It was Valencia, summer 1972: my first time in Spain (it now seems odd that I had already sat my Spanish A Level). I was on a three-week language course organised by Liverpool Poly, as it then was, and there were school students from all across the UK. One was at Eton, another was from Ilford; they were both equally exotic to me. Spain was a very different country back in the day: patrolled by armed police and rather poor and backward in my eyes. Despite Valencia being a major city you had the impression you were the first foreigner they’d ever come across. Exciting but scary.
I’d been there all of two days before I fell for a Northern Irish girl. I noticed a pretty blonde during our morning breaks at the university, but couldn’t think up an excuse to start a conservation. One night at a fiesta, I and the other lads I was with ran into a bevy of girls we recognised as fellow students on the course and, under the pressure of the moment, I came out with “Would you like to join our group?” It was excruciating, even at the time, but I had learned from experience that if you didn’t ask, you didn’t get. The Irish girls came over to say hello, and I started talking to Jan before anyone else could get in.
Audentes fortuna iuvat
A couple of days later we invited them over to the university residence we boys were billeted in. Jan and I saw each other every day (since we were in the same class) and in the evenings we talked about our different lives, which made me realise that I probably knew more about what was going on in Spain than in Ireland.
All too soon we were on the plane back to Blighty. When we arrived at Heathrow her boyfriend Ronnie (who had long hair and a moustache, and was obviously older than me) was waiting to collect her, and off they went on holiday. I knew I would never go to see her. I couldn’t afford it, and in any case my parents would not have let me. Belfast was on the news every night, and what was happening was invariably frightening.
Jan and I corresponded for about 18 months. I went to Oxford and she went to Trinity College Dublin to study French and English. Her letters were very articulate and entertaining, and she was mature for her age – unlike me. She struck me as being tough and resilient; above all, she was a realist. She was from a Catholic family – in the course of writing one letter she heard that an acquaintance had been shot dead: “There will certainly be reprisals. It’s obviously not safe to go out any more.” What a thing for a 17-year-old girl to put in a letter. Yet for many young people all over the world (including parts of our own country even today) that is reality. Sadly, I now think, we lost touch… because I stopped writing. I can’t even remember her surname or address, apart from the fact that she lived in Holywood, Co. Down. I have one very bad photo of her, taken at Valencia Airport. Stylish, but note the stubbed out fag-end.
As a middle-aged Cambodian gentleman said to Anne and me exactly a year ago, “You were born at the right time in the right place, but for me it was just the opposite”. That he survived the Khmer Rouge is almost miraculous. Jan was unlucky to grow up at the height of the Troubles, but on the plus side she attended a good school and had two loving parents who were obviously well off. I had it much easier; as long as you avoided being beaten senseless by a gang of skinheads from the Woodchurch Estate, nothing terrible was going to happen to you in Birkenhead. Almost everybody from my school went on to university, and that was in the early 70s when less than 6% of school-leavers did! Life was set out before me on a plate.
With all the teen stabbings going on in London and elsewhere, I’ve been thinking about how fortunate I was as child. It’s easy to congratulate yourself on your achievements or – even worse – look down on those who haven’t done so well in life, as if it were all their fault. A little bit of humility is no bad thing but here, as so often, I rarely practise what I preach.