DJ Taylor: Hippie chick Olivia Partridge has not neglected any opportunity to live life to the full


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The Independent Online

Four-and-a-half decades have passed since the day on which the 18-year-old Olivia Partridge decided to quit her parents' house near Guildford – her father had just retired from the Admiralty – and go in search of what she called "a freer way of living".

Her immediate destination was a music festival in Devon, after which she proceeded by ramshackle convoy to a mushroom farm in North Wales. Naturally, Rear-Admiral Partridge and his wife put up some resistance to her departure (or, as Olivia put it, "got really heavy") and the place at Cambridge she left behind, but in the end they knuckled down. They also continued to pay her allowance.

What a deal of experience Olivia has ratcheted up in the ensuing 45 years, and what sights she has seen! The South of France (where she fell in with an avant-garde rock band and sang backing vocals on an album called Invisible Teapot), Morocco and the foothills of Nepal have all known her sandaled tread. A commune in the wilds of Scotland, a feminist publishing house in Islington, an art project in Northumberland which produced an experimental performance called Profiles in Barbed Wire – all these have found her seated cross-legged on turf, chair or hammock, enjoying interesting conversations with a great many interesting people.

In her early sixties now, cropped grey hair where, once, were blonde tresses, teeth a trifle snaggly from want of dental care, Olivia has not, of course, neglected any opportunity to live life to the full. There are at least four of her grown-up children, their parentage uncertain, quartered around the United Kingdom, of whose nurture their mother will say only that "she didn't want them hemmed in by a lot of rules." Curiously, all four have pursued successful careers in business and the professions, career choices that Olivia finds quite inexplicable.

Just now, Olivia is living in a terraced house in Bath with three similarly situated women and a vague idea of setting up a poetry press. There are endless rows about the washing-up and the state of the communal living room, barbed by the knowledge that it is Olivia's money, inherited from the Admiral, that keeps the ship afloat. Still, it is great fun to sit there in the evenings drinking cheap red wine and listening to Olivia's haughty, upper-class voice explaining how she once slept with Gong's bass player.