Saturday, 20 November 2010

Images and Ideals

It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

A FEW YEARS AFTER MY FATHER VANISHED I dragged one of our dining room chairs into my mother’s bedroom, placed it in the doorway of her cupboard, climbed onto it, stretched out my arms, and pulled several items down from a shelf that had been well out of reach until that moment. I’d have been, perhaps, seven or eight.

In a box was a very large fishing reel. I don’t recall my father, or my mother, ever fishing. I’ve never seen photographs of them with rods and reels on boats or on the coastline. There was no line on the reel, and there was nothing else that might have some connection to the sport.

In another box was my father’s hand-gun. I recognized it, I recalled Dad shooting lizards on one occasion. Lizards on our bougainvilleas. The large, bright green Warwick lizards did no harm, and probably ate bugs that we’d be glad to see the back of. Why did he shoot them?

On the shelf in the top of the cupboard were also large, white sheets of paper. Artists’ paper. I pushed the fishing reel and the gun back onto the shelf and pulled the rolled-up pages out. I knew that my father had painted watercolours of landscapes, and sometimes cartoonish characters. These pictures had been given away as gifts. My father had also painted a large mural on one wall of my sisters’ bedroom. This depicted Snow White and I believe it owed a good deal to the Disney organization. For some reason the mural was short-lived, painted over. Looking back, it occurs to me that I’d have loved a mural related to my favourite book “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” in my small box-room.

The sheets of paper, when unrolled, revealed studies of female nudes. Somewhat more astonishing than the gun and fishing reel I’d rejected. I have some memory of these paintings, which depicted a sort of idealised woman, nobody I knew (or that anybody knew). Rather, a somewhat animated depiction of the perfected human form. The sort of cartoon females one might find in Playboy Magazine, though I did not appreciate this when I was seven years of age.

I was interested in painting. However, I was not permitted to use my father’s many tubes of watercolour paints which he kept in a drawer in the kitchen. I was given a box of Lake District coloured pencils, the sort that one could dip in water and get interesting results.

For some reason, some years later, my father abandoned original art and became a fanatic follower of the “Paint by Number” school. I remember the unpleasant smell of the oils to this day. One or two large Paint by Number pictures were framed and hung in the house where Dad lived with his second family. I believe they disappeared as he moved on to his third family. Towards the end of his life, my father collected paintings by one of my cousins, a professional artist. That cousin still paints, and lives not far from me. He has a portrait of my father (his uncle) hanging in his Northumberland home.

When I was young, my father would take photographs of me and my two sisters. We’d all be under ten, pudgy kids, out for a Sunday half-day with the usually absent parent. Dad had a theory about photographs: one must never look at the camera, but off into the distance so that the picture was always a side-view. It was also important that we formed a line, by height (so, by age). If possible the picture of the three children had some sort of setting that framed them. For example, a moon-gate or a wide doorway. In one home that Dad rented there was a very large fireplace, and one might be posed so as to be below the mantelpiece and within the sides, sat on the hearth itself.

Dad took slides rather than print photographs. We’d have shows from time to time using his carousel-type projector. I heard just the other day that my youngest brother has got his hands on what I believe are these slides from the 1950s and 1960s. He’s working at getting them into his computer, so I’m rather hoping to look at them soon, after forty years.

I took art classes at Warwick Academy. In fact, we all did until we were about thirteen. After that, one had to choose between a science and art & religion. Both art and religion. Art might have been fun, but the attached religion was off-putting. I went for Chemistry. In the art classes I had before the switch to the lab, we used cheap powder paints which we mixed in the aluminium foil trays from TV Dinners. Our art mistress, apparently, survived on Swanson’s rather unpleasant heat and serve meals. My father also ate these when he was between wives. Frankly, the art mistress was no better at her artwork than at food preparation.

At home, I collected the “Betta Builda” plastic blocks with a passion. If I could find the shilling, I’d buy another small box of blocks, windows, roof tiles. One might construct buildings suitable for a toy train system. I longed for a train, but never got one. However, I had a great many blocks, enough to build more than little railway stations and cottages. I was building churches and then cathedrals, offices, shops and museums and galleries. And here’s something curious: Almost fifty years later I dream of my Betta Builda blocks, my buildings. I still, some nights, snap so many bricks together and create places to house my imaginary people. I still don’t have a train, not even in my dreams.

