A Family Affair

Writer J.P. McEvoy hangs out in a Medieval Tuscan town with his son Michael who is on tour with Steve Winwood and his band August 1997

It was a late Friday afternoon when I walked into the sleepy café in the small wine village in Northern Tuscany we call our home during July and August. Ciao Aldo, ciao Dino, Otello, Sergio .. Come va? They’re playing the daily endless card game in the cool shadows of Mauro’s café escaping the heat and spinning away another afternoon. Dino was raised in this town overlooking the Lunigiana Hills and as an Italian partisan hid from the Nazis in the nearby Apuane Alps fifty years ago.  Now he lives in Chicago and speaks a kind of cumbersome English full of American expressions but with an unmistakeable Italian accent. He spends each summer here in Lunigiana where he grew up playing 36 holes of golf on most days (except on Sunday) at nearby Pisa. 

I see your son is playing in Pistoia on Sunday night. I saw the picture in La Nazione.

About the dinner hour on the same day we got a call from Napoli with instructions to turn on Rai Uno live at 9pm. Sure enough, there was Steve Winwood, our son Michael and the funky band that has been getting so many good reviews – playing in front of an enormous crowd in the main square in Napoli and being watched on TV by the largest audience since Robin Hood was Kevin Costner. 

I was shocked that the locals already knew that my son Michael – keyboard/guitar/viola player and musical director of Winwood’s band – would be playing in Pistoia as part of a European tour. But the villagers don’t miss a trick and follow our exploits very carefully as the only non-Italian residents. It was true, the band would be playing at the 12th annual Pistoia Blues on Sunday evening and were presently in Napoli to perform with the Italian pop star Zucchero on what I was told would be a TV show. I read the full page spread on Pistoia Blues in La Nazione. 

As the word spread around the village that the son of the local Americano was on national television with Zucchero,

Zucchero

everybody tuned in and our life would never be the same again. Winwood and the band were touring Europe after a very successful series of gigs in the UK. We were looking forward to attending the concert in Pistoia, only an hour’s from our casa in the Tuscan hills, to check out the concert.

I have never been to the medieval village of Pistoia before although I have often frequented other better known towns nearby such as Prato, Lucca and of course, Firenze. Immediately after parking the car I could see the top of the Duomo. It was late afternoon, the sun was warm and the buildings were wonderfully medieval. Walking along the cobbled streets towards the main square where the concert was to be held, I immediately became aware of what had been going on for the entire week of the Pistoia Blues 97. The town had been taken over by young people. The street market that is held on Sunday during the last week of the festival completely in full swing. Most of the stands are run by Africans selling items like bum bags and sunglasses, they have been here all week. The buskers with their guitars, bongos and everything that one would associate with a musical festival 20 or 30 years ago is in full evidence. Carved wooden African masks, straw hats, small teak tables, beaded bracelets and black and white photographs of the American Indian Sitting Bull. It is 90 degrees Fahrenheit but I’m protected by a baseball cap and some dark glasses as I stroll along the salubrious street heading towards the main Piazza Duomo. Italian girls are very well exposed in the heat but with tattoos on their backs and shoulders. There is the smell of incense and even tie-dyed T-shirts meaning that Steve Winwood’s songs will be very comfortable with this sixties feel of this crowd. It has been a big week for Pistoia, the blues festival being kicked off by David Bowie and followed by American rhythm and blues kings like BB King and Wilson Pickett. Though Neil Young and his Crazy Horse was not able to appear, the festival is being wound up in style by Winwood and his host in Italy, the ever popular Italian singer, Zucchero.

I’m drawn towards a stand of Brazilians playing pan pipes and surrounded by stalls with silver jewellery, leather bags, candlesticks and T-shirts showing the ubiquitous faces of Che Guevara, Jim Morrison, Freddie Mercury and Sting.  A John Beluschi double, beer gut hanging out of his shirt, tries hard on the bongo drums and draws a crowd anticipating a little virtuosity. But he can’t play worth a damn. At the same time, I hear the sound of a real bongo player coming from around the corner in the Piazza Duomo, I recognise it as the percussionist for Winwood’s band, they are starting the sound check. I wander into the square, my sensitive pate protected by a baseball cap from the 1994 Woodstock concert and US tour by Traffic. The security badge given to me by my son marks me as somebody special at Pistoia Blues 97. 

Winwood tunes up on a guitar linked by miles of thick cables to a 46 track sound desk tucked away in a shady spot in front of the Baptistry near the beautiful duomo of banded marble. The campanile is surrounded by scaffolding as the sacred aspects of the piazza are almost completely blocked out by this most commercial of festivals which has been going on all week. Winwood delights the crowd with the haunting ‘Can’t Find My Way Back Home’ from the mega selling sixties album Blind Faith and the small crowd on hand for this impromptu sound check is delighted. 

Steve is enjoying the tour, relaxed and recovering from a nasty bug which went through the band, and he does a few choruses. The small crowd is thrilled and as he hands the guitar back to a roadie and someone shouts “John Barleycorn” which makes him smile. He will save this for a critical moment in the evening’s concert Then he lowers the decibels, puts down the electric guitar in favour of an acoustic version and transforms the audience with a classic from the 1970s group Traffic when he and Jim Capaldi were writing together. Recently during the tour Capaldi has shown a tendency to appear on stage with his tambourine to harmonise with Steve on the classics which was part of their successful repertoire in the group Traffic.

THE BAND: Winwood; Michael (viola, guitar, keyboard); Walfredo (percussion); Bramlett (horn); Rosko (bass); Capaldi

The same afternoon whilst lounging around their posh hotel panoramic in nearby Montecatini Terme, I told Winwood that the Italian newspaper La Nazione was playing up the magical reunion of Traffic (Il Majica Atmosphere of Traffico Reiunione). He seemed puzzled, almost irritated, that the papers had found out about Capaldi’s guest appearance when he wasn’t sure himself that Jim was going to appear a few hours before the gig. He was reassured by the tour manager, who explains that the press had picked up the information from the hotel rooming list. I remind him that the Italians would tend to stretch the fact somewhat with a name like Capaldi and of course because of their nostalgia for the old Traffic days. Steve lets it pass. 

Winwood is easily the most modern of today’s rock legends, this has been the subject of several newspaper and magazine articles in London and Steve has agreed to be interviewed in connection with his new album, Junction Seven. This is his first solo album since the 1990s Refugees of the Heart which the Boston Globe described as “A return to this R&B roots”. In which Steve reclaims his status as one of the best blue-eyed soul singers of his era. 

Steve’s Latest Album
Junction Seven

Ostensibly the reason for the present tour is to promote the album Junction Seven, but it sometimes appears that audiences are receiving rather a Winwood retrospective with only three of four new tracks in the two hour set. But nobody is complaining. The’94 tour in which Steve and Capaldi tried to revive Traffic was not a great success. And now Steve is back on the stomp as a solo artist. I see my son on the stage as he does a check on his keyboards and then tunes his viola which he plays on Back in the High Life Again, one of the encore pieces that Winwood saves to finish a concert. 

Michael Tunes Up His Viola

Having met Steve on a number of occasions and yet not having been a fan of Traffic during their heyday years, I am a little taken aback by the awe in which people approach Winwood to say hello, thank him for coming or get him to sign an autograph or have a picture taken. The Italian producer of Pistoia Blues tells Steve in an awkward English that he is so pleased that he is here for this year’s festival. 

Reflecting foil blankets are now thrown over the Hammond organ and the piano and Steve gives the thumbs up to the crowd and the sound check is over. Backstage, Walfredo Reyes parades around in tight shorts and complains about the heat, the two backing singers, sisters Emma and Valerie, are hungry and the tour manager indicates that a tavola calda has been lined up for a quick meal. When they return there is much time to kill while two support bands loosen up the crowd and the square fills up. I have a chance to sit on a staircase with my son Michael and Winwood chatting about the tours of past and future. They remark that the crowd in Napoli was phenomenal and the atmosphere in the square was something to behold. I tell them it looked good on TV and give them the information from the day’s newspaper about the large TV audience. 

Someone gives Steve a collector’s item of the album Blind Faith showing pictures of Winwood, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech which Steve signs with pleasure. I remark how much the afternoon crowd, me included, enjoyed the haunting Can’t Find My Way Back Home which I am told was from 30 years ago. His track on the famous album which Steve made whilst part of supergroup Blind Faith is still popular. I profess to being very unhip at the time to Winwood’s importance in the world of music. We were fans of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young during that era and I had only known of passing references to the group Traffic. (How was I to know that one of the tracks I liked by CSNY, Dear Mr. Fantasy, was actually written by Winwood and Capaldi ?) Of course, I had heard of the supergroup Blind Faith featuring Winwood and the now extremely popular Eric Clapton and ‘the album of the little boobies’. He quickly remarked “It had nothing to do with me” says Steve, a god-fearing man who included the album in his dedication on Junction Seven. It seemed that the cover was banned in some quarters which gave additional publicity to the record itself. 

Banned in the USA -Blind Faith cover

The parade of people coming to meet Winwood continues, they glaze over as they shake hands with the great blue-eyed blues singer.  A Cuban friend of Walfredo – the band’s percussionist – is introduced. As a guitarist who plays with the support band, he wants to just shake the hand of Winwood. Agents, managers, and photographers cluster around. The presence of muscle men who handle security and young women with bodies to die for – without a sign of cellulite and  dressed in black – announce to the band some details about timings. 

The festival’s publicity man explains to Steve that Traffic is extremely popular in Italy, “We love Traffic” he says. Steve responds by saying this is not a Traffic concert, in fact not a Traffic concert even if Capaldi does show up and join him on the popular ‘John Barleycorn’. He sounds a little agitated as he explains that even though the name which was devised by Winwood and Capaldi, the legal rights belong to Chris Blackwell, the Island Records producer and former friend of Steve’s who will not allow them to use the name without a substantial fee. The strain in Steve’s voice indicates that this is not a happy relationship and stands as advice to aspiring young musicians to read the small print. 

There is no question that Winwood enjoys performing and it’s contagious to watch the set with Winwood and the good band he presently has. Almost certainly he would rather be back in his Gloucestershire farm with his wife Genia and their four children, but the show must go on and top recording artists like Steve must promote their new albums. Even David Bowie, certainly with a larger fortune than Winwood from his touring and recording, must tour as part of the lucrative contracts with the record companies like Virgin. A look at the Virgin website  lists the artists who they are presently promoting and when the Virgin machine gets in gear they do promote.

Since the green light has been given on the Winwood tour to promote Junction Seven, there has been press releases and giant posters of Steve plastered around London, live TV performances in Madrid and Paris and particularly in London where his new band was a guest on the Jools Holland show with James Taylor, and a live session on the VH1 channel for about an hour. Imagine being able to play your new single at the time of the TV lottery draw when everyone in the country is glued to their television to see if they have won a couple of million. Winwood and his band did that last month. The hip upbeat rendition of Spy In The House Of Love contrasted dramatically with the homespun sheepishness of the BBC’s Terry Wogan. It was laughable. Wogan did however wish the band good luck on their short USA tour in which they appeared on the David Letterman show and a new afternoon television show with presenter Rosie O’Donnell. From there they flew across the US to Los Angeles where Steve is a big favourite and played a live internet concert in front of the the Virgin Megastore on Sunset Boulevard  Now that’s what I call promotion

Meanwhile back in Pistoia the countdown continues. The Italians love a stage set and they have turned the piazza into a massive outdoor studio, spotlights are everywhere, speakers the size of a movie screens are on each side of the stage and giant hard suitcases on wheels are stacked all around the stage. Everything has been set up and tested by the competent crew of ten men in black t-shirts who work with the efficiency of the Israeli army. The famous Winwood Hammond organ is well tuned and ready to go, the crowd patiently sits on the ancient stones of Pistoia’s medieval square. 

It’s a young crowd and the shiny pates of the London club concerts are now not in evidence. These are not ravers slopping around in the mud of Woodstock or Glastonbury. Only a small group is standing in the front. Couples in their thirties, forties and fifties are eating packed lunches and sitting on the ground waiting for the show to begin. You can tell the women under 30 because their belly buttons are showing. 

Finally the support band begins to play and they are atrocious but the crowd has its mind on Winwood and the charismatic Italian mega recording star, Zucchero. Only two nights before when the Italian had played host to Winwood in Napoli that was a Zucchero gig, tonight they have equal billing. 

As  the support band plays I move away from the speakers as the bass is distorted out of all recognition of music. The drumbeat could kill a canary at a hundred yards. This music sounds so primitive and amateurish compared to Winwood’s slick sound, but maybe I’m prejudiced as my son is Steve’s musical director. But that’s a story in itself. 

PISTOIA BLUES

My Favourite Film of All Time

Milos Forman’s Amadeus has eclipsed all the other movies I’ve seen in seven decades of sitting in the dark eating popcorn.

I have been going to the movies for almost 75 years, going all the back to Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger. (You know, I even remember their horses . . . Champion, Trigger and Silver respectively . . . who they sang to). My brother and I would argue – coming out of the Rio cinema in Camden, NJ in the late 1940s – about who would be the Lone Ranger and who would be Tonto – his Redskin sidekick – on the journey back home. So, I have some perspective discussing a favourite film.

In recent years, I have been impressed with the films of certain directors like Mike Nichols (The Graduate), Sydney Pollack (Our of Africa) and Barry Levinson (Diner). Yet, none reached the level of enjoyment for me like that I experienced when I saw Amadeus, the work of the Czech auteur Milos Forman. He also created the wonderful One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest almost ten years before. Both of these films won Hollywood’s coveted Academy Award.

Tom Hulse as Mozart in Forman’s Amadeus

Naturally, when the announcement was made a few years ago that Forman was to host a retrospective of his own film work at The Barbican Theatre in London, I immediately applied for tickets. But it needs to be said, I had an secret agenda.

Here’s the story.

Regular readers of this blog will perhaps know that I have been educated as a physicist and became very interested in the history of physics after I left research some years ago. During my many forays into the subject, I discovered the amazing work of the German astronomer and cosmologist Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). True, many other scholars have praised Kepler’s scientific insights in the early 17th century whilst he lived in Prague during the Golden Age of Rudolf II as Holy Roman Emperor. Yet, when I delved into his many accomplishments, I was struck by the fact that many aspects of his life and work were very much under appreciated. Consequently, I decided to write about him.

Johannes Kepler
17th century astronomer

Though I started to prepare a scholarly type treatise on the man, his contemporaries and his times, I soon found myself attracted to the cinematic aspect of his story, particularly whilst in the court of Rudolf II in Prague. Now to make a long story short, I ended up with a three-hour film script which included as principal characters, Kepler’s sponsor Rudolf II and his mentor, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. Though I did add certain fictional elements to the tale, nothing in the script contradicted the historical record . . . just embellished it. I titled the film, The Stargazers.

I had decided that the film – if ever it would be made from my script – would be a rich, period piece set in Prague and would be directed by the Czech/American magician, Forman.

So, there I was with a ticket to see and hear the great director in person talking about the making of his past films. Knowing there would be a Q & A at the end of his presentation, I would perhaps have an opportunity to interest him with my idea of the film. So, on the given night I went to the Barbican and took with me the two-page treatment of The Stargazers tucked into my briefcase.

Forman gave an interesting presentation of his film career, interspersed with clips from films, including his experiences with Jack Nicholson. He made the confession that he had posted an insurance bond of a million dollars on behalf of the scandalous Courtney Love so she could appear in one of his films. (The People vs Larry Flint).

Forman with Courtney Love

Finally at the end, it was time for questions from the audience and I nervously raised my hand. After two or three others, I was recognised and said the following . . .

Me: Mr Forman. If I were to meet you somewhere – like tonight – and explain that I had written a screenplay about a scientist living and working in Prague . . . and furthermore that I had a two page treatment of it in my briefcase which I would like to give you to read, would you take it ?

There was suddenly a hushed silence in the audience as the great man rubbed his chin. Thirty, maybe forty seconds went by. Finally, he answered.

Forman: No, I would not.

Well, that was it. Apparently I had clumsily blew my chances to engage my dream director on the film script which I had spent months and months preparing.

But wait, the story is not over yet. The organisers of the soiree had graciously arranged for Mr. Forman to have coffee and mix with the attendees in a room at the back of the cinema. How sensible. Sure enough, as we all mingled, balancing cups and pastry, Forman appeared – ebullient and sociable – playing the room full of his fans. As time passed, I realised that I could not repeat my question which surely have been a faux pas of massive proportions. But suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw him walking towards me !

Milos Forman
Knew All About Kepler

I soon realised that he wished to speak and stopped in front of me. He leaned forward and whispered . . .

Forman: It’s Kepler, isn’t it ?

Me: (flabbergasted) . . . Well, yes.

We proceeded to have a conversation about the discoveries of Kepler and the interesting milieu which existed during the period when Rudolf II was Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in Prague. Then, believe it or not, he told me to contact his agent Dennis Aspland in New York City.

Of course, I did that a few days later and spoke to Aspland at length about the possibility of Forman working on the film of my script. I was, needless to say, elated. However, I was soon to find out what big-time film making was all about. His agent told me that Forman was about to start work on a new film and could not be contacted for eleven weeks . . . eleven weeks . . .I was stunned. Aspland explained that when he said . . . could not be contacted, he meant just that ! Forman was soon was off to Los Angeles to shoot ‘Man On The Moon’ with Jim Carey, Danny DeVito and, you guessed it, Courtney Love. It was the winter of 1998.

The new film was based on the antics of madcap Andy Kaufman of Saturday Night Live and was not one of Forman’s masterpieces. Though I later tried to revive interest in my film, The Stargazers, the project fell by the wayside and became part of the fodder of history. Forman moved forward with other ideas including a film about the Spanish painter, Francisco Goya and we never spoke again.

In 2018, his agent Dennis Aspland announced that Forman had passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of 86. RIP, Milos.

Below, I have listed a synopsis of The Stargazers for those of you who wish to read the text I tried to give Milos Forman that night in 1998 at The Barbican Theatre.

Me & Jersey Joe

I grew up in Camden, New Jersey the hometown of Jersey Joe Walcott who was the heavyweight champion of the world in the early 1950s

I guess it’s fair to say that boxing was part of my DNA.

Even the patriarch of the McEvoy clan, Bernard J. McEvoy, who emigrated from County Louth, Ireland in 1868, was a brawler on the docks of Philadelphia soon after he arrived to the USA.

Like many Irish immigrants he had a problem with drinking (he was arrested once for selling home-made booze) and sadly took his frustrations out on his wife Julia Byrnes, also from Ireland. Yet, he produced six children with Julia before she succumbed to tuberculosis at the early age of thirty-six. The McEvoy offspring were eventually taken into care and placed in orphanages or foster homes by the authorities in and around Philadelphia. Yet all six managed to survive to adulthood. One of them was my grandfather Peter and another was his brother Patrick, my great Uncle.

It is with Patrick that the fighting became more respectable. He ran a gymnasium in South Philadelphia for many years and introduced scores of young men to the sport of boxing. Below is a photo of Uncle Patrick (fourth from the right) with a group of his boxers in the early part of the 20th century.

My Great Uncle Patrick (4th from right) with his boxers in South Philadelphia

My own father, another Joseph Peter McEvoy, was inspired to become a boxer when he was a young man but lost all his teeth in a bout and thus gave up. His picture below shows a determined pugilist in the late 1920s. In spite of his disappointments as a fighter, he never lost his passion for the game and hung around gymnasiums and boxing events all through his life. Even years after he married and had children, he was captivated by the excitement of fighters. In fact, I remember he subscribed to a magazine called The Ring which was delivered to our house in Camden, N.J. by post every week. As a result, I was introduced to the greats of the past like Harry Greb, Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, and Henry Armstrong. Dempsey was a favourite.

My Dad as a boxer circa 1928.

Dad devised a card game based on boxing which was the way that we, his children, interacted with him. I remember the king was the knockout card and would be greeted by shouts and cheers when it appeared. We also had two kittens who constantly but playfully fought with each other. We named them Louis and Conn after the boxers Joe Louis and Billy Conn who fought several times for the heavyweight championship during those years. Even my sister Mary played, rooting for the smaller kitten Conn, who usually lost.

Our young family lived in East Camden on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River across from Philadelphia . I remember we moved into Westfield Acres, one of New Jersey’s first housing projects for low-income families which had opened in 1938. The second World War was still raging, though after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, President Roosevelt brought the USA into the fray and Hitler’s Third Reich no longer seemed invincible. During the war my father worked for Camden-based RCA in the electro-plating laboratory and we were rationing like most Americans. We three – my older brother Jim, my younger sister Mary and I – attended the local parochial school and were had a reasonable childhood and received a good education.

Meanwhile, a local boxer Jersey Joe Walcott – whose real name was Arnold Cream – had developed somewhat of a promising reputation in the popular heavyweight class. He had fought about everyone in sight and yet seemed stuck in a rut. However, two events in his life occurred in the early 1940s which changed his fortunes for good.

On February 12, 1940, he was scheduled to fight the towering Abe Simon in Newark, N.J. Joe was out of shape and hungry and only weighed 180 pounds. The 6′ 5″ Simon, by contrast was fit and ready at 256 pounds. Although in poor condition and with his stomach growling from his poor diet, Walcott managed to win the early rounds by out – jabbing and out – smarting the slower Simon. But, by the sixth round Joe was exhausted from being mauled by the bigger and stronger Abe and took a haymaker on the chin which put him on the canvas. He couldn’t get up and took the full count.

This was a serious loss for Walcott. He had been fighting for almost ten years for small purses, dealing with exploitive managers, never feeling he was properly trained and – worst of all – not earning enough to support his family. His dream of winning the heavyweight title still burned in his belly but he took on several demeaning jobs like collecting garbage and cleaning septic tanks, anything to put food on the table.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Arnold decided to give up his dream (and his boxing name) taking a job at the Camden shipyard after President Franklin Roosevelt declared that the US was at war. He worked there from 1942 until 1944 to put food on the table for his family, now numbering six children by the end of the year. It was always a struggle, constantly paying off creditors and living from pay check to pay check. The second event in the life of the boxer occurred one day when he met a person who was destined to change his fortunes forever . . . a small, neat-looking Italian-American named Felix Bocchicchio.

Walcott with Felix Bocchicchio

Bocchicchio had an unfortunate reputation as a gangster in the Camden/Philadelphia area and looked every bit of the part with his pin-striped suit and the cigarette hanging from his lower lip. He was, however, also the local fight promoter and the president of the newly opened Camden Athletic Club which was staging boxing shows at the Camden Convention Hall. Somehow, as the story goes, the Italian-American promoter convinced Walcott to give boxing another try and soon Arnold aka Jersey Joe was training again for a return to the ring.

The story of how the two first met is told in a biography of Jersey Joe written by James Curl and goes like this . . .

Felix was looking for a good heavyweight fighter to promote in order to improve ticket sales at his Camden Convention Hall events. This led to the connection with Walcott through the local network of boxers and managers. At the time of their first meeting, Felix offered no propositions, instead he told Walcott . . . If I can help in any way, don’t be afraid to ask. My office is at the Camden Athletic Club on Market Street. Walcott’s next step was dictated by the demands of an empty pocketbook, a family with six children and Christmas being only a week away. He went to find Felix’s office the next day and left word that he had stopped by. He also left his address on Magnolia Street in Camden. 

The next evening, much to Walcott’s surprise, Bocchicchio stopped by his house. It is a good bet that Felix had never visited houses and homes that were in such poor condition. It was a ramshackle two-bedroom, two-story shack in a row of such houses in the worst neighbour of Camden. The house had no glass in the windows and a hole in the front door big enough to put a football through which was covered with an old dingy piece of brown burlap. Windows were boarded up with cardboard and the paint on the house had by now mostly flaked away. A stove in the kitchen was the only source of heat and the children were huddled around it to keep warm. 

Felix was shocked that Walcott was living in such dire conditions and before leaving the house promised to help the fighter restart his boxing career.

‘If you want to fight again I’ll get you a manager and get you started. Whatever you earn from the purse, you can keep. You just need a little confidence.’

Next day, just a week before Christmas, a ton of coal was delivered to the basement in the house.

I think we never had a happier Christmas said Walcott as he referred to Felix as the good angel. Here was a man of his word. Years later, he thought that when he made up his mind to go and talk with the promoter, it was one of the best decisions he ever made – a decision that would affect him for the rest of his life.

On the day after Christmas 1944, Walcott walked the few blocks from his house over to the Camden Athletic Club which was located on Market St and Third Avenue. There, right outside the promoter’s office, the two spoke together. Walcott said . . . the family is getting along now and I don’t know if I want to take a chance on fighting again. Boxing never got me nothing before and the kids at last can eat regular. I’m over 30 and just plain tired of it all.

Looking to change the boxer’s mind, Felix countered with . . .

I’ll give you the money you need and make sure you have enough each week to take care of your family.

I don’t know . . . replied Walcott . . . but I guess one more shot wouldn’t kill me.

He concluded that with coal in the basement and a cash advance on future earnings from Bocchicchio, the burden of finances and food was finally off of Jersey Joe’s mind. He was now set to return to the ring at 30 years of age. Thus when most fighters were already well into their career, Jersey Joe was just getting set to return to the ring and begin his incredible climb to the heavyweight title. He was about to show the world what he could do with proper training, management and nutrition. 

Felix also arranged for Joe Webster, a wealthy café owner, to manage Walcott and even went to the N.J. Boxing Commissioner to have the fighter’s boxing license reinstated. Next, he set up a new trainer, a middle-aged Italian guy named Nick Florio.

Walcott with his new trainer Nick Florio

Florio was born in 1904, the year before his family emigrated from Italy to the United States and settled in the Bronx, New York. As an adult, Nick got involved in boxing in America with his brother Dan. The first thing they did was get Walcott back into a regular training and eating routine for the first time ever, three square meals a day with plenty of meat and vegetables. Nick turned out to be a great trainer for Jersey Joe and together over the next two years, ’44 and ’45 and they would develop the famous move of the ‘Walcott shuffle’ in which Joe would simply walk away at crucial times in a bout to set his opponent off-balance.

Jersey Joe Walcott made his return to the ring on January 11, 1945 against journeyman Jackie Saunders in Camden Convention Hall. He knocked out the left-handed Saunders in the second round and his comeback had begun. A few months later, with the war in Europe coming to an end and celebrations taking place in NYC’s Times Square, things at the Camden Shipyard slowed down the work dried up.

However, with assurances from Bocchicchio that his family would be taken care of, Walcott continued to intensify his training and took on some more formidable opponents like Joe Baksi, ranked 4th in the world. He decidedly defeated Baksi in August 1945 and news of the victory went all over the country moving the Camden fighter into the top ten of heavyweight boxers for the first time.

During these years and true to form, my father had begun spending his spare hours hanging around the training gyms in Camden and attending the boxing shows at Camden Convention Hall. Soon he attached himself to the local boxing hero, Walcott. He knew Webster and Bocchicchio from previous boxing contacts and often would take me to watch Walcott train. It was about this time that an incident occurred which I recall so vividly that it seems as if it happened yesterday. Walcott was preparing for the next bout on his march to the top and was sparring at a gym on Penn Street near the Walt Whitman Hotel in central Camden. My dad, ever the informed and sociable observer, knew the handlers and convinced them as a joke to put me in the ring with Jersey Joe.

I was nine years old.

As the exercise was arranged on such an impromptu basis, I was given a pair of unpadded gloves, the type used to punch the light bag which usually hung from overhead. As funny as this may seem, I was reluctant to swing at Jersey Joe because I was afraid to hurt him using gloves with no padding. This concern on my part was much to the amusement of those in the gym and to Walcott himself who pleaded with me to punch him. Over and over again the great man encouraged me to land a haymaker on him. . . but in the end, I couldn’t. It became somewhat of a farce when I finally seriously tried to hit him. Each time he would move his head just far enough away and my punch would fan the air ! I have never forgotten this and the speed at which he was able to move his head away. No wonder he became the champion of the world.

I was afraid to hurt him . . .

Eventually, as a result of my father’s interest in Jersey Joe and his career, the boxer became a friend of our whole family. He came for Sunday lunch several times and was without doubt our local hero. Although it must be said that at that time Walcott was not a celebrity and our neighbours were somewhat wary of a black man visiting in the completely segregated Westfield Acres housing estate.

One memorable event during those years was the summer day my dad got Walcott to come to Westfield Acres to referee a series of bouts he had arranged for local kids. Both myself and my brother Jim were on the bill. My brother managed to get his photo taken before his bout and it was published in the Newark Daily News. (see below). The event is still talked about today by old timers in South Jersey.

My brother Jim (on the right) with Jersey Joe
at Westfield Acres in 1948.

Soon everything would change. The champion Joe Louis was being discharged from his military service and returning to civilian life after the war. Suddenly the heavyweight title was on the line again. Walcott, in spite of his advanced age, was ready and the savvy Bocchicchio arranged bouts with all the leading fighters. I remember most of the boxers . . . Tami Mauriello, Joey Maxim, Lou Nova, Tommy Gomez, Elmer ‘Violent’ Ray and the light-heavyweight, Archie Moore. Though Walcott lost to Maxim and ‘Violent’ Ray, he avenged both of these losses in 1947 and Jersey Joe thus became the leading contender to face the champion, Louis.

After much publicity over the location for the bout, the Camden boxer gained his first real taste of fame when he was scheduled to fight the Louis at Madison Square Garden on December 5, 1947. Our whole family watched the bout with crazy excitement on our B&W television only to be disappointed by the controversial decision in favour of Louis. Even the front page of the New York Times seemed to imply that Walcott was robbed! There I was, a ten-year old shaver in my pajamas on the floor in front of the TV. After the decision, I cried like a baby . . . not for the last time over Jersey Joe.

Six months later in a return bout in Yankee Stadium, Louis knocked out Walcott with a devastating punch in the 11th round. But after the bout, Louis announced to his mother and the world that he would retire from the ring. Walcott was disappointed that he hadn’t beat Louis, but vowed to continue his quest for the title.

He finally succeeded when he KO’d champion Ezzard Charles in the 7th round in a bout at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh in July 1951. Jersey Joe was now heavyweight champion of the world. He never came to our house again after he became champ, mainly because he was now inundated with invitations to appear everywhere. Now, he was a celebrity. He gave Charles a return bout in the following summer at Philly’s Municipal Stadium and won a decision in 15 rounds

Jersey Joe and I had one more date with destiny.

I had just entered my sophomore year at Camden Catholic High School and my dad had acquired two tickets for the bout called the fight of the century. Jersey Joe was to defend his title against the undefeated Rocky Marciano on 23 September, 1952 at Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium. As my brother was ill with one of his recurring asthma attacks, my dad offered to take me to the fight. I followed the build-up in the local papers and considered myself the luckiest kid in the world.

Marciano and Walcott at the weighing
with Bocchicchio standing by

It was a cool but comfortable night in Philadelphia that night and I was excited out of my mind. In spite of his being the challenger, Rocky was favoured by about 8-5 by the bookies to win, mainly because of his impressive undefeated record and Walcott’s advanced age. (My dad kept telling me that Walcott was even older than his official announced age of 38 years.)

We had great seats, not exactly ringside, but close enough for me to see everything. Boxing celebrities were introduced to the crowd and paraded across the ring. I remember seeing Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis make their way through the ropes. The old timers Gene Tunney and James Braddock were there and that excited my dad. Then the announcer introduced the two fighters and my heart skipped a beat when he said . . . from Camden, New Jersey, the heavyweight champion, Jersey Joe Walcott.

Finally the bell rang and to the surprise of everyone in the stadium, Walcott started the bout with a flurry of punches as if he was trying for a quick knockout. He landed a hard right early on which wobbled Rocky and the challenger from Brockton, Mass had to hold on to Walcott for dear life before they were separated by the referee. Then, a most remarkable thing happened. As the fighters came back together, Jersey Joe threw a beautiful left hook which found its mark on Marciano’s chin. The punch sent Rocky to the canvas for the first time in his forty-two fight career. I jumped up and down in my seat as the champion found his way to a neutral corner. I thought it might be all over but Marciano got right up at the count of three and was ready to continue. They fought tough for the remainder of the round and no one dreamed the fight would last for thirteen rounds. But it did !

Rocky is decked by Walcott in the first round

It was a brutal bout, later called one of the best ever. Going into the 13th round, Walcott was ahead on all three scorecards. Both of the officials and the referee had Jersey Joe winning seven or eight rounds and Marciano only four or five. However, early in the round, Walcott backed up to the ropes and began to launch a right hand, but Marciano beat him to it and put him down on the canvas with a sharp right to the jaw. The champ was knocked out by Rocky with one haymaker. I remember seeing Jersey Joe’s knees buckle and it seemed that he was hit again as he was going down. It was all over as Walcott fell forward and was helpless on his hands and knees.

The knockout punch

Rocky had pursued the champion for the entire fight and finally caught up with him in the thirteenth round. It was a devastating blow which one ringside reporter called frightening because he heard a ‘crack’, as if a jawbone had been broken, not the sound of a glove on flesh.

I was a mess . . . weeping in disbelief at the knockout in front of my dad and his friends. The last thing I remember as we left the massive stadium was the look of embarrassment on his face because his 15 year-old son was crying. It was a sad finish to an historic night.

It had taken over a minute for Jersey Joe to regain consciousness and he was heart-broken in his dressing room that he had lost the title. Later, Bocchicchio vowed that Walcott would retire, saying I won’t let him fight again, he’s too great a man. As far as I’m concerned Jersey Joe is retired. He looked pathetic against the ropes and I don’t want him to get hurt. He still has all his faculties and has money in the bank. Joe has made over one million dollars in the ring, he has been a great champion and that’s the way we want people to remember him. Walcott sadly agreed. If Felix wants me to retire, that’s OK with me. He brought me this far from nothing. If he says I’m through, I’m through.

As far as Walcott’s retirement, it was short-lived. Twenty-four hours after the fight, there were newspaper reports that a rematch was certain.

Walcott recovers in his dressing room

To be following the publicity after the first fight was fascinating to me. The contract had called for a return bout in 90 days but neither fighter would be ready since both had severe cuts and bruises from the 13 round brawl. Several offers came from Miami, San Francisco and even Yankee Stadium in New York. But there were problems. First, Bocchicchio had a heart attack which required open-heart surgery and Walcott would not proceed without him. Finally, by late February Felix recovered and with much hullabaloo, the return match was scheduled for Chicago Stadium on May 15, 1953.

It turned out to be a fiasco.

After the opening bell and a couple of minutes of sparring, the two fighters seem to be content tying each other up except that Marciano was relentlessly chasing the elusive Walcott. Continuing to force the action, Rocky came at Jersey Joe with a low left hook followed by a right uppercut to the chin. Walcott went down hard, landing on his back. He immediately brought himself up to a sitting position and grabbed the middle rope. Sitting calmly and glancing at his corner, Jersey Joe looked as though he was going to take a count of eight to regain his senses. But to everyone’s amazement, Walcott made no attempt to get up at eight. Through the counts of nine and ten, he continued to sit; only when the referee waved his arms indicating the fight was over did Jersey Joe leap to his feet, a second too late. To the crowd’s astonishment, the fight was over in 2:25.

The controversy following the fight was intense. There was much booing as the crowd felt they were cheated after the sheer intensity of the first match. Many (like my father) thought that Jersey Joe took a dive, i.e. purposely lost the fight because he did not want to go through another beating at the hands of the tough Marciano (win or lose) and he would still receive his share of the large gate. I could not accept this scenario because of my respect for the integrity of the man.

After much talk of still another match with Rocky, Jersey Joe never fought again, honouring his promise to his wife Lydia and his family.

In his last years, he saw Ezzard Charles die of a neurological disease, Marciano tragically killed in a plane crash and his beloved Lydia pass away. Yet his years honing his defensive skills as a boxer had served him well. His faculties were not impaired even in his old age unlike the infamous Mohamed Ali who prided himself on how he could ‘take a punch’. Jersey Joe preferred to ‘avoid the punch’.

Jersey Joe Walcott was elected Sheriff of Camden County in his later years and also served on the NJ boxing commission until he was 70 years old. From then until his death at the age of 80 he worked helping handicapped and disabled children in and around the area. Though I left Camden in 1968, I always knew where my roots were and cherish those years when I remember . . .

Me & Jersey Joe

My Son Mark

born 15 April, 1967

I recently published a blog post about my experiences with the Russians in London over 50 years ago. Unfortunately, I left off a photo of our family returning from Britain on the SS United States in 1967. Well, here it is.

on the SS United States, 1967

You can see our youngest son, Mark on his mother’s lap in the bright sunshine as we crossed the Atlantic heading for New York. Tomorrow, Mark will be 53 years old and I would like to wish him all the best in his many pursuits of photography, music and art on his birthday. With love from Dad.

spy in from the cold(cont’d)

We leave Moscow and take a long train ride across Russia to the Black Sea

In Moscow, we were like country bumpkins, enjoying the tourist sites, waiting in line to see the embalmed body of V.I. Lenin and posing in front of famous landmarks. We photographed everything but were most impressed with the excessive width of the streets. Then it was off to the station to board the widest train we ever saw. Everything was wide !

we waited in line to see the embalmed body of V.I. Lenin
we posed in front of famous landmarks

We made the journey across the Soviet Union to the Crimea in wonderfully comfortable trains travelling on wide tracks and drinking tea from glasses held in silver holders. This was the stuff from books by Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin and we loved it. Fortunately, we did keep diaries so I do remember certain details, like buying a watermelon through the window from a Russian peasant woman for a one ruble when the train stalled somewhere in the middle of the countryside. 

When we arrived in Sevastopol on the Black Sea we had to share a room with a Russian couple who did nothing but drink vodka and sleep. As young Americans to whom this invasion of privacy was unheard of, I think we managed pretty well. Apparently, there was an overbooking of accommodation in the sanatorium where we were staying and there was nothing we could do about it. It became another fascinating part of our education.

There were some exciting elements to our visit to the Black Sea. For example, the great Russian writer Anton Chekov had a dacha on the shore which we could see in the distance. Apparently, he wrote his classic play The Three Sisters whilst holidaying here. Another vivid memory was that after taking second place in a talent contest in the resort by singing a duet from a Broadway musical, we became instantly popular with the local Russians. 

Later we met a tall and beautiful Russian woman named Vera on the beach and she spoke a little English. She seemed quite intelligent, energetic and sociable. We were quite aware of the peculiar nature of the relationship between the Russians and Americans in the midst of the Cold War, so the meeting with Vera was slightly awkward. Nevertheless, there were moments. For example, I had brought with me one of the new half-dollar coins from the United States minted in 1964 which had the impression of the head of John Kennedy. We had decided that if we met someone special on this Russian trip, we would give him or her the Kennedy half dollar. One night at the bar, I decided that Vera was the person and Pat agreed. Vera took the coin, held it up to the light and burst into tears. She then went to the bar and bought a round of champagne for everyone in the place. It was the most remarkable demonstration of pure joy that I have ever seen in an adult. These were indeed memorable scenes for a young couple from New Jersey. 

Pat & Vera by the Seaside in Sevastopol

In subsequent conversations, Vera told us how much she wished she could travel abroad and had requested the authorities over and over again to visit the great cultural capitals like London and Paris. She wanted to buy books by the great Western writers which she knew had been translated into Russian. She even knew of a bookshop in Paris on the Rue de la hachette frequented by Russian emigres where one could purchase Russian translations of Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus and James Joyce. When we parted with hugs and kisses on our way to catch the train back to London, I promised Vera that the next time we went to Paris we would purchase several of these great classics and post them to her at her flat in Moscow. She enthusiastically wrote down her address. 

If the reader is wondering what this diversion has to do with the main thesis of this tale, please be patient as the meeting with Vera forms a key element in this strange saga. 

We returned via Ukraine and a visit to the City of Kiev. Since I had taken on the role of organiser of the group’s activities, I was immediately attracted to the billboard announcing a concert of the music of Shostakovich in Kiev that very night. I quickly enquired about the program and was pleased to find that not only did the offerings include one of the great man’s most famous works – the 5th Symphony – but the conductor was Shostakovich himself ! It turned out that the conductor was the composer’s son, Maxim. Nevertheless, we were excited to see a 100 piece orchestra spilling off the stage in a room lit by dramatic gilded chandeliers. 

In East Berlin, I fulfilled a long-held dream to enjoy a Bertolt Brecht play performed by his own company – The Berliner Ensemble. We sat in the famous theatre and watched his company perform the classic play Mother Courage and Her Children. Pat took a photo of me outside the theatre which I now treasure. Shortly after, we visited Alexanderplatz and made our way back onto the train and travelled through the notorious Friedrichstrasse boundary. A day later, strolling along the electric Kurfürstendamm after three weeks without seeing a billboard, a commercial or a sexy advert selling deodorants, lingerie or Coca Cola, we were shell-shocked by the adverts. We were in West Berlin !

in East Berlin

Before we knew it, we would be back in London and the trip would seem a dream. When we did get back, I was soon contacted by Alexander who wanted to know all about our trip. Of course, I gave him a glowing report and indicated that we had met some Russians whom we found to be very friendly and interesting and were pleased to have had the opportunity to do more than just attend the low temperature physics conference. 

Alexander had a surprise for us. He had obtained tickets to a football match for me and Pat to attend with himself and his wife. Now this was the first time we were to meet Alexander’s wife which was quite a breakthrough. But what was the football match? This you will not believe, especially if you are a fan of international football. He had tickets (believe it or not) for the final of the World Cup match between Germany and England. So, right on schedule, Alexander and his wife pulled up in front of our flat in WC1 in a black limousine and we all travelled to Wembley Park on 30 July 1966 to witness the most important match in the history of English football. 

We sat at midfield and watched, cheering for England, not at all appreciating the significance that this game for English fans. Pat proudly displayed a rosette marked ‘England’. European Football, (we would call soccer) was a whole new experience for us and one that was frankly, pretty boring. During the match, I do recall that one of the English players seemed to be getting all the goals, a man named Geoff Hurst who scored three times – a ‘hat trick’. We enjoyed the crowd, the atmosphere, and the excitement . . . but for two Americans familiar with the high-tech pro football of the NFL or even US college football, it was almost a dull game. After decades trying to get enthused about European football, it does still not compare in pure excitement to my own interest American football. 

at Wembley, 30 July 1966

I haven’t told many of my English friends about attending the World Cup Final with my Russian friend because I am very much embarrassed that I had no sense of how important this game was for English fans. We have been to many important events both before and after this match, but as I look back now at the many anniversaries which have been celebrated on England’s greatest day in football, I am embarrassed by the lack of enthusiasm we displayed as we sat with such wonderful seats watching England defeat Germany in the replay of the two world wars earlier in the century.

Now, the new academic year was now upon us and the pressure intensified to complete my thesis, return to RCA and renew my work for the company this time with a well-earned PhD. But there was a problem. I had collected an enormous amount of data from my experiments and now I was compelled to analyse the material and put it into some sensible format . . . no easy task. The easiest way out of this challenging situation was to ignore the ordeal of the writing for now, pack everything up and return to America, promising everyone to complete the project in due course. Fortunately, I was the protégé of a marvellous physicist and most sensible colleague named George Cody from the RCA Laboratories in Princeton. During a very serious trans-Atlantic telephone conversation, he told me in no uncertain terms not to leave Britain without the PhD thesis completed. I have never received more valuable advice in my entire life ! But this is getting ahead of the story.

I refused to meet Alexander during the new academic year. He wished to bring more visitors but I refused, claiming that I was too busy. In fact, I was very bored with his company and the nosy Russian scientists photographing and drawing my apparatus and sifting through the hundreds of measurements that I had made investigating the effects of magnetic fields on superconducting metals.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold 
(i.e. the Low Temperature Physics Laboratory)

To the regular readers of this blog, I apologise for the excessive length of this posting. I have broken the text into a few parts.

London newspapers are repeatedly reporting the skullduggery of the Russians around the world and this has made it interesting to tell this story  of our early days in London dating back to the 1960s. My wife has convinced me to come clean with the details of this particular absurd and farcical tale which had become part of our family folklore. So, here goes !

In the mid 1960s, my wife and I arrived in London with our two young sons from the United States where I began my PhD research at the University of London’s Imperial College working in low temperature physics of metals, namely superconductivity. We were excited with the opportunity to spend two or three years in London and I was very pleased to be associated with the prestigious research group in Imperial’s physics department with offices on the 10th floor in Queensgate, South Kensington. 

(I have written about these years in a previous blog. See: A Sonnet for Sir Laurence.

It all started one day when I received a call from the secretary of the department asking if I would mind if some Russian scientists visited my laboratory to talk about my work in superconductivity. The Russians were very active in the field and had some of the leading researchers of the day in my particular speciality, the effect of a magnetic field on the ability of a superconducting metal to carry electrical current. This had been completely explained by elaborate theories published by Russians.

Of course, I was pleased to entertain these visitors. As a liberal-minded and enthusiastic American who thought the Cold War was ridiculous, I wished to show my generosity of spirit . . . perhaps more enthusiastically than I should have as the unfolding tale will indicate. And so they came, three Russians who were unknown to me, into my laboratory along with the scientific attaché of the Russian Embassy. This last gentleman figures hugely in this story. His name I shall never forget: Alexander Alexandrovitch Benjaminoff. Secretly, I called him Alexander Squared. 

The Russians were very impressed in my lab, or at least they seemed to be. They asked many questions through their interpreter, Alexander, which I answered generously and without any hesitation. They took pictures of my apparatus and left copies of their own work. However, their papers were in Russian and thus of little interest to an American whose language skills were already being stretched with the new demands of British pronunciation of words like laboratory and schedule

Yet, two weeks later there was another request for more Russian scientists to visit my laboratory and again I agreed enthusiastically. This time, Mr Benjaminoff appeared with four Russian scientists. These men were brusque and crude and intent on extracting any bit of information they could from my work. Ironically, I was studying a specific problem in low temperature physics which had been first elucidated by a group of important theorists working in Moscow under the leadership of the great Russian mathematician, V.L. Ginzburg. 

I believe I had three separate visits before the ominous phone call one afternoon in which Mr Benjaminoff himself called me directly and asked if I would like to meet him for lunch. As an adventurous and perhaps naïve American of 28 years, I agreed and suggested a favourite restaurant of mine in South Kensington which I knew would not take too much time away from my work. The restaurant was a hangout for Polish emigres called Dacres where I knew Alexander could get a good bowl of borscht if he desired. When we met there, I ordered an elaborate lunch and was trying to determine why my newly-found Russian acquaintance was interested in developing a friendship with an aspiring PhD candidate like myself.  

I should point out that I was not so naïve in dealing with Benjaminoff that I did not realise he would receive certain kudos by reporting to his superiors in Moscow that he was developing a friendship with an American who was a staff member on leave from the well-known research institute of the RCA Research Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey. Under the circumstances of the complete non – secretive classification of my own work and its irrelevance to any kind of weapon system, I found the whole situation absurd and was intrigued to find out why the Russians might be interested in me. 

During the first lunch at Dacres I realised that I was entering into a situation which was to be very entertaining. For example, the first thing Alexander wanted to know was what I thought was so remarkable about the United States. I gave a firm answer. Namely, that I took pride in my own native country which had to do largely with its liberal attitude, its tolerance and freedom which had been developed by the early American colonists and guaranteed by the constitution. I gave a clear example.

 I told him that recently there had been demonstrators in front of the White House in Washington DC where protesters were carrying large placards reporting that ‘President Johnson is an asshole’. The police and security guards in Washington had protected these demonstrators from any harm. Alexander gave me a puzzled look when I told him this and said, ‘but Joseph if someone were to walk around Red Square with a placard indicating that President Johnson is an asshole, nobody would bother him’. I laughed heartily and was relieved to find that at least he had an intelligent sense of humour. However, I soon realised from the way Alexander responded to my own laughing that he had taken this quite literally and had missed the irony of these statements. I was flabbergasted and bit my lip. That was the beginning of a series of farcical incidents which I would report to my dear wife who was clearly entertained by the occasional lunch meetings I had with the Russian. 

‘President Johnson Is An Asshole’

I eventually determined that his request to dine with me at some of London’s top restaurants was in order to help him become familiar with the dishes and wines which would pay the best compliment to him and  impress his political and scientific visitors currently from Moscow. I recall once having a gorgeous prime rib at the famous restaurant Rules at which he and I gorged ourselves and washed it all down with some of the best wines I have ever had drunk in my life. He took notes throughout these dinners and was very impressed with my ability as a gourmand which was indeed at a very elementary level in those days. 

the fabulous Rules Restaurant in London

I was very proud of myself to have a genuine Russian friend – in fact one who was in some ways associated with the Russian embassy – although I could never got much out of Alexander about his particular position.  All I knew was that he was the scientific attaché. I can date these months of our gourmet dining in the West End which I reported back to my wife quite accurately because her sister was visiting us in the winter of 1965. In fact, I even brought Alexander home one night to have a drink and a meal at our flat in Mecklenburgh Square. We were living in a flat (formerly occupied by D.H. Lawrence, no less) which was part of a wonderful cooperative supported by the British government for scholars from the Commonwealth and the United States. Clearly, meeting Alexander once a fortnight, introducing him to restaurants that I could not afford, seemed all very harmless to me, my wife and her sister.

As the winter and spring of 1965 passed by, a remarkable coincidence arose. I was able to attend the 10th international Low Temperature Physics Conference in Moscow (LT 10) in  August 1966 with my thesis advisor Gavin Park, now since deceased. We had made some basic discoveries important in the very special field of the magnetic properties of superconducting metals and were to present papers on our work. My wife Pat – pregnant with our third son to be – and myself joined a group of students from Imperial College studying Slavic languages and were able to afford a three week holiday by rail which included Moscow during the days of the conference. It was possible to include a long journey to the Crimea on a Russian holiday on the Black Sea and pay for the entire trip with just the stipend given by the London University for attending the conference.

We remember vividly the journey across Eastern Europe with a stop in Warsaw and Berlin before travelling to Moscow. The contrasting attitude towards controls and regulations by the Poles with those of the East Germans was dramatic. (It was, after all, 1966 and Brezhnev was in charge). Pat still laughs when I repeat the roll call which the East German guard shouted through the train in the middle of the night as they boarded our train at the border : . . einen moment bitte . . . Roused from a dead sleep on the train, we had to produce our passports and answer innocuous questions about our journey. The Poles on the other hand, were quite blasé. I recall our Polish guide stating that the best view of the city of Warsaw was from the top of the Palace of Culture because from there one cannot see the stalinesque architecture of the building. These are fond but vivid memories of a trip which we took over fifty years ago. 

