It’s late September and I really should be back in school. I know I keep you amused, by I feel I’m being used…all together now: “Oh Maggie, I wish I’d never seen your face!”. I have just realised I know all the words to Maggie May, but then we used to sing it en masse in the middle of the dance floor at Bradford University students’ union bar in 1973. In the song, Rod Stewart is a young man in love with an older woman. The summer has run its sweet course and he needs to get back to his studies. He needs to break free; the days of romance have lost their shine and reality has hit him like a bag of cement.
September is a sad month – unless you like misty mornings and burning leaves at the bottom of the garden. Or unless you live in Brazil, where it’s the beginning of spring. Come to think of it, how can it be spring and autumn at the same time, with some people getting out the blankets and others gearing up for bikini parties? How can the world be in two places at the same time, creating two completely different moods? How can I be in Bradford and Brazil? Well, I am, sometimes…
It’s September 1976 and I’m in Manningham, by the park, near the famous Lister’s Mill chimney. I have fallen in love with Judith, an older woman (she’s 23!) and we are about to have a romantic holiday in the Scottish Highlands. The summer has been spent cuddling and giggling in my Victorian conversion flat. I have been pretending I know how to cook and driving without a licence, but then I am young and foolish. It feels divine.
In the Highlands we curl up inside a little orange tent, I try and cook breakfast like a man, we drink whisky in cosy pubs; then we move to a caravan and lie flat on the solid bed, listening to the rain pattering on the roof, feeling warm inside like glow worms. I stare at Loch Ness for hours, captivated by the deep silence, and we take pictures of ourselves pulling faces, revelling in the fizz and froth of youth. We are so in love that we listen to Barry Manilow cassettes and think it’s normal.
September is always a turning point, a time for reminiscing. T.S. Eliot wrote a riddle about time, suggesting that “time future” was “contained in time past”. I think he means to go forward we need to revisit and make sense of the past. My grandma used to long to be 21 again, but only if she could go back with her older, mature mind. I would also love to travel back “knowing what I know now”, but I would be 26. Yes, I would sail back to 1982, the year I tried to reinvent myself as a scholar. Gone were the purple loon pants, patchouli oil and unkempt hair, and in came the second-hand suits, kipper ties and cardboard briefcase. I looked like a down-at-heel insurance man but fancied myself as Rupert Brooke.
Being Rupert, my favourite haunts are reading rooms in the grand old libraries of Yorkshire where I sit for hours with a pile of books – John Ruskin, Jonathan Swift, Ernest Dowson – pretending I am at Oxford or Cambridge. When the library closes I drift over to the pub with a Penguin classic in my pocket, sip ale and recite passages from Ulysses. The locals call me ‘Gandalf’, the daft idiot in the corner who talks to himself. But I care not. I want to be educated, a gentleman. The life of a flat-capped, pigeon-fancying, whippet-keeping northern working man is not for me.
As the year comes to a close, a disc-jockey mate of mine invites me to join him at a Christmas disco. Why not? So I boldly waltz into the place with a grin as wide as a flat cake, acting and speaking like Bradford’s answer to Oscar Wilde. And there in front of me is my old flame Judith. She is now married with kids, but we beam at each other and both realise instantly that the thrill hasn’t gone. She is tiddly and asks me if I still have a hairy chest. I say it’s hairier and she moves closer. We end up clutching, hiding in the middle of the dance floor. Suddenly there is a loud shouting voice and her husband appears. He grabs her arm and yanks her away.
So ends another chapter of my life. Judith – my Maggie May – symbolizes my old Bradford youth. I loved her when I was a simpleton. But Gandalf had other ambitions; he wanted to learn the Latin tongue and experience the exotic charms of Spain and South America. Nevertheless, love is a powerful force, and every September I think of that orange tent in the middle of a damp and misty field somewhere in the Highlands of Scotland. Only I don’t hear Rod Stewart singing, I hear Barry Manilow inviting me to join him “at the Copa, Copacabana”. You see, Gandalf had to come to Brazil and find his Lola.