I was going to use the song , My Pink Half of the Drainpipe as the title to the chapter on the 20th century in my Making of the British Landscape. Then I decided against it, wisely I think, as there was more to that century than the creation of suburbs alone. For the benefit of younger readers that song was created by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, whose lead singer, trumpet player and multi-instrumentalist was the late great Vivian Stanshall. It’s a wonderful song, too: satirical and yet self-mocking, rather like the man who sang it.
I first met Viv in 1976, very shortly after my first marriage broke up. I was doing what many men in my situation do: I was going a bit potty. But at the same time I was directing one of the largest excavations in Britain, at Fengate in eastern Peterborough, so I couldn’t let myself, or things in general, slip entirely. Looking back on those times, I’m amazed at how understanding and supportive my Fengate team was. In theory I was their leader, but in practice it was they who held everything together, and then gently nudged me back on course. And it only took a year.
I honestly don’t recall the actual moment I met Viv – and I think that’s right and proper – and besides, we were both probably out of our boxes. His marriage hadn’t yet collapsed, but his wife wasn’t around much, either, and his career was going through a rough patch, as well. Looking back on those times, I suspect my situation was probably marginally better than his. Later, I’m glad to say, Viv’s career and life in general were to revive before his tragically early death, in 1995. In March (21st) of this year he would have been seventy.
My brother-in-law Nigel Smith sent me a link to a website announcing that at last a local authority had erected a blue plaque to Viv Stanshall. He’d have loved it. I can imagine what he’d have said: ‘You should have made it pink, dear boy – to annoy my father.’ His father was ex-RAF and very conventional and I wonder to what extent Viv’s wild eccentricity was a reaction to him. To connoisseurs of the eccentric, Viv was indeed the archetype, the gold standard, by which all others are judged. I’ve only met one other person as eccentric as Viv, but he is quite unaware of it – which makes it even more strange (he also wears grey suits or tweeds and is an ex-Mayor). Viv knew he was unusual and highly talented – and made the most of both.
He achieved national fame for his work with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Da Band, and later as Sir Henry of Rawlinson’s End. I first met him through a series of friends in the music business. And I shall resist the temptation to mention names, but many of them live around Chipping Norton and none are called Dave, Sam or Rebekah, not that any of them play music (that I know of). But I digress.
Anyhow, Viv liked archaeology and we hit it off as soon as we met. We’d come together several times before I suggested (probably in a drunken moment) that he should come and spend a weekend with me and my parents in Hertfordshire – I had returned to the parental pad after the aforesaid marital collapse. I thought he’d enjoy the sheer Englishness of the Pryor ancestral household. Anyhow, he agreed, and arrived at the 18th century manor house in time for a walk through the grounds and a few stiffening glasses of sherry.
The evening meal was going with a swing when I realised that Viv had been captivated by my mother, who was fully thirty years his senior. My mother was also very unconventional and had the charm of the Irish. Before the war she had been an accomplished artist, but that had ended when she met my father at the outbreak of hostilities. Then Hitler, bombs and mayhem intervened. Next I appeared on the scene. So her painting had taken a bit of a back seat. But she remained an artist at heart and never really fitted into our upper middle-class life in what was then still, just, truly rural Hertfordshire.
The meal was excellent, as was the wine. Afterwards, my father got rather unsteadily from his chair and poured Viv a glass of 1928 Hine vintage brandy. I had to make-do with Sainsbury’s Ruby port. Then Pa retreated to his study, where (like every other evening of the previous ten years) he pored over his collection of watercolours by the artist Peter De Wint (1784-1849). Sixty minutes later he tottered up to bed, took two sleeping pills, and was then completely dead to the world for ten hours.
Meanwhile Ma, Viv and I did the washing-up in the kitchen, together with her secret supply of Crème de Menthe and a larder full of beer and cider. Two hours after dinner we all retired, by now I must confess, rather unsteadily. I climbed into bed and went out like a light.
About two in the morning, my dreamless slumbers were rudely awoken by the ear-splitting jangling of a powerful electric alarm bell and I could also hear a siren-like noise outside. All Hell had broken loose. I pulled on a dressing gown and went downstairs to the main hall, where all the lights were on. My mother, whose room was closer to the main alarm bell, had beaten me to it. Instead of confronting a ferocious burglar with a swag bag full of the family silver, she seemed to be having a perfectly amiable conversation with Viv, who was standing close by the dining room dresser holding a small glass of Hine ’28. It was as if I’d come across them at a Sunday afternoon cocktail party. It was all very decorous. Except for one thing, which I must confess surprised me, but my mother didn’t appear to have noticed. I don’t know, maybe it was just her native good manners, but the fact remains that Viv was standing before her, chatting about something – maybe the price of eggs – stark naked. He wasn’t even wearing slippers!
I was gobsmacked. Then, as I stood on the stairs staring like a stuffed guppy, Viv passed by me with a full glass in one hand. He nodded politely, muttered something indistinct, but friendly, with ‘Dear boy’ in it somewhere; then my mother gave me a good-night peck on the cheek, as they headed back to their bedrooms. Next I heard the sound of my mother resetting the alarms, and quickly returned to my room.
I still sometimes wonder whether it had all been a dream. But the following morning a near- empty bottle of brandy on the dresser told its own tale.