It took me a few weeks to realize that the blue sweet-smelling cloud rising over the village rooftops of picturesque Corsham, wasn’t just apple-wood smoke from cottage chimneys. It was wood smoke plus the out breathings of a hundred stoned students that wafted through the windows of the student halls and made the wood pigeons gurgle and slip off their perches!
Corsham was dreamlike alright, most likely because everyone, students and locals were in fact constantly stoned. I swear even the cows, the sheep and the ducks on the lake, had a constant dreamy grin on their happy furry and feathered faces.
If you stood by the hedge quietly you could hear them talking.
“So it’s off to the slaughter house tomorrow bovine dude”.
“ Yeah, the ultimate trip, but hey man is this great grass or what? You were right about this meadow man”.
“Yeah mellow meadow man, great grass”.
From my first days there after leaving the West Riding it was as though I’d slipped into the television series, ‘The Prisoner’. In fact it looked similar to the weird village to which Patrick McGoohan had been sent to be mentally pasteurised after trying to resign from MI5 and from which there was no escape
The dream-like ambience and picture post-card perfect unreality was re-enforced by the locals, who after three hundred years co-existing with young artists, didn’t bat an eyelid at their extravagant or eccentric behaviour.
I loved it straight off. It was Stanley Royd, the looney-bin I’d worked at, on an open-day, permanently.
In those first few days as my foundation studies group and I were getting down to our course, little by little I got used to the otherworld strangeness. It really did feel like I’d landed in another world and because of my naiveté, I thought this was how the whole of the South of England was- I thought I’d stumbled on a great secret, that had been kept from them up North!
As I said, no one blinked an eye at anything, no matter how odd. Like the time I was walking home at the end of my first week.
Imagine, it’s a Cotswolds choclate box scene, all little golden stone cottages with curls of smoke above, cockerels in the backyards and the ring of Mrs. Hartley’s bicycle bell and calls of “Good morning vicar”, and altogether Country Life on steroids in little old England, when as I walked I heard a chink- chink- chink sound coming up behind me, a sound that was unusual yet vaguely familiar.
I turned round to see where it was coming from and there, complete with spurs and worn leather goucho leggings, was a tall, brown, weathered cowboy. He was Marlboro man meets spaghetti westerns, complete with lariat and droopy moustache. He had the sweaty worn dusty cowboy hat, six shooters with pearl handles and burnished holsters, and boots that looked like they had their soles toasted in front of a camp-fire every night after sundown.
This was not an outfit he’d rented from a fancy-dress shop. He looked as though he’d just been in a gun-fight outside the post office and had his horse shot out from him.
Maybe he’d taken the wrong bus home from the set of the “The Good the Bad and the Ugly.” But as he strode manfully past, leaving a wiff of horse and old leather behind him, I didn’t dare ask.
Whatever he was, he was real enough. I stepped to one side as he strode on and rubbed my eyes, maybe the ambient reefer smoke was getting to me as well as the wood-pigeons. I stood back against the wall to let him by, just as Mrs’ Hartley on her squeaky push-bike with a basket full of potatoes and carnations went creaking past. One of the locals, she didn’t give Clint a second look.
The tall Texan, I was soon to learn was a third year painter and not a refugee from the prairie, but rather from his wildest dreams which here he’d turned into a reality.
Third year painters and sculptors were the Gods of college and the cowboy was one. For them anything was possible and all was allowed. They lived out their fantasies as a living Art and all against a backdrop of a Cotswolds rural idyll.
He wasn’t the only one, there was a whole posse of them, the Wild West or Wild Wiltshire, was that years’ collective ‘muse’. The year before, apparently the third years had been astronaughts, spending most of their college time weightlessly tethered to the ceiling of the college refectory where they sucked liver and onions and jam sponge and custard through a straw.
Some of them, had been there since the high times of the English hippie era in the mid-sixties. Now years after they should have returned to the ‘real’ world through some marvelous extended further education scheme they were living as though the decade would never wane, in denial that it was in fact 1969 and change was in the air- every where else in Britain that was, but not in the pot-infused Corsham air obviously.
This wonderful surreal dream-like quality was added to when I learned that the village sat above Box Tunnel- an old railway tunnel that led into and out of great undergound man-made caverns where the stone that the City of Bath had been built of had been mined.
The underground chambers now contained stock-piles of nuclear weapons and meant most certainly that we were a choice target for instant oblivion if ever the balloon went up. And that’s what it would have been, oblivion; one moment you’d be sat back at your desk thinking what a nice bit of charcoal shading you’d just done on the models’ bum, then flash, you too would be charcoal!
But no one seemed to know or care what was going on in the world beyond the hedgerows, so at least we wouldn’t have been worried before hand.
Once (later that year) I was riding home and an air-raid siren went off somewhere. I spent a few damp minutes at the bottom of a smelly ditch until a farmhand passed by laughing and told me it was just another practice drill over at the Box Hill M.O.D Camp.
The real funny thing was that the locals, like the farmhand who took the piss out of me in the ditch, were the epitomy of honest country village people, down to earth, old fashioned yet anything but small minded. If fact over the years they’d become tolerant in the extreme. (Except that is for my vindictive old witch landlady with the demon dog back at my digs).
The sight of the Fairy Princess in the High Street closely followed by the appearance of the Corsham Cowboy defined Corsham for me; it was a place where living a fantasy could be your daily reality and where mundanity and eccentric surreality mixed, overlapped and flipped over on its back giggling kicking its’ legs in the air. And we were even given Grants from the Government to go and live it!
Within a week or two, like all the other new students, I’d got used to standing in line at the post office alongside red-faced farmers and fly- blown trail-worn survivors from the Shoot out at the OK Corral, along with half the inhabitants of Marakesh and the Hindu Kush.
After the sooty reality of my home-town and its’ ‘stamp-out- imagination’ attitude, it was all something of a cultural epiphany. Like reverse drowning, being propelled out of the pool and breaking out of the chains and concrete boots that had made drowning certain. Now I was up to my spinning brain in La-La land, with scones and L.S.D. for tea!
All I wanted to do was join.
Episode two thousand and fifty three from my dimly remembered student past.