The end of the 70’s marked the end of the golden age of hitchhiking. As a child a hopeful hairy stood by the side of the road with his thumb out was more common than a Little Chef. My dad would never pick one up but neither could he quite ignore them so he developed a cross the body gesture which he seemed to think denoted he was about to depart the main road. It was fairly unnecessary as he usually had his wife and two kids crammed into a space approximately the same size as a chest freezer (and not a lot warmer during the winter).
And so, I grew up with the possibility of taking to the road at a moment’s notice for absolutely no cost at all. My first hitching experience came from a drunken agreement in the pub that we would all hitch to Southwold on the Suffolk coast for a lunchtime drink. It was agreed that we would travel in pairs and meet in the Sole Bay Inn. My hitching partner woke me at a ridiculously early hour and we made our tentative way south. To our amazement we could hitch! After a few trips and a lot of walking in the heat of the summer we arrived at our destination and waited in vain. We then hitched back and met up with the others. One pair had failed to even get out of bed, the other pair had got to the side of the road but panicked when a car slowed down and gave up and went home.
Hitching always required a certain psychological energy, once you had committed and got that first lift it was quite fun but until that point there also the lure of the bus or the train or simply staying in bed.
While I was at Trent Polytechnic I had my first opportunity to see Richard Thompson.
I have to confess at this point that I had been convinced for decades that this event had taken place in the winter of 1978 but concerts.wikia.com insists it was in February the following year so I may be getting things just a tiny bit confused in my unreliable memory but all this happened at some time honestly.
My old schoolfriend Phil was still at Warwick university although by this time he had moved out to Leamington Spa. Phil’s always found nice places to live and Lemmo was no exception. It contained quite an overspill from the university and from 8am every weekday the road out was lined with students of all sexes saving money by hitching to their lectures.
Richard and Linda Thompson were due to play the University
How we managed to co ordinate all this without phones let alone email, Facebook, Twitter etc remains a mystery. What also remains a mystery is how I managed to hitch down to Warwick university without a sat nav or, probably, a map.
The weird thing was that hitching was usually about as quick as taking a bus as long as there was a reasonable chance of a lift. I think the longest I ever waited was around 90 mins but quite often you could get a lift in 15mins or less. On the day in question (Thursday apparently) it took me the afternoon to get there, it was winter and light was fading fast. Apart from one van driver who looked like an extra from Mad Max everyone was well behaved. I met up with Phil, we had something to eat and prepared for the gig by drinking the statutory 4 pints.
At this point Richard and Linda were at a low point in their career. 1978 had seen the release of First Light, a candidate for the worst Richard Thompson record ever. They had only managed a handful of gigs in 1978 and but 1979 saw them back into relatively full-time musical employment. As was the vogue for ‘hippie’ bands we were all seated on the floor of the refectory or whatever, when the great man arrived, we remained seated.
In 1977 the Thompsons would only tour with Muslim musiciansbut that had now been jettisoned for some old mates. Dave Pegg on bass and JohnKirkpatrick on squeeze boxes had played with him off and on for the last 5years. On drums was a guy called Dave Sheen who I have never heard of before orsince. Lastly there was Sue Harris on oboe and (if my memory serves me well)dulcimer who, I suspected was slightly surplus to requirements. AlthoughRichard and Linda must have been in their late 20’s they seemed very grown up,Richard was dressed in the sort of clothes my dad might have worn in the 40’s,it was sensible but not stylish. Similarly, they weren’t going to rock out toomuch. They did play ‘Night Comes In’ at which point I got a bit tearful(probably the beer). On the other hand, at one point they went acoustic andplayed what Richard described as a ‘Ricky Nelson Song’. There were also thegood songs from First Light namely Layla (no not that one!),’Don’t Let a ThiefSteel into your Heart’ and ‘Pavanne’ which is a song just waiting for Adele tocover it as a theme for the next Bond Movie, really!!.
And so I popped my Thompson cherry, my overall memory was of a quite a warm gentle experience, they seemed nice relaxed people but I didn’t really imagine I might be writing about them in 40 years’ time.
I assume it was then back to Leamington Spa for a night on Phil’s floor. In the morning he headed off to lectures and I headed for the M1.
Soon I was on a slip road with my thumb stuck out into the sleet. A tiny well-worn car came to a halt, that wasn’t a problem, half the cars on the road were rust buckets and this only appeared to have the one driver who confirmed he was heading North.
‘Nice country you’ve got here’ was his opening line as soon as we had pulled off. The accent was either New Zealand or South African, if it was the latter I was in trouble, we were supposed to boycott everything from South Africa which might include free lifts. So, I didn’t ask I just listened to the driver’s complaints about England.
Apparently, he had been at a party the night before and hadhad some of his belongings stolen. This apparently included his car keys as,sure enough, the car had been hotwired. Worse was to follow, he decided he wasgoing to push the tiny car to its limits, forcing to it to it’s limit trying to overtake thelorries which, in turn, were pushing out gallons of spray making visibilitypoor at best. My driver then revealed he had also had his spectacles stolen andhe could barely see where he was going and he needed me to look out the rear sohe could pull out safely. I had to try and make out if the road was clearthrough a misted frozen back window so he could lurch into the middle lane totry to overtake the thundering juggernaut that had been blocking our way.Inevitably, lurking in the murk would be another lorry coming up fast behind us which our own car struggled to reach overtaking speed.
It was a pretty traumatic trip, I was young and invincibleand still scared shitless. Luckily it was a fairly short journey, my driversoon pulled off at my exit. I jumped out into 6 inches of freezing water atwhich point the car engine finally surrendered. I asked if my driver needed a push ‘or something’. “It’s alright” he said “I’ll just sit here for a while”.
With frostbite setting in I relocated to a different roadwhere a nice warm car took me home in 15 mins.