DRUGS

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Drugs – a short story by Chris Green

We are lounging in the garden of Astral Parlour, the name we have given to a pair of crumbling farm cottages deep in the Cotswold Hills. It is a summer afternoon and the sun is high overhead. There are about a dozen of us. I can’t say for sure which of us are supposed to be living there and which of us are just hanging out, but we have temporarily taken over the cottages. I can’t remember who made the arrangement, but I think they said we would do a few repairs and a bit of painting in return for accommodation. At eighteen I believe I am the youngest, although no-one here is much over twenty five.

We are drinking jasmine tea, at least I think that’s what it is, although Nathan East was round cooking up some datura earlier. Nathan’s something of a herbalist. Datura is used in ceremonies in the east. It has hallucinogenic properties. Anything with hallucinogenic properties seems to be welcome at Astral Parlour. Zero, the mad Jack Russell that someone here has adopted is running round, frantically chasing her tail. I wonder whether she has had some of Nathan’s brew.

Meanwhile, the chocolate has run out. Someone needs to go and get some. No-one wants to drive the old grey A35 van the two miles to the filling station. It has no tax, no MOT and no number plates, and besides, everyone is too stoned. Quinn has been rolling joints all afternoon. I don’t know much about the geography of dope cultivation but he said it was Nepalese temple balls or something. I’ve noticed that my friends tend to make a big deal out of the origin of what we are smoking. There is a strict hierarchy and Nepal is near the top along with Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Everything around here is kind of strange lately. Things haven’t been the same around here since those purple tabs. They were a thousand mics, whatever that means. We were up for days.

Dewi is telling us about the brain police.

‘When we were busy on that stuff last week,’ he says. ‘That’s when the brain police came to visit.’

He is making us listen to Burnt Weeny Sandwich – again, in case there are some subliminal messages that he hasn’t picked up on. I didn’t realise it, but subliminal messages are everywhere, not just in television and advertising. A secret alliance of top people is trying to control our thoughts, we just don’t realise it. Frank Zappa must be one of these.

Dewi comes from a remote village in Wales, whose name I cannot pronounce. I don’t think the folks around there get out a lot. I can’t remember how Dewi arrived here. First thing I can remember he came at me with his hair swinging wildly and thrust Babylon by Doctor John The Night Tripper at me and said, have you heard this, man, it’s far out. Marianne thinks Dewi may have arrived in a spaceship. She could be right. He is always telling us about the UFO sightings in Wales.

I’m fed up of listening to the Mothers Of Invention and Captain Beefhart and his Magic Band. Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Trout Mask Replica are both complete nonsense. To be honest I liked it better when Mike was still here and we had Pink Floyd and King Crimson. Mike shouldn’t have been arrested. It wasn’t him who shot the Major’s pig. It was Chadwick Dial. With his shotgun. Chad is a freak in the true sense of the word. He has a Quasimodo stoop and random strands of matted hair coming out from all corners of his head punctuated by random gaps. He can only see out of one eye, but the other one follows it around like a lost dog.

We used to have all kinds of people over when Mike was around. He was well connected. We had some circus folk for a while, a magic show came to stay and a theatre troupe used to drop by. Steve and Jimmy from Traffic came over one time and brought Quinn a guitar. Quinn doesn’t play it any more. He just rolls spliffs all day long and stares at the silhouette of the tree that is shaped like a tap against the western sky.

What is happening? …….. I’m being buffeted in time and space. ………. Waves of consciousness are coming through the static. Where am I? Who am I? ……… I am he and he is me, or something like that. …….. I wonder who can be writing this. ……. Here we go again.

Is it a decade later? It seems to be. Dewi is now living back in Wales. Another place with an unpronounceable name. He comes up to the Cotswolds on a visit. He happens by sheer chance to run into Chadwick Dial in The Frog and Nightgown. At closing time after several pints, Chadwick Dial, never one to miss an opportunity gets Dewi to give him a lift to a house party on the other side of town. Dewi has some coke and Chad helps him get through this. The two of them get into an argument over a girl Dewi is making a move on, a friend of Marianne’s he says. By this time everyone is well bashed and the argument quickly gets out of control. Dewi goes to leave, but Chad and some other revellers, who see him as a stranger, stop him in his tracks. At Chad’s instigation they begin jumping up and down on the bonnet of his Sunbeam Alpine.

Dewi eventually manages to get them off. He does a swift hairpin turn and puts his foot down for a quick getaway. It could be that they have changed the priorities since he lived in these parts but he manages to go the wrong way down a one way street. He does not know where he is. He finds himself heading out of town in the wrong direction. He is heading towards Stroud. His erratic driving draws the attention of a police patrol. They give chase, sirens wailing and blue lights flashing. Dewi tries to shake them off. Unable to control the powerful car on a bend Dewi ends up driving into a stone wall. He dies on impact.

As I make my way up the M5 from Bath I am hoping that I do not suffer a similar fate. It is three a.m. and I am driving an old Austin Maxi with Nathan East as a passenger. We are being tailed by a jam sandwich patrol car. I am well over the drink drive limit and the car is full of cocaine. The bastards are following me at a distance of about twenty feet with their headlights on full beam. There are no other cars on the road so it is quite clear that they are just trying to intimidate me, trying to make me wonder when they are going to pull me over. I am nervous about night driving at the best of times, but the day’s intake of drink and drugs turns this into a state of blind panic. My feet are shaking on the pedals. I am gibbering. Nathan too is gibbering. I can already hear prison doors slam behind me.

I approach my exit. It is do or die. Will they follow me or will they carry on up the motorway? With the headlights nearly blinding me, I miss the turn-off from the exit road and find myself back on the motorway still heading north. I realise the game is up. The police are still behind me. They put the sirens on and pull me over. Nathan and I get out. We have to put as much distance between the police and the cocaine as possible.

Nathan mitigates my blunder by saying, ‘the lights, man, you were blinding him.’

Nathan looks out of his head even when he is not, which is seldom. I don’t feel he is helping my case.’

The officer with the night driving glasses goes through the routine of, is this your car, what’s the registration number, have you been drinking, to which I manage to give the right answers.

‘We’d turn you over,’ says the other officer, the senior of the two. ‘But we can’t be bothered tonight. It would mean too much paperwork. And you’ve probably only got enough hash for a joint or two. But get your tail light fixed before you go on the motorway at night again.’

The scene is fading. I feel like I’m swimming in the sea and I see people on the shore, but they’re getting farther and farther away. …… Wait! …….. The atmospheric radio is retuning. …… Where are we now? …….. Ah! I don’t think I like this one. Why am I here? ….. Can someone get me out of here!

They’ll never find it. They’ll never find it. I am willing them not to find it. It’s not that well hidden, but they’ve been searching the flat for an hour now. Will they find it? There’s seventeen ounces there. Behind the water tank, wedged against the wall. It’s a sizeable stretch for me if they do find it. They must have been tipped off. There would have been a fraction of this amount only yesterday.

I try to think of who might have grassed me up. The Welsh rugby playing next door neighbour with the dogs? He will have witnessed all the comings and goings? That little jerk that hangs around with Brad? The gopher who sits around in his BMW while he does his business. The woman I was seeing last year, what was her name? Cheryl, Cherry, Shelley? Perhaps these drug squad guys have been sitting in a car outside for days watching me. No, surely I would have noticed. Perhaps they have been following me.

They are going through my personal things, my unpublished stories, the candid photos I took of Saskia, the letters that I did not send. D.S. Bowser is telling me that they nearly got me three months ago when they raided Saskia’s. I remember it well. About a dozen of them in blue fatigues burst in, but they did not know what they were looking for. All they got was a cannabis plant in the greenhouse. The officers concerned did not realise who I was until recently, D.S. Bowser says.

I am going to have to go down to the station anyway, because of what they found in the cupboard. It was only a gram or so of billy, but I can’t imagine they’ll overlook it.

‘Can you get someone to look after your daughter?’ Bowser asks. ‘She’s a bit young for police cells.’

Does this mean they are about to give up the search? Settle for what they’ve got? I wonder who it is best to phone. I phone Saskia. She is not there, so I leave a message in such a way that she knows what’s going on. She may need to let others know not to call in. Just in case.

‘Come here Sarge!’ says an excited voice.

I instinctively know that the game is up. They have found it.

Is that it? ……. Is that all there is? I feel woozy. …….. Have I been asleep? ……. Unconscious?…… Where am I? There are tubes and cath…. What do they call those things they put in your arm? I can’t get a handle on anything. It must be the drugs. ……… I think I may be coming round from …… From what? I can smell formaldehyde ………. I hope the ………… procedure was a ……. a success.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

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The Feelgood Calendar

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The Feelgood Calendar by Chris Green

Bill Feelgood awoke from a dream in which he was lost in a dark area on the outskirts of an unfamiliar town with tall shadowy buildings and cathedrals with gothic towers. He was driving a stolen car that he could not control properly. The brake and accelerator pedals had been switched and the steering wheel was loose. He was being chased by a gang, made up of years and months and days. The scene shifted. He was driving another car now and the stolen car was heading towards him. The gang, whose identities kept changing, had split up and were spread out around the two cars awaiting the impact. The days kept changing into months and the months into years.

It took a little while to realise that he was awake as the details of the dream slowly brought themselves into consciousness. He rubbed his eyes and looked blearily out of the bedroom window. It was raining again. There had been high winds in the night, he remembered, and a few of the potted plants in the garden had blown over. He needed to go and tidy the mess up before setting off for work. The radio alarm clock broke into its 7.30 call. He went to put the kettle on for his first cuppa. He looked at the kitchen calendar. It was April 43rd. He had a meeting at 3pm with Brighter Future. Tuesday was not usually a busy day at the kaleidoscope repair shop so Ben could easily manage without him: he would just take the afternoon off to be at Brighter Future’s Serendipity Street office.

With the acceleration of climate change, there were less sunny days each year, the increase in particulate matter having surreptitiously cancelled out the temperature rises threatened by the build up of carbon dioxide. Particles emitted into the air from cars, trucks, buses, factories, construction sites, tilled fields, unpaved roads, stone crushing, wood burning and other particles formed in the air from the chemical change of gases were all working together to add to cloud cover. Now it seemed it was hardly ever sunny. If there was not actually direct cloud cover, a low level haze hung in the air. There were perhaps twenty sunny days in the whole year. Bill was 56 years old. He calculated that if he lived to be 70, this would mean just another two hundred and eighty sunny days, even fewer if the build up of particulate matter continued to accelerate. Bill worked five days a week. Taking into account holidays this meant Bill worked 235 days a year. This would give him just one hundred more days to enjoy sitting around outside in the sun. He would only see the magnolia tree outside his window, that was presently in blossom, flower another thirteen times, perhaps for a shorter period each cloudy season.

Periodically prone to such crepuscular meditations Bill had set about redesigning the structure of the year to help combat the gloom of the English climate. The Feelgood calendar was the result. In the Feelgood calendar January had 9 days, February had 16, March, 25, April, 49, May, 49, June, 64, and July, 64. Thereafter months were shorter. August had 36 days, September, 25, and October, 16. There were 9 days in November and 2 in December (3 in a leap year). Bill’s calendar aimed to give the illusion that at any given time it was not winter, or that it would not be winter for long. One might not be able to do much about reversing climate change, without a complete collapse of capitalism, and this seemed unlikely to occur in Bill’s lifetime, but one could live in a fantasy world where these things mattered less. The Feelgood Calendar represented a tentative first step towards the virtual celebration of a mythic golden age.

Using desktop publishing skills picked up on a rehabilitation programme, Bill had produced several prototypes of the calendar, which he had hung on doors around the house. He acknowledged that although pleasing to the eye, his efforts were the works of an amateur. Bill perused the kitchen calendar. April was looking a bit of a mess with his jottings and it was only the 43rd. April and May needed double fold down sections for the extra days of the month to fit comfortably, with perhaps a triple for June and July. And the month-by-month pictures should all reflect summer, no ambiguity, no autumn leaves or footprints in the snow. His design did need some refinement if it were to be effectively marketed. Marketed. Bill shuddered. What a horrible term ‘marketed’ had become. Nothing was ever marketed for the common good. The term implied exploitation. Profiteering was the sole motive. Bill preferred to view this venture as the sharing of an idea; the calendar might in itself be of benefit to others. It wasn’t so much that Bill was an environmental campaigner, more of a reckless supporter of the underdog, in this case climate change, or to be more specific, the recognition that particulate matter was an issue. In the debate about climate change, the build up of particulate matter was barely mentioned; the prevailing attitude was that perhaps if no one acknowledged the fact, it would go away, and the skies would become clear again.

Changes to the Christian calendar were a rarity. Two versions have existed in recent times: The Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar. Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar in 45 B.C. It established January 1st as New Year. But in order to synchronize the calendar with the sun, Caesar had to let the previous year drag on for 445 days. However, in AD 567 the Council of Tours abolished January 1st in favour of March as the start of a new year, varying the actual day to coincide with the Vernal Equinox. The Julian calendar was in common use until 1582, when countries started changing to the Gregorian calendar because the Julian calendar had become out of step with the seasonal cycle by 10 days. The Gregorian calendar moved New Year back to January 1st. The Feelgood calendar would keep this. With just two days in December, you could incorporate Christmas and New Year.

Despite Bill’s reservations about marketing, he had followed the advice of Sol Solomon, a solicitor friend and had patented the idea for the calendar. He had contacted two companies, Brighter Future and Flying Colours about production. The meeting on April 35th with Flying Colours had suggested to Bill that they wanted to make changes to his idea. He was concerned that this would affect the terms of the patent and that they would have effectively stolen his idea. As he drove to his 3pm appointment, listening to Tardelli’s Trio for Violin, Saxophone and Strimmer on Radio 3, he felt a little apprehensive that Brighter Future might want to do the same.

