Early in my childhood, when I was about six or seven, I began to get the feeling that there was something different about me. Maybe it was the way people talked about me as if I weren’t in the room. My family lived at 1, the Green, a tiny house in Ripley, Surrey, which opened directly onto the village Green. It was part of what had once been almshouses and was divided into four rooms; two poky bedrooms upstairs, and a small front room and kitchen downstairs. The toilet was outside, in a corrugated iron shed at the bottom of the garden, and we had no bathtub, just a big zinc basin that hung on the back door. I don’t remember ever using it.
Twice a week my mum used to fill a smaller tin tub with water and sponge me down, and on Sunday afternoons I used to go and have a bath at my Auntie Audrey’s, my dad’s sister, who lived in the new flats on the main road. I lived with Mum and Dad, who slept in the main bedroom overlooking the Green, and my brother, Adrian, who had a room at the back. I slept on a camp bed, sometimes with my parents, sometimes downstairs, depending on who was staying at the time. The house had no electricity, and the gas lamps made a constant hissing sound. It amazes me now to think that whole families lived in these little houses.
My mum had six sisters: Nell, Elsie, Renie, Flossie, Cath, and Phyllis, and two brothers, Joe and Jack. On a Sunday it wasn’t unusual for two or three of these families to show up, and they would pass the gossip and get up–to–date with what was happening with us and with them. In the smallness of this house, conversations were always being carried on in front of me as if I didn’t exist, with whispers exchanged between the sisters. It was a house full of secrets. But bit by bit, by carefully listening to these exchanges, I slowly began to put together a picture of what was going on and to understand that the secrets were usually to do with me. One day I heard one of my aunties ask, “Have you heard from his mum?” and the truth dawned on me, that when Uncle Adrian jokingly called me a little bastard, he was telling the truth.
The full impact of this realization upon me was traumatic, because at the time I was born, in March 1945—in spite of the fact that it had become so common because of the large number of overseas soldiers and airmen passing through England—an enormous stigma was still attached to illegitimacy. Though this was true across the class divide, it was particularly so among working–class families such as ours, who, living in a small village community, knew little of the luxury of privacy. Because of this, I became intensely confused about my position, and alongside my deep feelings of love for my family there existed a suspicion that in a tiny place like Ripley, I might be an embarrassment to them that they always had to explain.
The truth I eventually discovered was that Mum and Dad, Rose and Jack Clapp, were in fact my grandparents, Adrian was my uncle, and Rose’s daughter, Patricia, from an earlier marriage, was my real mother and had given me the name Clapton. In the mid–1920s, Rose Mitchell, as she was then, had met and fallen in love with Reginald Cecil Clapton, known as Rex, the dashing and handsome, Oxford–educated son of an Indian army officer. They had married in February 1927, much against the wishes of his parents, who considered that Rex was marrying beneath him. The wedding took place a few weeks after Rose had given birth to their first child, my uncle Adrian. They set up home in Woking, but sadly, it was a short–lived marriage, as Rex died of consumption in 1932, three years after the birth of their second child, Patricia.
Rose was heartbroken. She returned to Ripley, and it was ten years before she was married again, after a long courtship on his part, to Jack Clapp, a master plasterer. They were married in 1942, and Jack, who as a child had badly injured his leg and therefore been exempt from call–up, found himself stepfather to Adrian and Patricia. In 1944, like many other towns in the south of England, Ripley found itself inundated with troops from the United States and Canada, and at some point Pat, age fifteen, enjoyed a brief affair with Edward Fryer, a Canadian airman stationed nearby. They had met at a dance where he was playing the piano in the band. He turned out to be married, so when she found out she was pregnant, she had to cope on her own. Rose and Jack protected her, and I was born secretly in the upstairs back bedroom of their house on March 30, 1945. As soon as it was practical, when I was in my second year, Pat left Ripley, and my grandparents brought me up as their own child. I was named Eric, but Ric was what they all called me.
Rose was petite with dark hair and sharp, delicate features, with a characteristic pointed nose, “the Mitchell nose,” as it was known in the family and which was inherited from her father, Jack Mitchell. Photographs of her as a young woman show her to have been very pretty, quite the beauty among her sisters. But at some point at the outset of the war, when she had just turned thirty, she underwent surgery for a serious problem with her palate. During the operation there was a power cut that resulted in the surgery having to be abandoned, leaving her with a massive scar underneath her left cheekbone that gave the impression that a piece of her cheek had been hollowed out. This left her with a certain amount of self-consciousness. In his song “Not Dark Yet,” Dylan wrote, “Behind every beautiful face there’s been some kind of pain.” Her suffering made her a very warm person with a deep compassion for other people's dilemmas. She was the focus of my life for much of my upbringing.
Jack, her second husband and the love of her life, was four years younger than Rose. A shy, handsome man, over six feet tall with strong features and very well built, he had a look of Lee Marvin about him and used to smoke his own roll–ups, made from a strong, dark tobacco called Black Beauty. He was authoritarian, as fathers were in those days, but he was kind, and very affectionate to me in his way, especially in my infant years. We didn’t have a very tactile relationship, as all the men in our family found it hard to express feelings of affection or warmth. Perhaps it was considered a sign of weakness. Jack made his living as a master plasterer, working for a local building contractor. He was a master carpenter and a master bricklayer, too, so he could actually build an entire house on his own.
An extremely conscientious man with a very strong work ethic, he brought in a very steady wage, which didn’t ever fluctuate for the whole time I was growing up, so although we could have been considered poor, we rarely had a shortage of money. When things occasionally did get tight, Rose would go out and clean other people’s houses, or work part–time at Stansfield’s, a bottling company with a factory on the outskirts of the village that produced fizzy drinks such as lemonade, orangeade, and cream soda. When I was older I used to do holiday jobs there, sticking on labels and helping with deliveries, to earn pocket money. The factory was like something out of Dickens, reminiscent of a workhouse, with rats running around and a fierce bull terrier that they kept locked up so it wouldn’t attack visitors.
Ripley, which is more like a suburb today, was deep in the country when I was born. It was a typical small rural community, with most of the residents being agricultural workers, and if you weren’t careful about what you said, then everybody knew your business. So it was important to be polite. Guildford was the main shopping town, which you could get to by bus, but Ripley had its own shops, too. There were two butchers, Conisbee’s and Russ’s, and two bakeries, Weller’s and Collins’s, a grocer’s, Jack Richardson’s, Green’s the paper shop, Noakes the ironmonger, a fish–and–chip shop, and five pubs. King and Olliers was the haberdashers where I got my first pair of long trousers, and it doubled as a post office, and we had a blacksmith where all the local farm horses came in for shoes.
Every village had a sweet shop; ours was run by two old-fashioned sisters, the Miss Farrs. We would go in there and the bell would go ding–a–ling–a–ling, and one of them would take so long to come out from the back of the shop that we could fill our pockets up before a movement of the curtain told us she was about to appear. I would buy two Sherbert Dabs or a few Flying Saucers, using the family ration book, and walk out with a pocketful of Horlicks or Ovaltine tablets, which had become my first addiction.
In spite of the fact that Ripley was, all in all, a happy place to grow up in, life was soured by what I had found out about my origins. The result was that I began to withdraw into myself. There seemed to have been some definite choices made within my family regarding how to deal with my circumstances, and I was not made privy to any of them. I observed the code of secrecy that existed in the house—“We don’t talk about what went on”—and there was also a strong disciplinarian authority in the household, which made me nervous about asking any questions. On reflection, it occurs to me that the family had no real idea of how to explain my own existence to me, and that the guilt attached to that made them very aware of their own shortcomings, which would go a long way in explaining the anger and awkwardness that my presence aroused in almost everybody. As a result I attached myself to the family dog, a black Labrador called Prince, and created a character for myself, whose name was “Johnny Malingo.” Johnny was a suave, devil–may–care man/boy of the world who rode roughshod over anyone who got in his way. I would escape into Johnny when things got too much...
Revue de presse
“An absorbing tale of artistry, decadence, and redemption.”
—Los Angeles Times
“One of the very best rock autobiographies ever.”
— Houston Chronicle
“A glorious rock history.”
—New York Post
“This book does what many rock historians couldn’t: It debunks the legend . . . puts a lie to the glamour of what it means to be a rock star.”
—Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune
“Strong stuff. Clapton reveals its author’s journey to self-acceptance and manhood. Anyone who cares about the man and his music will want to take the trip with him.”
—Anthony DeCurtis, Rolling Stone
“Clapton is honest . . . even searing and often witty, with a hard-won survivor’s humor . . . an honorable badge of a book.”
—Stephen King, New York Times Book Review
“An even, unblinking sensibility defines the author’s voice.”
—New York Times
“An unsparing self-portrait.”