c hapter 1

In which our hero is born, just over six years of global conflict ending shortly thereafter; and in which he goes to school and develops, peculiarly enough, an intense loathing for singing in public.

O

bviously I was a mistake. Definitely some kind of oversight in the family-planning department. An “unforced error,” they might call it in tennis. Otherwise, explain why Bob and Elsie Stewart, at forty-two and thirty-nine, with four children to feed, the youngest of them already ten, would suddenly take it into their heads to produce another baby. Furthermore, explain why they would do this in the middle of the Second World War. Hence, eventually, the family joke: “Roddy was Dad’s slipup. But, as Dad’s slipups go, a fairly lucrative one.” I can’t say I was ever made to feel like a mistake, though. On the contrary, despite my late arrival (or perhaps because of it) I seemed to be welcomed very warmly—by the six members of my immediate family, at any rate. Less so by Hitler. My point of entry into the

6  •  R o d S t e wa R t

world, on the evening of January 10, 1945, was a small bedroom on the top floor of a terraced house on the Archway Road in north London whose windows had been blown out so many times by the aftershock of exploding bombs from Germany that my dad had cut his losses and boarded them up. The worst of the Blitz was almost over by then, and, indeed, the war in Europe would end altogether nearly four months later. But, with no regard for my best interests, the Germans had bombed London throughout my mum’s pregnancy: first with V1 flying bombs, known cheerfully as “doodlebugs,” and less cheerfully as “buzzbombs” on account of the noise they made before they killed you; and then, in the later stages of her term and in the first swaddled days of my life, with the even more vicious V2 rockets, launched across the Channel from the French coast. Those bastards tended to leave a 25-foot-deep crater where your house used to be. You didn’t want to be under a V2 when it landed— pregnant, swaddled, or otherwise. There’s a widely told story that, within an hour of my arrival, a rocket unceremoniously took out Highgate police station, a mere three-quarters of a mile away—slightly pooping the party atmosphere at my birth scene, while at the same time impressing on all of us, in a meaningful way, important and lasting lessons about fortune and the uncertainty of our lease upon this world, etc. It’s a good little parable, but alas, completely untrue—just one of those legends, fables, and downright lies told in the name of publicity that we will have cause to unpick as this story goes along. Some weeks separated my birth and the bombing of the cop shop. Life in London in those days was one long close shave, however, and many Londoners shared that “lucky to make it” feeling, not least if their house overlooked railway yards, as ours did, thereby inadvertently becoming a magnet for bombers with poor aim. While my mum was pregnant with me, the air raid siren would usually sound at

R o d : t h e a u t o b i o g R a p h y   •  7

around 1:30 a.m. and Mary, the eldest child at seventeen, would get my brother Bob, who was ten, and sister Peggy, nine, out of their beds and into their coats and lead them, each carrying their pillow, into the garden in the pitch black and down into the family Anderson shelter—six sheets of government-issue corrugated iron, formed into a shed and half sunk into the ground, with earth and sandbags thrown on top for extra blast-proofing. Then they would all crawl into the narrow metal bunk beds and try to sleep through the noise and the fear until morning. My brother Don, who was fifteen at this point, preferred to stay in the comfort of his bed in the house—unless something dropped close by and he felt the walls shake, at which point the appeal of a metal bunk in the garden would suddenly become irresistible. Of course, thousands of other London families were out of harm’s way—the children evacuated to the country, temporarily adopted by kindly rural folk in houses that were less likely to get a rocket through their ceilings. But my family had talked about it and decided that they couldn’t bear to separate—neither the children from the parents, nor the parents from the children. The Stewart attitude was “If we go, we go together.” We were very clanlike in that way. We still are. Still, that didn’t mean information necessarily flowed freely between the family members. It will tell you something about how little sex and its consequences were mentioned in those days that Don had no idea our mum was pregnant. He was slightly mystified by the amount of knitting his elder sister was doing (especially in the bomb shelter, where it passed the time). And if you had pressed him, he might have admitted that he was puzzled, too, that his mum seemed to be getting larger. Otherwise, the first thing he knew about it was that Wednesday evening, when he was asked if he wanted to go upstairs and see the new baby. My sister Mary was in on it, though—excited about this baby as if it were her own, and coming home from work in an increasing hurry as the due date neared. Wednesday was her roller-skating night. “It

