Sunday, 22 August 2010

Tripping on Henry

All those lights were t-t-twinkling on Sunset,
I saw a sign in the sky,
It said, “T-t-t-trip a t-trip, I trip, trip.”
I couldn’t keep up if I tried.
Ah, we stepped down to reality company
To get some instant sleep.
And the driver turned. I said, “Welcome back.”
He smiled and he said, “Beep beep.”

Donovan (The Trip)

THE SILENT CAT crouched in the dark up against the wall along the front of our neighbour’s property. It was not a lion, dark as it was I could easily tell that. The form was different. It should be a tiger, people think they see tigers, don't they, but it would be a leopard there in the near dark. More slender than a tiger, long-necked, smaller head, it would be at home carved in stone at a great temple to men who thought themselves gods. In its powerful silence it watched me walking out into the night and I wondered when my spine would be snapped.

I don’t recall every trip I ever took. This is just as well, I’d never escape the past with trying to analyse why I saw what I did. Not all trips involved pills and tabs and spliffs or a hookah; some trips were triggered just by standing in the doorway out or in.

Time came that I couldn’t go through any door in my unease. I was not consciously afraid of the beasts outside, or inside, I was just afraid of moving from a moment of what seemed to be security, from unfeeling to feeling. When you move, things move past you, things move towards you, you approach right-angled bends in life. And so I stayed at home, in my room, listening to a Sony Walkman. I’ve had music playing in my head non-stop since I was in my early twenties, and I don’t need a radio, tape or disc, but I try to drown my own music out. I know people who hear voices. Jesus, John Wayne and Hitler come calling, come for a chat. I know that is real, for I have the music, familiar and created around the sounds of circumstance. The booming of the wind can orchestrate my life, and the lyric can be an anxiety or a moment of love or lust or loss.

For a person afraid of the dark and the light, I have muddled along fairly well. Routine is difficult; mornings do not always start the same way. I cannot fashion six-thirty to my needs nowadays.

When I was at school I would have been bathed and dressed in my uniform at six-thirty, probably doing the homework I’d neglected the night before. At eight I’d be on the bus or my bicycle. And when I worked for American International Group I might have got home from some bar or nightclub at two, riding home drunk, passing out for a few hours. I’d be at work making somebody a fortune by eight-thirty. And then that all stopped in London one August morning. I could not walk out of my door because I knew I was going to die (I was dying, I was sure of it). The crouching cats came after that.

The most mysterious trip that I am aware of (and this only from the reports of others) that did not involve the horizontal greys rising up to vertical melting rainbows as instructed by the gods in the room began in Bermuda and ended in Salt Lake City, Utah. Apparently I boarded a flight in Bermuda (how did I even get to the airport?) and flew to New York City, where I took a bus over to New Jersey and caught a plane to Chicago. In Chicago I caught another plane to Salt Lake City. A friend had sent me the tickets. He met me at the airport in Salt Lake, though I have no memory of that. Two days later I woke up, after the near-lethal dose of tranquilizers had worn off. I was rather surprised. There is one part of that trip that occasionally floats up to the surface of my mind. I hope it is accurate and not a complete invention. On the flight from Chicago to Utah I was sat next to a young Hasidic Jew and we had a pleasant chat about orthodoxy. I was representing Mormonism. I can, somehow, still sense that conversation. No doubt the young man’s peculiar clothing and accessories are a memory aid, and the fact that I’ve been in the close company of precious few Hasidic Jews my age since.

It might be said of me (so I might say it) that I have travelled through my life uneasily and often not at all. I have some regrets. I was invited to a family dinner by my father and stepmother in early 1996. I accepted the invitation, but, on the day, declined as I could not move myself through the doors between us. My brothers and sisters got there. Two or three weeks later my father literally dropped dead. The family gathered for his funeral, and I did get to it, propelled and propped up by a close friend. I was not collapsing with grief, but the handful of pills I’d taken to move about that day had made me more than a little unsteady.

And so to Henry.

Nearly every Saturday I spend the morning at a drop-in. Some play pool, some play cards. On sunny days some sit outside. I read the weekend papers. Now and then I join the card game. They play “Floaters” which seems an unfortunate name to me. At noon several of us go in search of a country pub for a meal. There might be an afternoon activity: This past month I’ve been to a music festival in Alnwick and on a coach trip to the Yorkshire Dales and Whitby. Sometimes I spend Saturday afternoon in Barter Books, an enormous second-hand books shop. I usually come away with as many books as I can carry, appreciating I have to catch a bus home, and the Saturday buses tend to be crowded with tourists as well as the elderly locals doing their bit of shopping in town.

Yesterday I’d not only a dozen books (including a huge, heavy, hardback copy of “Hymns Ancient and Modern”), but my friend who has visitations from film stars and Old Testament prophets (bless him) had given me a marrow. The marrow (which is on the menu for this evening) is of a size and firmness to be a lethal weapon. I’m reminded of the Roald Dahl story about the woman who clubs her unpleasant husband to death with a leg of lamb. When the police are eventually called in, she has cooked the lamb and serves them a helping.

I schlepped my two heavy bags out of Barter Books and along to the bus stop. I know from experience that the 518 bus on a Saturday is going to run late, at least 30 minutes late in an hour. Still, one feels sure that it will come along if one is not there on the roadside. So I stood in the warm afternoon weather, inhaling more traffic fumes than would be healthy, alone at the bus stop. There is no bench at this stop; I just shuffled about from one leg to the other.

I was looking directly across the street at the entrance to the book shop; the customers at Barter Books are most interesting. I enjoy people-watching at any time, but what fun to see which books the faces read. Suddenly a very old man walked between me and the kerb. The man kept on walking, out of the corner of my eye I saw he’d stopped about 15 feet along, a bit past the area marked for the bus. Curious. Then I felt something gently touch my lower left leg. I looked down to find the oldest Border terrier I think I’ve ever seen standing with his nose on my calf. Not looking up at me, the dog had just anchored his snout to my leg. I lowered myself at my knees and got close to the dog. He was once brown, now grey and white. His eyes were remarkably clear. He hardly moved. I love dogs and Border terriers are a favourite breed, so I petted the little fellow on the head, on his back. He looked at me, seemed to be quite pleased.

I stood up and called over to the very old man who was still a number of paces along from me and the dog:

“Is this your dog?”

The man moved towards me, closer and closer, and when he was so close that his jacket was touching mine, his face, his nose, were just inches from mine, he said:

“No. This is not my dog.”

That worried me, and I said:

“He must be a stray.”

“Oh, no. He’s not a stray. He’s my neighbour’s dog. I thought I’d take him for a walk.”

“Oh, I’m glad he’s with you. The traffic is terrible here.” I had noticed the terrier was not wearing a collar or harness.

“His name is Henry. He will be seventeen in two weeks.” The man moved towards me as I edged back. His breath (fortunately not a smoker) on my face. “His mother died in 2002.”

I remember an episode of “Seinfeld” in which, I think, Judge Reinhold played a man who stood too close to people, inches away. The elderly bloke walking Henry was standing much too close to me. No person would feel comfortable at such short range except, perhaps, a lover hoping for a passionate kiss. I was told a little about Henry, there was to be a bit of a celebration in early September when he reached 17.

“In a year and two weeks Henry will be eighteen,” offered my odd (and sudden) friend. “That is very old for a dog. Only a small dog could be eighteen. A Labrador would not reach fourteen.”

Rather interesting to be thinking ahead to Henry’s eighteenth. I dare say somebody with fewer anxieties than I have could look forward more than a year when the odds must surely be long ones.

Henry remained, nose on my trousers, alongside me, his neighbour, who had not offered his name, remained inches from my face. I was focusing on him through the lower lenses of my bifocals. Small talk about dogs. I explained that I was a miniature dachshund person, resisting the temptation to retrieve a photograph of Cailean from my wallet.

For no obvious reason the man suddenly leaned down, uncomfortably close to my trousers, and awkwardly picked Henry up. Explained that it was time to get him home. And I wondered if Henry was actually on a legitimate walk, or if he had been dog-napped. Off they went, Henry under the man’s arm. They crossed the street just as the bus was approaching.

I stepped onto the 518 bus, which was 40 minutes late, to find nearly every seat on the lower deck had been taken. There was one vacant place next to an old woman. Not exactly vacant, she had her shopping bag on it. I looked her in the face, and nodded towards the bag on the seat. The lady glared at me, put her arm across her bag as if to hold it firmly in place, not moving it at all, and turned to look out of the window. I muttered: “For fuck’s sake!” and moved to the back of the bus with my two heavy bags. The lady remained on the bus, never gave up the space her few groceries occupied.

The lady with the shopping bag would have been on the far side of seventy, she had badly-coloured, thinning hair, and she had a longer beard than Osama bin Laden. Oh, I exaggerate. But her beard would be longer than that of Osama bin Laden’s mother's. I’m talking several inches, a goatee, and quite dark hair. I wondered how one might treat that. Scissors for a start, perhaps some HRT. Did this bearded woman not have a friend who might offer some grooming advice? Or a mirror?

Great cats do not pounce on me. I even walk out in the twilight now and then. Ordinary people, your neighbours, mine, are for the most part delightful. However, now and then things get just a little weird. The topiaries come to life in broad daylight, not just in the dead of night as in “The Shining” and my t-t-t-trips.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Clog Tired

You should make a point of trying every experience once,
excepting incest and folk dancing.
Arnold Bax (1883-1953)

IN ANOTHER LIFE, a fairly recent one, I would, from time to time, review the arts. This was in Bermuda, for the weekly newspaper, the Mid-Ocean News, that has recently been put out of business by the machinations of Bermuda’s dictatorial government. Now and then I’d write a review for the daily paper, the Royal Gazette, which is now in the cross-hairs and, I believe, struggling.

I had no training as an arts critic, or as a journalist of any kind. I’d failed my “O” Level English the first go round. I had been an amateur painter, very amateur. However, artistic ability does run in my family, both sides. I should not be allowed a paintbrush, but decades of writing letters made me dare to pick up the sword. I mean pen.

The Mid-Ocean News had an arts critic, and rather a good one. She died. I applied. Eventually I received $100 a pop and a pair of free tickets if I was to look in on live theatre or music. I simply wrote down my own personal impressions of the exhibition, the musical, the dramatic presentation, and I think I was honest and did not ever try to gild a turnip.

Well, that is history. And before I continue, a few words about beginning a remark with the word well. When interviewed, many (perhaps most) will reply to a question with “Well ...” and that’s frowned upon. I know that full well, but thought I’d bring it up here so that you know how to respond the next time a television or newspaper reporter approaches you and asks if you have anything to say about the show. Don’t say: “Well ... it was rubbish.” Just say: “It was rubbish.” Or you might roll your eyes heavenward and say: “Rubbish!” Or smile widely and cry: “Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant!”

I was in Alnwick yesterday with some friends, under mostly sunny skies. This is unusual during the Alnwick International Music Festival, an annual event, which began yesterday in the Market Square. Seems to me that in recent years I’ve had to dodge degrees of rain and some of the performances have been moved inside with a resultant smaller seating situation and all the fuss of setting up the sound equipment again at short notice.

The host at yesterday’s afternoon performance told a large crowd the very same jokes to fill the gaps that he told a year ago, and two years ago. They were not original jokes when they entered his repertoire. Advice from me: Retire the one about the lady hugging the frozen cows, thus saving their lives, in wintry fields. You know the one: the mysterious lady’s name turns out to be Thora Hird. There are many tourists at the Alnwick Music Festival, and I dare say Dame Thora is a complete stranger to them. “Must be Geordie humour?” For Pete’s sake, Thora was from Morecambe, Lancashire. Not one of ours. The little children, the locals, won’t get it either. The host, by the way, is the Town Crier. He was not dressed up like Sergeant Pepper, but in clothes that made me think he’d been fishing. Nice clothes, but country-country, not country-town. Perhaps this is his take on folk? The same clothes (I’m not sure about his undergarments) right down to (up to?) his hat that he wore in 2009.

The main event yesterday afternoon was a group of Dutch dancers called De Speelluden. Is that not a wonderful word to roll off the tongue? De Speelluden. The group was formed in 1967, but they are hardly Sixties rock and roll. What these men and women do is perform the peasant dances of the Westervoort part of the Netherlands that were customary back in about 1900.

The men dressed in black uniforms that made me think of railway employees as depicted in the movies, complete with watch-chains. Railway employees anywhere in the West, from Santa Fé to the Swiss Alps. The women wore dark peasant garb with grey aprons, working clothes, and one might think of pioneers in the Americas. Rather over-dressed, as one was forced to be by modesty. How many Dutch women got hooked on the sails of windmills as their skirts billowed about? Odd lace caps. And the men and their womenfolk all wore whitewashed clogs. Great big heavy clogs. Lethal weapons. The English might fling Wellies, and they’d be no match for these clogs.

The visiting De Speelluden dancers were all getting on in years, at least one long white beard worthy of Rip Van Winkle. I was near the stage as they went on and they spoke in Dutch, and the one member of the group who read from an English script did so with a thick accent. The dances were all rather alike, perhaps 8 or 10 women spinning around with 8 or 10 men. There was a dance about a girl who fell in love, at first sight, with a boy who lived in a windmill. Nowadays she would fall for the son of an industrialist who was blotting the countryside with wind turbines. There was also a dance about sunflowers, celebrating autumn. Perhaps Vincent van Gogh saw his sunflowers as autumnal things, rather than window dressing. Van Gogh’s work is so often of a seasonal nature.

The lady, reading slowly from her papers, said they would dance “The Waltz of the French Beasts” for us. It tells the story of the terrible “tummy pains” caused by those “French Beasts”. This certainly made me sit up. Those bloody awful Frenchmen invading Holland, raping the women (getting them knocked up) and stabbing the Dutch men in their guts. The dance was a bit of a spin around the stage, the accordionists playing, it must be said, in ¾ time. There was no doubling over at the waist in apparent anguish, and I thought we might be getting the children’s version with so many youngsters in the crowd. I was disappointed. When the spinning stopped, the lady read a little more from the script and suddenly I realised that I had misheard. This was “The Waltz of the French Beans” and the abdominal aches would have been from gas and not from pointy weaponry.

Three pairs of men did a dance that seemed to be showing what Dutchmen do when the pubs get out and they are quarrelling over one of the pretty girls. They thump one another with their chests and shoulders and stick their thumbs in their ears and waggle their fingers at each other. Brilliant! If Michael Jackson had done this in his act he’d have really been acclaimed for his dancing.

The ladies showed us their covered backsides, and I have no idea why. They then showed us their knickers. Nothing that floated my boat, but enough cloth to make sails with. And the ladies pulled open flaps on the fronts of the men’s trousers to reveal the male equivalent. This must pass for entertainment in Westervoort.

Holland is not all that far from here. People go down and across to Amsterdam by overnight ferry. De Speelluden certainly seemed strange and exotic for something a few hours away by boat.

Should one go to see folk dancing in Alnwick? Why not? It’s a fun day out and (it’s raining today) something to take one’s mind off the usual English summer weather. Should one learn to folk dance? I dare say there’s an arts critic in Westervoort who would find a Morris Dancing group from Yorkshire totally baffling, quite silly with the sticks and bells, and lacking any references to wind (windmills or French beans). I should probably stick with what I know. Shuffling in a crowded disco.