12.8.16

Thomas Hardy got it wrong

And then one sunny day...     Image courtesy of HancockMcDonald at eltpics
August 2016. Twelve years since I lost two close friends. I wasn’t actually careless enough to lose them, but language works that way. They went, were taken, shuffled off, kicked the proverbial, passed. Their numbers came up. They expired. I can wander from the poetic-romantic end of the linguistic spectrum to the brutal but it is what it is. Their life ended. They died.

And twelve years later, in a year when Death has edged closer to me but (touch wood) had second thoughts, both these friends suddenly came to mind. While cooking curry. I’d rather not ponder the reasons for the association: both these friends and Death itself, while stirring two versions of ‘leftover curry’ – meat and meat-free. Yeah, but hey, Thomas Hardy was wrong. Death doesn’t creep up dressed in a cowl, bearing a scythe. Death doesn’t slide in through cracks in the door in the middle of a cold grey, winter’s day, while branches are weighed down and crack under the burden of icicles and melancholy; it doesn’t cause you to consider, as you stand solemnly, the ashen colourlessness of frosty leaves lying by a pond that cold winter’s day. It comes to you – and your thoughts - as you add spinach to your Pataks-and-cauliflower in the middle of August when it’s 35ºC out, and you still have to water your bougainvillea which is looking a bit peaky but ‘grey’ is hardly the right word. And Death can come in ways as different as my two friends. But like my two friends, at the end of the day, it’s the same.

Anthony was the first to go. He went on St John’s Day, the Midsummer Night of Shakespeare’s dream. 2004. If we’d thought about it, we knew it was coming. But of course we didn’t think about it – he was 36, so why should we? He’d had a tumour removed, one that was benign in some senses, but had caused his heart to race for so long it had used up a large number of its quota of beats. It was the heart of an eighty-year-old man, he’d been told. Somehow that had meant ‘take care’ or ‘don’t eat doughnuts’, ‘calm down and stop working like a thing possessed’ to us. The fact that eighty-year-old men don’t tend to live that long hadn’t really sunk in. He’d carried on laughing and working madly and drinking pints down-in-one and being Anthony but less stressfully. He was, anyway, a wonderfully colourful person who could down those pints with rugby player pals while comparing not-yet-fashionable-except-amongst-navy-military-and generally-sea-faring-folk tattoos on his upper arms one minute (Woah the lads, you should’ve seen their faces…..), and the next minute stand on the table singing Liza Minelli songs (what good is sitting alone in your room?), crowing ‘oo’er missus’ and discussing his friends’ silicone implant after-care. Some days and with some people, he was all pink and frosting, while with others he was D-I-Y and stainless steel. He played the piano and keyboards (and counted Marc Almond and Andy Bell amongst those who had benefitted from that particular talent – if you don’t know who they are, Google them and adjust your mental image accordingly), was his marvellous mother’s best friend, could probably tackle an All Black at least during a friendly, taught (and was loved by) many a happy English language student, was my fellow fan of our friend Leslie’s soups (I have to admit, we made a merry-but-odd, all singing, all dancing trio) and despite seeming as English as Elton and a Bakewell tart, was half Spanish (his surname being a popular brand of toasted sunflower seeds) but born in what is now part of Morocco. He could be mean (to mean people), mad, wonderful, theatrical, very nervy, generous, hilarious, obsessive (particularly when in love or lust), fantastic company, he could make you feel like he was your duvet when you felt down, enveloping you in caring, affection and unexpected warmth, he could drive you crazy, he was a natural. I remember him coming to visit me in Seville (in the 10 months I was there before he died, he visited twice) and I took him to visit a close friend of mine. It transpired that they had worked in the same place at the same time and had friends in common, and they spent hours and hours reminiscing. They hadn’t met before and I must admit I felt jealous, envious and happy all at the same time – I had nothing to contribute to the conversation and felt invisible, and, hey peeps, who likes to feel like that? – but I was also over the moon that two people I loved could just spontaneously ignite that depth of conversation. I still smile remembering it.

Anthony was a king and queen, and went way too soon. He felt ill at work, went home for a siesta, never woke up. A heart attack at 36. When our soup-friend, our third musketeer, Leslie phoned me at work to tell me, I didn’t understand at first, and then I did. My colleagues thought I was having an epileptic fit. The water they brought me flew out of the glass and down my front, rather than down my throat. I have never felt like that before or since, not even when my mother went. It wasn’t worse with Anthony, no, but it was so unexpected. And he was such a character. And so, so dearly missed. My pink sequined lager lout on adrenalin.

Here comes the sun....   Image by James Taylor at eltpics
A month after Anthony went, it was Enrique’s turn. They couldn’t have been more dissimilar, yet they were alike in various ways. At first sight, Enrique was the antithesis of Anthony and his effusion. Enrique spoke quietly, if at all, and was not an immediate lover of people. Before answering a question, he’d lower his head, consider whether you were worth his words, then raise an eyebrow and squint at you from under it. Not everyone got the words. He was small, and somehow grey, blue and white, sharp-edged sodalite to Anthony’s marshmallow. He loved photography, framing and family, and was discreet at all times. He took time to warm to you and kept his circle close – though ultimately not small. He was slow but sharp, thorough, efficient, respected by everyone who worked with him, and, as a great connoisseur of local eateries and drinkeries way beyond the level of ‘which bar sells the best two-pint mugs of beer’, was a great person to include in your social life. Along with three other friends – Silvia, Cristóbal and Ricardo – he was the perfect ‘conversation and dinner’ companion. Although it took a while to be allowed into his confidence, once there, he proved to be – like Anthony – a perpetual supply of unexpected generosity. Not unexpected because it was him, but because most people wouldn’t do the things he did. Small but important things. I remember I was due to give one of my first conference sessions, and was going to risk using pre-prepared transparencies – I’d only ever used an OHP and hand-written transparencies before. This was around 2001, so I’m not THAT much of a Luddite. For some reason Enrique found out – maybe we’d been talking about it at breakfast in the factory canteen where the five of us often had our coffee – and he colour-photocopied all my slides onto transparencies for me, giving advice on colour, layout, font-size and so on. That sounds like nothing nowadays, but then, and in the Canaries, it was huge. As cutting edge as a high-tech machete. He helped me with photography, he got hold of a stack of boxes when I moved, he even helped me choose my car. There was something about Enrique – like Anthony – that when you knew him, you loved him, you were genuinely happy that he had such a happy family life and marriage, because it was what you wanted for a friend like that.

At the end of August 2004, while fishing with his son-in-law, Enrique was swallowed by the Atlantic. The waves smacked into his son-in-law first and carried him away and Enrique tried to save him. Neither of them survived. The grandchild that he'd just met at the time will have recently turned twelve. Enrique was in his forties, and it was no way to go. Too early and no way to go. But death is what it is. No cowls or faceless skulls. Either your sell-by date comes into effect or somehow you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s no romance, no poetry. If you get some kind of warning, you start to clear up, you write a will, make sure your debts are paid (if you’re that kind of person), you ensure that everyone you love will have what they need (and a bit more), you may even prepare a ‘nice surprise’ for them for afterwards. But no, Mr Hardy, you don’t go around writing ‘oh woe is me’ poetry or trying to leave your mark. Your Blackstar isn’t just a legacy for your fans, a donation to Art and History, a symbol of your perpetual capacity for creation and creativity, your V-sign to death – it’s a financial plan for your loved ones, insurance, inheritance, the mortgage paid, the school fees. It’s about them, not about you.

Death comes when it comes, when randomness or past excesses demand. It isn’t romantic or poetic or even vaguely melancholic, Thomas Hardy was wrong. It isn’t the end either – it lasts, oh, at least twelve years. It comes when you’re at work, during your siesta, when you’re washing your face in the morning, when you’re enjoying the last days of your summer holiday fishing with family. It comes when it’s 35ºC outside, when the sun is shining, while the ice cream melts. It comes when you’re making curry. And sometimes, just sometimes, it comes – and it pisses off again. 

12.6.16

Music was my first love: for Julia (and others)


Ten ‘significant albums’, albums that made a mark on my life. Seemed like a simple request. Especially for someone whose life is signposted by music. I began to think. And think. Out walking. Driving. Alone in the evening. And think. And feel frustrated. “The Sound of Music Original Soundtrack”, Lucio Dalla, Donna Summer and the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, but most other albums came into my life post 1983. From then onwards, no problem: The Idiot (appropriately, and bought as retro), New boots and panties, Nirvana Unplugged, Jagged Little Pill, Superunknown, Vitalogy, Songs for Drella, Come away with me, Crazy Sexy Cool, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Diamonds and Pearls, Purple Rain, Sign o the Times, Chill out, The Right Time, Give out but don’t give up, Fragments of freedom, The Magnificent Tree, Document, Monster, El Camino, Everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we?, Shelter …oops, did somebody say ten? But I haven’t finished yet! There’s the various Bowie compilations, and …oh, but no compilations, Julia said. Hmm. So no compilations - that means no Marley, Bowie, Queen, Elton John (I confess to being a huge fan of his Greatest Hits Volume 2), no Blondie, less Prince….  PLUS the fact  I didn’t really have any albums before 1983. So the thinking continued.
But as I got lost way beyond ten, realising that it still wasn’t representative and was all after getting my first ‘proper job’ (ie not of the holiday or weekend variety), something else sank in: I’m a music addict. I sing it, dance it, drive to it, love to it, live to it….. but I’m not an albums girl. Albums didn’t form the backing track to my life’s song. I’m 52 years old and British, and I grew up with music-loving parents and John Peel and access to the biggest album you could hope to grow up with. The BBC. So here’s how it went.
I was lucky. My parents loved music, particularly my mother. The radio was on all the time. While thinking about this, Julia, I realised we must have had a car radio in the black Beetle in the ‘60s (unless mum took a ‘wireless’?), as I remember as a teeny rolling around the back seat in the Glasgow traffic, listening to the squish-weeek-squish-weeek of the Scottish-weather-battered windscreen wipers and asking my mother why all the bands on the radio were called after food. And therefore assumed that a Hermit was some kind of biscuit (which I believe it is), as apart from Herman, there was Marmalade, The Strawbs, Cream, Bread  – and some bunch called The Beatles, but they sang in French, ma belle, so they didn’t count. And Scaffold had Aintree Iron, which was about a griddle, and Lily the Pink mentioned Jennifer Eccles, who was a sort of biscuit too. There wasn’t much television back then, it started at 4pm with Playschool, which was for babies. And therefore not for me. Pogles Wood and The Clangers were cool, but spare me Hamble and Jemima and that dreaded arched window. So the radio it was. I was quarantined for a long time as a child, ill and at home, so music was indeed my first love and whether or not it will be my last remains to be seen, but there’s a fair chance. It's still the best way to fly. And the radio in Scotland in those days meant the BBC.
It wasn’t all radio, though, so before I get side-tracked - or mono-tracked -, I should honour that record player that had pride of place in our lounge. Not in the sitting-room, mind, in the lounge. The room I wasn’t allowed in unaccompanied, and which housed treasures like the nice settee, the boy frying fish and the slide
viewer, as well as the record player. Our carpet-fronted spring-clip lidded box was a textured duck blue on the outside, with an ivory-coloured interior, a heavy arm (I can hear the click..), a swingable hook that held the stack of records in place, dropping them one at a time, and it had four speed settings. I have no idea what the slowest one was for, but the 33rpm and 45rpm were used more than the 78rpm, basically because I’m not that old and neither were my parents. Tom Lehrer was the only one honoured with that setting. The stack of singles on the floor, next to the blue box was made up of coloured paper squares containing (mostly) black discs with a dog and a gramophone above names like Trini Lopez, Herb Alpert, Johnny Cash, Roger Whitaker, Elvis, Glen Campbell (Dad), and Ketty Lester, Dusty Springfield, Elvis (bis), Ray Charles, and Ray Stevens (Mum). My mother taught me, and then my sister, to dance, to jive and bop and groove. She sang, we sang. We sing. And as I grew, Radio One came along and so did our move to England, round about the time David Cassidy and assorted Osmonds hit the scene. I could not understand either option, even at that age, much as Coldplay befuddles me now. However, salvation and sanity came in the form of Mud, Sweet and Slade. Monosyllables were cool, poster boys were not. And TRex is a monosyllable if you read it wrong… My love of dance developed to the extent that I invented dance routines and taught them to my friends at school. The Bump by Kenny saw at least half a class-load of ten year olds gyrating and summersaulting at my command – and all because we had the BBC letting us discover what we liked. Who needed to spend pocket money on singles? Big brothers and sisters had collections that could be plundered. You just had to avoid the Cat Stevens fans. Life was about songs, not about albums and this did not change as the teen years rolled in.
If I look through my memories and my cassettes, so, so many are of the ‘taped from the radio’ kind, or compilation cassettes that friends made for birthdays or just because. Hazel O’Connor alongside Beatles, Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Gary Moore and Phil Lynott, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, more Donna Summer, BeeGees, more Dalla, Yvonne Elliman, Tom Robinson, Ian Dury, Ram Jam. The tracks indelible – Parisian Walkways, If I can’t have you, While my guitar gently weeps, Come together, How deep is your love, Across the universe, Long and winding.., Boys keep swinging, Will you… And while I’m here, Boys keep swinging was one of the seminal songs of my teens years (don’t giggle at the choice of adjective) – the video, the song, the courage of Bowie and the ambiguity in the images, they slapped me in the face and injected me with interest and electric joy. Suddenly it was alright to be different and ambiguous, it shocked but somehow validated. My mother had a rainbow of friends and I was also doing theatre at that time surrounded by birds of many feathers, but some of the people we considered our buddies seemed strangely ‘unacceptable’ to many other people we knew and loved (my father being one of the more uncomfortable though never unkind), and this video screamed ‘Yahoo! Shucks to you!’. It was a relief, and I still love the song. I still love Bowie, but that’s a different post. Songs reached me, reached us. Songs drew us in. Bow wow wow’s Annabella doing that squat dance to Go wild in the country – how many dancefloors saw me bounce down to ground level and ping up again to that? Peaches made me sit up and notice as squelching became appealing yet dark. Oliver's Army was played over and over until the tape snarled (boring my ever patient Dad in the car in the process). Let’s groove blasted around the lounge when no-one was home (intro-ed by more squelching - maybe I was a squelch fan). We are family and Le Freak had me wearing out the carpet. Kids in America intrigued me with its split track recording that caused the sound to whizz past me if I sat in the middle of the room. The jukebox in the Devon pub I wasn’t legally allowed into swallowed a large percentage of my summer holiday money circa 1977 so I could play Fanfare for the common man again and again and again. And John Miles. I grew up to songs. Not albums. 10cc’s I'm not in love – whether true or not, what a song. Vast and woo and billowy. Love is like oxygen, the return of my teenybop heroes with a sound that I found made me feel strange, I loved it…. I didn’t know why. Which is what love is about. You don’t need a reason for it.
I am lucky too for having coincided with a generation of women in rock, in music in general, in soul. My mother listened to Dusty, Ketty, Sandy, Billie, Aretha, Diana, Elkie, Helen Reddy, there was Carole and Carly, Dionne and Ella. For me and my generation, we had Patti Smith singing Because the night, which is, for me, one of the most significant songs in history. In my history at least. Like Bowie, she challenged what we’re ‘supposed’ to look like and her voice soared and twisted in a way no-one else’s did, unapologetically. In Pissing in a river, like Ian Dury though less whimsically, she allowed me to be me, rebellious, poetic, weaving words. In Dancing barefoot she gave me my anthem, the line I still live to. Hazel O’Connor, Lene Lovich, Siouxsie, Toyah, Annie Lennox, Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry and laterally Shirley Manson. Oh modern girls with your Beyoncés, Rhiannas, Gaga and Sia, how happy I am to be so much older than you. How could we fail to love music with OUR sirens?

So, Julia. Ten albums. Thousands of songs. Names, colours, soaring and falling, to be danced to, to make love to, to die to. My favourite albums were not sung by groups or singers, they were made or given to me by people I have loved, I love and/or will always be in love with. They were playing when he danced with me, when she sung to me, when we laughed. And they’re all here inside me. So thank you for the smile. And for letting me cheat. 

5.1.16

Green again: Shadowman


From an image by James Taylor at eltpics
The Art of Being Different: Putting Shadowman away

Three and a half years ago, I wrote that I was putting off writing the next instalment of my Green Days (that last instalment is here). I am now officially an expert procrastinator! But here it is. And as I sit on the edge of the page, right here, up at the top, I have no idea how it’s going to weave itself on the way down. Look out below. Literally, look out. And I’ll write the following instalment shortly after.

*******************
The girl walking along, nonchalantly proud of her new-found long, long legs and arms, which were brown (or at least a sort of orange) for the first time in their twelve-and-a-half years, was wearing a mint green dress. A rebel unaware of the existence of causes, her bottle green jersey was tied around her waist, her sandals happily scuffed, her battered old, half empty brown briefcase – how come it always reminded her of a floppy-jowled dog? - bumping the side of her leg as she walked. She’d have a bruise. She didn’t care. It had been a long, fun summer but that morning, she’d traded her annoying little sister in for her band of buddies, and gone back to school.

Summers were glorious back then. They were made of rope ladders and swings and bright polyester halter-necks and swimming-pools and orchards and wormy greengages and comparing bikini tops to see if anyone’s wasn’t flat, and mums that made iced tea because Robert Carrier told them how to. It was buffet lunches in British Home Stores and coffee in the Wimpy grill with friends and no parents and lying on your friend’s living-room floor listening to their older siblings’ records. It was Arthur Rackham posters and Liberty’s and tank tops and high waisters. It was Angel Delight and sliced banana with some friends, and avocado pear and vinaigrette with others. Queen sang to their best friend, Elton to Kiki, and Tavares was a band, not a beach. Young Hearts (ran) free and You should (have been) dancing. It was hiding under weeping willows and playing spies because boys were boring, and it was Jackie comics and green eyeshadow and wearing clothes chosen by your mum. The world was as big as it ever had been, bigger for sure, as the child world and the teen world merged and overlapped. It was yellow and orange and unsubtly sunlit, and it was as fragile as an egg shell on a speedway track.

The girl had grown rather spectacularly during the holiday, height providing a ridicule-shield, she hoped, and she had tales of Spain and of strawberries-and-cream sundaes, stamps with that Franco chap, and a tan to show off. There was no homework that day because teachers were glowing in the aftermath whilst battling back-to-work blues. Life was as bright as a Snowball with a cherry, and she might even have been humming as she walked home that day.

Thirty minutes separated the train station from home, on foot. First along some post-war streets of houses, then under the railway arch and past the first water meadows with their scruffy ponies. Into the filthy-rich Fisheries, where huge houses were ungated in the pre-paranoia seventies, and then along behind the cricket pitch to the village. Along the road without a pavement, and turn into the estate. Second house to the right, her arms were thin so she could push her hand through the letter box and open the door from the inside. Mum would be there, maybe at the sewing machine, maybe with juice and biscuits, sister would be… let’s not think about that for now. Don’t spoil the moment. Yes, she was definitely humming.

Partway along the last but one street of post-war pebbledash, a car pulled up alongside. A silver Capri with a black roof and an unusual number-plate. ‘Channel Islands or import’, she thought absent-mindedly. She liked cars, loved their shape, their sound, and a year of train travel with spotters from Presentation College had sharpened her nerd skills to ‘expert’. The driver had fair hair, that over-dry straw-fair that comes with bleached eyelashes. He had an unfamiliar accent too, South Africa? New Zealand? Somewhere that they played rugby and cricket, that much she knew, from Grandstand and Parkinson and being curious about these things. But there was no-one else on the street to give him directions. Annoying. Depending on mum’s mood, juice and biscuits didn’t always wait.

No, she didn’t know the way to Newlands School. Of course she knew it, all her friends from primary went there, but she’d never been. No, she couldn’t give him directions to her school; it was way too far away, thirty or forty minutes by car. The name? She told him the name. Yes, it was a nice uniform, if you liked that sort of thing. Nice tan indeed, she’d been on holiday with her parents. (The murmur of ‘don’t talk to strangers’ was growing louder.) Yes, her skirt was very short – she’d grown a lot that summer. Her mum had turned the hem down as far as it could go. Could he see the underside of the hem to see her mum’s work? Huh? Well, I suppose….  Could she squat down for him? So he could see….? Could she…… what? His voice like oil. His smile like melting brie, unfaltering, unpleasant. Squat? Eternity passed. No, she did not want a lift. No. No. No. Quaking. Throat drying. Holding back the tears but always be polite to strangers clashing now with the need to go. Fast. Get away. Someone coming. ‘Help this man, please, he’s lost’. And she ran. She ran faster than ever before or since. She disappeared down the lane at the back of the houses, the lanes that ran below the railway embankment, to the railway arch, the lane that was dangerous but was the safest place on earth just then. She ran. She was gone. Was he? Didn’t know and would never know.

The rest of the story disappeared in time, the details bleached and smudged. Police, yes, smiling policeman, policewoman too, long interview at the dining-room table, talk of other girls and her mother on the phone. Sitting under the stairs for hours and hours, perhaps days, sleeping on the gold coloured carpet. Father bringing a snack and sitting with her for a while. In his suit. Those details still hover. The rest, all lost. But you see, nothing happened. Not to her. Not that day. It happened to the man. And it happened to other girls who, unlike her, had got in the car. The car with the number-plate she’d noticed.

I’d noticed. And that event, and the association in my mind with my uniform, the sudden turning of my legs from a source of pride to a source of shame changed everything.

But dramas only become dramas if you let them. And this is just a story like so many others’ stories. Something the passing of time has pruned, blurred. And that I grew out of. It took until about ten years ago, but I outgrew it. And nothing happened that day. I remember the feeling, the emotions, fear, confusion but most of all the fight or flight survival energy surge. I remember all that acutely but the rest…. It wasn’t melodramatic, it was largely about my imagining what could be happening and what could go on to happen, and it was wise fear not crippling fear. If it had happened any other day, month, year, perhaps things would have been different. But it happened that day. And it was key on my route to becoming a teacher. Perhaps even more so a teacher trainer. That September afternoon I didn’t realise it, but my personal little train reached a set of points and the sandy-haired shadowman pulled the lever.

Twat.
  


10.6.15

Pulse



It was like having a French-built nuclear power station in his chest.
“You know: it’s clean, classy, fitted by the best, haute-couture stitches even, but although everyone keeps telling me it’s quite safe, nothing’ll go wrong, I feel like it could go POOF any moment.” He flicked the POOF into the air with five chewed nails. Sheesh, I’m telling a stranger my life story. He slammed his mouth shut.
“Or ‘pof’!’” his listener arched an eyebrow “you said it’s French-built…”.

His cellophane laugh crackled at the unexpected response. Relief seeped into his jaws. ‘I like a woman who can make me smile; I might need to kiss her later...’ He corked the thought just before it popped out. 

The decision to just up and leave his life – by plane, not coffin – hadn’t been taken so much as heard coming from his easy pulse as he’d lain pinned between his palate-knifed hospital sheets. (‘My God, I’m lying on a wedding cake’ had been the first thought that cut its way through the fog and into his mind on coming to.) And it was as he’d retreated inwards to escape from the sugarscape around him that he’d suddenly realised that, for the first time ever, his blood was pumping through an unknown heart. His very core was a stranger to him yet utterly familiar. And all in the space of a heartbeat. And he’d decided there and then that if they’d replaced the broken with the new in his body, he could do the same with his soul. Keep the ‘he’ he’d always been by installing a new one.

He’d swung his half-numb legs off the bed with (he thought) new-found grace (not French grace, though – they said his new heart was from Brixton), and hauled on the fuzzy-crunchy pull-ons they’d brought him from home – they were the only things I could find, sorry mate – how ironic that these were the only pyjamas he’d ever owned, a man always unembarrassed by his nakedness now embarrassed by strident-print pull-ons. ‘Oh well, here’s to the new me.’ He rubbed the bristles protruding from his face. Topiary. He’d never had that before either. ‘Right. Sweatshirt. Grey. Well, ok, not a completely new me.’ No-one had seemed to notice him leave the hospital room. ‘Must be the damned pull-ons,’ he noted with amusement, aware that they were the kind of thing people looked away from in an attempt not to stare. ‘So. Where to?’


And now, sitting here in Business Class on the first flight out to somewhere, (‘Great, that’ll do. Never been there’) he was talking about his health – his HEALTH! In the name of…! - to this almost translucent, immaculate woman with a fringe like two wedges of shiny black paper artfully arranged on her tallow forehead. The inflight music kept time to his heartbeat as they taxied slowly. “He’s told us not to blow it cuz he knows it’s all worthwhile” ‘Nice one. Brixton again. Good sign.’ And as he looked back in from the runway, his smile flashed sunshine at the woman. “Anyway, what’s your story?”


29.10.14

The Story of a Song

(This was written for high level students of English - B2+. I'll get back to my Green story soon....)

The Story of a Song
I was born in May 1970 from the pen of musical legend, David Bowie, and made my first public appearance in November of the same year. Although some classify me as ‘glam rock’, I have always considered myself adaptable and perhaps difficult to pin down. Like Mr. Bowie himself, I have adopted at least four guises in my time – that is, so far; who knows what I’ll become in the future. I started life as a track on an album which, I’m proud to say, had my name, and I then had the honour of becoming the B-side of David Bowie’s massive hit ‘Space Oddity’, in the USA. This, it turned out, was only my first incarnation, sung with David’s distinctive London accent.
Shortly afterwards, he lent me to his Scottish friend Lulu, a tiny, Eurovision-song-singing lady with great popularity at the time, although hardly alternative! She turned me into a sleazy, almost cabaret-style number 3 hit in 1974, and vastly increased her street cred in the process. However, I was still keen to try new images, having learned from my creator, who has taken on various personae including Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, a clown, and others, both male and female. So, after resting for a few years, in 1993 I worked with grunge group Nirvana, one of rock history’s greatest groups, I’m told, on their album MTV Unplugged in New York. We went to number one in several countries, including the USA, the UK and Spain. 
Own photo but also available at eltpics in Music set.
Despite being part of Nirvana’s Unplugged set, I sounded remarkably similar to my original version, with, perhaps, a slightly rougher, less ‘British pop’ edge. This meant that I had now expressed myself in a London accent, a Scottish twang and the tones of the USA’s Pacific West coast, as Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain was from up in Washington, near the Canadian border with the States. Unintentionally, I had travelled extensively, as well as changing face and gender…. More recently, I changed origin, face and gender again. In 2005, a young woman called Jordis Unga, from Massachusetts in the North East of the USA performed me with great success on a TV show and then issued me in a format that was completely new to me – as a digital download. This makes my experimentation with multiple identities even more satisfactory, as I started on a vinyl album, became a vinyl single or two, later experienced life as a cassette and a CD, and finally as a download – and of course a YouTube video.
This is, of course, in line with my main interest in multiple personalities, as I sing about having ‘passed (him) upon the stair, we spoke of what and when although I wasn't there’. Nowadays, I could do that on the mobile, but back in the seventies, only a schizophrenic or split personality could talk to someone while not being there, don’t you agree? I admit, though, that I’m not totally original and have been inspired by Kafka, HP Lovecraft and a poem by William Hughes Mearns about someone who talked to a ghost he’d met on the stairs. But I’m happy with the way I am, and I seem to bring success to those who sing me and happiness to those who listen to me. Will you be one of them?


