Fear and Loathing in Southwark by Bill West

(The National Council for Civil Liberties and the Arts Society held a Gala Evening in the late 1960's 'Concerning Depravity and Corruption.' Included in the programme were Beckett's 'Come and Go.' Dramaticule & Trocchi's 'Lessons for Boys and Girls.' Supported by many leading names of the day, including John Mortimer, Edward Bond, William Burroughs, Adrian Mitchell, Bertolt Brecht and Dame Peggy Ashcroft.)

LONDON, LATE 1960S. Helen and I were standing on a windswept Thames Embankment, by the entrance of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. We were arguing. I'd offered her my jacket to protect her from a cold breeze blowing across the river. I could see she was cold. Anybody could see she was cold. She was wearing a see-through Indian lace top with no bra.

OK, we'd argued earlier at her house about the topless dress she'd planned to wear that evening. The lace top was a compromise but she insisted that my recent noble gesture to freeze my own tits off so she didn't have to was somehow related to sexual jealousy! For God's sake! I was there to protest about censorship, an evening of music and depravity as her father described it. I was not about to censor my girlfriend, that would not be cool, and I was cool.

This was not how it was supposed to happen. The evening was to be special. I had written a love poem for her and tonight, with the moon low over the river, I planned to read it, telling her how much I loved her, and asking her to marry me.

I fumbled the poem from my shoulder bag and dropped a small ball of silver foil. I dove to retrieve the foil and as I did the poem was whipped away by a stiff breeze. Within seconds my poem was in the river. “What's in the foil," she asked? “Nothing." I said and didn't dare admit that it was a parting gift from Abe. He'd said that I would need a little something to give my evening a lift. He'd predicted a disaster for as he said, “Don't do it man, she doesn't believe in that marriage shit."

“Are you on acid?"

“Err, no, it's just a painkiller."

“So what was the important thing you wanted to ask me?" I took a deep breath.

“Babe, will you marry me?"

She laughed. It was not a kind laugh. I believe the tiny click I heard was the sound of my heart breaking.

“No. I won't marry you, ever! I'm not the marrying sort. If I were to marry someone he'd have to be handsome and famous, maybe a fab poet, like Roger McGough."

With hindsight, her words were unnecessarily cruel. For starters, I considered myself a poet, possibly a handsome one. Secondly, Roger McGough was my favourite poet. Thirdly, McGough was famous and lastly, I was not.

We went into the theatre and took our seats. It should have been a great evening, historic! Leading figures in literature, music and half of Hampstead's intellectual elite were there. But I was in a pit of misery, not listening, not caring. George Melly's witty compering and his rendition of 'Mack the Knife' washed over me. I wasn't in the mood for The Scaffold's amusing songs, or Larry Adler's harmonica playing. The comedy of Willie Rushton, Marty Feldman and Barry Took didn't raise a smile. And Roger McGough's presentation was sickeningly eloquent; how it was wrong that the Lord Chamberlain could dictate which plays could be shown, and how censorship was political oppression.

Later, after the show we were invited back to a party for the big name participants. Helen's friend, Tony Smythe, had organised the event. It was held at somebody's art studio under the railway arches a short distance behind the theatre.

The gaff was impressive as far as railway arches went. Victorian brick vaults divided into different levels by architect designed steelwork. Like partying in a fire-escape factory.

At this stage I best explain that Helen had engineered my invitation to this gig. In her wisdom no doubt she thought, “wouldn't it be great for Bill to meet his favourite poet. Maybe show the great man some of his poems and talk poetry with him."

Maybe, introducing me to Roger McGough on that particular evening, after what had been said, was not the best plan. A plan made worse by the fact that over an hour before I had swallowed the tablet that Abe had given to me to give me a lift. Acid I suspected. There had been a few clues; the way Helen's hair had writhed like snakes during the show and how come Roger Mcgough now appeared to have small horns on his forehead and a snaking tail slapping between his legs.

“Hi Bill," he said. “I've heard all about you."

He held out his hand to shake mine. I looked at his hand. The fingers ended in talons.

Well what did she expect? I didn't hurt the guy, although they say looks can kill. I remember the panic in Helen's voice, “Bill, what's the matter? For God's sake what is your problem?" I just stood there, toe to toe with Roger McGough, staring into his eyes, trying to kill him with my newly acquired cosmic powers.

She, and a couple of guys dragged me away. I left the party alone and wandered over the Hungerford footbridge. Looked down on the sucking river below and threw away my remaining poems onto the Thames' dark waters. White pages washed away down the river, past Traitor's Gate, beneath Tower Bridge, and out to sea.

And she never forgave me. One day, perhaps Mr McGough will.


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