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.

 

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The Devil’s Interval

thedevilsinterval2

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

A Short History of Colour

shorthistoryofcolour

A Short History of Colour by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His revelations continued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re just jealous,’ said Pete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since 1989 colour has been in the ascendant.

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

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

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved