Thursday, 24 September 2009

Mystery's Rainbows and Unicorns

ALONSO: Give us kind keepers, heavens! What were these?

SEBASTIAN: A living drollery. Now I will believe
That there are unicorns, that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix' throne, one phoenix
At this hour reigning there.

ANTONIO: I'll believe both;
And what does else want credit, come to me,
And I'll be sworn 'tis true: travellers ne'er did
Though fools at home condemn 'em.

William Shakespeare (The Tempest. Act III, Scene III)

I WAS NOT AN ONLY CHILD, but I was an only son. I was never interested in my sisters' toys, the few that they had, except for a two-storey dollhouse our grandfather had created from a crate by installing a floor half-way up. My grandfather was not particularly creative, though he was a compulsive collector of bits of wood (and boxes) that washed up alongside my grandparents' cottage in Bermuda. The dollhouse was not painted (protruding nails had been removed, and rough edges sanded smooth) or decorated in any way. It just sat on a stool waiting for dolls to move in. In truth, it remained a crate, but for a few months it was the subject of dreams. Mine. They remained in my head. Eventually the dollhouse, the crate, was filled with other detritus and placed in the basement.

I'd seen wallpapered rooms, chandeliers, finely upholstered furnishings, carpets from distant places (some flown in under their own steam from Arabia), curtains, pictures on the walls, a staircase linking the upper and lower floors, doors and windows and fireplaces.

My first toys can be identified because at my first birthday party they were laid out on my grandparents' lawn, along with a cake and some family friends and relatives, and photographed by my father. I had a large metal horse (painted with lead-based enamel, I fear), a couple of teddy bears, large blocks, a merry-go-round. The horse ended up with Lancaster cousins, the merry-go-round went to younger Eldridge boys; both the horse and the spinning machine made me feel ill.

I was quite young when I was given my first Meccano building set. Meccano toys have been around since 1901, so my father may well have played with them when he was a boy in the 1920s. Metal beams and bars and planks, nuts and bolts. There were axles, cogs and wheels and bits of string. One might build a sky-scraper (I didn't have nearly enough bits of metal to do that, but I had my imagination) or a motor.

Another toy, and this might be the equivalent of a video game in which the boy is to annihilate the enemy invaders by blasting them into cyber-space, or lop off their heads with an electronic axe, was a John Bull Printing Set. I could play at being a compositor, slotting rubber pieces of type into wooden blocks, then printing my great words with an ink-pad and bits of paper. Great words: I only had enough letters and blocks for headlines and "by Ross Eldridge". The stories existed, I'd dream them up. It may have been only about 1955, but I moved comfortably across the Universe. I was into UFOs. We all were; they started appearing about the time I was born.

In the late 1950s I discovered another building system: Plastic blocks very similar to the LEGO System, but made in the UK, designed for building accessories for toy train sets. I'd always wanted a toy train. Happens I never did get that train, but I became a compulsive purchaser of small boxes of wall blocks, or windows, or beams, or roof slates. These plastic blocks were marketed under the name Better Builder. I believe their British patent was eventually sold to the LEGO folks in Denmark. Better Builder did vanish, but not before I'd amassed a considerable quantity of blocks. I'd built tiny cottages at first, a few inches this way and that. Then I built railway stations and platforms for the trains I didn't have. I moved on to shops and mansions. After that, churches and modest cathedrals and castles. And every building had a story.

My Better Builder blocks, jumbled together in a large box, were passed along to my half-brothers when I was at college. I actually rescued most of the blocks when my brothers were too old (they thought) for them, and the box sat in my cupboard until about 1990 when I handed the business over to my nephew, who would have been about five. My sister had other ideas (or, rather, no ideas at all) and the Better Builder blocks, by then an antique of sorts, went in the trash. I still, in 2009, dream that I'm building grand country homes with my blocks.

It may be that my interest in words, as building blocks to language, communication, stories and ideas, began in dreams as I fastened my bits of Meccano or plastic to other bits to create something bigger that was almost out of my imagination's reach. Almost. I've struggled all my life to reach a place where I might be comfortable.

I live in a small town (almost a village) by the North Sea in a part of England that is just full of history. I have been including in my regular reading histories and biographies that chronicle the events, places and people of Northumbria. There are ghosts, if you believe in them, as I do, on every street and by the River and looking out from our castles. Ghosts that once had dreams.

There are also the buildings I have tried to build these sixty years. The fortresses of my dreams that began in books and stories told me by my older family members; the abbeys I had visited with my Nan Eldridge as a boy, and, since then, alone; the stations and museums and monuments I've walked about and revisited in the guidebooks.

I don't really enjoy home decorating programmes on the telly, my mental trips around my sisters' dollhouse were less about furniture and fittings than I thought, for those were always physically unrealised. Rather, my interest is now in the characters that tread the boards in those sets, which play out the games of life and death.

For every church I built with my Better Builder blocks, I invented congregations; for cathedrals there were pilgrims. Stations and halts had the trains full of passengers that I created in my mind. Nothing was empty. My Meccano winches raised buckets to workmen that I really could see for a time, to build higher and higher. Words, fitted together so as to be most pleasing, became stories and love-letters. I was never short of unicorns and rainbows.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Pretty As You Feel

Anne of Cleves

You're only pretty as you feel
Just as pretty as you feel inside
When you wake up in the morning
Rub some sleep from your eye
Look inside your mirror
Comb your hair
Don't give vanity a second chance
No no no
Beauty's only skin deep
It goes just so far 'cause
You're only pretty as you feel
Jefferson Airplane (Pretty as You Feel)

I AM WATCHING THE TUDORS. Series 3 has almost finished its run: Henry VIII has his son, by Queen Jane Seymour, but lost Jane just days later. That is historically accurate. On the television programme, Queen Jane was extraordinarily beautiful in life and death. After she's gone, as Henry mopes about the palace with his talkative Court Jester, the Jester says something along these lines: "Bad luck! You have a beautiful queen with fabulous tits; she gives you your son, and then she dies. Bad luck!" These were not quite the words we read in our history books when I was a boy, but they certainly describe the Queen Jane on TV. Apparently, according to the historians, diarists and portraitists, the actual Queen Jane was no great shakes. She was a bit of a meddler and was more Roman Catholic than Protestant supporter of her husband's Church of England. And her face never launched a thousand ships. She may have had fabulous tits.

Next week, King Henry is going to have a meet and greet with Anne of Cleves. Fifty years ago I first saw a film that was then old, The Private Life of Henry VIII, starring Charles Laughton. Laughton's real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, played Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.

And here's a family story: My grandmother checked into a hotel in, I believe, New York City, back in the 1930s. She had made a reservation prior to her arrival. And what a fuss was made when she turned up! She was treated like a movie star! My grandmother's name: Elsie Lancaster. She was about two years older than Elsa Lanchester, and English born.

Elsa Lanchester was a not-so-unattractive Anne of Cleves. She was better looking than my grandmother. So it goes.

In The Tudors, the ugly Mare of Flanders, as Henry is said to have dubbed Anne of Cleves, is being played by pop musician Joss Stone. Ms Stone is quite easy on the eye, probably the delight of any number of teenage boys, and their louche grandfathers. Has the director told her to step in front of the camera and look as dreary as she can? Not from the film clips in the previews. Beauty is the new beast.

Let's talk Henry VIII in The Tudors. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is playing the King, and he's about as unlike the Hans Holbein pictures that decorated my history texts and art books back in the day as one can get. I cannot say I like Holbein's cartoonish work. I rather like Rhys-Meyers in his films: He tends to androgyny, being both masculine and beautiful, someone one might find in an Edward Burne-Jones painting in full colour, or outlined by Aubrey Beardsley in black ink on white paper.

As Henry prepares to meet the unattractive Anne, he is in bed (on The Tudors at least) with his gammy leg playing up merry hell. In fact, slender, young, exquisite Rhys-Meyers is turning up, as if posed for the pre-Raphaelites, wearing nothing at all but for the smallest strip of cloth from the sheets he's reclining on covering (just) the Crown Jewels. The Tudors would have us believe that Henry VIII waxed all his body hair and glowed attractively, despite the painful eruption on his one thigh. And when the pain strikes Henry, I'm reminded that the French refer to the orgasm as la petite mort, or little death.

