Friday, 22 October 2010

The Hungry Years Revisited

I stand upon the shore of a wide sea
Whose unknown depths profound I soon must cross
When the last sand of life runs out for me.
The clouds have fled. I look back on my life
And find it brighter than I was aware.
David H. Smith (The Parting)

THE SEA VENTURE was a greasy spoon on the Harbour Road in Warwick, Bermuda, next to the Darrell’s Wharf ferry stop, and within walking distance of Warwick Academy where I was taking my GCE “O” Levels.

I never really mastered the art of studying for examinations; if I attended a class and took notes, that was it. I would not reread my notes or do further research from other sources, even if requested and required. I did not take schoolwork home. What I heard and remembered, and what lodged in my mind during the short time it took to summarise the lesson’s points in a few words, was all that I took into the hall or gymnasium where we sat in rows to write about Biology, or History, or Physics, or Chemistry. In fact, I sat eight “O” Level examinations and passed six, and only just managed those by the smallest margin. A year later I picked up the two GCEs I had failed at first: French and English.

Looking back forty-five years, I recall very little about the subjects, the information I was tackling so badly then. I do manage to revisit the classrooms, the looks of my fellow pupils, the teachers, and the layout of the rooms, the dust and the boredom. Right now I can picture my situation in every one of the forms I spent a school year in, and I sometimes dream of what might be thought the best years of my life, spent in grey trousers and a blazer in the winter, and khaki shorts and knee-socks in the warmer weather months. I would be hard-pressed to tell you much about Pythagoras’s Theorem now. In a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Every schoolboy knows that, and that Henry VIII died in 1547. I must have been able to demonstrate that theorem in 1965, in a concise manner. One could not waffle about such things and get away with it.

I could tell anyone trapped by my words in 2010 (one would hope enthralled, dazzled by my genius) a fair bit about the Sea Venture restaurant on Harbour Road. Basically a hamburger joint, it began as a long, narrow room next to a shorter narrow room occupied by Betty’s Beauty Salon. The Sea Venture eventually nudged Betty out of the building and put a few tables where the accoutrements of the hairdressing business had been. The main room at the Sea Venture featured a long counter and one sat on uncomfortable stools there facing the Harbour. However, there were no windows, one looked around cake-stands at the grill and cupboards which housed the tools of the eatery business, and, I suppose, the comestibles that did not need refrigeration. There were three two-seater tables on the road side and one could look out at the passing traffic, but as I rarely went alone or with just one other person, we tended to sit at the counter or in the annexed room.

As a little boy, I’d been taken to the Sea Venture with my sisters on Sunday outings with my father. At home the only meats I recall having were chicken drumsticks, and minced beef made into a pie with onions and potatoes. We might have fish fingers on a Friday. My mother was a most unaccomplished cook. One of my sisters, to this day, tells me she believes our mother prepared nice food. That sister has inherited our mother’s and grandmother’s inabilities in the kitchen and I cannot eat the food she prepares. She can turn anything into sticks and sawdust. My father had not stayed with my mother longer than it took him to get residency status in Bermuda. Perhaps, if she had been able to prepare fine dinners he might have stayed longer. I imagine her bouts of insanity would have scared him off in time. My father never took us to the lodging house he might have been living in (I wonder if he was untidy, or ashamed at his situation) and, so, to the Sea Venture for a hamburger and a Coca Cola. We got to know the original owners of the restaurant, the DeCosta family, quite well.

The hamburgers at the Sea Venture were very good, juicy and not over-cooked, if not very large. One could not get a double burger in one bun, it was not on the menu, and Manny DeCosta would happily sell you two burgers on two buns, but he’d not fool with nature. The French fries, as they were listed in the menu, being what at home we called chips, were delicious and one lathered them with tomato ketchup from a plastic squeeze bottle. One could squeeze mayonnaise and mustard on the burger or hot dog one might order. Coca Cola or a milkshake to drink. They had pies and cakes for dessert, which could be served √† la mode. If my father could be persuaded to part with another shilling, I’d have blueberry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. That did not happen very often.

Curiously, I managed to be awfully thin into my teen years, despite the burgers and fries and milkshakes. In fact, I was concerned that I was too scrawny and rowed a boat to try and build myself up. The exercise made no difference. I was introduced to steak, pork and beans covered in brown sugar, asparagus, and yams covered in marshmallows, and lavish desserts in the bountiful kitchen of friends, in my last year at Warwick Academy. I started to gain a little weight. I gained something more important: access to books, wonderful books, many, many books. That triggered a passion for reading that has not relented to this day. I often find myself skipping meals because I’m deep into a book. I can write while eating, but I cannot read and manipulate a knife and fork.

Manny DeCosta had sold the Sea Venture during my last year at Warwick Academy; the new owner, Carlos, another Portuguese fellow (we called them Gees, which is probably offensive), hiked the prices. With schoolmates skipping classes or at the end of lesson time I’d pop into the restaurant for French fries and a Coke. Burgers were too costly. I did find another burger joint across the Harbour in Hamilton. The Hawaiian Room had fishnets pinned to the ceiling, and nautical decor. Pretty ghastly, come to think of it. But I could rustle up the price of their Hawaiian Burger (it had a pineapple ring atop the beef patty) and a butterscotch sundae.

During my teens I was mowing lawns and washing dishes for a few pounds a week. Out of those few blue notes I managed to buy a long-playing record album for 31/6 (just over one-and-a-half pounds) and the odd shirt or pair of trousers. Odd, indeed. I was attracted to shirts with floral prints, low-slung denim jeans, suede waistcoats and outrageous flowered ties. I was growing my hair and starting the moustache that I have to this day.

As a child, in England, I’d sometimes go to Wimpy Bars. The little Wimpy burgers were the size of those at the Sea Venture, but, I thought, tasteless by comparison. At the Sea Venture one could ask for all sorts of add-ons: lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, and get French fries with endless reserves of ketchup. In Bermuda there is an expression: “Don’t get foolish with the mayonnaise!” which means, I think, don’t go overboard with it. But it was a joke as everyone wanted as much mayonnaise as possible, and on anything.

I spent the summer holidays of 1971 in London, sub-letting an apartment in Earl’s Court. The apartment had an unpleasant and very small kitchen with a meter than was coin-operated. I made only coffee there. In Earl’s Court, near the subway entrance, was a new eatery called The Hungry Years. The frontage was striking: Embedded in the window glass somehow was a life-size picture of a bread-line from the 1930s. The sort of thing one associates more with North America than the UK, The Grapes of Wrath. I was drawn inside and found wood-panelled walls, a dark and quite large room. The Hungry Years served hamburgers. One could order the burgers by quarter-pound increments. One might have a quarter-pound patty (before cooking) on a roll, or a half-pound of meat. If you wanted a pound of beef, you could have it. The burgers were delicious and one could specify cooking time. Behind the bread-line on the windows the clientele stuffed themselves to the gills with what was probably more beef than was healthy.

I’d discovered McDonald’s hamburgers in the USA in 1970, and they were good. I eventually became a fan of the “Quarter Pounder with Cheese”. The burgers at The Hungry Years were better.

And in 1971, at the age of 21, I had my first anxiety attacks while in London. I never knew when I might be rendered immobile, there seemed no logic to it. One day I’d be racing around the English countryside in a friend’s roadster, or I’d be partying happily at a club till all hours, and then I’d try to step out for a morning paper and find myself vomiting on the pavement in a state of collapse. A year later the bad days had taken over, I had no good days.

As I finished school and blundered about in the accounting world, I felt compelled to search for the real meaning in life. For some reason, I thought psychedelics were that door to understanding everything. I wanted to know. I had to know. God might be anywhere. After my panic disorder set in, I looked to religion. A missionary posed the questions: Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? And these are good questions. Looking back, I think I’d have done well to ask other questions less sweeping, and might have built up my knowledge a little here, a little there, like GCE subjects, rather than accepting something branded The Word of God. However, I had some hunger for knowledge; if not the good sense to figure out what constitutes knowledge at the end of the day. I went for the biggest burger on the menu.

Some years later I was unwell to the point of being homeless. Not exactly without a roof over my head, except when I lost the plot completely, but in sheltered accommodation. That can be worse than sleeping on the beach or in a park or graveyard. I know. Some days and nights I just walked till I dropped. I ate mainly at a Salvation Army soup kitchen. The meals were nearly always spaghetti with three meatballs, and a reconstituted fruit drink. Only one meal a day. On Friday nights a wagon might bring soup and bread around the back streets. Always pea soup. On a Sunday night the Salvation Army kitchen was closed and a meal could be had at the Seventh-Day Adventist church hall. Always vegetables, no meat, sometimes a little pasta. I lost so much weight (over 50 lbs) that people did not recognise me. At the Seventh-Day Adventist hall the volunteers called me “Pops”. I was the only white person there, and must have looked beyond my years. I was not happy with my nickname.

I could afford to lose some weight, and I’m not sure that my hungry year did me much physical harm. Perhaps everyone should have a gap year like that? Looking back, I appreciate that my mind was well-stimulated by my difficult days.

Today I bring to the table experiences that I believe most of us have not enjoyed, or suffered. The big man cannot understand the hunger of the small man, though he might know the hunger of pure greed. To get bigger. Not just in matters of diet and physical size, but in philosophical matters, in business, in politics, in religion.

Happens I no longer eat meat. I won’t be looking for a better burger. I don’t smoke, haven’t for 30 years, but still dream I’m smoking and do crave a cigarette. And when I smell beef pies fresh from the oven at the Amble Butcher, or when the fragrance (the perfume!) of a bacon butty comes from Jasper’s Cafe, I find myself drooling. Like Pavlov’s dog. We all remember Pavlov’s dog, don’t we? Every schoolboy.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Life & Death in the Eclectic Choir

You are the music while the music lasts.
T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)

I WONDER WHAT the first music I would have heard was. My father had a large wireless and he had it set to the BBC, and we were not to fiddle with the dials. Of course, we did give the various knobs a twirl and feigned innocence (untrue) and ignorance (quite true) while Dad had to try and get a clear signal again.

We did get to listen to radio programming from the United States: Jack Benny; George Burns & Gracie Allen; Amos & Andy. I’m not sure that I understood the humour, but the laughter was contagious. Gracie - playing the dimmest bulb – was once asked if her nursemaid had dropped her on her head as a baby. “Oh, no,” replied Gracie, “we could not afford a nursemaid. My mother had to do it.” The audience in the studio somewhere in America laughed, and I laughed in Bermuda. This was something I could identify with.

When I was four years of age I was sent to Humpty Dumpty College, the first pre-school in Bermuda. My father was teaching me how to read and write (I recall copying the word umbrella over and over below a picture of one that I’d made) and how to do basic geometry (drawing tangents and arcs). So far as I know, we did not have reading and writing lessons at Humpty Dumpty; we had stories read to us, which one would prefer, of course. What we did do, I know from looking at my report cards that survived so many decades in my father’s private papers, is sing and dance.

One’s nursery school teachers were not expected to tear into their pupils’ lack of ability, there was enough child psychology in the air even all those years ago, but Auntie Peggy and Auntie Norma had managed to note that I was not really cut out for a career on the stage. My dancing, even as simple a routine as the Hokey Cokey, was a struggle. I guess I’d put my left foot in ... and lose it. The kindest comment on my singing went something like this: “Ross does not manage to sing in tune, but he can sing very loudly.” That might qualify me for a career in religion or politics.

When I moved onwards and upwards to Kindergarten at Warwick Academy we began the day singing Church of England hymns; the simple ones at first such as “All Things Bright and Beautiful” but we were too soon muddling our way though “Holy, Holy, Holy. Lord God Almighty.” Christmas and Easter meant carols and anthems that one heard on the radio and played by the Salvation Army brass band on a street corner.

My father liked Broadway show tunes. Another five years of therapy for me! We had “South Pacific” and “Carousel” and “Carmen Jones” among the pile of classical records below a record player a relative had passed down to us when they upgraded to a Hi-Fi. The classical records came with the old record player, they were 78’s. I used to play Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and concertos, knowing not a thing about the composer except that his music set something off in me. (I know a great deal about the man now, and find I listen to his ballet music and “Eugene Onegin” rather than the melancholy work.)

We began more formal, and compulsory, music classes at Warwick Academy when I was, perhaps, eight-years-old. We had to sing scales, boys and girls together, all sopranos, while Miss Patricia Devlin pointed at charts with a ruler. Miss Devlin wore a full-length grey fur coat and dark glasses, and her hair was shaggy and spiky all at once. We were taught how to read music. Perhaps some were, I never, ever made sense of it. A sheet of music, to me, might as well be Greek. Except that I’d recognise some Greek letters and nothing at all among the notes and signatures that made up “music”.

When I was twelve, I joined Miss Devlin’s choir to sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” for a special Easter assembly. The choir was made up of boy and girl sopranos, altos, tenors and a few basses. I was still singing soprano. Perhaps “singing” does not best describe what I was doing; I was emitting some noises in the soprano register. My voice, moreover, was breaking. Our choir had one instruction from Miss Devlin: “Sing in tune, in your key.” We had a second commandment from the Headmaster: “Sing as loudly as you can.” I managed the latter.

Despite my complete lack of musical talent (I had been unable to play three notes in the right order on a descant recorder) I was actually invited to join the boys’ choir at the Anglican Cathedral. I attended one rehearsal, singing in my loud and cracked voice, and, at the end of the hour, was to be measured for my choir robes. I’d not thought of that when I let myself be co-opted into the Cathedral choir’s ranks. I told the choir master that I needed to pop downstairs to use the toilet first. I kept on going, all the way to the bus stop.

One might think I’d steer clear of choirs after that brief moment of horror, but twenty years later, in Salt Lake City, Utah, I signed up for the Christmas performance at a Mormon church with a musical friend. Not, I should point out, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I was making bass-like noises by then and we sang several Christmas songs, carols, which I did not know. I recall a little of one that began: “Dream! Dream! Dream! Dream! I can hear the falling snow!” A more psychedelic lyric (at church) I’ve not come across yet. My friend did not sing in the Christmas service, he went overseas for the holidays. As I could not read the music we were provided with, I had to memorise my bass line. I was unready and unsteady and did not sing at all loudly. “Dream! Dream! Dream! Dream! You cannot hear me, but my lips are moving!”

I have tried to pick out a few notes on the guitar and on the piano. I am remarkably inept. Whatever portion of the brain controls musical ability is not firing at all in my mine. Could I have been dropped on my head by my nursemaid as a baby? Well, my Mother would have had to do it. Not that unlikely, she was a grand mal epileptic.

One might think that I’d have spent my life steering clear of the musical mysteries, but it has been rather the opposite. I am something of a fanatic when it comes to music. I have it playing in my head at my every waking moment. I believe this began around the time I first indulged in mind-altering drugs. After a little LSD my life switched to the Key of E (for Ecstasy). In order to control the songs (most have words) I play music on whatever device is at hand. I listen to the radio (the BBC’s 6Music is my preferred station) and watch and listen to concerts, festivals and performances on the telly. This does not, cannot, fill my ears enough.

I have an iPod Touch and an iPod Classic. I ran out of space on the former. I’m approaching 350 albums on the Classic and could listen to it non-stop for a fortnight and then some before having to begin again.

My iPod Classic certainly has a variety of music for me to match up to any mood (or to create another mood if the current one is disagreeable). I started with the complete box-set of The Beatles, digitally remastered and released about a year ago. Then I begged, bought and borrowed many albums from my 1960s experience. The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Dave Clark Five, Jefferson Airplane, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Donovan, George Harrison (my favourite Beatle), the Motown artists, and so on. From the 1970s there’s Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, Simon & Garfunkel, David Bowie, T-Rex, Pink Floyd, some of the disco divas, and many more. Lots from the 1980s and 1990s: I like The Cure, Madonna, George Michael, The Go-Gos, The B-52s, Our Lady Peace, Beck, A-Ha, Erasure, Holly Johnson, The Verve, Blur, it goes on and on. The Kaiser Chiefs and Scissor Sisters do the trick as well. So can Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, Guillemots, Green Day and Darren Hayes.

On my iPod one will also find Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Faur√©, Haydn, and Mendelssohn. There’s Billie Holiday and Liza Minnelli. There’s The Chemical Brothers’ “Setting Sun” and there’s Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte”. There must be a colliery brass band in the mix, and a few hymns.

Do I sing along to all this music? Very rarely. I have neighbours and friends I’d rather not annoy. I like to use the iPod if I’m on the train (I listen to Podcasts too, while on the move) and also (curiously) when I’m reading at bedtime.

I’ve been listening to a shuffled mix of all my Rolling Stones songs while typing this. I’ve not sung out a single note. I have been tapping my feet, though no telling whether it is in time. I could be lost in the Hokey Cokey.