Along with the plastic homes and villages, I assembled models from kits. Usually aeroplanes (of course, I had a “Spitfire”) and sailing ships (of course, HMS Victory).

At the Medway College of Technology I studied engineering drawing, and passed the course. I never took that any further.

In my late teens I had a go at painting again. In fact, I took part in a group show. I wasn’t too good at creating pleasant pictures and had the good sense to abandon this. Years later I had a go at being an art critic for a newspaper. I know what I like, and simply rated things on my personal scales. Now I have a go at photography. I have Photoshop installed in my computer this winter and hope to learn how to use it.

I have met another Eldridge Family artist recently, a cousin’s son, who is an animator, who makes films using puppets. This lad looks so like my father at that age (early 20s) that I was quite taken aback.

I keep paints and artist’s brushes in the flat. Now and then I dab a bit of watercolour or acrylic in a book. I'd love to have my Betta Builda blocks back from my dreams. One of my sisters dumped the originals, and the toy company that made them sold out to Lego (which was an inferior system, in my opinion). In truth, I prefer to build, sketch and colour with words.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Burning Issues

Last Post

Nothing goes by luck in composition. It allows of no tricks.
The best you can write will be the best you are.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

I RECENTLY AWOKE in the wee hours with an unusual dream playing out in my mind; so curious a vision that, weeks later, I can still see portions of it, and it is no less vivid.

As I slept, I was sat at an old, manual typewriter. I recognized the bulky model; it was a Royal that would date back to the years shortly after World War Two. It was my father’s machine that he used when he worked as secretary-treasurer of the Co-op in Bermuda in the evenings, from home.

Some background. When my father finished his stint in the Royal Navy he decided to stay in Bermuda, rather than to return to his family in the United Kingdom. He worked for a time for the British government in the Colonial Secretariat in Bermuda’s awfully small capital, the City of Hamilton. I can remember, in the early 1950s, my mother starching my father’s white shirts and shorts. He wore Bermuda shorts and knee-socks, which was something of a mistake for somebody with legs best described as scrawny. I recall Dad working at the Department of Agriculture, in its offices in the Botanical Gardens. Then he moved on to the Bank of N.T. Butterfield, where he remained for over thirty years.

I should point out that when I was quite young, and my two sisters even younger, our father left the nest. My parents did not have a great deal, some of our furniture had been home-built with wood from, and I’m guessing, packing cases. My bed, and some of our chests of drawers had come, second-hand, from Bermuda’s Hospital where my mother’s father worked in Stores. Our bed linen was also courtesy of the Hospital. We had metal furniture painted with lead-based, hospital-white, glossy enamel. If the furniture was scratched or bumped one could smell the lead. If that was not unpleasant enough, my mother believed everything could be controlled with Flit. This was a vile-smelling insecticide that might have been directed at the abundant flies, roaches and mosquitoes. I remember an act of considerable cruelty when my mother would aim the Flit pump at the spaniel to get it to emerge from under an armchair (where it was probably hiding from the stench of the kerosene stove). My mother never could figure out why her canaries (she always had two, both males as the females do not sing, one in the kitchen and one in the dining room) were so short-lived. I could tell her years later that canaries were carried into mines as a warning against poisonous gasses. At the age of 65 my mother died a horrible death of cancer that was diagnosed only in its last stages; she might have had it for years. I could tell her years later about the cancer deaths that come decades after exposure to radiation (think Hiroshima) or asbestos (in buildings and boilers) or from toxic metals and paints and sprays. I could tell her, but she popped her clogs almost twenty years ago.

If my father left behind the poisonous hospital furnishings, he took with him his chain-smoking habit. I never saw him free of a cigarette. I used to have panic attacks when he’d be driving us in the car, steering with his knees while using both hands to strike a match to light another fag. This before electric lighters in the car’s dashboard. Used matches and cigarette butts went out the window; the ash-tray was tiny. Sometimes the still-burning butt would fly in again through the rear window.

My father was never a heavy drinker to the best of my knowledge. I don’t ever recall him being incapacitated by drink in any way. I’d be naive to think he never got off his face with one of his lady friends, but I don’t think he drank at home alone. He may have been a sad bastard at times, but not through alcohol.

My father’s second wife, who I liked a great deal, who was always kind to me even if she’d correct my diction and grammar (I appreciate that now), introduced us to classical music and good food. She was an excellent cook (my mother couldn’t boil a cabbage, though she tried often enough) and was always amused when I’d persuade Dad to treat me to a banana split at the Parakeet, an eatery in Bermuda that was a few clicks nicer than the Sea Venture Cafe, though hardly the epitome of fine dining. My step-mother was raised near Liverpool in the years between the wars and complicated ice-cream desserts were not to be had there and then. When I ordered a banana split, I had it with “the works”. My step-mother has been dead over twenty-five years; she died young, in her fifties. My step-mother drank herself out of her career as an extraordinarily gifted history teacher, and then to death; not over-night, I must point out, but I rarely saw her sober in the twenty-something years she was part of my family.

When my father died, aged seventy, which is a fair age for the Eldridge male (I know this from my family history studies), there was an autopsy as his death was sudden and unexpected. The results of this medical examination revealed that my father had been in dreadful health, his body was failing fast. Two aneurysms killed him on the day, but unhealthy living had taken its toll. The chain-smoking. For all I know, my mother’s dreadful cooking and the deadly paints and sprays that surrounded us when I was a child did their worst.

Three of my grandparents died of cancer. In my mother’s family, sixty was an exceptional age. With one exception, my mother’s mother lived until she was 104, and she died of extreme old age past the time of enjoying the business of living. She’d tell me she wanted to die, had just had enough. Working in a cotton mill at age eleven, and my grandfather’s lead-based paint must have toughened her up somehow. My grandfather chain-smoked and died of cancer, their home was always full of fumes.

My father’s father died of lung cancer. I remember him struggling to breathe, to talk, to walk very far. He did not smoke, so far as I know, when he was dying (and knew he was dying). My Nan died of cancer of the gut, I believe. When I was in my teens my Nan and I would play shove ha-penny or cribbage and she’d have one of my cigarettes, and she’d pour me a glass of sherry, or port, from one of her bottles.

I was a chain-smoker from the age of seventeen, smoking until I was thirty-one, with six months here and there when I’d quit half-heartedly. When I go to the doctor now for my annual physical my past as a smoker is reviewed, even though I’ve not smoked in thirty years. A month ago I applied for an insurance policy and the interviewer pestered me about my smoking. For me, it is important that I’ve not given in to the constant temptation to light up a cigarette for three decades. It is an achievement. The insurance contract notes only that I’ve not smoked in the last twelve months.

The man at the insurance company asked me how many units of alcohol I drink a day. I told him I probably had three small glasses of wine a year, and hadn’t really had a regular drink in thirty-five years. “But,” the insurance man said, “I need to know how many units that would be in, say, a week.” I got defensive and said that in volume it was about nothing. “But you do drink. So I need to know the unit.” I finally told him to put down one unit, whatever that is, a week. His form did not allow for less. I told the man I’d worked in the insurance industry for AIG and also for the Hartford Insurance Group and thought his forms with my inaccurate information were not quite fair to his employer or to me. I guess I could start drinking, but I honestly don’t much care for the stuff and only sip something perhaps three times a year when someone or something is being toasted and a drink has been placed in front of me without me necessarily asking for it.

Over the years I have taken substances that do awfully bizarre things to the mind, if not so much to the body if we’re talking wobbly legs and waving arms. I do not know if these drugs can damage one’s organs to the extent of shortening one’s life substantially. Obviously, I put my life at risk riding a scooter when tripping on this or that psychedelic. And it seems extraordinary to me that I didn’t let myself float away on LSD. I have taken some drugs in quantities that certainly put my life at risk at the time. If I’d died the coroner would probably have decided I’d accidentally topped myself. The man from the insurance company who quizzed me recently had few questions relating to drugs. I was asked if my blood pressure was normal and I said I took a particular medication which kept it steady, and I had it checked routinely. I gave him the required information about my other medical treatments, some of which are quite heavy duty. He was less concerned than I am. At the end of the insurance quiz he asked if I’d attempted to kill or harm myself in the past year. I told him that never in my life had I tried to end it all.

Back to my dream a fortnight ago. I was sat at my father’s old black Royal typewriter as I did as a child. In fact, I have used a typewriter starting with that one since I was not much over five years old. I’ve had both manual and electric machines. For the past fifteen years I’ve used a computer. I do hand-write notes on scratch pads I leave around the flat (buy mushrooms, look up meaning of the word novella, phone sister, book dinner at the Widdrington Inn), but when I do write, I use a keyboard. And I was sat at a small table in the middle of a sparsely-furnished room, the typewriter filling most of the table-top, and I was not typing, but looking intently at the old machine which had a sheet of paper in the rollers. Suddenly it burst into flames. Not small flames, but a raging fire. I reached through the flames and (not being harmed) picked up the typewriter and carried it across the room and placed it outside a door on a patio that I did not recognise any more than the room I was in. The machine continued to burn, without being consumed, out on the ground. I closed the door and walked across the room with its now-empty table, past that, and as I went through another door I woke up.

I’ve come across two projects that are affecting other people in the month of November. A number of men are growing moustaches this month, and are being sponsored financially for doing so. The muzzies can come off in December. I’ve had a moustache since I left school. I’m not messing with it, but when I make some donation to charity next, I’ll think “whiskers” as I sign the cheque, or drop the coin in the box.

Another group is taking part in a writing project. The idea is to roll out a 50,000 word novel in the month of November, in thirty days and no more. By definition of most people in the publishing industry, 50,000 words is the lowest limit of a novel. A novella would be 20,000 to 50,000 words, a novel 50,000 to 110,000. Apparently most publishers would not be interested in less than 70,000 words for a first novel. If you manage something over 110,000 words it might be called an epic (or anything by Stephen King).

In grammar school we wrote essay answers, we had no multiple-choice questions. In English we wrote compositions, a few hundred words on The Lawnmower or Life in My Town. We also might be given a 300 word section from some well-known book and we’d have to write a prĂ©cis of it, perhaps 175 words.

In another life I wrote a newspaper column for a weekend publication, and that ran to about 2,000 words a time. I generally left that till the last moment.

For several years I’ve had this Barking Mad Blog. The entries run from 1,500 to 2,500 words; I’m not sure why. Perhaps I fancy a cup of tea after 2,000 words and the writing mood dissipates quickly. I never know my subject matter till the last word has been typed, and then I might think: “So that’s it...” This means I understand my meaning, and I’ve finished the damn thing. If I were writing a tale of some kind, 2,500 words would be in the short story category.

Now and then, over the years, I’ve written something that bothered somebody. When I was very young I think it was an effort to be a smart-arse. I’m no longer young and it seems to me that there are burning issues that I might tackle. Health, family life and personal history seem important to me now. I am also looking at politics and religion (Wilde said that one should not mention these in polite society) because I’m seeing some real problems in both of these. If my father was a Conservative because he thought he ought to be, despite a working class background, I tend to Socialism despite a fairly privileged upbringing. Perhaps I am a Champagne Socialist (though hardly a unit a week). Regarding religion, I imagine some think I go on and on about Mormonism too much. This is because what I was taught nearly forty years ago has been recently shown to be a lot of old cobblers. The missionaries didn’t know they were telling fibs and doctored doctrine, and when I held positions in the Mormon Church I had no idea either. A bit of a crusade to wage there, though it is interesting intellectually. How to fool millions of people for almost two hundred years.

Was my dream of a burning typewriter a warning of what might happen if I write on? Sitting down to write, starting, somehow, a fire? I’ve not blogged since I had that dream. Now I’m back. Will the typewriter be on my dream-desk tonight?