Isn’t It Good, Norwegian Wood by Chris Green
Rubber Soul is my favourite Beatles album. It is the album in which John Lennon raises his game. In My Life is surely one of the most perfectly crafted pop songs ever, Girl is sublime, and still there is the enigmatic Norwegian Wood. Norwegian Wood with its veiled imagery describes a clandestine affair that Lennon is having. Biographer, Philip Norman claims in his Lennon biography that the song’s inspiration is in fact, German model, Sonny Drane, Robert Freeman’s first wife, who used to say she was from Norway when she was in fact born in Berlin.
I am looking at the Robert Freeman’s famous cover photo for Rubber Soul, one of a collection that line the hallway at Florian and Rhonda’s house in Hanover Hill. The photos, taken in late 1965, capture the Fab Fours’s weariness as their fame and hectic touring schedules become overwhelming.
Florian and Rhonda’s house in Wellesley Crescent is the last in a terrace of First-Rate Georgian townhouses. Hanover Hill’s fashionable avenues, lined with London plane trees, give the area an air of elegance, and the Repton-designed park which was originally used as a run for horses, still boasts the trappings of its earlier prestige. Monuments and statues to the great and good populate its freestone crescents and circuses, and blue plaques abound. Desirable, substantial, imposing and stunning are among the adjectives you might find in Hamilton and Prufrock’s window to describe the properties here, along of course with Grade 2 and Listed.
Florian and Rhonda are old friends from my days at the Royal Academy of Music. Although our fortunes have over the years pulled us in different directions, we have kept in touch. Having finished tuning a vibraphone in the area, I have called round to see them on the off-chance they might be in and have been let in anonymously by their entryphone.
My partner, Sara is less than enthusiastic about Florian and Rhonda. She feels they are too intellectual. Sara prefers the company of more down to earth couples like her friends, Wendy and Wayne or Amanda and Adam. She likes to have a diary of firm arrangements, such as dinner parties or theatre visits. She does not respond well to many of my impromptu suggestions, so I have adopted the policy of leaving her out of the loop on occasions that I want to do something a little spontaneous.
‘Hello!’ I call out. ‘It’s me, Jon.’
There is no reply. I pop my head around a couple of doors. Florian and Rhonda are eclectic in their tastes, mixing styles with what they term, measured abandon. They see themselves as conceptual artists, and in addition to Wellesley Crescent, rent a warehouse in Hartwell, which they use as creative space. They could never be described as predictable. In the first room, an Indian sits cross-legged quietly playing the sitar. He does not look up. The second houses film sets that might have belonged to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and the third, Florian’s model railway. I make my way up the sweeping staircase to the first floor. A pair of Palladian plinths with busts of classical figures hovers on the landing with an abstract steel and glass installation beside them in belligerent juxtaposition. I knock gently on the heavy oak door to the right which has been left slightly ajar and walk in.
Taking up most of the first floor, the room is absurdly large, much larger than I remember it. Its high ceiling and elaborate cornices give it the appearance of a hall or a theatre. The room is in semi-darkness It seems I have arrived in the middle of a film. As I become accustomed to the low light, I look around to get my bearings. Sombre paintings, a curious mix of Dalí and De Chirico, are on display, along with Florian and Rhonda’s familiar J. B. Joyce clock, reminiscent of the one at the station in Brief Encounter, stopped for eternity at eleven minutes past eleven. They once explained the significance of eleven minutes past eleven, but I cannot recall what this is. I feel self-conscious at not being acknowledged.
I take in the assembly of arbitrary faces, all of which I seem to recognise. They are seated in an informal arrangement of chairs and cushions around the room. This curious collection of random representatives from my past is alarming. Some have aged as you would expect over a period of time, but others are, to my consternation, exactly as I remember them years ago. No sign of their having aged. All eyes are focussed on the giant TV and Home Cinema system. No one looks up as, with an air of trepidation, I sit myself down on a Verona armchair just inside the door. Apart from the intermittent echo of the soundtrack of the film, there is a hush which is disturbingly pervasive. The film is in what I take to be Swedish but has no subtitles. Is it Ingemar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries? I wonder. I feel a growing dryness in my throat. I have difficulty breathing. My chest tightens. The whole scene is so out of context I think it must be a dream. It isn’t a dream. In a dream you can’t feel your heartbeat, and mine is pounding like a hammer.
