Sunday, January 25, 2015
Wild in the Country
The Beatles were a big part of my childhood. Not my youth – that was Bowie, Lou Reed and punk – but my childhood. Being born in the same year as their debut hit single, and having sisters much older than me, the sound of the Fab Four inevitably drifted through our small council house day and night in my early years. My two oldest sisters even saw The Beatles live at Lewisham Odeon in 1963; they said they could not hear a note for all the screaming going on around them – not them, of course: too cool. I also recall collecting bubble gum cards with stills from the 1968 animated film, Yellow Submarine, and sneaking in to my sisters’ room to gaze at the Magical Mystery Tour double EP, which I was not supposed to touch under any circumstances. I never played I Am the Walrus or The Fool on the Hill but I was fascinated by the artwork of the gatefold sleeve and the colour booklet that came with it. When the writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie says that anyone who professes to not like The Beatles is lying and affecting a pose, he is probably right. I do not dislike The Beatles but it was never my music – it belonged to my big sisters and it still does.
As a consequence, I have never thought too much about the mop-tops down the years until I was recently alerted to a local connection at my end by Sussex Sedition’s Somerset correspondent, Andrew Brooke. Reading the Hunter Davies biography of the band, he discovered that their manager, Brian Epstein, had owned a house - Kingsley Hill - in Warbleton, just near Heathfield in East Sussex. Epstein had bought his country retreat in February 1967 and, in May of that year, hosted a lavish party at the house to celebrate the imminent release of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Heart Club Band album. John Lennon’s then wife, Cynthia, recalled: “John and I travelled down in the Rolls with a group of friends. On the journey everyone took LSD and I, against my better judgment but carried away by the jolly atmosphere in the car, decided to join in.” At the party, Cynthia had a bad trip – “upstairs I found an open bedroom window and contemplated jumping out” - but John, George and press officer Derek Taylor spent most of the time in Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls Royce listening to Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale over and over again. Paul McCartney was the only Beatle not to attend the party.
There were other similarly drug-fuelled parties at Kingsley Hill in the following months that year, but the summer of love came to an abrupt end in the dog days of August. Epstein had invited friends down to Kingsley Hill for the Bank Holiday weekend but returned to London early when some guests, specifically invited for recreational purposes, failed to turn up. But he phoned Kingsley Hill the next day to say he would be travelling back down by train and needed to be picked up from Uckfield Station. He never arrived, however, and was found dead in his London home a few days later from an overdose of barbiturates. He was 32.
There is not much to see at Kingsley Hill today. The trim hedges and white five-bar gate bearing the house name give no clue to its place in the Beatles legend; but it is a joy to know that at one time, as the good folk of Warbleton went about their honest business, the loveable Beatles were holding court in a den of hedonism behind such a respectable frontage.