No Quarter: The Three Lives of Jimmy Page
In this excerpt of Martin Power's biography, Jimmy Page learns guitar, thanks to the skiffle, and makes his first television appearance as a young teen.
Mama Don’t Allow No Skiffle Round Here
Patrick Page was born on January 9, 1944 at the Grove Nursing Home in Heston, a small but verdant suburb of the London borough of Hounslow, neatly situated about ten miles from Big Ben and the political centre of England’s capital city. ‘Owned’ by King Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth in the 1500s, by the time of Page’s arrival, Heston was perhaps best known for the aerodrome that sat imposingly on the outskirts of town, expansion of which from a small air field to a major international airport began the year of Jimmy’s birth. Originally called London Airport but renamed Heathrow in 1966, it was still known as Heston Aerodrome when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich in September 1938 for appeasement talks with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Some two weeks later, Chamberlain returned to Heston clutching a piece of paper in his hand that declared ‘Peace in our time’. He was being a tad optimistic. Within a year, the Nazis invaded Poland and Great Britain was at war with Germany for the second time in as many decades. Soon, the rest of the world was involved too.
The war was still raging when Jimmy was taken from Grove Nursing Home to his parents’ house at 26 Bulstrode Road in central Hounslow a day or so after his birth. Though the awful, nightly bombing raids that defined ‘The Blitz’ of 1941 had receded somewhat, London was still a very dangerous place to be as German V1 and V2 rockets soon took up where Luftwaffe planes had left off, the new ‘doodlebugs’ targeting the city and its citizens with ruthless efficiency and deadly accuracy. Diffcult times then, especially for those raising a newborn. Thankfully, the Page family seemed to have matters in hand.
Jimmy’s father, James Page -- from whom Jimmy took his name -- was in his mid-twenties when his son came home. Born in 1917, James could easily trace his own family history back to his paternal great-grandfather, Thomas Page, whose thriving carpentry business had employed seven men in Banbury, Oxfordshire during the 1870s. And it was in Banbury that James’ own father, Herbert Miller Page, was born in 1879. A nurseryman by trade, Herbert had his fair share of ups and downs to contend with early in life. Soon after the Page clan moved north from Banbury to Bottesford, Nottinghamshire, Herbert lost the sight of one eye when he was struck by a rebounding air gun pellet fired by his brother John. A horrible thing to befall anyone, Herbert’s bad luck was reported in the local paper at the time. “Such a distressing accident has evoked much sympathy for the young Mr. Page and his family.” It didn’t hold Herbert back either romantically or socially. Marrying Florence Wilson -- three years his junior and originally from Southampton, Hampshire -- the couple had three children, Gladys, Norman, and then after a ten-year gap, Jimmy’s own father, James.
Jimmy’s mother, Patricia –-- whose epithet provided the inspiration for his second name, Patrick -- had an equally interesting family background. Born in Croydon in 1925, Patricia’s own parents were John and Edith Gafkin, though as her father’s Gaelic-sounding surname suggested, there was northern Irish blood in her veins. Indeed, tracing the Gafkins’ history back a generation or two, Patricia’s father, John, two of his four brothers and his own mother, Jeanie, were born in Belfast and Donaghendry, County Tyrone, respectively.
A young couple by today’s standards (though certainly not at the time), James and Patricia Elizabeth Page had been married nearly three years when Jimmy came along. They had prepared admirably well for his arrival. Like Patricia’s father, John -- who sadly died before his daughter wed on April 22, 1941 -- the studious James had found a promising office job in the local aircraft industry, working as a wages clerk. Soon, he would rise to the position of ‘Industrial Personnel Manager’, again an extremely respectable role. After a youthful start in the catering trade, Patricia too put her skills to excellent use, becoming a doctor’s secretary after Jimmy reached school age.
Though central Hounslow was a comfortable enough spot to put down roots, proximity to family and possible work connections may have played a hand in the Pages’ decision to leave the town and move further south to Feltham while James Jr. was an infant. Still nominally in the borough of Hounslow -- if now on the other side of its rangy heath -- Feltham was in essence much the same as Heston where Jimmy was born: similar transport links to central London, similar look, similar village feel and, again, once ‘owned’ by King Henry VIII. But perhaps of greater importance was the fact that Feltham was a good deal closer to James and Patricia’s relatives who lived near the town, thus creating a stronger support network for all concerned. Additionally, Feltham was the base of Menzies Aviation, which like fellow employer ‘The Heston Aircraft Company’, may well have been useful to James Page when considering his long-term career prospects.
Another plausible reason for the Pages’ move to Feltham was the fact that the Nazis had stopped bombing it, as they had indeed stopped bombing most everywhere else by the spring of 1945. The site of Britain’s second largest railway marshalling and freight yard, Feltham had been the target of repeated air strikes but now -- as throughout the rest of Europe -- its residents could sleep soundly in their beds once again. Nevertheless, like the rest of Europe, the onus was very much on picking up the pieces. After years of conflict and the death of millions, towns, cities and countries had to dust themselves off, clean up the rubble and start again. For Feltham, London, England and Great Britain as a whole, this meant a decade or so of avoiding falling masonry or plunging into craters left by bombs and rockets while the process of slow re-building took place. In this oppressive, grey post-war atmosphere, money was tight and food rationing abounded. Prosperity would eventually return, but Jimmy Page was unlikely to get his first proper chocolate bar for another eight years.
It could have been worse. While Page had to wait a while to discover the joys of the cocoa bean, he at least wouldn’t have it snatched away by fellow siblings, as he was to remain an only child. The subject of much psychobabble, only children are meant to be many things, quite a few of them negative: slow to share, excessively private, over-protected, unduly sensitive and, sometimes, just plain odd. On the upside, however, such children were also said to have fine, positive traits including high levels of independence and academic achievement, good organisational skills and strong attention to detail. They also mature faster. In later life, Jimmy would display some, if not quite all of these. But like all only children, the biggest hurdle for him to overcome at the time was socialising with other kids.
Having no brother or sister there to help guide or influence “the rules of the game”, every social skill and human interaction Page learned was by observation alone, and more often than not by watching the adults around him. Not a perfect start when entering a classroom for the first time, then. But Page didn’t seem to mind. He rather liked it that way. “Until the age of five, I was totally isolated from kids my own age,” he later told archivist Howard Mylett. “That early isolation probably had a lot to do with how I turned out. A lot of people can’t be on their own. They get frightened. But it doesn’t bother me at all. It gives me a sense of security.” And as time came to show, it also gave him a formidable base of operations from which to access his own creative process.
When Jimmy was eight, the family upped sticks again and moved to Epsom, this time putting down major and more lasting roots. Again, it was the smart thing to do. Though only half an hour’s drive from their former home in Feltham, the town was neatly removed from the main flight path leading into Heathrow, then at the start of its 50-year run towards becoming Europe’s busiest airport. James Page might have earned his wages from the industry, but he didn’t want the planes it produced ruining his Sunday afternoons. “When the airport got jets, we moved away,” Jimmy recalled in 1983, “it was just so noisy.” Cannily avoiding a future price crash on their house due to constant air traffic, the Pages settled at 34 Miles Road, a pleasant ‘three up, two down’ located in a crescent close, but not too close, to Epsom High Street. Its front room would become Jimmy’s main base of operations for over a decade.
As far as the Page’s new home town was concerned, there was much to commend it, with Epsom full of local history and future promise. Named for a wealthy landowner called Ebba -- Epsom literally translates as ‘Ebba’s manor’ -- it was a strategic meeting place for Anglo-Saxon gentry dating back to the fifth century until the Norman invasion of 1066 called time on such activities. Meriting a mention in the Domesday book of 1086 (two churches, two mills, 38 houses and 24 acres of woodland, no less), Epsom kept mostly to itself until the 1700s, when the Georgians discovered a spring at its centre and turned it into a spa town.
Then a fashionable and, indeed, profitable enterprise, Epsom’s association with spas, flowing water, healing minerals and restful slumber made it well worth a visit, the locals soon producing ‘Epsom salts’ for ailing souls to take home after their stay. In keeping with its spa success, Epsom’s modest racecourse was duly expanded, offering residents and tourists not only the opportunity for physical restoration, but a chance to bet on the horses too.
By 1780, the now famous Epsom Derby and Oaks were off and running, their importance on the racing calendar growing exponentially over the next 100 years. Come 1910, and the Derby and Oaks were bringing over 50,000 visitors to the town for each meeting, this surge in popularity seeing off any remaining farmland in favour of shops, roads and the odd hotel. Surrounded by countryside, with a striking clock tower to mark its centre and the added oddity of having not one, but five psychiatric hospitals to confirm its borders, Epsom in the early fifties was non-threatening, more or less aircraft-free and suited the Pages well. “Most of my childhood was spent in Epsom,” Jimmy later told Howard Mylett. “It was really nice there.”
Enrolled in a local primary school on Pound Lane, Page set about making friends and finding things to do. One early success was reportedly sports, with the youngster showing an aptitude for hurdling that eventually led to him becoming school champion. According to local legend, he was also a keen cricketer. Jimmy’s efforts with brush and canvas were duly noted too, as his teachers encouraged him to focus on art as much as English or arithmetic. Though once describing himself as “a terrible draughtsman”, Page was obviously good enough to be marked out by tutors as one to watch, a useful observation on their part that would help him out of a tight spot when career troubles threatened to flare in his late teens. Away from academia, Jimmy could take full advantage of Epsom’s more leafy aspects, with the local Common, Longrove Park and Mounthill Gardens all within easy reach. In due course, his fondness for walking expanded to a love of full-blown hikes, with Page gaining access to bigger outdoor spaces such as Horton Country Park and the Surrey Hills.
Crucially, Jimmy was also gaining exposure to the pleasures of music, its essential mysteries coming to him from three distinct sources. First was his enrolment in the choir of St. Barnabas Church on Epsom’s Temple Road. Overseen by the cadaverously named Mr. Coffin, Page could be found singing every Sunday morning to the faithful while dressed in the choir robes -- a black cassock, white surplus and white ruff neck -- required for the role. “Yes, I was a choir boy,” he told Channel 4 some 60 years after the event, “and lots of black musicians in the States have said that their (musical inspiration) came from church. But you know, I don’t know if I could say that.” Given his later interests, this seems almost certain.
Excerpted fromNo Quarter: The Three Lives of Jimmy Page. Copyright © 2016 by Martin Power. Excerpted by permission of Overlook Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.