Why is a Raven like a Writing Desk

whyisaravenlikeawritingdesk

Why is a Raven Like a Writing Desk? by Chris Green

The tall stranger in the Duster overcoat appeared out of nowhere. He was wearing a broad-rimmed sheriff’s hat complete with campaign cord and silver star. I felt this was odd. This was a sleepy West Somerset coastal resort, not Washington County. Perhaps he felt the hat made him look interesting and would help him to get noticed.

What do you think it is that makes things happen?’ he asked.

At first, I thought he must be talking to someone else but there was just the two of us there. Who was he? What did he mean? Why was he asking me this? I was just enjoying a quiet moment watching the tide come in. It must have been the school holidays. Spring probably. The waves, I recall, were huge.

Do you mean, in the big scheme of things?’ I asked, feeling that his question was an unusual opener to a conversation.

Yes,’ he said. ‘If you like. In the big scheme of things.’

We elect people to represent us and they pass laws and other people in other countries do the same,’ I said, trying hard to remember the explanation our Ethics teacher, Mr Jenkins had come up with. ‘We agree with the way some countries do things but not the way other countries do things and according to relative size and strength, we form alliances and trading blocks. Sometimes there’s a disagreement over ideology and then a war and one side vanquishes the other and makes them do what they want.’

Very good! But that’s on a political level,’ the stranger said. ‘That’s what the history books tell you happens. That’s what you read in the papers. That’s surface detail.’

Well, some see a different man in the sky to others and they fight about whose man in the sky is the best,’ I said, trying to inject a little humour into the exchange.

Indeed!’ he said. ‘But how does it all work on a practical level? What are the mechanisms?’

There are improvements in technology and new inventions that bring about change,’ I said. ‘But I suppose innovations are primarily to sell new products to make investors rich.’ Old Josh Jenkins had told us this was the principal reason there were technical advances. To fuel capitalism, the money needed to move around faster and faster, he had said. Other than this, new technology was often developed to win wars.

That’s how it all works, is it?’ the stranger said.

It’s cause and effect,’ I said. ‘Action and reaction. All certainty in our relationships with the world rests on the acknowledgement of causality, wouldn’t you say?’

That’s what you’ve been told, is it?’ he said. ‘That determinism explains everything? All I can tell you for now is there’s more to it. One day, you will find out.’

With this, he took his leave, presumably off to do some strange sheriffing somewhere else. I couldn’t help wondering who he was, why he was there and what he meant. I was only sixteen. What was the purpose of him putting me on the spot? Was he a conspiracy theorist? New World Order and the Seven Sisters? Was he talking about magic? Lord of the Rings and all that mumbo jumbo? Uri Geller and spoon-bending? Or was he just a smartass?

At the time, I may have mentioned the episode in passing to Mick and Keith or Roger and Pete before we went off to smoke dope and listen to Pink Floyd or Dire Straits or whatever was current back then. Apart from music and dope, girls were pretty much the only thing that pre-occupied us. Perhaps I was on my way round to Annette’s to do some ….. revision. I may have told her about the mysterious man but I’m certain we didn’t labour the point. At sixteen, you do not dwell on things for long and the curious encounter was soon forgotten. So much so that as time passed, I was not even certain it had really happened.

Stovepipe hats have not been fashionable since the nineteenth century. So it was strange to come across a man wearing a shiny black one in Vivary Park in Taunton, especially as we were in the middle of a heatwave. 1990 was turning out to the hottest year on record. Following a minor misunderstanding, Tamsin had gone off to stay with her mother in Madeira for a few days and I was taking our Irish Setter, Bono for a walk when the tall stranger appeared. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. In his tall hat, he looked completely out of place. It was not even a Lloyd George style topper, it was a proper vintage Victorian stovepipe. Apart from the hat, he was dressed unseasonally, wearing one of those long overcoats. The overall effect was to make him look like a giant. To cap it all, he was carrying a black violin case. He approached me and struck up a conversation.

Don’t you recognise me?’ he said.

It suddenly occurred to me this was the same fellow I had met on the beach all those years ago. He had the same faraway look in his eye, the same pallor to his skin, making it seem almost translucent. There was no mistaking him. I told him I remembered him.

Have you worked it out, yet?’ he asked.

I tried to recall our earlier conversation. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to have worked out.

You thought everything could be explained by causality,’ he said.

Actions, ideas, even things we put down to synchronicity can probably all be explained by cause and effect,’ I said.

As in a sequence of events, you mean?’ he said. ‘Chain reaction, butterfly effect.’

That’s right,’ I said. All action and reaction.’

Action and reaction, eh? That’s Newton’s Third Law, isn’t it,’ he said. ‘And you think you can apply that to everyday life?’

More or less,’ I said. ‘Things chug along from day to day, one thing follows another in your chain reaction.’

Things chug along?’ he said. ‘H’mm That’s an interesting view. That’s the way it works, is it?’

Everything is loosely connected and each thing that happens affects many others so what we have is a complex web of actions and reactions,’ I said.

Hatman wanted to up the stakes.

What about when a seismic event takes place?’ he asked. ‘Something, for instance, like the Berlin Wall coming down last November. Can that be explained by cause and effect? Action and reaction?’

I would say that is a classic example of cause and effect,’ I said, rising to the challenge. ‘The East was poor, the West was rich. People in the East were finding this out and wanted some of it. The Soviet Union was losing its grip. Gorbachev was liberalising the Party and freedom groups all over the Eastern bloc were taking advantage of this. Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. With forces chipping away at East German institutions, it was only a matter of time before the Wall fell. It was the final step in a chain reaction.’

I’m afraid you are falling into the trap again,’ he said ‘Like you did the last time we spoke. You are just looking at the surface detail. To understand the way things work, you will need to dig deeper.’

Bono, meanwhile, had run off behind the bandstand to investigate another dog. He had an unfortunate habit of doing this and not coming back. I went over to put him back on the lead. When I returned, the stranger had disappeared. I could hear a violin playing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, softly in the distance.

The encounter left me perplexed. Who was the mysterious stranger? Why had he picked me? Was I perhaps just one of many unsuspecting people he tried to convert? But convert to what? What exactly was his message? Was he trying to say in his cryptic way that everything was pre-determined? Or that there was a hidden force, an all-powerful master of the universe? He was certainly peculiar but somehow he didn’t come across as a religious zealot. I could not imagine him calling door to door on a Saturday morning with an associate and a handful of thin pamphlets promising to put you on the path to salvation. Perhaps we were back with magic and the supernatural and he was suggesting the real driving force for everything that happens was something mystical. Perhaps he was trying to tell me I needed to familiarise myself with some arcane Oriental wisdom in order to transcend the mundane. But what was it about hats?

Each time I saw someone wearing an unusual hat, I thought it might be him. Bandanas, deerstalkers, turbans. Coonskins caps, fezes, zuchettos. In the street, at concerts, at the races, everywhere. Carnival parades were the worst. But as months went by with each sighting turning out not to be him, the memory of him faded.

I had all but forgotten him when, around the time of the millennium, he appeared again, this time in the Science Museum in Kensington. He was dressed in a black damask robe and a mortarboard. It was a lighter conversation than our previous ones. Moving on from the passing of time, we talked about the walrus and the carpenter and cabbages and kings. We touched on Cheshire cats and mad hatters. Did I realise Lewis Carroll was a mathematician and his work was full of hidden meanings, he wondered? I told him I had always thought he was writing about drugs. ‘

Why is a raven like a writing desk?’ he asked.

I wondered if perhaps he had the answer to the age-old riddle but at that moment, Tamsin returned from her visit to the Natural History Museum next door and he disappeared. I got the impression that beneath his bold exterior, he was rather shy.

We were back on the topic of the driving forces behind world events at our meeting in the bar of The Jolly Slaver. It was the year of the smoking ban, I recall because I had just come back inside after a cigarette when the stranger accosted me. He was wearing a superhero cape and a wizard’s hat. He wondered if I realised yet that things were never what they seemed. The discussion about what lay beneath carried over to our next meeting at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in Glastonbury, Somerset. He was wearing a tricolour beanie hat with his white suit. I think he may have been disappointed that I did not appear to always understand what he was trying to tell me.

He was always vague about what exactly his role was. His explanations for everything were frustratingly cryptic. Each time he appeared, I wanted to ask him why he had selected me. Why did he keep coming back? But each meeting was inadvertently cut short. Time, in the abstract sense, seemed to be a subject that kept coming up in our brief exchanges. He kept pressing me on what I thought time was? I have always had an unusual perception of time. I have frequently had to ask people what the order of past events was. When did we do this, when did we do that? Had we done this before that? More often than not, I appeared to have got it wrong. Tamsin was forever correcting my apparent temporal discrepancies, suggesting that I ought to keep a diary. My historical record frequently seemed out of synch with that of others. If I was like this now, I sometimes worried about what I would be like when I was older.

You keep referring to cause and effect,’ he said, the last time we met.

It was in the dining car on the Orient Express. Tamsin was resting back in our carriage. He came and sat beside me. He wore a sombrero vueltiao and big black sunglasses.

These chains of events, if that’s what you want to call them, can be unimaginably complex,’ he continued. ‘With so many crazy people in the world behaving irresponsibly, things can easily spiral out of control.’

I agreed there were some volatile leaders. In my view, most politicians were dangerous. It seemed to go with the job.

Without appropriate intervention, the world would have been blown to pieces by a catastrophic event by now many times over,’ he said. ‘I am one of a group of quantum gnostics whose aim it is to prevent such calamities escalating. We operate in the margins. It is our job to correct the course of rogue chains of events. Frequently, we are called upon to do so retrospectively in order to keep the boat afloat.’

Was he referring to specific events or was he generalising? Was he suggesting that he was able to go back in time? I didn’t get the chance to find out as before I had the chance to ask these questions, Tamsin came looking for me and the stranger upped and left.

Who were you talking to?’ Tamsin asked.

I tried to explain but she did not seem to be listening. She was more concerned with finding out what was on the menu.

Following the meeting on the Orient Express, I began to question whether time was, in fact, linear. The stranger had planted a seed of doubt in the conventional wisdom of a timeline where a series of events progresses regularly from beginning to end. Certainly, my perception of time was not linear. It had never been like that. I was all over the place with times and dates. I discovered I had some backup for the idea. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity suggested that there was no conceptual distinction between past and future, let alone an objective line of now. Also, he argued there was no sense in which time flowed. Instead, all space and time was just there in an elaborate four-dimensional structure. Furthermore, apparently, all the fundamental laws of physics worked essentially the same, forward and backward.

If this were the case, then did this also put the very idea of cause and effect into question? If there was no objective flow of time, might causality also work backwards, effect now becoming cause? Or like Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter and March Hare, having fallen out with Time, might we too be stuck at 6 pm forever? The very concept of time might, of course, simply be an illusion. Everything could be happening simultaneously, with or without interventions and corrections by quantum gnostics. Everything that has ever been and ever will be could be happening right now.

There are so many ways of looking at it, I don’t see what is really going on in the cosmos ever becoming clear to me. Reality itself is a slippery concept. All things considered, it seems reasonable to assume strangers turned out in whimsical headgear are likely to appear anytime, anywhere.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

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Hat Band

hatband

Hat Band by Chris Green

A jazz musician making his way down an Exeter street on a Wednesday morning with a charity shop bag full of bargain books can hardly be blamed for failing to notice that he is being tailed by a tall, thin man in a dark overcoat. Musicians are more accustomed to being looked at than looking, a matter which helps to explain why the thin man in the dark overcoat has been able to keep an eye on Max Tempo’s movements unnoticed for a day or two. Max is simply not aware that there is anything untoward in his world and why would he be? His quintet has a full diary of bookings, the promise of a recording contract and he has the beginnings of a new tune in his head. This is what preoccupies him as he approaches RAMM in Queen Street, where he feels he might drop in and have a cup of tea and sketch out the chords of the new tune on the pad he carries around with him. Maybe afterwards he can have a look at the paintings in the new exhibition by the modern artist whose name temporarily escapes him. Belinda mentioned him that morning over breakfast. Portraits assembled from cut up phone books or something like that, she said.

Max Tempo is not even curious when he catches the tall, thin stranger casting furtive glances from the corner of the café in RAMM, where he is enjoying his lemon polenta cake. The man probably recognises him from one of his gigs. This happens all the time. People are just too shy to come over and say they enjoyed the set. Or, is he merely admiring his brightly coloured African blazer and striped Jazz cap. It does register with him however when he encounters the same stranger waiting outside the gents toilet, but he does not give this a second thought. After all, there are gay men everywhere these days.

‘I wonder who that fellow in the black Jaguar is,’ Belinda says, looking out of the bay window of their townhouse. ‘He’s been sitting there all afternoon.’

‘Probably broken down or something,’ Max says. Max is working on the arrangement for his new tune on his iMac. The piano part is coming along well but the guitar part is proving trickier than he first thought it was going to be. This is the trouble when you try to put in too many minor chords.

‘Now I come to think of it, he was there yesterday afternoon too,’ Belinda says. ‘When I came back from the leisure centre. I noticed it because it’s quite an old car, isn’t it? Fellow in a dark coat and hat with his head in Jazz Weekly. Peering over the top of it, he was. I remember the banner headline Big Fifties Jazz Revival. I thought he must have been a friend of yours. There were some instruments in the back of the car too. Saxophones, I think.’

‘Perhaps he’s with Green Flag,’ says Max, who has not been listening. ‘They are pretty slow in coming out.’

‘He keeps looking over this way, Max.’

‘You want me to go and ask him what he’s doing, is that it? Perhaps I should invite him in for a tea and cake. Maybe, he can stay for dinner.’

‘No need to be like that, Max.’

‘I’m trying to finish this tune, Bee.’

Max feels It is always a good idea to open the set with a good old jazz standard. So, at Cool for Cats, the Max Tempo Quintet open with Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. As he looks around, Max feels pleased that there is a healthy turnout for a weekday, a couple of hundred perhaps, a good mix of all ages, couples and singles, a few gays and a few hipsters thrown in. So, Max feels they might try out the new number, now that Buck has put in the new guitar part and Bram has the tenor saxophone solo worked out. Max has given it the working title, Borsalino.

The band’s set, featuring highlights of their own material along with reworked standards, goes well. There is a good response from the audience to the new number. Although it is sometimes difficult to see everything that is going on from behind the piano, during the last few numbers, Max can’t help noticing that there are two men with no rhythm dressed in dark vintage overcoats sitting at a table towards the back. Alongside the revellers, they seem oddly out of place and out of time. As Max leaves Cool for Cats after the set, humming a new tune that is coming to him, he finds the same two men are waiting for him by his car. Is that a Fedora the one pointing the gun is wearing?

‘Nice and easy now!’ the other one, the stockier of the two says, stepping out of the shadow.

Definitely a Trilby, the stocky one is wearing, thinks Max. Wait! He’s also got a gun. What’s happening to people in this sleepy corner of the country? It’s always been so peaceful and laid back down this way. The Max Tempo Quintet have been able to get away with more slow numbers here than anywhere else in the country. You wouldn’t be able to follow Misty with The Nearness of You in Bristol or Swindon.

‘You are coming for a little ride with us,’ Fedora says, without the menace you might expect from a seasoned gunman. He ushers his Max towards a Jaguar with blacked out windows. Against his weak protests, he is bundled into the back. Without ceremony, Fedora and Trilby get in and the car speeds off.

………………………………

Ella Valée plays jazz singer, Liv Golden in the long-running television series, High Tide. In case you’ve not seen it, High Tide takes place over an indeterminable time frame and is set on an imaginary island where nothing is what it seems. When Ella is snatched from the set at Shepperton during filming by two thugs with bad manners in dark suits and nineteen fifties hats, she takes it to be an unscripted development in the plot. Surprises like this often take place in High Tide. Director, Leif Velasquez does nothing in a conventional way. Uncertainty, he says, keeps actors on their toes. The series plays around with alternate realities, multiverses, sadomasochism and jazz. A typical episode of High Tide will feature flashbacks and flash-forward sequences, secret agents, doppelgängers and speaking dolphins. Liv Golden usually gets to sing a number or two, in a carefully selected hat. This is one of the regular features of the show, probably the only regular feature the show.

Ella Valée first begins to suspect that something might be wrong on the silent drive away from the studio in the big black Jaguar. Neither the stocky gangster in the Trilby who forces her in at gunpoint or the long, lean one in the Fedora has anything to say. It would be unusual, she thinks, to place such a protracted silence in a prime time TV drama. Not that the unusual phases Ella these days. She has learned that anything can happen shooting High Tide. But, why are they going so fast and where are the cameras? She looks around her. She can see none of the usual paraphernalia for filming inside the car and the vehicles that usually accompany them with kit for the shoot are nowhere to be seen. This is not something that is scheduled to happen. These goons are for real. They are abducting her.

For miles upon miles, the forbidding silence in the car persists. Why don’t the two goons speak, Ella wonders? They could at least threaten her or swap stories with one another about buying hats or gunrunning. She notices they are keeping to windy B roads. Back lanes these might be but she recognises the some of the place names. Stockbridge, Middle Wallop, Winterslow. They seem to be heading south west. It would help to have some idea what was happening. It’s not likely to be good but it would be helpful to know.

………………………………

Whichever genre of popular music, drums and bass represent the driving force of a band. There have been some great rhythm sections over the years. Depending on your proclivities. Max Roach and Charlie Mingus, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, or Sly and Robbie might be ones that spring to mind. Sticks Mullins and Bernie McCoy may not enjoy the same stature as the aforementioned, in fact, you have probably not heard of them but for years they have been the backbone of the jazz combo, the Zoot Norris Seven.

Sticks and Bernie are puzzled as to why two burly hoods should seize them in the middle of the day from the Pannier Market in Tavistock where they were innocently trying on hats and bring them to this big old house in the middle of Dartmoor. Questioning their captors on route about what was happening met with the cryptic, you’ll find out soon enough, sunshine. They haven’t. The hoods appear to have just dropped them off here and left them. Not a clue as to why they might be here. However with the doors triple-locked and the windows barred and boarded, they are unable to escape. Apart than this, it seems they have free run of the place.

Someone is tinkling the ivories in an upstairs room. They follow the direction of the notes and find a showy pianist playing a catchy jazz number on a Yamaha.

‘You need a bit of a beat behind that, bud,’ says Sticks. Secretly he quite likes it. Zoot doesn’t come up with melodious arpeggios like this.

‘And perhaps a nice hat instead of that bandana?’ says Bernie. ‘Something with a brim. And a hat band. How about a Panama?’

‘I’m Sticks and he’s Bernie, by the way,’ says Sticks. ‘Other than hat advice, we might be able to help you out with some drums and bass.’

‘That’s what we do, bro,’ says Sticks. ‘I’m drums and he’s bass.’

‘Cool!’ says Max, surprised but pleased by the intrusion. ‘There’s a string bass in the closet and a set of drums.’

‘Seriously?’ says Bernie.

‘And a cupboard full of saxophones along with a trumpet or two,’ says Max.

‘Really?’ says Bernie. ‘All we need now is a chanteuse,’

‘I can be your chanteuse,’ says the beguiling woman in the wide-brimmed pink hat who seemingly appears out of nowhere. ‘I’m Ella Valée.’

‘I bet you are, babe’ says Sticks.

‘Very droll, Casanova. Ella Valée is my name. You may have seen me in High Tide. I play Liv Golden, the jazz singer.’

They begin to share stories about being picked up off the streets by hoodlums. Max Tempo and Ella Valée it transpires have been at the house for two days. They too were just dumped there. ‘Wait for developments,’ they were told and then left to their own devices. Both were a little frightened at first when they found the doors and windows barred. But, they discovered running water, food, electricity, musical instruments and even some recording equipment, not exactly state of the art but even so, serviceable. Certainly, a better state of affairs than you might expect after being abducted. They even found changes of clothes and toothbrushes. So, instead of thinking of escape, they settled in. There are no phones of course. The captors took away their mobiles. Max hopes that Belinda isn’t worrying too much but he imagines she will be and Ella, if she is honest, is glad of a break from her fiancé, Brad. Brad has become a bit serious of late, she feels, and she’s not sure she’s ready for that level of commitment.

‘Why do you think these geezers have brought us all here then?’ asks Bernie. ‘And who the fuck are they?’

‘Exploitation,’ says Ella. ‘They must think they are going to get something out of us. Some kind of performance or product.’

‘The music business is a more cut-throat game than it was back in the day, for sure’ says Max.

‘Agents in the music business all behave like gangsters these days,’ says Sticks. ‘Managers and promoters too. Crooks, the lot of them.’

‘But, the geezers who brought us here are a throwback to the fifties,’ says Bernie. ‘They are wide-boys, spivs, whatever you want to call them.’

‘Perhaps they have brought us all here to form some kind of retro band,’ says Sticks. ‘Apparently, vintage jazz is making a comeback. I read about it in Jazz Weekly. And they’re keeping us prisoner here to cut some tracks and make some money for them. That’s what I reckon.’

‘Bit of a longshot though,’ says Ella. ‘We’ve not even played together.’

‘But they would have seen you sing every week in High Tide,’ says Bernie. ‘So not completely a longshot. And clearly, they’ve seen Max play. And the dude’s damn good.’

‘I already have a band,’ says Max. ‘The Max Tempo Quintet. And we’re doing pretty well. We might even have a record deal. Clint Snider of CPS Recordings should be in touch any day now. Come to think of it, he was supposed to get back to me last week. I probably missed Clint’s call through being here.’

‘We’re in a jazz band too,’ says Bernie. We’re the Zoot Norris Seven.’

‘Sorry, I don’t think I’ve heard of you,’ says Max.

‘I guess Zoot’s not that ambitious,’ says Bernie. ‘But we get gigs locally. The Nobody Inn and The Jolly Yachtsman last month. And we’ve had one or two good reviews.’

‘Hey! Look at the name on the bass drum,’ says Sticks. ‘Hat Band! It’s all beginning to make sense now.’

‘What?’ says Max.

‘Don’t you see, fellas?’ says Sticks. ‘Bernie is right. Those rogues are setting us up as Hat Band. What kind of name is that?’

………………………………

Do you really think those bozos will make us a million?’ says Frankie.

Of course, Frankie,’ says Duke. ‘No doubt about it.’

It’s just that I’m not sure that many people watch High Tide so they may not know who Ella Valée is.’

You worry too much, Frankie.’

Also, I think that the pianist might be a fairy like that Elton whatshisname.’

It hasn’t done Elton whatshisname any harm, has it?’ says Duke. ‘Anyway, this is jazz we’re talking about. Jazz isn’t about image.’

I know that, Duke. Jazz is all about the music.’

And, fifties Jazz is going to be the next new thing, remember.’

I guess you are right, Duke. We are due a bit of good luck, aren’t we?’

Luck’s got nothing to do with it, Frankie. Certainly you have to be able to take advantage of a situation. But, it’s all to do with calculation and confidence. But, with a name like Hat Band, they can’t fail. …….. I wonder who the original Hat Band were.’

We’ll probably never know, will we? But it was dead lucky you came across that job lot of their instruments, Duke. By the way, how did you know that big old house on Dartmoor was empty and the owner was away in Japan?’

I keep my ears open, Frankie.’

The best bit was you coming up with the toy guns, though, They all really went for it. Scared the living shits out of them.’

Shall we finish our drinks and go back and see what they’ve got for us? They are bound to have got a number or two by now. We’ll tell them they need to have enough tunes for the album before we let them go. Got your gun, Frankie?’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved