Saturday, 25 June 2011

I, PLATYPUS

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?