The cabin is dark. My reading light is the only one on. It’s been on all night, all the way across the Atlantic. I have been trying to keep my voice down in deference to the uncomfortable sleepers around me. But the laughter escapes.
It is early in the morning of September 18th 1966. I will be 22 in two days and I I am reading Catch-22 for the first.
All too soon the BOAC 707 prepares to land at Heathrow. I am flying to Britain to do an MA at the University of Sussex and avoid Viet Nam. Yossarian, Dunbar, Nately, Major Major and the Soldier in White are my companions. They would have done the same.
I am also emigrating, and in my father’s foot steps.
In 1939 my father left Poland a few months ahead of the Blitzkrieg. His family and friends, except the few who got out before him, would soon be, in the words of Dunbar, “disappeared”. London was a stopping off before he boarded the Queen Mary, the one with three smoke stacks, left for New York. It was the last trip west the ship would make before being turned into a troop carrier for the duration of the war. Stepping out into the afternoon sunlight from Brighton station after the coach into London and the train from Victoria, I was predisposed to like what I found. And I did. The boisterous paranoia of Heller’s men in the caught in middle of the Med melted into the extraordinary surface ordinariness domestic life in Brighton. Neat terraced houses marched in formation down the to the sea. Smoke curled from ceramic chimney pots as if choreographed. It was a movie set, on the surface at least without dissonance, and strangely familiar.
I discovered pubs and pints and that I could speak a version of the language. I learned to pay in pounds, shillings and pence. And how to make £5 almost last a weekend. People were friendly. Being American barely 20 years after the war still had some (declining) caché. 1966 was like 1789, as Wordsworth noted, a good time to be alive. Revolution was in the air. Spirits and hemlines were rising. Grey, wet afternoons were leavened by psychedelic visions walking up East Street. Basil Spence’s university, red bricks rising cold and muddy from the Sussex clay midway between Brighton and Lewes, was new and exciting. (A place of “hectic heterosexuality” reported Time Magazine.) It felt more like an experiment in the future than a place to swot through the night. Predictably, I did not.
Brighton cast a spell. An old madam with too much rouge and lipstick that wandered passed her lips, tarted up many times and crumbling around the edges. It put on a gay front. Beneath the seaside architecture’s hardened arteries it was lively, raunchy. Still a place of pleasure, with the genes of Prinny’s Regency and its underground passages to a mistress’ door. Older executives in large motor cars ferried young secretaries passed the Royal Pavillion to weekend “conferences” at the Metropole or Grand. Brighton’s English language schools attracted young women from all over, especially Scandinavia. And the young women attracted young men. You could learn Swedish riding the buses. The new university added thousands of young people to lower the average age and raise the temperature of the town. The university itself was a building site. There were not nearly enough dorm rooms for the students, so most, like me, lived in bedsits or guest houses in town.
One such was Bon Accord in Dorset Gardens, which led down to St James’s Street, the main thoroughfare of Kemp Town. Bon Accord was all-girls, including one young woman I was attracted to and she, unlikely as it seemed, to me. Bill and Doris, its two older, unsmiling landlords, were padding their retirement by renting out accommodation to young people they did not approve of. It had a proper kitchen as opposed to the tiny Baby Bellings—single burners with a small “oven” underneath– supplied to most bedsits, including mine. One evening I decided to cook a meal for us, but after the evening’s wine I somehow left for bed without washing up. I came back early the next morning before people were up to make amends. The door opened a crack. “That American with the blue Mini? He’s not allowed,” Doris’s high, thin witchy voice declared somewhere inside.
Occasionally I called my parents in New York. I went to the post office on North Street and booked one of the cubicles and pre-paid for the first three minutes. You could hear the signal traveling across the Atlantic, a high, static whoosh: Brighton to London to the Bronx.
Many seconds later a small, familiar voice from a great distance said “Hello…?” and the anxious interrogation began. My mother (shouting so as to be heard 3000 miles away): “Are you all right?” “I’m fine.” “Are you eating?”
“Are you sure you’re eating enough?”
“Yes, Mom, I’m sure.” “Are you warm enough?”
“Yes,” I lied.”
“Should we send you anything?”
“No, I don’t need anything. I’m fine.”
And finally. “When are you coming home?”
If they had known how long it would be they would have disowned me. (If I had known how long it would be I would have disowned me.)
In the following weeks a box would appear with Crest toothpaste, Oreos, Hershey’s chocolate and other mainstays of American life.
Once a whole cheesecake from Lindy’s on 51st Street arrived. It must have weighed 8 pounds. I wondered what kind of cheese did Lindy’s put in that cake? Because, like “the salami you sent to your boy in the army”, it lasted a remarkably long time. Even divvied up amongst my “starving” English friends and a few homesick Americans some remained. And remained.
I spent the first year of my one-year MA course majoring in life in Brighton. I was an excellent student. I studied the rasaam soup at the Madras on Prince Albert Street in The Lanes, and pints of bitter at Dr Brighton’s by the Royal Albion. (“When you’re tired of Brighton you’re tired of life” read the sign above the bar, appropriated from both Dr Johnson and London.) Weekly I studied the menu at the Kebab House on Trafalgar Street where the portions were huge. I made careful inspections of the gardens at Lewes Crescent, especially on weekends when my friend Edward, who was in the import business dealing in products from Afghanistan, came down from London to for a quiet smoke. A fox lived there. To see that long, loping form, floating across the grass in the late afternoon crepuscular light as the water became the sky and as the sun lowered itself west over the Channel, seemed pretty magical. (This was before foxes learned what day people’s rubbish was put out for collection. Now there is anything but romance seeing them lurk around dark city streets.)
Eventually I decided my true interest was not the History of Ideas but what was then contemporary fiction: those authors whose picaresque heroes, manipulation of time, mocking absurdity and black sense of humour made sense of the horrors of the latter part of the 20th century. Writers like Vonnegut, Pynchon, Grass and, of course, Joseph Heller. Today no spoof, parody or satire by even those giants could keep up with current craziness. Catch-22 is no longer a dystopian fantasy. It’s the daily news. It’s here we are, back in Iraq. A one-year MA eventually took me three years to complete. Had I been smarter it would have taken even longer. Brighton was a great place to spend Viet Nam. Like Yossarian, I had made it to “Sweden”.