Diary

Clancy Sigal

Civilians who ‘entice’ or ‘procure’ or in any substantial way assist US military deserters are liable to severe punishment, including prison terms and fines.

Title 18, Section 1381, Uniform Code of Military Justice (1951)

Number 56 Queen Anne Street, just off Oxford Circus, is today a set of Grade II listed, high-end business offices for rent. But in the late 1960s, during the Vietnam War, this elegant Georgian building housed, among other tenants, the Royal Asiatic Society, as well as my own London ‘station’ on the underground railway for escaping GI deserters. We were breaking the law, under the US Uniform Code of Military Justice and Nato’s Visiting Forces Act; theoretically, in a time of war, we could be shot.

I had first met Harry Pincus, the charismatic founder of our station, when we were both volunteer ‘barefoot doctors’ at R.D. Laing’s Kingsley Hall, a halfway house for psychotics in the East End. One night, when Harry was ambushed by a crazed resident (we never called them ‘patients’), I smacked his assailant upside the head with the broken chair leg I always carried with me on duty rota. Two years later, Harry returned the favour when, one foggy evening, he found me wandering, homeless, in Swiss Cottage, and took me home with him to Queen Anne Street, where he had a spare room at the back.

At first, badly needing refuge, I swallowed Harry’s fiction that the youngsters of military age and their occasional girlfriends, lying around, making love or sleeping in the spacious front rooms, were just hippies, nothing to get upset about. He was a gifted spin artist. I settled, or rather burrowed, into the flat’s wonderfully large back room, and went into total denial. That is, until one afternoon, on the corner of Queen Anne and Welbeck Streets, I was approached by a grubby, unshaven little man – yes, in a dirty mac – with an Oswald Mosley moustache, who, in a stage-Yorkshire accent, introduced himself as ‘Sergeant Brent’ of Special Branch. Politely, he showed me his warrant card, and hinted that I was involved in something that could lead to my deportation as an undesirable person. ‘So, squire, it’s all up to you.’ Then the non sequitur: ‘Desertion, aye nasty business that. You’d be talking to Mister Hitler if our boys had behaved like that in the war.’

I ran back to the house, sweating with anxiety. What, I demanded of Harry, have you got me into? Fifteen years younger than me and half a head taller, with the bulge-eyed good looks of the actor Jeff Goldblum, Harry wrapped a fatherly arm around my shoulders. ‘Relax,’ he soothed, ‘we’re the best thing that’s ever happened to you.’ And so it was.

Now that Sgt Brent had rumbled us, Harry felt free to take me on a full tour of the flat, a labyrinth of high-ceilinged, almost ballroom-sized rooms off a spacious main hallway. Bodies, asleep or stoned, lay sprawled on couches or on the living-room carpet, while a multicoloured Wurlitzer bubble jukebox in the corner wailed the Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?’ A strong scent of weed mixed with odours from the Cordon Bleu cooking school down Marylebone Lane.

From the moment he’d rescued me on that misty night in Swiss Cottage, Harry had planned for me, as a presumably responsible adult, to take over his duties at Number 56. Simply put, my new job was to smuggle American deserters in and out of the United Kingdom, help arrange false papers, find safe houses in the UK, ‘babysit’ our less stable ‘packages’ (AWOLs in transit), personally accompany those too shaky to travel alone, and liaise with my opposite numbers in Paris, Copenhagen and Stockholm, as well as in North America, Australia and Japan, where the anti-war youth movement was particularly strong.

We were most wary of Nato’s Visiting Forces Act, which mandated police forces to ‘detain and arrest’ absentees. Although Harold Wilson’s government winked at the law, the British police, who generally disliked the Labour Party, enjoyed the easy sport of plucking a deserter – recognisable by his buzzcut – off the street and turning him over to the US military police. In the blink of an eye he would find himself in a North Carolina military prison.

If, as Harry was fond of quoting Mao, ‘the guerrilla moves among the people as a fish swims in the sea,’ our sea of helpers extended from the windswept Hebrides (God help the boy we sent there) to Devon, Cardiff to Norfolk. I still have my ‘emergency list’ of on-call helpers: Quakers, pacifist vicars, street people, students, the vegetarians and sandal-wearers detested by George Orwell, even retired military officers. I favoured getting AWOLs out to the provinces, where they seemed more comfortable than in metropolitan London. Deserters saw themselves as, and were, the ‘niggers’ of the antiwar movement, which by and large favoured nice, articulate, clean-living middle-class draft dodgers over working-class anti-heroes. At the time, few of the boys would have viewed their outcast experience, as I came to see it, as a rite of passage.

My problem was that almost as soon as I began working with the AWOLs, I lost patience with them and their girlfriends, who kept referring to me, in my hearing, as ‘the crazy old guy in the back room’. I must have seemed slightly mad to them as I dashed about the flat at all hours hoovering, picking up rubbish, scrubbing dishes, plunging the toilets and performing the many other Sisyphean tasks needed to keep teenage things – and my disordered mind – in order. They just laughed and called me a ‘sanitation Nazi’ when I hectored them.

‘Who’s writing your speeches, Dick Nixon?’ jeered Charlene, a tall, leggy, mussed-blonde deserter groupie and self-described Missouri trailer trash. Charlene, fed up with ‘American fascist bullshit’, had landed on us one day along with a tubercular deserter from Stockholm’s snowdrifts, Stanislau (‘Stash’), the son of Polish immigrants who ran a bakery in Detroit. Over time and shared emergencies – AWOLs always had emergencies – Charlene and 19-year-old Stash became my guides, and mentors, in the deserter trade.

Stash, a large and imposing man-boy, was a cheerfully self-confessed law-breaker and Munchausian liar. ‘I love you like a brother, old man, but please don’t leave your wallet lying around where’s I can see it.’ A juvenile jail veteran, he was used to being on the run, sleeping rough, rolling drunks, stealing cars and living by his wits. Pirates of the underclass, we were drawn to each other like long-lost brothers: like me, he was given to panics, depression and impulsive acts of escape. He was also extremely smart. Whether or not he’d been in Vietnam was iffy; he’d spin one colourful tale in the morning and a different one in the afternoon. ‘Stash is the worst advertisement for a man I’ve ever met,’ Charlene said. ‘But down there, in the street, where it counts, he’s a rocket scientist.’

‘Down there, in the street’ is where it was all happening. Some days, when business was slow in Queen Anne Street, I’d troll nearby Hyde Park and Bayswater Road for kids who looked lost and had short haircuts. Even though the Street Offences Act had just been amended, it was still risking arrest to approach a young American boy asking: ‘What unit you from? Need a bed?’

Harry and I wrangled constantly over my neurotic concern for ‘security’: i.e. maintaining a decent level of tidiness at the house, if for no other reason than to keep the cops away. I balked at inviting in reputed Weathermen, gone underground after violent ‘actions’ in the States; but Harry, who firmly believed in ‘letting it all hang loose’, was an adamant civil libertarian, so I grudgingly accepted these runaway felons, though only on condition that we turn away British army deserters from Northern Ireland, whose presence was sure to close us down.

By this time, we had evolved a classically English accommodation with the various secret services who kept tabs on us: at one time or another these included MI5, Special Branch, the CIA, the FBI, US navy and army counterintelligence as well as US Seventh Army counterintelligence, not to mention the local Marylebone police who came pounding up the stairs in response to neighbours’ complaints about the noise, or when the marijuana clouds wafting out of the front windows became too noxious.

Deserters are by nature paranoids who tend to suspect one another of being in the CIA. This curious mixture of brotherhood and mistrust was a permanent part of the atmosphere at the house, which inevitably also attracted its fair share of fantasists, liars, charlatans and, on rare occasions, real live government spies, easily spotted by their ‘tell’, usually a provocateur-style rant designed to pull us into conspiratorial violence. Now and then a teenage fabulist came through, insisting he’d been a side-gunner on a helicopter gunship but now suffered pangs of guilt at massacring Vietnamese peasants from the air. Most of these kids turned out to be runaways from Middle America who had flipped on too many Sgt Rock and Fantastic Four comic books. My favourite was a 16-year-old from Tennessee who called himself ‘Kid Blue’. When I last heard from him he was phoning (he said) from the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, where the CIA had kidnapped and were torturing him. ‘Help! They’re murdering me! Help me . . . help – arrrggghh!’ I never heard from Kid Blue again.

Harry was by this point pretty much out of it, his big eyes spooked by acid, exaltation, anger, joy, sadness alternating with spasms of common sense. He declared that he was on a ‘journey’ – indeed the same one I was on when he rescued me – and would not be denied what he believed I had seen, the third eye of God. Stubborn, gentle, raging, compassionate: he was trying, like all of us, to unknot his contradictions. At a recent Labour Party Conference in Brighton, he’d grown so frustrated with the delegates’ lack of sympathy for the deserters’ cause that he’d broken up the ballroom furniture in a rage and had been flung out on his ear.

‘DESERTER ASYLUM NOW NOW NOW!’ screamed the lurid leaflets produced by Harry’s group, the Union of American Exiles in Britain. I winced at the inelegance, but there was a more pressing matter: we were rapidly running out of money. I hatched a brilliant plan. At a free Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park in July 1969, we’d infiltrate and panhandle the anticipated mob of hippies, street freaks and war-averse American students on vacation. With all those kindred spirits gathered on the grass (in both senses), we were on to a sure thing.

I dreamed of plucking a fortune in donations. To help us rattle the cans a number of young American ‘Rhodies’ – the Oxbridge-based Rhodes and Fulbright scholars – came to cover the park entrances from Marble Arch to the Albert Hall. One of them was Frank Aller, an extraordinarily nice boy who was the roommate and best friend of Bill Clinton, then scraggle-bearded, fattish and vaguely on our side. Frank, in his neatly pressed Brooks Brothers suit, looked (and was) so incorruptibly straight that on demos we often put him instead of volatile Harry in front of the TV cameras. Frank dragged Clinton along that day. Bill flirted with the girls – this is not hindsight – and was always somewhere else when it came to hawking leaflets on street corners.

On that lovely sunny Sunday, about twenty of us gathered to sweep through the 250,000 fans in the park. Every hippie, freak and doper in the United Kingdom, Europe and the Americas seemed to be there. We collected endless saintly smiles, hugs and V-peace signs, while up on the jerrybuilt stage Mick and Keith set loose clouds of yellow butterflies. By dusk, we had gathered six petition signatures, $30 in US currency and £12 sterling and some coins.

The Hyde Park fiasco broke Harry’s spirit; it didn’t do much for mine, either. A miasma of ‘Movement fatigue’ fell on us, not much helped by the revelations of the My Lai massacre and Nixon’s ‘secret’ Cambodia bombing. Charlene eventually evaporated to Sweden with yet another consumptive boy (he’d fled after his parents betrayed him to the local sheriff in Oklahoma), and Stash disappeared altogether. Even the amiable David, a Californian draft dodger and pacifist who lounged about the flat in an Easy Rider fringed jacket and cowboy boots, came back some nights with bleeding knuckles from pub fights he swore he hadn’t started. A commune has a natural life, and ours was coming to an end. But at least we had had one last hurrah when President Nixon came to town.

In suits and ties, hoping to look like Young Republicans Abroad, we gathered on the north side of Brook Street outside Claridge’s, where Nixon was staying. Our scheme was to lure him onto the hotel balcony in front of the TV cameras with our chants of ‘Nix-on, Nix-on!’, then suddenly raise high our antiwar placards. And there he was! Upstairs, hemmed in by aides and Secret Service, on the balcony, waving to nobody in particular with his death-rictus smile, all teeth and hatred. The police held us back and we politely obeyed, according to plan.

Just then Harry, in jeans and flapping Pendleton shirt, ducked past the police cordon – he’d played varsity football for Amherst College – and made straight for the gilt metal doors leading to the marble lobby, bellowing: ‘NIXON MURDERER! NIXON BABY KILLER!’ He was like a blind Samson, bobbies and Special Branch and Secret Service all over him, fists flying. Blood streamed down his face; his large eyes burned with the joy of battle. The cops pushed us back while they concentrated their fury on him with kicks and punches. I’d never seen Harry so light of heart.

In the midst of it all, I looked up and was transfixed by the curious, detached stares of Nixon and his henchmen. Instantly, I recognised two of his aides as my UCLA classmates: ramrod-stiff, crew-cut Bob Haldeman and jowly John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s ‘gatekeeper’ and dirty-tricks adviser respectively. Bob, wintry-eyed and controlled, whispered urgently to a Secret Service guy. But it was Ehrlichman’s gaze that held me. Hot, angry, personal. From a sidewalk angle looking up, his jutting, pugnacious jaw looked like Mussolini’s. ‘Hi John! Hi Bob!’ I yelled at my former drinking buddies and screamed out UCLA’s ‘fight song’: ‘By the Pacific’s rolling waters/Here we stand its son and daughter.’

I can’t remember if we spent any time in the cells at the nearest police station on Savile Row – my second home on demo days – but we straggled back to the house to watch ourselves on the Six O’clock News. There we were, posters and all. The world had noticed. And then it was over.

A few days later I found a dead body in the porcelain claw-foot tub in the main bathroom off Harry’s red-draped seraglio. The gold-plated taps were full on and the tub was overflowing. ‘Omigod, Harry’s done it!’ I cried.

Charlene dashed in with Emma, a Rhodie who was Harry’s best (non-lover) friend, slushing over hundred-year-old William Morris tiles, ankle-deep in bath water. While Emma tugged the taps shut, Charlene grabbed the corpse’s hand to check for vitals, then slapped its face. ‘The bastard’s OD’d,’ she said.

Ever so slowly, in a lazy, graceful, Neptune-like stirring, Harry raised himself up in the bath to stretch his athletic body, splashing us like a playful puppy. Peering at us with a hazy, crazy smile, he stepped out of the tub to give me his best royal hug. ‘That’s always been your problem, Clancy,’ he said. ‘You let the little things get to you.’

Charlene returned from downstairs to report that Harry had flooded one whole wall of priceless books and hangings in the Royal Asiatic Society’s library directly below. A few minutes later, fully clothed and seemingly composed, Harry led our remorseful little delegation down a flight of stairs with carved mahogany banisters, past portraits of long dead maharajahs, for a penitential chat with Miss Evans, the RAS librarian.

Even now, as moisture from upstairs darkened the flock wallpaper of her beloved library, Miss Evans, once she saw our stricken faces, managed a heroic degree of forgiveness. If – she got the words out with some difficulty – we agreed to put a stop to the past-midnight parties, and got rid of the jukebox, and contributed ‘however modestly’ to the cost of repairs, a ‘rapprochement’ (her word) was possible. My heart swelled with relief and gratitude. But something about Miss Evans’s manner – her sheer niceness? – rattled Harry.

‘NO MORE “SHOULDS”!’ he yelled, banging his fist on the inlaid teak conference table and going around it to tower over her. ‘“Shoulds” are breaking the heart of the world!’ he thundered. And then he delivered a summary indictment of British imperial sins in Cyprus, Kenya, India and anywhere else that came to mind. For good measure, as he stomped out of the library, he flung over his shoulder a promise that under no circumstances would we, her upstairs tenants, subscribe to British collusion in the Vietnam War by muffling the jukebox. At the door, he turned back to Miss Evans, who was trembling with shock and anger, and gave her his saintliest grin. We got our eviction notice the next day.

Whenever I have Big Thoughts about our little operation at 56 Queen Anne Street, a final image brings me back to reality. The last time Harry and I saw each other, in Marylebone Lane, just after our foco broke up, I was outraged to see that he had ‘borrowed’, and was wearing, my best pair of cavalry twill trousers. So we stood on the narrow sidewalk, shouting at each other like fishwives, arguing the merits of bourgeois property rights versus oh I forget what. I demanded my pants back and, without hesitation, Harry slipped them off in the middle of the passing lunchtime throng and handed them over. Then, mustering his dignity, he strolled away in his jockey shorts.