There live not three good men unhanged in England;
And one of them is fat and grows old:
God help the while!
A bad world, I say.
William Shakespeare, Henry IV Part 1
"I have never liked this part of Northamptonshire," broadcast—loudly—the unattractive woman in clothes that one might wear to muck out a stable.
Her accent was unusual for these parts: As Lancashire as "Coronation Street", as Lancashire as the red rose. More unusual, people usually refer to Northamptonshire as Northants. Most unusual, we were in Northumberland, not in Northamptonshire at all.
The bus was nearly a half-hour late leaving Alnwick and the light was already going by two o'clock in the afternoon. A few passengers whispered, as if whispering might not encourage it, the forecast was for snow. Would we reach our homes in time? Even with the bus's heaters on full we had our collars pulled up, scarves wrapped around and hats pulled down. Sitting, its engine switched off, in the Alnwick Bus Station for a half-hour, the bus was very nearly icy as we rolled onto Bondgate Without.
Ice and snow were not on the mind of the stranger from Lancashire, lost forty or so miles north of Newcastle. She wanted to give a running tour of what she did not like as she looked out of the 518 bus windows. She also made a few comments concerning those things that she approved of:
"Now, that is sensible housing. Easy care housing. Old people should be put in houses like that. All of them."
Did she mean all the old people, or all the houses? Should the nasty little boxes that I saw be available only to the old? Where I saw a row of brick shithouses, she saw a way to file away our seniors.
"No lawns to fuss over. Near the road."
But I saw flat, dirty, red brick fronts with squinting windows and broken concrete paths, certainly guiding the residents into the traffic, the only greenery being the few weeds pushing up through the cracks.
I do not know who lives in those unfortunate dwellings. On our side quite a busy road with a bus service, and behind and below them the railway line linking Edinburgh with London. I do approve of building houses near public transport. I believe in restricted private vehicle ownership. But nicer houses than these near Alnmouth Station. Houses should not be like, or look like, railway platform conveniences.
I may have told you this before: I love trains. I would very nearly live on a train if I could. When I win the Lotto, I shall have a suite in the Radisson Hotel in Glasgow where I shall store the clothes that I am not wearing that season, and the books I am not reading or needing for reference purposes. Many of my days and nights will be spent on trains.
Why the Glasgow Radisson? It is a nice hotel, extremely modern, with huge prints of the Beatles in "Sergeant Pepper" days on the lobby walls that remind me of my bedroom in 1967, when I had photos cut out of magazines taped to the walls; and the members of the Radisson staff have such wonderful accents. Eastern European, not at all Scottish. The rooms: They are all straight lines and right angles, mirrors and metal. Mattresses and cushions are firm, carpets and curtains are subtle. Electricity and electronics work from cards and switch-pads. Speakerphones. The bathrooms are huge.
My few possessions stand out in a sensible, tidy and organised atmosphere: I am the keeper of blobs and lumps, bags and heaps, unfolded clothes and opened books. Easy to find them in the Radisson rooms.
I actually like that for a time, being the standout stranger in the room. Nice as it is, I would not find it difficult to take to the rails. Of course, that will be my ideal world.
Now for something that might be useful to know. I am a giving person this morning; and giving is receiving:
"Retired people should be able to get mortgages for homes like that," continued the woman from Lancashire.
Just who was she talking to, besides all of us?
I remembered a class of insurance called "Mortgage Protector" that I used to deal with at American International Group. (You will have noticed their AIG logo on the front of Manchester United football jerseys.) You would be insured against the day you might have some misfortune and not be able to meet your mortgage payment. This works if you are twenty-five and have an income. As most elderly people have limited incomes, and more than a small chance of aching joints or worse, it is hardly good business to believe that most could support a mortgage, insured or not. Well, who would insure them?
I have told you this because one of you might think a Mortgage Protector policy is a good idea. I had never heard of such a thing until 1968. Personally, I have never had a mortgage and immediately sold a house that came my way so that I would not be tempted to borrow on the strength of the real estate market. I have lived in the rooms of others all my life.
One of those overused expressions that annoy me is "getting on the property ladder". Of course, it is a positive thing to want your own home, but—looking at the financial pages in November of 2007—houses are not as safe as houses. You might want to do what I do from time to time: Go camping.
The bus chugged a bit as we passed through the village of Warkworth, up the hill past the Castle. Yes, the Warkworth Castle that is the setting for Henry IV Part 1, Act 2 – Scene 3. Shakespeare's play, of course, though I would guess the great man never saw that particular castle.
By the way, the Shakespeare buildings in Stratford are remarkably cramped, the ceilings are low, the window and door lintels are low, and the doors are narrow. A very fat friend would hardly fit in. In order to enter one room, you usually have to walk through another.
One charming symptom of my mental state is that my mind wanders in time and space, and considerably so. I see ghosts. I commune with ghosts. I am a ghost. On the guided tour, as I walk through what appears to be a small, cluttered bedroom for a large family, I am interrupting something:
"Begging your pardon, Sir John Falstaff. Oh! And Mistress Quickly! And I thought you were only fictional characters. Just passing through."
"Go to, I know you well enough."
"You mean you do the lines as well?"
"You recognise the minor dialogue, Stranger?"
"Let's say I'm fairly well read. We have lots of rainy days in Northumbria."
"Go, you thing, go!" Falstaff is surprizingly firm for such a fat man.
"Say what thing? What thing?" asks Quickly, quickly.
"This is too cool." I head for the chink of a door on the far side.
Warkworth is a colony of Amble-by-the-Sea, where I live. Of course, you do not ever voice that opinion in Warkworth. I mentioned Warkworth to a friend from overseas and he said he thought he had stayed there once. A bed and breakfast on the main street—and it actually has only one main street that is, sadly, the route for all the traffic wanting to go up and down the coast on the scenic route—and at the top of the street, on the hill, a castle. Quite right.
In the summer time—several glorious months in 2006 and two days in 2007—every house, shop, pub and hotel in Warkworth has hanging baskets of flowers on the street side. There are planters, pots, and public gardens. A stone bridge crosses the river, herons and swans watch the traffic, and I am sure dragonflies dart above the surface of the rippling water. The village effloresces as only an English relic can. Milton Keynes does not. Nether Wallop does. You may have seen Midsomer on the television: people are dying to go there. Well, going to die there. Amidst the flowers.
I have discovered that one sure way of upsetting Americans is to mention them. They prefer to talk about themselves. Therefore, I will not. The other tourists who also visit and enjoy Warkworth are the Japanese. On fair days, the lanes are full of people with cameras.
"Take a picture with the castle behind me."
"Oh, mummy, do take a photo of that three-legged Border collie!"
I do not know how to write that in Japanese. I made up the collie.
Amble is picturesque in a different way. To be downright honest, the town looks as if it could do with a good scrubbing with abundant soap and boiling water. Nevertheless, we all love a grubby urchin, don't we? I never see people taking photographs of anything actually within Amble. Things that are not being photographed include the butcher's, the baker's, the greengrocer's, the fishmonger's, three chippies, many hairdresser’s, tanning salons, a couple of funeral parlours and an enormous sundial. The sundial must be fifteen feet high. Even at that height, sunlight is hard to come by. Nobody poses in front of our tiny post office that houses a bookstore with local titles on sale.
Time for a smile. In the window of the Co-Op Funeral Care at the bottom end of Queen Street, near that huge sundial, is a printed sign:
CCTV CAMERAS ARE IN USE
for personal safety
and security purposes.
Images may be shared with
crime prevention bodies.
I find the mention of "crime prevention bodies" connected to a funeral home rather a hoot. Dead coppers, maybe? Think of the movie plot!
Seriously, Amble is the perfect spot from which to take photographs. Look out to the North Sea for waves like mountains, look across the River Coquet Estuary (and bird sanctuary) for protected waters, and turn your lens on the boats, on Warkworth Castle a level mile along the River, on the Pier as the enormous waves smash around it. Face away from Amble.
I was a little concerned that the woman addressing the bus passengers might get off at my stop in Amble. She was not with anyone. When I talk to nobody in particular, I am hustled inside and someone pops a pill in my mouth. My flat, which is fifty feet from the bus stop, is across the road from the local, "The Wellwood Arms". People do get off the bus to take refreshment there. And within a few yards are a lawn bowling green, a Catholic church with a life-size Christ on the cross in the garden which seems like a good idea for security purposes (with or without a CCTV in His loincloth), an Italian restaurant, a dentist’s practice, apartments, terraced houses and the block of flats I live in. Yes, people get off at my bus stop.
The lady with the headscarf, scruffy coat and net shopping bag, and that thick Lancashire accent—my mother's family, the Lancasters, Cloughs and Proctors, come from Lancashire, I grew up hearing that dialect and can mimic it after a few drinks—stayed on the bus. A couple of other passengers stepped down and toddled off.
"Goodbye, stranger! This is Northumberland you do not like. Silly cow!"
I walked through the passage to the courtyard behind our six flats, the daylight was going, but at least the snow had not arrived. There were no birds coughing: We are all afraid of this H5N1 Virus, "Mad Crow Disease". I suddenly remembered seeing a black, man's glove on the path when I had left home in the morning. A nice glove, leather I think, though wet. I did not pick it up. Of course, I did think of O.J. Simpson. You would too. It had gone.
Earlier in the week, there had been a pair of blue denim men's shorts on the ground, not far from our street entrance. They looked new, they looked about my size, and they looked tempting. Blue is my colour. I wear shorts indoors. What do you do? I left them. I might have answered my front door to find a bloke there saying:
"I wonder if you've seen a pair of blue den … wait a minute! You have my shorts on. You perv."
In my "might have” world he would have been holding his hands in front of his crotch, bare to his shoes. Writers can think that sort of thing and get away with it. Talk about pervs!
Recently there was an entire, unblemished courgette on the pavement outside the flats. Unless a rabbit was carrying it under its arm and let it gently slip, I would have expected it to have fallen some distance from a shopping bag. But not a mark on it. How do these things happen? I was on my way to the ATM and decided that I would collect the courgette on the way back home. Fifteen minutes later, it had vanished. The rabbit, no doubt, had returned. We all do.
The tale I am telling is about homes, rooms, creature comforts and discomforts, and—going by the title—at least one creature. I have spent time in four small rooms in my life that I instantly recall, and, in each case, some sort of mental mechanism prevents me from remembering too much about the bad times in them, if I truly was suffering somehow. A safety device, I think. For your sanity, you may not remember those curtains you put up in the lounge when you were newlywed. Same fabric and pattern as your mini-skirt. And your husband's extra-wide tie and matching handkerchief. Ugh!
In 1981, the spring I think, though it was cold weather, I was committed to a psychiatric hospital named for an Irish saint. My room, like about two dozen others, opened onto a porch around an open-air grassed quadrangle. On the lawn, which was rather scruffy, were wooden picnic tables. A small booth at the entrance to this "en plein air" Somer's Ward housed the duty nurse. To get "outside" you needed to pass that point. Ken Kesey's "McMurphy" would have wanted to get through that locked door. Such was my drugged state, I could not be arsed.
So, I stayed in my room. It was about ten feet by four feet; a bed and a table were provided; the table was to put your folded clothing on. As if. There was a toilet with no lid to cover the pan, and the contraption was in the room itself, next to the door to the porch outside. The door to the room was so hinged as to make it impossible to close completely, and you had no privacy to sleep or—as the little children say—take a dump. The staff checked regularly to see if their charges were trying to top themselves. Showers were a communal facility, but you could go and take one any time during the day or night. Those with OCD would appreciate this.
I must have spent six weeks, perhaps more, in St. Brendan's Psychiatric Hospital. I know a little of my time was spent assembling calendars with a group, many members of which did not know that April was followed by May and not Norway. One morning I was sent to a large room where the profoundly handicapped permanent residents of St. Brendan's spent their time. I found myself in an ill-lit workshop with at least twenty small people. They were all adults, I think, but twisted, shrunken, and bent, and as they were unable to make intelligible speech, I could not communicate too well with them. They were all black. I was quite white, and feeling suddenly tall. I now know that their families had abandoned them all and their visitors were few. They were busy playing with red roses made from tissue and bits of wire, except for one woman who thought anything red must be blood.