8  •  R o d S t e wa R t

won’t come today,” Mum told her. So off Mary went. But Mum must have been in labor already, because in the time it took Mary to get back, put her skates down, and run upstairs, she had acquired another brother, Roderick David Stewart. My sister was struck, not so much by the sight of me, in all my radiant, newborn glory, as by the sight of Mum, who looked shattered and as white as the sheets. It was at that point she realized what Mum had been through, and also why Mum had sent her out that night: to spare her the details. Dad seemed to take these latest developments equably enough, though he must have wondered how he would cope. He was a Scotsman, from Leith, north of Edinburgh, with a spell in the merchant navy behind him, who had followed his brothers to London for work. He had met my mum, who was a Londoner, at a dance in Tufnell Park. When I came along, Dad was doing twelve-hour days as a plumber, returning home at seven in the evening, where he would peel off his boots and put his damp feet up by the fire, causing his slowly warming socks to give off the most shocking stink. Dad never drank. Someone had got him drunk once on a building site somewhere, and he had sworn it off there and then. But he smoked and he gambled (on the horses in particular), and a fifth child was unlikely to ease his occasional problems with cash flow. Our house at 507 Archway Road was rented from Grattage the landlord. Even now, for me, the name Grattage carries a cold wind of fear and loathing. “Here comes Grattage! Hide!” Archway Road was a noisy, traffic-filled thoroughfare, dotted with small shops, in a mostly working-class area, with the far posher residences of Highgate away to the north. There was a trolleybus stop right outside our front door, and the wind forever blew discarded bus tickets into the gulley in front of our basement, to the irritation of my dad, who was constantly out there picking them up. Much later, after we had moved, the house was demolished so that the road could be widened, the local council finally achieving what Hitler had failed to pull off. But, while it stood, it was handsome enough—a pretty big

R o d : t h e a u t o b i o g R a p h y   •  9

house, actually, for a jobbing plumber’s family. Three bedrooms on the top floor, two more on the floor below that, and on the ground floor, along with the kitchen and the bathroom, the tall-ceilinged dining room, which contained a baby grand piano that my mum and occasionally my brother Don played, and which once, years later, would provide me with a convenient shelter for some experimental fumbling with a member of the opposite sex. Our house’s other luxury item was a telephone—an almost unparalleled technological wonder in those days. It had a coin box attached to it, and you needed a threepenny bit to phone out. Hard to account for the mystery and awe that would descend whenever it rang, which wasn’t often. Who could it be? Who could it possibly be? And who would answer it? That could take a while to sort out. Whoever was chosen had to use their best voice: “Mount View, six-one-five-seven.” You had to talk posh on the telephone in the 1940s and 1950s. The telephone demanded that. My dad needed the phone to organize the football club that he ran as a hobby: Highgate Redwing, a weekend club with a first team, a reserve side, and even a youth team for a while. My brothers Bob and Don played for them, and I would too, eventually, but while I was small I could only look up to these men who filled our house, and marvel at them. They were my first sporting heroes. The meeting point before games on a Saturday morning was our house, so there would be a couple of dozen footballers milling in the kitchen and the hall and spilling out onto the pavement. And, beforehand, for me, this excited anticipation: the guys were coming round. For a penny a shirt from club funds, my mum washed the kit* each week, heaving these muddy clothes into a giant boiler and stirring them all round. And afterwards a line of black-and-white shirts would hang, gleaming, the length of our garden. It was a heavenly sight to me.
* Uniforms

10  •  R o d S t e wa R t

I remember family holidays at Ramsgate on the Kent coast—all of us Stewarts stuck on the beach in the freezing cold in the traditional British way—but not nearly as strongly as I recall the annual football club outings: two “charabancs,” or buses, full of the players and their wives and kids, leaving the Archway Road at eight in the morning, my mother and sisters making dozens and dozens of sandwiches for the day out at Clacton-on-Sea. Just wonderful. And similarly the football club parties. My dad would go down in the basement and shore up the dining-room floor from below with scaffolding and planks, and everyone would pour in for dancing and singing. I would be put to bed, but I would sneak down and sit under that baby grand piano, watching the feet and the kilted legs. My love of a singsong was born right there. Sometimes a conga line would leave the dining room, head down the steps, and set off up the road and back. It wasn’t hard to understand the exuberance of these adults, when you realized what they had so recently been through. They were dancing off the war. Mary and Peggy, my sisters, would take me to watch speedway at Harringay, which was hugely popular then. And Mum and Dad sometimes treated me to a trip to the cinema—the Rex, in East Finchley, where the stalls* took a big dip in the center: the front rows were higher than the rows in the middle, and the back rows were higher still. Maybe it was war damage. One day, when I was eight, my mum said, “We’re going to see Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. This will be the funniest thing you’ve ever seen”—a big buildup to give a film. But she was absolutely right. It was slapstick, but so subtle in the way it went about it. We sat there in the Rex’s battered stalls, and I had never laughed as hard as I laughed at Jacques Tati, haplessly creating havoc. Even today Ronnie Wood and I remain huge Tati fans. Of course, the age gap between me and my siblings meant the
* The seats in front of the stage at the lowest level of a theater

R o d : t h e a u t o b i o g R a p h y   •  11

family at home rapidly shrank on me. First Mary married Fred, a lorry driver for Wall’s ice cream, so that was my guardian angel gone from the house. And then Peggy married Jim, a wonderful cockney greengrocer who had fought in the war at Monte Cassino—an unforgettable experience for him. Many years later, when I had made some money, Jim was part of one of our big family trips on a private plane to watch Scotland play football. Our journey took us down over Italy. Jim sat there, rolling himself a cigarette, as he liked to, and as he looked reflectively out the window at the ground below, he said, “I used to get paid fourteen bob a week to murder that lot.” Life would be so cruel to Peggy. She was a wonderful tennis player, a real outdoors person, but she was struck down by multiple sclerosis and in a wheelchair in her mid thirties. Multiple sclerosis meant my mother, too, would need a wheelchair eventually. Unfair. The next to leave the Archway Road was Bob, who married Kim, and finally, when I was still only eleven, Don married and left home as well, at twenty-six. News of his imminent wedding to Pat reduced me to tears at his feet. I had cried just the same when he had left for national service—though mostly because I couldn’t envisage this place he was destined for, Aldershot, nor how anybody would get there, let alone come back. This latest betrayal, though, seemed final. How could he desert me like this? Don took me to the West End and talked me round to the idea as best he could, with lemonade. Yet, in truth, even when my brothers and sisters moved out, they didn’t go far. They took apartments and houses a few doors away, or round the corner at worst: that Stewart clan thing again. I would come to value this proximity a few years later, when an interest in my appearance properly gripped me and I needed to borrow Mary’s hairdryer or my sister-in-law Pat’s hairspray. Very handy. “Spoiled rotten” tends to be the family shorthand for my childhood. I object to that, on the grounds that materially there wasn’t much around to spoil anyone with. “Somewhat indulged” might be

12  •  R o d S t e wa R t

a better expression. At the same time, I acknowledge that Mary never came home from work on a Friday without bringing me a toy—some little car or soldier—from Woolworths. Was that being “spoiled rotten”? Possibly. I also concede this: my mum used to make a rabbit stew, and before my arrival the rabbit’s heart—small, but considered a treat—was cut into four and shared between the children. Once I came along, the heart was given to me.

D

utiful but undistinguished at school, I failed the Eleven Plus exam to nobody’s particular astonishment and was sent off in a gray flannel outfit and a black-and-white tie to William Grimshaw Secondary Modern—where, coincidentally, Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks also went, at around the same time, although we only worked that out years later. I used to take the bus to North Finchley from outside the house, which was highly convenient. At the other end, though, there was a mile walk the length of Creighton Avenue, which was less agreeable. Still, I traveled light. Schoolboys seemed to then. These days, when my little lad Alastair goes off to school, he has bags and books and laptops and stuff. I seemed to go through my entire secondary school career armed with a solitary pencil. Less than that, actually: a solitary pencil stub, tucked into the top pocket of my blazer. It seemed to be all I needed. I was diligent enough, and happy enough too, by and large. I was certainly worried about missing school, anxious about falling behind, so I was no big truant, and certainly no big troublemaker. Fights would always find me on the periphery, looking on—never involved. I made friends easily, but I wasn’t one of those kids at the center of things in the playground, effortlessly attracting all the attention. And I definitely didn’t think of myself as a showman. I would only develop that kind of confidence in myself later, through being in bands.

R o d : t h e a u t o b i o g R a p h y   •  13

I showed some talent with a paintbrush—although it emerged in a routine test that I am color-blind (I have some problems distinguishing browns, blues, and purples). I got by in most things and did well in sport, becoming captain of the cricket team and captain of the football team. There was only one thing I really couldn’t be getting on with, and that was, bizarrely enough, given my later path, music with Mr. Wainwright. I had always known I was petrified of standing up in front of the class. In Mr. Wainwright’s music room, I now discovered what I was even more petrified of: standing up in front of the class and singing. It wasn’t shyness so much as a fear of being singled out and made to look ridiculous. Maybe it was all in my head, but I swear he used to pick me deliberately because of that. He would haul me up to sing a few lines of a song, with him on the piano at the front, and I would quail and quiver and grope miserably for the notes and feel more uncomfortable than I had ever felt, anywhere, in any circumstance. It was for this reason that I developed the Fake Sick trick. For the Fake Sick trick you will need: one Shipham’s meat-paste pot, empty; a small quantity of mashed potato, scraped from the side of your school lunch plate; a small quantity of carrots, ditto; and some water. Instructions: While at the table in your school cafeteria, add the potato, carrots, and water to the paste pot. Mix thoroughly, using a knife or any other available utensil. Withdraw with the pot to the school playground and, in a quiet and preferably unobserved moment, sling the resulting goo onto the tarmac. Thereafter, summon the onduty teacher with a cry of “Sir, I’ve been sick” (or similar), gesturing all the while to the splattered ground. Hey presto: you’re off music for the afternoon and on your way home. Or, in my case, to the pictures. It’s probably fair to say, then, that the music bug hadn’t significantly bitten at this point in my life. Don had taken me to see Bill Haley and the Comets at the Gaumont State Cinema on Kilburn High Road in 1954. Don liked Bill Haley and could sing “Everybody Razzle

14  •  R o d S t e wa R t

Dazzle” probably better than Haley could. (Don really was the singer in the family, as they like to remind me.) I remember being up on the balcony with him and looking down at this heaving mass of jiving, rioting teddy boys in the stalls, and Haley and the band in their tartan jackets, prompting all this mayhem. The rhythm, the brightness of the clothes, and the reactions of the crowd—all affected me, and maybe a seed was sown. But it didn’t make me a huge fan. There was a slight glimmer of the performing bug, though, after my dad gave me a Spanish guitar, with a red tasseled cord for a strap, for my fifteenth birthday—completely crushing my hopes initially, because I had been holding out for a wooden Tri-ang model railway station. (The view from our windows of the Highgate marshaling yards and the line beyond, running steam trains from Euston up to Alexandra Palace, had long inspired my interest in model railways, which, to some people’s completely unnecessary surprise, lives with me to this day.) Who knows why my dad thought this guitar would be a good present for me? It’s possible that it fell off the back of a lorry, or was offered to him on the cheap. But I swallowed my disappointment and messed around with it for a while. I took it to school, where other people also had cheap guitars. A bunch of us who had picked up the general idea would head into the playground at break time and attempt to commit this thing they called skiffle, the sound that was reviving the old American homemade “jug band” style of the early twentieth century, with its banjos and washboards and pots and pans. This was when Lonnie Donegan was starting to happen, and Don had Lonnie’s “Cumberland Gap” on a Pye 78. We called ourselves the Kool Kats, which we fancied was a pretty clever name, and at our peak we had seven guitars and one bloke on tea-chest bass. Not your typical lineup, and a bit guitar-heavy, but we hammered away at “Rock Island Line”—the best Lonnie Donegan song, a real rattler, probably the first number I could sing all the way through, and almost

R o d : t h e a u t o b i o g R a p h y   •  15

bombproof when attacked by novices. That said, the Kool Kats’ version might have sounded better if any of us had had the first clue how to tune a guitar. Alas, that deep musical mystery eluded all seven of us, so we just slapped the strings and hoped. Fortunately, my dad knew a bloke with the knowledge, so I would set off to his place periodically, clutching my guitar, for a tune-up. Unfortunately, he lived about a mile and a half away, so by the time I had trekked home, the guitar was out of tune again. If there were traces of a future career in these early shamblings, they were hard to spot. Secondary education’s other principal gifts to me were two immense, highly formative, and entirely unrequited crushes: the first on Mrs. Plumber, who taught history and, more important from my point of view at the time, wore a pencil skirt which came to just below the knee; and the second, at thirteen, on Juliet Truss, who was two years above me, had long red hair and enormous breasts, and was utterly, utterly unobtainable, although this didn’t stop me from going and standing uselessly outside her house, near the bus terminus at Muswell Hill. If she even noticed me at all, she never indicated as much. And if she had asked me what I was waiting for, I wouldn’t have been able to tell her, because I didn’t know either. Near the end of my time at school, I was caught up in an unfortunate and deeply regrettable incident involving the release of an airfilled condom in the corridor. (Mindless and juvenile, clearly. But they really go, if you blow them up hard enough.) For this I was given the standard caning (which, I don’t mind reporting, bloody hurt) and was temporarily stripped of my hard-won football and cricket badges. And soon after that, accompanied by no qualifications, and a still lightly throbbing backside, I left. I was fifteen, the whole world lay before me, glittering with possibilities, and what I was going to do next was . . . I hadn’t got a clue.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful