Jazz 2

jazz2

Jazz 2 by Chris Green

I am out in the back, struggling over a spreadsheet, when I hear the bell ring. I cannot see the woman who has come into the shop, but it appears she can see me.

Have you got Soul Junction by Red Garland?’ she calls out.

If I have, it’ll be in the CD rack in the corner,’ I call back. ‘The one marked Bebop. They are all in alphabetical. I’ll be with you in a minute.’

I was hoping you might have it on vinyl,’ she says.

Mood Indigo doesn’t get many requests for Red Garland these days, let alone for his albums on vinyl. Sadly, Red has fallen out of favour. Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans tend to be the jazz pianists today’s jazz buffs choose. Yet arguably, Red was the most innovative of the three. It was he, along with George Shearing perhaps, who pioneered the block chord, so influential in jazz piano. Then there were his arrangements. He brought out the best in his players. Some of John Coltrane’s best work was with Red’s Quintet.

Soul Junction,’ she repeats with a smile as I approach the counter. She is a beauty. How can I best describe her without alienating female readers? She is in her prime. She is statuesque. She is dressed in a light-coloured, tight-fitting summer dress that accentuates her curves. She has big brown eyes and long dark hair. She …….

It’s for my husband, Sacha,’ she says. ‘It’s his ninetieth birthday next week. He saw the Red Garland Quintet play many times during their residency at The Paris Jazz Club, back in the nineteen-fifties.’

I’m not sure how to react to this revelation. It means there is a sixty-five-year age gap between them. Best not to draw attention to it, perhaps. Anything goes these days.

I can probably get a copy of Soul Junction for you on vinyl,’ I say, instead. ‘If you let me have your number, I’ll let you know when it is in.’

That would be fabulous,’ she says. ‘Thank you. I’m Gala by the way and here’s my card.’

After she has left, I look at the card. Gala Rose, Enigma. At a guess, not her married name, probably not her birth name. And why Enigma? Perhaps it doesn’t matter greatly. She is a sensual delight. I am smitten.

There are several mint condition copies of the album available on eBay for around £25, so I select the one from a trader I am familiar with. From experience, I am aware that mint condition does not mean very much on eBay these days. It is a loose description. The album arrives five days later, hopefully in time for her Gala’s husband’s birthday, so I give her a ring. I have to admit I am looking forward to seeing her again.

Hi, Gala. It’s Duke from Mood Indigo,’ I say. ‘I have your husband’s disc.’

Oh, hello Duke,’ she says. ‘I’m afraid Sacha passed away the day before yesterday. He had an abseiling accident.’

That’s terrible,’ I say, suppressing my puzzlement at why a ninety-year-old man would be abseiling. ‘Is there anything I can do?’

You’re very kind,’ she says. ‘No, I don’t think so. Once the funeral is over and the estate is settled, I’m going to go away for a while. South America, probably. It will be Spring there by then.’

I think about Gala now and then, but do not expect to see her again. I am surprised therefore when, six months later, she comes into the shop again.

Have you got Blue Train,’ she says?

One of my all-time favourites,’ I say. ‘I have it here on CD but I don’t have it in vinyl. I sold the last copy last week. But I can get it for you.’

That’s OK,’ Gala says. ‘Ramon doesn’t have a record deck yet so CD will be perfect.’

Ramon?’ I say.

Yes, I met Ramon at a Gaucho skills demonstration in Buenos Aires. He is a fine horseman. Gauchos have extraordinary riding skills. Nothing compares to watching them compete in the national sport of Pato. It is a fast and furious game, not for the faint-hearted. The most exciting part is when the Pato ball falls to the ground and the gaucho has to pick it up from this horse at a gallop. This is Ramon’s speciality. Of course, Ramon is younger than Sacha. He’s eighty-eight. Anyway, we got married last month. We are planning on opening an equestrian centre over here.’

Congratulations,’ I say. It is difficult not to remark on the strangeness of Gala’s life, in particular her curious attraction to older men. But as it is none of my business, I once again resist the temptation. Each to their own. Perhaps her life is only unusual when compared to my dull existence, a single thirty-something man managing a backstreet jazz record shop and trying to make ends meet.

Thank you,’ she says. ‘Ramon is a darling. I’m sure we will be very happy.’

I hope it works out for you this time,’ I say. ‘Anytime you or Ramon want more jazz records, or even just a chat about jazz, feel free to drop in.’

Of course,’ Gala says. ‘You’ve been very helpful.’

I don’t actually expect to see Gala anytime soon. When relative strangers say they will see you soon, they seldom mean it. But yet again, I am proved wrong. Less than a week later, she is back. While it would be wrong to say that her sparkle has gone altogether, she seems more subdued.

I don’t suppose you happen to have Requiem Para Un Malandra by Astor Piazzolla, Duke,’ she says. ‘I need to get hold of it for Ramon’s funeral. He died in a hang-gliding accident in that storm at the weekend.’

Oscar Wilde’s quote about carelessness comes to mind, but it is clearly not an appropriate response to this situation.

I’m sorry to hear that,’ is the best I can manage.

I’ve heard of Piazzola, of course. He is synonymous with tango music. I probably have one or two of his CDs in stock, although I can’t say for certain as I’ve given up on the stock spreadsheet. But I didn’t realise that Piazzola wrote requiems. My Spanish is not very good, but doesn’t malandra translate as crook? It certainly seems to be a dangerous twilight world that Gala inhabits.

I’m Inspector Bill and this is my colleague, D.C. Younger,’ the tall man in the detective coat says. They do not look as if they’ve come about a parking violation. ‘We’d like to talk to you about your friend, Ralph Monday who was found strangled at his home in Stable Hill last week.’

I don’t believe I know anyone of that name,’ I say.

Acquaintance then?’

No. I don’t think so. It’s an unusual name. I’m pretty sure I would remember.’

Then perhaps you might explain why this business card with your name and with your mobile number added in biro was found on his person,’ Inspector Bill says. ‘This is your handwriting, is it not?’

Any why the CD of Blue Train was in the player. As you will observe, the CD case has a Mood Indigo sticker on it,’ D.C. Younger says, showing me a photo on his phone.

I have absolutely no idea,’ I say. ‘I do not know anyone called Ralph Monday.’

It has also come to our attention that similar evidence was found at the scene of the as yet unsolved murder of one, Samuel Charles, a few months ago. In this case, it was a vinyl copy of Red Garland’s Soul Junction that had the Mood Indigo sticker on it. But the card we found there is identical to the other one with the same handwriting in biro,’ Bill says. ‘Samuel Charles too was strangled. Big coincidence, wouldn’t you say?’

Evidence? Surely they don’t think I murdered these people.

Oh, come on, guys!’ I say. ‘If I had, as you say, killed these two people, I would have hardly left such incriminating evidence. Besides, they are both strangers. What motive would I have?’

My mind meanwhile is working overtime. It dawns on me that there might be a connection to Gala Rose, Enigma. Enigma? Femme Fatale might be a better descriptor. I don’t like to think it, but there must be a connection. Even the names of the deceased seem like extrapolations of her two dead husbands’ names, albeit the circumstances behind their demise differ. But what would Gala’s motive be? Unless she was going to inherit, the gold-digger explanation would seem to carry little weight. And if she was the beneficiary, surely she would realise that this would show up somewhere in the records. Wouldn’t it? There is something underhand happening here. But how am I going to get to the bottom of it? I don’t even know her real name and I know the phone number she gave me no longer works because I tried it the day before yesterday. Even given proof of her involvement, I would be reluctant to feed her to the lions.

If you don’t come up with a convincing explanation in two minutes flat, it’s a trip downtown for you,’ Bill says. ‘And don’t expect to be leaving anytime soon.’

I take a moment to compose myself. Bill’s threat smacks of desperation. They are clutching at straws. They are hoping that I will incriminate myself. This is how they operate. It makes their job easier if, caught off guard, people say the wrong thing and put themselves in the frame. They have nothing that puts me at the scene of either of the crimes. And since I wasn’t, they are unlikely to be able to come up with any. They are a long way from the something you can rely on in court, handcuffs stage.

Why have you waited months to come to me with your evidence connecting me to the murder of your Samuel Charles?’ I say as an opener.

He moves on to the Ralph Monday case.

I don’t even know where Stable Hill is,’ I say.

They change tack and suggest that even if I am not responsible, I might be an accomplice. The jazz albums at the crime scenes are the common thread.

I tell them I sell dozens of Red Garland and John Coltrane albums, perhaps hundreds. They are popular artists. How and I supposed to remember who bought each one?

But you must keep a record of sales, Younger says.’

Not exactly,’ I say. ‘I am rubbish with computers.’

My incompetence on sales spreadsheets is matched by my incompetence on the free accounting software on the machine. Accounts have never been something I’ve been hung up on. I normally just get my accountant to make up some figures at the end of the year. After all, the raison d’être of jazz is its informality. Even so, they insist on taking the laptop away for examination by their techies.

We will be in touch,’ Bill says finally. ‘Don’t get any funny ideas about leaving the country.’

I still find it difficult to picture Gala as a cold-blooded killer. But whether they were her husbands or not, it now seems possible, even likely that she committed the two murders. Or arranged for them to be carried out. But why? Her marriage narratives seemed apocryphal when she related them to me. But because it would be too crazy to make up such wild stories, and the fact that she looked ravishing, I did not examine them closely. I accepted them. I took her at her word. She was married to two very old men. So what? Should I have asked the police if the victims were very old men? The ones Gala had described? They did not give a lot of detail about the victims, just that they were dead. Strangled.

If Gala was making it all up anyway, would it make any difference what she told me? It would not matter how old Sacha or Ramon supposedly were. But where on Earth do the jazz albums fit into the story? What purpose did they serve? Perhaps they were to make it look as if I may have had something to do with the murders. But if so, why? And where is Gala now?

The police return the laptop, dismayed at the level of my incompetence with its software. Nothing of any interest to anyone here. They tell me I have even managed to disable the operating system. They call around a couple more times with questions about my customers, but each time they seem less hopeful in getting a result. Why they have been able to get nowhere with other leads is a mystery. But apparently, nearly half of all murders in the UK are unsolved these days.

There is no further sign of Gala Rose. Even the police have uncovered no traces of her. I begin to question whether she was real. Perhaps I simply imagined her. In order to get on with my life, I decide this is the best way to look at it. There is no sense in beating myself up. I expect everyone experiences episodes that they are unable to find explanations for. It’s all part of life’s rich tapestry. It is very unlikely I will see Gala again, and I have my entire future ahead of me. I can join a dating agency. Renew my membership at Ronnie Scott’s. I might even enrol for a computer course to learn spreadsheets.

Do you have Something Else?’ she says.

I can see that this is not Gala, but even so, she is a stunner. How can I best describe her without alienating female readers? She is in her prime. She is statuesque. She is dressed in a light-coloured, tight-fitting summer dress that accentuates her curves. She has big brown eyes and long dark hair. She …….

You mean the hard bop album by Cannonball Adderley,’ I say.

Yes that’s the one,’ she says. ‘It’s for my husband. It will be his eighty-sixth birthday next week.’

What can I say? At least husbands are getting younger.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

When I Was Older

wheniwasolder

When I Was Older by Chris Green

When I was older, I was a saxophonist. I was one of the last living saxophonists before the instrument was banned and all saxophones were melted down to help the war effort. The trumpet suffered a similar fate. Brass instrument detection squads with sophisticated detection equipment were deployed with harsh penalties introduced for possession. But that was then. April 2047, if you want the precise date it became illegal to blow your horn.

I’m Charlie Tooting. You may not have heard of me as I am, at the present time, that is your present time, the time you are reading this, still a journeyman, working out tunes on the blues harmonica. Little Walter and Junior Wells are my inspiration. But at some stage, in what you think of as your future, you will hear my name. You will hear my music. Mark my words! You may even be moved to buy some. Make a note now! Charlie Tooting. Saxophone.

It is difficult, isn’t it, to get your head around the fact that time isn’t linear? This is not what you are led to expect. But, when you look more closely, there is no conceptual distinction between past and future, let alone an objective line of now. You need to drop the idea that time is something that flows. Time, like space, is just there. All of it. More helpful perhaps to view space-time as a four-dimensional structure. The fundamental laws of physics work the same both forward and backwards.

Saxophones were not melted down to help the war effort, of course. Nor were trumpets. By 2047, wars were not fought this way. All conflicts were conducted in cyberspace. The real reason for the ban is a puzzler. It may never be disclosed.

A group of us, a dozen in all perhaps, are sitting in Eve’s garden in the early Autumn sunshine. It is a Saturday morning. It is the time you refer to as now. Eve has put on a spread of cakes and pastries including my favourite, tiramisu. In the background, Chet Baker is singing about a lost love. It is not clear when his love went missing.

Vincent asks Eve if there is any wine.

Eve laughs and says something about 1969.

What on Earth is she on about?

A reference to a lyric from a 1976 tune by The Eagles,’ Holly Wood explains.

Mainstream rock is not really my thing. It lacks subtlety. Little use of counterpoint. Sparing use of minor keys. I prefer jazz and blues.

Is there anything going on today?’ Pascal asks. ‘Something we could all go to.’

I mention the possibility of going to the match. Our local team are playing one of the bigger teams. This doesn’t seem to interest anyone.

The stranger in the harlequin-patterned shirt stroking the Maine Coon cat tells us there is a Street Fair on Monday. With fairground rides, magicians, circus acts, music and dancing. He mentions the names of some bands. They sound like tropical diseases.

Is Monday a Bank Holiday?’ I ask. It seems strange to have one in October. If it is a public holiday, it will probably mean that my harmonica class will have been cancelled. Lou said nothing about this last week. He just told me I needed to learn a new breathing technique and practice my blocking.

Monday is a Bank Holiday,’ Eve says. ‘It’s a new one to celebrate Prince Barry’s birthday.’

Who is Prince Barry, I wonder? Have I missed something? It’s hard to keep tabs on everything. There are so many unanswered questions. Why are red buttons always the most important? Who let the dogs out? And what is that low-pitched hum we’ve all been hearing for the last three months? No-one knows.

I don’t think I’ll be able to go to the Street Fair,’ I say. ‘My war wound is playing up.’

Shrapnel. Operation Olive. The Battle of Rimini. 1944. This was a proper war. A war with tanks and guns. That’s where I came across the harmonica. It must have belonged to a dead soldier. 1944.

Time can be a trickster,’ I say.

Time keeps on slipping, slipping into the future,’ Eve says.

Another tune from the 1970s, apparently. Eve is fond of quoting song lyrics. But does it? Does time keep slipping, slipping into the future? It seems to me this is not always the case. The big white Zephyr with the tail fins has been following me for weeks and I have been following the big white Zephyr with the tail fins for weeks. You may have seen it too. Big white Zephyr. Blacked out windows.

You’ve probably noticed how the night moves. Without warning, you are shifted from one narrative to another. It is said that when we leave somewhere, we leave something of ourselves behind. Even though we go away, part of us remains. We might thus inhabit many places at the same time. I was unable to understand the mechanics of the mystical crossroads until I was older but this is the way it is with time. One day, you will wake to find that the information has silently seeped into your consciousness. You will find yourself zipping about the space-time continuum. It will become so commonplace you will not even notice when it happens. And happen, it will.

I am on stage. The Charlie Tooting Quintet. We are playing at the Rimini Bar. In a small town in the west of England. Maybe you are in the audience. I can see there are quite a few in tonight. If you are not, you can catch up with us elsewhere. You will find details of our touring schedule on our website. Be sure to check the dates carefully otherwise you may find you have missed us. We have a request to play How Long Has This Been Going On. This is strictly speaking a tenor tune but I like to surprise people by playing it on soprano sax. I look around the stage for my instrument. I don’t appear to have brought the soprano. In fact, I have no saxophone at all. All I have here is a harmonica. And there is no band.

These things happen. When I was older, I discovered temporal precision, like many other things, is not something you can rely on. Best to throw out your timetables. They will do you no good. What then can you rely on? Can you rely on what you see? What you hear? What you read? Of course not! Can you rely on Divine intervention? Can you rely on intuition? Chance? Who can say?

Backgammon is considered a game that has the perfect balance between skill and luck. You need to make similar calculations to those you might make in a game of chess but at the same time, throughout the game, you have to rely on chance. The odds of throwing a double six are thirty five to one. The odds of rolling two double sixes in a row, when this is what you require to bear off, I believe, are one thousand, two hundred and ninety five to one. How then is Clancy Edo able to defy these odds? And this, of course, from a losing position and after I have upped the stakes with the doubling dice. Clancy has managed this on several occasions now. Littlewood’s Law suggests a person can expect to experience miracles, which he defines as events with odds of one in a million, at the rate of about one per month. But even so.

It was not until I was older that I realised many things in life are quite probably, unexplainable. The low-pitched hum we’ve all been hearing is unexplainable. The way the big white Zephyr with the tail fins keeps appearing is unexplainable. The way an original tune appears in your head from out of nowhere is unexplainable. Perhaps any revolutionary new idea is. Where can it have come from? Consciousness itself is unexplainable. If you are looking for answers to life’s mysteries, rationality will get you nowhere. There are black holes and it is said by one of our great thinkers that black holes are where God divided by zero.

I think I can hear someone calling me. It could be that my new medication is ready.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Cor Anglais

coranglais.jpg

Cor Anglais by Chris Green

I’m guessing many of you haven’t had someone following you in the fog playing The Diabelli Variations on the cor anglais. Beethoven piano pieces aren’t something you expect to hear on a double reed woodwind instrument in a concert hall, let alone while you are taking a morning walk along the coastal path. You will be able then to understand my puzzlement. Here I am on my way to Red Rock and so is the mystery cor anglais player in pursuit. Sea mists have been building in strength throughout the year in these parts and this is the worst one we’ve had. It’s a solid sheet of dense grey. Visibility is down a matter of feet. It is foolhardy to be walking along the narrow path at all. But the dogs next door were barking furiously. I could no longer concentrate on the chess video I was watching. The so-called game of the (last) century, Bobby Fischer versus Donald Byrne. We had reached Fischer’s famous Queen sacrifice on move seventeen. There were only four moves to go but I had to get out of the house.

When I stop to allow my pursuer to catch up so that I can catch a glimpse, he stops too. But he continues playing. I have only a rudimentary knowledge of music but my understanding is that the range of the English horn is a little under four octaves while the pianoforte spans seven octaves. As Beethoven was one to make full use of the keyboard, you would have to say this interpretation of the Diabelli Variations falls short.

My phone rings. ‘Bonjour Monsieur Gibson,’ the caller says.

He continues speaking in French but slowly, as if it is not his main language. Not that this helps. My knowledge of French is almost non-existent. I blame this on my old language teacher, Mr Coot. I don’t think his heart was in it. He spent whole lessons talking about cricket or telling us about the time he met Harold Macmillan. I wasn’t able to learn much French. But argent means money, doesn’t it? And I can make out the words, fils and tuer. Son. Kill. I don’t much like where the conversation is heading. I was wondering why Paul hadn’t phoned me but I had put it down to his being too busy with his Environmental Science assignment and not because he was being held hostage. It appears he’s been kidnapped. There’s not a lot else that kidnappé can mean, is there? I can’t understand much of the rest though. What’s the point in him issuing a threat in a language I don’t understand?

I try to get the caller to speak English but he clearly wants to call the shots. When he hangs up, I still have no idea who he is, how or why he might be holding Paul or exactly what his demands are. Why does he imagine that I have any money, anyway? Since I lost my job at the software company, I have been living on handouts. Could the phonecall even be a hoax? Someone pretending to be French? To confuse the issue, shift the emphasis? Might it even be something Paul has for some reason cooked up with his friends? Probably not. It does not seem like the kind of thing Paul would do. In any case, it would be irresponsible for me to let the matter go. For the time being, I have to assume my son is being held to ransom and it is not a hoax. I need to phone the police. Unfortunately, the Emergency 999 service has been suspended and I don’t have enough credit to phone the 118 Directory Enquiries services to get a number.

It is getting murkier by the minute. I need to take stock and get to a phone I can use. I remember my old chess buddy, Krzysztof lives close by, in a static home in the holiday park. He rents it cheaply during the winter months and I haven’t seen him for a while. Krzysztof is a resourceful man. He is one of those fortunate people that know how to get out of difficult situations. I’m certain he will be able to help. He will know what I should do.

I give him a call and explain my predicament.

Strange things are happening to us all, my friend,’ he says. ‘These days, day is night and black is white.’

I agree with him. Things are indeed upside down. Until recently, Paul’s future seemed guaranteed. The world was crying out for environmental scientists. But how quickly things change. Unlike climate, which is officially not now changing, even though everyone can see it is. I am not a great one for reading the papers but the outlook hasn’t looked good since the big squabble started. Then there was that other business. The one we voted on. It’s a shame the young did not get out to vote because it is going to be worse for them. Wherever you look now there is doom and gloom. Censored internet. Less choice. Poor prospects. Smaller horizons. You probably remember those days not so long ago when you could book a holiday in the sun. You could fly anywhere. Chess players from my club can no longer play any of the guys from overseas. Sundays have been replaced by Mondays, they are fracking in the park, packs of dogs are roaming the streets and a bottle of red wine costs an arm and a leg.

When I arrive at Krzysztof’s, I find to my horror that he has no face. I look at him but no-one is looking back at me. Between the collar of his shirt and his hat, there is a void. No eyes. No ears. No mouth. He did not warn me about this. Would it have been better if he had given me the heads-up? I don’t know. It would still have been a shock. Some of you may not have experienced it but until you get used to talking to a hat bobbing up and down and stranger still, the hat talking back, it can be disorientating. I try not to draw attention to it but Krzysztof detects I am uncomfortable and tries to put me at ease.

It’s not as unusual as you might imagine, Bill’ he says. ‘Many people from my country living here have no faces now. It’s one way we are able to stay put since that vote.’

On the other hand, they’ve made it easier to stay put,’ I say. ‘There’s not even a rail link to the continent anymore.’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

The Hurdy Gurdy Man

The Hurdy Gurdy Man by Chris Green

It is after midnight. Lois and I are watching a nail-biting episode of Bad Break on Horizon when the old man in the threadbare purple duffle coat calls round. He is selling violins. In these uncertain times, traders are likely to call round at any time of day or night but it is unusual for a violin seller to call so late. You expect people selling camping gear and kitchen utensils to knock on your door up until three a.m. And of course, carpet sellers. But we are usually in bed by then. As a rule, we go to bed at two, after Cricketers’ Wives on Bygone finishes, unless it’s a Thursday and we happen to be watching Black Lens on Extra. This does not finish until two-thirty.

Lately, there is a non-stop procession of hawkers, selling anything and everything. Fishing tackle, jet skis, garden gnomes, overspill from car boots, sometimes things that even charity shops won’t take. Having been encouraged to buy all manner of merchandise at every opportunity, people are constantly clearing out. Add to this the swathes of people who have been hit by the dramatic downturn, desperate to sell a few bits and pieces to be able to put food on the table and you begin to understand why you get so many callers. We now recognise some of the regulars. The late-night transient selling boxes of knock-off DVDs, the Frankie Dettori lookalike selling fake signed photographs of sports celebrities, the down-at-heel vagrant selling Lambretta badges and Gilbert O’Sullivan CDs. Sometimes we have to put the light out and pretend we have already gone up the wooden hill.

We don’t normally buy violins on the doorstep. Neither of us plays. Yet this does not stop me from purchasing a Cremona Premier. I have not seen a green violin before. And he is only asking ninety-nine pounds for it. I recognise a bargain when I see one and a green violin for ninety-nine pounds is a bargain in anyone’s book. The man in the purple duffle coat knocks off a catchy Fritz Kreisler tune and says that he will accept an IOU if necessary. Although money is tight, I don’t like the thought of being in debt so I pay him in cash. He says his name is Quinn and if we are interested, he may have some trumpets next week.

Buying from door-to-door sellers is all very well but you have to be on your guard. Life was easier when you could buy goods over the internet. You had eBay and Amazon and Gumtree where practically everything you could ever want was available. I knew someone who bought a bottlenose dolphin and Ravi next door used to buy all his drugs this way. In addition, most businesses had an online purchasing facility. Admittedly, you were deluged with adverts but with practice, it was easy to ignore these. And for specialised markets, there was the so-called darknet.

But all of this is gone now. It might only be six months or so but it is as if the internet never existed. It just goes to show how quickly you get used to things. It is surprising how easily a new common sense develops. Lois and I used to work for Google and now and again, we hear a rumour from an ex-colleague that the internet will soon be back. But then, we hear nothing further. This leads us to believe that whoever or whatever is blocking it is determined to keep it that way. While it is difficult to say for certain, it appears cyber-networks are down worldwide. It seems you would need the internet to find out why there is no internet. Without the internet, news media has struggled. The stories we get have become more localised, the re-routing of the bypass, the search for the missing teenager or the closure of The Goat and Bicycle.

People are throwing out their iPhones. With their functionality reduced to that of making calls, they are of little use. Even making calls is hit and miss due to the breakdown of communication links. Someone from the discount store in town called round last week in the middle of the final episode of Killing Steve offering a job lot. £50 for ten, he said.

When the internet was still up and running, you could stream your favourite TV programmes on your portable devices or on sixty-inch screens in the comfort of your living room. Lois and I used to watch our shows in the middle of the afternoon after we had finished our shifts at Google. We became accustomed to binge-watching box sets. We frequently used to watch three or four episodes of Twin Peaks or Black Widow on the trot. And we could get Alexa to put the kettle on or turn the central heating up while we looked through reviews of hundreds of new series that were available to stream. We took it all for granted. Without the internet, there is no catch-up television. You have to view everything in real-time and there are strict rules about what can be shown on TV before the nine pm watershed. Tame sitcoms and vapid soaps. Auctions of tat and tired quiz shows. Channels are required to put any programmes with adult content on after nine. So, Lois and I no longer enjoy our cosy early nights. Although today’s serial dramas are only poor imitations of those of yesteryear, each night we find ourselves in front of the TV until the early hours.

For some unexplainable reason, recording devices no longer work so we cannot time-shift programmes. Even the techies I know cannot understand why this is. But I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky. We still have television although from time to time there is talk of this too disappearing completely, in the same way that the internet did. You never know what to believe. In this post-truth age, it is nearly impossible to find out what is really going on.

Now there are no longer any internet-related services, Lois and I are unable to find work. We now grow much of our own produce in the garden and door-to-door grocers come around each morning to supplement this so we do not need to go into town often. When we do, we come across groups of noisy protestors, no doubt angry about what is going on. It means I have plenty of time on my hands to learn to play my new violin. The first few days are probably agonising for the neighbours. If you’ve ever had a son or daughter learning the instrument, you will understand. The violin in the hands of a novice does not immediately produce sweet music. I suspect Ravi is able to find a way to shut it out but once or twice, I hear the Domingos the other side of us banging on the wall.

In the middle of an episode of Found, Quinn calls round as promised with his trumpets. He plays a pretty little Chet Baker number on a shiny Selmer. Lois is transfixed and decides she wants it.

You can have it for ninety-nine pounds,’ he says. ‘And I’ll even throw in an interesting little primer.’

That’ll be a great help,’ Lois says. ‘No YouTube instruction videos these days, are there? I’ll take it.’

And next week I’ll be round again with a surprise,’ he says. ‘Something a little different.’

I make slow but steady progress on the violin but with her somewhat unusual primer, Lois’s trumpet playing comes on in leaps and bounds. In no time at all, she masters, Should I Stay or Should I Go and Rock the Casbah. The Domingos appear to be enjoying these Clash numbers as we hear no further knocking on the wall.

Without warning, television goes off the air. All the channels show static. None of our friends or neighbours has any information about what has happened. Who is behind it? What is their aim? At first, the hope is that the blackout is temporary but it continues day after day. There is no way of knowing but it gradually becomes apparent that it is a worldwide phenomenon. It looks like TV will not be back anytime soon.

Lois and I start going to bed at nine o’clock. It is often difficult to sleep though as more and more people knock at the door with goods for sale. Without the internet or television, perhaps there is nothing left for folks to do with their spare time but life-launder. We debate whether we ought to do the same. Should we have a big clear out? Should we get a handcart and go door-to-door, selling some of the teapots Lois has collected over the years and my model aeroplanes?

Where have you been?’ Quinn says. ‘I’ve called round several times.’

We don’t answer the door after three in the afternoon,’ I say. ‘Too many people selling things and we don’t need anything else. We don’t have room.’

You’ll want this,’ Quinn says. ‘I’ve been saving it for you.’

He opens his bag and pulls out the most curious musical instrument I’ve ever seen. It is shaped a little like a violin but has a silver crank at the butt end. Its strings appear to be covered by an ornate wooden board and it has a small but prominent keyboard on the underside of this. It is a work of art.

What is it?’ I say.

It’s a hurdy gurdy,’ Quinn says.

With this, he deftly knocks out an old English folk tune. So far as I can gather, the crank works like a bow and the keyboard blocks the strings to produce notes.

Ninety-nine pounds and it’s yours,’ he says. ‘You might find it a little tricky at first but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it. No primer for this one, I’m afraid.’

It still seems remarkably cheap so once again I go to see what cash we have left under the mattress. There is just enough. I tell him I will have plenty of time to learn to play now that there’s no television to interrupt me. ‘

Of course,’ Quinn says. ‘The old goggle box has finally gone. Never watched it myself. Constant stream of babble. Frank Lloyd Wright called it chewing gum for the eyes. Anyway, you probably won’t believe me but I have a theory about what has happened to the internet and TV.’

Everyone, it seems, has a theory but no one is able to back up their thoughts. The Earth’s magnetism gone haywire. Mass malfunction of satellites. Divine retribution for our sins. The Illuminati perhaps. Religious zealots, Muslims, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists. Tech companies holding everyone to ransom to raise their prices. The Chinese or the Russians using it as a tool for world domination. The precursor to an alien invasion. Is Quinn’s theory going to be any different?

We hear him out. His idea is absurd. Surely he cannot be serious. How could it be down to a small bunch of anarchists to highlight climate change? Granted Google’s servers used the same amount of power as whole continents and televisions were getting larger and larger. Certainly, taking out the main channels of advertising would hit capitalism where it hurts. But how would they have had the funding or the means to take down secure well-established global communications networks? And how would the ensuing chaos benefit the Extinction Rebellion cause? Surely they would need a voice and a means to transmit their anti-capitalist, save the planet, peacenik, no nukes message. To to do so by word of mouth on a day-to-day basis worldwide would be a big ask for a small disorganised unit.

Nice try,’ I say. ‘But I really don’t think that’s likely.’

I did say you may not believe me,’ Quinn says. ‘After all, it does seem a bit fanciful. But, we shall see. Enjoy your hurdy gurdy and don’t forget to look out for me. I may be round again with another surprise.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Nevermind

nevermind

Nevermind by Chris Green

Growing up was never going to be easy for me. I could see from an early age that my parents were simply too distracted to put effort into raising a family. In the circles in which they moved, parenting was not fashionable. They immersed themselves in a series of leisure interests, none of which involved having a youngster in tow. Perhaps it was a generational thing. In the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, attitudes to family life in society were changing. As a result, I missed out on Santa’s Grottos, pantomimes, seaside outings, board games and skateboarding.

Busy pursuing a series of unsuccessful band projects, Dad was absent a lot of the time but Mum was hardly there at all. After years of talking about movie stardom, she finally left for Hollywood when I was nine, destined to become a film extra in a series of low budget B-Movies. Dad called it a day on performing with bands. It was obviously not going to make him a fortune. From this point on, he began to focus on building his vast record collection and growing a long beard. He looked like some kind of shaman or Eastern mystic. Does he have hidden powers, Phil Dark asked me one time, is he a soothsayer? Eddie Whitlock, who I used to play football with, referred to him as Mephistopheles. It slowly dawned on me that Dad was a bit weird.

I was never sure exactly what he did for a living but it was not a nine to five at the office. As far as I could tell, it involved a lot of sitting around in our smoke-filled front room with groups of dazed-looking people listening to loud music. Whatever it was, he put in very long hours. Clearly, this paid off. He always seemed to have large wads of tens and twentys in rubber bands. From time to time, he would peel off a couple of notes and tell me to go down the arcade or something. I quickly became adept at losing money on the machines. School was never of much interest to me and Dad didn’t even insist that I attended. I’m not sure I missed a lot.

By the time I was fourteen, Dad’s collection of albums extended around all four walls of the front room and beyond. It must have run into thousands. This was before the digital age. In Dad’s world, even the then-new medium of CDs was frowned upon. As for cassettes, he said, you might as well be listening through polythene. It had to be vinyl. He insisted the sound vinyl gave was richer. He was eclectic in his tastes and enjoyed everything from reggae to Nepalese gong music, heavy metal to acid jazz, The New York Dolls to The Third Ear Band. He had everything. The Velvet Underground, The Dead Kennedys. The Psychedelic Furs. He had to my reckoning no less than nineteen Captain Beefheart albums. And probably the only Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs album in existence

While it would be wrong to say I liked all the music he played. Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy and Throbbing Gristle’s The Second Annual Report, for instance, were hard to get into. But Dad’s collection provided me with a musical education way beyond that which I would have got from my peers or by listening to the radio. In the normal run of things I would never have heard be-bop jazz, roots reggae or Creole. And I would have probably only heard the punk they played on Radio 1 and not the gritty New York stuff. Dad was keen for me to show an interest. He actively encouraged my appreciation of music. When he wasn’t too busy, he would take time out and like a history teacher, take me through his collection.

This is Chuck Berry,’ he might say. ‘This is where rock music began. The intro of Johnny B. Goode changed everything. And this is Dick Dale who pioneered the surf guitar sound.’

Or another time, ‘This is Nirvana, son. It’s called Nevermind. You won’t come across this for another ten years. But then you will hear it a lot. There are others too.’

I didn’t take much notice of the ten years bit at the time but I wish I had. If had I taken it in, it may have helped me later on.

Given there was little else happening around the house, I developed a keen interest in music. I discovered a lot of it sounded brilliant, especially on the kit that Dad had set up, the Lin deck, the powerful Quad amp and the massive Kef speakers. Music from all genres. It was also not too shabby on the Sony music centre he bought me for my bedroom. I was becoming hooked. Sometimes we both had our systems on full blast. It must have been hell for the neighbours.

I don’t mind you playing my albums,’ he said. ‘So long as you are careful. But whatever you do, don’t be tempted to play this one.’

With this, he drew out an album with a plain matt black sleeve with no writing or artwork.

Naturally, I asked him why. Was it dangerous? Was it illegal? He did not answer my questions.

Seriously,’ he said, to emphasise the point. ‘Don’t be tempted to play it. It would not be a good idea.’

He ignored further protestations and gave me the look that I knew from experience meant business. I put the matter to the back of my mind. No doubt one day I would find out what the record was but for now it didn’t matter. There were plenty of others to get my teeth into.

Inspired by Dad’s collection, and through the twentys, he continued to slip me every couple of days, I began a collection of my own. Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, The Ramones, Def Leppard, Was Not Was, Nick Drake, Jacob Miller. I liked a lot of different types of music. I felt I was ahead of my peers at school, who were still listening to the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet.

Although he had given up gigging, Dad still had some of his guitars hanging around and with my new-found interest in music, it seemed only natural that I should learn to play. The Gibson I plugged in didn’t make sweet sounds right away but after a few days practice, I began to get the hang of it. With a view to perhaps forming a group, I began to write songs with my friend, Charlie. Charlie had been playing longer than me and knew more than just a few chords. He could even play keyboards and read music.

By this time, Dad had met Debbie. At last, there was someone who seemed to like his Karl Marx beard. I had felt for a long time the beard had held him back in the romance stakes since Mum left. There was so much beard and it was so unkempt. Not every woman would want to wake up to that. But Debbie clearly didn’t mind. With a new spring in his step, he started to go out more often taking Debbie to exhibitions and concerts. This meant I often had the house to myself. Charlie took to coming around and we began to put together new songs. Charlie was impressed by Dad’s huge collection and we would go through it and play our favourites on the new Bang and Olufsen hi-fi Dad had bought to impress Debbie.

On one of Charlie’s visits, I went out to get refreshments and when I returned, I found him collapsed on the floor. I tried to bring him round by slapping him and shaking him but he did not respond. Had he taken something, he shouldn’t, I wondered? Had he suffered an attack of a mysterious life-threatening condition he had not told me about? I checked his pulse. It seemed to be pulsing and so far as I could tell, he was still breathing which was lucky. I sure as hell wasn’t going to give him the kiss of life. I would never live it down. I called an ambulance. They asked me who he was. They asked me what had happened. I said I didn’t know. The paramedics tried to bring him round. They seemed to become more and more flustered. One of them talked urgently to a colleague over the radio. Evidently, Charlie’s condition was serious. I went with the crew in the ambulance as it rushed him to hospital, alarms sounding.

While I was waiting in Littleton General for news, I got an angry call from Dad.

I told you to leave that album alone,’ he shouted down the phone.

Which album?’ I said.

The one I told you about,’ he said. ‘The black album. I found it in its dust jacket on the floor. …… At least, you didn’t play it. ……. You didn’t play it, did you? No, of course not. You couldn’t have. Otherwise …..’

I suddenly realised he was talking about the black album. As it happened, I hadn’t even thought about it for years.

Without saying where I was or what had happened to Charlie, I told Dad I had more important things to think about and hung up. But, might Charlie have played the album while I was out? Could there be a connection between this and his collapse? Dad had been very definite that I should not play it. There had to be a reason. But this was absurd. It was a ridiculous idea. What was I thinking? It couldn’t realistically have had anything to do with it.

I kept out of Dad’s way for a few days and he was pre-occupied with Debbie’s birthday preparations and he appeared to forget all about the episode. Charlie meanwhile recovered, but he did not come around much after this. I don’t know if this was down to Charlie or whether it was down to me but we never got around to discussing what had actually happened that day. Meanwhile, I found a new writing partner, Jilli who I discovered I could quite happily give the kiss of life to if needed. Things moved forward rapidly as they tend to do for teenagers.

You may not have heard of The Lenticular Clouds but in 1987, for one week in July, our single, Out of Time was in the charts at number 39. Also we recorded an album that we felt might have cemented us in the annals of rock history had it sadly not been shelved by the record company after an alleged wrangle with our manager, Larry Funk. The master tapes of Up in the Clouds mysteriously disappeared. We re-recorded the songs from the album but with poor facilities and wholesale changes in our line-up, they didn’t come out the same. Given the poor quality of the recording, this too was shelved. By the end of 1988, I found I was the only surviving member of the original band. Charlie, Vince, Hank and Freddie had all left, along with Jilli.

Out of the blue one day, I remembered the Nirvana disc that Dad had shown me back in 1981. The one he told me I would not come across for another decade. Why the anomaly had not troubled me before, I cannot say. Perhaps I had never been big on mindfulness. Like Mum and Dad, I was too easily distracted, unable to concentrate on one thing long enough to get to the bottom of it. But surely this was a biggie. How had I let this one go? It occurred to me now that there might be others like Nevermind, other items in Dad’s collection that denied temporal logic. Albums that Dad owned that rightly belonged to a future time. Hadn’t he suggested this was the case when he first mentioned it? How or why this might be, of course, was a different matter. Perhaps Phil Dark and Eddie Whitlock had been right and Dad did have special powers. Might the curious black album that he had made all the fuss about be part of the weirdness as well? It was time for me to investigate.

I did not confront Dad with it immediately but when he and Debbie had gone to see an art-house film at the cinema, I looked through the shelves for the black album. He had moved it but I eventually found it. I slowly took it out of its sleeve. There was nothing written on the plain black label. I placed it carefully on Dad’s new Linn Axis turntable and lowered the arm. I think I knew what I expected to hear but at the same time, I refused to believe it. Sure enough, it was Make Believe, the opening track from The Lenticular Clouds’ original album. The fist song Charlie and I wrote. I tried to get my head around how this could have happened. We had not even recorded it at the time that Dad first showed me the disc. But in a way it made sense because this was on the same occasion that he showed me Nevermind, which would not be available for another ten years. There was no rational explanation for this either. Perhaps there never would be. Dad refused point-blank to explain. What was the point, he said? I never listened to him and anyway, I would not understand. While I was not an expert in these matters, I had worked out that the passing of time was in a sense illusory. There was no tomorrow. Every time I had woken up it was today. But you could play around with concepts for evermore. This was abstract thinking. It did not help towards understanding. Why are life’s mysteries so tantalising?

It was anything but straightforward but I managed to track down Mum in California. I wished I hadn’t bothered. It was distressing. She didn’t seem to know who I was let alone what the score was with Dad’s music collection. Nor did she seem interested in talking. It sounded as if she wanted to get back to her bottle. Why are family units so dysfunctional?

Coda

I left home shortly after this. I left the music business behind and moved away from Littleton to sort my life out. I travelled for a year or two and ended up in New Zealand where I joined a sheep worshipping cult. This did not work out. Sheep worshipping is not for everyone. It is not all it is cracked up to be. I had a breakdown. On my recovery, I struck up a relationship with my psychotherapist’s daughter, Naida. We got married and now have two teenage children who are hopefully better adjusted than I was when I was growing up.

These days, I find it is far easier to stream music. You no longer need to build up a collection. It’s all out there. Apart from The Lenticular Clouds album that is. You may have some difficulty finding this. Nevermind, should you want to, you can stream all of Nirvana’s stuff. And as Johnny B. Goode was sent into interstellar space on the Voyager mission a while back, it is quite likely that aliens from some distant place are heading this way to see what else we have to offer. They are probably ready for Dick Dale’s surf guitar classics and Captain Beefheart’s nineteen albums. They are probably even ready for Impaled Northern Moonforest and Compressorhead. And who knows what they might bring to the table?

So far as I can make out, Dad’s record collection gradually got replaced by CDs and later, digital. I think Debbie was keen to free up the space. I never asked how much he got for it but it must have been thousands. The beard has gone too, I gather. Now and again, I try to recall how strange life was back then. But, it all seems so long ago, I sometimes question whether it happened at all. Memory is not always a reliable servant. I don’t know if I can say for certain that temporal order has been restored or whether it was ever breached. Perhaps its best to be mindful and be on the look out for more surprises, just in case.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Concerto

concerto2

Concerto by Chris Green

1: Allegretto con moto

There are not many famous Spanish concert pianists, fewer still from Cantabria, that rainy green strip in the north of the country. Nia Buendía might have joined this small elite, if only she had had larger hands. She mastered Mozart’s Piano Sonatas before she was ten and won regional competitions playing Beethoven Concertos when she was in her early teens. Catalan composer, Isaac Albéniz’s piano works are considered by many to be challenging, but Nia breezed through them. She took on Chopin and Schumann, winning acclaim for her lyrical interpretations of both composers. Even the difficult Carnaval caused her no problems. She was at the top of her game. Fame beckoned.

Sadly for Nia, classical pianists are eventually expected to have a go at Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov raises the bar a little. Even the greats have trouble. Rachmaninov, of course, had very big hands. He could comfortably straddle a thirteenth, whereas Nia could just manage an eighth. Nia could have exercised caution and elected to play his Piano Concerto No 2, which is less challenging, but she chose to perform the famously difficult Rach 3. Somehow she managed to get through the first two movements, but the Third Movement proved to be her downfall. Her hands were simply too small to span and reach the extra notes of the giant chords. This was the Iberian National Young Musician of the Year event and her performance was televised. It was a disaster and afterwards, Nia broke down. She did not perform in public again. She was just nineteen.

For months afterwards, Nia experienced a recurring nightmare about her performance. In the nightmare, instead of shrinking off from the stage meekly at the end of the concerto, she took a blacksmith’s hammer and set about breaking the Steinway into pieces. Her therapist, Juan Loco, suggested that this was a positive sign. He said that by smashing the piano, she was taking control of the situation. It did not feel this way to Nia. Her spirit crushed, she withdrew further inside herself.

She tried to hide her despair under a cloak of normality. She had one or two lovers and eventually got married to Pablo Rodrigues, a provincial town planner in Santander with whom she raised two normal if unexceptional children, Javier and Josefina. But something was missing from her life. Her sparkle had gone. She was just going through the motions of living. Days passed and years passed with nothing to distinguish them from one another. Nia worked part-time at the library then came home to cook dinner for the family. She pretended to like the television shows that Pablo liked and to understand golf. He, in turn, pretended to forget her birthday and not notice when she had her hair done. Twice a year they would have Pablo’s friends from the planning office and their wives round to dinner and she would cook paella and twice a year Pablo’s friends would return the compliment. Every year they went on holiday for the last week of August to Gijón, one hundred and forty kilometres along the coast.

Many of us pass our sad little lives never rocking the boat or troubling the pens of history’s copywriters. Perhaps we have nothing to say. The ennui of Nia’s early adult years may indeed be typical. What happens when in the middle of life we discover that time has begun to speed up? The expression mid-life crisis is perhaps apt. Sometimes it takes an unexpected event or a major health scare to jolt us out of our complacency. To show us that life is actually something that is finite.

To paraphrase Shel Silverstein, there came a point in her late thirties when Nia realised that Paris, sports cars and warm winds blowing her hair were not going to feature much in her life. She decided that a stable town planner might be better equipped to deal with the heteroclitic needs of teenage children than a soul in torment. Also, there was the terrible secret that she was not ready to share. She felt it was for the best all round that she made a clean break. In short, one day when Pablo was at work and Javier and Josefina were at school, she packed a bag, cleared out the joint bank account and left. Had she thought a little more about it she might have left a note to explain her reasons, but then Pablo might have pursued her and taken her prisoner again.

2: Largo misterioso

Let’s join Nia Buendía in New Orleans, Louisiana, the centre of voodoo, blues and jazz. Nia has taken an out of season riverboat down the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans. The blame for this strange pilgrimage must rest with young Javier’s copy of Las Aventuras de Huckleberry Finn which she found lying around. Reading it made her realise that human beings were nothing without an adventure. She also read Simone de Beauvoir’s El Segundo Sexo, which her friend, Flavia lent her. Why shouldn’t women as well as men have adventures? You had to take your chances in life. This was not a dress rehearsal for something else.

It has been a year or two since Hurricane Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees. Nia is at Po’ Boy’s Bar on the famous Bourbon Street and has had her bag stolen, with her passport and credit cards. This does not come as a surprise to Red Sayles, the jazz musician who has come over to comfort her. ‘Since Katrina, there’s no point in going to the police,’ he tells her. ‘They ain’t that big on crime solving.’

Unable to pay for the hotel and with nowhere else to go, Nia takes up Red’s offer to put her up until she gets sorted. He has an apartment just off of Basin Street, which he shares with some other musicians, but as luck would have it they are out of town. Red takes the opportunity to tell her what life in The Big Easy is like.

For the first few weeks after Katrina there was violence, looting, murder and rape,’ he says. ‘Then they sent in The National Guard. But that did not seem to help that much. There was more violence, looting, rape and murder. People was afraid. Except for journos looking for a story they just stopped coming. Everything was closed. There was no work. There was nothing in the shops.’

But I thought it was alright now,’ Nia says. ‘Well, until I had my bag stolen.’

It is alright. You was just unlucky, ma’am, that’s all. I guess it all takes time for things to settle. The city is slowly recovering. Places are re-opening, but for many, it is a hand to mouth existence.’

I did see a few beggars.’

Yeah, but only a few, because people here have got pride. New Orleans is made up of Cajun and Creole. Cajun is French-speaking white American and Creole is French-speaking black American. Now, I’m half Cajun and half Creole and I don’t speak French. Work that one out.’

I see.’

But I get by. If you know the right people, though, you can still get by. I love New Orleans. New Orleans is probably the only city in the modern world that is not homogenised. It has its own character. Most cities have become theme parks, but New Orleans, ma’am, New Orleans is real. I don’t think I will ever leave. The moonlight on the bayou, a creole tune that fills the air.’

That’s nice,’ Nia says. ‘Where is that from?’

Satchmo,’ Red says.

That’s Louis Armstrong, isn’t it,’ Nia says.

Yeah, the one and only. New Orleans got soul, you know. Music is its soul. You don’t play for the money here, you do it for the music.’

Nia is guarded about what she shares. She talks about how her trip down the Mississippi was an attempt to satisfy her vagabond spirit. She says little about her life with Pablo and drops it casually into the conversation that she has two children as if it is something that happened in a past life. Red does not pursue the enquiry.

Nia does not even mention that she once played the piano. But, through a comment she makes here and there, Red begins to realise that she has an understanding of music. One night when he comes home from playing in a club, he catches her tinkling around on his practice keyboard. This is the first time in years that she has played. Red can’t help but notice that she is not a beginner. He listens quietly from the next room. He feels that there is a great sadness about her playing. It is not just the minor key that describes her melancholy but the way she puts that extra space between the descending notes.

It might not sound like it, but that’s the blues you’re playing,’ Red says. ‘That there tune your playing is coming from a place deep inside.’

Oh sorry, I didn’t see you there.’

It’s a pretty tune,’ he says. ‘Where did you learn to play like that?’

Nia explains a little about her classical training and about her downfall.

Rachmaninov,’ he says. ‘You’re jivin me, right? He sounds like he’s hitting the dang piano with a blacksmith’s hammer.’

You mean …… the big chords?’ Nia says, taken aback by the image.

Yeah, them big chords, if that’s what you can call them. ……. But I do like some classical music. Satie is cool, you can do something with his tunes, and Debussy. …….. But Rachmaninov and all those Russian cats are a no-no. All artists and musicians should be looking for stillness in their art. You get disconnected when you lose your stillness and this Rachmaninov sure is disconnected.’

Red persuades Nia to sit in on a session at lunchtime the following day and it goes down well with the punters. In his evening set, he gives her a solo spot. She finds that Chopin lends himself to jazz. She puts in a bit of Bach too.

That was great,’ Nia says. ‘I enjoyed that more than turning over pages of music over and over to get to the end of a piece. I wanted it to just go on and on.’

That’s cool then,’ Red says. ‘You’re hired.’

But it can’t last,’ Nia says, her face dropping. ‘You see. There’s something I haven’t told you.’

She tells Red the secret that she has shared with no-one. She tells him that she has a rare incurable degenerative blood disease and according to the doctors back home has just a few months to live.

Nothing’s incurable,’ Red says, composing himself. ‘You wouldn’t believe what I’ve witnessed here in New Orleans. I know a Creole traiteur called Faucon Noir who can make the lame walk and make the blind see. He can probably even bring the dead back to life. They say Faucon Noir is 114 years old but you take a look at him, he doesn’t look a day older than you or me. Have you heard about Haitian voodoo?’

Isn’t it all dolls and pins?’

That’s the common myth, isn’t it? But gris-gris, as we call it, is not just mojo bags of rabbits’ feet and dragon’s blood. It ain’t ginseng or tai chi or acupuncture, this is the real deal. It’s a spiritual force which can be used to heal the body, mind and spirit.’

How does this ….. gris-gris work?’

I don’t know how it works. All I know is that it does work. Anyone who has lived in New Orleans will tell you that it works. You just wait and see. Faucon Noir will cure you of your rare blood disease or my name’s not Red Sayles.’

3: Allegro con sentimento

Let’s move on. Having herself been spared, Nia Buendía feels she must do something worthwhile to acknowledge her good fortune. The Advance Africa initiative provides her with the perfect opportunity, teaching in a special school in Dakar, Senegal. Senegal has suffered a catalogue of famines and disasters. It is near the bottom of the table in terms of life expectancy, literacy, access to knowledge and living standards. It badly needs people like Nia. She joins a team of committed overseas voluntary workers of various nationalities.

Nia’s role is to teach disturbed children through music. She believes where children have suffered trauma in their lives, that music can help them to develop individual, creative, and social skills in a way that language alone cannot. This is fortunate because although Nia’s French is good and French is the official language in Senegal, it is spoken only by an educated minority. With a population of over two million, Dakar is one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. Many languages are spoken here, but on the streets, the one that you hear the most is Dakar-Wolof, a mixture of Wolof, French and Arabic.

Dakar is all streetlife and primary colours. Everywhere there are vibrant markets selling fruit and fish, weaving medinas with makeshift stalls selling vivid textiles, tribal masks, mosaic tiles and brightly coloured beads. Citroen cars of every vintage criss-cross one another in bouts of traffic chaos. Children play football on swathes of urban scrubland and spin car tyres like hoops between streams of buzzing mopeds. Men carry accordions, bongo drums and curiously shaped koras down to the beach. You can hear the rhythms of mbalax music pounding day and night. It’s a musical culture. Senegal has a rich musical history and has spawned a wealth of talent. There are some brilliant musical role models for Nia to call upon, musicians like Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré, Amadou et Mariam, and Mory Kanté.

Loup Gaultier is a teacher at Nia’s school. He is French-Senegalese. He has long grey locks tied back. He smiles a lot, revealing a mouthful of gold-capped teeth. He wears a tribal necklace of tusks and shells, and snake rings on each finger of his left hand. He is softly spoken and is the sort of person that people feel they can open up to, sure of a sympathetic ear. He has worked in West Africa for many years. There is not a lot he doesn’t know about this part of the world.

What brings you to Senegal?’ he asks Nia. ‘We do not get many people from Spain.’

Nia explains about the miracle in New Orleans. How she was given a new lease of life by a venerable Creole mystic using ancient African spells. Loup understands the power of juju, djinn, hoodoo or voodoo or whatever you want to call it. He is not surprised by Nia’s tale. He has heard many like it.

She goes on to tell him about her previous life in Spain and how she does not feel she can return to her family there.

I can’t change what has happened, only what has yet to come,’ she says. Maybe I will be able to return one day, but I have work to do here first.’

Loup nods his agreement. It is always best to be non-judgemental when listening to others’ explanations of their actions. You can’t tell others what to do; they have to reach their own conclusions.

Why did I choose Senegal?’ Nia continues. ‘Simple. I found an advert for the voluntary service on the internet, was able to speak French and picked a place where speaking French might be useful. …….. And I’m loving Senegal. It’s so full of life.’

You might like what you see today with all the laughter and gaiety in the streets,’ Loup says. ‘But you have to realise that Senegal is putting on a brave face for the world. There is a lot that is hidden. Did you know there are three refugee camps within twenty miles of here? And, Senegal has a shameful past in collusion with the French. Saint Louis just down the coast was once one of Africa’s busiest slave ports.’

Perhaps they had touched on the slave trade at school back home in Cantabria, but Nia had not taken in the grim details.

Loup tells her how slavery was part of a triangular trade. The first side of the triangle was the export of goods from Europe to Africa. A number of African kings and merchants took part in the trading of enslaved people. For each captive, the African rulers would receive guns, ammunition and other manufactured goods. The second leg of the triangle exported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the Caribbean. The third and final part of the triangle was the return of goods from slave plantations included cotton, sugar, tobacco, and molasses across the Atlantic to Europe.

In the twenty years from 1720, French ships enslaved two hundred thousand Africans to plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean,’ Loup says.

I seem to remember hearing that a quarter of them died on the ships going over,’ Nia says. ‘In a sense, I suppose they were the lucky ones.’

It’s impossible to even imagine the conditions today. Ships were packed, it was dark and hot and airless and they lived in shit, piss, and vomit. They had little to eat but even worse they had little fresh water to drink.’

And, of course, no better when they got there, I imagine.’

Many of those leaving from here were taken to sugar plantations in Haiti. During the eight-month sugar harvest, slaves worked continuously around the clock. The accidents caused by long hours and primitive machinery were horrific.’

And it went on for years before anyone did anything about it. And, it’s not that long ago.’

France continued the trade legally until 1830, long after the rest of Europe had abolished it. Even after this five hundred French ships continued trading illegally. Altogether, a million and a half enslaved Africans were taken by French ships.’

So the French were the worst,’ Nia says.

No-one comes out of it well. But, if it’s any comfort Spain abolished slavery twenty years earlier.’

Not a lot of comfort, really.’

Anyway, that’s enough of the history lesson, don’t you think?’ Loup says. ‘Except, of course, to say that the Haitian slaves became the Creoles in New Orleans.’

I know,’ Nia says. ‘Creole comes from the Portuguese crioulo, which means a slave born in the master’s household.’

Why I really came over is that I have something to ask,’ says Loup.

Fire away,’ Nia says.

I’ve been given this boy called Jimi,’ Loup says. ‘He can’t read or write but he’s a genius on the guitar and the piano.’

With a name like Jimi, perhaps he should stick to the guitar,’ Nia says.

I don’t think that Jimi is his real name, but anyway, I thought you might be able to teach him some classical music.’

I could take him through some Etudes to get him started, I suppose.’

I believe he was thinking more in terms of Rachmaninov. He saw a young pianist playing Rachmaninov on television recently.’

Does he have big hands?’

Yes, he does have big hands as it happens,’ Loup says. ‘We think that his father might have been a ..’

Blacksmith.’ Nia finishes his sentence.

How did you know?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

nowyouseeitnowyoudont2019

Now You See It, Now You Don’t by Chris Green

The arbiters of taste are notoriously fickle. While The Moody Blues were cool in 1968, if you listened to their music a few years later, you would be considered a bit sad. But if anything their musical powers had grown. Their tunes became even better. Perhaps this was the problem. They became too musical. They no longer fitted in. As in other fields, fashions in music are fleeting. A case of now you see it, now you don’t.

I didn’t pick up on The Moody Blues again for years. In fact, it was the week before last. I came across a couple of their albums on CD in the CLIC Sargent charity shop. In Search Of The Lost Chord and On The Threshold Of A Dream. Not casual purchases, you would have thought. Perhaps the owner had died and their CD collection was part of a house clearance.

Mike Pinder is not a household name, but perhaps he ought to be. He was a pioneer, introducing the mellotron, the pre-runner of the keyboard synthesiser, to the musical world. Before he formed the Moody Blues, Mike worked as a tester for the company that invented the mellotron, so he knew the difficult instrument well. He subsequently introduced the instrument to The Beatles, a popular combo of the time, who used it to great effect on Strawberry Fields Forever and then on virtually every recording they made until their breakup. Despite the instrument’s ethereal sound being such an emblem for the times, The Moody Blues were the only band to regularly use it on stage.

But …… What I am doing back in ………. 1968? Somehow I’m back in 1968, listening to In Search Of The Lost Chord. …… I am used to the year being 20 something. ….. 2019, wasn’t it? Isn’t it? How can 1968 be happening now, as if it is present time? In sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch actuality. …… I haven’t seen Yvette for over forty years. She is exactly how I remember her. Mia Farrow hair, flared jeans and cheesecloth smock. What is Yvette doing back in 1968? How did we come to be here? ……… We are in a large murky room lit only by a single red light bulb suspended from the ceiling. There are something like twenty people crowded in here, sitting around on beanbags and cushions. Incense and patchouli compete with the acrid hash smoke, that hangs in the air like captured stratocumulus. Someone has just passed me a joint and I am smoking it. I do not know him, or is it her. In the haze, it is difficult to tell the gender beneath the crusty hair and the Afghan coat. House Of Four Doors is playing, with the volume on the Super Dansette record player turned up. As I look around, I think I recognise one or two of the others in the room, but I can’t put names to the faces. Things were like that back then. People came and went. We were eighteen. ……… In this scenario, we are still eighteen.

The expression, the Lost Chord refers to a song by Arthur Sullivan,’ Yvette says.

Who?’ I say, passing her the joint.

Arthur Sullivan. You know. From Gilbert and Sullivan.’

Ah,’ I say. I find it difficult to imagine that The Moody Blues would have listened a lot to Gilbert and Sullivan.

Sullivan wrote the music at the bedside of his brother Fred when he was dying. The words come from a verse by Victorian poet, Adelaide Procter,’ Yvette says. She was always the clever one. Straight ‘A’s for Yvette. I always struggled with my grades.

Ah,’ I say.

It is about a divine chord that she hears when playing the organ that she cannot find again and imagines she will only rediscover when she reaches Heaven.’

Now you see it, now you don’t,’ I say.

The song about Timothy Leary flying his astral plane is now playing. I want to remark that people don’t write songs about Timothy Leary and astral planes anymore, but the place I want to make this comment from is fading fast. The idea about what I should regard as now is retuning like a random radio scan.

Across the room, or perhaps it is from across the universe, it is difficult to focus in on scale, they are talking about a story by the writer Jorge Luis Borges called The Garden Of Forking Paths.

The story is about the construction of a labyrinth that folds back upon itself in infinite regression,’ an adenoidal voice says. ‘All possible futures happen simultaneously, man’

Man says that this can be explained by quantum mechanics, man.

Yeah, like Einstein said it, man,’ says someone else. ‘Or was it the other guy? Dirac. Paul Dirac.’

No-one seems to know, but the conversation rolls around like thunder in the hills.

I continue to have difficulty working out who is who. It does not help that everyone in the room, male or female seems to be called man. No, wait, one of them is called Buzz and another is called Doggo.

Doggo begins to talk about Schrödinger’s Cat. It is both dead and alive apparently. I lose the drift as other conversations begin to drift in and out, just as my consciousness is doing. Someone has turned the LP over. Voices In The Sky begins. The mellotron sounds like a symphony orchestra.

Am I really here?’ I ask Yvette.

She thinks this is a strange question. She puts her hand on my forehead as if feeling my temperature. She laughs and tells me I shouldn’t get so stoned. Perhaps Yvette is still living in this time as her present time. Perhaps she has not grown up yet. I cannot remember if we saw each other much after 1968, or even at all. Perhaps she has not left the room yet. …….. Perhaps I have not left ……. I want to be able to feel that I have lived long enough to understand reality. But now I’m not sure that I have lived long enough. What if I’m only eighteen? ……. I might be imagining the irregular shift patterns of the job at the kaleidoscope repair shop. I might be imagining those years of living with Fabula and the twins in the Stroud valleys. I might be imagining Dr Alkerdahji’s diagnosis. Or, all this might still be in the future. …… Or, what if everything is happening simultaneously as in man’s story? Perhaps John Lennon was right and nothing is real. Might all of our experiences be an illusion? The universe could be a mental construction, a great thought rather than a great machine. After all, if matter is energy condensed to a slow vibration, then we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. Life is a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves.

I remember something about quantum theory that I saw, or am one day going to see, on television, or perhaps I am watching it now. It is known as the double-slit experiment. In the experiment, when scientists watch a particle pass through two slits in a barrier, the particle behaves like a bullet and goes through one slit or the other. Yet if a person doesn’t watch the particle, it acts like a wave. This means it can go through both slits at the same time.

Now you see it, now you don’t.

Dr Alkerdahji tells me I am improving. It is a good sign, he says, that the hallucinations are becoming less frequent. So long as I keep taking the medication, I might even be able to return to work at the kaleidoscope repair shop in a week or two. I am in CLIC Sargent again, looking through the CDs. £1 for A Saucerful Of Secrets and £1 for Dark Side Of The Moon. Another house clearance probably. Fashions in music are fleeting but somehow Pink Floyd always managed to circumvent the arbiters of taste. Roger Waters is not a household name but ………

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Food of Love

thefoodoflove

The Food of Love by Chris Green

1:

I’m Clinton Stroud. Some of you will have heard of me but for those of you who have not, I am composer, multi-instrumentalist and musical coach. A long-standing one to boot. I will be one hundred and twenty three next birthday. This is a little longer than I expected to live, I can tell you. I have now had twenty two telegrams from the Queen, and I still think of her as the little girl stroking the corgi on the Newsreels that accompanied the double features in the nineteen thirties. It is said you can tell you are getting old when policemen start to look younger. Even Chief Superintendents have seemed like schoolchildren to me for as long as I can remember. But there are benefits to being old. As Mark Twain once 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.

In my lifetime, I have seen the birth of the motor car, the aeroplane, radio and television, antibiotics and sliced bread. Let us not forget the ballpoint pen, the electric guitar, the microwave oven and the atomic bomb. I have witnessed the collapse of Empire, the rise of secularism and the provision and destruction 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. Oil production per year has been greater than oil discoveries every year since 1980. One day soon there will be a lot of disappointed people.

When I was born, Queen Victoria was on the throne, most families had no bathroom and there was horse-muck on the streets. In cities, gas street-lights cut through the ubiquitous smog. Yet you could walk for miles in the countryside in the cool clean air in awe of the bucolic splendour. I have seen the landscape change out of all recognition. Our green and pleasant land has lost 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 superfast broadband are all things we take for granted. The population of the UK back then was twenty nine million. Today it is sixty seven million. People are living longer. I feel I am not helping.

Things change gradually. Except in the case of monumental events, you are not aware that it is happening. 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 the uncertainty could be exaggerated by my circumstances. I have lived rather a long time. I have been married four times, to Emma, Natalie, Lucy and Sakura. 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.

2:

Music goes back a long way. It means literally the art of the muses. Ancient Greek philosophers understood the healing effects 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 musical calling, I have had the good fortune to meet some of the people who have overseen the historic changes.

Few people realise that David Lloyd George was a keen saxophonist. This does not appear in any of the numerous biographies. The biographers concentrate disproportionately on his political career, with a nod here and there to his Welshness. Not a mention of his musical interests. It was I who taught the Welsh Wizard the saxophone, at the time a marginal instrument even in jazz orchestras. Lloyd George possessed a natural ability and could have easily mastered the clarinet. But 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 Lloyd one day. I had spent a majority of World War One in Italy with a military band, fortunately well south of the front.

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

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

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

This did not seem like a Liberal view, but I let it go. I was more interested in his progress on the saxophone.

Mohandas Gandhi never really mastered the blues harmonica. But on a visit to London in 1931, he came to me for tuition. Harp players 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,’ he said.

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

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

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

Mahatma’s teachings 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 nineteen thirties are usually associated with the Depression, but I look back on the decade as a happy time. I married my first wife, Emma, and my first two children, Darius and Diana, 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 Two may never have happened if Churchill has been better at playing the piano. He showed initial promise when he came to me. I took him through a few easy pieces, early Mozart sonatas and the like. But when we moved on to Chopin, his interpretations were clumsy and heavy-handed. Winston had what we sometimes refer to as butcher’s fingers, not suited to deliver the delicate passages of the Preludes and Nocturnes. He seemed 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.

3:

How did you come into music, Clint?’ Orson Welles asked me once when he was driving me home after his zither lesson in his big Buick. ‘Do your family have a musical tradition?’

It was 1948. Alfred Hitchcock had introduced us. I had taught Hitchcock to play a weird instrument called the theremin. To be honest, Hitchcock did not really want to learn but thought he might use the sound effects it made in one of his films. Orson, on the other hand, became a bit of a virtuoso on the zither. I heard a rumour it may even have been Orson and not Anton Karas who played the soundtrack music for The Third Man, which went on to be one of the most successful films of all time.

I did not often talk about my background. Not that I was 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 primary 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 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 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. These 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 one and she was twenty four. 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, Machu Picchu in the middle of a mountain rainforest, 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 some less obvious sights were equally 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.

Although always modest about her talent, Natalie was an accomplished pianist. With a youthful ear, she was an inspiration to my music. She helped to take it in new directions. The nineteen fifties were productive. I was on a roll. 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 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 groundbreaking. I framed the notice.

Natalie persuaded me that we should spend time in America. She was from New York ans suggested 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 a magazine illustrator. Orson had given him my name, he said. He told me he drew whimsical sketches of shoes. He wanted to learn how to orchestrate. I explained there weren’t any rules as such. You learned mainly through experience and spontaneous discoveries.

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 you had in mind to orchestrate?’

I have a big plan,’ he said. ‘They say 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.

That’s good,’ he said. ‘I might use that.’

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

We moved on to the subject of orchestration. I told him in terms of musical composition Mozart and Beethoven were 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.

6:

The times, they were a-changing. At least, Bob Dylan thought so. He wanted me to teach him how to play electric guitar to fit in to the changes he felt were taking place. The real reason Bob wanted to learn may have been that he was not very good on the acoustic guitar. Going electric seemed to be a good move. It suited his casual approach to the instrument. And the rest is history. He became the stuff of legend.

It was time too for me to move on. It had been over with Natalie for a while and it was with great sadness, I returned to England leaving her and our son, Adam, and daughter, Charlotte, in New York. I took a flat in fashionable Cheyne Walk, overlooking the Thames.

Hearing I was now in London, Julie Christie called me up. Darling had been a big hit for her and she wanted to stay in the limelight. She was reading the script for Doctor Zhivago. She was wondering whether to take the part of Lara that the great David Lean had offered her. She thought learning to play the balalaika might help her get into the role. Julie was sensual and intelligent. She possessed a luminous beauty the cameras loved. The thing was, she was even more stunning in the flesh. Julie was also a terrible flirt. Most days, it seemed, the balalaika I borrowed from the Russian embassy lay untouched.

What is it that inspires you?’ she asked.

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,’ Julie said.

I had lots of favourite pieces of music. I had turned down Desert Island Discs as I felt unable to decide on just eight tunes. I wondered what I could 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 Bach or Mozart, but I thought that Julie was hoping for something more contemporary. Despite an age difference of forty years, there was definitely a mutual attraction. Bill Evans My Foolish Heart seemed appropriate. I wondered if we might be going to have a full-blown affair. But we didn’t.

Popular music upped its game in the nineteen sixties. Record producers like Phil Spector, George Martin and Brian Wilson pushed back the boundaries of the art. Pop music spearheaded a huge social change. What had once seemed throwaway now seemed important and vital. London was the new capital of the cultural world. Pop stars, models and photographers were the new elite. Ray Davies was a friend of Julie’s and Julie invited me along to a show The Kinks were filming at Twickenham Film Studios. It was here I met Lucy, who would be my partner for the next fifteen years.

Lucy was on the fringes of the music business. The closest I could come to describing her role would be, musical muse. She hung around gatherings of musicians and had a mystical presence. 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. My paramours seemed to be getting younger. What was it Shakespeare said about music being the food of love? It was time to play on.

Lucy 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 four 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 to utilise a more colourful palette. I appeared, uncredited, on many of the classic albums from this period including Aftermath, Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Sergeant Pepper, playing dulcimer, tsabouna, musical saw and serpent. I also composed my Trio for Violin, Saxophone and Mandolin and my famous Wind Chimes Concerto over the so-called Summer of Love.

In 1968, in a nod perhaps to the hippy ideal, Lucy and I moved to Lanzarote. The ten years we spent living there were among the happiest of my life. Undeveloped at the time and minimalist in its colour palette, Lanzarote offered a perfect spiritual retreat. It was a place for the mind to focus. Our traditional whitewashed casa rural was in an isolated setting on the south-western coast. 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 both windy and sunny. The rest of the world seems to still be resisting this somewhat obvious solution to our power needs.

Occasionally our mutual friend, Picasso came over to see us. Although he would not return to Spain, he was happy to visit us in Lanzarote. Other than this, we had few visitors. Darius and Diana and their respective families came over now and again (grandchildren growing in number and it seemed quickly growing up), and once or twice Natalie brought Adam and Charlotte. Mostly though it was just the two of us and a handful of alternative free-thinkers. It was possible to concentrate on the moment, enjoying each minute of every day without rushing towards the next. I gradually found a profound stillness take over my being. I felt young and invigorated. Lucy 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 Erik Satie. He called his Dadaist-inspired musical 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 early twentieth century Art movements and the work of Brian Eno. Recognising me as a fellow innovator, Brian sought me out and came over. Together we composed music that synthesised melody and texture. Although the expression, ambient music is often attributed to Brian Eno, I like to think 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. We had inadvertently created the template for movie soundtracks and background to television drama and documentaries for many years to come. You will have heard my music from this period many times without realising it.

4:

The nineteen eighties can be summed up in one word: greed. Why was everyone so blind to the dangers of uncontrolled consumerism? It could only lead to disaster. A new set of guidelines regarding conglomerates, power generation, air travel, transport, and waste management was needed to rein in the excesses. Sadly, those brave enough to challenge Thatcherism and its free market sensibility were picked off and crushed. Lucy and I moved to the New Forest. At least here, we could show our respect for trees.

The politics of the day were reflected in its music. The decade was a singularly poor one. 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. And those awful drum machines at the front of the mix. 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? This is an oxymoron. 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.

When Tariq Ali came around 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 sixties,’ I said. ‘But there was lots of great music.’

No war in the sixties?’ 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. ‘We had just moved out. But I do remember the Battle of Grosvenor Square. You and Vanessa Redgrave were leading the march weren’t you?’

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

Not word for word,’ I said.

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

Ah yes, I remember now. That was my old friend, Orson Welles,’ I said. ‘Perhaps we will have another war soon. There are some mad people in charge.’

It won’t a war with The Eastern Bloc,’ Tariq said. ‘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.’

In retrospect, it seems he was right.

5:

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.

According to Luigi, my barber in Ringwood at the time, the planet Mercury has no tilt and therefore no seasons. Luigi was a prototype Google. He knew everything. He had been a contender on Mastermind, his specialist subject, 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 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 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 will 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 wreaths 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.

Following Lucy’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. And worse. How bad could old age be? Constantly worrying about when the door would open and whether you would know when it was going to open. Nostalgia too, I found, was something that could fuel later-life depression. Don’t look back!

Irving Berlin helped to lift my gloom. Irving was a legend. Throughout the twentieth century, Irving 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 on 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 has been used in medicine for thousands of years. It enhances memory and helps with concentration. 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 this made his doctor very old indeed.

I’d better start writing some music soon then,’ I said.

Another thing,’ Irving said. ‘I presume you suffer from earworm, where the last tune you hear stays in your head.’

Indeed,’ I said. ‘I don’t even have to hear a tune. Just reading the title of a song I know can set it off.’

The secret is to make the tune in your head a joyful one with happy words.’

What about the old blue musicians?’ I queried. ‘They seem to all live to be a ripe old age despite all the baby left me lyrics.’

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

He had a point. I was probably being selective. For every John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters, 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. But try not to do this every day.’

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. But, as Irving had suggested, music 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 (Schrödinger’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.’

7:

Tim Berners-Lee may have been considerably richer had he not come to me for lessons on the cor anglais. Having invented the model for the internet, he was faced with a dilemma. Should he patent the idea and become rich, 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. He argued that others would make billions out of the idea.

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

Tim must have taken my point. The next day, after we had been over Respighi’s Pini di Roma, He seemed to have come off the fence. He used the very arguments 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 Artists. 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 particularly wanted to see the exhibition, having read 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 once 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 megabucks being persuaded. It was becoming like an investment bank.

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 a clever riposte, because the next thing I recall, we were eating dinner at Claridge’s. Before I knew it, we were living together. I wondered later if our meeting had not been set up as a blind date. Sakura wondered the same. It appeared she had had a phonecall from the same mutual friend 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.

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. With so many years to cover, such a project seemed daunting.

Everyone knows who you are,’ Sakura 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 the Cotswolds 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 Emma 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 keep one,’ 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.

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

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

The biography progressed more slowly documenting the years after 1921. I had some recollection as to when I had met celebrity figures. I had dates for my recordings. But with regards to my personal life, there were no records. All of my contemporaries were dead. Even my children had difficulty remembering with any precision. Either that or they had not wanted to cooperate. To my great sadness, none of them had taken well to Sakura. I could recall 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 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. Every year technological gadgets were becoming, smaller, faster, cheaper, and more convenient. But hadn’t we lost our sense of wonder? We seemed 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 a computer game.

Around the time of the millennium, Sakura and I took a walk in the Cotswold Hills. I was showing her some of my childhood haunts. It was a clear day and you could see for miles. We came across a family having a picnic. They were tucking into plastic-wrapped supermarket lunches. The two youngsters played games on hand-held devices, while the parents thumbed through an Argos catalogue looking at domestic appliances, oblivious to the beauty around them. Nowadays they would be able to dispense with the family outing, the countryside and the picnic and buy the Dyson online.

Do you ever regret parts of your life?’ Sakura asked. She was still trying to keep the idea of the biography going.

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.

I would get up earlier and I would take more time to smell the roses,’ I told her enigmatically.

8:

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 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 I had no idea where to look. There were so many of them. After a crash course in constellation spotting on the Internet, I could pick out the 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.

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. We are talking really big numbers when it comes to space. The Universe is at least one hundred and fifty billion light-years in diameter. I had to reconsider my definitions for large. The word that came to mind was astronomical.

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 I always associate with this momentous event is Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, from Stanley Kubrick’s visionary 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 forty thousand years if things go to plan some unsuspecting alien will be playing air guitar to Johnny B. Goode. In 2008, NASA beamed The Beatles, Across the Universe at the speed of 186,000 miles per second towards The North Star, just four hundred and thirty one light years away. Lately we have been pinging stars all over the cosmos in the hope that there is someone out there. Time is not on my side, so I am having my entire back catalogue beamed to Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, which Stephen Hawking (who incidentally was hopeless on the accordion) once me was the most likely place to find life in the Solar system. I am told this will take a mere seventy six minutes.

There are signs that our four hundred thousand year tenure of Planet Earth could be coming to an end. Earth may not be able to support the 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. 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 once 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 one hundred and twenty three next birthday.

Copyright: Chris Green, 2019: All rights reserved

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents herein are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Schrödinger’s Cat

schrodingerscat

Schrödinger’s Cat by Chris Green
(no cats were harmed in the writing of this story)

The train doesn’t stop. There are no stations, no visible settlements. No landmarks, no buildings, no farms, nothing. I don’t know where the train is heading. The terrain comprises miles upon miles of wilderness, woodland and barren scrub. I can’t remember anything else. When did I start out? It feels as if I’ve been on the train for days now, weeks, months maybe. It as if I’ve always been on the train. Each day, the same as the last. Day in day out. All down the line, the diesel drumming. The monotonous rhythm of the wheels. The train pulling purposefully along the tracks. The alien landscape passing by, camouflaged by grimy carriage windows. Bewilderment and foreboding. A growing sense of hopelessness.

How did I come to be aboard? Why is there no-one else on the train? Why do I have such a long train all to myself? It must be sixteen coaches long. What happened to the others? Where is my partner, Julie? Jennie? Jackie? Was she with me? Or did I have other companions? I have no recollection now of the chain of events. But surely someone must know what is going on. Someone, for instance, must be driving the train. The driver will know where we are headed. But I’ve no way of communicating with the him. I’ve tried pulling the safety cord to stop the train but this doesn’t work. Meanwhile, the train travels ever onward towards an unknown destination.

I don’t think we’ve passed any other trains. Or have we? Perhaps there was another train back in the dim and distant past. Going through the mountains in the opposite direction. Mountains? Where were the mountains? I have a nagging feeling we passed through mountains earlier but I can’t be certain. The mind plays its tricks. Davos would know. Davos? …… David perhaps? Davy? No, wait! Davy is dead, isn’t he?. …… Am I dead too? If I’m not, I don’t even understand how I have managed to stay alive. I have had no food or water.

A tune keeps coming into my head. It seems familiar but I can’t make out what it is or where I might have heard it. It flits in and out, sounding a little different each time. Variations perhaps on a theme. The same tune but with different instruments. Piano and violins. Now guitars and saxophone. It probably has words too but these are not coming through yet.

Posso vedere il tuo biglietto per favore,’ a man’s voice says, from out of nowhere.

A ticket collector but I can see no-one. Where is the voice coming from and why is he talking to me in Italian?

Can I see your ticket please?’ he says, this time in English.

I don’t have a ticket,’ I say. ‘Who are you and why am I on the train?’

You have to have a valid ticket to travel on this line,’ he says. ‘The penalty for not having one is imprisonment. You would not like prison. It is a very inhospitable place.’

Still I see no-one. The strange thought occurs to me that it could be me that is speaking. Perhaps I am the ticket collector.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep a grip on reality. Here I am now in the deserted environs of an old town. It might be because I am fatigued from the long journey but I can’t put a geographical location to this place. There are no features that might offer a clue. Unless the train took a circuitous route, this will be a long way from ……. Where will it be a long way from? Home? Work? The place where they design skeuomorphs for digital devices? No, that can’t be right. Where did that idea come from? I must be thinking of someone else. Perhaps Janie designs skeuomorphs. What are skeuomorphs anyway?

From the weak wintry light, I sense this place has a northerly aspect. This in itself is not much help. North is big. It could be anywhere, Cumbria, Wroclaw, Novosibirsk. There is nothing that might offer a clue. There are no signs of life. No people, no animals, no birds. There are no vehicles, no roadsigns, no advertising displays. Not even any graffiti. Nothing at all that might point the way. The town has been completely abandoned. Rows of ramshackle buildings stand empty. Houses are in an advanced state of collapse, overtaken by forbidding brambles. Forests of weeds have colonised the dirt-track roads. The place is more rundown than the Tokers End council estate back home? Tokers End? Now, where is Tokers End? …….. It’s near ….. down the road from …… I drive through it sometimes. On my way to …… The supermarket? The studio? The Mondegreen Research Centre? No, it’s not coming. What are mondegreens, I wonder?

How did I come to be here? Did the train to nowhere finally stop? Is this where it brought me? There are huge gaps in my cognition. Might it even be something to do with what the ticket collector told me? Might this be the penalty for not having a ticket? I suppose there’s nothing to do but explore this wasteland and see where I end up. The wind blows dust along the silent empty streets. The colour has drained out of the sky. It’s as if someone has found a way to release despair into the atmosphere. Something terrible must have happened here to drive the people away. And by the looks of it, not recently. No-one has been here for a long time.

Here’s that tune again. Bouncing around in my head. It is up-tempo. It has an infectious piano riff and a backbeat. I still can’t make out the words but it has a sing-along chorus. La-de-da-de-da-de-la. La-de-da-de-la-la. It’s as if others are singing it with me. In harmony. It offers a welcome distraction from my dire predicament.

I’m back on the mystery train. I do not understand how this has come about. Just now I was sheltering in a derelict house in the deserted old town. Having trekked for miles and searched in vain for signs of life in the badlands, I was exhausted. It was a rough night. A storm whipped up. The wind howled in the eaves. I was trying to get some sleep. Or could it be I was dreaming I was in a derelict old house? It was certainly the stuff of nightmares. Whichever, here I am now back on the never-ending track. I sense I may not be alone on the train. I can hear movement in the next carriage. It sounds as if they are moving furniture around, beds or something. Can I hear muted voices or is this wishful thinking? The connecting door between the carriages is locked. I call out but it appears they cannot hear me. I shout louder. I try each of the languages I know, Italian, French, German. But to no avail. Through the grill, I can see shadows moving but the distance is somehow so great, they might as well be in another world.

As the train goes around a bend, I see a station up ahead. A long single platform with random structures along it. It looks like there are one or two figures standing in the shadows of what might be a waiting room. For a moment I imagine they have come to meet me. Perhaps they will take me for a tasty meal in a fast-food restaurant nearby. Prezzo or Nandos. I’m certain now that I must be hungry. What about that place where they do the spicy chicken wings? While I am salivating, the people on the platform vanish. Perhaps they were never there. The train doesn’t even slow down, let alone stop. It is going too fast for me to even make out the name of the station. Would it help if I could? I get the feeling it wouldn’t shed any light on where I was or where the train was heading. For the time being, it looks as if the food will have to wait.

Night comes around again and the stars come out. There is a full Moon and I can make out the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades, the seven daughters of Atlas, who holds up the sky and Pleione, the protectress of sailing. That’s a lot of information coming through all of a sudden. Where has this come from? Gradually, it occurs to me. My daughter, Lucy used to tell me about the night sky. I feel remembering I have a daughter is something of a breakthrough. It connects me somehow to the normal, everyday world, the world outside of the train. I haven’t seen Lucy for a while though, have I? Perhaps she is with her mum, Jilly? Judy? Jody? Or perhaps she moved in with Kurt. Kurt, Kurt? Who is Kurt? Wasn’t he the one who shot himself? That must be a different Kurt. No matter. I recollect I used to visit Lucy in Scotland. She studied Physics at St Andrews. It always seemed to be snowing when I went up. I remember her telling me one time about a thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat. If you place a cat and something that could kill the cat, let’s say a radioactive atom, in a box and seal it, you don’t know if the cat is dead or alive until you open the box, so until you open the box, the cat is, in a sense, both dead and alive. I’m not sure they actually did this experiment at the university but who knows? Perhaps I am nothing more than a thought experiment. Perhaps the train is my sealed box and paradoxically, like Schrödinger’s Cat, I am both dead and alive.

By and by, the train slows down. I wonder if, at last, it is going to stop. I can see faint lights shimmering in the distance. Might these be coming from a town? Might we be arriving somewhere at last? Somewhere that I might possibly recognise? I can see one or two roads and think I can make out the headlights of vehicles. But to my disappointment, we do not stop. The train picks up speed again and we head off once more into the night.

My phone rings, which is odd because didn’t realise I had a phone with me on the train. I search in my pockets but this merely confirms that I don’t have a phone. The phone I don’t have keeps ringing so I answer it.

We’ll be with you soon,’ says a voice. The line is a bit crackly but I think I recognise the voice. It sounds like Jeannie.

Will you bring Lucy?’ I say. I haven’t seen her for such a long time.’

We’ll be with you soon,’ the voice repeats and the call ends.

I find I still don’t have a phone.

Just before daylight, I sense a change in the situation. I can no longer feel the rocking motion of the train. I can no longer hear the pulsing sound of the wheels on the tracks. Instead, I hear ambient background noise, the hum of air conditioning, the clinking of cutlery, the hubbub of voices. It feels as if a numbness is lifting. Like I am waking up from a long sleep. And the tune is back. It has a reggae beat now. I’ll need to get Robbie and Bob to work on this. Rhythm sections understands reggae rhythms better, the downstrokes on the offbeat and the 2/4 or 4/4 time. Wait! ……. That’s it! The tune I keep hearing is one of mine. I’m a songwriter, a musician. I’m in a band. We have had hits. We are called …… No, the name’s not coming to me yet. But I believe we are quite famous. I can visualise us playing at large stadiums.

It’s coming back to me now. We were on a European tour. We were in between gigs. I remember that Davy, our keyboard player and I were keen to take in The Alps. The Eiger. The Matterhorn. The Jungfrau. All those spectacular snow-capped wonders we had heard about. We took a train from Davos. The Glacier Express. I think we may have taken something else too, something psychoactive to enhance the experience. Something specially made up for us by a Swiss chemist who came to one of our concerts. A freak storm broke out. There was an accident. There was mass panic. On account of my injuries, along with a number of others, I was airlifted to safety. Then nothing. That’s it. A complete blank. I must have passed out in the helicopter. I have been unconscious for …. How long have I been out for? A long time, it seems. Possibly days. It certainly feels like days. And here I am holed up in ……. Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève, it says on my chart. At least I’m alive. No radioactive atom in the metaphorical box then.

Ah, there’s a lady in a white coat. She’s coming over. She will be able to tell me how long I’ve been here and what is going on. She will be able to let me know when Josie and Lucy are arriving. I’d better ask her about Davy too. Find out what happened to Davy? Is he here in the hospital as well? Or didn’t he make it? She’s bound to have information. Perhaps she will know what my band is called too. She has probably been listening to us on those headphones she has around her neck.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

MISSING YOU

missingyou

MISSING YOU by Chris Green

Helen often comes this way. A short ride on the light railway and she can walk the whole length of Harmonica Way, along Mandolin Avenue and into Dulcimer Street. It’s not the most direct route to the office but this way, she feels there’s a chance she might see Youssou. If she has time she walks up and down Timpani Terrace past their old house, number thirty three. They used to laugh about the unlikely road names. A progressive council in the 1970s came up with them. Why not name the streets after musical instruments, some bright spark of a councillor must have said? The influence, perhaps, of Tubular Bells, a big hit at the time. With the embryos of political correctness in the air, the old road names like Colston Road and Parr Street were considered to be unacceptable as they honoured Transatlantic slave traders so had to be replaced. Youssou had had to explain the mechanics of the slave trade to Helen. It made her sad to think that such terrible things happened not so very long ago.

Helen likes to take a walk around the instruments estate in the evening too, after her visit to the gym or her Reflexology class. She might sit a while on the seat by the statue of Brian Eno and let her reverie run wild. Random memories of her life with Youssou come flooding back. Sitting on a Dakar beach with him watching the sun come up out of the sea on their one and only visit to the land of Youssou’s forefathers. Stolen kisses in an intimate bistro in Montmartre on their first New Year’s Eve listening to the church clocks striking twelve. The time the car broke down and they were stranded on Bodmin Moor and had to sleep on the back seat. Things that were bad at the time now come back as happy memories. She looks back in fondness to the time they burned their landlord’s furniture to keep warm after the power had been cut off. This, of course, was while they were still renting. Before her Premium Bond win enabled them to put a deposit on their three up up, two down. The family that they planned to have never came to fruition. Might children have made all the difference. She will probably never know.

In his best selling book, Getting a Grip, legendary life coach, J. D. Rhodes explains that change is the only certainty and when something catastrophic happens, you must adjust to the new set of circumstances within fifty five minutes. It’s been close to nine months now and Helen hasn’t adjusted to her new set of circumstances. She still misses Youssou. What was that line in the song they used to play? Like the deserts miss the rain? Her old English teacher, Ms Spinster would probably say this was a poor simile but it’s exactly how she misses Youssou. Often, on the street, she catches the lingering aroma of a French cigarette or a whiff of Aramis and imagines that Youssou must be close. She only has to see a red Alfa for her heart to skip a beat. They went the length and breadth of the country in the Red Devil as Youssou’s battered 147 was affectionately known.

Unable to keep up the mortgage payments on number thirty three after Youssou left, Helen had to sell the house. She could perhaps have taken in a lodger to make ends meet but what’s done is done. She does not feel settled in her new flat in Grimwade Close. Not only is it in the wrong part of town but it is small and dingy. She usually waits until she is really tired before returning home, sometimes stopping off at The Richard Burton for a nightcap. But, all it takes is a mournful Nick Cave number to come on the jukebox or a Tom Waits tune to set her off blubbing. Or worse still, Seven Seconds Away by Youssou’s more famous namesake. When fellow drinkers come over to comfort her, she feels embarrassed and has to leave.

Helen tends to put off going to bed. She has become ambivalent about sleep. While in her dreams, her life continues as if Youssou is still with her, on waking she finds he is no longer there. This is the time she misses him most. She misses his morning embrace. She feels she’d like to phone him just to hear his voice but when she does, she gets the number unobtainable message. It’s not the despair, she is able to deal with the despair, it’s the sense of hope she cannot bear. There’s no benefit in having something if you know it is going to be taken away.

Each morning that she takes the train, Helen finds herself once more in denial. But is it denial? As she makes her way towards number thirty three, she tells herself, it will be today. Youssou will be coming down the steps. He will be walking towards her, arms outstretched to greet her. It will be as it always was. Timpani Terrace is so familiar. They lived at number thirty three for six years, three months and nineteen days according to her spreadsheet. They were inseparable. With Youssou, even the bad days were good.

Like any couple, they had their difficulties but these pale into insignificance compared to the joy she felt when they were together and things were going well. There are so many happy memories. So many times Helen has said to herself, this is the best day ever. Why did Youssou have to go off like that? On that fateful evening, they had a senseless argument about who cooked the best Crème Brulee on Celebrity Masterchef. Was it the actor who played Lucas in EastEnders or the dark-haired dancer from Steps that no-one remembers? Youssou drove off into the night. He said he was going to buy a bottle of blanc de blanc from the off-licence and perhaps a little yamba from a friend of his. He did not return. It was not until the following morning that Helen got the call asking her to come and identify the body.

Helen feels the dead are not so very far away. She has read that their essence is all around us. It’s just a question of tuning in to their wavelength. Youssou, therefore, is just a whisker away, in all probability trying to reach her too. So she will continue to take the short ride on the light railway, walk the length of Harmonica Way, along Mandolin Avenue and into Dulcimer Street. She will continue to walk up and down Timpani Terrace and keep a close eye on number thirty three. One day, she is certain, they will meet again. Until then, Helen will be missing You.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Earworm

earworm

Earworm by Chris Green

I wake up for the third morning in a row with the chorus of Dominique going round in my head. I don’t understand where this can have come from. I have not heard The Singing Nun’s tiresome tune for fifty years. You have probably never heard The Singing Nun in which case you will have no idea what I’m talking about. Perhaps you do not even get earworms. Perhaps, like my neighbour, Mrs Oosterhuis, you can listen to Smooth Extra in your garden all day without wanting to put a hammer through the radio. I can’t. I have to be particular what I listen to. When I get an earworm, unfortunately, it sticks around.

Hearing any catchy melody is liable to set one off. Smooth Extra, of course, plays nothing but middle-of-the-road classics, designed to bury themselves deep into the listener’s subconscious. I cannot go outside if Mrs Oosterhuis has the radio on. But, I am so sensitive to the phenomenon, it only takes a name heard in passing to set off an earworm. Suzanne (takes you down to her place near the river) Caroline (sweet Caroline, duh, duh, duh). Or even a word. Silver (you’re everywhere and nowhere, baby), War (huh, what is it good for?). And every time I see a dog, Who Let The Dogs Out forces itself upon me. Each time an earworm develops, the blessed thing is likely to plague me until it is replaced by another. In this case, Dominique (a nique a nique), a weird one indeed. I have consciously tried to supplant it but it won’t go away.

Science has looked into the earworm phenomenon and lists of tunes with the greatest earworm potential have been produced. Among those which regularly appear in the top ten are Bohemian Rhapsody, Can’t Get You out of My Head and 500 Miles. This is as maybe. You could argue about it until the cows come home but Dominique is the most invasive earworm I’ve ever had. It’s driving me crazy.

Things have been getting pretty strange ever since it started. Last night I watched a forty minute film where three silhouetted figures dressed as the grim reaper threw ping-pong balls into a contrabass clarinet played by a rotating musician. It was on an Australian internet TV channel. For some reason, this was the only channel I could get on my Smart TV. I had been hoping to distract myself by watching the final episode of the Philip C. Dark thriller, Muddy Water. Perhaps I had not logged in correctly. With so many passwords to remember, sometimes I feel my head is going to explode. Internet banking alone is a little like Russian roulette.

Like Mr Jones in that song by the sixties troubadour, I feel something is happening but I don’t know what it is. Is it just the tune in my head or is something more sinister taking place? Why, for instance, has it been getting dark early the last few nights? Admittedly the nights are drawing in but it is only July. It might be nothing but what are those shiny, elliptical objects on the edge of the horizon? And where have all the birds gone? Since I’ve had this earworm, all manner of changes are taking place.

My friend, Casey Rizla says the weirdness will pass.

Nothing is ever predictable,’ he says. ‘You should learn to expect the unexpected.’

That’s all very well,’ I say. ‘But what about The Singing Nun?’

I’ll tell you what,’ he says. I will play you a tune that’s so catchy, it will see it off just like that and Mrs Oosterhuis’s radio station won’t even have it on their playlist. Karma Chameleon doesn’t come close. This is earworm gold. Not even Rivers of Babylon can touch this baby.’

Waltzing Matilda is certainly a catchy tune but I find it has no staying power and it is not long before Dominque is back. Disappointed, Casey tries another that he is certain will do the trick. This time it’s Ride of the Valkyries. Twenty minutes later, Dominique is back.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of it, I do some research. The Singing Nun, Soeur Sourire (Sister Smile) was Belgian. She was of the Dominican order which I guess goes some way to explaining the lyrics. St Dominic or Dominique was a Spanish priest. He lived very simply and travelled the land talking about the Lord. The song was a hit worldwide and went to number 1 in the US charts. Sister Smile moved in with her lesbian lover, Annie and they committed suicide together with barbiturates and alcohol in 1985. I saw her soul float through the clouds says the inscription on their gravestone.

So how does knowing this help? In a word, it doesn’t and things are getting weirder. Why was there a samba band outside the World’s End restaurant listening to the Shipping Forecast? They had made a pile of their drums and were hugging one another like there was no tomorrow. And why were those people walking their cabbages and cauliflowers in the park? On leads. Perhaps there are no longer any gods. Do I mean dogs? I’m getting confused. It’s that tune that keeps going round and round in my head. How many days is it now? I’ve lost all sense of time. I can no longer seem to tell left from right. Or right from wrong. Everything is wrong. It’s becoming difficult to believe anything. Casey Rizla says that fake news has taken over mainstream media and you need to look elsewhere for reliable information. He suggests it might be written on the subway wall. No, wait a minute! I think that was the other fellow, Simon and Garth’s uncle. Oh, what on Earth’s his name?

Something else is puzzling me. Why does the banker never wear a mac in the pouring rain? Hang on! This is a different tune. This is the one I heard the blind trumpeter playing outside The Mojo Filter this morning. It’s really infectious. It’s ….. it’s Penny Lane. Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes. It’s been in my head ….. well, all day. Dominique has gone. I was beginning to think I was going to have it surgically removed.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Legend Bemusement

legendbemusement

Legend Bemusement by Chris Green

Charlotte walks in on me packing a travelling bag. She suspects, quite rightly, that I am off on a mission. I have not told her. I was leaving this until later.

‘Going somewhere?’ she asks. It is not a polite enquiry, more like the opening salvo of a pitched battle.

‘I was going to tell you,’ I say. ‘Only you were busy with the …… hoovering.’

‘What is it this time?’ she says. ‘Another piece of junk for your collection?’

‘Well. You must have noticed that George died,’ I say.

‘Who?’

‘George Michael. Didn’t you hear me playing his tunes last week?’

‘Oh! Him. He’s dead, is he? Why is that important?’

‘His telescope is for sale.’

‘For God’s sake, Miles. What’s wrong with you? We haven’t got room for any more clutter.’

‘They are quite compact these days. It wouldn’t take up much room.’

‘What would you do with the bloody thing, anyway? Look at Lucy Love getting ready for work in the mornings?’

‘We could view it as an investment.’

‘Look, Miles. I think I’ve been pretty tolerant about your ridiculous obsession up till now. It wasn’t so bad at first. When you just had a few bits of celebrity memorabilia. Bob Marley’s surfboard, Jimi Hendrix’s kite. A few little novelty mementos. I could handle that. But now you’re adding to your collection weekly. It’s getting ridiculous. You can hardly move downstairs. Tell me! Why do we need Syd Barrett’s bike or Prince’s trampoline in the conservatory?’

We’ve been over this one. I’ve been tearing my hair out trying to come up with a solution but space is always going to be a problem for the collector. When Charlotte and I first moved a year or so back, it seemed we had enough room for a few more collectables, what with both Elton and John having left home. But, you soon fill the extra space. You always need more room.

‘I suppose I could move the bike and the trampoline,’ I say. ‘If you think they are getting in the way.’

‘And do we have to have Leonard Cohen’s pool table in the study? It’s not as if you’re ever going to use it.’

‘Well, if I move Syd’s bike and Prince’s trampoline, it could go in the conservatory.’

‘And, quite frankly, John Lennon’s ouija board on the dining room table gives me the creeps.’

‘OK. OK, I get the message,’ I say. ‘I’ll put that out into the conservatory as well. Anyway, I’ve made arrangements to see the telescope tomorrow.’

‘It would have been nice to have been told,’ Charlotte says. ‘How long are you going to be away?’

‘Well, Charlotte. I have to go to Cornwall. I shouldn’t be more than a day or two.’

‘And you really think it’s worth travelling three hundred odd miles to buy a boy’s toy just because it belonged to a second-rate, drug-addicted pop star with no road sense.’

Momentarily, I wonder whether Charlotte may have a point. After all, George Michael doesn’t enjoy the cult status of Prince. Nor does he have the mystique of David Bowie, whose jetski I was lucky enough to pick up at auction last month. George is an understated legend, perhaps most well known for regularly crashing his car. But there again, George had the courage to go outside when most of the other gay celebrities were staying in the closet, which surely earns him a certain cachet.

You might consider my contact, Izzy Eeing an entrepreneur. I’m not sure how Izzy comes across these rare collectables. I don’t like to think of him as a thief, more as a shrewd negotiator. His tax returns might not bear scrutiny but he is a straightforward geezer and a well-connected one. I have never had any reason to doubt the provenance or authenticity of any of the memorabilia he has sold me. He is far more trustworthy than the London wheeler-dealers. With Izzy, what you see is what you get. If Izzy phones me up and says that he has Kurt Cobain’s strimmer for sale then that is what it will be. Should I want Buddy Holly’s yoga mat, he will get me Buddy Holly’s yoga mat. If I asked him to come up with Roy Orbison’s Wayfarers or Marc Bolan’s wizards hat, I could guarantee results. Izzy is a resourceful man.

…………………….

With Charlotte’s words I may not be here when you get back ringing in my ears, I set off bright and early. I am becoming used to these little contretemps. The same old arguments. All these people are dead, Miles, why can’t you move on? You seem to be going further and further back. Why do you have to live in the past? Why don’t you get a life? So and so is doing this, so and so is doing that. We never do anything together. Charlotte refuses to acknowledge that our cultural heritage is something to be cherished. …… She will simmer for a bit but she will come round.

After a couple of hours of sluggish traffic on the M25, I join the M4. To break up the journey, I stop off at Reading Services for a Sidecar doughnut and Americano. I check my phone and find I have an alert that Frank Zappa’s food mixer is for sale. I have to admit I’m tempted. Who wouldn’t be? I wonder why it has come up now, though. Frank has been dead a while and surely his star must be fading. But, perhaps a food mixer might go some way to placating Charlotte. There again, she would probably just carry on her diatribe about me living in the past.

Charlotte keeps telling me I live in a fantasy world. I respond by saying that in one way or another, don’t we all live in a fantasy world? What about those who read books about a boy wizard performing magic tricks or those who watch movies where dragons and orcs fight for mythical kingdoms? What about the millions watching mind-numbing soap operas every night? What about the ones who believe the stories in the Daily Mail or the Daily Express? Everyone it seems is living in some kind of dreamworld. As T. S. Eliot says in his epic musing, Burnt Norton, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality.’

On balance, best then to give Frank’s food mixer a miss and concentrate on the task at hand. The sooner I can get down to Cornwall, the happier I will be. I don’t like travelling as much as I once did, but it is necessary for collectors to get about. Tailbacks from accidents further impede my progress and I am forced to make an unplanned stop at Leigh Delamere Services. Despite my earlier hard-line stance, I don’t like to let things at home fester so I give Charlotte a call to see how the land lies. And perhaps apologise for being a little offhand with her, offer to make it up to her. The call goes straight to voicemail. I leave a conciliatory message.

My expensive Domino’s pizza has the consistency of scrunched elastic bands and I regret ordering the double espresso instantly. It tastes like charred wood. I can’t help but recall the days when motorway service stations consisted of no-nonsense greasy spoons and you could have a decent fry-up at any time of day. You could even enjoy a good strong cup of tea with a cigarette afterwards. There’s this assumption that progress is a good thing, but is it? I’m not one of those people that believes in a mythic golden age but so many things were better back in the day. There was more simplicity and honesty. These days you pay more for less so that less people can have more. There again, I could not help but notice that petrol seems remarkably cheap here and they have gone back to using those slower pumps. Safety, I suppose.

Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a woman at a table to the side of me looking in my direction, late twenties perhaps, dark hair, nice smile. It’s as if she recognises me. I do not recognise her but I smile back. She looks away and begins flicking through the pages of a local newspaper. I can only see part of the front page headline but it reads ‘dies of cancer’. I strain my head, curious to see who has died of cancer. It is Trogg’s lead singer, Reg Presley. Reg, of course, comes from around these parts. Andover, I believe. But, I remember that Reg died a few years ago. Why is she reading such an old paper? I am about to go over to try to find out when my phone rings. I imagine it is Charlotte returning my call but it is someone from the subcontinent wanting to talk to me about web domains. By the time I have explained that I am not interested, the woman reading the newspaper has disappeared. I search the service area high and low but there is no sign of her.

Confused, I get back on the road. I am behind schedule. Thankfully, the traffic as we come up to the M5 junction seems lighter. Sometimes this is what happens as motorists catch on that there have been accidents on a motorway. Traffic services on the radio and internet will have been putting out warnings and suggesting alternate routes for an hour or two and gradually the information filters through to drivers, keen to avoid the hold-ups. It’s not surprising that there are so many accidents on these motorways though. The carriageways are badly in need of an upgrade. I don’t recall the road surface being this bad though and they seem to have taken out some of the helpful signs and overhead displays. If you did not know your way, you might be going anywhere.

Curiously, there is hardly any traffic on the Avon bridge, which is normally a stretch of road that puts the fear of God into me. Four lanes in each direction with cars and trucks weaving in and out. As I head further south down the M5, through the elevated section there is even less traffic. I’ve never known it so quiet. It is interesting to see so many Vauxhall Cavaliers on the road though. Perhaps there is an owners’ club meeting in Weston Super Mare or somewhere. There’s a couple of Lada Rivas too. I haven’t seen one of those in a while. The Woolworths truck is puzzling. Woolworths ceased trading in, when was it? 2007, 2008? …….. There appear to be no roadsigns at all now, not even at the exit I am approaching. The satnav doesn’t seem to be working. A blank screen. But, I know where I am going, M5 to Exeter and then A30 across Devon to Cornwall. Anyway, I do have a map in case there’s a problem with the route.

I switch on the radio to keep me company and maybe get some traffic reports on too to see what is happening ahead. I am only able to pick up one station, a local one called The Breeze. Unusually for a local radio station, they are playing songs by The Clash, Should I Stay or Should I Go followed by London Calling. Not the usual middle of the road fare at all. I discover these are a tribute to Clash frontman, Joe Strummer, who lived in the Somerset Levels. Joe died yesterday, the disc jockey says. A sad loss to the local community. What is going on? Joe Strummer died back in 2002. I’m certain of this. I bought his yoghurt maker.

A few more bumpy miles and I pull nervously into Bridgewater Services at Junction 24. The operation has been drastically scaled down. The services seem to be undergoing a complete makeover. Even the Travelodge has gone. All that is left are a handful of prefabricated buildings and a gravel car park. The gravel car park is empty, except for a few contractor’s vans. Someone is erecting a Moto sign. Coming soon, it says. Something is very wrong. It wasn’t like this when I came this way with Charlotte last year.

‘Can I help you, guv?’ says a bruiser in orange fatigues and a hard-hat.

I tell him I am looking for the services. Somewhere to get a cup of tea and compose myself.

‘You’re about two years early, mate,’ he laughs. ‘Not scheduled for completion until 1999. That’s if you’re lucky. We’ve fallen a bit behind. The site was flooded here a couple of weeks ago. Big centrifugal pumps we had to hire to get rid of the water.’

1999. What is the fellow talking about?

‘No s’sssservices until …… 1999, I stammer. ‘What do you mean?’

‘If you want to get a cuppa or a bite to eat, bud,’ he says. ‘You’ll have to go on to Taunton Deane. That’s another twenty odd miles. ‘

‘But there were services here. I know there were,’ I say. ‘What have you done?’

‘You taking the piss, mate? Look! I should get back in your car before I set the dogs on you.’

I know there was a huge complex here at the A38 roundabout. You could access it from both carriageways. How can this have just vanished? This nightmare collapse of time is scaring the pants off me. I feel like I’ve inadvertently stepped into in a Philip C. Dark story. I desperately need something to hang on to, something I can believe, a shot of reality. My head is spinning. My mouth is dry. My stomach is churning. I reach into my pocket for my phone to call Charlotte. Or perhaps even Dr Self. He intimated that something unexpected might happen. He suggested I would not like it if it did. He did not go into detail. My phone is not in my pocket. I always keep in in my pocket but it is not there. I go back to the car and search frantically. I appear to no longer have a phone.

It is not until I‘m behind the wheel again that I realise that I am in a different car. It is still a Ford. I’ve always gone for Fords. But, this one is an older model. Like one that I owned years ago. Twenty years ago, perhaps. It is the one I owned twenty years ago. It’s the same car. Blue Ford Escort. No power steering. Oil light that stays on. The same broken radio cassette player. Even the same cassettes in the driver’s side door pocket. And, the same …….. dog on the back seat. My big black bulldog, Elvis. Elvis has been dead for…. Well, he’s been dead a long time.…….. He’s not dead now. He is barking like he does when he is greeting someone. He leaps over the passenger seat into the front of the car somehow knocking the rear view mirror and realigning it as he does so. I catch a glimpse of myself. I now have a full head of hair and I have lost the beard. It is said that reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. I try to believe that things are still how they were when I set off but when I look in the mirror again, I find I still have a full head of hair and no beard. How can this have happened? How can any of this be happening? And, where has this thick fog suddenly come from? I can hardly see the road ahead.

When I emerge from the fog, sometime later (flexible, anonymous, irrational time) Elvis is no longer with me. Things appear to have once more moved on. Or back. Time it seems is in a bit of a tangle right now. I find I am in a Ford Cortina. A Mark 2 model. On a narrow windy country lane. Up ahead is a horse-drawn tractor. Princetown 7 miles, says a gnarled road sign. Princetown, I believe is in the middle of Dartmoor. Driving the car is a man that I recognise to be my dead father. He tells me he is taking me to a concert. In Tavistock.

‘It’s all right, he says. ‘I told your mother we would be late.’

‘A concert. You mean like people on a stage,’ I say. I cannot now recall having been to a concert before.

‘That’s right, son.’

‘Who are we going to see?’

‘Jimi Hendrix,’ he says.

‘Who?’ I say.

‘No. Not The Who, lad,’ he says. ‘Jimi Hendrix. He’s just arrived in this country. He has a record called Hey Joe. He plays the guitar with his teeth. He’s going to be famous. You’ll probably be buying posters of him for your room and who knows what else before long.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

The Sadness of the Post-Truth Pianist

thesadnessoftheposttruthpianist

The Sadness of the Post-Truth Pianist by Chris Green

You don’t hear Mozart a lot on the radio these days. While his music isn’t officially banned like that of Beethoven and Bach, playing it is strongly discouraged. You can no longer buy decadent European music in the shops. No Fauré, No Debussy, no Chopin and certainly no Sebelius. Jingoism has spread to most areas of culture but it is perhaps most noticeable in music. Fed daily by post-truth sound bites, prejudice is now rife. England’s isolationist stance has strengthened its grip. Classic FM now feeds its listeners on a diet of Elgar and Vaughan Williams and even the latter is a bit suspect because of his Welsh sounding name. Wales and Scotland are of course long gone, this by mutual agreement in the aftermath of Brexit, so no Karl Jenkins or …… William Wallace. No, I guess you’ve not come across William Wallace all that frequently either. Perhaps the bagpipes were a natural obstacle for Scottish classical music that was never successfully overcome.

For those of us that really love music, it is thrilling to hear Wolfgang Amadeus’s Piano Concerto no. 23 again. It is heart-warming that in this stifling climate of fanatical bellicism, one or two broadcasters like Miles London still risk playing European music. Miles, despite his British-sounding name, has always been a champion of free speech. It could be argued that he gets away with his stance by virtue of his name. John Schafernaker was imprisoned for playing Shostakovich, this before the Russians actually appeared on the blacklist. Others, like Martin Paris and Michelle DuBois, were not only taken off the air but deported. Boys born today are required to be called Hugh or Rupert, Trevor or Nigel while girls must be named Audrey or Doris, Millicent or Lesley. In exceptional circumstances, Mary and Jane are allowed but notice has been issued to Registry Offices up and down the country to no longer allow names like Jennifer or Anne that have their origins across the Channel.

I used to enjoy going to Ristorante Rossellini for a Caprese salad with pesto sauce followed by tagliatelle Genovese and tiramisu. My partner, Patrizia and I would share a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino. Puccini or Donizetti would be playing gently in the background. Luigi would come over during the meal and ask if everything was a tuo piacimento. Sadly, Italian restaurants have all been closed down and Patrizia has been repatriated. Cheese on toast with a bottle of brown ale on my own at the Dog and Duck with whippets running around and Ed Sheeran blaring out is just not the same.

Puzzled by how the wave of nationalism grew so rapidly, I decided to investigate its origins. What had happened to the idea of the global village? Jingoism seemed to be going against the general tide of cultural exploration. After all, until recently we had been all too willing to go on Mediterranean holidays. We couldn’t get enough of the sun, sea and sex. We were quick to develop a taste for wine, olive oil and garlic. We readily took to café society and al fresco dining and brought it home. Pizza parlours proliferated and late night kebab houses opened in every town. We didn’t even baulk at eating snails or some of the unsavoury things Germans put in their sausages. We eagerly participated in European sporting events and brought over so many European footballers that it was difficult to find a British one in any of our top flight teams.

The turn of the tide appears to have been the outbreak of mad cow disease in the late 1990s which prompted the EU to refuse to buy our beef. This struck at the heart of the British psyche. Cows, it appears were the linchpin of our culture. British beef, British beef, British beef, we chanted. We railed and railed but to no avail. Our continental comrades refused to listen. Brussels quickly became branded as the root of all evil. We wanted a life without the interference of Johnny Foreigner. Everything bad that happened could now be blamed on the foul capital of that slimy little lowland backwater that nobody wanted to visit.

But, to fully explain the demonisation of all things European, perhaps we might turn our eyes once more to music. Every year the United Kingdom, as it was then, would carefully craft the perfect song to win the Eurovision Song Contest. Each year it was announced in the press that this time we stood a realistic chance of taking the trophy but each year we would get fewer and fewer points. This was a travesty as we felt, with some justification I understand, that we produced the best pop music in the world. This was the area in which we excelled.

I wish I could go back to those days before the ignominious tabloid headline about bovine TB. To the days when you could hop across the Channel on Eurostar. To when you could peruse the Picasso paintings in the Tate or buy an Alfa Romeo legally. To those days when Bruch’s Violin Concerto was number 1 on the Classic FM Countdown. To the time when I was a dazzling young pianist, fresh from an Amadeus Scholarship and enjoying the first fruits of success. I had hopes and dreams. I did not need self-help books or a prescription for anti-depressants. Things were better then.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

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,’ Sticks says. Secretly he quite likes it. Zoot doesn’t come up with melodious arpeggios like this.

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

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

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

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

Seriously?’ Bernie says.

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

Really?’ Bernie says. ‘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’ Sticks says.

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,’ Ella says. ‘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’ Max says.

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

But, the geezers who brought us here are a throwback to the fifties,’ Bernie says. ‘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,’ Sticks says. ‘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,’ Ella says. ‘We’ve not even played together.’

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

I already have a band,’ Max says. ‘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,’ Bernie says. ‘We’re the Zoot Norris Seven.’

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

I guess Zoot’s not that ambitious,’ Bernie says. ‘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,’ Sticks says. ‘Hat Band! It’s all beginning to make sense now.’

What?’ Max says.

Don’t you see, fellas?’ Sticks says. ‘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?’ Frankie says.

Of course, Frankie,’ Duke says. ‘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?’ Duke says. ‘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

Light Fandango

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LIGHT FANDANGO by Chris Green

July 1966: Sunny Afternoon

We are in the midst of a heatwave, there are smiles on people’s faces and Sunny Afternoon is at Number One. It seems that the gloom and austerity of the post-war years, which in my nineteen years is all I have known, have finally been stripped away. There is a new sense of optimism. According to Magic Max, the time is right for change. It’s the dawning of a new age, he says. A cultural shift is taking place. You only have to look around you to see that people are getting out a bit more and beginning to dress more colourfully.

There isn’t often a lunchtime rush at Licensed to Fill sandwich bar, more of a steady trickle of customers throughout the day. Although local artist, Gooch did some creative sign-writing to draw attention to our little establishment, we are not in what you might call a prime position. We are off the lower end of East Street. We are at the wrong end of Blind Alley to get the office workers from the banks and insurance companies and too near to the Eight Bells to be attractive to browsers from the gift shops in Coleridge Close.

However, today we are inundated. Swarms of young people in their gladrags are tentatively looking the place over to see what is going on. The singer from the Small Faces came in yesterday. I don’t know what he was doing here in the provinces but he seemed to know what he wanted. So, word has probably got around that there is more to be had at Licensed to Fill than cheese and tomato toasties and tuna mayonnaise baguettes. What we have is hashish. Nineteen kilos of Morocco’s finest that Arlo brought back last week in his converted camper van, along with his stories of how they smoke it freely everywhere in Marrakesh and Tangier. We can’t really put a sign up at Licensed to Fill advertising our new line as it is definitely illegal in the UK, but by the interest we are now getting perhaps we won’t need to advertise it. Word of mouth might be sufficient. Arlo says we just need to be cool. I think he means we need to keep an eye out for the law. Not that we see them too much in Sinton Green. It is not a crime hotspot.

Arlo runs Licensed to Fill with his partner, Orla. They bought the lease from Mr and Mrs Broccoli a few months ago. I am helping out at Licensed to Fill through the summer to supplement my meagre student grant. It was either this or deckchair attendant at Broad Sands beach which is ten miles away. An easy decision, as I have no transport. Licensed to Fill is a relaxed pace to work. We have a background soundtrack of all the latest releases as they come out. Arlo and Orla are hip to what’s happening. We’ve got Stan Getz, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. We’ve got Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds, Love, The Byrds’ Fifth Dimension and something by a new band called Jefferson Airplane. All to be played loudly.

September 1966: Tomorrow Never Knows

Magic Max might be right. Things are moving on. We have the Mothers of Invention. We have Seven and Seven Is. We have Revolver, with the transcendent, Tomorrow Never Knows. There is a new word, psychedelic. It’s not in the dictionary yet, but it will be. The whole language that we speak is changing. Guys are now dudes or cats and girls are now chicks or babes. Good things are a gas or a blast and bad things are a drag or a bummer. We’re having a name change too. Arlo and Orla have decided that the name Licensed to Fill is yesterday. James Bond is old hat. Gooch is painting a new sign. I’m not sure about the durability of a name like New Hat. People might think that it refers to a milliners, but it is Arlo and Orla’s decision. If they really were set on a hat theme, perhaps Mad Hatter might have been a better choice, considering the clientele we are getting lately. The dude in the floral brocade trousers and the lime green cowboy boots and the tall one in the orange boiler suit with the corkscrew hair, for instance. And the cat in the space suit, the one we call Major Tom. Someone should write about these people. They would make a great story, or a play, or maybe a song.

Our trade links with Morocco have been streamlined. Now the hash is brought over, hidden in cases of clothing and textiles. Being shipped it may be, but it is flying off the shelves. I think Arlo has an arrangement with the police, whereby he bungs them a few quid now and again and they turn a blind eye to what is going on in Blind Alley.

We have a monkey called Harold who performs magic tricks and a crimson-bellied parakeet called Oscar who mimics every sound he hears. Oscar can say hello, how are you today and would you like coleslaw on that. In addition, he warbles and whistles his way through the day like an accomplished flautist. His repertoire includes Autumn Leaves and Blue Rondo a la Turk along with passable imitations of Paint it Black and Norwegian Wood.

November 1966: Sunshine Superman

I missed enrolment. Somehow, it just slipped my mind and it’s been six weeks now. I won’t be going back to university. I can’t see the point. Sociology seems such a waste of time. All that number crunching about people’s lives and examining the ins and outs of matters that should simply be allowed to run their course. Besides, the opportunities for gratification are so much greater in this brave new world I am exploring through my connections with New Hat.

The cultural landscape, as Magic Max refers to it as, is becoming stranger by the week. I’m not sure who the Foucault and Bourdieu dudes that he speaks of are, but we do have conversations about the likes of Andy Warhol, Marshall McLuhan, RD Laing and Kurt Vonnegut, well, mostly Kurt Vonnegut, as I have just read Cat’s Cradle. We have started selling International Times, a cool new underground newspaper at the café. The editor, Miles is a friend of Arlo’s. But most importantly for us, the music is breaking new ground. With Sunshine Superman, Good Vibrations, Da Capo, and Don Cherry’s Symphony for Improvisers, stylistic boundaries are being expanded. Melody Maker is calling it progressive pop.

We have begun showing art-house films on Thursday evenings, Jean-Luc Godard, Truffaut, Resnais. I’m not sure what some of them are about but perhaps that’s not the point. They are ambiguous, dreamlike, surrealistic. Perhaps this is enough. Weird is cool. Last Year in Marienbad was long and baffling but oddly enjoyable. Orla says you should not look for meaning in everything, you should go with the flow, whatever that means. She punctuates her conversation with aphorisms, like, be here now, do not hate, meditate, and you’re either on the bus or off the bus.

Lately, I am finding it hard to get in to work on time. Ten am. seems very early. It’s not that work at New Hat is strenuous. It’s the changes in lifestyle. Late nights now seem obligatory. I’m often not in bed before six. It’s a good thing that most of the customers also seem to be late risers and that Arlo and Orla are not too concerned with New Hat attracting breakfast trade.

By midday, New Hat will be crowded with colourful people. There’s Satan Ziegler and the earth magic crowd, waxing lyrical about ley lines and UFOs. There are the dandies of the underworld and the laid back musos. Then there are the jugglers and the clowns. Denny, Lenny and Bozo are usually buzzing around doing their business and Spike and Stoner will be doing drug deals with anyone who comes in looking to have a little scene. Although they should be at odds, macrobiotics and toking sit surprisingly well together. By mid-afternoon, the seating area will be awash with half-empty dishes of millet and buckwheat, being used as ashtrays and the place will be bathed in a thick fug of blue smoke.

January 1967: Light My Fire

Arlo brought in an album called The Doors by a new band from Los Angeles called The Doors. The title refers to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, the celebrated author’s exaltation of psychoactive drugs. The music is minor-keyed, spacey and subterranean, with lyrics unashamedly about sex, death and getting stoned. It’s wild and free. New Hat has changed its name again. It is now called Soul Kitchen, after a track from the album. Soul Kitchen with the tagline, the doors are open.

Lots of cool things are starting to happen. The underground is burgeoning. It’s being called the counter-culture and its long-term aim is to overthrow straight society. This make take a few years but even Magic Max is surprised by the speed of change. A restless energy has taken hold. The emphasis is now firmly on youth. It’s a great time to be nineteen. Nineteen months ago I was still at school and now here I am living the most extravagantly decadent of lifestyles. There are Dita and Rita and Suzie and Pixie and, of course, there’s Mary Jane. Life is an endless party. I feel so alive, I’m probably going to live for ever. …….. There again, perhaps not. I’m with Pete Townshend on this one. I don’t think I’d like that. Imagine what it’s like being thirty five or forty. It must be awful.

April 1967: Strawberry Fields Forever

Soul Kitchen has been so successful that Arlo and Orla have taken out the lease on the vacant premises next door. It is colossal. We are going to have live entertainment and circus acts. You will be invited to bring flowers, incense, candles, banners, flags, families, animals, drums, cymbals and flutes to happenings here. Arlo feels that a few of these will really put Sinton Green on the map.

Artists and musicians from far and wide are already starting to drop in, despite the fact that we are miles from the capital. Peter Blake, the artist who is working on the cover for the new Beatles album has become a regular at Soul Kitchen and that dress designer who does the geometric prints comes in quite a lot. Salvador Dali, at least I think it was him, called in with a Siamese cat on his shoulder and promised to paint a mural. Brian Jones and his entourage dropped by last week, resplendent in their Berber finery and, I’m not sure, but do believe I saw Stanley Kubrick secretly filming here a day or two ago. I can’t be sure of everything. Things can be a bit blurry round the edges at times.

Rock music is reaching dizzying new heights. We have Cream. We have Pink Floyd. We have Purple Haze and Strawberry Fields and we now have paper suns. Paper suns are LSD. LSD or acid, as it is becoming known, heightens your awareness of yourself and your surroundings. You feel that you are floating and have a great sense of well-being. You experience things that were probably always there but you could never reach before. Acid helps you to appreciate music with all of your senses. You not only hear it but taste, smell, feel and see the music too.

Meanwhile, a moral panic is breaking out about acid. Nathan Blocker in The Daily Mail says that it makes you strangle kittens and jump out of fourth floor windows. That the God that people have claimed to see under its influence is not the Christian God but Beelzebub. Blocker goes on to says its advocates like Timothy Leary, Ram Dass and even Paul McCartney should be boiled alive, hung drawn and quartered or keel hauled. Well, something like that. Sufficient to say the paper is not in favour of LSD. My parents read the Mail, and aren’t what you might call free thinkers, so this will be their view too. I haven’t spoken to them since the row about Mao Tse Tung a year ago. I was only trying to wind them up; I didn’t really carry the Little Red Book around with me.

June 1967: A Whiter Shade of Pale

A Whiter Shade of Pale is at Number One. Everywhere people are skipping the light fandango and feeling kind of seasick. The crowd is calling out for more. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is blaring out from living rooms across the country. The Fourteen Hour Technicolour Dream at Alexandra Palace in London, a tripped-out psychedelic gathering of the underground has set the scene for the summer. We are going to stage some far out gatherings of the tribes at Soul Kitchen.

But, philosopher-poet, Christian Dara, who sometimes pops in for his mint tea and Lebanese crêpe, says that this is it. The dream is already fading. It will soon be over. The underground, as it has been called, is becoming visible at ground level. The quiet revolution, he says, is being appropriated by the mainstream. There, it will be neutralised, cleansed and absorbed into the everyday. There will perhaps be a summer of beads and bells, love and peace and false sentiment and then it will be back to business. On to the next thing.

Why would turning on, tuning in and dropping out be any different to say, angry young men, teddy boys, mods and rockers?‘ he says. It’s just another fad. ……. In any case, it would not work.’

‘Why?’

‘It lacks substance. It’s impractical.’

‘How?’

‘OK, you’ve all turned on. That’s fine. You’re all sitting cross-legged on the floor. You all feel mellow yellow. The sun is shining. The birds are singing. ……. You’ve tuned in. You’re listening to some groovy music. You’re turning cartwheels across the floor. ……. You’ve created some cool art. You‘ve painted your rooms in a colourful way and everything around you is dripping in psychedelic patterns.

‘That’s what we want. Get loaded. Groovy music. Cool art. What’s wrong with that?’

‘Nothing. That’s fine. ……. But now, you’ve all dropped out. You’re calling out for another drink but there is no waiter to bring a tray. The waiter too has dropped out.’

‘Hey.’

There’s no plan. You have no plan.’

‘Perhaps we don’t need a plan. Life is organic, not mechanical.’

First of all, you need to identify how you want to shape your organic life. Decide what you want to create. Not what you want to stop, but what you want to make.

‘We’ll make love, not war.’

‘Well, that’s a start, I suppose, but what will you do then. You’ll have lots of babies.’

‘We’ll use contraceptives.’

‘But remember, the pharmacist who sells the contraceptives has dropped out. He’s off somewhere kissing the sky. You’ll have a growing population and no means to feed them. There are no crops. The farmer has dropped out. Or perhaps he has grown a different crop and he’s eight miles high. Should you not have factored all of this in? Everything will fall apart if you don’t have a plan. You will perish. You will …….. wait for it, turn a whiter shade of pale.’

That’s not going to happen.’

No. You’re probably right. Once they’ve woken up to what is going on, the powers that be will be on your case. And you‘ll be busted, busted and busted again and your dealers will end up in jail. And then you’ll have no drugs. And no motivation. At best, you’ll end up as small enclaves of weekend hippies, working at dead-end jobs to pay for damp basement flats, saving up to go to occasional pop festivals to listen to long-haired bands singing protest songs about police brutality and conflicts in far off lands. A far cry from skipping the light fandango.

© Chris Green 2016 : All rights reserved

ABRACADABRA

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Abracadabra by Chris Green

I have just pulled into the DIY superstore car park when I catch a snatch of Abracadabra on the new radio station I have found. Blitz plays nothing but rock, which is fine, as none of the other stations will touch it. I have not heard The Steve Miller Band for ages and, while Abracadabra may not be their finest effort, it’s still a treat to hear. Far better than the mind-numbing pap you get elsewhere on FM. Unfortunately, steel impedes the FM radio signal and B and Q is a steel-framed structure, so as I get near the building, the radio begins to tune out. Reluctantly, I switch it off and grab a trolley. I make a mental note to play Abracadabra when I get home, loudly. But, the tune is in my head now. As I wander around the store, I can’t get rid of the infectious Abracadabra chorus.

Suddenly, as if by magic, there she is. She is in the same aisle as me, looking at the selection of specialist paints. She looks divine in her Sticky Fingers T-shirt. And what cool sleeve tattoos! She smiles at me. Her smile is like Stairway to Heaven. I smile back. Mine is probably more November Rain. I am conscious that I haven’t shaved for a few days. Taking me further by surprise, she comes right up to me. She tells me she recognises me.

I saw you unloading your white van in Serendipity Street yesterday,’ she says. ‘I’ve just moved in across the road. I did try to attract your attention but you seemed preoccupied.’

Sorry,’ I say, trying to recall how I could have possibly been too busy to notice this vision of grace and loveliness.

No worries,’ she says. ‘We have met now. I’m Ella Vallée, by the way.’

Ella Vallée. That’s a nice name,’ I say, successfully avoiding the temptation to say, ‘I bet you are.’

My father was French,’ she adds.

I’m Andy,’ I say. ‘I love France. I regularly take the van over to Calais.’

My name was Ella Crews,’ she says. ‘But I changed it back when my divorce came through.’

Oh,’ I say.

Cool. Attractive. Divorced. Flirty. This is promising.

I expect you are busy but I was wondering if you might pop round later on,’ she says. ‘I’ve got something I would like you to take a look at.’

And she’s inviting me round. It gets better and better. This is exactly what I need. I’ve been at a loose end since Mandy moved her things out a week or two ago.

But let’s not jump the gun. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Best to try and play it cool.

I’ve got a few things to finish up first,’ I say. ‘But I could swing by later, say about six.’

Here’s my number,’ she says. ‘In case you get lost.’

..……………………..………………….

When Sergeant Tom Crews returns home from his extended tour of duty in Afghanistan, he finds Ella has gone. She has taken all her things, and without them, the first-floor flat looks empty. She has left no note or any clues as to where she might be, just a pile of bills and junk mail on the mat in the hallway. Certainly, she has talked about leaving before. But he thought this was just talk. They had their differences. There was no doubt about that. Tom did not feel it was right for the wife of a serving army NCO to run around seeing bands like Foo Fighters and Rage Against the Machine, and probably taking all manner of illegal substances while he was fighting the Taliban in Helmand Province. Ella had laughed this off, saying that he shouldn’t have been fighting with the Taliban, the army was there as a peace-keeping force. And, they had clashed over Ella’s tattoos. While it was not unusual for army wives to have their husband’s names tattooed on their arm, or a rose or something like that on their ankle, some of Ella’s tattoos were quite explicit. The snake crawling up her thigh, for instance, and the butterfly cleavage tattoo. What impression must this give his colleagues about their marriage?

But, still, six years is a long time. You have to expect a few ups and downs. It is understandable that his feelings about his relationship with Ella have tended to fluctuate. One day he would feel lucky to have such an attractive wife to go home to and the next, in a jealous rage over something he had found out, he might want to knock the living daylights out of her. But, was it too late to save their marriage, anyway? Might they actually be divorced? Tom has a vague recollection that, after he had seen a post of her strutting her stuff at an Eagles of Death Metal gig on Facebook, he may have signed something, a communication that came through the post over there in Helmand, but he is not sure what it might have been. Lately, everything seems to be a bit of a blur. With the Taliban insurgency in the Gereshk District at its height, he has hardly had time to think. Under the circumstances, he was lucky to even get leave. It was only because he had begun to have blackouts that they had let him go.

..……………………..………………….

Ella may have just moved into the Serendipity Street apartment, but, unless the previous tenants also had a taste for rock, she seems to have made the place her own very quickly. Or perhaps she has moved in with someone else, someone who had already made their mark. That’s a lingering possibility. The Jimi Hendrix mural running the length of the hallway looks quite an accomplished work. It’s also hard to imagine that the Pearl Jam posters in the front room would have been framed so professionally and just left on the walls when the last tenants moved out. I’m hoping that there isn’t a fellow on the scene.

Did you paint the walls purple and black,’ I ask when we get to the bedroom. ‘They look awesome with the yellow Fender hanging there.’

It’s not a real Stratocaster,’ Ella says. ‘It’s a cheap Chinese import.’

Nevertheless, I bet it sounds as good as it looks,’ I say, in a final attempt to make sure no bloke is going to suddenly crawl out of the woodwork.

I’m getting better. I can play the intro to Led Zeppelin’s Heartbreaker,’ she hollers, over the Guns N’Roses riff that is pounding the Kef speakers. ‘Could you help me off with these boots, Andy?’

She lies back on the low wooden bed, amidst the cornucopia of throws and cushions. Getting the long black boots off is a doddle, compared to the tight ice blue jeans. They fit her like a second skin. How long must it take her to get into them? And, my sweet Lord! Where does that snake tattoo end up?

..……………………..………………….

Tom Crews has no idea where Ella might have gone. She has no family nearby, in fact, he has never met her parents. He hasn’t had much to do with her friends and they haven’t had much to do with him. He has always thought of them as common and they have always thought of him as dull and boring, far too straight to be with Ella. Their apparent incompatibility has come up time and time again in their arguments.

After the earlier episode with the photos, Tom deactivated his Facebook account but now, in an attempt to find out what is going on, he re-activates it. He finds to his alarm that Ella is no longer on Facebook, or if she is she is no longer using her name, or her maiden name, Ella Vallée. He searches around the flat and manages to find a mobile number for her friend, Lola on a scrap of paper. He is not sure which one Lola is, but he thinks she might be the one who comes round in the studded leather jacket, the one that talks like Eliza Doolittle and is always chewing gum. Lola tells him, not at all convincingly he feels, that she hasn’t heard from Ella in a long time. Roxy, the one with the green hair, who he tracks down to Nail It is more straightforward. She just tells him to sling his hook.

In what can best be seen as a desperate measure, Tom goes into town and sits on a bench outside Pricks Tattoo Parlour in the High Street in the hope that Ella might show up there. It is a long-shot, but he does not feel he can stay in the empty flat. When Mikey, an old friend of his, comes up to him and asks him what he is doing there, he realises that he is acting irrationally and they go off to The Prince of Wales for a pint.

I bumped into Ella last week,’ Mikey says, once they have exhausted their reminiscences about the old days back in Toker’s End. ‘She was coming out of R3hab.’

What?’ Tom says, taken aback. ‘I didn’t. uh. I know she likes to smoke the odd spliff, but I didn’t realise she had a …… uh problem.’

Of course, mucker. You’ve been away, haven’t you?’ laughs Mikey. ‘R3hab’s a new club. Opened last year in the old fire station. Ella stumbled out. About 2 a.m. I think it was. I had been to Cloud Nine. That’s a club too, by the way. Anyway, Ella was with friends, Lola, I think the one’s called. And that one with the green hair. Oh! And I suppose I shouldn’t tell you this, but they went off with some blokes. I’m sure it was all innocent, like.’

Innocent? Do you really think so?’ Tom says. ‘At 2 a.m.?’

..……………………..………………….

The Stieg Miller Band, a Swedish tribute act are playing at R3hab and Ella has managed to get us tickets. I would not normally go to see tribute bands, nor I suspect would Ella, authenticity being important to us rockers and all that. But, she explains that Mojo is describing the Stieg Miller Band as the real deal. Some of the band members have apparently played with Armageddon and Lowrider, two of the top Swedish rock bands. I have not heard of either band. The only acts coming out of Sweden that I have heard of are Abba and Sigur Rós. Come to think of it, Sigur Rós might be from Iceland. Perhaps I am a few years behind with my reading of music periodicals. I already know what I like and I just like listening to the music. And if Stieg Miller sounds anything like Steve Miller, then I guess that is enough to go on. After all, I do like the songs. I still have the Abracadabra earworm from the other day.

I would not normally go to R3hab either. It has a reputation for fights, or at least that is what Mandy and her friends used to say about it. But, Ella tells me there is nothing to worry about. Her powers of persuasion are such that I feel I have little choice in the matter, anyway. She even kits me out with new clothes for the occasion. From that designer shop I’ve never had the nerve to go in. I have never had a real biker jacket before. It’s very stylish and I’m sure that the super spray jeans will get more comfortable as the night wears on.

..……………………..………………….

Let’s get our arses down there,’ Tom Crews says after the fourth pint.

What are you on about?’ Mikey says. ‘Where are we going to get our arses down to?’

R3hab,’ Tom says.

R3hab doesn’t open until around 10 p.m., mucker,’ Mikey says. ‘And I expect they have a dress code. I mean, look at you. You’re wearing …….. a double-breasted suit. They’re not going to let you in looking like that. When was the last time you saw someone other than Prince Charles wearing a double-breasted suit? And isn’t that a regimental tie? I mean, come on, man!’

You don’t think it’s a good idea for me to go, do you?’ Tom says.

Well. It is a daft idea,’ Mikey says. ‘But if you are going to go you’ll need to go home and change.’

..……………………..………………….

The band are playing Abracadabra over and over. It sounds great, but why don’t they play another number. The Joker or Fly Like An Eagle, maybe. ………….. A man in an orange jacket is coming towards me. He has a serious expression on his face. …………… He walks straight past me. ……………… He goes up to the pretty girl in the Sticky Fingers T-shirt who is looking at the specialist paints, along the aisle.

Do you need any help?’ he says, with a strained smile.

Do you stock these acrylic eggshell paints in purple and black?’ the girl says. ‘You only seem to have pale colours here.’

Oh no! Has it happened again? ………………. Have I had another of my flights of fancy? I only came in to buy some replacement bits for my Black and Decker.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Where’s Your Car, Debbie?

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Where’s Your Car Debbie? by Chris Green

‘Where’s your car, Debbie …… Debbie where’s your car,’ screams a cracked voice. There is an air of desperation about it. It is coming from some distance away. It sounds like it is coming over a PA system in the park. As we approach, Betty and I notice that a large crowd has gathered to listen. There are now hundreds of people in the park, perhaps thousands. Earlier when we had a cup of tea at the café by the bowling green, the park was empty. Betty was saying how peaceful it was, and wondered if we ought to bring a picnic down in the new basket that Bob and Ros bought her as a retirement present.

To find out what is happening, we ease our way forward through a throng of unkempt rebel youths. Many of them look no more than ten or twelve. But then most people look young to us these days. As we near the front, we see two tattooed men in vests jumping around on a makeshift stage. One of them is strangling an electric guitar while his friend is banging on a a drum and shouting hysterically ‘where’s your car, Debbie, Debbie where’s your car.’

‘The man is obviously having some sort of breakdown,’ says Betty. Betty was a psychiatric nurse. She tends to view everything from a mental health viewpoint.

Rather than coming to his assistance though, everyone in the crowd is treating his existential crisis as an excuse to leap up and down. Why are they celebrating his sorry plight? What has happened to compassion?

‘Debbie must surely be in the crowd somewhere,’ I say. ‘Why isn’t she helping?’

‘Where’s your car, Debbie, Debbie where’s your car.’ the man screams over and over.

‘Look at him. The poor man is at his wits end ,’ says Betty

‘What make of car do you think it is?’ I say. ‘A Ford perhaps, or a Vauxhall? A Nissan or a Toyota? If we knew, Betty, we might be able to help. We might have seen it on the way here.’

‘It would of course be helpful to know who Debbie is,’ says Betty.

‘For sure,’ I say, looking around to see if there are any likely candidates. There are no obvious Debbies.

‘I expect the poor man’s life saving drugs are in the car or something and he needs them,’ Betty says. ‘What on earth is Debbie thinking?’

‘Of course, the pair of them might just be trying to get a lift home.’ I say. ‘And Debbie whoever she is doesn’t want to give them a lift. She doesn’t go that way or perhaps she hasn’t got any petrol.’

Betty tells me I can be a bit cynical at times. She says I am unfeeling. But I think I have a point. The man cracking up over there seems be a bit of an attention seeker. And now he has got his audience.

‘You could be right,’ Betty says, as we edge closer. ‘They don’t look like they are from round here, do they, Bill?’

‘You don’t think it might be some kind of ……. street theatre do you,’ I say. ‘Look. ……. There’s a name on the drum. It says Slaves.’

‘You not heard of Slaves, man,’ says the youth spilling Tennents Super down his ripped vest. He lurches towards me. ‘Slaves is big, man. You wanna look out for them. They’ll be headlining Glastonbury soon. That’s where you old folks go, innit. Glastonbury. Look out for Slaves.’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

The Devil’s Interval

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The Devil’s Interval by Chris Green

I have not always been a killer. I blame my descent into malevolence and murder on Holst and Wagner. Oh! And Black Sabbath. Mostly Black Sabbath, in fact. Perhaps I had better explain.

It all began when in February 1970, I was listening to a Dutch radio station late at night with my friend, Ray. We were both eighteen. We had just moved into our first flat. We had come back from The Cellar Bar and had just finished a big fat spliff. It was a stormy night with the wind rattling the shutters. On the stroke of midnight out of the static of the night-time radio, soared an apocalyptic new track. It was like nothing I had heard before. It was hypnotic, sinister, demonic. Four stinging chords on the guitar repeated over and over with a screaming vocal. But what chords they were! This was music from the very depths of Hell. We caught on straight away that something was happening, but to paraphrase Bob Dylan, we did not know what it was.

Far out,’ Ray said. ‘It’s badass. ……… But at the same time, I’m a little scared.’

I know what you mean,’ I said. ‘It’s like a thundercloud blotting out the sun. It’s really cool, but you know that something real bad is going to happen.’

What was happening was, in fact, the birth of heavy metal music. It all started here at this very moment. At the tail end of the sixties, music had been heading in this direction with The Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin, but their music was tame, legitimate by comparison. This was the real deal. The Dutch station we were listening to played the music with no DJ’s babble, but I managed to find out somehow that this was the title track from Black Sabbath’s eponymous album.

Much later I was to discover that the secret behind the track lay is something known as the diabolus in musica or The Devil’s Interval. The diabolus in musica was considered so ominous in the Middle Ages that it was banned by clerics for fear it would raise Lucifer himself. It consists of a tritone (augmented fourth or diminished fifth) and spanning as it does three tones, the interval violates a musical convention and sounds dissonant, producing an unsettling feeling in the listener. Playing the note of C followed by F sharp somehow encapsulates the essence of evil. Black Sabbath may have stumbled on this accidentally, but they were not the first in the modern era to use it. Wagner used it in Götterdämmerung and Holst used it in Mars – The Bringer of War.

The difference perhaps is that these two classical greats were fully aware of what they were doing. Dissonance was precisely the effect they were after. There were, of course, no stoned freaks listening to late night Dutch radio stations in their day whose lives might be driven off course by The Devil’s Interval. Wagner and Holst had only the hoi-polloi as an audience and many of these were beyond redemption anyway, involved as they were in either military manoeuvres and empire building.

I bought the album, Black Sabbath and over the next few weeks Ray and I played it over and over at deafening volume. Ray had just bought a powerful NAD amplifier and some Wharfedale speakers and this punched the satanic sound around the small front room of the basement flat, through the whole house, up the street and possibly the next town. Dozens of stoned freaks dropped by to listen and went off to buy the album. In no time at all Black Sabbath was the one of the three albums they carried around with them and rolled their joints on.

I can’t say for certain whether the tritone repeated over and over was a factor in the landlord’s suicide. We were so taken over by the music that we did not realise that he had gone. We just thought it odd that he hadn’t been round to collect the rent. I cannot claim therefore that this was the beginning of my killing spree. This did not really take off until years later.

If you’ve ever been to a Black Sabbath concert you will know what I’m talking about when I say that it can instigate feelings of violence. I felt rancour and malevolence to the very core of my being when I saw them play live at Malvern Winter Gardens. It was lucky I didn’t get arrested for flattening the bouncer. The Devil’s Interval resounded in my head for hours after the show. I was wired. I could not get rid of the feeling. On the way home, I punched the taxi driver. After this, Ray insisted that we give Black Sabbath a break for a while.

I met Linda and she carefully monitored of my heavy metal music listening, and for years, I managed to keep a lid on my violent tendencies. Linda was a nurse and knew people who might be able to help me.

You’re doing very well, Martin,’ my anger management counsellor, Hortense would say. ‘It’s been months since you hit anyone.’

I got married and did the things you do when that happens, bought a house, went to dinner parties, had children, slept with my wife’s best friend and got divorced. Ray met Mary and did the same, in fact, most of my friends did the same. It was never going to work, was it? It was a generational thing. I’m sure Linda and Mary slept with our best friends too but didn’t tell us. This was what happened back then.

At least you’ve got that out of your system, Martin,’ Hortense would say. ‘Now you need to get on with your life.’

It was now the late-seventies. Freed from responsibility, I felt the need for some more heavy metal music. Although punk had taken over mainstream rock music, fortunately, there was also a burgeoning choice of very loud heavy metal bands to listen to. If anything the volume had been turned up. These bands needed LGVs to carry their kit around. Many of them had also discovered the potency of The Devil’s Interval. I went to see Judas Priest play at Cheltenham Town Hall. They used the devastating tritone over and over in their set. I began to feel the violent impulses again. After the concert, I went on the rampage. I set about a complete stranger and impaled him on the trident in Neptune’s Fountain. While I was only charged with manslaughter, custody threatened to put a halt to my appreciation of heavy metal.

Thanks to a glowing report from Hortense I got off with a ten-year stretch and was out again in five. There were now so many metal bands that I didn’t know where to start, ACDC, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Motorhead, Slayer, Megadeth, Def Leppard to name but a few. And amazingly Black Sabbath were still going. Hortense recommended that if I did listen to them I should do so with the volume down and under no circumstances should I go to a gig. She lent me some Al Stewart cassettes to listen to. I was not impressed. He sounded too posh to make meaningful music. Next, she tried me on Billy Joel. He was even worse, a real pussy. I was pleased when my machine chewed up the tape.

It is never easy for ex-prisoners to find work, so I was overjoyed when after a few weeks of twiddling my thumbs and feeling depressed I managed to get a job in a musical instrument repair workshop. The manager of Black Keys, Matt Black gave me a chance. I think he sympathised with my plight because his son, Jett had himself been in trouble.

Matt Black explained the rudiments of music to me. He taught me about scales, chromatics and dissonance. It was Matt who told me about the Devil’s Interval. It was just my bad luck that he continued to demonstrate it. The Planets apparently was his favourite piece of music and Mars was his favourite section of it. He played it on repeat in the workshop. At least this is how it appeared. Perhaps I had developed earworm, but as I rubbed the glue into the crack on the cello neck, the dissonance of Holst’s diabolus in musica echoed endlessly in my head. The frightening crescendo kept building until I could take no more. I brought the instrument down on Matt’s skull.

My barrister, Miles Wimpler buckled when he found out who was presiding over the case. Judge Bearcroft was notorious for his no-nonsense stance. The old curmudgeon was variously rumoured to have jailed people for loitering, for not wearing a seat belt and for stealing pencils from the office. He described me as a ferocious animal that needed to be caged. Hortense’s mitigation regarding the diabolus in musica fell flat. Judge Bearcroft had a low tolerance for musical mumbo-jumbo and he gave me a twenty.

I was out in ten, just in time for the Black Sabbath Reunion Tour. The publicity promised that they were going to play louder than ever. They did. Much louder. And Black Sabbath the key number in their set was deafening. The tritone echoed around the auditorium like a battle raging. I know I shouldn’t have gone. And I know I shouldn’t have killed Hortense. And it would be foolish to deny the connection. My rage was clearly a result of those demonic chords rattling round in my head. It was the Devil’s work all right. With no-one to mitigate my plea, this time, I got life.

I am a few years into my sentence. I was in Wandsworth at first, which was tough, but as prisoner numbers rose I got moved to Belmarsh, which is not quite so bad. I share my cell with Denzel, another lifer. Denzel was a big name in gangland in the early eighties. One of the characters in the film, The Long Good Friday was based on him. Denzel has been in here a while. It shows in his demeanour. He is massively overweight. We chat about Staffordshire bull terriers and Millwall FC.

I have got what others might consider a cushy job working in the prison library. The problem I have is that the library is right next to the Prison Governor’s office and Governor Kraut keeps playing Wagner, more specifically Götterdämmerung. Why is he doing it? Doesn’t he know about The Devil’s Interval? Isn’t he aware of my history, or is the bastard just trying to wind me up? I nearly killed Nolan Rocco yesterday in the canteen. I had my hands around his throat. What stopped me? It certainly wasn’t Floyd Edmondson. Big Floyd was egging me on. What stopped me was the thought that maybe one day I might be able to get out of here, but I know I won’t. Judge Block told me that life would mean life. And with the diabolus in musica pulsing round in my head, it is surely only a matter of time before I kill someone else.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

James Brown – The Godfather of Soil

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James Brown – The Godfather of Soil by Chris Green

Susanna and I were having a lunchtime glass of Chardonnay at Cafe Rouge. She had called me earlier at work. She had sounded a little distraught, so I had rearranged my diary to for us to meet up. She suspected Charlie was seeing a younger woman. Over the first glass or two, we had examined the evidence, his late nights at the office, the restaurant receipts in the MG, his increased interest in personal grooming, and the dropping off of his libido, this despite the Agent Provocateur lingerie she had purchased. Most distressing were the graphic photos she had discovered on his mobile phone. We had discussed the possible avenues of retribution open to her, clearing out the joint bank account, an affair with a younger man, bromide in his morning tea, or divorce papers. Towards the end of the bottle, Susanna decided to lighten the conversation.

‘Did you know, Amanda, that playing music to plants aids their growth?’ she said.

‘Is that right?’ I said. I was naturally a little dubious about such a claim. It had a Life on Mars ring to it. Susanna was prone to fanciful ideas at times.

‘I read it in an article by a Chinese botanist in a magazine I picked up at the dentist,’ she said.

I believe Susanna has a fairly upmarket dentist, mine only has months-old copies of ‘Hello’ magazine in the waiting room. Hello doesn’t usually have a significant science content.

‘Interesting,’ I said, hoping not to show my disinterest.

‘You have a good stock of plants around the house,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you give it a try?’

‘What kind of music do you think they would like to hear,’ I asked. I did after all have a large CD collection, made up mostly of those that Nick had left when he moved out to live with that tramp, Chloe. Chloe, for some reason did not seem to care for music, so Nick had never been back for them. It had been six months now.

‘All types of music, I imagine,’ Susanna said. ‘I suppose you will need to experiment.’

I didn’t get on to it right away, but after a couple of grey early summer months, during which my indoor plants, particularly the bromeliads, began to look a little sad, I decided that it would do no harm. I started in a conservative way, playing them Chopin and Einaudi, then Bach and Handel, chosen on the basis that soothing music would be more likely to be therapeutic. Gradually I introduced them to The Corrs, The Beach Boys and REM.

In late July, Susanna phoned. As soon as I heard her voice, I could tell that something was wrong. Over lunch at Le Petit Blanc, once the business of Charlie’s latest indiscretions were out of the way (their joint bank account balance had plummeted, he had brought the other woman to the house), I reported back to her. Some plants, I explained, had responded marginally better than others to different types of music, but overall there seemed to be very little difference in their growth patterns, although I was almost sure that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had killed my cyclamen, Young mostly I suspected. I asked her if she had been back to the dentist recently.

‘No,’ she said. Her teeth were tickedy boo since she had been using the interdentals and the organic toothpaste that Mr Ondaatje had recommended. And the composite filling was holding up well, despite her fondness for Belgian chocolate.

‘You don’t remember anything else about the plant article,’ I asked.

‘I do seem to recall that it concluded that it is all to do with vibrations. Perhaps your little darlings need something a little more up tempo or with a little bass.’

Over the next few days I tried out Little Richard, Bob Marley, and James Brown. So far as I could tell, the lemon tree in the conservatory responded favourably to Little Richard. The yucca seemed to perk up to Bob Marley, while the palms preferred James Brown. It was difficult to keep track from day to day which music had what effect on which plants, so I set up a spreadsheet on the computer, and prepared special playlists, based on genre. I took to leaving music on while I went to work. One day pop, one day soul, one day jazz, one day rock, etc.

Remarkably, all the plants seemed to favour heavy metal. My curiosity raised by this, I found a forum on the internet on the subject of playing music for plants. I had not imagined that there would be such a forum, but I discovered that there were several. While there was by no means universal agreement on which music stimulated growth, many subscribers to the forums had arrived at the same conclusion. Heavy metal was the key to happy houseplants. The repetitive riffs and screaming guitars appear to promote rapid growth said wildoutlaw93 The heavier the better said thebeast666, and turn the volume right up. Try them on AC/DC, Twisted Sister and Judas Priest oilygrebo recommended, and of course Black Sabbath.

I now play Black Sabbath to my plants eight hours a day. I have set up speakers all around the house. I put Paranoid or Heaven and Hell on at eight before I leave for work and set the player to repeat. My croton which has never flowered before has produced a bloom, and my orchids are colossal.

The Englebys next door, I notice, have a For Sale sign outside.

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

CAT

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CAT by Chris Green

Ralph is at least nineteen years old. He is what’s known as a mackerel tabby. My ex-partner’s friend, Junko found him as a kitten at Catbrain Quarry and brought him round to the house.

‘I’ve got a new cat for you,’ Junko said. She knew our old cat had run away the previous week.

My daughter, Echo took to Ralph immediately. She laughed at the way he would run up the walls to chase a fly and she loved the way that he would nestle down on the dog’s head. It was Echo who gave Ralph his name, after Ralph Lauren Polo. Echo used to think that Polo was the designer’s surname. She was eleven.

What? You don’t believe there is a place called Catbrain Quarry? Look it up on the map. It’s near Painswick in Gloucestershire. Painswick has the largest number of cats per household in the country. No, it doesn’t. There are hardly any cats in Painswick. I made that up. How about this instead? This is true.

Following an online poll in 2013 the cat was named as the new Monopoly token, replacing the iron. The cat received the most votes on Facebook, beating the diamond ring, the helicopter, the guitar and the robot. It joins the wheelbarrow, shoe, race car, top hat, thimble, Scottie dog and battleship as tokens in the standard edition of the game. Other retired tokens over the years include the horse and rider, the cannon, the bag of money and the train.

There are variations. The world edition has a staggering twenty four tokens: a cowboy hat, a pretzel, an Egyptian head mask, a rickshaw, a Canadian mountie, a kangaroo, a London black cab, a Chinese dragon, a safari hat, a NASCAR race-car, a boomerang, a windmill, a camel, an Inca mask, a Sumo wrestler, a matador, an Inca statue, a surfer, Russian dolls, a baseball glove, an African mask, an Easter Island head, a football, and a koala. Where are onion Johnny, the dreadlocks rasta, and the oil sheik?

There are numerous collectors editions including the Shrek Collectors Edition, Nintendo, Coca Cola, Star Trek and The Muppets, not to mention The Simpsons and South Park editions. The John Wayne Collector’s edition has yet to adopt the cat as a token. It is singular in its focus. Its tokens are cowboy hat, belt buckle, cowboy boot, “Duke” the dog, John Wayne’s director’s chair and Stagecoach. In the spinoff, Ghettopoly, the tokens are: pimp, ho (whore), 40 oz malt liquor, machine gun, marijuana leaf, basketball and crack. The four railroad properties from the original are replaced by liquor stores. Other properties include a massage parlour, a peep show and a pawn shop. Promoting as it does ruthless capitalism most countries have adopted the Monopoly format and there is probably a localised Monopoly featuring the town you live in. Most likely it will now have the cat as a token.

I noticed early on that Ralph liked to listen to music. Along with bringing home mice and depositing them on the dining room table, musical appreciation seemed to be one of his favourite pastimes. He liked The Cocteau Twins especially and, quite surprisingly I thought, Led Zeppelin. He jigged his head to REM and Everything But The Girl and liked to sing along to Fleetwood Mac. A friend of ours at the time told us that his cat, Dave, liked listening to Handel and Vivaldi. We tried Ralph out on Water Music and The Four Seasons. His ears pricked up at first but as the music wore on, a bored expression came over his face and after a while he slunk off to the corner.

Recently I discovered a website, musicforcats.com They claim their music is based on feline vocal communication and environmental sounds that pique the interest of cats and is written in a musical language that is uniquely designed to appeal to the domestic cat. Kitty Ditties are playful and quick incorporating stylisations of some of the animal calls that are of great interest to cats. Cat Ballads are restful and pleasing. Feline Airs is based on the pulses of the purr. As the mp3s were really cheap I downloaded them all. Ralph was unimpressed. He didn’t so much as cock his head to listen. He knows what he likes. He established his musical tastes early on. If I want a happy purring cat I have to put on Automatic for the People or Rumours.

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved