There we are: two words not often seen in the same sentence. But all the same, it’s Jimi Hendrix who is to blame for my living about 400 miles from my birth-place. I came to Exeter on holiday in 1970, since a) the Isle of Wight festival did not start for another week, and b) my mate Moray and I had heard that Torquay – palm-trees! – was the place to go if you wanted a good time.
Torquay, which took three full days to get to from Sunderland, was a dive. It had a night club called the Scotch Club, in which the only thing that was Scotch was the tape holding some of the furnishings together, and it had cool blondes who weren’t interested in seventeen-year-olds, and it had a hanging-around place by the sea with a load of Devonian teenagers drinking out of cans and speaking strangely. We retreated, strategically, via the tent, which was pitched on a cliff near Brixham, but nevertheless had contrived, in our absence, to sink under several inches of water.
Getting to Exeter from anywhere in the summer was then a nightmare, known about nationally. Anyone who ever went to the South-West on holiday knew about its by-pass, and the twenty-mile queue. It took the best part of a day to get into the city centre, where – behold! – there was a pedestrian precinct. The centre of Sunderland was still a bomb-site on which there was free parking. Exeter looked very attractive. Or maybe it was the nurses who paired themselves off with us. It is hard to be sure what a seventeen-year-old would have been most impressed by – a nurse or a line of immaculate brick.
After our week in Exeter, we headed for the Isle of Wight. I’ve seen all the documentaries, and watched all the specials, and I suspect I can be glimpsed in the audience on the Sunday morning on the film of Free’s performance, being embarrassing, albeit unembarrassedly so. By that time, I had been going for five days (it was three quid for three days, and if you paid for three days rather than – say – just Saturday, you received two earlier days free). As the Sunday evening grew dim, and as we sat through the Moody Blues (awful) and Jethro Tull (get on with it), a sense of quiet delight settled over me, and most of the crowd. I was beyond tiredness.
I remember Hendrix appearing on stage, and playing a savage, feedback version of the national anthem, and then his cover of the Sgt. Pepper theme. I am not sure what the third number was, but at some point I remember Mitch Mitchell, the drummer, hitting his kit at breakneck speed. At that point Joan Baez sang an encore.
‘What the -,’ I said to Moray. ‘Where’s Hendrix?’
‘Finished over two hours ago. You were asleep,’ said Moray. Still, I can say I saw him (he was dead within eight weeks, Hendrix, I mean, not Moray). I think it had been worth the wait. I am sure I was not bitter about it.
And then, when it came to teacher training choices, I remembered nice, clean Exeter, and how we’d enjoyed ourselves there on the way to see the god of the guitar. And that’s the reason I’m still here, why my children are Exeter-born, and why I have lived here longer than anywhere else. It could have been worse. I might have liked Torquay.