junction, we spent 2 and 6d in a Voice-o-Graph booth where you could make your own sixty second 45 r.p.m. record. Elated by our Guildford adventures, we crammed into the booth and spontaneously sang our favourite song, “When I die and they lay me to rest you’re gonna go to the place that’s the best. Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky…” The little metal disc clattered out that captured our voices, our urge to live, our joy in life, a moment of true gnosis when our bodies and our spirits were in absolute accord. I think Chris kept the 45 as a memento of our friendship. I realise now he was the first to teach me the great truth that “to be lovable one must be loved.”
Chris had helped me with my university entrance application form as I was too apathetic to do it myself but he failed his own exams. He drifted after leaving school and ended up working for his Dad’s firm, Shell, for a time while I was in university. My half-century old address books are full of crossed-out entries for him: Esher, Muscat, Norwich, London, Algiers. He got arrested at the 1974 Red Lion Square Anti-Fascist demonstration, where the Metropolitan Police attacked students who were protesting a rally by the National Front. I met him after he was bailed out. He seemed a bit lost, not nearly as vivid and jolly.
I left Britain shortly after for a job teaching and researching at the University of Houston in Texas. Before flying out from Heathrow, I went with a girlfriend to Wimpole Street in central London to say farewell to Chris. He’d set himself up in a ridiculously up-market address and looked as if he was trying to reinvent himself. He had gone for the young fogey look, sporting a Harris jacket and yellow cravat. He gave us a vicar-like mock blessing standing in the doorway as we left. We wrote regularly while I was in the States.
During that period Chris suddenly changed course and went off to Algiers to teach English, living in a one bed flat near the Boulevard Mohammed IV. His letters had a strangely flat tone. He told me repeatedly that he didn’t much like Algeria. My own life was proving similarly unsatisfying. I’d received a Fulbright grant to undertake ‘Literary Research’, and was appointed ‘Assistant Professor of English’, which sounded grand but actually I was a departmental dogsbody. I later found out that my predecessor, also from England, had been shot through the buttocks and repatriated home after getting lost and unwisely asking for directions in a tough local neighborhood.
The university facilities were superb, the academic libraries like air-conditioned temples, but those Texas days seemed full of ever-present threats and the very landscape breathed out menace. East Texas was wrapped in stifling, humid heat most of the time, apart from the ‘Northers’, weeks during winter when the temperature would suddenly flip and empty lots and yards would be filled with hundreds of dead birds killed by the cold inversion. Visceral hatreds stalked the place. I kept clear of the rednecks who hated hippies and was chased down city streets by black dudes wanting to stomp me for being a honky, a hippy, or both.
My lead professor showed me a nickel-plated revolver he kept in his car after he was named on a Klu Klux Klan hit list for praising black literature and giant billboards dominated the city with the image of a pistol muzzle and the accompanying legend, “The Magnum is Right for the Houston Police’. One sour patrolman caught me jaywalking and would not listen to my excuse that the pedestrian lights were broken. He grabbed my hair and banged my head on the hood of his cruiser, “Repeat after me.” Clonk! “Ah will not,” Clonk! “Jaywalk again.”
Teaching was scarcely less stressful. Embittered Vietnam vets glowered at me on the back rows, girl students harassed and propositioned me for better grades and the university football coach summoned me one day after I’d failed some of the university players who could hardly write their own names. He put down his cigar as I entered his office, and growled, “You’re from England and you guys play cricket and rugby and shit. You don’t understand what goes here. Mah boys don’t flunk! Geddit, prof?”
All the road signs around my apartment were bullet-riddled and I took my life in my hands by walking to the local ‘Seven-Eleven’ for groceries. Drivers seemed to hate to see anyone on foot and they’d veer off the road and rampage over the curb towards you in a cloud of dust. In the overgrown, spooky, deserted parks, trees were laden with tentacles of Spanish moss and groups of young gang members from the projects would emerge from the subtropical vegetation calling out menacingly, “Hey, honky come here!” I’d always take off running as soon as I saw them. At some stage, I’d often throw my paper sack of groceries over my shoulder, which would delay their pursuit while they squabbled over the contents.
I loved to watch local birds in those parks but the waist-high grass was also inhabited by packs of ferocious feral dogs and I carried a heavy stick to beat them off. Once, I found dozens of bloated, rotting canine corpses. A Texan friend told me that the police periodically turned up and tried out their new magnum revolvers on the ferals. He begged me not to go into the parks anymore as it was too dangerous. I curtailed my movements and became more careful and found my childhood terrors returning, chill fingers of dread and fear in the long hot nights. Chris kept sending me aerogramme letters on thin blue paper from Algiers. He sounded lonely and uncertain, so different from his former ebullient self. I sensed the change in his tone, but did not understand what it signified.