24.7.12

The Art of Being Different: It's not easy being green...



1 Green Days, Green Daze: Land that is lost now

Glorious. And green.
(This is the third part of a story called The Art of Being Different. The first two parts are here and here.)

There is something inherently wrong with secondary school, as it has tended to be. Just when hormones turn into internal fireworks, when a need to express an individual self clashes head-on with an absolute dependence on The Tribe, we are required to suppress all natural instincts, quash all rebellion, and sit in neat rows, accepting the unquestionable authority of a handful of sometimes questionable figures standing at the front of the room on raised platforms from which they look down on us. The idea of maturing from child to adult thus mutates into one of enforced regimentation and regulation. I suppose we do the same to plants – rather than let them grow higgledy-piggledy, we plant them in rows, water and fertilise them and bind them to canes to mature, unbending and unblemished. But that's not the only reason secondary school casts a distinctly green shadow over my past.

Secondary school. Yes... I have to admit mine was different from all but those to be found in novels and the autobiographies of, say, Stephen Fry and John Peel - but in tunics. I had sat the two-day entrance exam in the dead part of that mid-seventies winter and, having only particularly embarrassed myself in the P.E.test, I was accepted. My parents were proud, relieved (I might actually get an education at this school) and shocked. They would only have to pay part of my fees, but scrutiny of the list of uniform items to be purchased at a reputable establishment in Reading resulted in the summer holiday budget for that year being rethought. Le Continent would have to wait.
In fact, the uniform list, as a means of predicting my immediate and mid-term future, was far more revealing than a palm-reading, the Financial Times and the entire I Ching put together, and far more terrifying even than a blind dentist. Beige socks in winter, white in summer, green for Games. Regulation shoes: one pair for outdoors (two models to choose from), one pair for indoors (two models to choose from), T-bar sandals for summer (two models to ...), black hockey boots, white sports shoes. Two mint green airtex shirts and a green, pleated P.E.skirt. One dark green tunic to measure 3 inches from the floor when kneeling (believe me, they checked). A dark green, V-neck jersey. One emerald green 'girdle', a belt or sash worn around the waist and knotted like a tie. One emerald green tie, which was compulsory with the white shirt, optional with the green and white checked one (not to be worn on special occasions). There was a Mac or a cape both dark green with a baize bowler hat for winter, a white straw hat (think St Trinians) or a boater (think Eton) to be worn with the dark green blazer for summer (you could wear your blazer under your coat and over your tunic and dark green jersey for extra warmth in winter). The tunic disappeared in favour of a mint green and white nurse's uniform style dress in the warmer months. The uniform list was accompanied by a letter indicating which house we were to be in (alas, no Sorting Hat): Paget (yellow), Carrington (purple), Kensington (blue) or Ducat (orange). This was vital information for hat, swimming hat and tunic badge purchase, as the hat-band was a compulsory item and indicated your house, as did swimming hat colour and the badge embroidered on your tunic. Hogwarts, here we come. Not.
Of all the items on the uniform list, none was scarier than the garment that was to enter my school lexis as 'Abbey Nationals' - large, thick, dark green, cotton knickers. With termly, unannounced knicker-check to ensure adhesion to this particular rule. Believe it. (We soon learned to keep a pair in our gym bags and wear them over more 'appealing' underwear on PE and Games days, the most likely to hide a knicker-check ambush).

Hair had to be its natural colour - not an issue in 1975, but '76 and '77 were a different story – and short, off the shoulder or tied back. Bobbles and ribbon were to be bottle green or brown. No jewellery. Tattoos, of course, were for merchant sailors, army-types and The All Blacks only. These were the rules we were informed of before starting school and there were also regulations relating to leotards, hockey sticks, overalls, satchels, name labels, embroidered names and so on and so forth, so that, in combination with the number of items to be purchased, the subjects on the syllabus, and the distance to be travelled daily by car, train and on foot … well, I was overwhelmed before I even got there. Particularly as I didn't know anyone else who was going. My Best Out-of-School Buddy had also passed the entrance exam, but was (and is) a year younger and so would be going to the Junior School. In The Annex.
Regimented, regulated green......

The school itself occupied an old, red brick building, and it had been there for 70 years prior to my arrival. It was a labyrinth of musty corridors, high ceilings, uneven cream paint, creaky floors, stained glass windows and narrow staircases up and down, and a gallery allowed for two tiers of classrooms to lead off the side of the Old School Hall, three up, three down. Water pipes churned, radiators clunked, the stairs to the staffroom creaked wildly and the Deputy Head's office nestled in an attic-like study. The Headmistress, Miss Hardcastle (honest!) - in appearance a stand-in for the Queen, a fact which explained one of her nicknames – had a large study at the front of the school, above the front door and away from the scum and wretches that were the staff and students. When she did deign to mingle with the commoners, she protected her Chanel-like suits with a black robe, not dissimilar to that favoured by Severus Snape. She was aloof and 'ungenerous' to all alike but she did manage to keep the school in the top 2 on the 'league table'.

Beyond the nooks and crannies of the old building, housing the first two years of secondary and some of the staff, and just round the corner from Sick Bay and the Ink Fountain, the school lost some of its mothball 'odeur' and was transformed into wide, partially glassed, lino-floored corridors, and large, airy classrooms, with the building holding the language labs, language classrooms and the science labs wedged between the two classroom blocks. The science labs were filled with row upon row of wooden science benches where Bunsen burners and agar jelly in specimen dishes were part and parcel of daily lessons, along with transparent plastic protective glasses and an increased concern for hair-elastic-use. This language-and-science block marked the grey area between pre-pubescent and full-blown adolescence and we dreamt of leaving the wood, clanking pipes and leaded windows behind in favour of the shades of yellow modernity beyond The Glass Corridor (flash memory from second year – an entire class of older girls crawling on the floor in the Glass Corridor looking for our Latin teacher's missing contact lens...). The modern building also held the lunch-room with its variations on liver and onions and bacon suet, and the huge new assembly hall named after some generous parents whose name I have forgotten in the interim. Richards. Richardson. This was the vast, parquet-floored hall where Dance was scheduled once a week, and where the floors were kind, nay soothing, on the bare dancing feet, and we aspired to sing in a school opera and stand on THAT stage rather than the smaller one in the Old School Hall. Ah, dreams come true, say they do, say they do, say they do.

Back to the rules. The number of rules was overwhelming and virtually impossible to learn, short term. To speak in class, we raised a hand until invited to stand. Once standing, anything uttered had to be prefixed with the phrase “Please Miss/Mrs....., “. Dropping your pencil could set you back five minutes if your teacher was mid flow, and woe befall the girl who bent down to pick up her pencil without going through the ritual. In the corridors, no more than two abreast, no running and under no circumstances overtaking teachers or sixth formers. We didn't have to curtsey to prefects but that was probably an oversight. Exercise books were colour-coded by subject and replaced at the Stationery Cupboard (inhabited by Miss Beard, our Maths teacher) when you only had two clean pages remaining. You handed in your exercise book (which was labelled with your stationery number as well as your name and class, so I was Fiona M..., IIIW, Nº64), Miss Beard checked it for wastage, torn out pages etc, your stationery number and the subject were noted (in case you were collecting brown jotters on the side), and your form mistress brought you both your old book and the new one to afternoon registration.

Green acorns become great oaks. Sometimes.
Apart from the flood of regulation-information at the start of the year, other shocks or surprises included the subjects we were to consume, like piggy banks collecting for the future: Music, for example, was to be divided into three – History, Practice and the totally unfathomable Theory. There was Biology, Chemistry, English Language, English Literature, Maths, French, History, Geography, Art, Cookery.... over15 in total and including Latin and two mysteries: Scripture and Physics. What were Scripture and Physics? Who knew? Scripture, as it turned out, was my old pal Religion and consequently a doddle, and Physics – I remember half the class having no idea what that was – turned out to be rainbows and cannonballs, magnets and batteries. So that was alright.

In terms of teachers, my first year at The Green School was gentle. Some teachers stood out. The repressed, prim Miss Packer with her tweed skirts and twin-sets, who taught us to parse, spell and punctuate with surgical accuracy – I never saw her smile. Ever. And the word 'dictation' (and a large number of grammatical terms such as demonstrative adjective) still unfailingly bring her to mind. Miss Beard, guardian of The Stationery Cupboard and teacher of Mathematics. Slightly masculine in that sensible brown lace-ups sort of way that some women were in those days without anyone even pondering their sexuality (did we care? no), a good, caring teacher who taught us memory tricks that are still firmly embedded and who had the knack of explaining her subject in a way everyone understood (maths teachers were, without exception, brilliant at the Green School – in fact, certainly in my first year there, most teachers were). I am sure there are hundreds of women of around my age who smile when their children ask 'Mum, what's a polygon?'....
There was Miss Kendrick, a truly inspired Scripture teacher who told us to personalise our exercise books, and taught us the etymology of the days of the week. Miss Whittle, our form teacher, who had a tick we were just too young to ridicule and whose 'Ecce, in pictura est puella' and tales of stuffed dormouse at supine banquets I still remember vividly. There was Miss Wilkinson who taught us Art and Games and who was later ordained and, last I heard, reached some of the highest échelons of the Church of England, Miss Wilkinson, who reminded me of a whip-sharp willow tree, and consistently called me 'Mc-Cough-Lynn-with-an-E' but was inspiring as an Art teacher. Many faces, many names. I also remember an extremely attractive History teacher from my first year at the Green School with long, straight, fair hair which she tossed artfully, a penchant for mini skirts and a tendency to sit cross-legged on the edge of the teacher's desk up on the platform at the front of the classroom. She was quite a good teacher, I think, and taught me the difference between 'pacifically' and 'specifically' (I really WAS green...) but what would have been a schoolboy's wet dream was simply off-putting in our all-girls environment and we didn't warm to her.

Little clusters of green form
Friends were made as friends are always made, more or less the same way as sand dunes are made, shifting and reshaping as the wind pushes one way or another – but then those dunes once formed turn to rock, the rock which Petra was cut into, at least in the case of the friendships at the Green School. Initially I think we teamed up with those sitting nearest us, and as we were in alphabetical order (my class went from Latter to Reed), my first friends bore the surnames Marshall, Millington, Mills and Morton. This system was added to by the fact that half of the girls in the class had been together in the Junior School for the previous six years or so, so Mills was already friends with Manning and so on. Marshall and Millward were the tallest in the class, so that was another point in common, and then there were those who all travelled on the same train or bus, thus The Henley Set gelled. Obviously, over the year, interests, maturity, worldliness (we were 11 and 12 at this stage), background, character and other such concerns influenced and the groups congealed. The Henley Set expanded to include the wealthy, worldly girls, whose parents had trendy professions and chic friends, some were divorced and had boyfriends/girlfriends and (in my mind's eye) they drank G&Ts, walked barefoot, ate lasagne, smoked joints and played with ouija boards. These were parents who didn't just like Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles and Genesis, they KNEW George Harrison and Peter Gabriel and went to the pub with them. The girls in that group were into hair and music and being clever although they actually occupied the middle to lower half of the class in terms of results. They excelled in sport, art and music, though, or they had elder sisters who always won the school drama prize, all of which was totally cool.

We were beautiful, no matter what they say...
My little group ultimately consisted of 9 girls – 10 until Morton left school and moved house – who were nice, perhaps slightly eccentric, non-trendy and on the whole from stable backgrounds with 'regular' parents who actually got on with each other. This turned out not to be quite the case for two girls, but by the time that emerged our group was fixed. Academically, we were a bit of a mixed bag but on the whole in the upper half of the class results-wise, in some or all of our subjects. We were more naïve than some of our classmates, but we enjoyed each other's company and put up with those of us who enjoyed French skipping and cats' cradle without complaint. We didn't pick on other girls, we were not good at sport, apart from swimming and dance, and we came to be fans of Spike Milligan, reading and 'music in general', but that was later. We were slightly misshapen at that age: we had bright red hair, a big nose, wonky eyes, big teeth, huge feet, we were overweight or underweight, unusually tall or on the short side (note: none of us had ALL of these features!) – but we wore it well and I don't actually think we consciously realised that we had this in common, as I've only just realised while writing myself, but that first year at the Green School, none of my little group was average height, weight, hair colour and more or less pretty. We were all Different. And I could say we were all sharp-minded, but that was a shared characteristic of 97% of the girls in the school; whatever it was that glued us together, it worked, it stuck and I'm sure we could still get together and enjoy each other's company, these several decades later.

As I write, I wonder how, why and when it all started to go wrong. I'm not at all sure I know the answers to those questions, but go wrong it did. And Big Time. My second year of Being Green was a disaster to the extent I've been putting off.......no, AM putting off... writing about it because my memories bring back all those feelings – and my stomach turns. I got lost in my second year at secondary school, the year that made me what I am, for good and for bad. I got lost. And I'm not entirely convinced I got found again. 

Green images all taken from the Colours set at eltpics http://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics/sets/72157630608863638/, contributed by @elt_pics, Victoria Boobyer, @AliCe_M, @ij64 and @sandymillin and used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/”


9.3.12

Through the bathroom wall



Steve looked in the mirror, and grimaced. He hated his hair in the morning; it took a comb, water and a ridiculous quantity of gel to mould it into something acceptable to the rest of Year 6. His mother used to help him, but now she worked. Every morning was the same: Steve got up when his mother called ‘Bye, love!’ and the front door banged. She had dressed, washed, cooked, kissed him awake and turned on the radio for him. And then he was alone. His breakfast was on the table; his lunch was on the microwave. His father had gone to work eight months before, and still hadn’t come home, but Mum wasn’t worried “He’ll be back. He promised”.
A movement in the mirror. A noise behind him. Steve swung round. The back of his neck felt cold, his ears were burning. He had seen something, just for a second. He picked up his deodorant, flew out of the door shouting ‘Ha!’ and pointed the spray at....no-one. He stood listening intently, breathing as silently as possible. Nothing. He looked at his feet and laughed quietly. “Stupid!”. He had always been terrified of intruders, but his father used to be there to protect him. Now he felt vulnerable. He looked at Dad’s toothbrush which was still sitting in its place.
Suddenly, a voice. “It was only me, don’t worry”. Steve jumped so high, he thought his heart had come out of his mouth. She was sitting on the edge of the bath, looking at him. Her purple eyes burned with a yellow light. “Close your mouth and follow me. We have things to do,” said......said who? Steve stared at the creature in front of him in his bathroom! She had broad shoulders, impossibly long, fluid legs, and scales, like a fish, on her arms and cheekbones. But what made her the strangest, most beautiful creature Steve had ever seen was her colour: turquoise, like tropical waters and mint ice-cream. And she was carrying a battle-axe.
Are you coming?’ she asked impatiently. ‘How can I argue with a huge, beautiful green woman with an axe?’ thought Steve and nodded weakly. The ‘woman’ swung round and jumped through the bathroom wall, as if it was a waterfall. As Steve stepped cautiously through the liquid tiles, he heard her voice ‘By the way, I’m your sister.’

Illustration by Roberto Miranda