In 1975, Ken Potter undertook an epic 8-year round-the-world adventure. He made the transition from being a bored London croupier with an unfulfilled dream of escaping the rat-race to embarking on the trip of a lifetime. The desire to communicate with people of diverse cultures was a strong, driving influence. Donning pinstripes and a bowler-hat festooned with Union Jack flags, he adopted a diplomatic British public persona and became, in the eyes of the international media, 'Sir' Ken Potter, self-dubbed 'Knight of the Road' and self-appointed British ‘Ambassador to the World’ . He has now written a play about the adventure – 'BEYOND BORDERS: The Quixotic Adventures of Sir Ken'
THE TRIP: THE BEGINNING
Okay, let's get something straight from the start. Ken Potter is not a Sir. Well, he is in a sense. He's a 'Knight of the Road'. If you're a Knight then it follows that you're a Sir, doesn't it? What we're really trying to say is that he hasn't got down on his knee in front of the Queen.
So how did Ken come to be classed as a 'Knight of the Road'?
It's an intriguing story.
In 1974, He was working in a London casino as an inspector on American roulette. He'd been working in casinos for five years and was due for a change. He poses the question:
"Have you ever sat at your desk and wished that you were somewhere else?"
In 1974, he did. Well, he sat on his inspector's stool, wishing he was somewhere else. For ages he'd had an unfulfilled dream of escaping the rat-race. He wanted to travel.
The Casino was an exclusive one. Under the chandeliers, he was exposed to the smart set – celebrities, film stars, bankers, high-rollers, demure ladies in long evening dresses kissing the air about each other's cheeks...
However, for him, the glamour of casinos had faded. He was bored. But he didn't know what to do about it.
One day, Alan Llambias, a fellow croupier, told Ken of his intention to give up the job and go travelling. For a few months! His destination? Well, anywhere really as long as he ended up at the Rio carnival.
Let's let Ken take up the story...
24th September, 1974 8.15pm
I'm upstairs at the Casino.
Alan's just told me he's going on a world trip. For a year. Ending at the Rio Carnival.
This information inspires me. Images of palm trees and white beaches spring to mind.
It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. Give up the job. Go travelling. Freedom. Adventure. Live life on the hoof for a while.
And Rio has a special significance for me. I’ve always wanted to go there. I tell him this. He looks at me directly, mischief written over his face.
"Come with me then," he says.
I explain that I can’t for various reasons. His smile broadens.
"I’ve got a few bottles of red at home," he says. "What about a drink after work?"
Alan was the consummate salesman. As he started explaining his intentions to travel, thoughts of distant horizons filled Ken's mind – images of palm trees and white beaches, blue skies and aquamarine seas.
Ken had always wanted to travel in a big way and Alan's words inspired him to start.
'Genuine beginnings begin within us, even when they are brought to our attention by external opportunities.'
–William Throsby Bridges
25th September, 1974 2.35am
Sun, Sea, Soccer, Sex, Samba
Alan and I are surrounded by maps, books, bottles of red, and half-filled ashtrays in his flat at Herne Hill.
He has artistic ambitions. His paintings, inspired by René Magritte and Vincent Van Gogh, hang on the walls and are littered randomly all over the place.
He's explaining his proposed trip to me.
He's taking time out. One year. Anything goes. His face is getting redder and redder with enthusiasm.
I have a suspicion he's teasing me. He knows that I'm bored with the job. He knows that I want to travel. He also knows that I have a secret yearning to be a writer.
"I want to be an artist," he says. "That's going to be part of the trip. A new lifestyle. New identity. Life should have some meaning. Creativity. Fulfilment. Rolling a ball around a roulette wheel..." He shrugs.
"Alan," I say. "I've just got out of debt. I need to get my career sorted."
"You won't need much," he says. "We'll hitch everywhere. On the road like Jack Kerouac." I can feel my resistance crumbling.
"It's funny this," I say. "My Old Man always wanted to go to Rio. But he couldn't. He was never in a position to."
"He couldn't. You can. If you've got a dream act on it. Otherwise you'll never do it."
God! Alan's such a salesman. His proposition is looking rosier by the minute.
"The world's my roulette wheel," he says. "Could be yours too. Just think about it. Rio! Sun, sea, soccer, sex, samba."
"When do we start?"
Surrounded by maps, guides, bottles of red, and half-filled ashtrays, Alan and Ken discussed different aspects of the trip.
One aspect was to accept that they were no longer croupiers. They adopted new identities: Alan became the artist and Ken the writer.
Alan painted this picture (right) of Ken in 1974. Creativity was all part of what had affectionally become known as 'THE TRIP'.
14th December, 1975 10.45pm
A Columbus Odyssey in reverse.
We're in Alan's flat again. It's become the office. The centre of organisation.
We've packed in our jobs and are leaving Britain on the 27th of January. There's only one problem. We know we want to go to Rio but which way shall we go to get there? My imagination is running rampant.
"I've got a great idea," I say. "What about we fly to New York. That's cheap. Then we could cross the States first, travel down through Latin America, and get to Rio that way."
Alan isn't impressed. He thinks we should fly straight to Rio.
