24 July 2023

The unmagical mystery tour : 1973 : Piggott’s Manor, Letchmore Heath

 There was a loud knock on the front door. Who could be visiting unannounced after dark? Certainly not Mr Dickinson from ‘The Pru’ who always called during daylight hours to collect monthly premiums in cash for our insurance policy. The opened door revealed two men in uniform whose van parked outside had a strange aerial on its roof. What had my father done? Was he about to be forcibly dragged away from our suburban Orgonon? No. The men said they were from the Post Office’s Radio Interference Service and were investigating a recent spate of complaints from residents in surrounding streets of strange patterns interrupting their television viewing. Could they come in and inspect our equipment?

My parents’ enthusiasm for modern gadgets had equipped our living room with one of Camberley’s first state-of-the-art Bush colour televisions to receive the ‘BBC2’ service launched earlier in 1964. It had required the installation of a different aerial on the roof and an amplifier to successfully receive the UHF signal from a far transmitter. Although our own television reception had been fine, the men from the ministry believed that the amplifier must be faulty, transmitting interference instead of receiving signals, a problem they had sleuthed to our house. We were required to switch off the amplifier and temporarily refrain from watching BBC2. Hullabaloo and Custard had sold us a technicolour dream though I was now to be deprived of my daily look through the square or round window with Big Ted and Jemima.

The technical problem was eventually fixed and our BBC2 viewing resumed, even after the annual Licence Fee was doubled to £10 in 1968 for the 20,428 UK households that owned a colour TV, a dismal figure that betrayed the initial failure of the technology’s launch. We missed the first black-and-white BBC1 transmission of ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ on Boxing Day 1967 because we always spent the holiday at my grandparents’ house next door, stoically without a television. Instead, we gathered in our living room expectantly on 5 January to watch BBC2 repeat the programme in colour. This film premiere had been trailed as an artistic triumph for the world’s biggest pop group.

My parents owned all The Beatles’ albums to date and had watched their films at the Camberley Odeon. Earlier that decade, my father had bought a second-hand Uher reel-to-reel tape machine and had recorded the group’s performances broadcast live on the BBC Light Programme with a microphone held to the speaker, while his family was ordered to remain silent. The resultant tapes were played repeatedly in our house at high volume, years before homemade audiocassette compilations became possible and decades before Spotify would offer the same outcome at the press of a mouse button.

Once the 52-minute film of embarrassingly indulgent pop icons acting sillily in and around a bizarre coach trip had ended, we looked around to gauge each other’s reactions. It had been an incomprehensible and barely entertaining viewing experience, we agreed. The next day at school I wrote a short account of our evening in my ‘day book’ and drew an accompanying colour picture. No classmates had watched the film. My female teacher likely presumed my parents to be hippies. Our home’s complete collection of Beatles albums came to an abrupt halt. My mother transferred her musical affections to non-stop Herb Alpert.

After this artistic disappointment, The Beatles faded from my childhood. I learned that John Lennon had moved into a mansion (‘Tittenhurst Park’) in nearby Ascot when one of my father’s clients was appalled to discover the identity of his new neighbour. I recall our family being dragged along by my father to walk around Bruce Forsyth’s house on Wentworth Drive as a possible home, the estate agent spouting that a Beatle lived nearby (Tittenhurst Park is 1.6 miles away). I was excited by our potential neighbour but appalled to contemplate a home adjacent to a golf course in the middle of nowhere. Luckily it never happened.

Years passed during which our family circumstances changed irreversibly. One morning in 1973, my father turned up unexpectedly at our home and insisted I accompany him on a trip. I adamantly refused but my mother insisted I go, hoping I might learn something about my father’s current ‘circumstances’. Only months earlier, he had quit our home for good and since had done his best to humiliate and impoverish his former family. He had even gone to court to demand regular access to his two-year-old daughter whom he had never wanted in the first place. One Friday a month, he would turn up and drive off with my baby sister, leaving my mother fretting inconsolably the whole weekend as to whether we might ever see her again. What ‘childcare’ my father provided at weekends we never learned, as he had been notably absent in his other children’s upbringing and his new lover was a mere teenager.

There was no conversation during our car journey. Not LITTLE conversation, NO conversation. My father talked though I said absolutely nothing. He still drove his left-hand-drive American Motors Javelin AMX sports car as fast and recklessly as he ever had, breaking speed limits, overtaking on blind corners and generally terrifying me. Only the air conditioning kept me cool. I hated being there. Since leaving our home, my father had ignored me, ignored my birthday, ignored Christmas and sustained his total disinterest in my life. I had no respect for him because he had never done anything to earn respect from me. He seemed not to have the faintest idea of what a father should say or do for his children. Tellingly, after he had left, I never missed my father at all. Rather than tears, I felt relief. Why would I miss someone who had only ever used my talents to further his own greedy ambitions?

After an hour and a half of stoney silence, we had travelled past Elstree and arrived before a huge mock-Tudor mansion in extensive grounds. He parked facing the front of the house and its luxurious lawns, telling me he had to go inside for a meeting and would leave me in the car for a while. I was just pleased not to have to suffer any more of my father’s dangerous driving and not to have to be in the company of someone who had always felt like a stranger to me. I switched on the car radio and listened to music.

I saw lots of people all dressed in similar orange medieval-style robes coming and going from the mansion and walking along its driveway in singles and in groups. I had never seen anything like it. Not in Britain anyway. I had seen photos of Buddhist monks in picture albums of faraway lands. But it felt eerie to be seated in a car in deepest rural Hertfordshire, surrounded on its driveway by people who looked as if they had materialised en masse from another dimension and a different time. What was I doing here and, more to the point, what was my father doing here?

Only later did I learn that Beatles member George Harrison had recently purchased this property with its seventeen acres of land, then known as Piggott’s Manor, and donated it to the Hare Krishna religious movement that had outgrown its Hindu temple in central London. The property was renamed Bhaktivedanta Manor and immediately attracted a huge volume of visiting devotees, the religion’s membership having been boosted by Harrison’s very public advocacy since The Beatles years. In the present day, 60,000 visitors annually are reported to attend its religious festivals.

For me, the irony of our visit that day was that my father’s life could not have been further from the altruistic philosophies of the Hare Krishna movement. I knew he had no interest in religion and had probably never even visited a church. If he was here, it must have been for his professional advice as a quantity surveyor. Perhaps modifications were necessary to this mansion as it had functioned as a nurses’ training college since 1957, owned by St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. How could he have hustled this appointment? We knew from my father’s court papers that he claimed now to be living in the gated, 420-property St George’s Hill estate in Weybridge, home to many pop and entertainment celebrities, including John Lennon (before his move to Ascot) and Ringo Starr.

Did I meet George Harrison? No. Was I invited inside the mansion to hold the end of my father’s tape measure, a task required of me since I could walk? I honestly cannot remember. What happened next? I know he drove me home … again in silence. I was so consumed by the pointlessness of our father/son ‘road trip’ that almost everything else that had occurred was immediately eclipsed in my mind. Why had he insisted I accompany him? Was he trying to impress me? Was he trying belatedly to demonstrate his credential as a father? Or had he imagined I could help him secure a new client? I have no answers. It became our final day spent (un)together.

Half a century later, I was watching the 1969 Beatles footage in the fascinating 2021 ‘Get Back’ documentary when I noticed a Hare Krishna member who had accompanied George Harrison sat cross-legged on the floor of the group’s recording session. Memories of one of the strangest and most unrewarding days spent with my father came flooding back.

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