Henry marries Anne of Cleves, but the marriage is not consummated and is quickly annulled. I have read that Anne not only stayed in England, but that she was welcome in the royal circles. In The Private Life of Henry VIII, Elsa Lanchester played cards with Charles Laughton, and they got on rather well. In real life, Elsa Lanchester's tell-all biography claimed that she'd been childless because husband Laughton was homosexual.

Caster Semenya

These past few weeks, we've had the sports scandal over South African runner Caster Semenya. Semenya won a notable race, though she did not quite break the world record for that distance. Semenya was running as a woman. Now, to be quite honest, nearly all female sprinters and distance runners seem scrawny to me, though many, most even, look feminine. Caster Semenya didn't, not to my eyes, and others thought the same. Was Semenya a girl after all?

Is it racist, as the South African government is claiming, to question the gender of a black runner who ticks the female box when she's filling in her race application form? Race as in running, not as in ethnicity. I believe the question was raised because it was thought Semenya might be taking drugs. Is it racist to wonder about that?

As the world knows, Caster Semenya has been discovered to have no internal female organs (womb and ovaries), but has a couple of male parts (testicles) tucked up inside. She is getting an extra dose of testosterone, three times the usual amount, which is almost certainly affecting her performance on the track. Is that a problem? Should her female competitors have the right to inject themselves with the stuff to make their performance on a par with Semenya's?

The doctors claim that Semenya's undescended testicles are a cancer risk, and should be removed. That would, I'm thinking, affect her hormone levels which will affect not just her physical being, but her emotions. The South Africans, who have a pretty shoddy record when it comes to treatment of females, claim that there is no such thing as a hermaphrodite, so hands off Semenya… she's a South African girl. Many South African men believe having sex with a virgin child can cure AIDS. The last President of that country refused to believe that HIV and AIDS were connected. Don't forget female genital mutilation. Will Caster Semenya suffer for South Africa's blinkered outlook on life, indeed ignorance?

So, a magazine shoot and cover featuring Caster Semenya all dolled up. She's not as gorgeous as, erm, RuPaul and Wendy Williams, but, apparently, she loves the look they've given her.

I hope that Caster Semenya manages to lead a healthy life, and that sensible medical science can help her if she needs it. And if she feels fabulous, at home in her girlish body, rather than her boyish one, I hope the world will let her be. Perhaps South Africa can lead the world in accepting people for what they are, how they are born, what they feel themselves to be. Out of Africa … Tolerance.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The White Whale Rises Still

BLUE TURNED TO GREY and rain threatened. I made a mug of milky coffee and switched on the television. I usually, early in the morning, have a look at the overnight news headlines on the BBC or Sky. However, I'd left the channel setting at ITV3 when I went to bed last night and that's what came up on the screen. Before I could switch, I saw Up Next: Moby Dick.

John Huston's film of Herman Melville's novel was released in 1956. That year, my father took me to see the movie at the Playhouse theatre in Hamilton, Bermuda. I'd have been all of six years old. I did not see many movies at the Playhouse as a boy because it was pulled down and an ugly office block built on the site at the top of Queen Street. I saw 20,000 Leagues under the Sea there, again with my father, and Lady and the Tramp. The older of my sisters came along to Lady and the Tramp.

Those three films are the earliest that I recall, and they all made a big impression on me. I liked everything about Lady and the Tramp: the music, the story, the spaniel. We had a spaniel at home. I've not seen that film all the way through since the 1950s, and don't wish to. The snippets I've come across haven't moved me at all, and I no longer like the music.

20,000 Leagues under the Sea is memorable for the giant squid squeezing the Nautilus submarine. I just loved that bit. I liked Captain Nemo, even if he was supposed to be evil. This is a film I've seen a number of times over the years and I never tire of it. Nowadays, I'm not so sure that I'd even part company with Nemo on his political views. James Mason seemed perfect in the role; I was disappointed to find him a bit sappy in Journey to the Centre of the Earth a few years later.

Moby Dick has not come up in television reruns very often, though three times this year. I saw a remake, a mini-series, starring Patrick Stewart, a few years ago which left me cold. Not because Stewart failed in any way, but, for me, Gregory Peck was, is and always will be Captain Ahab. He is as attached to my mind as securely as Ahab was stapled and lashed to the whale at the end of the movie. If you say the words "Moby Dick" to me, in a cinematic sense, of course, I immediately see Peck under all those ropes while a rather limber whale takes aim at the Pequod. He seems to be crucified there. Is that the reward for having only one aim in life? Death.

I've never read Herman Melville's books, and I am probably at the right stage to do it now. I know Moby Dick has a good deal about the whaling industry in it. The religious symbolism would interest me too; it's not just Christian sects that are woven into the story. I imagine that Melville, perhaps unintentionally, shows us the psychological make-up of some strong characters. And there are references to slavery.

The book was first published, in England, in 1851. So I gather Melville was writing it in the few years before that date. He was at sea in the early 1840s, I believe. The 1840s were a time of religious turmoil, with sects spawning breakaway sects. Even people like Joseph Smith, with little formal education, thought and spoke in terms that seem religious to me now. There was some obsession with religion. Might guilt have finally set in for slavery, if not for the slaughter of the Native American peoples? And, apparently, that sort of thing, on the printed page, sold.

So, what was Moby Dick? I dare say that one can call the whale a great many things. And the terrible white whale lives on, with Captain Ahabs rotting under ropes, and countless drowned bodies scattered among driftwood in the high seas. The object of one's revenge, an obsession. One might call it Afghanistan in 2009.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Dee Time

I WAS TELLING A FRIEND the other night that a hero of my teenage years had just died. Who was it? Simon Dee. Who is Simon Dee? Never heard of him.

And I suppose if one didn't live in the UK between about 1964 and 1974, one might have completely missed the rise and fall of Simon Dee.

He was born in Ottawa, Canada, in 1935, and his real name was Cyril Nicholas Henty-Dodd. After his national service in the RAF in the 1950s, brief stints as a photographer's assistant, model, labourer, leaf sweeper in Hyde Park and a vacuum cleaner salesman (he reckoned he'd had fifty jobs in his lifetime), Cyril reinvented himself as Simon Dee (Simon was his son's name, and Dee from Dodd) and was one of the two first DJs on Radio Caroline, and his was the first voice heard from the pirate radio ship in March 1964.

I never heard Simon Dee on Radio Caroline, but I did come across his name in the magazines. By 1965 he'd come ashore and was working for the BBC and Radio Luxembourg. Simon hosted Top of the Pops at times, and started to keep some very famous company, and became a celebrity in his own right.

I watched Dee Time, Simon's twice-weekly chat show. His was the first chat show on British television. In fact, I tried not to miss one of Simon's shows as he almost certainly had the most famous and notorious along for a chat. Simon interviewed everyone from John Lennon to Jimi Hendrix at a time when I worshipped these hit-makers.

Simon Dee had a public school education apparently, but his accent was mid-Atlantic. That might have been an attraction for me being somewhat mid-Atlantic myself. He was awfully good looking, took chances, and you had to like somebody who was driven out of the studio after each show by a beautiful woman in an E-Type Jaguar.

Apparently, Simon Dee was the model, the inspiration, for the character Austin Powers. Simon had a few minor roles in films, and was considered as a possible James Bond. He looked the part, having fine features and looking not at all like Austin Powers.

I suppose I had something of a crush on Simon Dee, or a fascination a little beyond my control.

Simon Dee's career had gone tits up by 1970. He had misjudged his employers and his worth, and was soon out of work. He'd been well-paid by the standards of the day, £250 a show, but had spent it all. He went on the dole, worked as a bus driver briefly, and by 1974 was in gaol for tax offences. He had other brushes with the law. And he vanished.

Simon Dee lived alone in a tiny flat in Winchester at the time of his death, very suddenly from cancer, aged 74. He'd become a recluse. He'd been one of the Beautiful People in the 1960s. People who knew him towards the end of his life said he just didn't bother with those days when he'd been a shining star. The way a soldier might not speak of his time on the battlefield.

I find I cannot switch off the 1960s quite so easily.