Today is the eighth anniversary of the founding of The Renaissance Mathematicus and, as on a couple of similar occasions in the past, I have decided to regale you with something biographical. This is quite literally a tale of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, so if you have any objections, moral or otherwise, to reading about such things or to the people who indulge or have indulged in them then I suggest you stop reading now.
In what follows I intend to tell the tale of how I came to live in Germany, where I have substantially now spent more than half of my life and where, all things being equal, I shall probably die. You might ask what my coming to live in Germany has to do with my blogging about the history of science but the connection is really quite direct. If I hadn’t come to Germany in 1980, I wouldn’t have ended up studying the history and philosophy of science, as a mature student, at Erlangen University and although I never completed my master’s degree, due to mental health problems, going on to become a sort of semi-professional historian of science and then a history of science blogger. But back to the beginning.
It all started in the summer 1977 when I moved back to Cardiff from Malmö in Sweden (that’s another story!). D (all the other people in this story will only be identified by their initials) had started constructing a yurt or ger, the round tents used as dwellings by the nomads of Central Asia, most notably the Mongolians.
Why D had decided to construct a yurt I never quite fathomed but it was a typical D project. D had a good degree in biology but had decided instead of becoming a biologist, to smoke dope and indulge in moderately crazy projects. The projects were financed by the collective’s dope dealing activities. The collective consisted of those who lived in number 24, where D was at home, a rotating group of about twelve and various friends and acquaintances, of which I was one, bringing the total to somewhere around thirty. Many members of the collective were musicians. One member of the collective would buy dope in wholesale quantities and then others would distribute it at low profit margins to a relatively large network throughout the city. The professional dealers didn’t like us because we seriously undercut their prices but we had the protection of the big guys, who found our ‘socialist’ dealing somehow charming. I was a distributer, my only profit being my own not inconsiderable consumption. I got to smoke for free and my ‘customers’ enjoyed low priced dope. Everybody was happy. The central profits were used to finance projects like the yurt or the collective’s long wheel based Land Rover.
In the evenings members of the collective would come together in the large ground floor living room in number 24, get totally wasted and then indulge in long musical jam sessions, playing blues, folk, rock and often long open-ended snake dance instrumental jams. K & C were a couple who were both excellent guitarists who also sang and C, an American medical student, who had a beautiful voice like Joanie Mitchell also played flute. A, who had a degree in philosophy but who had gone off the rails and now ran a whole food shop, played saxophone and clarinet. Both B and JC were professional base players and also excellent guitarists. B had a double music degree in classical guitar and composition. I played blues harp and jaw harp and almost everyone played percussion. Those sessions often ran for hours. There was also a formal house band built around K & C, which would occasionally play public gigs.
Various members of the collective, including me, were involved in constructing the wooden frame of the yurt and N, who worked as a theatre company seamstress sewed the roof and wall coverings out of lorry tarpaulins on an industrial sewing machine. We road tested the yurt on a very stoned, long weekend in Mid Wales in autumn during the magic mushroom season. It proved to be very reliable.
In 1979 we decided to take yurt, house band and whoever wanted to come to the summer solstice free festival at Stonehenge. We loaded the yurt onto the Land Rover together with a lot of serious camping equipment, saws, axes, cooking pots etc. and set off for the full tens days of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll on Salisbury Plane. All together we were about thirty people, the yurt was big enough to sleep up to twenty and several people, myself included, took their own tents.
Surprisingly several of this bunch of dope smoking hippies had been boy scouts in their youth, including me, and we set a very professional camp site with a large fire pit on which we not only cooked food for all of our own group, funded from a communal kitty, but cooked and sold food to other attendees. A lot of drugs were consumed and a lot of music was played. On the afternoon before the solstice A and I took off across the festival site selling some first class acid that we had acquired. In the evening A, B and I dropped some acid and taking our respective instruments went off to a tepee with a generator to take part in an amplified jam session. We played raga rock, flying on acid for several hours until the generator ran out of petrol.
I wound my way back to our campsite in the early hours of the solstice dawn to join a fairly large gathering that had assembled around our fire pit to greet the solstice. One of those sitting around the glowing embers was a young German lady, AZ. We got into conversation and as the party wound down we retired to my tent. The following day AZ moved on in her Interrail trip around Britain but not before we had exchanged addresses. Over the next year we exchanged occasional letters and postcards.
In the summer of 1980 I was at something of a lose end in my personal life that didn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. I was busy rewiring the photo and graphics studio of a friend one afternoon when I decided that what I needed was a holiday. Due to the work I was doing I knew that I would have some funds and fell to thinking where I could possibly go. The first two thoughts I had were that I could visit AZ in Germany or I could take a trip to Morocco, the destination of choice of various of my traveller friends at the time. Travellers were people who would work for six months or a year saving as much of their earnings as possible and then set off with a rucksack and sleeping bag to parts exotic for as long as they could make the money last. I had several such friends in those days but I wasn’t a traveller. When I got home to my flat on that evening there was a postcard from AZ, who was on holiday in Morocco! I kid you not this really did happen.
Never one to ignore a wink of fate, in particular not one that obvious, I set off in September to hitch to Morocco via Southern Germany. I took a ferry to Hoek van Holland because I wanted to visit a friend, who had moved there. Nobody had his address but I was assured by his brother that he was in the local telephone book. If he was, I couldn’t find him and so I set out to hitch down to Nürnberg in the vicinity of which AZ was living. It took two days including a night spent sleeping on the periphery of Frankfurt Airport. Not a quiet night. I had intended to stay just a couple of days in Franconia but ended up staying two weeks and getting to know a great crowd of people. When I started out again I hitched down through Austria to Florence in Northern Italy. From here I moved across Italy into Southern France winding my way across the south into Spain. Here I got picked up by a group of French Canadians with whom I spent a couple of crazy days. Working my way further south at snails pace, Spain was not a good country for hitch hiking in those days, I finally arrived in Algeciras and took the ferry to Ceuta, where I met a Swiss hippy who offered a sort of unofficial taxi service down to Marrakesh, which I took.
Having spent several days in Marrakesh I moved on to Meknes, which at that time had the only functioning mosque that one could visit as a non-Muslim. Here I had two very nice experiences. In order to visit the mosque you have to be shown round by a guide. I got shown round, together with two German tourists, by a young Moroccan student. The student only spoke French and the Germans only spoke English so I ended up acting as translator, because of this a got my guided tour for free, the student being thankful for my services. The student then took me to a student café where I spent the evening in the company of about twenty young Moroccans, mostly students, dinking mint tea and smoking kief. The young students made me feel very much at home and those were the happiest hours that I spent in Morocco.
In classic style my money began to run out and I got sick, some sort of flu like virus, so I began to head back to Europe. I was feeling shit and was very, very low on funds by the time I reached Madrid and was wondering how I could get back home when I met a German who had been deported from Morocco and had a one-way train ticket to Munich paid for by the German Embassy in Morocco. He sold me his train ticket for most of the cash that I had left and I rode the train back to Germany getting off in Nürnberg and going back to AZ’s.
My plan was to get well, find some casual work and earn enough money to get back to the UK. Having recovered my health, speaking no German I went down the honoured George Orwell route and got a job as a dishwasher in a local hotel. Here I had the best name-dropping experience of my entire life. The hotel manager was rather chuffed at having a genuine white British dishwasher, all of my colleagues where Indians, and would come and practice his English on me. One day I came into work at 7 am and he rushed to meet me asking if I knew who had slept in his hotel that night? I of course had no idea and playing the required role of straight man responded, no who? He burst out excitedly, “Roy Jenkins, President of the European Commission!” I, without thinking at all about what I was saying, “Oh, I went to school with his children”. His face dropped a mile, trumped by a mere dishwasher. He turned and walked away without saying a word.
In December I decided that I was going to stay in Germany and I’m still here thirty-seven years later. If people ask how I came to live in Germany I always answer, as I said above, “I went on holiday and I haven’t gone back home yet”, which is the simple truth.