I wrote back with a breezy invitation to meet me in the States, but I did not really let him know that I too was also struggling to cope. I began reading the bible I’d carried ever since my Blundell’s confirmation and lingered over Psalm 23, repeating, Yea though I walk in the valley of shadow of death in the ‘U-Totem’ shop, where I once saw a young Chicano kid shot by the storekeeper while escaping out the revolving doors with his shirt stuffed full of stolen groceries. Hard to forget the sight of his bundled white sneakers jammed in the doors, slowly being surrounded by spreading wings of his dark blood, the shopkeeper already receiving a congratulatory handshake from the cops.
Despite the dangers, I’d go out at night to the university campus under the yellow Texas moon, accompanied by the long drawn-out hooting of night time freight trains. That sound seemed to sum up all the longing and loss in America. Sometimes I’d gaze into Shasta’s Den, a small hexagonal reinforced glass cage where lights blazed all night. Shasta was the university’s mascot for their football team, ‘The Cougars’. The big cat would always be there pacing, snapping at flies with her black glistening lips and returning my gaze with a look of utter hatred. A notice told me she’d been there since 1965, ten years a prisoner. Every now and then a team of heavy-set football jocks wrestled Shasta into a harness then, declawed, spitting, writhing, she was paraded about during university football and athletics matches.
I fantasized about smashing Shasta’s cage one night and letting her go free to sneak through the campus live oaks and lap the waters of the nearby Buffalo Bayou. I realised she wouldn’t have lasted long in the city that had three times as many firearms as people but I thought she might have traded her life for a few intense moments of freedom. Thinking about the captive beast now, I realise that the loneliness I saw reflected in her eyes mirrored the forlorn bleakness not only of America, but also all of the empty deeps and gulfs of my youth. I really had no idea what I was doing or where I was heading. All the dreams of a carefree future life I’d nurtured with Chris at Blundell’s had curdled. I was simply glad to keep on surviving.
In Houston, ‘La Golondrina’ was a favourite of the mariachi bands that used to play for money outside shopping malls and bars. I’d pause whenever I heard it and even sing along: “A donde ira? Veloz I fatigada, la golondrina.” I loved those words, written by a Mexican exile in the 1860s. The song throbs with loss and yearning and possesses a haunting tune. It is supposed to be beloved by Mexican emigrants who long to return to their native land. I always wanted to see Mexico and maybe having seen ‘The Wild Bunch’ with Chris played a part in that.
I spent my last university paycheck on a Greyhound bus trip and headed towards the border in February, 1975. The route crossed the rolling open country of Central Texas, the boundless range dotted with the rufous smudges of Charolais cattle grazing in the remnant prairie. Migrating pronghorn antelopes, so much more numerous in those days, came rocketing out from the verges and bounded between the lines of traffic before vanishing again down the clefts of rust-red arroyos.
Everything seemed weather-battered and on the edge of failure in those lands. The giant advertising signs along Highway 290 for Buick (‘Free as a Bird’) or Southwestern Bell (‘We Care For You’) often had panels missing. Iridescent-feathered black grackles perched on the rusted struts in these gaps and through the breaches in those vast hoardings you could always glimpse more seemingly endless grassy vistas, dotted here and there with abandoned clapboard farmhouses with sagging stoops beside dirt roads scrolling away to nowhere.
Flocks of redwings patrolled down quiet streets in the small towns. So many houses had photos in the windows of sons killed or missing in Vietnam. At a stopover in Bastrop, the diner manager came to my booth and stared at me for a long time with pale denim-coloured eyes, then without changing his stony expression, told me to finish my cawfee and get my long-haired ass outta his diner. Dozing on the bus between Austin and San Antonio, I woke to find my leg pressing against the yielding thigh of a beautiful black girl who was absorbed in reading Jacob Riis’s classic book, How the Other Half Lives. I’ve always been amazed by the ambitious, hopeful determination of so many ordinary Americans to educate themselves.
We were held up near Brownsville while large, yellow backhoe diggers worked to create a berm to stem back the rain-swollen Colorado that threatened to drown the road. The landscape began to change. The buffalo grass gave way to mesquite; live oaks with their beards of moss were replaced by buckeye and Mexican sycamore. South of San Antonio came Dilly and Cotulla, towns where there were many more Mexican faces: labourers loading bags from feed-stores next to ranchers in Stetsons and long stockmen coats, salesgirls with white collars and ribboned pig tails, dreaming at soda stands and borrachos clutching beer bottles sheltering in phone booths, wailing out songs of suffering to themselves under the jackhammer Texas rain.
