Eric Clapton, one of the most gifted guitarists of our era, writes about his life in a new autobiography, entitled simply “Clapton.” Here's an excerpt.
Chapter One: Growing up
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.
* * *
Music became a healer for me, and I learned to listen with all my being. I found that it could wipe away all the emotions of fear and confusion relating to my family. These became even more acute in 1954, when I was nine and my mother suddenly turned up in my life. By this time she was married, to a Canadian soldier named Frank MacDonald, and she brought with her two young children, my half brother and sister, Brian, who was six, and Cheryl, who was one. We went to meet my mother when she got off the boat at Southampton, and down the gangplank came this very glamorous, charismatic woman, with her auburn hair up high in the fashion of the day. She was very good-looking, though there was a coldness to her looks, a sharpness. She came off the boat laden with expensive gifts that her husband Frank had sent over from Korea, where he had been stationed during the war. We were all given silk jackets with dragons embroidered on them, and lacquered boxes and things like that.
Even though I knew the truth about her by now, and Rose and Jack were aware of this, nobody said anything when we got home, till one evening, when we were all sitting in the front room of our tiny house, and I suddenly blurted out to Pat, “Can I call you Mummy now?” During an awful moment of embarrassment, the tension in the room was intolerable. The unspoken truth was finally out. Then she said in a very kindly way, “I think it’s best, after all they’ve done for you, that you go on calling your grandparents Mum and Dad,” and in that moment I felt total rejection.
Though I tried to accept and understand what she was saying to me, it was beyond my grasp. I had expected that she would sweep me up in her arms and take me away to wherever she had come from. My disappointment was unbearable, and almost immediately turned into hatred and anger. Things quickly became very difficult for everybody. I became surly and withdrawn, rejecting everyone’s affection, as I felt I had been rejected. Only my Auntie Audrey, Jack’s sister, was able to get through, as I was her favorite, and she would come and see me once a week, bringing me toys and sweets, and gently trying to reach me. I would often abuse her and be openly cruel to her, but deep down inside I was very grateful for her love and attention.
Things were not made any easier by the fact that Pat, who was now referred to in public as my “sister,” in order to avoid complicated and embarrassing explanations, stayed on for the better part of a year. Because they’d come from abroad, and the kids had Canadian accents, they were treated like stars in the village and given special treatment. I felt shoved aside. I even resented my little half brother Brian, who looked up to me and always wanted to come out and play with my pals. One day I was having a tantrum and I stormed out of the house onto the Green. Pat came after me, and I just turned on her and shouted, “I wish you’d never come here! I wish you’d go away!” — and in that single moment I remembered just how idyllic my life had really been up until that day. It had been so simple; there was just me and my parents, and even though I knew they were really my grandparents, I was getting all the attention and there was at least love and harmony in the house. With this new complication, it was just impossible to figure out where my emotions were supposed to go.
These events at home had a drastic effect on my school life. In those days, at age eleven, you had to take an exam called the “eleven plus,” which decided where you were going to go next, either to a grammar school for those with the top results, or a secondary modern school for those with lower grades. You took the exam at another school, which meant that we were all piled into buses and driven to a strange place, where we took exam after exam over the course of a whole day. I blanked on everything. I was so frightened by my surroundings and so insecure and scared that I just couldn’t respond, and the result was that I failed miserably. I didn’t particularly care, because going to either Guildford or Woking Grammar School would have meant being separated from my mates, none of whom were academics. They all excelled in physical sports and had a certain amount of scorn for schooling. As for Jack and Rose, if they were at all disappointed, they didn’t really show it.
So I ended up going to St. Bede’s Secondary Modern School in the neighboring village of Send, which is where I really began to make discoveries. It was the summer of 1956, and Elvis was top of the charts. I met a boy at the school who was a newcomer to Ripley. His name was John Constantine. He came from a well-off middle-class family who lived on the outskirts of the village, and we became friends because we were so different from everybody else. Neither of us fit in. While everybody else at school was into cricket and football, we were into clothes and buying 78 rpm records, for which we were scorned and ridiculed. We were known as “the Loonies.” I used to go to his house a lot, and his parents had a radiogram, which was a combination radio and gramophone. It was the first one I had seen. John had a copy of “Hound Dog,” Elvis’s number one, and we played it over and over. There was something about the music that made it totally irresistible to us, plus it was being made by someone not much older than we were, who was like us, but who appeared to be in control of his own destiny, something we could not even imagine.
Excerpted from CLAPTON by Eric Clapton. Copyright © 2007 by E.C. Music Limited. Reprinted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of the Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group of Random House, Inc.