At the conference in Moscow during my own talk, I was amazed to hear a simultaneous translation of my words from behind a screen at the back of the auditorium as the speaker’s remarks were instantaneously translated into Russian and beamed  through the room. For Russian speakers, the same was done into English. I remember a question and answer session after my paper in which I spoke to Russians as if with gift of tongues, by putting on my headphones and hearing the questions translated into English. I answered the questioners in English and could hear what I had said in Russian only a few seconds afterwards. Those remarkable translators who were employed for the conference over 50 years ago, still  amaze me. I am sure technology has improved considerably on this phenomenon since then but the memory of that day will stay with me forever. 

As physicists attending the conference, Gavin and myself had a little more freedom than most and I recall a remarkable evening eating and drinking with Russian scientists. One of the Russians remarked whilst holding up a glass of Georgian wine that ‘it was  the old boy’s favourite’. It was the first time I ever heard a favourable reference to the man who we in the West considered such a monster . . . Stalin himself. 

I pause here to break up this very long blog into a few parts so the reader won’t get bored. I’ll pick it up again when we reach the resort of Sevastopol on the Black Sea where we went for a short holiday after the LT 10 conference.

The Lotus Flower Carving of Tutankhamun – A Sad Tale

Several years ago, when I was the owner/director of a travel company based in London, I organised several trips to Egypt for my American ex-patriot clients. The tour was called The Pyramids and Nile Cruise. I personally took the trip several times and became a great fan of this incredible part of the world. I grew very fond of the many Egyptians who helped me with the tours – particularly my dear friend Hassan from Aswan, a remarkable, trustworthy man. I often think of him when retelling this story.

with my good friend Hassan in Aswan

I had read a lot about the boy king Tutankhamun and, in particular, about the British archaeologist Howard Carter who discovered his famous tomb in 1922. I was particularly fascinated by a book written by the Director of Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Irving called . . . 

Tutankhamun The Untold Story

I became fascinated by a particular section of the book in which Irving describes Carter’s intention to take a certain artefact found in the tomb back with him to England. It was a carving in wood of the head of the young pharaoh in the style of a lotus flower. As Irving wrote . . .

On the twenty-ninth of March, Pierre Lacau, accompanied by four aides and a carpenter, arrived at the site and had broken down the doors of a tomb which Carter had used for storage and an occasional meal. They entered, made a hasty inspection, then closed the door and resealed it. The next evening, however, Lacau and his party returned to compile a list of the contents of the storage tomb. They discovered that objects had been tentatively labeled and numbered personally by Howard Carter in three separate places: on the outside of each box, again on the inside, and a third time in the entry booklet set on a table nearby. The Egyptians had been visibly impressed with Carter’s precise methods.

Then, far back in the storage area near a stack of empty wooden crates from Fortnum and Mason, they came across a crate marked ‘red wine’. They almost neglected to open it. But Lacau instructed them to do so. The crate seemed to be stuffed with surgical gauze and cotton batting. Intrigued, Lacau lifted the layers of wrapping. What he found within caused him to utter a sharp exclamation of astonishment. He could not believe his eyes. It was a work of art. Hurriedly, he removed the object from its nest. The Egyptian members of the commission, who had gathered when they heard Lacau’s exclamation, looked at one another dumbfounded.

What Lacau had come across in the wine case, unlabeled and clearly uninventoried was a near life-size wooden head, covered with a thin coating of plaster and painted so delicately that the figures seemed almost able to breathe. It was a marvel of ancient sculpture. The face, exceedingly handsome, with sensitive lips and large limpid eyes of the deepest black, must have been that of a child nine or ten years of age. The head emerged from a small pedestal carved with the petals of the sacred blue lotus of the Nile. The child was portrayed as the Son God, springing from the flower which according to the ancient Egyptians was the first of all to grow from the pool of creation. But its strength and competence marked it as more than a mere child. Here was a king as Sun God, without question, Tutankhamun.

I went on to read about Carter’s fascination with the wooden carving of Tutankhamun and discovered why he wanted to take the carving with him back to England. He was not interested in the invaluable treasures of gold that he had uncovered in the Valley of the Kings but simply this beautiful carving which he thought would be his reward for the hard work he had done in the Valley of the Kings. 

gold treasure from Tut’s tomb
mask of Tutankhamun, pure gold

His reasoning for the ‘theft’ had to do with the fact that he thought the Egyptian authorities would not preserve the carving very well because it has to be kept in a very dry and controlled environment. He believed that that they would simply place this piece with all the other items that he had uncovered which were primarily made of metal, namely gold, and not subject to environment control as much as the this elegant small piece of wood. 

However, when he was about to leave Egypt with his belongings to go back to London, his materials were searched carefully and indeed the wooden carving was found. Because Carter was causing a great deal of controversy at the time, he was not allowed to travel with the piece.

So on one of the trips I made with the clients on my tour company I decided I would make a visit to the Cairo Museum to see if I could find the carving and see how it was displayed in the collection. It was with a great deal of apprehension that I approached the section on Tutankhamun and I did eventually find the glass case with which contained the carving in question. My chin must have dropped completely when I saw the pitiful condition of the wooden carving.

photographing the wooden carving of Tut as a lotus flower

As Carter imagined it would be if left to the Egyptian authorities, it was in very poor condition. I photographed the piece and almost burst into tears when I saw it . Indeed Carter had predicted its fate accurately. The museum authorities had merely placed the piece in a normal environment of dry air which caused it to crack and split in several places as can be seen in the photograph which I took at that time, some twenty-five years ago.

In some ways this sad tale reminds me of the attitude of  Lord Elgin who took the marbles off the top of the Parthenon because he felt that the Greek authorities would not protect them and keep them in good condition. They are now in a special room at the British Museum.

But what are we to do? We must have respect for the world’s great works of art and it is only the large, wealthy institutions who know how to handle them. Yet, we cannot take all the great treasures of the world to London, New York and Paris and so forth. It just can’t be done as it is so unfair. Another great conundrum of modern life.

Tour de France

Eddy Merckx pushing for the lead in the Tour de France, Summer 1974

In the summer of 1974 , the 61st edition of the Tour de France – one of cycling’s Grand Tours – took place. The race officials decided it was time for some real innovation, so they scheduled one stage in the UK near Plymouth, England. The stage and the race was won by the favourite, Belgian Eddy Merckx – his fifth in a row. (This occurred years before the great cheater Lance Armstrong dominated the race by replenishing his blood during every stage.) Quite by coincidence that summer, I had planned to take a long cycle trip to the continent and found myself in the middle of the world’s most famous bicycle race. I experienced  the following on the first day of my journey . . .  

Tour de France

By

J. P. McEvoy

June 1974

While cycling on the D7 along the northern coast of Brittany, I discovered a most beautiful expanse of white sand near Plouescat. It was so inviting that I turned off the main road toward the sea. Shortly thereafter, I was forced to carry my cycle, avec panniers, across an enormous sand dune and onto the beach. It was low tide. At the edge of the water, turquoise blue and glimmering in the mid-day sun, the sand was firm. I put the cycle down and soon realised that I could stroll along the water’s edge, rolling the cycle easily. I knew a risk was involved as the consistency of a sandy beach prepared by the sea is not as predictable as highway D7. Yet, it was worth a gamble as the visual delights ahead (cliffs, dunes, miles of empty beach, blue water) gave me a heady sense of abandon. 

The Beach at Plouescat

The wind off the bay caused the kinds of sensations in my body which make one feel several times more alive than usual – like having twelve senses. Such feelings always involve bodily motion and rhythm – dancing, singing, love-making and cycling. I was sighing under my breath– happy. I began to sing. I could not see another human being. Except for the church spire in the village in Plouescat off in the distance, I could have been on another planet blessed with the miracle of water. A loud splash startled me. I turned and watched a sea gull fall like a rock into the surf. One, twice, three times before successfully acquiring his mid-day meal. 

Suddenly, I felt the imaginary presence of someone next to me. I could not make out who it was. I began to wonder who should be here with me. 

About a mile away, I spotted a young woman with two small children playing at the water’s edge. Slowly, I rolled my cycle towards them trying to imagine the impression I would make. Sunglasses, jeans and sneakers – with a racing cycle on the beach. She might surmise that I was a delirious drop-out from Tour de France which was passing nearby this very day on the road from Brest to Roscoff. I passed without incident, other than the mouth-opened stares of two small children. “Bonjour Madame.” “Bonjour Monsieur.”

As I approached the point, the sand began to give way. Although still pure white and virginal, it could no longer support the cycle nor indeed, my own weight. I began to walk like a duck which I learned as a fourteen year-old beach umbrella salesman on the Southern Atlantic Coast of New Jersey. It became a chore to go on as the moist sand, piled high by the recent tide, gave less and less support. My fantasy world began to collapse about me and I was thrust back into the uneasy tension of the real world. I thought of the dull, firm D7. Exhausted, I sat down – smiling like Peter O’Toole in the desert. Again I wondered who should be here with me. 

