An Unusual Life, Part 5.
By Charley Weber. Edited by Petra Schmidt.
Egypt & Africa, Christmas – New Year 1972/3
I wake up and for a moment wonder where I am. It is hotter than seems possible. Then the reality comes flooding back. I am eight years old and we are in an airport prison cell in Africa. Our father, Tommy, had been advised that with our British passports we didn’t need visas and acting on that advice we’d tried to fly into Nigeria without any. Things didn’t go well at passport control and despite Tom’s protestations, we were taken away and locked up.
The airport cell has a pair of bunk beds, a sink and a nastily stained little toilet with no seat cover. We rise from the beds only to drink water from the sink while trying to not touch the tap and do our best to avoid touching the toilet when we relieve ourselves.
Every time a guard brought us our meals, which was discarded airplane food, dad protested about our being locked up, but it got him absolutely nowhere. Finally, after about two days, there was a knock on our cell door and when the door was unlocked there stood, framed in the doorway, a large smart looking African general dressed in full military uniform, medals and all. He rather bizarrely welcomed us like long lost family and on behalf of his government apologised that we’d been treated this way, before going on to talk about his many connections to England. We didn’t complain, after all he was there to release us from our confinement.
Having piled into the back of the general’s military VW bus we headed out of the airport into town. Because of the heat the sliding side door had been left open and as we ventured further into the city we could see the markets, the plantains on the trees and the chaos of Nigeria. Passing some high walls of what looked like a compound we heard a volley of shots ring out behind them. When we asked what that was, the general said not to worry, they were troublemakers, political people whose time had come, facing death by firing squad. I’m sure we each, particularly dad, promised ourselves never to travel without visas again.
We had attempted to connect with Joanna Harcourt-Smith and Timothy Leary at a prearranged rendezvous in Egypt. That was before flying to Africa in search of some friends, members of the hybrid African rock group Osibisa, who dad had briefly managed and fronted funds for their first recording sessions in North London. It also was before being arrested and thrown into the dinghy airport prison. Tim and Joanna, wherever they were – I’m guessing maybe Beirut at that point, where Joanna would be showing Tim the city – in the meantime were obviously otherwise engaged.
Cairo was a mysterious and fascinating place to me even as a kid. Despite it being somewhat chaotic on the surface I found it alluring. The city had soul. We saw the sights and rode out on camels beneath the pyramids, where Tommy had an ongoing comedy dialogue with the camel owner about whether or not the camel he was riding was in fact just fantastic or the camel Lawrence of Arabia rode, called ‘Fantastic’. Tom was nothing if not social and connecting often was the point of that outward nature, more than making sense of things. But dad was maybe a bit lost and like mum had been, floating from one sea crest to another.
The general introduced us to some friends of the band, who were warm, bright and funny people – proper humans who showed us to a hotel and made us feel at home. They joked about whether to go to Mars or the Milky Way today, while buying sweets and magazines at the hotel concession shop, which put my brother and me at ease and I’m sure, dad too. Africa was really hot and most of the time there I spent in the pool with my head peeking out of the water. Jake and I braved the Olympic high diving board and of course, became addicted as soon as we’d broken through that wall. The other notable experience was going to the African national football championships. Some of the players were related to a few of the Osibisa band members, like Remi Kabaka, Mac Tontoh and Teddy Osei. Apparently Remi, apart from being a great drummer and percussionist was also quite high in rank as a chieftain. Many of the teams were actually just tribes, some of whom played barefoot and were not averse to getting physical. I remember one of the goalies advanced on a striker and dropped the guy with a kick. It wasn’t like Liverpool, whom I supported before discovering skateboarding. It all seemed a little volatile to me as a kid, one step away from an explosion and the stadium was packed with security, basically an army with machine guns.
However mundane ordinary life is, it is at least real and even an unremarkable one takes time to build up. We had been plane hopping and drifting for too long – I know this having been in a similar state myself. After Spain and Switzerland, I think Tommy was beginning to realise that.
Dad had always loved and missed his childhood homeland of Denmark, ever since he’d left there with his mum after the war and so came the next more settled chapter of our surreal young lives, as dad thought it might be a good time to visit and rediscover, if not set down roots, in his homeland of Denmark.
Denmark, Spring 1973
Freetown Christiania, in Copenhagen, is an area of about 19 acres separated from the rest of Copenhagen by a canal. We lived there for a short while when we first arrived in Copenhagen. There my brother and I made fast friends and picked up the language quickly, hanging out with a group of good natured and mischievous boys we met outside the cultural centre by one of the main canals. With them we would explore the remarkable city of Copenhagen and Christiania, with its dope and crepes selling vans. Through doors left open after parties we would creep into flats, retrieve empty bottles and sell them to the shops for pennies that we’d use to buy ciggies, which we enjoyed mostly for the mischief, trying to feel grown up and look a bit tough.
We soon connected with an old Danish girlfriend of Tommy’s and of Jimi’s. If truth be told, more of Jimi’s, although I learnt this much later. Tom had first had a liaison with her at the Isle of Wight – a detail which made me a little uncomfortable later, whenever I reflected on it. That was my personal reason why Jimi may have not performed so well on stage at the Isle of Wight concert, although a lot of people say it was just because of a subpar sound system. What I think is that he may have left the two alone together and gone onstage worrying about what she and Tom might be getting up to backstage.
While new to Denmark, we stayed as guests at the beautiful model’s parents’ family home. It was modern and comfortable and they were progressive and seemed, at least outwardly, not to be shocked that their daughter was staying in their house with a glamorous, but slightly wild Viking and his two little kids. After that we travelled together to the old family house, Hald Hovedgaard (Hald Manor), in Jutland where Tom had grown up. Although Hald Manor has been through various reincarnations and since 1999 is the ‘Danish Centre for Writers and Translators’, up until the end of WW2 it was the private family home of Tom’s parents, bought by our great-grandfather as a wedding present for his daughter Pamela and her Danish husband, Poul. After the War Poul sold the manor. In 1973 Hald Manor was called the student centre of Europe. A place where students could visit in groups, stay and get a taste of Danish history, with a legend of a Danish ghost attached. Tommy somehow blagged the office for a student room for us and the stunning Danish model and we slept in a couple of bunks for a week or so while Tom, thrilled, gave us a guided tour of the old farm estate where he used to love helping out as a kid. The gardens from another time, before the war, were still perfectly landscaped.
Jimi’s old girlfriend was charming to be around and she played ‘Riders on the Storm’ over and over again on her little cassette player. We fell asleep listening to that and when we awoke explored the house, its history and the outlying beautiful forests, which Tom implied were enchanted.
Tom related to us the legend of The Old Grey Lady of Hald, a ghost that had always been associated with the house. When we asked him what exactly that meant, he said: “Things would move around in the house. Sometimes the drinks of visiting German officers”. The door to his father’s study would open at odd times revealing no one behind it. Determined to get to the bottom of whether or not it was in fact the ghost, one day his father set up a flash camera beside the desk in his office and the next time the door opened he pulled the shutter, letting off a flash and a puff of smoke, capturing an image of the Old Grey Lady of Hald, which dad claimed was in a museum in Copenhagen. In the living room he spoke about the night when all the top German brass were asked over for dinner. Tom, although only a toddler at that stage, loathed the occupying army and their overbearing authoritarian ways. He showed us where the long dining table had been and where on a big dinner night he had crept downstairs, snuck under the dining table and peed on the legs and shoes of each of the German visiting officers. Tommy subsequently received a thrashing, which wasn’t the first time. He was a gregarious child and always getting into trouble.
Another reason Tom despised the occupying German forces, apart from his natural aversion to any kind of authority, is that they were the cause of his mother leaving their family home during the war years. Tom loved music and was devoted to his mother. He much admired her extraordinary musical ability, particularly in piano – playing modern swing and boogie like a pro. Tom was so captivated by the spirit of her music he would later relate how he first became aware of an inability to stop smiling when granny played. One song in particular, The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B, was his favourite and caused this irresistible reaction above other songs of the period.
In the same living room, Tom pointed out the grand piano where his mother would play. The piano was still there, on a raised platform at the end of the large entertaining room.
The Cottage in Kvorning, Jutland
After Hald, in an effort to lay down some roots and settle down for a bit, we rented a little cottage with a garden in Kvorning, a small village in Jutland not far from Viborg and Aarhus.
The owner of the only supply shop for miles around was a friend of the family in Copenhagen. Other than that there were only a few farms and a petrol station and that was it for miles. We used to cycle a couple of miles every morning to the nearest school along a disused railway track with our packed lunches of cod roe and tomato sandwiches.
Although the Danes were almost all entirely lovely people, our school teacher in Hammershøj was not one of them. She was fairly old fashioned and it didn’t take much before she’d haul you up by the ear. School is always rough. There was one nasty piece of work – a bully called Henning – in the school. He was getting the better of us individually and in what I thought was an impressively straightforward manner Jake and I teamed up to tackle him together – one of us grabbing him by the top and the other by his feet. After our little game of British Bulldog we really had no more problems with Henning.
But other than that life for us was mostly pretty idyllic. Dad bought cutlery, some pots and pans and dubiously unbreakable 70s plates and cups, which he then proceeded to test by tossing them into the air and dropping the lot on the kitchen floor. Nothing broke. We got a new puppy which Tom named ‘Happy’. There was even an apple and pear split fruit tree in the cottage garden and dad somehow got a job clearing woodland in nearby areas, to thin them out so they could grow again more healthily. He essentially became a lumberjack and it made him very fit.
We made friends with a family in Jutland and more cosmopolitan friends with a family in Viborg, the nearest metropolitan centre, where I fell for a slightly older girl who was out with her friend, looking in the window at the upcoming films in the cinema. We spoke to the two young teenage girls – Jake and I must have been all of eight and ten – and struck up a friendship after chatting with them. Such is the open nature of the Danish people. Something like that would just never happen in England, where the age difference would have meant that we’d never met. She herself said she was too old for me, but was curious about the two English boys and flattered by the strange encounter in the entrance of the cinema in Viborg.
Denmark in WW2 1940 – 1945
Because granny Pamela was English, after the German forces invaded she was forced to flee Hald for her own safety and spent the duration of the war as a resistance radio and cypher interpreter. I know this sounds like a movie – but granny’s cover was to work as a piano player in nightclubs throughout Denmark. During the course of the war Tom, who must have missed and worried about her more and more, only heard her once during all that time: when his mother came on the Danish radio station – presumably under a stage name – and dedicated their song ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B’ to her son Tom. Of course Tom was thrilled and he and his irrepressible smile became one again, for a few minutes at least during the course of the war.
Most people who get caught up in wars tend to be fairly tight-lipped about their experiences. This went for granny too. And so the date of the release of Tommy’s favourite song seems to have significance in determining the sequence of events and family story after the Germans invaded.
Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B by the Andrews Sisters was released on the 2nd of January , 1941. That was long after the start of the war in 1939. So granny must have been living at Hald Manor during the earlier part of WW2.
On the 9th of April, 1940, the German army – the most powerful in every way – walked in and pretty much took over Denmark. Rather than even try to resist, which would have been a blood bath, the government had little choice but to throw their hands up and agree, but under certain terms. Strategically the Nazis were more interested in Norway, because it produced large amounts of iron ore, which they wanted to supply their war machine. So – the Germans wanted control of the airfield of Aalborg, which was the nearest to the coast of Norway, in order to launch an invasion there. The Danish King, Christian X, managed to negotiate a deal to retain democracy and the rule of the Danish as long as they kept the resistance in check and didn’t allow them to cause too much trouble.
For about three years there lasted an uneasy peace between the resistance and Kingdom of Denmark on the one hand and the occupying German forces on the other. The conflict didn’t really fully come to a head until later in 1943, when two things happened. The first was that the Germans demanded the death penalty be instituted for acts of sabotage in the resistance, who were becoming problematic to the Germans by then. At this point, in August of 1943, the Danish government resigned and refused to cooperate – all deals were off the table. It was then that German forces genuinely took over the country and became a proper occupying force governing every aspect of Danish life.
It is most likely around this time, some time between 1942 and 1943, that our grandmother fled her life at the Hald Estate and went underground. In part because it was widely known that she was not only English – she knew they would come looking for her sooner or later – but, even more troublesome, that she was related to someone fairly high up in the British Admiralty, which made her a special target.
The other important event that ratcheted up tensions in occupied Denmark was that on the 28th of September, 1943, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz – a German diplomat – secretly informed the Danish resistance that the Nazis were about to start rounding up and deporting Danish Jews. The government and the Danes were not about to let that happen without a fight.
There had, since the beginning of the invasion in 1940, been a continuous but nominal level of Danish resistance, but at that point – in October 1943 – the Danish people stepped in and collectively managed to save almost the entire Jewish population, mostly by hiding them in their homes and shuttling some seven thousand in small boats on an hour’s boat ride across the sea to Sweden, which was neutral territory. Also at that time, unencumbered by the need to ‘keep the peace’, the underground went into overdrive and ramped up their efforts to sabotage the occupying forces everywhere .
At this point, insurgent groups formed to oppose the occupation. These included the Hvidsten group – located not far from Hald – which received weapons parachuted by the British, and Holger Danske, which was successful in organising sabotage activities and the assassinations of collaborators. Another resistance group was The Churchill Club, a group of eight schoolboys from Aalborg. They performed some 25 acts of sabotage against the Germans, destroying Nazi German assets with makeshift grenades and stealing Nazi German weapons.
From the time granny fled, my guess is that, although still a gifted player, she and music became at odds. From playing music in bars and clubs while in fear of being caught by the Gestapo, it seems to me that the joy she felt in playing music and the fear of being captured became somewhat fused. That for me was the reason she never really played for Tom or for anyone else much after the war. Later on, back in England, she bought a pianola. You could put reels in, pump the pedals and it would play the usual assortment of Debussy, Chopin and most importantly, Scott Joplin, which is all anyone ever played.
After we returned to England in the mid seventies, during Christmas and family gatherings at granny’s, a sort of dysfunctional family loop would play out where, after a cocktail, Tommy would ask his mother to play the piano and she’d decline. This would appear to upset dad, although he’d bury it until he’d had a few more drinks and then he’d ask her why she didn’t just teach me to play piano, since she was so good at it and I loved music so much. Granny said I shouldn’t be encouraged to be a musician, that I’d end up broke or in trouble. “Trust me Tommy, I know, I’ve watched it happen and met enough blues and jazz players to know what I’m talking about” – a comment which didn’t seem to offend her husband, Harry, a trader from an East End market and one time jazz saxophonist. But what Tom was working up to, while servicing another couple of scotches, was closer to the real source of his distress: he could never understand why, as she had such an amazing talent, she never used it. What he really wanted to say was: “Ma, why didn’t you ever teach me and why don’t you play for me now, when you knew how happy it made me feel and how much I loved music as a kid?”.
They would end up arguing and all this would culminate in us being thrown out or voluntarily catching a taxi home. This was the recurring theatre which happened at almost every family gathering during that period.
Wars take their toll on lives and families and WW2 was about as serious as war gets. So we, the generations after, often can only read between the lines, to try and piece together how things were.
Towards the last years of the war, the resistance efforts in Denmark ratcheted up and became increasingly wild and intense. On the 31st of October, 1944, a British Mosquito squadron wiped out the Gestapo HQ in Aarhus, the largest city north of Viborg, Randers and Hald.
The type of commanders Pamela would have worked with were people like Ole Giesler, a captain of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) who helped organise British weapons drops for the Danish Resistance.
The Hvidsten Group received many drops during the resistance signalled via “greetings” at the end of the BBC news broadcasts with the encoded message “Greetings to Elias – Listen again” and delivered via British Halifax planes. The Hvidsten group was responsible for pick-up at Allestrupgårds Heath and delivery of explosives to resistance groups like BOPA and Holger Danske to be used for sabotage of railways, locomotive sheds, bridges and factories in use by the German occupation forces.
The activities of the Hvidsten Group and several other resistance groups were revealed to the Gestapo by Jacob Jensen, a British Army paratrooper employed by the Special Operations Executive, after he was captured on 13 December 1943 in Aarhus and interrogated under torture. On March 11, 1944, in the early morning, the Gestapo surrounded the Hvidsten Inn and the majority of the group was arrested. Their arrest was reported by the resistance newspaper De frie Danske on 18 March 1944.
After repeated requests from the Danish resistance, on the 21st of March, 1945, through OES, British command finally agreed to attack the German HQ in Shell House, Copenhagen, which was bombed by 18 mosquito bombers and about 80 RAF Mustang fighter planes (I wasn’t aware we had any Mustang fighters in the UK, although I’ve had a private pilot’s licence since I was nineteen). On approach to the target, flying just a bit too low, one of the earliest Mosquitoes on the run clipped a lamp post with a wing and crashed into the Jeanne d’Arc School in Frederiksberg, setting it alight. The following wave of Mosquitoes then became confused by the sight of now two large buildings in flames. A number of the second and third wave of planes mistook the school for Shell House and 18 nuns and 86 school children were killed. Nearly 20 political prisoners of war who were being interrogated and held in cells in the basement of Shell House managed to escape. The operation created mayhem with German command and operations across Denmark and also pulled away important troops from Southern Europe, relieving those fronts. So the raid on Shell House was strategically considered a success, despite the heavy losses.
After the war was over and the allies prevailed, young Tom was alerted to the renewed presence of his mother at Hald Manor by the sound of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy coming from the piano in the great hall downstairs. When he ran down there she was, his mother, his musical idol, smiling at him and playing their song. Quite a reunion it must have been.
It was only much later on that I would piece it all together, after I heard stories about granny’s advancing dementia and about the rare times she played for her daughter Lulu, before passing away in 2007. Lulu related how her mother would keep looking over her shoulder and when my aunt Lulu asked why, she said: “To check they aren’t here”. – “Who?”, my aunt asked. “The SS officers, of course”. That was granny’s block on music. She’d never been able to tell Tommy and he’d never guessed.
For all the drama and story of the war – for our father the story consisted only of small family details, which he related to us – for us, in 1973, what we experienced in Denmark was a beautiful summer on our chopper bikes, socialising and swimming with some of just the nicest kids we’d ever met. There was still mischief and at the local pool the boys would show us how to look through the peepholes into the girls locker room, but there was nothing unnatural or dark about it. The pre-teen girls in our group would lavish attention on one slightly developmentally challenged, but good natured kid among us, which we watched with envy. Needless to say the boy thrived under the attention and we almost wished we were at least a little handicapped. I think the girls were aware of the power they had over boys and the dynamic in the caravan where we’d hang out and play on summer afternoons.
We visited Per, and his wife, Inger. Per is our father’s half brother from another mother, whom our grandfather married after his separation from Pamela. They were so undeniably positive, so well adjusted and happy, that we couldn’t help but become infected by their way of enjoying Danish life Hygge style. Per’s mother was a conspicuously wealthy and attractive lady. Per and Inger, a natural beauty, made frikadeller for us – Danish hamburgers – which gave dad a kick as the name sounded so much ‘freak’ in his vernacular. Per, who felt like he had been our missing and beneficent uncle, whistled songs like he could have been from a vaudeville act or quite easily could have whistled for Denmark on the Eurovision song contest. And at the end of the year, feeling more comfortable, Tommy reached out to try and reconnect with his father, our ‘farfar’, as grandfathers are called in Denmark.