"We thought we'd show you how to make roses, Ross," said the recreational therapist.
And so, at the age of thirty-one, I learned how to create roses. I was not permitted to take any back to my room. As I was the only person actually able to make roses in that workshop, my output was left for my fellows there to enjoy. Damaged as I was, there was still something I could do for others. There is a lesson in all that.
I spent most of the 1980s in a small bedroom in my mother's house, drugged to the gills. I was so crippled with Panic Disorder that for weeks and months at a time I actually would not step outside of the house. I did read a great deal, being blessed with friends who would drop off bags of books regularly.
My other form of entertainment came from a Sony Walkman. I listened to a "Lite-FM" satellite radio station out of Chicago, when not reading or sleeping, for very nearly that entire decade. As the station did not play current music, I missed everything from Madonna to Duran Duran to Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Almost everything. I was over-medicated and transported to the home of a friend on 13 July 1985 to watch the "Live Aid Concert" on television. Seeing the hairstyles and clothing I had been missing made the next five years alone in my room a lot easier.
Perhaps the oddest small space I lived in for a spell was a caravan in a snowy field in Salt Lake City in the winter of 1979-1980. In a way, its stripped-down appearance and design was not unlike a miniature version of the Radisson Hotel suite in Glasgow that appealed to me over twenty-five years later. Everything was functional. I used to pee in the snow.
Of course, one must look all the way back—according to Freud—to figure out the whys of life.
In the 1950s, when I was a very young boy, my mother's father worked in the purchasing department at a hospital. When things were replaced at that hospital, my grandfather would have a crack at getting them for himself for little or no money. You take it away by Friday and it is yours!
Therefore, I slept on an old-fashioned metal hospital bed with white linen sheets—that my mother did starch for a few years until it was well out of fashion to do so—and white coverlets and my curtains were hospital issue. I had a metal, white bedside table. There was no carpet on the floor.
These were the 1950s and the white paint on the hospital furnishings smelled of the lead base used in it. The odour filled the room. You could taste it on your teeth just by lying back and breathing.
I slept this way, in my ten-foot square bedroom, until the mid-1960s when someone gave me a sofa, second hand. That was when I put pop music posters on my walls.
2004 found me sharing a room in a filthy men's shelter only eight by eight with two recently released convicts. You may ask if I wondered about Christ and the two criminals crucified so near to him at Golgotha as I scrunched my eyes closed and tried to pretend I was somehow in a better place. I did not. If you scrunch hard enough, a louder and louder noise comes and sometimes you just pass out with exhaustion. That was all I wanted.
My flat in Amble-by-the-Sea is fairly large. I do not use all of it, the lounge is the perfect size for heating easily and living in, and has a comfortable sofa bed. This unit is a furnished accommodation and came with everything from the big bed I do not always use to a TV to three sets of crockery. There were also candles—though not spare light bulbs, which I could have used—and an ashtray with ashes, and lint in the lint trap. In addition, a full selection of kitchen spices. Isn't that odd? Spices!
I cannot pretend that my home is as neat as a pin—and pins and needles were provided, along with spools of coloured thread—and with my clothes, many books, papers and knick-knacks scattered about, as well as the Radisson dreams, there is some disorder here.
Just this week I decided I might have the last of my personal things taken out of storage in Bermuda and freighted to me here in Northumbria. It is a gathering of those parts of my life that have had to be put away elsewhere because I had no room to cope with them. I am nearly sixty and the Eldridges and Lancasters die young. Gather I must.
I have seen some of the files my analysts, therapists, psychologists, hypnotists, and pharmacists have kept on me over some thirty-five years. Heavy stuff! In the fantasy movie version, I will somehow get those files and take them to my suite at the Radisson. I shall open them, pull out the pages, and fling them about. Later I shall go to catch the train and leave instructions for the excellent staff at the hotel to dispose of those scraps of paper before I return from my latest trip:
"Just make it all vanish!"
The title, of course, starts to make sense. Magician and illusionist Harry Houdini is particularly well remembered for making a full-grown elephant disappear at the Hippodrome Theatre in New York City. Perhaps he invented "the elephant in the room" by doing this.
4 December 2007 / 30 April 2011