He need not have worried. Brighter Future’s post-modern sunburst yellow office complex in Serendipity Street with its neo-eclectic juxtaposition of styles and its dramatic fractal dome suggested immediately to Bill that this was a company at the cutting edge of change. Brighter Future would surely be open to fresh ideas. The curvilinear geometry of the reception area in the form of a Mobius Strip also inspired confidence. This was definitely a company that embraced the unusual. He felt at home in the surroundings. This feeling of comfort was strengthened when the startlingly attractive receptionist realised straightaway who Bill was. She chatted about the weather and congratulated him on his idea as she took him past the Tides of Eternity water feature through to the Dolphin Suite.

The meeting with Bradley Bright and the design team went exceptionally well. Bill’s truly terrible mnemonic rhyme: –

June and July have sixty-four days,

April forty nine and so does May.

August has thirty-six – that’s plenty,

March and September five and twenty.

Feb and October have sixteen – fine,

Jan and November only nine.

December has just two days, so,

An extra day in a leap year – yo!

which he now felt confident enough to share, was well received.

Fantastic! You’re a genius,’ beamed Bradley.

Although Bill felt he did have some very good ideas, he was unused to being described in these terms. The meeting progressed positively and one by one, a variety of summer themes for illustrations (beaches, gardens, flowers, sunrises and sunsets, village cricket, lawn tennis, etc.) was explored for a broad range of Feelgood Calendars, along with a number of fine art and decorative arts options. Matisse, Kandinsky, Patrick Heron and Klimt were given the thumbs up because of their sense of colour and optimism. Monet (too blurry – this could be interpreted as haze from pollution), and Van Gogh (too suicidal – could promote self harm) were rejected, along with Dali (too apocalyptic), and Picasso (too enigmatic).

After several hours of debate and dozens of cups of latte and cappuccino, a working range of calendars was on the table. Cost projections were analysed and the all-important figures were agreed. Brighter Future offered Bill a considerably more attractive financial package than that offered by Flying ColoursThe Feelgood calendar was on its way. Bill took the opportunity to celebrate with his girlfriend, Sloggi, with a slap up meal at a local Chechnyan brasserie that had just opened,korta-kogish (mutton head and legs) and zhizhig-galnash (meat ravioli) among the delicacies they enjoyed, along with the very best chilled Chechnyan champagne (non alcoholic as Chechens are strict Muslims).

Over the months that followed, Bill found that interest in the Feelgood calendar was surprisingly high. By the end of July (Feelgood July that is), Brighter Future had them in hundreds of shops around the country, along with a range of suitably upbeat Feelgood diaries. By October the Feelgood Calendar advertising campaign was well under way. Brighter Future had a prime-time slot in the middle of Celebrity Brain Surgery, a show featuring a live operation from a private London hospital on a C-list television personality, has been pop star or washed-up golfer in a desperate attempt to resurrect their flagging career. Celebrity Brain Surgery was ITV’s Saturday night attempt to win viewers back from BBC1’s popular World Famous for 15 Minutes. Typical of the latter was ‘world’s most obese man is hoisted out of a specially built window because he cannot get through his door and is taken to the studio to appear on the show to break the world record for eating the world’s largest pizza (25 kilos). Bill would have liked the product only to be advertised during informative programmes or ethical shows.

So would I,’ said Bradley. ‘But there are none on the main channels at prime-time and for a new idea like this we have to reach the maximum audience at its most indolent.’

Brighter Future also launched a major billboard campaign, which aimed to force Bill’s truly terrible rhyme into people’s consciousness. Every day on the ring road on his way to the kaleidescope repair shop, Bill passed two billboards featuring the rhyme. Passed them figuratively that is, situated as they were at two new sets of traffic lights that had been put in between the speed bumps and the chicanes for no apparent reason but to slow the traffic, which had moved at a crawl in the first place. The resulting gridlock had the effect of pumping larger amounts of exhaust gases into the atmosphere. To use fuel efficiently, the driver of a vehicle needed to store the energy contained in the vehicle. Traffic calming of any kind was the perfect way to waste fuel and add to pollution, not to mention the waste of time. Bill found himself with up to twenty minutes each day to study the billboards, which were printed in primary colours using a child’s handwriting typeface, complete with backwards s’s. It would be easy for anyone using the ring road regularly to learn the rhyme within a day or two, Bill imagined. While this may have been good for business, Bill could not help feel that planners were entirely missing the point over traffic policy. The cycle lane that had been put in an environmental ticket reducing the dual carriageway to a single carriageway was not used at all. In six months, Bill had not seen one single cyclist using it. And the traffic was always backed up to the ring road, propelling tonnes of noxious fumes into the atmosphere daily.

The Feelgood Calendar became the must-have novelty Christmas item, and for two or three years its popularity grew with each passing day. Sales were spectacular, generating a range of spin-off electronic merchandise, some sanctioned by Brighter Futures, some not. Riding on the wave of success, Bill became a (reluctant) celebrity. He found himself on a whirlwind schedule of personal appearances and TV chat shows.

What about the rumour I’ve heard about a 20 hour clock. Another moneymaker? asked Guy Princess on It’s a Guy Thing.

Absolutely not true,’ replied Bill. ‘what about the rumour I’ve heard that you are homosexual?’ Bill was not homophobic, he was just exasperated at endlessly being asked stupid questions. Unfortunately the show went out live. ‘Is Guy Gay Asks Bonkers Bill,’ read the headline in The Tabloid next day. He did not seem to have the support of the press. When in an earlier interview he had expressed concern about the lack of attention the world was giving to the issue of the build up of particulate matter in the debate about climate change, The Lark reported it ‘Barmy Bill Says We’re Not Going To Fry After All.’ But there is no such thing as bad publicity. Each outburst only served to help sell the Feelgood calendar.

The calendar went worldwide. It quickly became accepted as standard in Scandinavia, with its long winters, this despite the obvious difficulties in translating the mnemonic rhyme into Swedish or Norwegian so that it scanned well. It did not fare so well in Australia and South America as it was felt it made winter seem interminable. In Britain, and the rest of Europe, it sat happily alongside the Gregorian calendar rather than replace it. It was fine to have one in the home but it did not catch on in the workplace. The business world stood doggedly by the schedule that it was familiar with. Primary schools, while they liked the idea were never sure if they could teach it, as it did not feature on the curriculum. Despite repeated calls to adopt the calendar and begin the school year in January, the conservative culture of the education establishment prevailed. All of the main Churches regarded the Feelgood calendar as heresy and fiercely opposed its take up. Astrologers too were less than welcoming, and therein lay the largest obstacle. People were very reluctant to adopt a different birthday. Bill was not. Bill’s birthday was September 11th in the Gregorian calendar. All his family had died that day. They were driving back from the coast and had become lost in the outskirts of an unfamiliar town. They had been killed by a young driver in a stolen car that he could not control properly. The driver was being chased by a gang of small time criminals. Bill was the only survivor of the head-on collision.

He felt that July 42nd, the new date for his birthday, was a big improvement on September 11th, free as it was from baggage. Most years July 42nd was just as cloudy as September 11th had been. Bill was undeterred. He continued to use the calendar well into old age and long after it was fashionable. By this time sunny days were down to single figures.

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

 

Slumpton

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Slumpton by Chris Green

The door to number 16 slammed in Harry’s face, as it had more times than Harry cared to remember. Its split green and orange panels were all too familiar. Familiar too were the plywood and chicken wire that were nailed over the space where the window should have been, perhaps in a bygone age where a window once was. The force of the sudden closure caused a liberal sprinkling of masonry to dislodge itself from an upstairs window, landing on the shoulder of Harry’s paint-smeared donkey jacket, where it did not look out of place. Even so, Harry brushed it off with the palm of his hand, and moved on down the street, past two boarded up terraced houses and a pile of rubble where others had until recently been, before arriving outside number 28. Sounds consistent with marital discord could be heard from within. Harry shuddered. He felt a strong urge to go back home. He was too old for this kind of aggravation. He lit a Woodbine and struggled to regain his composure. He must be resolute, he told himself. After all, the Luker family had been slum landlords since the thirties and this was 1980. His grandfather, George Luker had collected from these very houses during ‘the blitz.’ What would George have thought if he knew Harry was such a wuss?

His composure restored, Harry rapped firmly on the front door with his knuckles. This had the effect of bringing a corpulent, unshaven hulk of about forty face to face with him across the threshold. This was Natt, or ‘Nasty’ as he was known locally. There were signs of either a recent breakfast or perhaps last night’s vomit, on the front of Nasty’s vest – which was, in fact, the back, Harry observed, the garment being both back to front and inside out. Nasty towered above Harry and looked far from pleased at having been disturbed.

‘M’morning N’nasty,’ stammered Harry. ‘Nice day again.’

‘Pishoff,’ snarled Nasty. He was not wearing his false teeth.

Wasting no further energy on social pleasantries with unwanted visitors, Nasty returned to the arena of family strife. Harry wiped his glasses with a grubby handkerchief, doubling as it did for an old paintrag. A black and white dog with one eye missing sniffed around his heels. Harry motioned to kick it. Resisting the temptation to sink its teeth into Harry’s leg, the animal slunk off to explore the gutter. Harry wondered how long it would take it to find the remains of the dead cat.

Next door to Nasty’s, the heavy bass line of a reggae track pounded out. ‘A Babylonpolicyafolicy’ chanted a flat and mournful voice. The volume grew alarmingly as Harry approached. Through a haze of ganja smoke that had certain times of day seemed to envelop this particular stretch of the street, an assortment of brightly clothed and dreadlocked children bounced out of the house. The eldest was no more than seven. They formed a circle around Harry.

‘Money missa!,’ demanded the biggest boy, holding out his hand. They began to pummel Harry’s lower body with their fists, chanting in unison. A downstairs window opened and the space was taken up with a rainbow of colour, a mass of braids and locks as a large Jamaican woman appeared.

‘A oo dat a knock pon di door, Ras ‘im not ‘ome,’ she bawled, ‘im ain’t bin ‘ere since long-time so.’

‘Ras claat ‘im never ‘ome,’ mimicked Harry, missing the rhythm of the patois by a considerable margin.

‘Aint no mi fault mon. ‘Im not come round no mo’ mebbe. You wan’ buy ganja mon.’

Harry indicated that he didn’t.

Then goweh now you dam lagga head.’

Harry’s reply that he had come to collect the rent was swallowed up along with the reggae rhythms by the agitated roar of powerful motorcycle engines. The ‘Desperados’ were revving up their machines with some venom outside number 48. They were wearing full ‘colours’ They seemed to be off out for the day. Harry was cheered a little by this. It would mean he had one less call to make. Each time he had called at number 48, a different and progressively more menacing ruffian had answered the door. Harry could only guess at how many of them lived there but it seemed to be well into double figures and he had to admit he was terrified of each and every one, more so even than he was of Nasty. This was not the basis for a successful landlord-tenant relationship.

Harry glanced at his clipboard. This must have been instinctive for he needed no reminder that he had collected no rent on this particular morning. He turned over a few pages as if playing a game with himself to see who owed the most rent. If so, there was no doubt about the outcome of such a contest, for in the three years he had lived in Slumpton Terrace, Nolan Rocco had paid no rent at all. Nolan Rocco was the bane of his life. If Harry could find a way to get rid of Nolan Rocco he would be able to put up with all of life’s other disappointments.

The Tacklers’ had a new board nailed to their front window. Already it had been daubed with offensive comments. Roy Tackler had once been a footballer. Scoring four own goals in Slumpton United’s 4-3 defeat to Arsenal was the only time however that Roy made the headlines. Without his dubious contribution, Slumpton would have made the semi-finals in the cup for the only time in their 95 year history. What made matters worse for Roy was that the fact that his last two own goals had come in injury time. After 90 minutes his side had miraculously been leading 3-2, when Roy’s mistimed overhead kick surprised goalkeeper, Gareth Garry, and went in the top right hand corner of the net. This was reprised two minutes later by his backwards header into the top left hand corner. He was summarily dismissed by his club. After this, Roy gave up football. He tried his hand at a number of occupations, failing, sometimes dramatically to fulfil his potential in each one. He now lived here. Even his long-suffering wife, Deidre had left him, Harry had heard recently.

Harry reminded himself of Slumpton United’s brief glory days before the FA had closed the ground. Slumpton United had nearly been promoted to the Third Division. He prided himself that he could still name the entire first team. Slumpton was a place on the map then. There were three cinemas and a gymnasium, where you could learn to box. Slumpton had had a thriving Sunday morning market , one of the most prestigious in the city. The dog track that now was only of interest to those dumping toxic waste had once attracted thousands every Thursday and Saturday night. There was hope on the horizon then for residents of the borough of Slumpton. There were bingo halls – and pubs that still had a licence. And there were several Jewish tailors. Now, what was there? Prostitution, all night blues, boarded-up shops, the longest dole queue in the city. – And the likes of Nolan Rocco. But Nolan Rocco was another story.

A Police siren struck up from across the car park. It was still euphemistically thought of as a car park, although it had fallen into disuse and become a rubbish tip of some renown. Cars no longer parked in Slumpton. Taxis refused to take fares within several blocks, and even Police cars could not be left unattended. Harry had been around long enough to remember the days before the riots when Slumpton was ‘up and coming.’ It had not always been a no-go area.

