Distorted Views: the Arnold Layne story

The boys are back in town.
The boys are back in town.

Have You Got It Yet?

I was browsing through what was once one of the most important Syd Barrett groups on Facebook. and it struck me that it was all yesterday’s jam. The group, with its 8000 members, is a boiling puddle of continuous repetition, publishing the same (often colourised) photographs ad infinitum.

If an interesting discussion magically appears it has been instigated by the same pool of people, about a dozen of them. Most of them I still remember from over a decade ago, but luckily there are a few exceptions.

As the attention span of the Facebook crowd is very limited, the thread will quickly descend into the dark and hollow depths, where it eternally resides in limbo. It is – of course – the business model of Facebook, but I know from a rather good source that some administrators prefer quantity over quality. It is a never-ending race to be the biggest Syd Barrett community, rather than to be the best.

But when something good happens, we are all ears and this time we mean that literally. Laughing Madcaps, that uncoordinated mob of Sydiots, led by the uncurbed warlord Kiloh 'mad Max' Smith, has issued a new version of the unofficial early Pink Floyd and Syd compilation Have You Got It Yet?, or as we retards call it: HYGIY? The blurb goes as follows:

This Syd Barrett Have You Got It Yet? (HYGIY?) 3.0 attempts to gather all of the best quality unofficial material under a single collection. There may be some stray tracks, that were officially released, contained here. These tracks are here because the official versions are not necessarily the best in quality.

The compilation is dedicated to Steve Czapla and Victor E. Reyes (RIP). I don't say it often, but this time I do. Respect.

Dont Do It Again!
Don't Do It Again!

Who is Who: Arnold Layne

There are a few, relatively new, people around who manage to find interesting Pink Floyd related material and one is the person who has led me to the next story: Eleonora Siatoni. While she has found and researched the following, all possible mistakes in this article are the sole responsibility of the Reverend.

Capturing Cambridge is a website from the Museum Of Cambridge that wants to share the extraordinary stories of the people of Cambridgeshire. One entry, about Laundry Lane, a side street of Cherry Hinton Road, caught the eye of Eleonora.

Laundry Lane

Cherry Hinton women had traditionally taken in washing from the university colleges, delivered by a regular donkey cart service. Empty ground was used for drying the linen. One of the companies employing these women was the Cambridge Steam Laundry Co., founded in 1883. It had 5 acres (slightly over 20,000 square metres) of drying grounds and served families, schools, hotels and colleges. Around 1964 it was known as Cambridge Laundry and Cleaners Ltd.

Laundry Lane.
Laundry Lane.
Laundry Lane, 1950s.
Laundry Lane, 1950s..

Barbara, who used to live in Laundry Lane number 5 as a child remembers:

In the 50s the cottages were, I think, much as they had been built – there was no electric lighting upstairs, only cold water to both the sink and a brick-lined drain in the kitchen and the usual outside toilet and coal shed in the tiny yard; not unusual in the post-war years, I am sure. They do look tiny, to accommodate the families with all those children… but from memory, it was a very happy and safe place to grow up. (Link)

One comment, for Laundry Lane #1, reveals an early Floydian secret. It was added by a certain KA (identified later as Kevin Arnold).

I was born and lived in Steam Laundry Cottages. My father was Leonard Percy Arnold, my grandmother was Cecilia Dora Arnold. So many Arnolds lived and worked at the laundry. John (Beefy) Arnold was my uncle and had many children.

One notable small-time criminal in our family, who was well known to the police and an alcoholic, was renowned for stealing high-end garments and linen from the laundry and selling them around Cherry Hinton to feed his habit. Later he built his own still in a shed at the back of the house, also selling cheap liquor.

One of his clothing customers and friend was a certain Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd fame who penned a song called Arnold Layne which became their debut single. (Link)

Cambridge Memories

At the Facebook group Cambridge Memories UK some extra details were given:

In 1939, Steam Laundry cottages, Steam Laundry Lane was occupied by many of the Arnold family, I myself was born there. Grandmother Cecilia Dora Arnold had 8 children, all lived & worked at the laundry. Kath Arnold married into the Abbs family & also lived in the Cottages.

One particular member of our family was well known to the police for his activities (no name to protect remaining relatives). He was a thief & an alcoholic, stealing high-end linen & clothes from the laundry, he also built an illicit still in the garden shed.

He was friends with Roger Barrett, latter to become Syd Barrett.

Because so many Arnolds occupied the Lane, it was affectionately known as Arnold Lane, Syd later wrote the song Arnold Layne based on it. If you listen to the lyrics, you'll understand.
The path you tread is narrow.
The path you tread is narrow.

Syd Barrett didn’t live far from Laundry Lane. Hills Road 183 was situated about 1600 metres from where the Arnolds lived.

So much history around Arnold Lane (Steam Laundry Lane). Cecilia was the matriarch, children were Leonard (my father), Frank, John, Gertrude, Ena, Kath, Dora & Gladys. (Link)

Not only was Kevin Arnold an acquaintance of young Syd, but he was also apparently one of his friends in his later life.

I knew him & visited him shortly before he passed on, most people who saw him would never have recognised the sad-looking bald guy who lived in abject poverty, the house was bare, with few comforts, he was often seen topless, displaying the operation scar from throat to navel. Very sad ending for such an influential music icon.
Moonshine Washing Line.
Moonshine Washing Line.

Moonshine Washing Line

The Pink Floyd biographies never managed to solve the Arnold Layne riddle. Mark Blake notes in Pigs Might Fly:

The lyrics were supposedly inspired by a real incident in Cambridge, where an unidentified knicker thief had raided Mary Waters’ washing line. Roger had regaled Syd with the story.

Julian Palacios in Lost In The Woods adds some extra info:

Winifred Barrett, like Mary Waters, took in student boarders, common practice in Cambridge. Female nursing students from Homerton College lived in the Barrett home. Roger Waters said, ‘my mother and Syd’s mother had students as lodgers. There was a girls’ college up the road. So there were constantly great lines of bras and knickers on our washing lines.’

In one curious incident, brassieres, knickers and garters hanging on washing lines in the Barrett garden proved irresistible to a local underwear fetishist. This character made off with nursing students’ undergarments. (…)

Barrett said, ‘Arnold Layne happened to dig dressing up in women’s clothing.’
Roger Waters said, ‘‘Arnold’, or whoever he was, had bits and pieces off our washing lines. They never caught him. He stopped doing it after things got too hot for him.’

To identify the thief Julian Palacios quotes David Gale, who – just like Syd Barrett – used to work for British mail as a student.

David Gale recalled when they were doing their Royal Mail rounds, a van driver they dubbed ‘Rigor Mortis’ for his laziness would drive them pointing out knickers on washing lines, exclaiming, ‘Cor, I’d like to meet the owner of those.’

But there is another theory, coming from Mick Brown, Cambridge music archivist, painter, cartoonist, satirist and Pink Floyd’s enemy number one, who we all love to hate. He has been outing Arnold for ages and did it once again, as a reply to Kevin Arnold’s story:

The real 'Arnold Layne' was John Chambers who came from Sturton Street. He was well known around Cambridge in the early 1960s and often used to hang about at the Mill Pond.

The Arnold Layne name was simply a typical Barrett parody of the Beatles' Penny Lane that was recorded at the same time. There are loads of Arnolds in Cambridge and they could all claim to be the source of a famous song.
Jenny Chambers. Picture: Mick brown.
NOT Jenny Chambers. Picture: Mick Brown.

Mick Brown has been proclaiming this theory for years and – as a valued contributor to the excellent books The music scene of 1960s Cambridge and High Hopes – he usually is right. Here are some of his earlier claims:

Here is a photo of one of Syd Barrett's earliest girlfriends. (…) Her name was Jenny Chambers. She had a brother called John who was immortalised and renamed Arnold Layne in a song Syd wrote. The photo was taken in a part of Cambridge known as Stourbridge Common.
Update 2021 11 13: Mick Brown has confirmed that the lady is NOT Chambers' sister, however he stands by his Arnold Layne theory.

This seems to be acknowledged by Roy Alan Ethridge, who was also a part of the Cambridge mods and rockers in the sixties and an acquaintance of Syd Barrett:

I knew John Chambers. Mick lived not far (…) and always knew he was Arnold Layne but was told that it wasn’t him. It was a chap that lived on Hills Rd. Now we know it was John. He really changed during the 60s and was often caught snooping up Mill Rd.

According to Brown, Arnold – or John – wasn’t a cross-dresser:

So-called Arnold Layne wasn't a transvestite but a pervert. I remember him clearly being a friendly chubby little chap who mingled with us down at the Mill. Yes, he ended up in jail.

His name was John Chambers. Of course, Syd used Arnold Layne as a parody of the Beatles.

So we have two contradicting stories here (if we forget the story of the mailman). Kevin Arnold replied that he has at least one picture but is reluctant to have it published.

I could verify it, but that would mean revealing the name & pic of Roger (Syd) & my relative together.

In a private chat, that the Church was allowed to see, Kevin Arnold adds even more details:

Roger was friends with a relative of mine who was, shall we say, less than honest & often on the wrong side of the law. He used to steal high end & fancy clothing from the launderette & I believe Roger was one of the people he sold to. (...)

He and my cousin formed a friendship although I stress Roger (Syd) was in no way involved in the criminal activity. (...)

I must protect my cousin’s name for the sake of his remaining family. I will approach them & ask if I can show photos of him & Syd, but not without permission.

But even when these pictures exist (and there must be some more of a young Syd Barrett in private collections) it still isn’t proof that the ‘unknown cousin’ was the one and only Arnold Layne. Unless there was more than one knicker picker running around in Cambridge in those days, which is not such a crazy idea.


Syd liked to put wordplay and little nods to reality in his texts. Pink Floyd's second single See Emily Play refers to psychedelic debutante Emily Young, his friend Libby Gausden and shows his fondness for the name Emily that he would’ve liked for a daughter.

Three Sisters.
Three Sisters.

Jennifer Gentle

Lucifer Sam has only 8 lines but it is bursting with mystery. The Jennifer Gentle character is a mixture of Jenny Spires and Rosemary Barrett. Syd quotes from an ancient English ballad, noted down in 1823 by Davies Gilbert, called 'The Three Sisters' or ‘The Riddling Knight’. These sisters (in the folksong) are Jennifer (or Juniper), Gentle and Rosemaree. In the ballad, they have to solve a few riddles for the youngest (Rosemaree) to marry a ‘valiant knight’.

The ballad has some older and darker versions (Inter Diabolus et Virgo, c. 1450) where the devil threatens to abduct a young virgin unless she can answer some riddles. Was Syd Barrett aware of this early version from five centuries before the summer of love? It is uncanny that the devil appears in his song, disguised as a cat.

Julian Palacios adds some other points of interest regarding Lucifer Sam. One underground member was ‘Thai Sam’ who dealt acid from a flat in Beaufort Street, where Sue Kingsford and Alistair ‘Jock’ Findlay lived. He shared a flat with Thieu, another member of the Cambridge Mafia who later married Fizz (Frances Fitzgerald).

Last but not least Lucifer Sam could also have been inspired by Peter ‘Lucifer’ Walker, who was a warlock and disciple of Aleister Crowley. Lucifer was the lead singer of The Purple Gang and, as most of us will know Syd Barrett, who was impressed with Peter’s occult appearance, presented them Boon Tune (Here I Go) and an early version of Jugband Blues to cover. (Read more at: Hurricane Over London)

Little Twig, Syd Barrett
Little Twig poem, Syd Barrett.

Vivien Brans - Laldawngliani Joyce

Dark Globe (its title referencing John Milton, William Blake and/or JRR Tolkien) is a song of despair, a song of a man who is ‘psychologically wounded’ (Mark Blake).

The obfuscated Dark Globe contains the verse: “'The poppy bird’s way. Swing twigs coffee brands around.” If one realizes that a former girlfriend of Syd was Vivien Brans, nicknamed Twig, it becomes clear that Syd has cryptically entered her name into the song.

Then there is the ‘Eskimo chain’ line that has confused Barrett fans for decades. Although Jenny Spires vehemently denies that it has something to do with Iggy the Eskimo the consensus is that Syd added a second, failed, love interest in the song.


And don’t let us get started about Octopus (Clowns and Jugglers). You can read all about the many hidden layers in the excellent Untangling the Octopus essay from Paul Belbin, first published in 2005, five years before someone else claimed he discovered it all by himself. If you have an hour to spare you can read this 'Rosetta stone' for decoding the writing inspirations for one of Syd Barrett's most beloved songs right here, at the Church:
Untangling the Octopus v2 - 2006 (Paul Belbin)
Untangling the Octopus v3 - 2009 (extended version 3, Paul Belbin & Julian Palacios)

Arnold Lane.
Arnold Lane.

Arnold La(y)ne

The previous examples hopefully show that Barrett loved riddles and word games that he liked to put into his lyrics. So what if Syd mixed several situations and anecdotes from his past in the song that made Pink Floyd a force to reckon with?

Syd loved intricate puzzles and this could be a very clever one, amalgamating John Chambers, Kevin Arnold’s cousin, Rigor Mortis and a road called Arnold Lane all into one song.

If there is one thing for sure, Syd Barrett will never stop amazing us.

The Church wishes to thank: Kevin Arnold, Barbara, Mark Blake, Mick Brown, Roy Alan Ethridge, Eleonora Siatoni, Julian Palacios.
♥ Libby ♥ Iggy ♥

Sources (others than the links above):
Blake, Mark: Pigs Might Fly, Aurum Press Limited, London, 2013, p. 75.
Palacios, Julian: Darker Globe: Uncut and Unedited, private publication, 2021, p. 118-119, 140, 499-500.