To be born in France in 1946 was to be born into a world stripped of reason and civilization, hollow and demoralised after years of the Occupation, uncomprehending of the meaning of liberation. It was the world Grant Serpell saw without understanding; it was the world in which his parents lived in poverty and hopelessness.
France was a shambles following the Second World War, both culturally and economically. Serpell's father, a professor of music at the University of Paris, had been active in the French Underground. Captured and imprisoned, he survived the ordeal only to emerge a broken man. Two long years of rehabilitation in Nantes served only to convince the elder Serpell that France was not yet ready for its new sons. In 1949, the family moved to Montreal.
In Canada, the professor revived; the aura of a new land was somehow invigorating. Yet the renewal of Serpell's academic fervour would work strange wonders. In 1951, he was offered a chair at Cambridge.
Grant Serpell, the child of France, grew up in the strange world of cloistered British intellectuality. Influenced, no doubt, by his father, his interest in music came at an early age. But more than that, Serpell saw in the mathematical provision of music the basis for an order of things. He turned his talents toward imaginative engineering and became an inventor, using his creative insights to perceive new applications for everyday needs.
Opting out of academic life, Serpell travelled extensively throughout Africa and Asia. In 1967, Serpell arrived in Paris on his way back to England. A friend of his father's took him to the 'Matelot' where he met Sailor. His startling genius with musical precision fascinated the group. He joined the group as a drummer.
Following the break-up of Sailor in 1970, Serpell returned to England. But Paris had become his home. An aeronautical engineering firm in St. Cloud offered him a commission to help design a lighter-than-air aircraft.
"It's a gas," he says. "I want to build a Graf Zeppelin the size of Paraguay and put Onassis on welfare. And I'll do it, too."
Like most of Sailor's other members, he was reluctant to re-assemble the band. "Once is enough. The recognition and all that star jive just isn't worth the hassle. But this seems to be for a good cause. The Arts Association people seem genuine enough. But after this session, it's back to my balloon, yeah?"
(C)1974 Epic Records, Ltd./Sony Music UK. Reprinted without permission.
Go to Henry Marsh.
Go to Phil Pickett.