"Come on, man," I say. "Where's your sense of adventure? Just think about it. Mexico. Guatemala. Columbia..."
"Ken," he says. "The Rio carnival's in February. We need to go straight there."
I remind him that the trip is scheduled to last a few months. By the time we travel across the States and down through Latin America, we'd be in time for the next carnival.
"Listen," he says. "I know the States. If we go there first, we'll spend what little money we've got and never get any further. I guarantee it."
The disagreement rumbles on into the night. With the help of bottles of red wine, it becomes quite heated. We reach an impasse.
Neither Alan nor I want to give way.
"Alan," I say. 'If we continue like this, the trip will never get off the ground. Let's think laterally.'
"Okay," he replies.
A few moments of silence and then...
"Hey, I've got an idea," I say. "Look! We haven't agreed so far so let's try something completely different. I've thought of a third option."
"Tomorrow, we book on a ferry to Calais. That gets the trip started. From Calais we'll travel through Europe and Asia to get to Rio that way. We go east to discover the west – a sort of Columbus odyssey in reverse." Alan roars with laughter.
"That's insane," he cries. "It's bananas. But I like it. It's in the spirit of the trip. Asia would be cheap enough. You're on."
17th January, 1975 1.45pm
Spinning Out Of Control
It feels like Alan and I have lost contact with the ground. Have you ever had that feeling that an idea you've had and put into operation has suddenly developed a life-force of its own? That's the feeling we've had with what has endearingly become known as 'The Trip'.
Inspired by Alan's love for René Magritte, we've decided to go abroad in pinstripes and bowler-hats. We stick Union Jacks on the bowlers and, with the backpacks on as well, we cut Monty Pythonesque-like figures.
British eccentricity is not dead. We can't stop laughing.
For the hell of it I contact the media and tell them we are going abroad as British ambassadors.
The Daily Mirror publishes a report about us with a large picture showing us striding down the Uxbridge Road in the pinstripes, doffing bowlers to everyone. It's a great hoot. The Mirror writes:
"The economy might be on a sticky wicket and our cricketing hopes may have turned to ashes. But, by jove, the British spirit lives on."
Today, we have to go into the LBC Radio studios near Fleet Street for an interview.
Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.
– Paulo Coelho
17th January, 1975 3.59pm
Alan and I are all togged up, being shown through the LBC studios. Suddenly, we're looking through a large glass pane at the newsreader seated at his desk.
We're instructed that, as soon as he finishes reading the four o'clock news, we'll be taken inside for an interview. The newsreader is looking down at his news sheet.
"Here is the four o'clock news," he says. "The IRA today..."
He looks up and catches sight of our bizarre, Monty Pythonesque figures. He stops mid-sentence, stifles a laugh, splutters, gulps, and clears his throat.
"Excuse me," he says. "I'll read that again. The IRA today..."
27th January, 1975. The send-off at The Clarence public house in Whitehall.
Because Alan(On the right in the picture) and Ken were ex-croupiers, the Playboy Club sent along Carolyn Moore to see them off.
Carolyn was an ex-Miss Great Britain and once had a much publicised weekend with George Best.
The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau
27th January, 1975 3pm
The Clarence Send-off
The big day has arrived. Alan and I are at The Clarence public house in Whitehall. We've been here since noon. The manager kindly lets us have a going-away party and provides free booze. Lots of our friends are in the bar supping up.
Alan and I are looking idiosyncratically dapper in Moss Bros pinstripes and bowler hats with brollies, backpacks, and an array of Union Jacks.
The press and radio stations have been fronting up, taking our photos and interviewing us.
As we're ex-croupiers, The Playboy Club have sent along Carolyn Moore to see us off. She was Miss Great Britain in 1971 and once had a much publicised weekend with George Best.
The club also gives us a couple of Playboy T-shirts with the bunny on the front. LBC Radio want us to call them every Friday at 6pm from wherever we are, reverse the charges, and they'll put us straight on air after the news.
It's an amazing afternoon. We're chatting to anyone and everyone. But now it's 3pm. Time for the off. We and our bibulous pack tumble out of the pub and on to the pavement.
Alan and I stick out our thumbs in true hitch-hiking tradition. People in bus queues are waving and laughing.
Within moments, a sleek XJ6 Jag arrives and purrs to a halt. An attractive blonde steps out.
"Want a lift?" she asks. She opens the boot and we throw our backpacks inside. We then climb into the Jag and she drives us off, accompanied by the whooping and cheering of our friends on the pavement.
"Thanks, Nina," I say. It's a set-up job. After such a reception it would have been silly to have to go through the motions of being hitch-hikers; hanging around on the pavement for ages, waiting for a lift.
Much better to have your girlfriend scoop you up in style and deliver you to Dover. There, we have a private goodbye as I won't be seeing her for a year.
Alan and I are off!
Leap and the net will appear
– John Burroughs
Bye bye London. After Alan and Ken left the Clarence, they cruised in Nina's Jaguar XJ6 along Whitehall, over Westminster Bridge, down the A2, and she dropped them off in Dover. It was a stylish start. But, from here on, things would get an awful lot tougher.