On 5th July of this year, two months away, it will be the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones free concert in Hyde Park. Here’s the chapter from The Damnation Of Peter Pan which describes the protagonist, Peter Mannering, meeting the love of his life that day:
It was the morning of 5th July, 1969, and the Stones were due to play in Hyde Park. The night before had been a really strange one. I knew the promoters of the Stones show, Blackhill Enterprises, a bunch of public schoolboys who were all in the Pink Floyd hippy set. I used to publish programmes for them, not because they made money, which they didn’t, but because the scene was so wild: beautiful girls, more drugs than even I could consume, just endless hedonism.
Everyone was really hyped up the night before. You won’t know about all this, but at the time it all seemed as important to us as the moon landings: Brian Jones, the Stones guitarist, had died the day before in his swimming pool, a month after the Stones had fired him and replaced him with Mick Taylor. You see, I can still remember all this shit; like I say, it seemed important to us then. The Stones announced they would continue with the free gig in Hyde Park, so the night before everyone seemed manic with expectation about the gig – it was their first in two years – and shock about Brian. I’d met him a few times, smoked massive joints with him in Cornwall Gardens, so I suppose I probably got caught up in the whole strange atmosphere in London that night.
I remember it being warm, and someone suggesting we should leave my apartment and walk over to the park because they’d heard people were already gathering near the Cockpit on the north side of the Serpentine where the stage had been set up. People were wanting some kind of tribute to Brian, apparently. When we got there, it was past midnight, and there were a few thousand people already sitting around on the grass in the moonlight, not much noise, just people smoking and talking and the occasional strum of someone’s guitar. There were a few bemused-looking coppers wandering about, but it was all very peaceful, and you could see them just shrugging their shoulders and letting the hippies get on with it. They normally shut the gates to the park at midnight, but with all these hippies around they just left them open.
I was with a group of people I hardly knew, and I remember lying down on the grass and looking up at the moon as it illuminated the tops of the trees on the island in the Serpentine. I was stoned, like most of us there, and I drifted off to sleep with the murmur of people around and the water of the Serpentine lapping quietly against the edge of the lake.
When I woke up, the dawn was just breaking and the birds were singing in the grey light. There were snores around me, people all over the lawns asleep, a few groups still awake and talking quietly. I got up and walked over to the lake and looked out at the island. I remember thinking: it’s dawn, he’ll be back now. He’ll have sailed back to his island. And then I could see something move. You know the island on the Serpentine? It’s only about twenty yards from the edge. I tried to focus my eyes in the grey dawn light, and then I could see someone standing on the island, at the tip. It was a woman, and she was naked. She wasn’t moving, one hand was holding on to the branch of a tree.
I took off the heavy Afghan coat I’d slept in, kicked off my shoes and waded into the water. There was mud on the bottom so I began to swim in my jeans, and soon I was just a few yards away from her. She was staring up the water towards the bridge where The Gardens begin, and she was crying. She had a chic French-style short haircut, very black hair and slim arms and beautiful delicate hips, and she seemed entirely unaware of me.
‘What’s the matter?’ I called out quietly. ‘Can I help you?’ I was treading water, making little splashing sounds as I kept afloat. She turned to look at me, her face was so terribly sad and I could see the tears still trickling down her chalk white cheeks. She shook her head.
I swam closer and reached the edge, put out my hand.
‘Come on, I’ll look after you, I promise.’ She didn’t move. ‘My name is Peter,’ I said. ‘What’s your name?’
So softly I could hardly hear, she said, ‘Elise.’
‘It’s too cold for you here, Elise,’ I said. ‘Come back with me, I’ll look after you.’
She glanced once more up towards the bridge, then she hesitantly put her hand in mine and knelt down and slipped into the water beside me. We swam the short distance back to the shore, and I got out, my jeans and shirt dripping water over the path, and I held up my big Afghan coat for her. She put it on, I buttoned up the front for her, and she shivered. She wasn’t crying any more, but her perfect face with her high cheekbones and the black hair and her careful dark eyes: she seemed so vulnerable in that huge heavy coat of mine. And so sad.
The first hint of the morning sun was showing from the opposite end of the lake, and I picked up my shoes.
‘Where are your clothes, Elise?’ I asked her. She looked over to where everyone was lying on the grass, most still sleeping. No-one had really paid any attention to what had just happened.
‘There somewhere,’ she said. ‘I was lying awake there and I wanted to swim.’
‘Let’s go and find them.’ We walked around for a bit, stepping over sleeping bodies and finally she pointed to a little pile of clothes beside some guy with long hair who was snoring on his back. She looked at me, and for the first time, she smiled. She picked up the clothes, and turned back towards the lake and started running. I kept up with her, and we were both laughing as we ran down the side of the Serpentine with the early morning sun in our eyes. Eventually she stopped, down by the old bandstand, and she took off the coat and slipped on her clothes, looking in my eyes as she did so.
‘Now you,’ she said, handing me my coat. ‘You’ll freeze in those wet clothes. Take them off.’ She began to unbutton my shirt, and I took off my jeans and slipped naked into the coat while she hung my clothes on the brass rails of the bandstand.
‘We can sit here while they dry,’ she said. And we sat on the floor of the bandstand and listened to the birds and watched as more people began to drift into the park and head over towards the Cockpit. We talked about things, I told her about the business, she told me she worked in Harrods on one of the perfume counters. At one point, when we’d been quiet for a moment, I asked her why she’d been crying, and she just said, ‘Oh you know, that happens with me. You’ll have to get used to it.’
Just like that. It was all assumed, we would be together, and I did try to get used to it, and I did try, in my own way, to look after her. But none of us was good enough, none of us was strong enough. We could have been happy; I think that now, remembering that day here on my own in the dark, in this awful empty mansion. We could have been happy, but instead, we created a hell on earth. There was nothing either of us could do about it.
The rest of that day went by in the park. Because I knew the guys from Blackhill, they told the Hells Angels guarding the stage to let us slip in to the side just before the Stones came on later in the afternoon. Jagger came on in a white dress, and read a poem by Shelley to the crowd – there were a couple of hundred thousand people there that day. Some roadies set a flock of butterflies free from sacks on the stage, supposedly as a tribute to Brian Jones, but it was too hot by then and they’d been cooped up in the sacks for too long so most of them fluttered about the stage a bit, then fell dead all around us.
All I can remember is that last song, Sympathy For The Devil, when they had all these black drummers on the stage whipping up a storm with Charlie Watts, and Jagger’s voice sang out over the water of the Serpentine: ‘I’ll lay your soul to waste.’
You can buy The Damnation Of Peter Pan here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0957629478?pf_rd_p=330fbd82-d4fe-42e5-9c16-d4b886747c64&pf_rd_r=CC6VZ7XH1MR3QAKWQY1G