Harry sidled down the street, examining the graffiti on the walls of the houses – and blocks of flats, these run by the Slumpton Squatters Estate Agency, Harry’s only serious rival in the area. Even graffiti was subject to declining standards, he reflected. What had become of the imaginative daubings of yesterday? – gems like ‘IS THAT A LADDER IN YOUR STOCKINGS OR THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN’ and ‘PLAIN CLOTHES DRUG DEALERS ARE WORKING IN THIS AREA’. Now, what graffiti there was was monochrome and unimaginative. It was all ‘SHARON SHAGS’ and ‘FUCK OFF HOME PAKIS’ And here was a new one ‘HARRY LUKER IS A FUCKING CHILDMOLESTER.’ It was all so personal. He reached number 52. Cats had attacked the black bags outside and their rubbish was strewn across the pavement. A rusty bin full of holes and minus lid stood beneath the window, its contents incinerated. Arson was one of the major pursuits now, Harry reflected – that and ram-raiding, except the latter was already in decline since there was nothing much left to ram-raid. Harry looked up. The guttering had detached itself from the upper part of the house and hung groundwards like a drainpipe. The drainpipe had long since gone and there was a slimy green stain all down the wall. There were few unbroken windows. The odd thing was that Tardelli did not seem to mind the squalor. While other tenants would tackle him periodically about repairs, Tardelli never did. He differed from his other tenants in every way. For one thing, insofar as Harry could judge, he was educated. What was it Tardelli had told him he did when he had met him in The Builders Shovel public house on the night the O’Niells were arrested? Write film scripts? Tardelli had charm and charisma, rare commodities in these parts. Why then did he choose to live in such a slum? And even sometimes pay rent – after all few others on the street seemed to bother with this nicety.

‘Tardelli,’ shouted Harry, for the front door such as it was was already open. ‘Tardelli,’ he shouted again as he peered inside into the gloom. In the hallway stood a huge dresser, which housed a collection of stone jars and old stained glass bottles. On the floor was a tall pile of yellowed newspapers and a couple of open holdalls that appeared to be full of dog-eared paperback books. The walls, where they were visible were painted a dark brown and one or two cheap Indian dhurries hung from them. A sour and musty odour hung on the air. It reminded Harry of his National Service days in Singapore. An inside door opened and the sound of an operatic tenor singing a Puccini aria floated through. Tardelli emerged from the shadows, a tall, lean, almost skeletal figure with dark Indian features and slicked-back hair, which even in the half-light was noticeably greying. His style of dress seemed to belong to a younger man. His blue jeans had reached the peak of their fade and were almost white and he wore a pink T-shirt with the logo ‘I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT’ emblazoned across the front. A red silk scarf was tied around his waist.

‘Harry,’ he beamed. ‘How nice. Come on in.’

Harry followed Tardelli along the hallway. He was of a broader physique by far than Tardelli. He edged himself carefully past the dresser and a pile of cardboard boxes full of assorted bric a brac. He ducked beneath the painted alligator skin and found himself in a room piled high with sundry lumber. The walls were decorated a la Jackson Pollock, although it could be argued without the artist’s flair. A black corduroy blind over the window kept daylight out with a vengeance and the room was lit by oil lamps. A large black paraffin stove heated the room – unsparingly. It probably heated the whole block. Harry’s eyes nervously explored their surroundings, as he tried to establish where he was, even who he was and what he had walked into. After all, he and Tardelli had in the past always conducted their business at the front door. The room that they were in was or probably had been the kitchen, but with so much disorder, it was difficult to tell. There were no pointers, like cooker, fridge or food. The room certainly fulfilled no culinary function. With a graceful gesture or at least without the use of his fist, Tardelli led Harry through to another room. This room too was dark but at least the walls had been painted red. On the floor a stone sink was filled with water with guppies swimming in it. The sink itself was painted luminous green. An abnormally large ginger cat was lapping up what appeared to be blood from an intricately sculptured bowl on a marble slab, balanced, precariously on a purple trestle table. Papers were scattered everywhere. A cuckoo clock was stopped at twelve o’clock.

‘To what do I owe this pleasure?’ Tardelli enquired, picking up a bag of carrots and handing one to Harry.

‘You seem to owe me some rent,’ said Harry, as he wondered what to do with the carrot.

‘It’s a carrot. You eat them,’ laughed Tardelli, for he could see that Harry had not come across such a vegetable in his travels.

‘Yes. A carrot.’ agreed Harry finally.

‘You seem tense Harry. Loosen up.’

‘You don’t have to collect rent in the Terrace on a Saturday,’ offered Harry by way of explanation.

‘And neither do you, Harry. You choose to. If it upsets you, don’t do it.’

‘That’s all very well’

‘Look! How do you think I manage to live round here? Do you think I’m completely insensitive to my environment? Do you think I don’t notice how bad things are?’

‘You seem not to.’

The tenor had given way to a soprano. The music was, Harry noticed, coming from an old radiogram in the corner of the room, underneath a large poster of Ayatollah Khomeini, holding a 50p piece aloft.

‘For the gas meter,’ explained Tardelli, for he could see that Harry was puzzled. ‘I’ll tell you my secret, Harry. I fantasise. I put my fantasies into writing you see. I create my own world. This way, dreams can come true. If you could, what would you have happen in your life right now.’

Harry considered the question for a moment. His fingers played almost instinctively with the papers on his clipboard. Taking the piss was one thing. A slum landlord had to be used to people taking the piss. But three years. And after all he, Harry had done for him. Not to mention the business with the O’Niells. If, if only – he would be able to put up with all of life’s other disappointments.

‘It can happen, Harry. Take my word. But perhaps you may not need to take my word. Now! About the rent. I can let you have some next week when my advance arrives. Is that OK?’

‘I suppose it will have to be. It’s the nearest I’ve come to a result today,’ Harry whimpered, pathos not absent.

‘Don’t be so negative, Harry. Loosen up. When you step out of here, you are the master of your own destiny. The author of your own script, Harry. If you believe in, in well in almost anything at all then something will happen……..You’ll see.’

With an air of despondency and a marked feeling that Tardelli too was taking the piss, Harry negotiated the obstacle course to the door and stepped outside.

A profound feeling of time disorientation hit him in the way it did after a lunchtime session at the Shovel. Perhaps Harry felt, more like the time he had been spiked with acid when he had collected rent from the Dohertys on the night Boozy Farrell was arrested. The street seemed to have altered somehow, it seemed less hostile. He thought he could hear birdsong. Surely a songbird could not have found its way to Slumpton. There were no trees. A brass band seemed to be playing, although it was rather a dull tune, with just the two notes.

Slowly as if he was coming to consciousness after a dream, Harry began to notice that a large crowd had gathered a distance down the street. Two police cars and an ambulance were parked. Outside Nolan Rocco’s in fact. Harry watched spellbound as a stretcher bearing the body was carried slowly out to the waiting ambulance. It couldn’t be …… could it?

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

 

 

Quicksand

quicksandnew

Quicksand by Chris Green

It is May 1967. I am fifteen years old. I am walking through Wellesley Park with my friends, Dezi, and Keith. I should be at school but I’m not. Dezi is two years older than me and should be at college but he’s not, and Keith has tagged along. I’m not sure where he’s supposed to be. The park is a cool place to hang out. We can do what we want. No-one bothers us, except occasionally Tom, the park-keeper, who tries to sell us pornography and tells us about his days in Cairo when he was doing his National Service. He has told us several times now the story about the woman and the donkey. Tom is old, he must be well into his thirties. My name is Mike, but for some reason, he calls me John.

Today, Dezi has brought his Roberts transistor radio and we are listening to Radio London, the best of the pirate radio stations. Radio London has an eight day UK exclusive of the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One by one they are trickling the tracks into their playlist. A couple of days ago Dezi and I heard A Day in the Life for the first time. Dezi had been unable to get any hash at the time and he had read that you could get high by smoking dried banana skins and we were in the front room of his parents’ house trying some. His parents had gone away and we had the radiogram on loud. We decided on the spot that A Day in the Life must be the greatest piece of music of all time. This had nothing whatsoever to do with the dried banana skins.

Dezi, Keith and I are updating one another with how far we’ve got with our respective girlfriends and waiting with anticipation for the DJ to play another track from the new album. I wonder if perhaps exaggeration is de rigeur for teenage boys sexual narrative, or is it that Judy is just too inhibited. I have not got past the outside of her lacy bra, but of course to save face I pretend otherwise. We talk about the film Blow Up, which we saw at the Colosseum last night.

‘What did it all mean?’ Keith asks.

‘There is no individual meaning,’ says Dezi. ‘Meaning can only be agreed socially and that’s why the film ended without closure. Because the David Hemmings character was on his own, we do not know in the end if the murder really took place.’

‘You mean because there was no one to corroborate what he saw?’ I suggest. ‘And the photos had disappeared.’

‘It’s existential,’ Dezi states, in summary. I can see by the expression on Keith’s face that he isn’t sure what it means either.

As we are walking up the hill past the zelkova tree towards the Pump Room, the opening notes of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds break through. It has not been announced, but we know instantly that it is The Beatles. It may seem a little sad but I have known the titles to all the tracks on Sergeant Pepper for about a month since they were announced in Record Mirror. I guess which one this is right away. Dezi turns the volume up. What is that instrument? Surely it is from another world. We are sitting on a commemorative bench now, hunched around the radio. The words to the song are incredible – like a dream – ‘cellophane flowers of yellow and green towering over your head.’ ‘rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies’,…’newspaper taxis’,…. ‘plasticine porters with looking glass ties’. What vivid imagery, I’m thinking, as this surrealistic masterpiece captures me. This is a moment of transcendence, and I have my whole life in front of me. Time is on my side. On Tomorrow’s World, they are saying that we will not have to work much in years to come. From hereonin, life will be easy. Technology will replace drudgery. In a few years, we will be able to travel on starships to Jupiter.

When I get home at 5’o clock, the house is swarming with police. There are police in uniform and police in cheap macs and trilby hats. It is like the set of Z Cars.

‘There’s been an accident, Mike’ one of them says. He has a grave look on his face.

‘Your parents stood no chance,’ says another.

‘The lorry driver’s name,’ the uniformed Sergeant tells me, injudiciously I can’t help feeling, ‘was Mark Lennon.’

My English teacher, Mr Percy, had been banging on all term about irony. Was this what the kind of thing to which he was referring? Or was it coincidence? All I can remember is him saying that it is important not to confuse the two.

I am at Ben and Holly’s wedding reception. Rachel, my girlfriend, left earlier in a huff. We have been together long enough for me to be used to our disagreements. It is late in the evening. Everyone is off their faces. The band has finished their set and the DJ with the Rod Stewart haircut is playing Bohemian Rhapsody over and over. It is Ben and Holly’s favourite song and seems to have been Number One for ever. Uncle Dutch bored as I am with Ben and his friends air guitar demonstrations, is telling me how he lost his leg.

‘I was working as a locations finder for Columbia Pictures. What a great job, you are thinking. How did a country boy like me get a job like that?’

I am thinking this very thing. My dad’s younger brother, Uncle Dutch and I had never been particularly close. I had last seen him in the late sixties. He ran a motorcycle courier business. Quite a new idea back then. I remember too that he used to ride horses. It would be hard for him to do this now.

‘I lived in a 1930s house in Beverley Hills,’ Dutch says, ‘with a fantastic view of the foothills of the Santa Monica mountains. The sun came through my window every morning. I could have freshly squeezed orange juice on the lawn with Laura and look out on to the palm tree canyon. A short drive to Topanga and Malibu and a short drive to the studio in Burbank. It was like paradise. I met all the stars, Burt Lancaster, Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood, Faye Dunaway, Barbara Streisand. You name them I met them. I had a season ticket for The Dodgers. I lived among the rich and famous. I went to the same shrink as Tony Curtis. You have to have a shrink in Beverley Hills, or everyone thinks you are mad. David Crosby and Mickey Dolenz were neighbours. I went to The Beach Boys barbecues in Bel Air and swam in Joni Mitchell’s pool. Life couldn’t have been better. And Laura looked more beautiful every day. ‘

He takes out his wallet and shows me a well-thumbed photo of Laura, She is a real stunner. She has long dark hair, and an hourglass figure with rounded breasts, thin waist, and voluptuous hips. She has a perfect California tan. She has beautiful brown eyes and her smile is like the sun coming up. He shows me another picture of the two of them at a Hollywood première. His eyes begin to mist over. He hands me the photo. I’m not sure what to say.

‘Is that Dustin Hoffman in the background?’ I ask.

Dutch doesn’t seem to hear me. He studies the original photo of Laura reflectively.

The hall seems to have suddenly become more claustrophobic. It is a chaos of empty bottles and fuddled friends and family. The DJ has put on Sailing. He is juggling the microphone like Rod does and encouraging people to sing along. It is painful to watch. Why do people hang around at these embarrassing gatherings once the business is over? I suggest to Uncle Dutch we go outside to smoke a joint. Despite the limitations of movement presented by his sticks, he seems to move remarkably well. After negotiating a maze of corridors and lobbies, we find ourselves in the hotel’s landscaped grounds. The recent snow sparkles under the floodlights. We pick out a discreet table and Dutch lights up.

‘I was driving around the Monterey, Big Sur area,’ Dutch continues, ‘looking for a spot to film some shots for a remake of Vertigo that the studio were planning. All I had to do was select a few vertiginous spots. Not that difficult on the Californian coast. The views from Highway 1 take your breath away. I had a 1971 Dodge Challenger. Bright red it was with a black stripe. They call them pony cars in California. God knows why. Anyway, it had a big six litre engine and handled more like a pig than a pony. Nothing sensible about it. That’s the way they like their cars out west. Anyway, I had put the thing in for a service the previous week but they had not checked the brakes.’

Dutch looks me in the eye and passes me the joint. I wonder if he wants me to put two and two together rather than continue with the story. He can see I am holding out for the story, and laughs.

‘Drove it over a cliff,’ he says. ‘I have this image in my head of a sound like the distant rumble of thunder and a line of Harley Davidsons coming the other way. There is a bend coming up. I must have tried to slow down to negotiate the bend, I guess. The Challenger goes straight ahead, through a clump of trees and down a ravine. I was trapped inside the car for three days before a Japanese hiker found me. They had to cut me out. The leg was severed off above the knee. I had lost pints of blood and was unconscious when they found me. I don’t know; I may have had a drink or two. I often stopped by at a little Hispanic bar in Salinas, but truth is I can’t remember.’

I am silent. I do know what to say.

‘To cut a long story short,’ says Dutch, ‘I was in the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital for months. Laura didn’t visit me once. The day before I got out, I found that she was divorcing me. She didn’t like the idea of living with Long John Silver. Life is quite simply before the accident and after the accident…. They didn’t film Vertigo in the end.’

I have split up with Rachel after six years. She moved her things out the week before last. I have let my friend, Iain, stay for a while. Iain got back from India a few days ago. He has been to Southern Asia many times, but the political situation is changing, and he says it is now much harder to travel around that part of the world. Chitral, Kashmir, and Nepal are now hostile areas, and he thinks the Shah of Iran may soon be deposed and word is going around that the Soviets might invade Afghanistan. The end of the hippie trail. It also looks as if the cowboy actor might become President, I point out. Dangerous times ahead, we agree.

By way of rent, Iain is helping to redecorate the flat. It is a spacious conversion, on three floors of a Regency building, if that is not a contradiction. We are painting the large front room burgundy and Venetian blue, picking out the pictures rails and the cornice. He says it will look theatrical, like a stage set. We have some modern art planned for the door panels, Piet Mondrian, maybe. Iain isn’t your stereotypical hippie. He wears a tweed jacket, listens to classical music and is a fan of ‘The Archers.’ You can pick it up on BBC World Service, he says. He tells me how he had to be near a set every day when Shula was stranded in Bangkok after her money was stolen, and how he hopes that the hapless Eddie Grundy’s turkey farm will take off. Eddie and Joe add some spark to the programme. I have no idea what he is talking about.

Iain has brought back some Nepalese temple balls and after three days of painting we are only halfway through the second wall. We are taking a break for a cup of Darjeeling Spring Flush tea. Apparently, Darjeeling tea reduces mental and physical stress and promotes a feeling of relaxation and well-being.

‘It’s to do with the amino acids,’ he says. ‘I’ve noticed that you seem on edge.’

‘Six years is a long time,’ I say. ‘It takes some adjustment. I miss Rachel’s perfume on the pillow, her books on the bookshelf, her notes around the house, her piles of clothes on the bedroom floor, the condiments and spices in the kitchen….and even the sound of the hoover on a Sunday morning.’

‘And the sex.’

‘Yes, the sex obviously.’

‘She wasn’t having an affair, was she?’

‘Not that I was aware of.’

‘And you aren’t having an affair.’

‘No. Why do you ask?’

‘Nothing. Just a thought. So the split was her decision.’

‘I suppose so.’

‘When people live together for a long time they are likely to gravitate towards stasis.’ says Iain. ‘How much of what you are feeling is down to not wanting change? ‘

‘I don’t know. Some of it, I suppose. I like to be able to pick up things where I left them.’

‘But change is the only certainty.’

‘But all the same….’

‘You wanted happy ever after,’ he says.

‘I just want to be happy,’ I say.

‘There is no happy ending,’ he laughs. ‘You only find happy endings in books. Happiness and sadness are like yin and yang. One chases the other in an never ending cosmic circle. Therefore, you must not put all your effort and energies into clinging to them. It is much better to detach yourself from these illusions and go with the flow.’

‘How do I do that? ‘

‘You will learn to. As Ibsen said, We sail with a corpse in the cargo.’

It is April 1986. I am curating an exhibition called Probably the Best Art Exhibition in the World, put together by my friend, Reuben Flood with the help of 2000 local schoolchildren. The name of the exhibition was Reuben’s idea, I was against it. I pointed out that Carlsberg had been using the slogan for fifteen years and perhaps it was a tad hackneyed. I suggested Artbeat and Plan It (Planet). Reuben, however, was adamant. Curating is perhaps a grand term for my part in proceedings. I work for a charity and the exhibition is in a large community hall that we have hired with the benefit of a huge grant from an environmental organisation. The theme for the work is the environment. It focusses loosely on Africa. The colourful exhibits are made from chicken wire, papier maché, cardboard and litres and litres of acrylic paint.

It is a beautiful spring day and, as Julia has gone to visit her family in the north, I have gone in early. It is the day before the opening and Reuben has been up all night putting the final touches to the exhibits. He is playing Highway 61 Revisited at staggering volume and jigging around with a flat bristle brush, a dab of paint here and a dab there. We are both of a generation that saw Highway 61 as a turning point. Played loud, It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry sounds incredible. I take a look around the hall and it is like being immersed in a rainbow. There is so much colour. Wherever you look the kaleidoscopic brilliance of this playground of youthful imagination animates your senses.

Reuben picks up a pot of bright green paint and I follow him into the tropical undergrowth. You can almost feel the humidity.

‘What’s the difference between rainforest and jungle?’ I ask. I feel it is something that I ought to know.

‘Rainforests have a thick canopy of tall trees. This means fewer plants at ground level. Trees block out much of the light needed by most plants, so you will usually only find shade loving ground plants in rainforest areas. Did you know that more than half of the world’s species of plants and animals are found in the rainforest,’ Reuben tells me. ‘It would be hard to do rainforest in this hall. Technically what you see here is jungle. Dense vegetation that grows around the rainforest or where the trees have been cut down. But that’s not the point. I’m not teaching the youngsters geography. It’s the bigger picture I’m interested in.’

Apart from the jungle, there is also a township with brightly painted shacks, a savannah plain, and even a river. There are lions and tigers and zebras and leopards and flamingos and ibises and a family of elephants. The elephants are colossal. Brightly coloured flags of African nations hang from the ceiling.

‘What a display!’ I say. ‘It’s fantastic. You’re a genius.’

‘Rubbish,’ says Reuben. ‘Only a select few artists are geniuses. The rest of us just work very hard. I work all the time. Even when I’m not working, I’m working. You need three things to be an artist, the eye, the hand and the heart. Two won’t do. The heart is the most important.’

The hall is very large and Reuben goes off to a back room to get some paste to stick a yellow and black python to a coconut palm. I take a walk through the lush jungle and explore the townships, cross the river, and greet the pygmy drummers. The attention to detail is extraordinary. I find myself regretting not having developed my own artistic talent. Everything had gone well until Mr Ford had ridiculed my attempt at an abstract landscape in the Lower Fifth form. I had done practically nothing since.

‘I wish everyone could see this exhibition,’ I say when Reuben returns. ‘Art from the heart as you put it.’

Throughout the morning, a number of corpulent local councillors and earnest looking environmental representatives visit. They all bestow their approval. At lunchtime, the news comes in that my sister, Sarah, an activist on the Protect Wildlife in Africa campaign, has been tragically mown down in Namibia by a rampaging elephant. She had died instantly. An elephant ‘in musth’, the report says will charge anything that crosses its path. The condition, triggered by massively increased levels of testosterone, is a major problem in these parts of Africa.

‘Is that for me?’ says Joi, her gaze taking in the bulge in my jeans.
She has just come through the door and is putting her travelling bag down. Joi and I have been seeing each other for about three months. She has been away for a few days, and I have missed her. She is tanned and her dark hair is hanging loose around her shoulders. 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. I have Miles Davis’ Tutu playing. I pretty much only listen to jazz now. I find pop and rock in the mid-nineties so unsubtle.

Joi leads me off to the bedroom. She has a wicked smile. She slips her skirt off slowly to the sound of Miles’ muted trumpet. She is wearing sheer black tanga panties. She guides my hand towards her favourite spot. It is warm and wet. I kiss her urgently and pull her down onto the bed, where frenzied passion takes over.

‘What was that all about?’ she says afterwards. My unrestrained ardour seems to have taken her by surprise.

‘I wanted you badly,’ I say.

‘I must go away more often,’ she laughs.

‘I think I’d rather you didn’t.’

‘I’d rather I didn’t too. Perhaps I should move in. We’re good together, aren’t we?’

I hesitate before I answer what was probably not a question anyway. I give her a warm post-coital hug to give myself time to consider my words. I feel like a million dollars but at the same time a creeping melancholy. When things are this good, I begin to worry that my credit at the Metaphorical Bank of Serendipity might be running out and somehow will be paid for with something infortuitous. My experience suggests that epiphanies have the tendency to foreshadow calamity. I am also unaccustomed to sharing my deepest secret fears. It is dangerous to let down your guard. I want what I say to come out right.

‘Sometimes when everything is going well,’ I say. ‘I have this sense of foreboding that something bad is about to happen. That something is going to be taken away.’

‘You mean like Happiness, that state you dare not enter with hopes of staying, quicksand in the marshes and all.’

‘Certainly the quicksand in the marshes part. That’s very good. Where’s does it come from?’

‘It’s the opening of a poem. Stephen Dunn.’

‘The thing is, I’m usually right, which scares me a little.’

I relate to her the occasion that I had climbed the North Face of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK with my fellow climber, Roy Tavistock. Roy had been my instructor at the Everest Climbing Club in the Brecon Beacons.

‘I was a comparative novice and I had never attempted anything so daring before. I had never been particularly good at physical sports, so for me the climb was a supreme accomplishment. Roy congratulated me. Its Grade he explained was ‘Difficult’. There had he said been a number of fatalities over the years. We stayed on the plateau at the summit for a bit, taking it all in, the wind whistling around us. I felt literally on top of the world. By world standards, Ben Nevis may not be the highest, but it was to me. I understood how Sir Edmund Hillary must have felt. Late in the afternoon, we began our descent. Roy warned me this would be more difficult than the ascent and would need concentration. About halfway down I was struck by a flying crampon. I was concussed and had to be rescued by air ambulance. I was in hospital for over a week.’

‘Dramatic stuff,’ says Joi. ‘So, my hero, what is it that you think it is that is going to happen?’

‘That’s the trouble. You never know. If you knew then you would be able to prepare for it.’

‘They say that every action has an opposite and equal reaction, you can’t have night without day,’ Joi says, sounding like she had just been on a Buddhist workshop.

‘Or day without night,’ I say. ‘It’s the day part that is the problem because you know that it must be followed my night.’

‘And then day again. Look! Why can’t you view it another way, crisis contains the opportunity for growth and bad luck becomes good luck. Adversity spawns creativity. But we’re not talking about adversity. I don’t see much adversity.’

I think about what Joi has said. I’m sure she has a valid point, but she is looking at the thing the wrong way round, so in a sense, she is missing the point I am trying to make.

‘My analogy is that if you have had a run of six green lights, then you are unlikely to get a seventh’, I say. ‘Each green light increases the chances that the next one will be red.’

‘Don’t you think that is a little negative,’ she says, sitting up and folding her arms over her breasts in a defensive gesture. ‘Every red light could be seen as positive because the chances of a green light next time increase.’

‘How does that help when you get the feeling that things are going too well?’

I seem to have dug myself into a hole. The conversation ends there. Joi gets dressed. She says she is going out for some air. She doesn’t return. She doesn’t come round again. Life it seems is a series of losses

Maya is awake now. She has been asleep for most of the flight.

‘Funny how some situations bring unrelated memories flooding back,’ I say to her. ‘With me, it’s air travel.’

‘You mean involuntary memory. Like Proust’s madeleine,’ she says.

I give her a disapproving look because I feel she should know I have not read Proust.

‘In the last volume of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust describes how he was eating a madeleine that he had dipped in tea when a series of memories from his past came flooding back to him,’ she says. ‘He felt those things you remember involuntarily contain the essence of the past.’

‘I guess that’s it,’ I say hoping that it isn’t the case as each of my wayward reminiscences has been an episode that turned out badly.

It is September 2001. Maya and I are flying to New York to celebrate my fiftieth birthday, which is on the eleventh. We are on a Boeing 747 flying at 35,000 feet. We are over the tip of Greenland. This seems a little off course to me, so I take the opportunity to ask a stewardess.

‘Transatlantic flights go this way because it is quicker. It is known as a Great Circle route,’ she says, knowledgeably. She explains that this is the shortest distance between two points on a sphere and that westbound flights tend to run more northerly due to the prevailing westerlies. I am more confused than I was.

We are going to stay in Lower Manhattan. Maya knows New York quite well and for my birthday she is going to take me to breakfast at Wild Blue in the Windows of The World Restaurant, which is on the 107th floor of the World Trade Centre. Through the full-length windows, Maya tells me, you get unrivalled views of the southern tip of Manhattan, where the Hudson and East Rivers meet. The weather forecast is good.

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

 

 

A Short History of Colour

shorthistoryofcolour

A Short History of Colour by Chris Green

When I was growing up, life was grey. It was not just that the suburban landscape was dull, or that life on the Bleak View estate was mundane; life in those days actually was lived in black and white. The history that I was taught at school was about grey kings and queens, wars were fought on grey battlefields, and nations were black and white with grey flags. There was not even a word for colour My home town was grey, the street I lived in was grey and Greystone Grammar School for Boys which I went to was grey. The sky was grey, clouds were grey, even rainbows were grey.

I was twelve when I went with my elder brother, Frank, to see The Beatles play at the local Gaumont. It was November1963. The world was coming to terms with the assassination of John Kennedy by a grey bullet in his grey head fired by a grey marksman with a grey rifle. Not that I was particularly interested in politics. I liked pop music. I had never been to a live concert before and had been looking forward to it for weeks.

The black curtain opened and white spotlights flooded the stage. Four figures familiar from photos ran on and the audience leapt up and let out a tumultuous scream, which comprehensively drowned out the opening bars of From Me to You. The Beatles were dressed in black suits over white shirts. The first sign of what would become known as colour came from John’s non-grey Rickenbacker guitar. This was what would later be called red. Paul’s Hohner bass guitar was also not grey, but what would later be called brown. Small signs maybe, but when you have spent your entire life in monochrome, quite a revelation.

On the way home from the cinema, a Hillman Minx with a green stripe along its body passed by amongst the black cars, on the street. We were spooked. We exchanged expletives and assumed a faster pace.

What the hell is going on?’ Frank said, as a blue tinged bus passed us. Frank had paled visibly. The grey had drained from his face.

Don’t know. It’s a bit scary, but in a way it’s cool,’ I replied, strangely excited.

We moved on down Stevenson Street past the Kitchener Lamp and the War Memorial. Arcs of ghostly white light from the streetlamps pierced the grey relief as our eyes searched for further invasions of colour. We passed the Milk Bar. I thought I detected a trace of non-grey in the sign in the window advertising milkshakes. And the mannequins in the window display in Burtons’ seemed to have an unfamiliar hue. The hot dogs and ketchup from the hot dog van at the end of Straight Street were however still reassuringly grey. Or, I began to feel, as we moved along past the statue of Queen Victoria, savouring the onion tang, disappointingly grey.

When I mentioned the instances of colour to Pete, Pete, Dave, Dave, and John at school the next day, they laughed at me and thought that I was nuts.

‘Next, you’ll be telling us that the school bus isn’t grey,’ said Pete.

‘Or that the Black and White Minstrels aren’t black and white,’ laughed the other Pete.

I was crestfallen. No boy of twelve wants to be ridiculed. Or outcast. I had wanted them to share my excitement. Surely I could not be the only one tuned in to the chromatic awakening.

At lunchtime, I sought Frank out, but he seemed to be in denial. Perhaps he had mentioned the manifestations of colour to Geoff, or Jeff, or Bill and Will, or Billy even, and had had encountered similar derision. Whatever the reason, he made it clear he wanted no part in it. It felt like I was alone in a foreign land.

Over the weeks that followed, I encountered further discrete glimpses of the strange phenomenon. The traffic lights at the corner of Dark Road and Gloomy Place beamed red, orange and blue (or non-grey, non-grey, non-grey at the time, given the absence of a taxonomy of colour). The Belisha beacon opposite the ironmongers in Quiet Street flashed a bold new colour, and at night the streetlights down by the railway cutting gave off a phosphorescent glow. A red telephone box appeared outside the railway station, a blue milk vending machine outside Pitts’ Newsagents and a red and cream barbers’ pole outside Reg Oldman Gents’ Hairdressers.

One evening I mentioned my sightings to my father who as usual had his head buried in a grey Edgar Wallace thriller, but it seemed that he had not noticed any change.

‘You’re not on drugs are you?’ he asked, looking up briefly. He had read an article by Bernard Swelter in the Daily Mail about Indian hemp, or marijuana as it was sometimes called. Bernard described the devastating effect the drug had one’s perception and the dangers its use by the youth of today posed for society in Britain.

My mother did not seem to see anything non-grey about the oranges in the fruit bowl when I pointed them out, suggested I stopped reading so many comics and carried on reading her Woman’s Weekly. It was not that my parents still saw everything in black and white, so much as their dismissive attitude to my concerns that hurt me. They might have shown some interest in what I was trying to say to them. I made a decision there and then to do badly in my exams. That would teach them.

Although my memory is a little hazy, I recall an item on the news one night about a scientist from New Zealand, or perhaps it was Newfoundland, making the discovery of colour. The report was delivered with very little emphasis or ceremony, in much the same way as the observation of a new but small moon orbiting Pluto might be today, but it did come up with some new words to describe the phenomenon. This is more or less the taxonomy we use to identify colours today.

I noticed that sometimes during the summer months the sky took on a blue colour, with a pinky hue in the west towards sunset. One or two coloured flowers popped up around the garden and the lawn was flecked with green. Some of the bottles of Corona in the confectioners on the corner were coloured, the limeade, green and the cherryade, pinky-red. The sign outside The Brass Monkey public house appeared red and brown and the newsagents’s stall in the railway station had a poster with red letters advertising Titbits. Mostly though things from day to day were still grey.

Television back then was of course black and white. Even John Lennon’s red Rickenbacker was grey on television. And when Liverpool played Everton in the FA Cup, both teams had grey shirts. You could only distinguish the referee because he seemed to be the one nobody passed the ball to.

In January 1965, Winston Churchill died, aged 91, and millions of people including my parents watched his grey funeral on TV.

You can scoff,’ said my father, ‘but if it weren’t for Winston you would be speaking German.’

I judged there was little to be gained by pointing out that I did speak German, albeit badly, and French, and Latin. Or that the tune to the Greystone Grammar School Song bore a striking resemblance to that of Deutschland Uber Alles.

One night while Frank and I were lying in our beds listening to the whistles and hisses of late night Radio Luxemburg on our Philips transistor radio, Frank confided that he had seen an arc of multicoloured light in the sky which he had read was caused by the refraction of the sun’s rays by rain. You could tell that he was in the ‘A’ stream.

What are you on about?’ I replied. I was in the ‘B’ stream following bad end of term results. To me, it would have just been a rainbow.

His revelations continued.

Also, Jeff told me he’s been to a gallery and seen an exhibition of brilliant coloured paintings by an artist called David Hockney. They’re on public display. We could go and see them.’ I was tempted to say groovy, but resisted.

The transformation from monochrome to colour was a very gradual one. One or two items might stand out in an otherwise grey landscape. The next time you passed the same items might be grey again, but other items might display a different colour. You may have seen the commercials or football trailers today where all colours on the film print but one (usually red) are reduced to greyscale. This might give you some idea of how glimpses of colour appeared back then.

Yellow is the colour of my true love’s hair,’ sang Donovan, in a hit song at the time.

In the morning,’ he added. He seemed to be describing the inconsistency. His true love’s hair was probably grey the rest of the day.

In the summer of 1965, Frank and I discovered a shop in Prospect Street that sold coloured clothes. Imagine, the Levi’s were not grey, they were blue.

We sorted excitedly through the sartorial cornucopia and came home dressed in our blue Levi’s and brightly coloured sweatshirts. Not that our parents noticed anything different in our appearance. Dad’s evening paper remained aloft and mum merely reprimanded us for being late for tea.

Maybe only people under a certain age, say thirty, could see colour,’ I thought. Perhaps that was why The Who sang, ‘hope I die before I get old,’ in My Generation which was climbing up the charts. I bought the LP, which I believe boasted the first-ever coloured album cover. On the group cover photo, bass guitarist, John Entwistle wore a red white and blue diagonal checked jacket. The cover was withdrawn hastily and replaced by a grey one, no reasons given by the record company, Brunswick, but Entwistle’s design later would become familiar to everyone as the Union Jack.

Dave and Dave Too went on a trip to London and came back with excited stories of models wearing multicoloured miniskirts on Kensington High Street, boutiques in Carnaby Street selling satin shirts in rainbow patterns, and flashing neon signs in Leicester Square and Marble Arch. Pete and Pete went on holiday with their parents to Cornwall and came back with animated tales of surfers with brilliantly coloured boards and bodysuits. And golden sands with red, yellow and blue deckchairs. When I challenged them about their earlier scepticism, they laughed it off.

You’re just jealous,’ said Pete.

Because you’re life is so dull,’ said Other Pete.

They were right. I did not have the same opportunities as Pete or Other Pete. The day trips on grey buses to towns of historical interest or to museums, or visits to ageing relatives were not by any means stimulating. I resolved to do even worse in my exams to spite my parents.

Every month new colours were reported, Prussian blue, vermillion, old gold and purple. You could now buy coloured paint sets with a huge variety of colours and grey paint sets began to be phased out. The new prismatic kaleidoscope sounded the death knell for the black and white kaleidoscope, which had amused children for decades. Some cinemas even began to show films in technicolour. The Pink Panther and Goldfinger are two that spring to mind.

I began going to Bleak View Youth Club with Pete and New Pete, or Dave, Dave and Mike. The youth club had the regulation grey coffee bar of course (serving grey coffee), a grey snooker table (with grey balls), and a black and white pinball machine. The dazzling new outfits that Sue, Suzy, Susan, Lin and Linda wore on Friday nights when the club held a disco did, however, offer plenty of colour. Sue, Suzy, Susan, Lin and Linda danced to Tamla Motown chart songs under red, gold and green flashing lights. This was the most concentrated display of colour that I had ever seen, and looking back I fear I may have flung myself about embarrassingly to the music of The Supremes and The Four Tops in an attempt to be part of the action.

Radio Caroline and Radio London began playing songs by Cream and Pink Floyd. The Beatles brought out a song called Strawberry Fields and Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze. A group called the Lemon Pipers had a hit with Green Tambourine and Donovan showed he was still on the case with Mellow Yellow. Even The Rolling Stones who had earlier wanted to Paint It Black caught on and brought out Ruby Tuesday.

Psychedelia took colour on a roller coaster ride. Suddenly everything around you sparkled with vivid radiant colours, mesmerising patterns and fantastic swirls. Things such as coal, the very essence of blackness, might now be turquoise or tangerine, coral or amber. Colours shifted and undulated, changing constantly. Surfaces appeared to ripple or breathe. An object that you were focussing on might go through the whole spectrum of colours before your very eyes. It was a frightening time for many, especially the elderly who might have had seventy or eighty years of achromatic life.

The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band encapsulated colour in musical form. It was really cool that EMI chose to release the album on June 1st, 1967, my sixteenth birthday. It was timely too that, my parents were away for a long weekend having won a Daily Mail competition to see the D-day landing sites, and convenient that Frank was away on a Duke of Edinburgh’s expedition in Snowdonia.

Sergeant Pepper was described by an eminent playwright of the time as ‘a decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation.’

Just think how good life is going to be,’ I said to Jenny, as we lay under my green, purple, yellow and pink paisley quilt having just enjoyed our own historical moment.

Jenny and I played the album over and over again, oh boy, on my new stereo record player. That weekend we read the news, saw a film, woke up, got out of bed and read the news again, oh boy.

After the psychedelic years, which completely saw off the grey world of yesteryear, colours settled down to create a more or less regular palette. Television was now broadcast in colour and programme producers made the most of this. Presenters were obliged to wear yellow and pink jackets even for weather reports. Colours were solid and stable and reliably identifiable; red was red and blue was blue. There was no longer a mix up when Liverpool played Everton. Ford cars came in colours like Daytona yellow, radiant red and mistral blue. The British Standard Institution (BSI) colour standards were established. Paint colour cards became available in DIY shops. In the 1970s, colour became a precise science.

Had color in fact by its universality and precision become the new grey.

The filmmaker, Woody Allen, seemed to anticipate that something peculiar was about to happen when in 1979 he chose to make Manhattan, in black and white. No films had been made in black and white since the advent of colour. Martin Scorcese brought out the acclaimed black and white Raging Bull a few months later, along with David Lynch who filmed The Elephant Man in black and white. The Police, one of the biggest bands in the world at the time, began to film all their pop videos in monochrome. We Fade to Grey sang the New Romantic band, Visage, which became a big dance hall hit. I began to notice that objects became ever so slightly tinged with grey, and colours on the television began to flicker from colour to greyscale. Sometimes when I drove home, the streetlights along Kubrick Way shone a ghostly grey and some of the red-bricked houses on Issigonis Street appeared grey-bricked. The Conran Shopping Centre, which had been seen as the quintessence of colour, suddenly seemed a shadow of its former self. And once again the referee was difficult to spot when Liverpool played Everton.

The encroaching monochrome seemed to correlate with the upheaval in my private life. I had fallen out big time with Frank over the money I owed him and I was in the middle of an acrimonious divorce from Mandy (Jenny’s sister) and was having problems over access arrangements to see our three daughters Magenta, Jade and Amber. My solicitor, Mr Shed of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed, might be described as a half empty solicitor. He was not optimistic about my chances of securing favourable access while I lived in a bedsit in Ostler’s Yard. I suggested to Mr Shed that it was better than being homeless, which I probably would be if I had to continue to come up with the huge mortgage repayments on the family home in Diamond Drive. I had not spoken to Frank (now a successful chartered accountant) since he had slept with Mandy, so I could not even go to stay with him. Mr Shed then pointed out that the recent arrest for ‘possession of a Class A drug with intent to supply’ might not guarantee sympathy with the courts. I didn’t need to be reminded. As if this was not enough I owed my dealer, Razor, several hundred pounds. Things did not go better with coke. I was also in danger of losing his job as a sales representative for Spectrum Kaleidoscopes, as I had recently been charged with drink-driving. Had I sorted out my alcohol problems, Mr Shed asked?

Wait a minute,’ I thought. ‘Isn’t he supposed to be on my side?’

To add to this somewhat hopeless prognosis, when Mr Shed found out that Mandy’s solicitor was Mr Gunn of Cleese, Cleese and Formby, he became distinctly agitated.

We don’t stand a chance. Mr Gunn is the best divorce solicitor in the county. His performances are legendary,’ whimpered Mr Shed.

Following each visit to Mr Shed, I sunk further into the depths of despair.

Each time I went to see him, his office appeared greyer. Even the David Hockney prints which he had on the walls appeared drab. I asked him if he had noticed that the colour was draining out of his office.

Now you come to mention it, it does seem to become a bit greyer each time you come along to an appointment,’ Mr Shed replied.

In November 1980, the actor Ronald Reagan, veteran of a host of black and white films was elected President of the United States. Margaret Thatcher, with a black and white aspect and a grey agenda, was a year into her first term as Prime Minister. Between them they seemed determined to reverse all of the vibrant development of the previous twenty years, if not reduce the world to black ash. Was the reactionary political swing a sign of the bigger picture, or was the reappearance of grey symptomatic of peoples’ disenchantment with emancipation and self-expression? Was George Orwell in fact right? Was freedom slavery? Deep down was the world now rejecting colour? Were the physical demands of colour too much for nature to support? Perhaps it was a combination of these. Or maybe it was all in my head. Hallucinations, after all, can be a response to excessive mental stress.

It was December and for several days familiar features like panda cars, post boxes and pub signs had flickered from colour to grey, as if colour was dependent on one enormous light bulb and the bulb was on its way out. My red Cortina lacked its usual sparkle, but then it had been parked out in Ostler’s Yard through the gloomy autumn. I was on my way to an exhibition celebrating Twenty Years of Colour at the Royal Academy. Kaleidoscopes were one of the features of the exhibition and I had been invited to attend. Unable to sleep, I had started out early, driving through the night listening to Abbey Road to remind me of youthful innocence and better times.

I did not read too much significance into the mug of grey coffee at Watford Gap; they probably always served grey coffee. Or the black cabs that kept passing me as I approached Brent Cross; cabs had always been black, although it seemed that many of the other cars on the North Circular were black too, like a funeral cortege.

It was 7.30 in the morning as I walked around Piccadilly Circus. It was not quite dawn and the statue of Eros was still bathed in green light. Christmas lights, red, green, purple and gold were everywhere, although some of them here and there seemed to be flashing grey. I did not feel like celebrating Christmas at the best of times. This year, devoid of family, I wanted no part in Christmas. Jingle tills, jingle tills. Goodwill? Some hope! With my personal life in deep crisis, and the impending divorce and the forthcoming court case, I felt that things could not get any worse. It is always dangerous to think this way. I looked up at the circling neon display and ‘read the news today’ Oh Boy!’ Huge red capital letters announced BEATLE SHOT IN NEW YORK. It took a few moments to take this in. Which Beatle? Why? I had been listening to their music not half an hour ago. Suddenly all the Christmas displays and everything around me changed to black and white. The circling text changed and now in grey read JOHN LENNON SHOT DEAD IN NEW YORK.

The 1980s were lived out almost entirely in black and white as the world lived with the fear of nuclear annihilation. Music and cinema were effectively outlawed and television showed endless repeats of seventies sitcoms (in black and white), cold war dramas, and post-apocalyptic documentaries. All the time I was in rehabilitation, and the years afterwards when I lived on the Rank Ditch council estate, life was grey. The flats were grey, the pubs were grey, the indiscriminate masses that populated the estate were grey, and the burned out cars on the waste ground behind the derelict garage were grey. The schools were grey, the graffiti was grey, the cellophane factory was grey, and the broken shutters on the neighbourhood charity shop were grey. The sky was grey, the sports field was grey, and the cannabis plants in the allotments at the back of the council offices were grey. The Asian stores were grey, the mosques were grey, and the hooded muggers who roamed the covered walkways were grey.

Towards the end of the decade occasional hints of colour began to appear, a roundabout in a children’s playground, a floral display in the civic gardens, the amber letters above Sainsbury’s supermarket. The new examples of colour were hesitant, discreet, almost apologetic. They did not have the promise or the conviction that colours had in the 1960s. Vauxhall tentatively brought out a new range of the Astra in midnight blue, dark blue, beige and brown. Dulux came up with a choice of pastel colours, which were effectively shades of off white. Cinema Paradiso and Wings of Desire, both shot in a mix of black and white and colour, were screened at the cinema. Colour became a little bolder in the spring of 1989. The New Labour rose on the billboards, a Happy Mondays t-shirt, a new age travellers’ bus in a lay-by; little signs were everywhere. B & Q reintroduced colour charts, and you could if you searched around buy glossy magazines. Liverpool playing in their red strip beat Everton in their blue shirts in the FA Cup Final in a thrilling encounter, which saw other clubs bringing in team colours. The London Underground map was once again displayed in colour, and the Tate Gallery reopened. By the time the Berlin Wall came down in November, television was being transmitted in colour and I was able to watch the celebrations with my new friend, Scarlett.

Since 1989 colour has been in the ascendant.

However in the last year or two, there do seem to be strong hints that grey might be returning. It has not been acknowledged in any formal way but in small but subtle ways, colour is disappearing. Electrical goods, phones and computers for instance are now only manufactured in black, grey or white. Black Keys and The White Stripes are the best selling bands. While car manufacturers classify the shades of their new models as steel blue, silver frost or desert mist, new cars in the showroom are all basically grey. Grey installations have almost eliminated paintings in the art world and colossal grey edifices have been springing up in capital cities to create dark silhouettes on skylines. Recently for weeks on end through the summer months, the sky has been covered by a thick blanket of grey cloud. If I run a search on google for green, it comes back with ‘did you mean greed?’ A story in one of the papers a week or so ago suggested that the Cameron government is planning to put a bill before parliament in the next session which will outlaw colour completely. I don’t believe everything I read in the papers, but the way things are going, you never know.

I spoke to Frank last week for the first time in nearly thirty years. We seemed to be able to bury our differences so I suggested we meet up for lunch, at The Yellow River Café maybe. ‘I don’t like Chinese food,’ he said. ‘What about the Black Horse?’

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

 

2015 – An Odd Space Essay

2015anoddspaceessay2

2015 – An Odd Space Essay by Chris Green

I will be 119 next birthday. In my lifetime, I have seen the birth of the motor car, the aeroplane, radio and television, domestic power, antibiotics, the gramophone record and sliced bread. Let us not forget the vacuum cleaner, the ballpoint pen, the electric guitar, the microwave oven and the atomic bomb. I have seen the acceptance of Darwinism, the rise of secularism, the collapse of Empire and the provision of the welfare state. Oil and petrochemicals have become crucial resources to human civilisation and transformed the balance of power the world over. Oil, of course, is running out. The peak of oil discoveries was in 1965, and oil production per year has surpassed oil discoveries every year since 1980. One day soon we are going to have a lot of disappointed people. Should we perhaps feel a little guilt about our perfunctory waste and our accumulation of air miles?

When I was born, Queen Victoria was on the throne, most families did not have a bathroom, there was horse-muck on the streets, and in cities, gas street-lights cut through the ubiquitous smog. In the countryside though you could walk for miles in awe of the bucolic splendour. I have seen the landscape change out of all recognition with the green and pleasant land losing out to electricity pylons, motorways, and suburban sprawl. Communication in all forms has been revolutionised. When I was born we had the penny post and the Daily Mail. Now twenty-four hour television, mobile phones, and wi-fi are all things we take for granted. The population of the UK back then was around 29 million. Today it is 64 million. People are living longer. I feel I am not helping.

In life, things change gradually. Except in the case of monumental events, like an epiphany or a catastrophe, you are not aware of it. The changes are so subtle that you do not notice from moment to moment, day to day. Age creeps up on you with clandestine stealth, as months, years and decades slide inexorably by. You can perhaps only measure change through a succession of befores and afters. Even then, time acts as an unreliable witness, leaving you unsure of precise chronology. But this could be something particular to my circumstances; I have lived rather a long time. I have been married four times, to Ruth, Natalie, Marielle and Sakura. For the record, I have to my knowledge twenty two great-great-grandchildren and twenty eight great-great-great-grandchildren, and, no, I cannot remember all of their names.

Music means literally ‘art of the muses’. It goes back a long way. Ancient Greek philosophers understood the healing effects that music has on the body and soul. Rhythm and harmony represent a universal language; rhythm the heartbeat, the voice the song. Music has been my inspiration. Through my vocation as a composer and musical coach of some regard, I have had the great fortune to meet many of the people who saw through some of the historic changes over the last hundred years or so.

Not many people know that David Lloyd George was a keen saxophonist. This does not appear in any of the numerous biographies of this most idiosyncratic of British Prime Ministers. The biographers concentrate disproportionately on his political career, with a nod here and there to his Welshness (English was his second language). Not a mention of his musical interests. It was, in fact, I who taught the Welsh Wizard the saxophone, which was at the time a marginal instrument even in jazz orchestras. Lloyd George possessed a natural ability, and could have easily mastered the clarinet, but with maverick zeal, he was determined that he preferred the saxophone. He saw himself as a trailblazer. He bought one of the first Selmer Modele 22, saxophones to come to the UK, and guested in jazz ensembles which, although there are no records of this, played at dance halls in the Manchester area.

‘Why did we have to fight the war?’ I asked him one day. I had spent a majority of WW1 in Italy with a military band, fortunately well south of the front.

‘I will tell you why,’ he said. ‘Because Germany expected to find a lamb and found a lion.’

‘No question of sitting around the table and discussing things first then?’ I asked.

‘ Diplomats were invented simply to waste time,’ was his response.

This did not seem like a Liberal view, but I let it go.

Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi never really mastered the blues harmonica, but on a visit to London in 1931, he came to me for some tuition. Musicians at the time had started experimenting with new techniques such as tongue-blocking, hand effects and the most important innovation of all, the second position, or cross-harp. Mohandas felt the harmonica was an instrument associated with the poor, and being able to play it to the starving masses back home would lend support to his great mission.

‘History would turn out for the better if our leaders learned that most disputes can be resolved by a willingness to understand the issues of our opponents and by using diplomacy and compassion,’ Mohandas said to me.

‘It is a shame that history has the habit of repeating itself,’ I said.

Mohandas thought this a negative view to take and was optimistic that a new type of common sense would eventually emerge if you kept plugging away.

‘We must become the change we want to see,’ he said.

Mahatma’s teachings were something that stayed with me through the years of conflict that lay ahead. He was only four foot nine but he was a huge and inspirational man. I can still picture him, sitting in the lotus position, his bony fingers clenching his Hohner, blowing for all he was worth. I would have loved him to have been able to play Hoochie Coochie Man properly on the harp, but sadly he had to leave to catch his boat back to India for an important fast.

The 1930s are associated with the Depression, but I look back on the decade as a happy time. I married my first wife, Ruth, and my first two children, Darius and Conchita, were growing up. I enjoyed a modicum of success with my work, completing an octet and a jazz concerto. We moved to Pimlico, which then was up and coming. It was a great shame to see the clouds of war gathering at such a positive time, but politicians the world over are a stubborn breed.

World War 2 may never have happened if Churchill has been better at playing the piano. Although he showed some initial promise when he came to me and I took him through a few easy pieces, some early Mozart sonatas and the like, his interpretations of Chopin, however, were clumsy and heavy handed. Winston had what are sometimes referred to as butcher’s fingers, not suited to deliver the delicate passages of the Preludes and Nocturnes. He seemed also to display a disdain for the instrument in the fortissimo passages. On the occasions, I tried to explain this to him he usually stormed off in a huff. He did not take criticism well. His famous Hush over Europe speech in August 1938 came right after I told him that he played Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with all the subtlety of a tank commander. He growled something unintelligible at me, finished his Remy Martin and went straight off to the House of Commons. Had he been able to control these rages, he may have backed off a little on his warmongering. While we may now all be speaking German, Winston may have gracefully embraced retirement with his Steinway and his watercolours.

‘How did you come into music?’ Orson Welles asked me once when he was driving me home after his zither lesson. ‘Do your family have a musical tradition?’ The year was 1948. Alfred Hitchcock had put Orson on to me. I had taught Hitchcock to play the theremin. To be honest, Hitchcock did not really want to learn but thought he might be able to use the unusual instrument in one of his films. Orson, on the other hand, became a bit of a virtuoso on the zither. I heard a rumour that it may even have been Orson and not Anton Karas who played the soundtrack music for The Third Man, which went on to me one of the most successful films of all time.

I did not often talk about my background. It was not that I was particularly ashamed of my humble beginnings, but somehow I felt it destroyed the mystique. I tried to dodge the question by talking instead about my early musical influences, but Orson had a persuasive way about him.

‘Are you going to answer my question, god-dammit,’ he said.

‘I come from a railway family,’ I told him. ‘Both my father and my grandfather worked on the railways. I came into music entirely by accident. I started playing when I was three on a penny whistle that was left in a railway carriage. It had probably belonged to a travelling navvy. I’m entirely self-taught.’

I explained that I quickly found out I was able to play any musical instrument I picked up. It was like opening a box of chocolates and finding all soft centres. I had what my music teacher at Frank Portrait Infants’ School, Miss Schnabel, called a precocious talent. I learned to read music before I could read my Jolly Animal ABC.

I got to know Orson quite well; in fact it was through Orson that I met my second wife, Natalie. Natalie was a nutritionist and had been treating Orson for his recurring obesity. Orson was a large man in every sense and, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying, obsessed with his weight. He had flown Natalie in from America to keep an eye on his constitution while he was looking for some film locations in the UK.

Natalie introduced me to the benefits of wholegrain cereal, bee pollen, goji berries and noni juice, all of which I have retained in my diet ever since, and are among the things to which I can attribute my longevity, along with a positive attitude to life, regular exercise and an active sex life. I subscribed to my friend Pablo Picasso’s philosophy that a young partner helped to keep you young. Natalie made me feel like a teenager again. She was nearly thirty years my junior. I was fifty three and she was twenty five. Our extended honeymoon took advantage of the opportunities opening up in air travel and took in all six continents. We were stunned by many unforgettable sights; the multicoloured reefs and cays of The Great Barrier Reef, the decorative gilding and marble sculptures of The Golden Temple of Amritsar, the mysterious city of Machu Picchu in the middle of a mountain rain forest, the boat ride through The Blue Grotto Cave in Capri, the summer sun setting on The Grand Canyon, and the great migration of gazelles and wildebeests sweeping across the Serengeti plain in the early morning, to name but a few. But there were less obvious sights that were equally as pleasing. The colourful paddle steamer chugging down the Orinoco, the silhouette of a camel train crossing the Arabian desert, the reflection of the houseboats on the Dal Lake in Kashmir on a Spring evening. Yes, the air miles were clocking up a little, but young love knew no bounds.

Natalie, although she was always modest about this, was also an accomplished pianist. With a youthful ear, she was an inspiration to my music, helping to take it in new directions. The early to mid-fifties represented a productive period; in fact, possibly I was at my creative peak, as my compositions began to incorporate dissonance and atonality. In a few short years, I wrote a concerto for orchestra using a small orchestra as a solo instrument against a larger orchestra, a quintet (four cellos and a flute), a jazz ballet, and a tone poem based on The Seventh Seal. I may not have become a household name, but all of these unusual pieces were well received. Miranda Miercoles, Melody Maker’s classical music critic, not one that one associates with praise of any sort, referred to my work at the time as, ‘intuitive’ and ‘groundbreaking’. I framed the clipping.

Natalie persuaded me that we should spend some time in America and, as she was from New York, that we buy somewhere in the city. Money was coming in steadily, and we were able to buy a comfortable apartment in Manhattan, on The Upper East Side, close to Central Park. We were within strolling distance of the museums and galleries that were beginning to prosper and the jazz clubs on 52nd Street. One day, while I was in the apartment tinkling away on the ivories, I had a call from an illustrator for a magazine. He drew whimsical sketches of shoes, he told me. He wanted to learn how to orchestrate and had been given my name, I presume by Orson, as I did not know many people in New York at the time. I explained to my illustrator that orchestration had guidelines, but there weren’t any rules as such. You learned orchestration mainly through experience, through spontaneous discoveries, and through the teaching of great composers.

‘It’s very much a hands-on art,’ I said. ‘You have to be aware of point and counterpoint and of the families of instruments, timbres of each instrument in the family, and of course, tonality, but beyond that it is up to the individual.’

‘Good!’ he said. ‘That’s uh what I wanted to hear. It should be easy then.’

‘You mean like major for happy and minor for sad,’ I quipped.

‘Uh yes,’ he said. ‘Exactly.’ He seemed perfectly serious about this being the case.

‘I’m not sure orchestration’s something I can teach you,’ I said. ‘What was it that you had in mind to orchestrate?’

‘I have a big plan,’ he said. ‘They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. That’s uh, what I’m going to do.’

‘Well, we can’t do it over the phone, can we?’ I said. ‘You’d better come on over.’

The figure across the threshold had a ghost-like quality. he seemed to be there and not there at the same time. He wore a white suit and a blue and white hooped Breton sweater. His tortoiseshell dark glasses and platinum blond hair made him look a little effeminate. My first impression, as he limply shook my hand, was that he was incredibly shy, but despite this shyness he had astounding charisma. ‘Hi, I’m Andy,’ he said. ‘Andy Warhol.’

I invited him in and sat him down.

‘I’m going to be famous one day,’ he said, deadpan.

‘How do you know?’ I asked.

‘In the future everyone will be famous,’ he laughed.

‘What? For fifteen minutes?’ I joked.

I found that Andy’s philosophy interesting and some of the things he said had yet more resonance in retrospect.

We finally moved on to the subject of orchestration. I told him that in terms of musical composition Mozart and Beethoven were probably a good place to start. Mozart for his precision and flow and Beethoven for his bold innovations.

Andy felt it might be better to start with Debussy and Ravel because they were more contemporary and therefore it would not take so long to learn.

‘You need to be able to put an idea on one side of Letter paper,’ he explained.

I asked if he had met the minimalist composer, John Cage. 4’33 consists of the pianist going to the piano, and not hitting any keys for four minutes and thirty-three seconds,’ I told him.

‘Cool!’ he said.

We spent the next session putting together a bullet point list and the one after that at Boosey and Hawkes music store where Andy bought a selection of instruments. He showed no interest at all in playing them; I think they were peripheral to his mission. What he wanted to orchestrate was an Art Movement.

‘What is it that inspires you?’ Julie Christie asked me at her balalaika lesson one day. We were in my apartment in Cheyne Walk, overlooking the Thames. She had recently finished filming Darling and was reading the script for Doctor Zhivago, wondering whether to take the part of Lara that the great David Lean had offered her. She had been round to my apartment every day for a week or so to learn the balalaika to help with the role. Most days it seemed the balalaika I had borrowed from the Russian embassy lay untouched. Julie was sensual and intelligent. She possessed a luminous beauty that the cameras loved. The thing is, she was even more stunning in the flesh. She looked sensational in her skimpy chiffon dress. Despite an age difference of forty years, there was definitely a mutual attraction. I wondered if we were going to have an affair. It had been over with Natalie for a while and I had returned to England leaving her and our son, Melchior, and daughter, Melusine, in New York.

‘I hear music in the flow of the river, the rain on the window, the clinking of glasses, the hum of late night traffic.’ I said. ‘I hear music in everything, in the everyday and that is what sustains me. I have a tune in my head the whole day long.’

‘Play me your favourite piece of music,’ said Julie.

I had lots of favourite pieces of music. I had always dreaded being asked to go on Desert Island Discs as I would be hard pressed to make these kind of decisions. What I wondered could I play for Julie? The great violin concertos of the nineteenth century were out of the question, as clearly they needed an orchestra. I could have picked some Bach or some Mozart, but I thought that Julie was hoping for something more contemporary. Bill Evans My Foolish Heart seemed apt. Jazz had been a passion of mine for many tears.

Popular music upped its game in the 1960s, with record producers like Phil Spector, George Martin and Brian Wilson pushing back the boundaries of the art. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan among others were spearheading a huge social change through pop music. What had once seemed trite now seemed important and vital. By 1965 through music and fashion, London had established itself as the capital of the cultural world. Pop stars, models and photographers were becoming the new elite. Ray Davies was a friend of Julie’s and Julie invited me along to a performance The Kinks were filming at Twickenham Film Studios. It was here that I met Marielle, who would be my partner for the next fifteen years.

Marielle was involved with the music business in an anonymous kind of way, the closest I could come to describing this would be, musical muse. She hung around gatherings of musicians and had a mystical presence. She was a polished player with a rare appreciation of the avant-garde. She was someone you noticed; someone who stood out in a room. She was beautiful; with her deep and lustrous eyes and long dark flowing hair, she looked like a Greek siren, without of course the wings. She was twenty one.

Marielle moved in with me right away. For the next year or two, we played host to the pop world at Cheyne Walk, as young musicians dropped by to learn exotic new instruments. Brian Jones and George Harrison were regular visitors, as were some young lads up from Cambridge who called themselves Pink Floyd. I like to think that in a modest way we changed the direction of rock music. It moved away from the established format of two guitars, bass and drums. I appeared, uncredited, on many of the classic albums from that period including Aftermath, Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Sergeant Pepper, playing dulcimer, tsabouna, musical saw and serpent. I also composed my Vibraphone Concerto and my famous Trio for Violin, Saxophone and Strimmer during this time.

The ten years from around 1967 that Marielle and I spent living on Lanzarote I count among the happiest of my life. Undeveloped at the time and certainly minimalist in its colour palette, Lanzarote offered a perfect spiritual retreat. It was a place that the mind was able to focus. Our traditional whitewashed casa rural was in an isolated setting, a few miles from the present day resort of Costa Teguise. The artist and architect, Cesar Manrique, lived nearby and was a frequent visitor. His project was to transform the desert landscape, harmonising his vibrant modern design with the traditional architecture and colours of the island. A huge interest in alternative power was developing in the Canaries and through Manrique’s civil engineering team we had both solar panels and a wind turbine to deliver power to our house and the surrounding community. We were pioneers. Why not? Lanzarote is, after all, both windy and sunny. The rest of the world it seems have been slow to follow and is still resisting this somewhat obvious solution to our power needs.

Occasionally our mutual friend, Picasso came over from the mainland to see us. Other than this, Darius and Conchita and their respective families came over a few times (grandchildren growing in number and it seemed quickly growing up), and once or twice Natalie brought our children. Mostly though it was just Marielle and I. It was possible to concentrate on the moment, enjoying each minute of the everyday without rushing towards the next. I gradually found a profound stillness take over my being. I felt young and invigorated. Marielle, as many of you who have seen her work hanging in galleries will understand, during this period became a gifted painter of abstract landscapes. As for me, my music began to develop a profound simplicity.

How many Zen masters does it take to change a lightbulb? The cypress tree in the courtyard.

I have always been a great admirer of the French composer, Erik Satie. He called his Dadaist-inspired explorations Furniture music. He saw it as the sort of music that could be played during a dinner to create a background atmosphere, rather than serving as the focus of attention. Satie is the link between these early twentieth century Art movements and the work of Brian Eno. Recognising me as a fellow sonic sculptor, in 1975, Brian sought me out and came over for a protracted stay. Together we composed music that synthesised melody and texture. Although the expression, ambient music is often attributed to Brian Eno, I like to think that I coined the phrase. Ambient comes from the Latin verb ambire, to surround. Our collaboration produced sonic landscapes, atmospheres and treatments. Film directors came knocking at the door. We had inadvertently created the template for movie soundtracks and background to television drama and documentaries for many years to come. If you watch the BBC you will have heard my music many times without realising it.

I abhorred the right wing politics that began to take over the western world around 1980. The decade could be summed up in one word: greed. Why was everyone so blind to the certainty that uncontrolled consumerism would lead to disaster? What was needed was a new set of guidelines with regard to conglomerates, power generation, air travel, transport, and waste management. And a greater veneration of trees. Marielle and I moved to the New Forest.

The politics of the day were reflected in its music. The decade was a singularly poor one. In the 1980s, popular music reduced itself once more to a succession of bland, artless nursery rhymes. Cheap Yamaha synthesisers and drum machines programmed by greedy, tone-deaf computer programmers produced monotonous, predictable, exhaustible and hackneyed three minute jingles. Flamboyant, androgynous models with streaky makeup and spiked hair pranced around in fancy dress to unrelated storylines in fast-cut short films produced by yuppie film directors. It was a case of nice video, shame about the song. Even established rock acts became mainstream and mediocre issuing insipid power ballads. And jazz began to sound like elevator music. How could you have smooth jazz? Wasn’t it a contradiction in terms? To be fair, classical music fared no better during the period. With its fetish for dissonance, it became all but inaccessible.

Zeitgeist means the spirit of the times, but can also be related to the concept of collective consciousness, which describes how an entire community comes together to share similar values. Was this the explanation for the decline in musical quality perhaps? Subliminally, people had agreed that music was no longer important. It was better to get rich, and quickly.

Tariq Ali had come round for his violin lesson. I put this idea to him. ‘What do you think, Tariq,’ I asked.

‘In times of peace the arts gravitate towards mediocrity,’ he said.

‘There was no war in the 60s, but there was lots of great music,’ I said.

‘No war in the 60s?, he laughed. ‘There was the Vietnam War. We may not have been on the front line but as a culture, we were involved. Didn’t you go on any demonstrations?’

‘I was living in Lanzarote at the time,’ I told him. ‘But I do remember the Battle of Grosvenor Square. You and Vanessa Redgrave were leading the march weren’t you’

‘That is correct. And Mick Jagger wrote Streetfighting Man. But to get back to my point. Do you not recall the famous line in The Third Man about the Swiss?’ he said.

‘Not word for word,’ I said.

‘In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’

I conceded Tariq’s point.

‘Perhaps we will have another war soon,’ I said. ‘There are some mad people in charge.’

‘I don’t think it will be a war with The Eastern Bloc,’ said Tariq. ‘Russia is not a country you can invade and occupy. War is about occupation and colonisation. The next war will be against Islamic states, where they can send in an occupying force. And, of course, there’s the oil. Iraq’s my guess.’

It seems in retrospect that he was right.

The days get longer and the days get shorter. As you get older the heat of summer makes you uncomfortable, so you look forward to the winter, but you can’t cope with the long dark nights and the cold, so you look forward to the spring, and your life passes by, with this contradiction. You are getting older, but you are willing the time to pass. Seasons replace one another in a relentless procession, as the northern hemisphere tilts towards or away from the sun.

The planet Mercury, according to Luigi, my barber in Ringwood at the time, has no tilt my and therefore no seasons. Luigi was one of those people who seemed to know everything. He had been a contender on Mastermind. His specialist subject was String Theory.

‘No seasons,’ I said. ‘That’s good then, isn’t it? Why couldn’t we live on Mercury?’

‘There is a little problem my friend. It has no atmosphere,’ he said.

‘Not so good for the old breathing then.’

‘And its four hundred degrees during the day and minus two hundred at night.’

‘Bit hard to get used to.’

‘You’ll like this, though,’ Luigi said. ‘Mercury has a large crater called Beethoven which is the largest in the solar system. They have also named craters after Puccini, Verdi, Vivaldi, Schubert, Sibelius and Wagner. It is riddled with craters. You name me a composer and they have probably named a crater on Mercury after him. I’ll find out if they have named one after you, my friend.’

He never did find out. Sadly Luigi died when the steering on his Fiat gave out as he was overtaking an articulated truck near Basingstoke on the M3. He was only sixty two. No age at all.

When you reach your eighties, you understandably find that those around you, those you have known or admired, are dying with increased regularity. When you get a call from a friend you have not heard from in a while, you know it is going to be to inform you that someone you both know has died. The receptionist at the funeral directors gets to recognise your voice, as you order wreathes for lost friends and colleagues with increasing frequency, and you start getting Christmas cards from the undertaker. You find you know all the words to The Old Rugged Cross and Abide With Me, and your copy of The Times falls open at the obituaries. Death is all around. When you visit the doctors with a routine chest infection, you imagine the grim reaper is sitting next to you.

Through the 1980s following Marielle’s death from a rare blood disease, I became acutely aware of my own mortality. It became obvious that one day I would die and although I seemed to be in remarkable health I began to speculate on how I would die and when. None of the ways seemed especially pleasant and most involved a protracted period of pain. Cardiovascular disease was statistically the most likely cause for someone of my age, although hot on its heels were cancer and strokes. Then there were lower respiratory infections, tuberculosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Nostalgia too I found could fuel later-life depression. Don’t look back.

Irving Berlin helped to lift my gloom. Irving was a legend and throughout the twentieth century had had a greater influence upon American music than any other one man. If anyone could deliver a pearl of wisdom, it was Irving. I was fortunate to gain an audience with the great man in a stopover trip to New York to see my grandchildren, as he was by then famously uncooperative. I asked Irving his secret.

‘Music is the key,’ he said. ‘Music had been used in medicine for thousands of years. It enhances memory, helps with concentration, and reasoning skills; even better, it boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, relaxes muscle tension, regulates stress hormones, elevates mood, and increases endurance. That’s what my doctor tells me. And he’s older than I am.’

I knew Irving to be in his late nineties, so that made his doctor very old indeed. ‘I’d better start writing some music soon then,’ I said.

‘Another thing’, said Irving. ‘I presume you’ve reached the age that you suffer from earworm.’

‘Don’t think so,’ I said. ‘It sounds unpleasant, though.’

‘Earworm is where the last tune you heard stays in your head.’ Irving explained.

‘I definitely get that,’ I said.

‘The secret is to make the tune in your head a happy one, one with happy words. Positive affirmations and all that.’

‘What about the old blue musicians?’ I queried. ‘They seem to all live to be a ripe old age despite all the ‘Woke up this morning and my baby had gone’ lyrics.’

‘What! you mean lived to be 27, like Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix’.

He had a point. I was probably being selective. For every John Lee Hooker or Muddy Walters, there was a Blind Boy Fuller or Freddie King.

‘Look at me as a living example of someone who keeps a happy song going round in his head,’ said Irving. ‘It has worked for me.’

‘OK, I will try it.’ I said.

‘At the same time, don’t avoid thoughts of death,’ Irving continued. ‘Remind yourself your death is guaranteed. Facing death should be something that empowers you and heightens your senses. Feel the inevitability of it. Feel the horror of it. And then open your eyes and realise you are now alive.’

It took a little application, but after a while, I arrived at a view whereby death offered an increased opportunity to see what was important. Music of course was as Irving had suggested, the key; this was the way to make my mark. This realisation provided me with motivation. I kept a happy tune in my head and entered a new creative phase. My Tenor Saxophone Concerto was popular, as was my Sextet for Four Pianos, Oboe and Harp. But the piece that gained the most recognition was my opera, Gatto di Schrödinger (Schroedinger’s Cat), which played at opera houses around the world. Who could forget the rousing fortissimo chorus for one hundred voices, ‘Il gatto è tanto vivi e morti.’

Tim Berners-Lee may have been considerably richer had it not been for coming to me for lessons on the cor anglais. Having invented a browser-editor to share and edit information and build a common hypertext, the model for the internet, he was faced with a dilemma. Should he patent the idea, or should he put it in the public domain for the benefit of all? In between run-throughs of Schumann’s Reverie for Cor Anglais and Piano, we discussed the pros and cons of both viewpoints. It may have been my suggestion that the World Wide Web be royalty-free so that networks could adopt universal standards without having to pay their inventors. Someone, he argued, was going to make millions out of the idea, someone like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, for instance.

‘How would you best like to be remembered,’ I asked him. ‘As a universally reviled figure or as a benefactor to humankind?’

He must have taken my point. The next day, after we had been over Respighi’s Pini di Roma, Tim seemed to have changed his position, using some of the very arguments that I had used.

‘The World Wide Web must have an open standard,’ he said. ‘Otherwise, there will be incompatible forms of media, backed by Microsoft and Apple and the like.’

I met Sakura at The Saatchi Gallery in St. John’s Wood at an exhibition called Young British Art. The show featured work by the little known Damien Hirst, Mark Wallinger and Rachel Whiteread, all of who would go on to win the Turner Prize. I had not wanted to see the exhibition after reading the press write-up about tiger sharks immersed in formaldehyde, but a friend whose view I respected told me I had to go.

‘Something important is happening here,’ my friend had said. ‘Damien Hirst’s work is an examination of the fragile boundaries between life and death.’

Sakura caught my look of puzzlement as I took in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the fourteen foot tiger shark in the tank). What was Art? I wondered. Where were the boundaries? Paul Gauguin had said ‘Art is either plagiarism or revolution.’ I could accept that Art constantly needed to re-define itself. But in my cynicism, I wondered if was just a question of a dealer or curator saying something was important art, a prominent critic supporting him, and collectors with their mega bucks being persuaded.

‘The shark is a metaphor for mortality,’ Sakura said.

I found myself no longer looking at the unsettling spectacle in the tank. Sakura was a much more attractive prospect for my gaze. She possessed an exquisite beauty. She had long raven black hair, obsidian eyes and rich nut-brown skin with a flourish of red across her cheekbones. Her body pushed in all the right places against the fabric of the tight floral print dress. I was transfixed. I felt a profound surge of well-being. Another bout of rejuvenation was on the way.

I must have come up with some kind of reply, because the next I recall we were eating dinner at Claridge’s and, before I knew it, living together. I wondered later if our meeting had not been set up as a blind date. Sakura wondered the same. She had had a phonecall from the same mutual friend it seemed recommending the exhibition. Sakura worked in television. I did not watch a lot of television, so I was not aware of any of the programmes she had been involved with. In no time at all, she suggested writing my biography.

‘Have you never thought of writing one?’ she asked.

‘I don’t think I’m famous enough,’ I said. In fact, I had many times thought of writing my autobiography, but I was too lazy to start. The project seemed daunting with so many years to cover.

‘Everyone knows who you are,’ she said. ‘But no one knows very much about you. The world is crying out for some insight into your life.’

Sakura had formidable powers of persuasion. The chapters charting my childhood in Louth in the Lincolnshire Wolds were in the bag in a few days. However after the move to North London, sister Susanna joining the Suffragettes, Walter and I going off to war, and Ruth and I marrying, we reached the point where retrieval of memories was becoming more of a challenge. Looking back was becoming vertiginous. It was a long way down.

‘You should have kept a diary,’ said Sakura.

‘I started to,’ I said. ‘ A long time ago. After the First World War……. I think that they may be up in the attic somewhere in an old leather bag.’

Sakura dug them out, four gnarled Evening Standard Diaries from 1918 to 1921, and eagerly began to devour them.

‘What do these xs mean?’ she asked.

I told her.

‘Three or four times a day…… We only make love two or three times a week.’

‘But you aren’t as young as you used to be,’ I joked. She was 46.

‘Why did you stop writing the diary after June 1921?’

It was a fair question. Had I had an unexpected illness? Had I sold my soul to the devil? I couldn’t remember.

The biography progressed even more slowly documenting the years after 1921. I had some recollection as to when I had met celebrity figures, and I had dates for some of my recordings, but with regards to my personal life, there were no records. All of my contemporaries were dead, and even my children had difficulty remembering with any precision. Either that or they had not wanted to cooperate. None of them had taken well to Sakura. I was able to tie up the big events like the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (I had been introduced to one of my early heroes, Sir Edward Elgar) and The General Strike (I was stuck in Dover with Aleister Crowley for twelve days), but the devil, as it were, was in the detail. You wait until you are my age and Alzheimer’s starts gently kicking in.

Looking back made me question whether the quality of life had changed for the better over the years. We were now able to travel fast over large distances and get information at the click of a mouse, and every year technological gadgets were becoming, smaller, faster, cheaper, and more convenient, but hadn’t we lost our sense of wonder? We seem to have sacrificed a fundamental simplicity. The time and effort spent learning how to use our time and effort saving technology raised the question, at what point would the cost-benefit ratio no longer be in support of our technology? When I was a child, listening to someone reading the story of Alice in Wonderland aloud, without the benefit of even pictures to look at, would have filled me with awe. Nowadays, if a six-dimensional, four headed kraken suddenly materialised in a ring of fire in the room in front of a young child, it would engender no surprise, they would probably just see it as a continuation of Doctor Who or Star Trek.

Sakura and I had gone for a walk in the Wolds around this time from Claxby to Wolds Top. It was a clear day and you could see for miles. We had panoramic views of Lincoln Cathedral, the Humber Bridge and the River Trent. We came across a family having a picnic. While they ate their Subway baguettes, the two youngsters played games on hand-held Nintendos, while the parents looked at domestic appliances in an Argos catalogue. I gathered from their conversation, that they were planning on stopping off at the Lincoln branch on their way home. Nowadays they wouldn’t even need to do this. They could buy the Dyson online from their smartphone or tablet.

‘Do you ever regret parts of your life?’ Sakura asked. She was still working on the biography.

‘Of course!’ I said, not going down the Edith Piaf or Frank Sinatra routes. ‘Many things.’

‘If you could live your life over again, what would you change?’ she asked. Sakura was not by nature a jealous woman, but I think she may have wanted me to say that my marriages to Ruth, Natalie and Marielle had been a mistake. I didn’t take the bait. If there was one thing I had learned about women, it was that each wanted to be the only one you had ever thought of. Apart from which, Ruth and Marielle were both dead, and Natalie, who I hadn’t seen for thirty years, would be in her seventies.

‘I would get up earlier and I would take more time to smell the roses,’ I told her enigmatically. The biography stalled a little.

One morning I pulled back the curtains and saw a ball of bright light blazing brilliantly in the Southern sky. I was mesmerised. I began to understand how the expression, ‘bright as the morning star’ came about. The man in Jessops told me that what I was seeing was Jupiter and, what I needed was a Celestron 8 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain computer controlled telescope. He just happened to have one in stock. It was simple to operate, he said. I would be able to use it right away to discover the delights of star-watching. Once I got it home, I did not find it at all easy, and it sat in the conservatory unused for several months. I had an arts background. I had never learned even the basics about the universe. Finally, with the help of The Beginners’ Guide to the Cosmos, I began very slowly to pick things up.

Each of the billions of stars that I now had access to through the telescope was another sun. The problem was that there were so many of them and I had no idea where to look. After a crash course in constellation spotting on the Internet and the acquisition of a circular star chart called a planisphere, I was able to identify the ever present Plough and use this as a reference point. I was able to distinguish an endless array of spectacular celestial sights. I could now see Jupiter up close, with its four largest moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, strung out alongside it, Saturn and its unmistakable rings, the forever changing crescent of Venus and the fiery red of Mars. I was also able to see distant nebulae, star clusters and the Great Andromeda galaxy that lies about two million light years beyond our own galaxy, The Milky Way.

For my hundredth birthday, I hired the planetarium. Astronomers like Patrick Moore and George Smoot might not be everyone’s ideal party guests, but the after dinner conversation is not dull. I learned that our sun is four million times as big as Earth and produces so much energy, that every second the core releases the equivalent of one hundred billion nuclear bombs. Also that a supernova is a luminous stellar explosion that occurs when a massive star dies, releasing a huge amount of gamma rays, which can outshine an entire galaxy. After the supernova, the once massive star becomes a neutron star, white dwarf, or if it is large enough, a black hole. Black holes are so dense and produce such intense gravity that even light cannot escape. The Universe I was told is at least 150 billion light-years in diameter. We are talking really big numbers when it comes to space. The scale of it forced me to reconsider my definitions for large; the word that came to mind was astronomical. There were other fascinating disclosures. A bright star which appeared over Bethlehem two thousand years ago suggested the date of Jesus’s birth as June 17th, not December 25th. The star was a magnificent conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter, which were so close together they would have shone unusually brightly as a single sudden beacon of light.

The relationship between music and the cosmos probably began with Holst’s The Planets. The work was composed around 1914, just ten years after The Wright Brothers’ first powered flight, and Holst had no idea what was going on out there in space. Little more than fifty years later, we had landed a spacecraft on the moon. The piece of music always associated with this momentous event is Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, which was also used in Stanley Kubrick’s equally important film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977 contained sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form finding them. The music included Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Chuck Berry. These have left the Solar System and are now in empty space. In around 40,000 years if things go to plan some unsuspecting alien will be playing air guitar to Johnny B. Goode or singing along to the chorus of My Ding a Ling. More recently, in 2008, NASA beamed The Beatles, Across the Universe at the speed of 186,000 miles per second towards The North Star, just 431 light years away. Time is not on my side, so I am going to have my entire back catalogue beamed to Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, which Stephen Hawking (who incidentally was hopeless on the accordion) informs me, is the most likely place we might find life in the Solar system. This I am told will take a mere 76 minutes.

It is often said you can tell you are getting old when policemen start to look younger. To me, even Chief Superintendents have had the appearance of callow youths since around the time of the Notting Hill riots. I have now had eighteen telegrams from the Queen, and still I can’t help but think of her as the little girl stroking the corgi dog on the Newsreels that accompanied the double features in the 1930s. Saga Holiday adverts seem to me like they are advertising 18 to 30 romps. But there are benefits to being old. As Mark Twain said, ‘Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’ It is best perhaps to think of youth as a malady from which we all recover. Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.

Lately, there are signs that our 400,000 year tenure of Planet Earth could be coming to an end. Earth may not be able to support the prodigal violations of our stewardship. The forest fires that raged for months in Australia this year were the worst in history, finally doused by storms of biblical proportions, bringing in turn the worst floods in history. The oil well fires that burned in the Middle Eastern conflict clouded the sky for months so that no crops would grow in seven countries in the area. Bangla Desh was reclaimed by the ocean, after all the rivers that drained the Himalayas cascaded into one. Fourteen million people died in the famine in the African country no one knew was there. I see on the news this morning that an iceberg the size of France has just detached itself from Antarctica. It’s all happening. As the writer Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.’

What will tomorrow bring? The answer is up to you. It doesn’t matter much to me. I will be 119 next birthday.

©: Chris Green, 2014 : All rights reserved