India freaks on the hippie trail in the high sixties…

Back in the late 1960s my mother Julia Callan-Thompson was  in the countercultural jargon of the time an ‘India freak’; a drop-out obsessed with the ‘mystic east’. Among my mother’s extant papers are a number of letters she sent while out on the hippie trail, and one she received from a woman called Georgian Shaw as she was making her way back to Europe. My favourite among the various surviving missives my mother sent my grandparents over the years is the following, mailed from Kathmandu on 13 June 1969:
“Everest although cold was the most beautiful sight you could see. Yes! we’re the luckiest people alive!!! Just returning from the mountains. Kathmandu seems such a big city now, although in comparison to London it’s just a village. Bruno has fractured his spine, nothing too serious, just that he must not carry anything or exert himself much for six months. We both would like to have a European summer, here the rainy season has started, rains at least 4-5 hours a day and July and August nearly all the day, enough of hot tropical weather. In India 150 degrees Fahrenheit, so we start back to drizzle and lukewarm weather, how we long for those cool English evenings. A friend is driving in about a week to Kabul in Afghanistan, that’s 3,000 miles of the 12,000 miles over to Europe, we should arrive in Kabul about the beginning of July or at the earliest last week in June. Its strange before I used to think that Wales was such a long way from London, now that 150 miles seems like a before breakfast walk.
“We hope to find a place to settle for a while, maybe, God willing, start a family, and live a normal family life. Travelling is one of the most stimulating things I know, but it’s a full time occupation, leaving no time for anything else. Bruno is dreaming of a big studio somewhere (maybe, South of France), where he can paint in peace and not have to leave things behind all the time because there’s too much to carry. It’s also time for us to become responsible citizens not wandering bums. Should see you sometime in August. Bruno wants so much to meet you all and me so proud of being a real countess although most of the time we don’t have two half pennies to rub together. Yes I’m married to the best man in the world. Love compensates for everything. We love you and will see you all soon…”
I guess that by 1969 my grandparents were used to receiving messages like this. It would have been quite something for a docker’s daughter like my mother to have become a countess; but she hadn’t actually married her boyfriend Bruno de Galzain, and he wasn’t a really count (although he delighted in telling people that he was).
As my mother returned west, she stopped off at the British Embassy in Kabul to pick up mail. When she went there she was handed the following missive from Georgina Shaw (which while addressed to her, seems to have been written more with Bruno in mind):
“Rishikesh 6th July 1969. Darlings God bless. Kabul Summer 1969, so glad we are together. I returned to Rishikesh full of thoughts of you which will continue to speed us all on our way and bring more meetings, more love. I wrote Layfayette that everything is fine. It is…
“Rarely can a trip to Delhi have been so miraculously rewarding.
“The spiritual circus continues to amuse in Rishikesh and the Ganges keeps us cool; perhaps we shall meet in a country garden in England.
“Stay wonderful.
“I shall not forget how beautiful Julie looked in the Nepalese gown – playing the one-stringed instrument. Happy days anyway you look at it. I love you. Delhi was peaceful compared with this seething metropolis where there is never a moments peace; Happy days.
“Pray that you are passing lightly through the trip and all is as it should be; as it must be.
“It is a great happiness to have seen you before you left, let me have news soon; I should love to know how Europe seems to be. We can at least be certain that Lucky will remain for a while yet.
“Swimming a good deal.
“How everybody scatters and regroups intricate karmas. Tokyo for Cherry Blossom twice – this year next year sometime…
“Your gift widened horizons in the foothills; I do not completely believe that the encounter between us actually took place, but exhibit A is pretty convincing.
“I think of you as though you were already in England; please write me news as soon as you can.
“Meanwhile Om Shanti. Peace and love and even flowers and incense. Hari Om and mostly Love, Georgina.”
After returning to London, Shaw would share a flat in Islington’s Thornhill Square with Carnaby Street fashion phenomenon Michael Fish, where she’d entertain figures both comic and influential, including seventies pot broker Howard Marks.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – – you know it makes (no) sense!


Comment by Michael K on 2009-07-18 15:13:06 +0000

Your mum is hot!

Comment by mom on 2009-07-18 15:31:01 +0000

“My mother”. Loads of posts about your biological mother and not a word about the woman who really cared about you, who raised you, who shared her life with you? That’s always the way. Shame.

Comment by The Real Tessie on 2009-07-18 15:53:00 +0000

And not a word about a miserable childhood either, despite the fact that this seems to be what these saddos are interested in, stick to your guns and don’t give in to the demands to do a misery memoir!

Comment by The Fake Billy Childish on 2009-07-18 16:08:33 +0000

Abusive parenting and self-righteousness go together like mom and apple pie.

Comment by mom on 2009-07-18 16:15:39 +0000

a miserable childhood is better than orphanage. Anyway, my point is: children are ungrateful little brats. The worse you treat them, the more they seem to like you.

Comment by Paolo Luzi on 2009-07-18 17:02:38 +0000

Kathmandu! Toot tooooooooooot!

Comment by Time on 2009-07-18 17:35:41 +0000

Home sweet Home

Comment by Tony Parsons on 2009-07-18 17:44:11 +0000

It never really stopped in the 60’s though did it?

Comment by Oh Dirty Michael K (They have taken him away) on 2009-07-18 17:54:03 +0000

Yeah, as I (might have) said earlier, your mom is totally hot. So much so that if I was twenty years younger…I mean older…then I’d definitely have asked her to take the pill with me and then I’d be your dad.

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-07-18 20:14:30 +0000

“Mom” says: “a miserable childhood is better than orphanage. Anyway, my point is: children are ungrateful little brats. The worse you treat them, the more they seem to like you.”
“Granddad” would be a better name for you to hide behind, what century are you living in? When I was growing up in the last century we didn’t talk about the ‘orphanage’, we called it the children’s home. Sure there were some orphans there but there were kids there for all sorts of reason. Like my friend Freddy who’d been sent there by the juvenile court, despite the fact his family would have rather had him at home in Clapham. Likewise, while the children’s home is one place in which a kid can have a miserable childhood, it can sometimes be better than the alternatives.
As for your alleged point, this is pathetic and could be read as an excuse for child abuse. There is no excuse for treating children badly, including your ignorant assertion that this makes them like you more.
As for your first comment, I very much doubt you know enough about both my childhood and what happened to my mother to express any kind of informed opinion on the matter in hand. And if you are the obsessive who has also emailed me very similarly worded messages, just fuck off.

Comment by Alan Whicker on 2009-07-18 22:18:14 +0000

But the question we have still to answer is whether curry standards were higher in the sixties than they are today; in India that is, since the standard has obviously been raised in Europe, and in particular the UK, since the 1960s….

Comment by Big George on 2009-07-18 23:37:47 +0000

Mom strikes me as one of those people who are unsure whether they are contributing anything useful to the world and would like reassurance that they perform some useful function. However, the sad fact is not only do people like Mom contribute nothing useful to the world, they actually have a negative effect on it, and unless they can completely transform themselves (not very likely to happen) then their life really isn’t worth living.

Comment by Dad on 2009-07-18 23:45:47 +0000

Mom’s the sorta ho who needs beating with a coat hanger!

Comment by Harold Pinter on 2009-07-19 00:02:48 +0000

The double glazing
That is cold on the outside
But keeps you warm inside
How I long for those overheated
English rooms
This winter
Om Shanti
Hari Om
And mostly Love
But not for child abusers
Who are scum
Copyright Harold Pinter.

Comment by Díre McCain on 2009-07-20 02:18:25 +0000

“Likewise, while the children’s home is one place in which a kid can have a miserable childhood, it can sometimes be better than the alternatives.”
Amen to that. And there’s an immense difference between a miserable childhood and a childhood THAT NEVER WAS. If you don’t know any different, then it’s all relative. (Pun intended?) Looking back and comparing your childhood to what’s deemed as a “happy” one can be far more traumatic than when you were actually living it. Okay, it’s so damn hot in this apartment I can hear my brain(s) sizzling…

Comment by Tim on 2009-07-20 12:32:31 +0000

Great post, Stewart, I enjoyed it. And since MY mother was in fact raised in an orphanage (back when orphanages were orphanages), and so knows almost nothing about her family, other than that they were poor and probably Irish, I fully understand the need to go back and discover the biological past, a journey I will have to take myself one day . . .

Published At