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Spike Milligan’s autograph

London - cafe interior

London – cafe interior

It was the winter of 1964. My school, Queen Mary’s in Basingstoke, had arranged for a few of us to have a cultural visit: A coach took us to the Comedy Theatre in the West End of London. The theatre was staging ‘Son of Oblomov’ and Spike Milligan was in the lead role. I had no idea what to expect.  I knew that Spike Milligan was eccentric and apparently very funny – but that was all.

My schoolmates and I sat in the stalls and we watched the play. I couldn’t really make sense of what was taking place. However, whenever Spike Milligan got going we all waited for something weird and amusing to happen. And it did: For example, apart from speaking in a bizarre voice and pulling crackpot faces, Spike Milligan managed to get hold of a white glove from somewhere – which he suddenly began milking – as if it was a cow’s udder.  Neither the glove nor its transformation into a cow’s udder had anything to do with the play but the audience was delighted with that moment of creative madness.

When the play was over, two of us (an older boy and I) happened to come across Spike Milligan himself. He was sitting on some steps at the side entrance to the Comedy Theatre. My friend, who was older and braver than me, asked him for his autograph. After a moment’s hesitation, he took my friend’s theatre programme and signed his name. It was a good bold signature that did everything a decent signature should do.

Encouraged by my friend’s success I turned to Spike Milligan and asked him: “May I have one too?”

“Yes, you may,” replied Spike.

This time his face took on a slightly demonic expression. I held out my Son of Oblomov programme:

He took it – and on it he wrote: ‘2’

Poetry – the colour of the sky

The grey table

Paris: The grey concrete table

A poet* looked out at the world; then he wrote:
‘The sky is the colour of decaying cats.’

It has snowed in England. So, what is the colour of the sky?

Well, today, the sun did not glow red at dawn.

Today, the sky is the colour of a battlecruiser – dressed in the plumage of war.

And yesterday, the sky was the colour of silver condemned –
Condemned to live forever and forever
– in the farthest reaches of a forgotten mine.

*Adapted from the film, ‘Poetry

Cheerful music and the edge of sanity

Santa Baby and the Christmas parrot

Santa Baby and the Christmas parrot (stuffed)

Just before Christmas the pre-Christmas sales had begun. These had been preceded by the pre pre-Christmas sales – which had started in October. It all went to emphasise the fact that England is more or less 50% off.

The pre-Christmas sales were relevant to me because I needed a new suitcase: my daughter (who has a carefree and careless attitude towards life) had borrowed and then lost my much-loved original suitcase. The lost suitcase had served me well and had made it through the rock-and-a-hard-place lands of Africa and beyond. It was that good. As far as suitcases go, it was irreplaceable.

So, I set off for the shops hoping to take advantage of the sales.

The large department store was arranged on several floors; the suitcase and travel luggage area was somewhere up on the fifth floor.

I dawdled for a while on the ground floor trying out some of the perfumes that had names like ‘Moonstone’, ‘Blitzkreig’ and ‘Power Play’. The designs of the bottles were spectacular and I reckoned that 50 years from now they’d be collectors’ items. I dawdled again on the first floor admiring the new fashions for men. The cashmere jerseys in burnt orange or plum or cerise looked like they would go well with the perfumes that I’d seen on the floor below. And I began wishing that I had enough money to buy one of the cashmere jerseys. As I dawdled I started to notice the joyful Christmas carols that were being played over the store’s loudspeaker system. The carols were interspersed with various Christmas songs: As usual someone was continuing to dream of a white Christmas and, as usual, Rudolf the Reindeer had a red nose. I carried on upwards to the second and then to the third floors. On each floor I enjoyed looking at the lovely things on display.

By the time I reached the suitcase zone on the fifth floor I had become so used to the Christmas songs that I’d started to hum along to one of them. I’d heard the song three times as a result of my earlier dawdlings. I even had a fair idea of the words: the song was all about ‘Santa Baby.’ I was still humming and murmuring ‘Santa Baby’ as I approached the shop girl who worked in the travel and luggage department. The girl looked terrific. She was slim and wore black and looked as bright as a night-flare – as bright as a burning blue-black star. She had laughing eyes too.

The girl let me examine the various suitcases – but as I sampled them I couldn’t get the words of Santa Baby out of my head. In fact, I was more engaged with Santa Baby than with the suitcases.

Then I began to wonder what the shop girl thought of the Christmas music: So I asked her: ‘How often do you hear the Christmas songs?’

‘Don’t go there,’ she replied.

‘I suppose they must drive you nuts,’ I said.

‘You can say that again,’ replied the girl with the laughing eyes: ‘They’re on some continuous loop so I hear them about 100 times a day.’

‘That must put you off the songs for life.’

‘I try to screen them out of my mind,’ she said.

‘I’ve been singing Santa Baby,’ I said.

‘Oh don’t. PLEASE DO NOT SING Santa Baby.’ She paused. And then she added: ‘I always thought Santa was an old man with a white beard.’

‘So did I,’ I replied.

We both smiled at the thought of Santa’s transformation. Santas can probably morph into anything they like.

Moments later, I added:

‘I suppose the unrelenting music must raise Health and Safety issues: It can’t be good for the state of mind.’

And then I said: ‘I hope you don’t go crazy.’

Before the Christmas lights had time to draw breath she replied:

‘That’s always a good idea.’

Paris Plage, Bombay Beach and the American dream

Paris - Zappa and the American dream

Paris – Zappa and the American dream

I’d seen a small oil painting in an upmarket interior design shop on the Boulevard St. Germain. The painting was beautifully lit and took as its subject the river Seine and the cathedral of Notre Dame. It was a pretty painting and I decided that I’d paint something similar.

A day or two later after criss-crossing the bridges of the Seine I settled on the scene that I was going to paint: it was view of the Pont Royal looking east from the Pont du Louvre. I even did some sketches for the painting. It was winter: the skies were uniformly leaden and the waters of the Seine were, disappointingly, the colour of cold mud. So, I began to think of the different colours that the river takes on in the different seasons: of how it can be ice-blue and silver in spring, emerald or jade green in high summer. And I thought of the month of July when the quays of the Seine – in the heart of Paris – are transformed into something called ‘Paris Plage’: tons of sand are brought into the city and an artificial beach is created – along with flags and striped deckchairs and all sorts of things that are found at the seaside. And because minds have a life of their own, mine took off – and travelled further east until my thoughts came to rest at Bombay Beach.

Bombay Beach isn’t a beach in India but a place on the edge of a huge lake in California. The lake was formed ages ago by the Colorado river and Bombay Beach was once a holiday resort that attracted thousands of affluent Americans. It’s now a place for escapees and misfits and the kind of people that do not figure in the world of the promised land. The only reason I know about Bombay Beach is because the film-maker Alma Harel made a documentary film about it. I’d seen the film on television: it had something to do with the American dream because it’s supposed to be exactly the place where the American dream ran out of credit and came to a full stop.

Ever since I’d seen the film I’ve wondered about the American dream. The thing is, I don’t really now what the American dream actually is. I don’t know what its constituent parts are. I don’t know what its point is or who gets to have the dream. And even if people do have the dream who is to say that it is THE American dream?

In fact, I’m wondering if anyone in America actually has the standard American dream. I suppose it’s a dream about riches and glamour and freedom. Perhaps it’s a dream about ‘being somebody’ – about being a person of some consequence.

Still, the media people must have a clear idea of the dream because they wanted all of us to know that the Bombay Beach in California is not it.

Paris – Primo Levi and self-knowledge

Paris: 1954

Paris: 1954

For a while I had taken some photographs of Paris; more specifically I had taken photographs of the things that get attached to the walls of Paris: posters, brass plaques telling us who did what, brass plaques telling us about fallen heroes, moments of street art, advertisements, stickers … whatever. I was hoping to have an exhibition of my photos that would be entitled ‘Paris close up’ – although, underneath it all, I knew that the exhibition would never happen. I did not know the type of people who would want to see my docu-photographs of Paris.

One day whilst I was working on my Paris-walls project I turned west from the Place de la Republique and threaded my way towards home. In the Rue du Faubourg St. Denis – that’s just past the zone where the Chinese call-girls hang out – I noticed the elegant green leaves of a bamboo brushing up against a pale grey piece of Parisian wall. On the wall, in stylish sky-blue lettering, was written the word SUICIDE. The word seemed to refer to suicide in a rather general way. No particular person’s suicide was indicated. I imagined that the word pointed towards a generic suicide.

I took a photograph of the wall and the sky-blue suicide letters and immediately thought of Primo Levi.

I don’t know why Primo Levi committed suicide. The fact that people commit suicide doesn’t surprise me. But, in Primo Levi’s case, it seemed terribly ironic since he had survived incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp.

However, as I thought again about Primo Levi’s suicide I think I know why he decided that he had enough of life: In one of his books – in ‘The Periodic Table’ – he came to say that he ‘knew himself’. He knew, for example, how he would react if he were to meet a former concentration camp official – a former captor of his. Primo Levi knew that on such an occasion he would remain courteous and he would listen and he would try to understand. Only afterwards would anger begin to overtake him. But it was always only later; only later would he feel the surge of fury and outrage at what had taken place – at what had happened to him, at the terrible suffering that had been inflicted on him and his fellows.

Somehow, I knew that the content of his self-knowledge was closely related to his subsequent suicide.

Paris – the pizza heater

Paris - near to the Orangerie

Paris – close to the Orangerie

There was a long long queue of people waiting to get into the Orangerie to see Monet’s water-lily paintings. All of a sudden it rained and the whole of the top half of the queue disappeared under a carapace of umbrellas. The rain slanted against the people – and the queue began to look forlorn, beleaguered and dismal.

I turned south and crossed the river Seine; I edged past the VIP statues in front of the National Assembly and walked on hoping that the rain would stop. It didn’t. So, when I came to one of the big beautiful churches of Paris* I pushed open the door and went inside. The church was surprisingly warm. I glanced at the typewritten sheets of paper that outlined the order of service for Christmas day; I took in the calm and reverential mood that had been created by the clusters of burning candles dotted here and there throughout the church. I walked up the aisle and looked at the stained glass windows and the carved wooden pulpit and the golden altar-piece. I carried on walking into the dim and then dimmer spaces behind the altar. After a few steps I heard a murmuring voice; the voice had the soft melody of a honey-coated bell. I carried on walking towards the voice. And then I saw a young girl sitting on one of the grates from which the air that warmed the church came. It was this girl whose voice I had heard. Her clothes suggested that she came from distant lands. Opposite her was a small pushchair and in the pushchair was an even younger child. Perhaps the child in the pushchair was three years old. Then I noticed that as the older girl chatted away to the child in the pushchair she adjusted some sort of package that was placed on the hot air grate. I realised what was in the package: it was a pizza. The pizza was being slowly cooked on the hot-iron surfaces of the central heating system.

The scent of pizza-topping started to mingle with the scent of incense that lingered in the sacred spaces of the church. It was an unusual combination.

I smiled at the young girl and the child. The young girl looked at me for a moment and then she smiled in return. As I moved away, I realised that I had never seen an ecclesiastical pizza before.

* The church was the St. Clotilde in Paris 7eme