There is an eerie detachment about all of those present, as if each of them is in his or her own private universe, but by accident rather than design happen to occupy the same space here in this room. They sit alone or in pairs, and the body language of each seems to suggest that they have no connection with any of the others. But then, as I look around again, I conclude there is no connection. This is not a reunion. These people would not know one another. There would have been no reason for their ever coming together. I am the only link. I know or have known each of them as separate individuals in different areas and at different times in my life. Some I have met through jobs I have had, some through recreational pursuits and others through transactions of one kind or another. Furthermore, I can see no-one here that I would choose to meet in the pub for a pint.
The flickering light from the film illuminates the figures and their faces take on a spectral glow. If Florian and Rhonda are aiming at strange they have certainly cracked it. A few feet away from me sitting upright in a carver seat is Bob Scouler, the nerdy systems programmer I worked with at International Adhesives and Sealants over thirty years ago, a temporary summer job and well before the toxicity of their products caused a major scandal. Bob is wearing the same grey serge suit I remember, along with the familiar tattersall check shirt and lovat and mauve paisley tie. His haircut, the neat central parting and the sides hanging just over the tip of his ears is from the same era, although even then a somewhat dated look. He has not aged a day. He looks as if he has just stepped out of the office. I half expect him to start talking about his Morris Marina (brown with a black vinyl roof). Are those IBM coding sheets that he has on his lap?
Next to him stretched out on a bank of Moroccan floor cushions is Razor, my son Damien’s one-time drug dealer. He used to hang about outside the college I recall. Did Damien still owe him money, I wonder, or is it Razor that owes him drugs? Razor does seem to have aged dramatically. In fact. were it not been for the scar across his cheek I might not have recognised him. The original scar, a legacy rumour has it of a ‘turf war’, seems to have been joined by a companion just below the jungle of gold earrings. He must only be in his mid-thirties but with the reds, yellows and greens of the tattoos that cover his shaved head now faded, Razor looks distressingly old.
Bob and Razor are polar opposites. The chances of them being part of the same social group in any circumstances are remote. Florian and Rhonda are perhaps conducting an anthropological experiment of some sort. Or could this gathering be an example of their conceptual art?
Over by the bamboo palm there is the bulky frame of Ray (Marshall) Stax, who I briefly shared a converted railway carriage with in the seventies. Marshall became a sound engineer with a number of rock bands that nearly made it. As I played the piano, I came up with the odd melody for one or two of the bands. I was never credited, but the royalties would not have been staggering had I been, even with Armageddon. The NME showed an interest in Armageddon’s début single Don’t You Fuck My Dog in 1976 calling it a punk anthem. It suffered from a subsequent lack of airplay and Armageddon faded into obscurity when the following month the NME turned their attention to The Sex Pistols as the ambassadors of punk. I think they took my piano part out in the mix anyway. I recall Armageddon disbanded after the singer accidentally shot himself in the groin. Looking at Marshall, he has not changed that much except that the platforms and flares I remember have been replaced by contemporary cool clothes, screaming with designer advertising. The clothes may have been au courant but his features suggest that he is still in his twenties. I might be looking at Marshall Stax circa 1976, or this could conceivably be Marshall Stax’s son although the Sid Vicious haircut clearly belongs to yesteryear. I make gestures in his direction but I am unable to attract his attention.
Seated on a gnarled banquette, which matches her leathery countenance, is Denise Felch, who was my manager at the local newspaper I worked on as music correspondent a few years back. She is dressed in mismatched browns and reds. I don’t know if it is her build (Rugby League second row), but whatever she wears, Denise had the ability to make look like a sack. She seems to be the only person in the room who is smoking and you have to say that she smokes with dogged determination. The light from the screen highlights the nicotine stains on all her fingers and even her spectacles have a brownish tint. The ashtray on the telephone table beside her is full. Denise does not look over and for this I am thankful. My severance pay from The Morning Lark was not generous and we did not part on good terms.