In October of that year we trekked up to Aarhus to see the Rolling Stones in concert. Aarhus is a city in the North of Jutland and famous for its annual music festival. We’d been there earlier in the year and frankly had been blown away, even as kids, by the level of music. One of the top bands we witnessed was the Danish group Røde Mor (Red Mother), but we were there to see the Stones and of course Tom had to use his charm on backstage security – they let us through and into the dressing room, although I’m sure it was more than their job was worth. There Keith embraced us like long lost friends. The Stones had always felt that Tom, being such a wild character with such a love of music, should have had a band of his own. So, in case that should ever happen, Keith offered the old man a private session in tunings – which is sort of akin to being given the keys to Valhalla by Odin himself.
That winter of 1973 came early, as it does most years in Denmark, but this particular one was one of the coldest on record. There were also oil shortages that year, due to production and diplomatic issues with OPEC and often the oil truck, when it did have any oil to put into the tank outside the cottage, couldn’t make it through the high levels of snow.
Living pretty simply as we did, we had chopper bikes to get to school, but no car and although the local store owner had a Mustang Mach 1 and Tom tried his best all year, even Tommy couldn’t charm him into letting him drive his prized possession. But we managed to take connecting buses and hitchhiked part of the way to grandfather’s house, which was a small farm and way out in the country, unlike the estate. It was a fairly modest size farmhouse.
We stopped along the way to purchase a very specific gift which Tom felt was important to bring: a bottle of Ballantine’s whiskey. At that time farfar Poul was married to his secretary, the woman who took care of Tom as a kid growing up at Hald Manor.
How would the reunion go between the politically disparate father and son, not having seen each other since the end of WW2, when his mother took Tom to her native England?
Our Danish grandfather was a slightly reactionary rightwing guy who joined the French foreign legion after an indiscreet liaison with a member of the Finnish nobility. When stationed in Africa he is said to have removed his own appendix whilst in the jungle.
We walked up the long approach road from the motorway where the bus had dropped us off. It had been maybe thirty years since father and son had seen each other.
He and his wife met us outside the little farm house and welcomed us in. Tom gave his father the gift. There, over drinks, the two caught up. We had dinner, graciously prepared by Poul’s wife. Although I am one of the most unfussy eaters, there was some dish which I said I’d prefer not to eat. This may have been grounds for a small opening salvo in the arguments which followed. But bear in mind there had been a lot of water under the bridge between them. At that time students were rioting in Spain and on the news were shown shots of the heavy handed tactics of Franco’s fascist police breaking up the protesters. Tom’s and his father’s politics could not have been more different, which immediately became apparent in their relative reactions.
Whatever the exact cause, the reunion did not end well, as the two Vikings went off at each other, at least in principle, about the politics and tactics of Franco and the fascist regime. The upshot of which was that we were ejected from the house in that very cold winter, after dark and many miles from home. We trudged through the snow and made it back onto the main road, where we hoped to pick up a ride. But there were hardly any cars or lorries to be seen. At some point Tom put me on his shoulders and I fell asleep there. Only to be woken many miles later when a lorry finally stopped and took us to the nearest town, in the direction of our home in Kvorning, near Hammershøj.
We ended up swaddled in six or seven layers of clothing, huddled up in the bedroom, trying to keep warm. Finally dad, being engineeringly inclined from racing cars and dealing with mechanics, had a bright idea, which was to put some water into the oil tank. This would sink to the bottom, forcing a few centimetres of residual oil to above the level of the outlet pipe, thus giving us heating for at least another week.
Soon we returned to England but not before a stopover in Amsterdam, via the night train, where we’d meet up again with Taffy, Tom’s gypsy dealer friend who was up to his old tricks.