It was around ten years ago, and I had just returned with my Indian girlfriend from a month's trip to her home country, and we'd decided to spend a couple of days in London before returning north to Edinburgh. All we did really was walk - we would wander around the city trying to define the many ways in which the West was so different from the East, and yet what I most remember was catching sight of a woman.
I surmised she was around fifty, and she was pushing along a trolley full of what could only have been her life's belongings. She undeniably gave the impression of being homeless, but there was something in her face that suggested almost nobility. It was also a face I felt sure I recognised. As Yasmina and I sat in a Notting Hill caf looking across the road at the woman as she slowly, even arduously pushed her trolley along, I asked her if she recognized the face. Yasmina insisted that she didn't, and it wasn't until a few months later, when I was watching a heist film from the late sixties, that I knew it must have been her. She had been one of those archetypal late sixties figures whose slender frame, petite features, searching eyes and enthusiastic smile captured the zeitgeist as readily as the director's zooming pyrotechnics and exuberant colour schemes.
The following day I went to the library and looked for information. She had appeared in some half a dozen films in the late sixties, but at the beginning of the seventies, the only parts available to her seemed to be 'erotic' films made by various European filmmakers. She supposedly was quite heavily into drugs at that time, and then, quite suddenly, around 1972, she stopped making films and stopped taking drugs. She briefly married - it lasted a fortnight - and then, one guide stated, she started to travel. Of course this could have meant anything - was she not in the late sixties one of those jet-setting actresses, a woman who had a string of wealthy boyfriends who jetted her from London to St Tropez, from Paris to Marrakech? And in the early seventies would she not have been travelling again, from one European location to another? I wanted to know more about these travels that she embarked upon.
I found out that she'd written an autobiography in the late seventies. I searched all the second-hand book shops looking for it, and of course tried the main book stores as well. It was, as expected, out of print. It wasn't until a couple of months after that, when I was once again in London, that I managed to find it - in the basement of a second-hand book shop in, aptly enough, Notting Hill. It was fifty pence. No less apt perhaps, for while in the late sixties she was much in demand as an actress, by the late seventies about the only work she could find was selling her story in book form; and, by the mid-to-late nineties, that very book couldn't fetch any more than half a pound. The price seemed consistent with the poverty-row image she had offered walking along the streets some six months earlier.
As I read the book on the train back up to Edinburgh, several things struck me. The first was that she could write - and well enough for me to check if it had actually been ghost written; yet there was no sign that it had. Her sentences were often elegant, and the tone never quite cynical but often wistful. There was a strong sense in the book not of how good it all was in the late sixties - though she agreed it had been very exciting - but a sense that the book had to be written not with a feeling of immediacy that would capture the period, but reflection that would capture the awareness of loss. At one moment she claims she wondered even when she was living this wonderful time whether she would ever quite recover from it. It wasn't just the drink and the drugs and the casual lovers - after all she drank occasionally, took only hash, though rather more frequently, and had had two regular boyfriends during the period and only the very occasional, silly, one night stand, and that marriage. The string of lovers, the brocade of boyfriends, was movie myth. No, it was something else; something to do with living a life that could not be repeated. She was not, she felt, being immodest or, for that matter, self-deprecating, when saying that she was beautiful at a time when beauty was enough, when being beautiful opened doors and closed deals. It was a time when she could get a part, she felt, by little more than batting her lovely eye-lashes; indeed perhaps by doing rather less, as if even eye-lash batting showed signs of pushiness. Maybe had she said these very things in an interview in the late sixties she could have seemed boastful, but, as she insisted throughout the book, that stunning young woman was somebody else now. As she said in one passage - look at the youthful picture on the cover, and the woman ten years later on the sleeve.
How had she become somebody else? It was not through drink and drugs, as she made clear, but through nostalgia. By the early seventies she already believed the exciting times had passed and her looks were beginning to harden. The pores were starting to open up, there were the early signs of crow's feet, her energy levels were lower, and she knew when she walked into a room she was beginning to get no more than the odd glance. But it was more than just about her and her looks, she insisted, it was also about a time that was no longer available to her or to anybody else. Life had somehow lost its sense of possibility she reckoned. How could she get it back? How could she make the seventies as significant as the sixties, since the decade could hardly be repeated?
It was after this that she started to talk about her travels in the early seventies. She would just take off for several months at a time: she returned to places that she'd gone to before but searched out the local instead of the exotic. For example when she went to Marrakech she didn't stay in one of the expensive hotels in the Ville Nouvelle, but on a rooftop terrace in one of the pensions in the Medina, just off the huge square, Djemaa el-Fna. She slept with some half a dozen other people on the roof, in a cage like structure that had a floor but no walls except for bars. She paid almost nothing for the space, and this had become her raison d'etre in life. She wanted to live as cheaply as possible; just as in the sixties, she sometimes thought, she wanted to spend as much as she could. While previously the possible resided in profligacy; now it lay in frugality. When she started travelling early in the latter decade she had about four thousand Pounds in savings, and eighty Pounds a month from a trust fund her late father had left her with. This was no fortune, but I worked out that it was a reasonable amount of money - the unemployment benefit at the time was around five Pounds a week in Britain.
So she had money to live off; nowhere near enough to live the extravagant sixties life, but more than enough to travel on the low-budget terms she'd set herself in these early years of the seventies. I wondered as I was reading the book the degree to which she had chosen retrospectively to demarcate the decades so categorically, but, in a couple of passages, she says she always felt the very distinct differences between the sixties and the seventies. Maybe this was because she decided to change her lifestyle into the seventies, near the end of 1972. But she insisted she felt she had no choice - that the life she was living seemed to her so inextricably linked to a late sixties sense of potential, that when that potential had left the zeitgeist, she knew she had to find an alternative sense of possibility. For her it lay in a much more self-driven yet casual form of travel.
Often during her travels she would meet people - even on occasion meeting people she'd known in the past; some of whom were continuing the fast lifestyle; others who, like her, were trying to find a different ethos. In Marrakech for example she noticed there was a producer she had made a film with several years before who was sitting at a caf in Ville Nouvelle with what turned out to be some local businessmen who wanted to get into film production. He didn't seem to recognise her as she walked past, so she turned into the caf, sat at a nearby table and listened in to a conversation that was partly in French but mainly in English. She explained this was a key moment for her; because she knew that two or three years earlier the same conversations might have been about her, about casting her and how much she would be worth for the film's box-office. Now four years later she could anonymously listen to the very same discussion about others. She had escaped her destiny, sitting on her own in a Marrakech caf, feeling under no pressure from anyone.
Another person she accidentally came across in the city was also living in the Medina, a Scottish novelist who had worked on a script of one of her film's. As they sat and talked one evening in a cheapish terraced restaurant that faced out onto the expansive city square, she asked him whether he was escaping something or searching for something. He quoted another writer who'd moved into scriptwriting, a fellow Scot, who had said, "if you don't go, you can't come back." He said he wanted to stay away so long that when he finally went back he could live in Scotland - which he still very much loved - as a foreigner. If he had an ambition, he said, it was to live in his own country as if he were living in another. He would have all the benefits of the familiarity of the landscape but hoped to escape the social ties that made him feel Scotland was so parochial.
He asked whether she was escaping or searching. She thought she was escaping from the film industry and searching for some antithesis of it. She told him that she owned a small flat in Notting Hill that she felt very attached to, but didn't feel close to anything beyond its four walls. She was lucky, she had some money and she wanted to keep moving. He was heading north the next day, up to Tangier, then gettinga boat over to Spain. Did she want to come? She said she was going to stay in Marrakech a bit longer - then wanted to go over to the coast. She'd heard there was a coastal town called Essaouira that was stunning, horribly windy, and desolate.
The actress relayed these two chance encounters because she said they were so symptomatic of the freedom she felt at this time. Several years before she would have been looking pretty at the meeting, dressed up exactly the way the producer would have demanded, as he tried to entice the businessmen to part with their money. And again, if she had bumped into a familiar face who would ask if she wanted to take off to Spain, she would probably have said yes. But this was for her central to the difference between the decades: in one she would go with the flow; in the latter she would try to channel these flows, try and find her own needs and wants as much out of resistance as acceptance. The sixties felt like a waltz; the seventies like...she didn't quite know what the seventies was like. A journey perhaps.
By the end of the book she had related not just her Moroccan experiences, but also a period of time she had spent in Istanbul, in Paris and also in Goa. But by the time of the actual writing she was back in Britain, had sold her flat in London and moved up to Edinburgh, where she was living with the very writer she'd refused to go to Spain with.
The book had by most standards a happy ending. Certainly a whole lot happier than the life she seemed to be living that day I saw her trundling a trolley along a Notting Hill street. Now of course I didn't know for sure it was one and the same woman, but that sense of unlocatable recognition when I first saw her, and certainty when I saw that sixties heist film, left me in little doubt. But if it was her, what had happened between the late seventies and almost twenty years later when I saw her out of a caf window?
For that I had to wait almost another ten years, to a few months ago in fact. Now at this moment in the story I should probably try and explain my fascination with her life back then. I had just dropped out of university a year or so before going off to India, and the India trip was the second longish outing I had embarked upon since leaving university. The first was, quite aptly, to Morocco. So there was this whole idea of dropping out of one's life that fascinated me, and there was something in her life that seemed simultaneously inspiration and cautionary tale. But after another year of travelling and doing odd jobs back in Scotland, I returned to university, finished my degree in English, went to teacher training and got a job teaching in a local school.
A year ago, though, I was reading a short story by the Scottish writer Iain Crichton Smith where he talks about a teacher who had spent years writing a work of philosophy that turned out to be, according to a friend whom he showed it to, a very mediocre piece of work. Now I had no intention of doing anything so ambitious, but I felt that, as I was teaching almost the same thing each week, I was shrinking in some way. I kept promising myself thereafter that I would get out of teaching whenever a chance came. No opportunity had arisen, but the crisis hadn't gone away either.
It was during this period I came across an obituary of the actress in a national paper, and once again the fascination returned. It was a surprisingly long article considering the actress was so little known; but it was if as the unusualness of her life demanded explication; many other lives merely need illustration: their lives being a series of illustrious moments towards an ever more successful career. Indeed the career as such only took up a couple of paragraphs, as the obituary writer talked about her luminous beauty, her relationship with two major actors of the sixties, and the six films she made during the period, including the erotic films. After that he discussed her period of travel, which she was doing almost constantly till around 1977, and that she lived in Scotland for a few years in the eighties, with the writer she talked about in her autobiography. In Scotland, the obituary explained, she seemed happy, and actually returned to acting - writing and appearing in the plays she wrote, which would show in semi-commercial theatres, sometimes in schools, and sometimes that toured around the highlands. She also worked on a second volume of her autobiography, but no publisher had shown an interest, despite her partner's literary reputation.
They split up in the late eighties and the actress returned to London, but houses were incredibly expensive, her trust fund now meagre, and her employability almost non-existent. She lived in various bed-sits throughout the next decade, and was often on the verge of homelessness. I then surmised when I saw her pushing her trolley through the streets that she probably wasn't actually homeless, but was moving into another bed-sit. The obituary said she could have had money and help from other members of her wealthy family, but always resisted it.
After that, I went on-line and found a surprising amount of information. When I had first shown interest ten years before there had been almost nothing; now, with the internet the main source for this type of information, she clearly had her own following. Her sixties films all had cult reputations; as much because of her as the more famous leading men she was acting opposite. The erotic films were seen as interesting explorations of the sexually possible. Even her death was taken to be some sort of martyrdom.
But a martyrdom to what? She had never really been destroyed by the industry, and she never seemed to be a drinker or a very serious drug-taker. If anything she pursued a healthy life. Her obituary and one or two on-line articles mentioned she spent several years working a couple of shifts a week in a health food store.
It was a couple of months after this, at the end of the school year, that I decided I would move to supply teaching. Moving between unemployment benefit and temping I knew I could make enough money, as I had no dependents, not even a wife. One or two girlfriends had wondered whether my lack of commitment was due to my mother and subsequent family life: I was adopted at birth and never quite felt close to my adopted family - and, caring and encouraging though they always were, I always felt their presence to be suffocating rather than loving. I suppose I sometimes felt the same in relation to girlfriends. So I was free to do what I wanted to do, and what that something was, I decided, to find a way of re-releasing this woman's films on DVD, and also to write her biography. For a while this was an idle dream, no fixed idea, but it steadily took on form as I met up a couple of times with a casual friend who'd distributed a few films himself, and talked about how it could be done. I also made contact with the writer with whom the actress had been living during the eighties, and asked if it would be possible to meet up and talk about her life and work; I said I was thinking of re-releasing her films on DVD. He was surprisingly amenable to the idea of us meeting up for a chat, though he did say in passing he didn't know how easy it would be to re-release the films on the basis of her reputation.
It was a point he reiterated when we met up. As I sat in the sitting room of the very flat the actress had spend so much time in fifteen to twenty years before, he said that her life was fascinating, but it was somehow too subterranean to be re-celebrated. He explained that even her autobiography disappointed the publishers, and went on to make almost no money. He asked me what I found so enchanting about her life, as he got up and went into the kitchen to put the kettle on again. I sat and thought about it for a moment, and looked around his compact flat. It had thousands of books, numerous pictures on the wall, rugs on the polished floors, and gave off an air of stability. I stood up for a moment and looked out the sitting room window and onto Arthur's Seat. Yes, so much stability, I thought.
When he returned, I said perhaps he was right. That it wouldn't be easy to sell her work, but what intrigued me was the way she seemed to reject the stability of life. I wondered if I could ask a personal question. He said to go ahead, pouring the tea as I asked it. It was about how they parted; and he said she felt stifled by the city, and by him, and by life itself. He said she would often look out of the window and see not the beauty of Arthur's Seat, but the suffocating immobility of nature. Several times, he said, he'd tried to write a novel about her, but on each occasion he had failed. He would always try and start with a situation, but then found after thirty pages he had a series of situations but nothing that could quite string them together.
After he gave up he looked at her autobiography again and realised that it was held together not by one situation leading to another, but by an overriding sense of enquiry. As a writer that wasn't his approach at all. He worked with situations that developed into other situations. He didn't feel he had an especially enquiring mind. He wrote, he believed, because he loved to describe things. We drank our tea in near silence after that; both of us looking out the window at Arthur's Seat. He did say one thing, though, curiously without a prompt - he wondered whenever he tried to write about her whether he should mention an abortion she had in the Summer of 1971. She was always open about this he said; yet for some reason she never put it into her autobiography.
After that I dropped the idea of re-releasing her films, and wondered whether I would be better trying to write a novel based not so much on her life, but by following her travel itinerary during the seventies. But actually the crystallization I was looking for came from re-watching her work again. What I noticed in all of them was that she had a way of looking at the character she was talking to which always seemed to be less looking at them than searching them, searching their mannerisms, gestures and words for traces of something more. This I'd totally missed; as if the frenetic pace of the films countered the possibility of the searching. Yet there it was in her visage if one looked at her face the way she was obviously looking at other people's. What I also noticed was that in shots where there were several people talking in the frame, she listened intently whilst others looked like they were agitatedly waiting.
Why I hadn't noticed this before was very curious, because it's a character trait others have commented upon noticing in me. I wondered, then, in fact, if it was a trait that the writer had noticed also, and that he'd gone quiet not because of what I'd said but because of the way I observed. What affinity was there between myself and this sixties actress, turned erotic film star, spiritual traveller, theatre writer and performer and finally, it seemed, Notting Hill bag lady? Of course my first response - if we can have responses so emotional that they have nothing to do with the empirical - might have been that she was actually my mother; that she'd never had that abortion but had the child adopted. But apart from the fact that I was born two years before that, and in Edinburgh, when there was no suggestion she'd ever been here at the time, I knew it would have been a misplaced sense of enquiry. Certainly there was something that fascinated me about this woman, and that fascinated me the moment I first saw her on the street - indeed had also very much interested me when I'd seen her films on TV as a teenager. But an insistent biological connection would have been absurd even if dates and places matched. Perhaps sub-consciously she fascinated me because I have always wondered about my own mother's life, wondered in which direction she had moved.
All I knew about her was that she was nineteen, single and from an adopted family herself. I never seemed to want to know anymore about her than that, possibly because by the time I was of an age to enquire, I was filled more with trepidation than with hope. After all, when I think about what happened to a beautiful, gifted, will-driven actress from the late sixties who just so happened to see her life as an endless search, then what might have happened to my own probably not especially educated, perhaps pretty but hardly beautiful and maybe still solitary mother? Had I passed her on the streets of Edinburgh, or in London, where she reputedly moved after putting me up for adoption? When thinking of her now, while somehow through the image of the actress, I almost always find myself close to tears. I say close, because I've never in my life managed to cry, and perhaps I write this now in some attempt to do so by other means. When I think back to the girlfriend whom I was with that day in London, I feel almost no emotion whatsoever. But the actress seemed closer to moving me than anyone I have ever met. Perhaps because the woman who potentially could extract from me the very tears that have never come I have never met also; not even through images on a screen.
© Tony McKibbin