Over the years, the story of the Still and West pub in Old Portsmouth has intersected with the stories of many local people. One such person is author, actor and playwright John Bartlett who concludes his reminiscences of the hostelry today.
During the fifties and early sixties, prior to the age of ‘Flower Power’, art students were the forerunners of wayward eccentricity. To be a true artist, some argue, self-possession and a recalcitrant attitude are prerequisites. Unlike most students at the time, they were certainly unruly, with a set of values considered to be outrageous, promiscuous and licentious. With the austerity and seriousness of the war years only a decade or so earlier, society had changed quite a bit.
That said, elements of Victorianism had survived into the middle of the twentieth century, and Clive’s college principal was as strict, stern and pompous as any Victorian gent. In some ways he and his students were equally matched: he was intent on keeping strict order and they were intent on causing as much mischief as possible. Happy days!
Another attitude that was a hangover from the nineteenth century was that students were expected to work hard and be home before 10.30pm. Landladies were required to report to the college registrar if their young charges got home late. This resulted in deceitfulness and plenty of late-night jiggery-pokery, with students leaving and entering their respective ‘digs’ via upstairs windows, sliding across tiled roofs or shinnying up, or indeed, down drainpipes.
One afternoon in the Still and West, some time in the early seventies, the beer was flowing and the atmosphere was convivial, if a little noisy, from the multitude of student drinkers in the main bar below. As more and more revellers arrived, the press of people in the lower bar spilled out into the immediate vicinity of the pub. Luckily, our little group had arrived early enough to secure a table, so we were safe and snug in the modest upstairs bar. The conversation, as it does, had snaked from one topic to another.
I cannot recall now what prompted it, but Clive was set on elaborating on the antics of his own college days. ‘One of our trendier lecturers at the art college,’ he said, ‘was the proud owner of an early Morris Mini Minor. The car provoked much talk amongst the students, mixed with a high degree of envy. Ultimately, plans were made, plots were hatched, and a campaign decided upon.’
Intrigued, everybody, including myself, noticeably slightly lent closer to Clive. ‘On the appointed night,’ he continued, ‘the moon was hidden from view behind a bank of clouds. We flitted about in the shadows, intent on our reprehensible business. Fortuitously, some weeks prior, the builders had installed a prefabricated, flat-roofed extension to the old mill that was located in the college grounds. Considering the age of the mill, it looked incongruous jutting out from the main building. Using scaffold planks and brute force, my conspirators and I pushed the prized Mini, which was surprisingly light, up a makeshift ramp until it rested, in audacious splendour, on the flat roof of the new classrooms.’
We all laughed in that satisfactory manner when you feel party to the conspiracy but not in any way responsible. ‘What happened?’ we all enquired.
‘Well,’ Clive went on, ‘the next day was, as you might expect, fraught with accusations, recriminations and counter accusations. The principal was determined to get to the bottom of it, but to no avail. Throughout the day, various possible ringleaders were rounded up and interrogated, but no matter how hard he tried to find out who the culprits were, he was never told the same story twice.’
The assembled throng were delighted at this youthful ebullience which put me in mind of a ‘jolly jape’ my Canadian cousin had recently told me concerning her high school days and a tank. Their small provincial town was much the same as others; the roads were laid out on a grid system and the neat timber clad shops and houses were predominantly painted white. But one distinguishing sight, displayed in the town centre, was an old First World War tank that formed part of a military memorial.
So, as in Clive’s story, plans were made, plots were hatched, and a campaign decided upon. On the selected night, as quietly as possible, my cousin and her fellow conspirators assembled by the memorial. Making sure all was quiet, they then proceeded to attach ropes to the old tank. They took up the slack, applied their combined muscle power and, much to their surprise, the leviathan began to move!
Now that the impossible had become possible, the plan was to manoeuvre the tank to the bank in the square at the other end of the high street and place it with the gun pointing straight at the heavy iron-studded impregnable-looking front door. It took them over an hour before the tank was finally in position, but their youthful jubilation was short-lived. Unbeknown, at a safe distance, their progress had been monitored by the local police. One by one, a ring of car headlights lit the euphoric scene. A loudhailer crackled into life and an authoritative voice rent the night air: ‘Okay guys, now that you’ve had your fun, take it back!’ As with other journeys to somewhere unfamiliar, my cousin told me, the return journey always seems quicker, but strangely on this occasion, the route back to the war memorial seemed interminable.
The irony of my contribution to the general bonhomie of the evening was not lost on my friends. They ruefully laughed at the ineptitude of youth. The tale prompted Clive to continue his reminisces of his art school days, concerning the natural tendency for young people to seek boundaries and kick against authority. He began with a quote from Shakespeare: ‘What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, How infinite in faculties.’
That was enough for our attentions to be re-captured and Clive held sway once again.