I was determined to push on. I was determined not retrace my steps nor climb over the dunes, which by now were small hills. Dripping with perspiration – pulling and pushing and carrying the cycle as one might a lame pony – I finally reached the end of the sand. What should I find but a marshy plateau, surfaced by the escaping tide, which I would have to cross. I had to carry the cycle – now much heavier than before — some 300 meters through the marsh. My sneakers soon disappeared in the mud. I rolled up my jeans in an attempt to re-coup some self-respect. However, the stickers and other abrasive vegetation forced me not only to roll them down into the mud but use my cycle clips as well to fashion a pair of denim ‘Wellingtons’. A snake slid between my legs without raising an eyebrow (mine i.e. not his!) and I was down to about two senses. Yet, I continued to wonder who should be here with me. 

After a still more frustrating detour to avoid what looked to me like the continental shelf, I finally reached dry, firm soil. I climbed up an embankment by a small bridge onto a most pleasant footpath which lead into the village. As I finally placed the cycle down on the ground (Is it a mirage?), I decided I would never feel guilty letting this delicate machine carry me anywhere again. 

I sat by the bridge and cleaned my feet. After a swallow of Muscadet from my flask, a slice of Camembert, and five or six juicy plums, I laid back in the soft grass and let the bright sun galvanise my disposition. I noticed that the bridge was quite beautiful, made up of granite blocks and containing an ancient wooden paddle wheel to indicate the direction of the tidal flow. The sea was now returning as the earth’s motion changed the position of the sun and moon relative to the meridian. The marsh would soon be a dark pool of water. Birds were singing and the reflections of the sun off the water produced strange dancing images through my Polaroid lenses, like a mild ‘acid’ trip. I was once again at peace with the earth. Suddenly, the introspection caused by the intense concentration of the last hour had cleared my mind. I now knew who should have been with me …. my twelve year-old son, Michael. 

He would not have been concerned with regulations regarding cycling on the beach. After all, he was with his Dad! He would not have been embarrassed to sing and sigh and study the seagulls with me. He would have trusted my inclinations to wander along the beach fully accepting that something might go wrong. He would not have complained at all about the sinking sand and the mud in the marsh. This young, lithe body would have been able to carry his cycle without my help, or my worry. And I would not have needed to say, “I told you everything would be all right” when we finally discovered the bridge. He would not only have endured but would have been interested in the short lecture on tidal forces which I surely would have given as we rested by the bridge.  How grown up he would have felt when I offered a drop of Muscadet from my flask. It would not have been an ordeal for him and he, in fact, would have wished to be there. And as we sat in that green pasture by the footpath, resting in the warm sun, he might have said – “That was great….Dad.”

The senses of a young boy like Michael — precocious, pre-adolescent and innocent are not finite. They are constantly being created and developed like the cells of the body. He has known the sensations I described here – he has sung and danced and cycled — and will soon discover love-making. It is then that he will leave me with a caress and an understanding of these things I have written about the bicycle trip we should have taken together. 

Twenty-five years later still on my bicycle

Meeting the Barefoot Contessa – Ava Gardner – in Harrods 1975

When my wife and I came to live permanently in London in 1973, we took teaching positions at the American Community School (ACS). We were in separate divisions of the same institution, she as principal in the small elementary school in Hampstead, and myself as the science head of the high school branch, which was located in Knightsbridge. I often would tell the story with much glee of how I would shop for pencils for my students in Harrods, perhaps the most glamorous department store in the world. 

One day as I was walking along the main street of Knightsbridge (famously called simply, Knightsbridge), I noticed a woman who was walking right next to me and instantly recognised her as one of the great enigmatic figures of the cinema world, the former Hollywood star Ava Gardner. She was walking along in bright sunlight holding a small dog in her arms. And she was certainly not dressed as a Hollywood star, in fact, she had her hair tucked under a scarf and if I remember correctly, pinned up in curlers !  

Ava Gardner with her dog about the time I met her in Knightsbridge

Not surprisingly, I began to doubt slightly my rather remarkable ability to recognise celebrities by merely facial characteristics such as eyes and mouth. I have written about this ability in previous posts, most notably in the case of the French writer Jean Genet who I identified from a postage stamp-sized photo of him on the back of a paperback book I had purchased years before.

I continued to walk nonchalantly along the  sidewalk and noticed that this glamorous woman was also heading for Harrods, as I was. I followed her into the department store, wondering if my ability to recognise celebrities was still sharp. I noticed that she was heading for the pharmacy department and followed a few steps behind, making myself as invisible as I could. While she walked up to the counter to engage the attendant, I waited until I heard the ensuing conversation. Indeed, she was known to the person behind the counter and was addressed as Miss Gardner, confirming my identification. She apparently was asking if the prescription for her dog was ready to be picked up. It was. After receiving the small parcel, she continued to wander through the shop for a bit and then walked out the front door back onto the street. 

I was building up my nerve to say hello and finally addressed her with a cheerful Good Morning, Miss Gardner. She immediately stopped in the street and gave me a big smile, surprised that anyone had recognised her. She said something like . . . How did you recognise me in this getup? 

I remember this particular conversation very well because with her large sunglasses, bandana around her head and dog in her arms,  she seemed a parody of a Hollywood star. It appeared that she was not irritated by my intrusion, asking me again how I recognised her and where I was from, hearing my American accent. I told her that I didn’t quite know where this strange ability to recognise certain people came from and that I was from the great state of New Jersey. She smiled and continued walking in a rather relaxed manner, not at all trying to escape me or my probing questions. 

Although I don’t recall all that was said in the two or three minutes that we walked along the street, I do remember that I asked her if she was still in touch with one of my heroes in the entertainment world, Frank Sinatra, her former husband. She responded with most outrageous and surprising remark I think I’ve ever heard . . .

Sinatra with Ava smiling and smoking

Oh yes ! . . . that crazy fucker sends me a dozen roses every year on my birthday. 

To say that I was shocked by her colourful language doesn’t quite sum up my reaction. I don’t recall what else was said during that short time but I do know that it was a thrill for me to meet her strolling along the street in the city which I now took to be my home. 

Probably the most well-known femme fatale in the modern age, I will always remember what Ernest Hemingway told his assistants after she took a nude swim in his pool in Cuba . . .

Don’t ever change the water in that pool . . . 

Later, I was to discover that she had been living in a flat near ACS and Harrods for several years and was very happy there.

Ennismore Gardens near Harrods and ACS

She wrote of her life in London in her autobiography . . . 

I’ve always loved London. So it rains sometimes. It rains everywhere sometimes. And I happen to like the rain. More important, the British leave you alone. They take three or four photographs when you arrive and then they forget you exist. It’s a very civilized town. I do have a lot of friends in London… really good friends, so I’m far from lonely. We have dinner at our homes or, if we go out, it’s to places where we won’t be disturbed….Actually, my apartment in Ennismore Gardens in Knightsbridge suits me so well I hate to leave it, even for a park bench. 

After a lifetime of smoking, Ava suffered from emphysema  and an unidentified autoimmune disorder. Two strokes in 1986 left her partially paralyzed and bedridden. She suffered a bad fall a week before she died, and she lay on the floor, alone and unable to move, until her housekeeper returned. Her last words were reportedly “I’m so tired.” She died of pneumonia at the age of 67, at her London home in Ennismore Gardens where she had lived since 1968.

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I have always been excited by the opportunity I have had to live my adult life in the vibrant city of London. As a fan of theatre and movies and blessed with an ability to recognise faces in a crowd, meeting Ava Gardner in the street is an example of what I mean. From the time my wife and I first arrived in 1964, I have  . . . 

  • picked Cornel Wilde (remember him ?) out of a crowd in a street market in Islington N1;
  • received a letter from Laurence Olivier thanking me for a poem I wrote praising his portrayal of Othello; (now in National Theatre Archive SE1);
  • had several lively conversations with my neighbour in West Hampstead NW6, Emma Thompson;
  • hosted Stephen Hawking for lunch in our villa in Tuscany after writing a book on his life and work. Later, I introduced him to 6000 science fans at a book launch at the Albert Hall;
  • had tea with John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Harold Pinter in the National Theatre canteen SE1;
  • met Paul McCartney in the street in St. Johns Wood NW8 (amazing how relaxed and friendly he was considering what happened to his song-writing partner John Lennon in New York). Sadly, I forgot to give Sir Paul the phone number of my musician son Michael;

It’s most likely I would not have met all these celebs if we had stayed in New Jersey, certainly not the Barefoot Contessa, Ava Gardner !