I arrived at the border at Laredo off Highway 35 and crossed the long frontier bridge on foot. At the U.S. frontier, unsmiling officials went through my meagre belongings. They found my copy of Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues and suspiciously carried it off to another office. I could see them tipping the book upside down and riffling through the pages. Maybe they were checking for what illicit ideas I might be smuggling out of America. I was waved through by a sleepy, indifferent customs man on the other side. Nuevo Laredo was obscured by a drizzled haze and the chocolate waters of the Rio Grande in spate boiled up against the pilings, carrying down uprooted clumps of mesquite and vivid green carrizo cane.
Across the bank, I roamed the streets, hungry for experience and astonished by the complete change in atmosphere. I loved the forgiving air of Mexico after the edginess of Texas. I felt I could breathe there and my sense of mortal terror began to ebb away. Everything pleased me: the white-gloved traffic policemen blowing whistles and making marionette gestures, the smells of mud and beer, the bright yellow feet of the chickens in baskets at El Mercado de Reforma. Young boys tried to drag me into dodgy cantinas, “Pulque, señor?”
I eventually succumbed and allowed myself to be guided to the veranda of a bar overlooking a square. Rain pocked on the awning above me. I felt like a grandee as I consumed beer and quesadillas looking out on the potted palm trees, the thin ponies hunched under the deluge, waiting to drag tourist carriages, the curio shops selling giant earthenware Toltec heads who hurried to cover their wares with old tarps and newspapers. The square was filled by the cries of children playing in the wet.
A little girl, maybe ten years old, in her mother’s oversized, high-heeled red shoes came clacking up the stairs towards me and stared at me with enormous brown eyes that seemed to look straight through me. I don’t think she actually wanted anything from me as such. Perhaps simply coming to stare out of curiosity at the lonely hippie gringo. I gave her an American dollar and she accepted it as if it were her due. Then slowly, carefully she descended once again, going click clack in the high heels.
I returned to England in February, 1975 and soon after my mother showed me an announcement in The Daily Telegraph that Chris had died. I rang his mother but she was too incoherent with grief to explain anything. Weeks passed and I finally got to speak to Denis Graham-Hogg. He told me that Chris had been drinking at night, had returned to his flat, boiled water on a gas stove and fallen asleep. The water had overflowed and put the flame out, gas had seeped all night, killing Chris in his bed. Denis further made me swear faithfully never ever to get in touch again.
The loss went “through me like a spear” and everything was made worse by the terrible promise I had to give to his dad. No funeral, no memorials, no explanation of what had really happened. I suppose it will never be known. I lost Chris’s last gloomy letters in the confusion of leaving the States. To this day, I honestly don’t think it was a suicide. I believe he simply became careless about himself. His schoolboy drive and purpose had left him and a stupid accident claimed him. In the years that followed, few days have passed when I didn’t think of him, his loss running out through my life. I had an abiding sense in the following rackety years that I had to live for the both of us.
The passing years settle over our secrets and mysteries until there comes a moment when those things lose their power and no longer matter. Chris’s enigmatic death still troubles me though. I used to kid him about how I thought his Dad worked for MI6: it was something about his sudden foreign trips and his hooded minatory gaze when you dared probe him too much about what his job actually entailed. Chris laughed it off but then his own life came to seem mysterious and somehow hidden like his Dad’s.
While I was at University, I used to receive strange, anonymous letters. These letters and envelope addresses were made on some sort of office teletype machine. The typing was on thin strips of paper that were glued together. They comprised just my address then a short message, usually of only one sentence. I no longer have them and can only try to reconstruct them. They were gnomic and teasing and sometimes slightly scary like: We see but cannot ourselves be seen or Near or far, I follow your star.
I was in no doubt that it was Chris who sent them. The address line always carried the same slight misspelling as on his ordinary letters to me. One time I tried to tackle him about the mystery messages but he denied the whole thing and looked almost stricken when I tried to press it. What could he have meant by those sibylline communications? Had he been trying to let me know that he was caught up in something he could not control?
After Chris’s death, Denis Graham-Hogg took his name off our school’s old boys’ register and left Kandy House. The family seemed to want to disappear. A military historian doing research on wartime R.A.F. squadrons operating out of Manston tried and failed to track him down and noted in his book, ‘Mast High Over Rotterdam’, that he imagined that: Somewhere in Sri Lanka, an immensely popular ex-Blenheim pilot is probably sipping the occasional gin and tonic in his tea plantation, and reminiscing about the hazardous yet incredibly lucky days of his youth.
In 1977, I noticed that Denis had brought out a book on wood pigeon shooting and scoured it for some clue to my missing friend. It’s a practical work with precise instructions and military-style diagrams on how to shoot birds. It contains black and white photos of a fair-haired lad with a twelve bore. It could be Chris...but isn’t. There were flickers of the dry humour shared by both father and son in the text (“Keep your eyes open for signs of vermin; this includes poachers.”). The whole book seemed to reek of loss, though maybe that was because I read it with grief-haunted eyes.
I often wondered why Denis told me never to communicate again. For a while, I used to blame myself and think that Chris would never have become lost and alone in Algeria if it was not for my influence pushing him off the path of safety and a settled life and I thought that his father held the same opinion. I think now though that he simply wanted to protect his wife from further upset that contact with me might stir up. Also, he’d probably learned to seal off loss after his brothers had been killed during the war and after he’d tried and failed to save his drowning observer in the shattered wreckage of his Blenheim.
I used to worry about what sort of life the Graham-Hoggs led after Chris died. My gloomy perceptions were dispelled when, while writing this, I finally plucked up the courage to disobey Denis and contact remaining members of the family. I managed to speak to his grandson who told me that he and Gillian had retired to Cyprus and had happy times with family and grandchildren. Dennis had died in 1997 and Gillian the following year. They were cremated and their ashes scattered at a family property at Hathersage, Derbyshire, a place where, by coincidence, I often walk.
A few years ago, driving to Cornwall, I found myself on the bypass road around Tiverton, Devon heading towards Barnstaple. The new road ramped right over the cow pastures and badger-infested woods that I had once known so well. I could barely make out any familiar landmark. The road had obliterated all my reference points until it popped out on an elevated section on the western flank of town. Looking down briefly to my right, hundreds of feet below the streaming road, there was Bolham Weir. I recognized it at once, unmistakable despite the strange new angle. The sight of those dimpling waters pierced me through and through, even though I only glimpsed the scene for a moment before the traffic swept me on.
Bolham Weir— the place Chris and I used to go long before that road was built over it. We rarely saw anyone else there apart from solitary eremitic herons meditating over the stillness of the weir pool. We reached the place on our bikes through Tiverton backways. The weir itself had been built in the mid-century on top of ancient foundations. The place had been the site of the old Tiverton logging mills that had last operated during the Edwardian era. The relatively modern concrete was always getting broken up by winter spates and jagged spars of the rusted iron sub-structure reared out from the eroded slabs.
The changeful, turbulent Exe littered the crumbling weir with winter-washed logs and branches formed a sort of dam against the current. It was our secret, vaguely dangerous hangout, the reputed site of a number of accidental drownings of foolhardy local teenagers. We were there a lot that last summer 1971 term at Blundell’s. We bunked off whenever we were supposed to be cramming for exams in our own time. Those unfettered, sun-shot hours at the weir seemed all the more sweet because they were stolen. We’d generally bring bottles of amber cider, the same colour as Exe water. We’d drink and smoke and talk of the future.
Here at last, with Chris, I could shake off some of the mortal damage wrought in childhood. Swallows and sand martins flicked over our heads as we lay together on our bellies next to the old mill leats, peering into the water with hands shading our eyes and periscoping down, watching the mottled brown trout beneath us, their heads moving from side-to-side like serpents, their pale, pleated gills rhythmically pumping. We loved spying on the fish. I think we were stunned by their perfect fitness for life.
Youth had only just begun to open its doors to us then but now I realise — that summer, under the swallows, we, with our fresh, unpeeled senses, were actually more alive than we’d ever be again during those moments by Bolham Weir. I still listen to ‘La Golondrina’ sometimes on mute summer evenings when a certain mood takes me, ‘The Wild Bunch’ soundtrack remains the best version. The song is about the both of us now, Chris and me. ‘A donde ira?...“Where are you going, fast-winged yet weary swallow? You are leaving, lost in the wind, looking for shelter, but not finding any.”
Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale. (And forever, brother, hail and farewell)
--Catullus, Elegy 101 (To the Ashes of his Brother who Died Young)
Rod Madocks is an author based in Nottingham, England. Also published by Memoirist is an extract from his yet unpublished memoir about his African chilldhood, The Bitter Karela. His latest book is ‘Our Tan: Memoir of a Destroyed Life’ by Shoestring Press is a lament for the avoidable loss of a young woman and a savage critique of the British government institutions that failed her. Other writings include the crime novel 'No Way To Say Goodbye', a book of short stories about his career as a forensic specialist in maximum security hospitals, 'Ship of Fools' , a historical novel set in the Devon during late Victorian times, Babbicam and The Rising Flame a memoir about the WW2 poet, Sidney Keyes.