Saturday, 25 June 2011


Portrait of the Art Critic as a Young Man

Hoy-day, what a sweep of vanity comes this way!
They dance! They are mad women.
Like madness is the glory of this life.
As this pomp shows to a little oil and root.
We make ourselves fools, to disport ourselves;
And spend our flatteries, to drink those men
Upon whose age we void it up again,
With poisonous spite and envy.
Who lives that's not depraved or depraves?
Who dies, that bears not one spurn to their graves
Of their friends' gift?
I should fear those that dance before me now
Would one day stamp upon me: 't has been done;
Men shut their doors against a setting sun.
William Shakespeare. (Timon of Athens. Act I, Scene II)

TO THE BEST OF MY RECOLLECTION my first paying job was mowing a lawn. About an acre, belonging to my mother’s brother. Our near relatives lived next door to us, on a hillside. I had mowed my mother’s half-acre for a while, and it was rather rocky ground, but not too steep at least. When I moved up onto the slopes, I really did begin to sweat. Seems to me that it was about this time that I first experienced body odour. My own personal stink.

I was saving money to buy a moped. I needed £100, and each time I mowed my uncle’s acre I brought home £1. It seemed that it might take forever. About that time, a second paying position opened. I washed dishes after dinner parties. I would arrive in the kitchen as the dinner was being plated, and start washing anything that was no longer required, working my way through the pots, pans, whisks, and ladles to the demitasse coffee cups and little crystal glasses that liqueurs had been served in. After two or three hours, I had clean fingernails, a moist forehead, and a pound note.

I believe I managed to save the £100 in less than a year. Not bad, bearing in mind I had other expenses. What I did not spend on haircuts, I did use to buy the latest pop records and some rather dodgy clothes. I thought I looked good in flowered shirts with my hair covering most of my face and over my collar.

One short-lived job was tending the bar at The Wheatsheaf Inn, in Ludlow, Shropshire. A lovely old building, where I lived in the attic. I had to remember to walk down the centre of the room and duck my head as I rolled onto my bed. Just above the bed was a flat window in the roof, and as I looked out, I could see bats and night birds flying around the inn’s chimneys. I did not much care for the bar tending, but joined a crew of house painters in the neighbourhood and did that in the daytime. I was paid £5 a week, plus breakfast and lodging.

I was interviewed by the personnel manager at a branch of the Westminster Bank in Maidstone, Kent, and, despite having absolutely no experience of banking and finance, I was offered a job. The Bank advised me to buy a suit or two, and to get a haircut. I might expect £10 a week, before taxes. This seemed rather grand, twice my pay at The Wheatsheaf Inn.

The bank job did not happen. I had put out feelers at the Bermuda office of American International Group (AIG), and flew off to see what that might offer me, a still-greasy teenager. My mother’s brother, the one whose lawn I had mowed some years before, happened to be the president of AIG operations in Bermuda; I also knew many of the employees through their children with whom I had grown up. I was offered a job immediately. In my defence, my uncle did not know that I was applying for a position in his firm.

My talents were judged most appropriate to work in the Accounting and Finance Department. I dare say this was not because I had some experience in an office, but I had never even had so much as a chequebook to balance. So why? I had managed to pass GCE “A” Levels in Mathematics, though only just. There was nothing of bookkeeping in those courses, just a few months of calculus, some statistics, a bit of applied mathematics and physics. I could have worked out something involving Newton’s three Laws of Motion (sometimes I still recall the equations, though not tonight), but I had no idea what a Debit or a Credit might be.

Happens, I learned a bit about bookkeeping, and I worked in that field, for a few employers, off and on for the next 30 years. My mind has now been wiped clean; I now have no real notion of what one might do to balance books, by hand or on a computer. I let the bank balance things for me, though I have a vague idea of what level of poverty I should be classed in.

I have many AIG memories, but the one that comes to mind first involves my boss in the Accounting and Finance Department. The Treasurer was a very large, bulky man, not too many years older than my parents were, but his children were old enough to have been ahead of me academically and socially. I knew his name, but nothing else about him. Mr Dale had a buzzer system that he operated from his desk in his corner office. A single buzz was to summon his executive secretary, two buzzes meant his personal assistant should rush in, three and his chief filing clerk had to get hopping. There were other buzzes that nobody seemed to understand. Had Mr Dale buzzed five times, or was it a two and a three? Had he rested a ledger on the button?

Mr Dale travelled to the company’s New York City offices frequently. We were all glad when this happened. The first experience I had of this was within days of settling into my chair near the Xerox photocopier that I was supposed to keep full of paper, and ink, and to dismantle when copies (frequently) jammed in the works. I was truly clueless. As the boss prepared for his trip, his filing clerk was on constant alert to photocopy everything and anything that might be needed in NYC. This before computers, of course. Hard copy days.

The morning arrived and Mr Dale’s secretary came and asked me to carry his bag to the elevator, and then out to the company car in the parking area. I crept into the corner office, Mr Dale looked at me as if he had no idea who I was (I do not suppose he would) as I reached for the leather straps on a large canvas bag. I hefted and the bag stayed on the floor. I lifted again and it moved just a little sideways. I reached with both hands, got the bag airborne and wobbled towards the door with it. I was sweating by the time I pushed it into the elevator. Downstairs, out of sight of Mr Dale, I simply dragged the bag over to the door and signalled the driver to bring the car up.

I asked for an explanation when we were all horsing around after the boss had headed to the Airport. Turned out the very large, bulky Mr Dale was on a strict diet and his doctor had passed him along to a psychologist. The shrink had told Mr Dale that he must purchase lead ingots equal in weight to the amount he exceeded his perfect weight for his height and frame, put them in a bag, and carry it with him everywhere. He was not particularly tall, and was mostly fat. There was the better part of a man’s weight in the canvas bag. Rather than lift it himself, Mr Dale had staff members lug it about for him. To the best of my knowledge, very little lead came out of the canvas bag. His excess weight remained steady, or increased. Books badly balanced?

I have worked in insurance accounting offices, at a supermarket, at a Peugeot motorcycle and bicycle dealership, for a landscaping firm, in a convenience store taking passport photographs, in a petrol station, and as an assistant to a friend who needed someone to take her dogs to obedience training. I even taught night school classes in creative writing.

Almost exactly ten years ago, late 2001, when George Harrison died, I phoned our local newspaper and asked if I might write an obituary on the former Beatle (my favourite, it happened) for the weekend edition. To my surprise, the editor agreed and I banged out a thousand words. They came easily. A thousand words still flow easily (we are nearly at 1,500 here). I have been writing since I was editor of our grammar school newspaper. I have always kept up a considerable correspondence with friends. It is easy for me. Computers made it even quicker, as fast as I can type with two fingers of my right hand; the words are always there.

I offered the occasional article for that weekend edition, and it would run something most weeks, at $100 a pop. They wanted articles about things I remembered. Things I had seen. As if I was so very old.

Then the art critic for that weekender died. I did not weep long, but offered to have a go in her place. That turned out to be an interesting experience, one I enjoyed. My family has artists on both sides, not just painters, but actors and musicians. I tried to paint when I was in my salad days, not terribly well, but mixed with a fair lot of artisans. I knew painters well, and that lead to set-painters in local theatre, which took me into producing a couple of shows on a small scale.

I attended gallery openings, and first nights at the theatre, and managed to knock out the required column in short order. I only ever struggled when commissioned to write a group of articles on motor vehicles; I was not used to re-writes.

I am reminded of an opening at “Kofu Hair and Gallery” in Bermuda. The hair salon was on a rooftop in a dodgy part of town (one might be gunned down there nowadays) and the owner, a Jamaican with a Bermudian girlfriend, did the hair of black women, and hung paintings on every spare bit of wall space. One was given a programme and, working around the clients, chairs, sinks, and hair-dryers, could study the latest exhibition.

