Mary Lou and My Catharsis

I saw your lips I heard your voice
Believe me I just had no choice
Wild horses couldn’t make me stay away
I thought about a moonlit night
Arms around you good and tight
That’s all I had to see for me to say

Hey hey
Hello Mary Lou, goodbye heart
Sweet Mary Lou I’m so in love with you
I knew Mary Lou, we’d never part
So hello Mary Lou, goodbye heart
Yes hello Mary Lou, goodbye heart
Hello Mary Lou, goodbye heart


A few days ago I was musing, the way one does between engagements with one’s laptop and work on behalf of other people being performed for a miserable trickle of lucre, when the 1960 pop song Hello Mary Lou popped into my head. I’d been thinking about the past – many people don’t; they like to pretend it doesn’t exist or at least that since it is dead it doesn’t matter – and about some formative moments in my early life.

Mary Lou, the original 1960 version sung by Johnny Duncan, not the Ricky Nelson version with extra schmaltz that followed in 1961, had figured in one such turning point in my then brief existence. In 1960 I was 15 until just after Christmas, when I turned 16 and (to no one’s surprise) nothing much changed. Though one thing did change, during the course of that year; something that had a profound effect on me.

Fifteen-year-olds don’t generally think very deeply, or didn’t in those days, unless about Latin declensions or algebraic equations which these days no one thinks about at all. I’m not aware that I did – think very deeply that is – although it’s true I was a bit of a reader. Young habits die hard, apparently.

In 1960 I was a privileged child, at school in England during term time and with my mum and dad (in those days mummy and daddy, though daddy, a colonel, was occasionally Sir) in Malta, where Sir ran some things for the British army garrison.

In the Easter holidays of 1960 I formed an adolescent attraction for a young lady, also a Service Child. Her name wasn’t Mary Lou (perish the thought: Seven-Up was as close as any Brit got to anything American in those days). It was Anne, she was nearly a year younger than me, and I remember her with delicious clarity. That holiday and through the longer summer holiday to follow later we became what today would be called an item, though in those days no such thing existed. In even earlier days, we might have been stepping out, except that in the society I then inhabited, if you were 15 you stepped out very rarely, mostly chaperoned or under parental control, and were expected to behave yourself.

We misbehaved, the two of us, as much as we dared, which wasn’t very much. Over those summer holidays and other school breaks to follow, we developed a close though substantially chaste relationship. It was noted that we enjoyed each other’s company. Garrison gossip relayed the news that we were known to sit holding hands at the stern of the Governor’s launch – we were, after all, privileged children enjoying the last fading rays of the sun that was finally setting on the Empire – and that, on several occasions, we had wandered off on our own and out of sight having reached our boat party’s beach destination.

By today’s standard rules, we were not in the race. Having sex did not occur to either of us as proper or possible. It would be something for later, though we both knew that for us there would be no “later”; that the army posting system would mandate a sad but decorous end to the relationship by sending her father off to his next post and her with him before it moved mine and me along. As it did, though not before Ricky Nelson’s 1961 Mary Lou had raised our private song to pop status.

We negotiated visiting rights, but only from north of a notional point an inch (or so) below the navel. This arrangement was not disclosed to anyone, though doubtless the possibility of such a compact having been made was a matter of speculative interest among our peers and perhaps filtered upwards into the parental chain of command.

I recall soon seeing what I adduced to be alarm in my parents’ eyes and I remember thinking, no, surely they don’t think we’re doing that? It was therefore a shock – it was during the next holidays, the long summer break, when our dangerous liaison reached full flower – to find that the alarm I had seen had nothing to do with the prospect that their son and that girl might be engaging in, um, er, that sort of thing.

It had, instead, it turned out, everything to do with the fact that Anne’s father had served in the West Indies and while there had acquired a West Indian wife who – in the fullness of time and as nature took its course in the flat, calm waters of most British marriages in those days – then became the mother of Anne.

In those now distant days the West Indians one came across were white West Indians, the settler community in those fever-ridden isles that were otherwise commendable jewels in the shrinking imperial crown. Even the West Indian cricket side was white (though it soon acquired a duskier hue and began beating the hell out of English test teams). It was not a matter of comment but merely of fact. I don’t think we even thought about whom it was that actually did the hard work of harvesting all those bananas and putting them on the boats.

However, even in those days when one’s granny and certain aunts remained resolute that table legs should stay in purdah, lace-draped to guard against the possibility of unseemly and ill-bred arousal, and sex was quite unmentionable, it was understood that in the years that the British and their conscripted African, Asian and Amerindian workforces had been ploughing mutual furrows, some measure of miscegenation must have taken place. I don’t remember the term “touch of the tar-brush” being uttered when the topic was broached with me – it would have been low language, not something one would say in polite conversation – but the message was clear.

Anne and her mother might be very nice people (as indeed they were) but they were probably Not Quite White. Moreover, the possibly minuscule measure by which they might be Not Quite White was beside the point. One felt a subliminal invitation to recall the brindle Babu in that Kipling tale, the one who used his last drop of white blood to prevent a riot and then collapsed in a heap of un-British moral funk.

This was my youthful catharsis. It was immaterial to me that the alluringly fragrant and honey-blonde Anne, who always had a light tan, whose grey-green eyes were hypnotic and whose sense of the absurd so perfectly matched my own, did not produce tan lines of such blindingly obvious contrast as to put liverwurst and burnt bacon to shame. It didn’t rate on my list of Things to Note, except that I’d have killed to have her natural skin-tone. I did envy her for her all-over super-light bronze.

By this time in my life I was enjoying not only Kipling but Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Saki and others who produced the hagiography of late imperial times. For one thing, it got me away from Pliny (both Elder and Younger) and their dead language. Yet I had identified, defined (at least to my own youthfully untutored satisfaction) and completely rejected the implicit racism that coloured the writing I otherwise admired.

This shaped my response to the Anne Question when it was eventually raised by my parents. They thought I should find another nice girl to make friends with. They suggested one or two I might consider. Apparently, though this was not stated, they would pass the colour test. I’m sure they were very nice. They seemed pleasant enough. But they weren’t Anne and I said so.

It was the first time I had argued with my parents. It angered me that it was over the matter of “tainted blood”, a commodity whose existence I would vehemently deny, that was vital only in a racial narrative which I also rejected.

The confrontation was well-mannered and nuanced as all such matters should be and they accepted that I was not to be shifted. But nonetheless it shocked me.  My parents were lovely people, the kindest I’ve ever known, and certainly among the most indulgent. But the incident showed me – all children must find this out at some point of course – that they were the product of their formative era and I of my emergent one.