‘The principal of my old art college,’ he said, ‘was certainly a piece of work. He cut quite a dash striding about the college, academic gown flying in the wind. However, on closer inspection his threadbare tweed suit was all too plain to see. He was a big man with piercing blue eyes, barrel chest, a ruddy complexion and excessive wayward eyebrows. Adding to this severe, parlous demeanour, his crusty exterior was set off by an imposing set of whiskers, made complete by a prodigious Jimmy Edwards style handle-bar moustache.
‘Commonly, he was known by the students as “Nobby”, but only behind his back and certainly never to his face. Once a year and much to the chagrin and annoyance of Nobby, we used to hold an illicit event, grandly entitled “Annual Boot Race”. About four to six weeks prior to the occasion, posters would start appearing around the college announcing the forthcoming contest. Typically, they depicted pictures of boots with wings or rockets stating: “For sale, a nice pair of boots!” or “Only one owner, won the Boot Race last year!” and similar phrases.
‘As the date approached, more and more posters appeared. Nobby spent most of his time prowling along the corridors looking for the culprits and ripping down every poster he found. Then, like a demented town crier, he would shout at the top of his voice: “The Boot Race will not take place! The boot race will not take place!” As time went on, with the veins in his neck protruding alarmingly, he even took to jumping up and down on the shredded posters.’
Clive knew his Still and West audience and, whilst we all smiled delightedly at the frenzied image he had painted in our collective mind’s eye, he continued. ‘On the appointed evening, after the college had officially closed for the day, in ones and twos, we would secretly arrive. Everybody was suitably attired in oversized hobnail boots, some of which had been personalised with painted motifs and some with three-dimensional mini jet engines or Pegasus wings crudely attached. Once inside the college, it was then just a case of finding an appropriate hiding place and waiting until “The Annual Boot Race” began.
‘Hiding is no easy matter. As you know, if you are required to be silent inevitably the giggles set in, and the more you can’t laugh the more you want to. Not only that, Nobby and the vice principal were roaming the college looking for students. This involved creeping about the college and homing in on the suppressed snorts and giggles emanating from cubby-holes and unused, obscure rooms. As soon as a hidey-hole was discovered, Nobby would pile in shouting “What are you doing in here? The Boot Race will not take place! I forbid it! It will not take place I say!”
‘A general exodus followed and if you were unlucky, Nobby’s flailing cane, which at the time, even though he was dealing with young adults, seemed perfectly acceptable, would catch you across the buttocks. This game of cat-and-mouse continued until the clock on the church tower chimed twelve. At this point, the night air was punctuated by a very rude and rambunctious voice shouting “Oi, Nobby! We’re up here!” Before the curt words from above had finished echoing through the deserted corridors, there was a reverberating, rumbling roar of heavily booted, running feet. The former mill of a building we were in was like an old sailing ship, completely made of wood. The sudden exodus of students made the whole structure vibrate and hum. However, despite the alarming quivering of the building, the Boot Race proper had finally begun! Having spent the evening trying to expel students the Principal was in no mood to be trifled with, but this explosive anger, only added to the excitement of the occasion.
‘Nobby turned towards the direction of the disembodied voice and, like a demented whirling dervish, the vice principal was nearly clocked with his windmilling cane. Bat-like, the pair of them flew up the stairs, shouting, “The Boot Race will not take place!” There is nothing quite like the thrill of being chased in a game of tag with consequences. With shouts of “Look out, he’s coming!” everybody on the top floor headed for the back stairs. Tumbling down the stairway, intent on getting away, the crush of bodies carried you along like a mad, frenzied river of humanity. With the percussive sound of stampeding boots ringing in everybody’s ears, the old mill hummed like it had never hummed before. The parameters for the night had been established and the stage had been set!’
The graphic images Clive had described, concerning the human wildebeests stampeding along the wooden corridors or Nobby trying to push open a door, whilst the students pushed on the other side to keep it shut, invoked an exhilarating picture.
‘I remember,’ Clive went on to say, ‘poor old Johnny Rogers didn’t quite make it, so he ended up half in and half out. Nobby took full advantage and thrashed his rump with his cane! We managed to pull him in, of course, but not until he’d received several thwacks on his rear end. You should have seen the look on his face!’
‘How long did it all go on for?’ I asked.
‘Well,’ Clive said, ‘all night really. I remember the dawn rising and not long after that we all slipped away into the murky morning and that was it for another year.’
These juicy evocations were fodder for our young impressionable minds, making us laugh out loud for several minutes. Even today, on occasions during those private moments when your thoughts catch you unawares, I chuckle to myself about it.
The afternoon wore on and the effects of the alcohol began to take their toll. One or two of the ‘in crowd’ were beginning to look decidedly worse for wear. Outside, the returning Isle of Wight ferry meant that it was the turn of one of the other ships in the British Rail fleet to cheerily surge into port. My friend Trevor, fancying his chances, wandered off to join a group of female students who were soon politely laughing at something or other he had said.
Unperturbed, and with another round bought, Clive continued recounting his art college exploits. ‘After the annual Boot Race had been consigned to history, the principal’s anger gradually abated, and his usual eccentric demeanour returned. Of course, over a pint or two in the pub, we frequently recounted the events and repeatedly laughed uproariously at the re-telling of salient elements of the night’s activities.’
It’s strange, how in a group situation, no matter how many times a good story is told, everybody still roars with laughter. I suppose it must have something to do with shared memory and the knowledge that you are one of the few privy to the tale.
Clive was in his stride and we were more than happy to let him recount more of his tales. ‘One year, during the summer term,’ he said, ‘Doris Day came to England to make a film and, being the star of the production, she was put up, as per usual, in the private house owned by the film studios. The house was quite large, had its own grounds and was partially obscured from the road. There were no high walls, gates, signage or security in evidence to single out the house in anyway, but of course, everybody knew.’
With such an iconic female film star virtually on their doorstep, yet again, it was not surprising that plans were made, plots were hatched, and a campaign decided upon!
‘It was agreed,’ said Clive, ‘that on a warm summer evening a group of us would scale the fence and serenade her under the stars. All went well and we found ourselves on the front lawn under a balcony, trailing a motley selection of guitars by the neck. There were no lights on in the house and we were wondering if there was anybody there at all. Unbothered, we stood in a semicircle, and began playing a popular tune of the day. It was not long before an upstairs light went on, the balcony door opened and there, in all her boyish splendour, stood the object of our quest, Doris Day herself.
‘She politely listened to our ragged singing and, when our attempt at playing the troubadour was over, she idly but gracefully threw down a single red rose. With that, we happily made our way back to the local to go over our exploits over a pint, safe in the knowledge of a job well done.’ Clive paused, and we nodded our heads in recognition and appreciation of an interesting soupçon. There was no laughter this time but if we imagined Clive was finished, we were mistaken.
‘The following year,’ Clive added with some gravity, ‘it was the turn of Elizabeth Taylor to make a film and, like Doris Day before her, the studio house was hers to enjoy. We decided upon a repeat performance. A suitable night was selected and once again we found ourselves grouped together on the manicured lawn.’
Art students can perhaps be forgiven for not having the best grasp of current affairs, which was why Clive and his associates made a grave mistake when they began playing an Eddie Fisher song. For the benefit of younger readers I should explain that Eddie Fisher was a clean-cut pop singer of the time. Having recently divorced the actor Debbie Reynolds he had just married the capricious Elizabeth Taylor. Naturally the entertainment gossip columnists were delighted. A great many fatuous words were written on the subject. Taylor did not appreciate this; she took rather a dim view of any infringement on her personal life.
‘We confidently sang the opening bars of the song,’ Clive went on. ‘At first nothing happened, then we could see the figure of a woman could behind diaphanous silk curtains. The edge of the curtain twitched slightly and, through the gap, we could just make out Taylor’s famous eyes peering down on us. She proceeded to almost tear the door from its hinges. Framed in the light that flooded the balcony, a tempestuous female fire-cat appeared. This was quickly followed by a tirade of verbal abuse that would have made a navvy blush.’
The Doris Day story was sweet, but this narrative was much more to our liking. ‘What happened next?’ was the universal cry.
‘We had no idea of the faux pas we had committed, but being Bohemian art students, this was even better than we had expected. Even though the air was blue with expletives, the tirade of abuse had no effect whatsoever upon us. In fact, quite the opposite. To maximise the cause-and-effect of the situation, we re-doubled our efforts. Whilst Taylor continued to harangue us, she reached for the telephone by her side. This proved to be a direct line to the local police station. Within minutes, we could hear the sirens of several black squad cars.
‘Everyone scrabbled over the fence and high-tailed it out of there. This time we didn’t head for the pub but chose to lie low in the adjacent woods. Pretty soon, the area was crawling with police officers combing the undergrowth for suspects. This was somewhat of a surprise to the young lovers who frequently used the woodlands for many a secret lover’s trysts. Soon the woods were re-echoing to the sound of “‘Ere Burt, I’ve got one over here!” or “Come ‘ere you little so and so!” and such like. I don’t know who was more surprised, the policemen who thought they had “a collar” or the embarrassed lovers who had to explain what they were doing in the bushes!’
The end of Highbury College’s summer term, the proliferation of drunken youths littering The Point and the small gathering crammed into the top bar of the Still, seems like a different world and a long time ago now. After I left college to start my own career, I didn’t see Clive again, but his influence, like all good teachers’, has remained with me for life. I don’t know exactly what happened to him but, after all these years, he has likely moved along the shelf himself.