In Boston the Buddhas smile, but were Hippies really that chic?


Lost on the Boston Harbour Walk

Blissfully aware that it was Friday the 13th and that this was, in ancient times, a power day for women (was it guys, d’you think that spread the rumour of bad luck?) , I selected my route to the Museum of Fine Arts from Aquarium via the Boston harbour walk.  It was my second day in town, and I was thirsting for art.  I’d managed to shake off the bad taste left by the girl in Urban Outfitters the day before:  “CLOSE THE DOOR.”  I did an about turn and, morphing into a snotty Englishwoman snapped “the phrase is PLEASE close the door.”  I guess the heat got to us both.

The harbour walk is intriguing; who owns these fancy boats?  Do they fret over never finding enough time to spend on them like people with holiday homes?  Or is it just one way to splash out their zillions so it doesn’t pile up too much.  Do they wake thinking ‘there’s nothing I really need or want today’ or do they wonder what happiness-trinket they can buy?  There aren’t so many Bill and Melinda’s, I fear.  Boats like these must cost a packet just to park up.  Then there’s the staff, the gold taps, scrubbing brushes for the decks, bikini clad lovelies etc let alone the cost of actually going somewhere.   Still, it’s better than hoarding your pee in jars , or leaving your toenails unclipped and curling like a goat’s Howard.  IMG_5326

I got lost.  I always do.  Some people plan their journeys scrupulously.  I wing it.  Somehow I managed to turn “no problem getting to MoFA, just follow the Harbour Walk and there you are” to a hot and bothered realization that if that were true I should have found it an hour ago.  Sometimes you want to climb up a hill to see where you are, especially among the skyscrapers.  It’s amazing how many Bostonians don’t have a clue where their best asset is.  When I did finally arrive, and saw the size of the museum I immediately regretted my strategy.  I didn’t need a day, I needed a week.  More organised people would have catalogued the art they saw in a little notebook, and be far more informative.  I have to apologise.  All I can do is show you pictures of some of my favourite pieces of art, and hope it inspires you to go to this aptly named museum.

My appetite had been whetted by adverts all around town for the ‘Hippy Chic ‘exhibition currently showing.  I have hippy credentials, but you know how they say ‘if you remember the 60s you obviously weren’t there?’ That doesn’t really apply to me.  I remember them well.  I did my best to conform with the non-conformity, I even inhaled, but only socially, like I might share a bottle of wine with friends now.  It wasn’t a lifestyle choice to live in a fug  of marijuana and procrastination.  I had too many nappies (diapers) to change.  I had my first baby when I was 23, and like to think I was a responsible mother.  I breastfed, but only till they were about 6 months old, not until they could toddle up and ask for it before they went to school.  I thought at one time it would be interesting to try LSD, but only if a responsible person would mind the children for 4 days.  I couldn’t find one.  Then I looked up the effects of LSD in one of my father’s medical books and found it produced a so-called ‘pink spot’ in urine just like they find in schizophrenics. That was enough to put me off.  I don’t suppose a real hippy would have been.  However, it does mean any comments I make about the exhibition are from someone who had a clear perception at the time.  Now, honestly, did any of the people you know look like this?

IMG_5332Or this

IMG_5341See the bag she’s holding?  That’s Biba.  I still have my Biba dress, it’s somewhere in the attic in the grandchildren’s dressing up box.  It was a floor length purple sleeveless vest (that’s an English vest, not American) and it came from the original  shop round the back of High Street Kensington (someone’s front room fitted out with old fashioned wooden hat stands).  It cost eighteen shillings, which at the time was just under a pound.  I wore it bra-less, though I only just fitted the criteria we used then: if you can hold a pencil under your breast without it falling down you are not pert enough to go bra-less.  This dress is very lovely, but it wasn’t on the streets of Gloucester at the time, or even the London  I remember.

Look at the hair on these guys.  All the models in the exhibition had white hair.  Maybe they were appealing to those of us who were hippies at the time, and like me are snow white now – but it wasn’t what we looked like then and the image jars.  Hippies had natural coloured hair or hennaed hair.  Even the bleaching was from hanging out in the sun in parks or the first free festivals getting stoned.  Hair dyes weren’t available like they are now.


Well, almost unavailable.  Old ladies went in for purple or pink rinses on their  permed grey hair in those days.  Most didn’t even wash their own hair.  They would go for a shampoo and a set to the hairdressers once a week.  (What happy days those must have been for hairdressers.) It would be set like concrete, stiff with spray, just like a pan cleaner with a faint hint of mauve or pink.  Hippies let it all hang out.  We didn’t use hairdressers.  A few went in for frizzy afros, but the rest of us just grew it.  However, I went through a phase of mixing undiluted purple and pink rinse and achieving a maroon streak in my tangle of sun bleached mousey hair.  Being at a ballet school, with access to stage make up I also went in for green eyebrows and lashes.  I used a tin of Caron D’Ash pastel crayons to improvise wild eyeshadow.  Come to think of it, I was way ahead of my time.  I dyed  Aunty Mamie’s old silk stockings magenta and green.  In winter I wore a long white crochet version of an Afgan coat (all the rage) and a tiny shetland jumper that just covered my breasts and left my midriff bare to my low slung loons even when it was way below freezing.  Hippies I knew improvised, but maybe I just mixed in the wrong circles.   I don’t remember smart hippies like these.


These were some of my favourite paintings and sculptures


Someone having a very bad dayIMG_5349


Probably Paul Revere


Right sort of wind, wrong sort of weather, Wonderland


Jane at the helm, trying to steer a straight course

What’s that about a picture being equal to a thousand words?  Much as I dreaded the return trip to Marblehead, with the possible nightmare of another 8 hours throwing up, I discovered that even though we were being tilted almost flat against the sea, it was the right sort of wind.  No churning, just simple rocking courtesy of a helpful tailwind.  Bracing my, somewhat too short, legs against the opposite bench I  was flung intermittently across the boat until I selfishly hunkered down in one corner, semi-sheltered by the awning  from the battering wind and rain, filling up on cheesy goldfish.  Nick or Jane braved it out at the wheel.


I got to thinking what would happen if one of us were tipped out?  What if both of them were tipped out?  I didn’t have a clue how to use the radio phone, or even how to turn around and fish them out.  I’m not usually one to catastrophize  but couldn’t help remembering a Buddhist friend who was electrocuted on his boat scarcely a year ago, leaving his wife floundering about at sea. Would Jane be able to sail alone if anything happened to Nick on their journeys?  I worried even more when Jane, sans lifejacket,  wearing socks and no shoes, clambered onto the prow to release another sail.  Scanning the ocean for whales made it worryingly obvious how very, well, empty, it is.

Sickness, on the other hand, was well under control.  I’d breakfasted handsomely, toasting on the barbecue (which I was heartened to find is attached to one of the metal rails at the back of the boat, well away from combustibles).  This time I hope I was encouraging company if not any actual use.  The return was shortened by not diverting via the Stellwagen Bank, and that tail wind.  By the time we arrived back at the Boston Yacht Club in Marblehead the weather had calmed, the sun shone and we had an easy time dismantling our stay on the boat.  We hadn’t seen any whales on the return trip, but were satisfied with the sitings we’d had on the way down and from the Dolphin boat.

Jane and Nick returned to work next morning and I had the rest of the week to revisit Boston.  I wanted to take a look at the harbour.  Was I really right that the big international jets, that had thrilled me so much, fly right over the sailing boats?  I last visited Boston with my American husband back in the 1980s, staying with his cousin in a mini mansion in the suburbs.  What I remember most, however, was a lot of mention by his cousin  about what she pronounced ‘boofalow’ mozzarella.  I got the impression that this was a very special mozzarella, only available in Boston and of incomparable taste.  I discovered that like most mozzarella it is more a texture than a taste until it gets melted onto a pizza, when it tastes just like – mozzarella.  This time I wanted to see art.  (Actually I wanted to see his cousin for a coffee, but she was too busy.  I guess looking up an ex’s family is not necessarily such a great idea.)

Catching the Boston bus from Marblehead first thing in the morning I was the only passenger.

 “You from London?” shouted the lady driver to where I sat, half way down the bus.

“No, the West Country.  Nailsworth.”  Why do they always say London?    “Near Bath”.

“D’you remember that series about the hippy guys living in the flat?”

“The Young Ones?”

” That’s right.  I loved that.  Coronation Street?”

“Not my thing I’m afraid”

” Are You Being Served?”  Good grief.  What must she think about us?75c took me all the way to Wonderland.

I had great hopes of Wonderland, who wouldn’t?  But it seems it’s time has come and gone.  Built in 1906 it was believed to be the inspiration for Disney Land.  By 1911 it was bankrupt and was turned into a Greyhound park in 1935.  However it does have the Wonderland Ballroom on the North Shore road.  Sadly that doesn’t  get very good reviews.  GloR says “its the worst venue I’ve ever been too.  Ceiling falling off, security worst in history.  Only place I’ve ever been to where Security breaks up fights and lets the people stay in there…don’t go to this place unless you want to witness fights all night.  Tristan B has a helpful hint “if you’re going to see a show here IT’S NOT GOING TO SELL OUT” and suggests you skip the crappy support bands.


The Old State House, Boston

All I did in Wonderland was buy a Charlie Card, with some difficulty (is there a Plain American campaign?), to get out, and took a train ride to Aquarium by Boston harbour. The temperature was nudging  90°.  It would have been a very good idea to go to an art gallery and take advantage of some air conditioning. Finding there were free guided tours of the Freedom Trail with a Boston National Park Ranger I ended up speeding through the Quincy Market to the meeting point.  I suppose it’s not the poor man’s fault that the ‘trail’ lasted only a couple of blocks.  It took in the Old State House where the revolution was kindled, and where the declaration of independence was read from the balcony.  After that it didn’t really go anywhere of note.  Every few minutes our ranger would stop his talk,  remove a water bottle from his bag, take a slug and say “hydrate folks, remember to hydrate. Take care folks, walk reeeeal slow and careful.”  A natural fast walker and information sponge, the slow pace drove me insane. (I am guessing Texas would not be my place.)

I decided to pass on the afternoon free tour, and take a ride on a Duck boat round the harbour instead.  It sounded cool and refreshing – rather James Bond, splashing into the harbour in a vehicle that could morph into a boat.  (Little did I know that the news in the UK was that a Duck boat had got into trouble on the Thames,  caught on fire, creating a big panic and a rescue; a second one followed with a sinking a week or so later.)  A  ‘history tour’ around town first was included, so it seemed like it would fit the bill (no pun intended) nicely.

I hadn’t anticipated the woman in the seat behind me.  Here she is, caught in the moment when she’s answering the call from what I gathered was her sister. This, in a very loud voice, so we could all share:


The woman behind in the Duck Boat

“Well I know, I know.  He’s constipated.  He’s probably impacted. Yes.  Yes.  Well go and get some glycerine suppositories.  Feel his belly.  You can probably feel it in his belly?  Give it a prod.  No, only one.  Just try one and see what happens.  No, I said GLYCERINE SUPPOSITORY.  You don’t want to give him diarrhoea.”  And as if that wasn’t enough, she had to repeat the conversation over and over.  Did her sister not get it?  Or was she trying to tell us all what a burden it was caring for her father and how much more she knew about it than her sister?  If it was sympathy she wanted it was wasted on me.  All my sympathy went to the poor man having his embarrassing symptoms shared full volume on a Duck Boat.

Duck Boat Boston Harbour

Duck Boat Boston Harbour

Having a whale of a time


The Far Side

The trouble with having a big cup of tea,  healthy bodily functions, and a hesitancy to use the onboard facilities, is that it takes forethought to make arrangements.  i.e. if you see Jane head off in the dingy for the loos in the harbour, and you don’t anticipate your need to join her, you have to wait it out.


Harbour building from the prow of Judy

When the harbour is a few minutes ride away and involves hooking up, ‘bathroom’ visit and showering too, you have to bide your time.  Nevertheless, once we were all sorted out, we worked out that we’d have just about enough time to take the dingy onto the opposite side of the ‘hook’ for a swim with the harbour seals, and make it back in time for the afternoon  whale watch boat on one of the Dolphin Fleet.  The  advantages being that spotter planes guide the boats to whale sitings and they are much more stable.

The introductory talk on board seemed designed to kill all hope.  The humpbacks, we were told, were feeding further north this year because of rising sea temperatures.  If we saw one whale we’d be extremely lucky.  See two whales and we’d be unbelievably fortunate, but the company did good work monitoring the whales and supported their conservation.  With the $40 plus fee justified we set off with somewhat deflated expectations and the knowledge that we had at least seen a couple on the way down (even if it was so briefly that we couldn’t be 100% certain which type).  Even so, I thought ‘yes, but they haven’t factored in Jane’s whale singing  and my dead father’s skills in making things happen.

As they say in the brochure ‘passengers forget themselves in the passion of the moment’.  We all did try to pay attention to the very interesting talk about whales; the ‘baleen’ display (the giant hairy cartilage filters in a whale’s mouth that sift plankton); statistics to make you weep, and the jar of plankton (muddy looking water), but 200 or so eyes were mostly glued to the sea.  Mine almost hurt with the concentration, and my brain strained from willing the whales to appear.  (Think of the wildlife photographers who do this for a living.  They must edit out 99.9% of the material they shoot for two or three minutes of spectacular tale slapping.)

Jane sang, I veered from one side of the boat to the other squashing into any little gap at the rail.  Suddenly a cry went up around the boat: “DOLPHINS” and a school of twenty or thirty white-sided atlantic dolphins did their thing, speeding along at a lick, slicing through the water, racing the boat, and seeming to share our delight in their sleek antics.  Patrick Leigh Fermor in his book Mani described them thus (and in no way could I better his description): ‘they were beautiful abstractions of speed, energy, power and ecstasy leaping out of the water and plunging and spiralling and vanishing like swift shadows, soon to materialize again and sail into the air in another great loop so fast that they seemed to draw the sea after them and shake it off in mid-air, to plunge forward again tearing two great frothing bow-waves with their beaks…’  and more (he wasn’t stingy  with his sentences).  We were thrilled.  If we saw nothing else, we were still thrilled.

Then, amazingly, it happened: “WHALE” came the cry, and the boat emptied out on one side and we crammed over to the pointing arm.  And that’s when we saw the rarest whale on the planet, critically endangered, one of only around 320 left: a North Atlantic Right Whale.  So called, poor thing, because it has just the right sort of oil, just the right sort of blubber, and it’s easy to kill.  There it was, right next to the boat, all 60ft of it, head full of  callosities, looking like a bad case of barnacles, but these are what makes individuals easy to identify.  She was miles off-course, unexpectedly around on the Stellwagen for that time of year, and alone.  It was a deeply poignant siting, and brought tears to my eyes.  I felt very humbled, privileged, and I understand this is a common experience.

In the distance we saw another Dolphin boat turn back and speed forward purposefully.  We followed and soon heard a blow.  Two blows.  It sounded like an air ballon firing up directly overhead, only these spouts shot up from the sleek heads of two enormous whales, pushing 90ft long, characteristically slithering in and out of the water right by the other side of the boat.  These were two Finback Whales, not prone to the spectacular tale slamming of the humpbacks, barely mentioned in the Dolphin Fleet leaflet, but awesome in a different way.  Bigger: Finbacks are the second largest animal on earth. Faster: these are the Formula Ones of the Atlantic.  They have asymmetrical markings on their sides; their left sides having a darker swirl of colour than the right, sleekness emphasised by white lower jaws.  I tried to get a picture, they put on a bit of a show for us, but they were so fast, most of my pictures came out like this:

Footprints of Finback Whale

It took me a while to spot these calling cards.  So huge are Finbacks that for a few moments after they surface and plunge they leave these ‘footprints’ behind on the surface.

I could return home happy.  I’d seen whales.  I’D SEEN WHALES.  Who knows how long we’ll have them?  I would hope enough people are interested to protect them and enjoy them like I did.  I’d like my grandchildren in Wales to see whales.  I’d like my grandchildren in Germany to see whales.  (I can’t wait to show them the footprints to prove that Granny did.)

First, though, there was that 8 hour return trip to Boston to contemplate.  Would I be hideously sick like I was on the way down?  Should I sneak onto one of the fast ferries that plough back and forth to Boston from Provincetown?  I have to admit I faced the prospect of the return sail with great trepidation. But am I one to take the easy way out?

ps Francis.  I know you are itching to hear about the incident in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where I didn’t see a single picture, but I did have a unique experience lying on the floor in the middle of the snail staircase with a charming man, but you’ll just have to wait.  There’s a couple, maybe  three more blogs in this series until we get there.