My first visit to Kofu was surprising. The quality of the pictures on show was surprisingly good, even if most of them were the work of the proprietor. There were a few odd things, chairs with nails driven through the seats, hanging from the ceiling. Then the owner took leave of the matron he had been seeing to at the sink, and invited me to go in the “Private Gallery”. I was told that I could not review, or mention, these special pictures, but he would like me to see them to better understand his work.

We walked to a closed door in the centre of one wall, and my host unlocked it, switched on a light, and directed me into the narrow corridor inside. I could tell the walls were hung with huge canvases, some reaching from ceiling to floor, but seeing them was extremely difficult as the corridor was so narrow. One could not get more than a foot away from the surface of a painting perhaps eight foot square.

“What do you think?” The gallery owner asked, indicating a painting.

“I cannot really see it. What exactly would it be?”

Imagine a Jackson Pollock being sucked into a train tunnel. Or the open jaws of a feeding shark.

“It is my girlfriend’s pussy. Close up.”

Close up and eight feet across, at the end of my nose.

“You cannot write about this, of course. The police would raid us.”

This sort of thing might put one off, I dare say. I might have become a John Ruskin. Instead, I see the comedy in it. Ruskin, apparently, never got over Effie Gray’s pubic hair, or was it her menstrual blood, and I am guessing he never had a good laugh about it.

Nowadays I write blog entries. I am not paid, but for the occasional compliment. I also write Tweets, 140 character remarks, on Twitter. Moreover, on good days, I attach my blog entry to my Tweet, and somebody might wind up here.

How did you get here?

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Concessionary Tale

The years between 50 and 70 are the hardest.

You are always asked to do things,

and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

A FORTNIGHT AGO, some old friends of mine (so many of my friends are old now, and this is what keeps me so young) on their first trip to Great Britain arrived in my part of this other Eden.

Sue and Dave had driven up from London, taking a few days, with a stop in York to visit the Minster. I can tell you that some of these single attractions are alone worth the flight from the New World back into time and place. They had spent a good part of a day at Westminster Abbey in London padding about between poets and headless queens.

I have been visiting many of these historic sites for over 50 years, first in the care of my Nan Eldridge who knew what is what and how to get to what is what. Those were early mornings in the forecourt of a coach station, with a bag of sandwiches for our lunch. A muddle of people, most of whom seemed as old as my Nan, which is to say truly ancient, would gradually make their way to the appropriate gate and form a queue. Of course, these fossils, these relics of another age, survivors of the war and peace, were not, in fact, as old as I am now.

Once on board the coach, we would fiddle with the air vents, and I would look out of the window to watch familiar places fall behind us. Then, at about nine o’clock, everybody on the bus would open his or her boxed lunch and eat every crumb. At ten, the driver would pause at an inn somewhere for a toilet and tea break. Nowadays, the word to politely cover this is a “comfort stop”. We all watch full-frontal nudity and listen to shocking language on Channel 4 in the evening, but prefer not to be troubled by anything that hints at bodily functions.

I have a toilet story. A year ago, Sue’s brother, Richard, was in town on his first visit. We took the train down to Durham for the day and after a while I needed to use the toilets (Richard, in Utah, would likely call them restrooms) and we found some at the bottom of several flights of stairs in a small shopping mall. I left Richard at street level and followed the signs downwards.

It was a very nice, clean toilet. A few others were using it when I arrived. I went to the row of urinals and unzipped my flies, as one does. There was one other bloke at the urinals as Richard appeared. He had decided he had best get some comfort. I did not appreciate that it was Richard, last to enter. I finished, headed quickly to the sink, and then climbed the stairs back up to the shopping mall concourse. No Richard. I decided to stay in place and wait for him to reappear, thinking he might have gone into one of the shops.

Richard trots into view, from the door down to the public toilets. He indicated we might move along, seeming a tad flustered. Turned out that Richard had, while peeing, thought the fellow a few bowls along from him was I, and with the stream of urine being plentiful and powerful, Richard had remarked on it. “Nice and steady there! You won’t be having any prostate problems for a while.” Then Richard realised it was not me, but a complete stranger.

When Sue and Dave rolled into Alnwick, where we had decided to meet for a walkabout and to visit the Castle (I had taken the bus up from Amble), they were coming from Otterburn, inland, and were directed by their Sat-Nav to the Pottergate entrance of the Castle. I had disembarked on the far side, where the Alnwick Garden entrance is. One has to walk across some fields to enter the Castle.

We each expected to find the other in the same gate area of the Castle, but were on opposite sides of the massive building. Thank heavens for mobile telephones! I think that when I phoned Dave’s mobile (he would call it a cellular device) the call might have looped across the Atlantic Ocean to Maryland and back. No matter how well travelled our telephone signal was, we talked ourselves into a common area outside the gift shop.

There was a younger woman, perhaps 25, behind the counter in the ticket office. I approached, smiled, and asked for a single ticket for the Castle. The young lady smiled back and whispered something to me.

I am hard of hearing, and am presently using a temporary hearing aid before being fitted for something more powerful in July. I said to the counter person: “I’m sorry, I cannot hear too well. Might you repeat that?” Another whisper. Another: “Sorry. Louder.”

One might be forgiven for misunderstanding what I was being asked in this whisper. The woman had said, a few times before I understood clearly: “Are you a grownup?”

“What do you mean?”
“Grownup. Are you over 60?”
“In fact, I am. Would you like some identification?”

I had ID, and I was wearing a grey beard, bifocals and a hearing aid.

“No. That is okay. As a grownup, you get a concessionary entrance ticket.”

Therefore, I was charged a pound or two less than the many visitors a few years and more younger than I am.

It is good to be a grownup!

I am suddenly reminded of something that happened over 40 years ago. A friend (a young friend then) and I had gone to the cinema to see the recently released (and much hyped) film “Bonnie and Clyde”. We thoroughly enjoyed the picture (I have never seen it again, and do not know if it has held up at all well) and came out into the chilly night air, lighting our cigarettes and pushing through the crowds to get to the parking area.

And we walked straight into my mother’s parents and some family friends, a couple not much younger than my grandparents. They would all have been around the age I am as I sit here typing this account.

My mate and I were positively bubbling with enthusiasm about the bloody gangster film we had all just seen. My grandparents and their friends looked quite deflated, shocked even.

“We thought it was just awful.”
“We had expected it to be a Scottish musical.”

I am wondering if my grandparents, who would have been “grownups” by the current definition at the ticket desk at Alnwick Castle, would (40+ years ago) have got a discount on their theatre tickets.

Are there any attractions, such as historical sites, places of worship, films, plays, and books, that one can gain entrance to at a mutually agreed rate? If the Tower of London knocks one’s socks off, might one happily pay the full admission price (or more)? And if Owl World disappoints, can one ask for a few quid back (to spend in the pub)?

Alternatively, shall we just have the young, and grownups?

Wednesday, 8 June 2011


So sure as this beard’s grey,
What will you adventure...?
William Shakespeare (The Winter’s Tale, Act II, Scene III)

IN 1978, I had a passport photograph taken in a shop in the Bermudiana Arcade in Hamilton, Bermuda. The proprietor sat me in front of a screen, took a photograph with a large camera on a tripod, and then took another picture after telling me not to move. My photographs would be ready in a week’s time.

I recall collecting four prints (and he gave me the two negatives), which would have to be trimmed down by somebody in the passport section of the British Embassy in Washington DC. The head, neck, and uppermost shoulders were the correct size, but the photographer had set his sights on my waist and everything above.

Happens I had a beard at the time. Not the first I had grown. I have had a moustache since I was in my late teens, and once I reached my twenties, I would grow a beard from time to time, depending on the weather. A cooler time of year would be more encouraging.

In 1978, when I was renewing my British passport whilst in Bermuda, I was anticipating a trip, my first, to the Rocky Mountains. I would have been 28 years old. My hair and beard were reddish brown, quite a bit darker than my hair was in a 1968 passport (taken in Gillingham, Kent). A passport in the late 1980s showed me with thinning, greying hair.

My current passport, issued here in Northumberland about two years ago, is that of a white-haired individual, with a white moustache. The same picture appears on my bus pass. When I was in the booth, having my photograph taken by a digital camera, my glasses seemed to reflect the light. I took them off, and so I am not exactly myself, as I always wear my glasses when I am out and about. I look squinty.

I spent a few years on the other side of a camera in the same shop in which I had posed for my passport picture back in 1978. It would have been the late 1990s. “Kit ‘n’ Caboodle” sold newspapers, cigarettes, junk food and soft drinks, and ghastly small toys at Christmas. One could have photocopies made. I never figured out how to work the enormous Xerox machine, and tried to be busy whenever a customer appeared wanting copies. As I recall, most of these customers were expatriate workers copying documents to submit to the Bermuda Government to enable them to retain their jobs another year or so. There were also a few poets who wanted no end of copies of their latest oeuvres. Expectant mothers would turn up wanting copies of their ultrasound scans, and would point out the important bits. The ultrasound foetus, one’s first passport picture.

At Kit ‘n’ Caboodle, I was mainly employed as their passport photographer. One would hold a Polaroid camera, and aim a beam of light at the client seated in front of a light-absorbing screen, and a tiny red dot of light could be seen on the client’s forehead. One learned where to aim the beam of light for the particular type of passport photograph. Different countries had different requirements. The United States passport needed one ear showing, so taken from slightly to one side (I forget which). The United States also requires passport photographs of even the smallest infants, with eyes wide open. This could take an hour and could reduce me to near-insanity. One had to stand leaning over the wee bairn, holding the camera out, but being extra-careful not to drop it (which could kill the kid!)

Our black customers nearly always hated their passport photographs, usually saying: “This is too dark. I look like a Jamaican.”

One woman with rather droopy breasts pushed them up from underneath and asked me to ensure they were in the finished picture. I explained that an acceptable passport photograph showed the top of the shoulders, neck and head. No breasts (neither pert, nor pendulous).

We also had an ID photograph service, creating personal identification cards that were, clearly, not legal. $18 would buy you a laminated card the size of a bus pass with your name, address and age alongside a photograph. The client would write the details onto the card. Nothing was witnessed. The client could create his own identity.

One day a young, light-skinned lad came into Kit ‘n’ Caboodle and asked for one of our ID cards. The boy looked, perhaps, 15 years of age. I dare say he wanted an ID to buy cigarettes and liquor, requiring him to be 21. This kid’s picture added nothing to his smooth face. Before I could glue the photograph onto the card on which the boy had written his inaccurate details, and then laminate it, he grabbed the photo, whipped out a black felt-tip pen, and scribbled a beard and moustache on the immature face. “You can laminate it now.”

The boy had it in his mind that if he presented a photograph of himself with a beard, even if he did not actually have one on his face, he would still be able to buy his smokes and Black Seal rum. He did not seem to have a notion that his hastily drawn beard was clearly just that, scribbled onto a picture. Oscar Wilde wrote: “Naïveté is like the bloom of a delicate, exotic flower. You touch it but once and it is destroyed forever.” One did not have the heart to spoil the boy’s day. I gave him two dollars change from his twenty-dollar note.

I have two personal activities that are, I dare say, hobbies. I research genealogy, which involves many, many hours following up leads back many centuries. I have around two thousand individuals in my “family tree”, all considerably detailed. Each relative has documented evidence attached to his or her file: addresses, dates, connections, photographs.

I also have a Nikon digital camera, and I spend time taking dozens of pictures that I tinker with on my computer, and that usually are deleted as the one or two satisfying snapshots stand out. If a picture is too dark, I can change the lighting with a few clicks. Nothing Jamaican about my photography.