Why is everyone ignoring me? Haven’t I materialised properly? Or am I out of focus maybe, like the Robin Williams character in the Woody Allen movie?
I spot Colin and Malcolm, the landlords of The Duck, a pub by the river Sara and I often visit on a summer evening for a drink or two watching the boats make their way round the gentle meander. Sara and I were invited to their Civil Ceremony but we agreed that it was not the right social mêlée, although as I recall the real reason may have been that the date had clashed with Sara’s amateur tennis tournament. And seated on a Marley two seater here in this room now mulling over a Sudoku puzzle book are Eileen and Mark from Sara’s tennis club. Sara seems to be spending a lot of time there lately with her tennis coach, Henrik. I wonder if maybe they are having an affair. Eileen and Mark look as if they would be more comfortable at home with their ceramic induction hob and their range of rice cookers. They of course like everyone else in the room do not seem to notice me.
And my God! There is Ravi from Maharajah Wines, the offie where I used to buy my cans when I played sessions at Olympic Studios. He was always open at two in the morning when I finished my shift. Ravi used to call me George, after George Harrison I think. I never asked. ‘Got some Drum under the counter George if you are wanting it,’ he would say. ‘Special price for you on Stella.’ Was that twenty five years ago? It seems like twenty five minutes ago. Haven’t I just put a can of Stella beside me down? I pick it up and shake it. It is empty. I have been in the room now for perhaps twenty five seconds, but time seems to be playing tricks.
I have never entirely come to terms with the passing of time. The general experience of its passage is that at twenty, it could be likened to a pedestrian able to take in the surroundings at leisure, at thirty an accelerating velocipede, at forty a frisky roadster, at fifty a bullet train, and thereafter a supersonic jet. However there are some puzzling things about the moment, any given moment, being there and then gone and irretrievable that doesn’t sit well with the perception of it in one’s consciousness. Something doesn’t quite add up about the way many things that are important at the time fade into the obscure recesses of the unconscious while other trivial recollections from long ago survive intact and seem like they happened only yesterday highlights time’s inconsistency. I have to keep a detailed diary and refer to it constantly to keep track of what I did and when. I use Te Neues art diaries. But even with this record, all that I am doing was measuring change. I read recently that scientists no longer see time as linear, the bad news for us being that they believe our brains are programmed through a process of indoctrination to think of time as linear. We remember things happening in the past, things are moving around in the present, we can plan to do things in the future and we have an agreed upon measurement of time – so the mind gives the illusion of time and continuum. All there is, however, is now and things happening now and moving around. It could be that time is a loop or even infinite, or both. I have been known to espouse, usually after a glass of wine or two, that all time probably exists simultaneously.
I take the soft melting watches in Salvador Dalí’s painting The Persistence of Memory which I notice is a design for one of the floor cushions in the room, to be a reference to temporal anomaly. Clocks seem to be measuring something but no one knows what. It’s not like length. You can point to an object with a real physical reality and say that’s one unit in length’. But time is abstract. Cool cushion, though! And also in what must be a surrealist set of cushions is Rene Magritte’s Time Transfigured, (the one with the steam locomotive emerging from the fireplace). Ongoing Time Stabbed by a Dagger is the literal translation for the title of the painting, I recall. The distortion of time is clearly a recurrent theme in this outrageous display. I am almost sure the cushion design that Damien’s old Geography teacher at St Judes, Miss Jackson is sitting on is Man Ray’s Seven Decades of Man. And the set is completed by Otto Rapp’s Consumption of Time. Definitely not a casual buy from Ikea.
Is that Halo, my old jin shin jytsu therapist sipping the green coloured drink? I only went to see her twice – too much mumbo jumbo, but recall a cornucopia of vibrant Berber jewellery from those meetings. I smile at her, and she hesitantly she smiles back, leaving perhaps an opening for conversation, which neither of us takes . Again it comes to mind that I seem to know all the people here, but they are, like Halo, bit players in my life. No-one out of this mismatched melée has been a close acquaintance or played a significant role. Any rationality in their being here eludes me. And if for whatever peculiar reason they are Florian and Rhonda’s guests, where for Heaven’s sake are the hosts?
It takes me a little while to work out the figure in the blue and white striped blazer and straw hat sitting on a settee in front of an old vellum map of Scandinavia is Chick Strangler. I am more accustomed to seeing him in Lycra. We used to go cycling together on Sunday mornings a few years ago when it became apparent that both of us needed to shed a few pounds. I myself resisted the lure of Lycra for these outings, favouring a warm and comfortable tracksuit. Chick has left the bike in the garage once or twice over the past five years by the look of his girth. Chick and his wife Cheryl lived next door to Sara and me in Dankworth Drive. Red bricked semis on a suburban estate, near the golf course. Last I heard the Stranglers had moved to Florida. A long way to come to watch a Swedish film – which I now notice is displaying its subtitles – in French.
My French is a little rusty but Isak, the old man in the film recalling his life seems to be saying something along the lines of ‘I don’t know how it happened, but the day’s reality flowed into dreamlike images.’ I don’t even know if it was a dream, (rêve is dream isn’t it?) or memories which arose with the force of real events. And then something about playing the piano.’
There are too many big words but I recognise odd phrases, something about a strangely transformed house and a girl in a yellow cotton dress picking wild strawberries. I try to follow for a little while. The old man has found a portal into the past it seems and is trying to talk to Sara, the girl he loved who married his brother, Sigfrid.
The crisp black and white images flash over the faces in the room.
I become aware of Russ Harmer and Dolly Dagger. Have they just arrived or have they up till now been hidden from sight? Russ Harmer was the neighbourhood bully when I was growing up. For years, he menaced and beat up anyone who did not suck up to him, until one day he ran into Borstal boy, Tank Sherman. Whether Russ became less odious after the fierce hammering he had taken is difficult to say, but it had knocked his facial features into a shape that remained easily recognisable today. I cannot connect him with Dolly Dagger in any way but here they are together. I shared a house in Dark Street with Dolly Dagger, along with a forever changing roundabout of short term tenants in the months of my post-student malaise. Dolly Dagger was in those days working as an escort and even then it seemed hell bent on a descent into drugs, one which fortunately I did not succumb to. We are not talking a little Blow or even an occasional toot of Charlie here, although that’s how it started. We are talking freebasing and needles and pinza. Despite the decline, Dolly has one of those faces that somehow still retains the carelessness of youth, fine Oriental features you could never forget. She has aged, certainly, but at least she is still alive.
It is a monumental shock to see Bernie Foden who used to service my Sierra. I have palpitations as my heart goes into overdrive. Bernie died ten years ago of throat cancer. I went to his funeral. I close my eyes and open them again. He is still there. This is not a faint apparition, this is a living, breathing, three-dimensional human form.
‘Bernie!’ I venture. He does not reply.
The rupture of logic here in this sinister theatre is stifling. My nerves are in tatters. What on earth is happening here? Am I having a nervous breakdown?
Just when I think the disturbing soiree can get no more bizarre, the actor Dirk Bogarde, who I have never met, drifts in dressed immaculately in a dark three-piece suit, Borsalino hat and thin woolen tie. He looks as he did in his matinee idol days. Didn’t Dirk die recently too? If so, no one seems to have told him. He breezes over to me and holds out his manicured hand. We shake hands and he congratulates me on something that in the confusion goes over my head. He then switches his interest to the film and sits down next to Razor. Neither acknowledges the other.
This is all too kooky. I decide I have to pull out to go and look for Florian and Rhonda. They will hopefully be able to shed some light on what this surreal circus is all about.
Set over several floors with unexpected half landings and mezzanines and many other changes to what would have been the original design of the house, their home is a bit of a maze. Florian and Rhonda bought the house as a project at the beginning of the property boom in the early eighties and have bit by bit converted it. Not in a conventional way by any means. I feel an eerie chill and pull my jacket around me as I explore the photographic darkroom and the embalming suite on the other side of the hallway. Finding no-one there I start to make my way upstairs.
It is by now getting dark and I cannot find a light switch. In fact, mounted flush on the wall where you might expect to find a switch is a full 88 key piano keyboard. Do I have to play a note or select a chord to turn on the light, I wonder. I experiment with a few chords, C major and C Minor, D major and D minor then all the other majors and minors. No lights come on. I play Wagner’s famous ‘Tristan Chord’. ‘Disorientating and daring’, they called it at the time. It isn’t the one, though. Still, no lights. Perhaps I need to play a tune. I play the opening bars of What’ I’d Say and Imagine. The intro to Bohemian Rhapsody. All a bit too obvious maybe. I try the opening from Blue Rondo à La Turk and one of Satie’s Gymnopédies or is it a Gnossienne? I notice that a shaft of light is now guiding me to a room on one of the upper floors.
As I reach the top of the stairs, Anna appears from the room carrying a Rococo style floral tray. She offers me a bagel. Her greeting is one of expectation rather than surprise. Mine is one of surprise. Astonishment!
‘Would you like it with cream cheese?’ she asks. An amatory smile flashes mischievously.
Anna looks exactly as I remember her five years ago; we had a clandestine liaison when she was married to Bob. Anna has not changed a bit. She is tanned and her hair is cut in the same way in a longish bob cut and even has the same russet red colour. Flame red I think it was called. She has full lips, and eyes that are so dramatically large, volatile, and seductive, so strikingly set, that I wonder if they are real. Her Louis Vuitton skirt hugs her hips tightly and her breasts seem to be powering their way out of the low cut top she is wearing.
Sensing my embarrassment at our meeting she says. ‘I don’t have the patience for foreign films either.’
We make small talk for a while about the freak thunderstorms we have been having lately and the tabloid sub-editors’ strike. I do not want to advertise the full scale of my bewilderment at the series of events unfolding. Here is a beautiful woman I haven’t seen for years and I do not want to burden her with my insecurities. Sometimes there can be more than one explanation to a situation.
‘What about you?’ I ask. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I live here,’ she smiles. ‘I rent rooms off your friends Florian and Rhonda. Would you like me to show you?’
She leads me off to her pied a terre. It is brightly coloured and furnished with pine furniture in the Scandinavian style. I sit on a rug. She opens a bottle of red wine to go with the bagels and cream cheese. She slips her skirt off slowly to the sound of a sultry tenor saxophone. Anna has one of those hi-fi setups you can hear in every room. Stan Getz was always our favourite. The wispy mellow tone of Serenade in Blue is followed by Secret Love, But Beautiful, and Lover Man
When Anna and I return downstairs a little later, the film has finished. The guests all seem to have left and Florian and Rhonda are clearing away.
I ask about the guests.
‘Just some people from the film club,’ says Rhonda. ‘We are looking at the Bergman classic to explore the concept of ‘the unreliable narrator.’
‘I didn’t think you two were there,’ I say. ‘I could not see you.’
‘There were only six of us this week,’ said Florian. ‘Bit disappointing really.’
I begin counting. ‘What about Marshall and Razor, Chick, Denise Felch, Bob Scouler, Colin and Malcolm, Dolly Dagger, Russ, and Ravi. Bernie, Halo, Miss Jackson, Eileen and Mark from the tennis club. And Dirk Bogarde.’
‘What?’ say Florian. ‘Who?’
‘They were all here watching the film,’ I protest.
‘No, there was just myself and Rhonda, Elliot and Rachel, and the Melton Constables,’ insists Florian. ‘Six of us.’
‘Either way, doesn’t that prove the point?’ says Rhonda. ‘At some stage in a story, the reader will realise that the narrator’s interpretation of the events cannot be fully trusted and will begin to form their own opinions about the events and motivations within the story. After all a story is only a story. It’s fiction.’
‘What about the unreliable reader?’ says Anna.
‘The reader isn’t the one sending you on a wild goose chase or masking an affair,’ says Florian.
‘Isn’t everyone an unreliable reader though,’ says Anna. ‘After all everyone brings their own experience into the reading. What if this story is just about Jon coming to see me for a clandestine affair that he is trying to hide from Sara. And none of the rest of the story happens – and you all don’t exist.’
‘Anyone like a drink?’ asks Rhonda.
Anna says that she works in the morning and starts to laugh.
I find the bathroom and light up one that I made earlier. ‘Isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood.’
Anyhow, I do not think I shall tell Sara.
© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved