Hiding under the floorboards with Brian Eno, and other pop stories

Robyn Hitchcock poses at the Vic Theater, Chicago, Illinois, November 14, 1985
Robyn Hitchcock poses at the Vic Theater, Chicago, Illinois, November 14, 1985 - Paul Natkin/Getty Images

It has been a spectacular season for comical and soul-affecting memoirs of musical childhoods. We recently had the poet Don Paterson’s sublime Toy Fights, concerning his upbringing as the child of a pub folkie on St Mary’s Council Scheme, Dundee, and now comes Robyn Hitchcock’s examination of his early life, funny and sparkling with a wild, questioning energy that makes it hard to believe he is 75.

How that trick of enduring youth is done is in fact the subject of the book. Hitchcock has been an indie singer-songwriter for the best part of 50 years. He’s good, and influential, if not especially rich. He lives in Nashville now but his music is and was distinctly, almost frighteningly, English. If his voice were a perfume it would have top notes of John Lennon and Syd Barrett, with Ray Davies in the drydown. The title track of his 1984 album I Often Dream of Trains lists the railway stations of South-East England, while his cover of The Doors’ Crystal Ship sounds like the action is taking place at a youth hostel near the A33, in the summer holidays. And I mean that as a compliment.

The book gives the reasons why. Hitchcock is a son of Weybridge in Surrey (also, as he points out, sometime home to three out of four Beatles) who, at the usual age, was sent away for his secondary schooling. As we begin, here is little Robyn, in the new big school, Winchester College, missing his comfort-triceratops, to say nothing of his comfort-mummy-and-daddy. Strangeness surrounds him, and large sarcastic boys, and masters who were once pupils – “fragile souls” who “never achieved escape velocity” – all of them fluent in an indecipherable dialect (“Phillips” means “7.15am”?) that our older public schools inflict upon their novitiate, as a means of clan-building: indoctrination always begins with language.

The scene is familiar from a number of recent public school memoirs, such as Sad Little Men by Richard Beard; and we expect a tale of emotional cauterisation, abuse, bullying and loneliness in a cold client-society, ultimately translating into morally dubious shenanigans in the House of Commons. But Hitchcock has a new point to make. He acknowledges and describes all (or most) of the above with great vividness and texture, but he reflects that this training, producing men with “a toddler’s soul and a middle-aged mind”, is also the ideal programme for creating a life eternally on the road, as an indie singer-songwriter, making music with tough, clever lyrics and plangent, homesick melodies.

Robyn Hitchcock, author of 1967: How I Got There and Why I Never Left
Robyn Hitchcock, author of 1967: How I Got There and Why I Never Left

The still point of Hitchcock’s turning school-world is the spoke in the middle of the house gramophone. From this, one day in 1967, there issues a sound unlike any other. It’s Bob Dylan, singing “How does it feel?”; and it changes his life. “I’m led by my ears, my ears are magnetised by the cast of characters parading before them as the song unspools.” From here on in, this music becomes the urgent matter of his schooldays. With immense deftness and skill, he manifests this in his prose as well, so that school routine elides in his mind with lyrics from Dylan, the Beatles and Pink Floyd. Hence, the lonely house matron is heard to say “I’ve been waiting for some pillowcases but… no-one comes near”, as they do not come near to the lonely people in the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby.

Hitchcock was a lucky boy. His parents are kind and intelligent. He has the competencies to remain afloat in the world of boarding school. His diffidence and musical tastes make him popular even with the aloof and elite, like the scholars, who invite him to a “happening”, under the 14th-century floorboards, at which “a boy called Brian Eno is Master of Ceremonies”. Brian Eno! Under the floorboards! And still only 14.

One of the joys of this charming and compulsively perceptive work is the way the past loops, fountain-like, into the present and back; and how sharp his sense of the source remains. It is a kind of time-travel. But past Hitchcock doesn’t know is that he is developing along with the music of the times to what, as present Hitchcock believes, was a point of completion for both of them: 1967. When he felt the music peak, he peaks too. “I’m a teenager and I’ll stay one all my life.” Stay right there, Robyn Hitchcock. It suits you.


1967: How I Got There and Why I Never Left is published by Constable at £22. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0808 196 6794 or visit Telegraph Books