RIP – Davy Jones

I was both surprised and sad to hear of the death of Davy Jones, as well as surprised at how sad the news made me.  The Monkees were such a part of childhood memories, for what now feels like a long time, the programme was one of my favourites.  And I loved to sing along with all the songs, and dance around the room with their silly antics.

Many years later, my path finally crossed that of  another person fond of their songs, a member of a group I was trekking with  in the Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru.  At the back of the party, I was kept encouraged when the path was steep and tricky, one foot in front of the other, by singing along with extemporised dododoing, do-wopping and  nanananaing in what I considered to be suitable places, accompanying D, who as well as maintaining a nice even walking pace, kept the main melody motoring along .

Our duets became the thing of legend, requiring a grand performance at the end of trek party.  The rendition was recorded on an early MP3 player, which with its earphones was subsequently passed around the bus back to Huaraz.  You could tell where it was at any given moment – whoever was giggling uncontrollably had it.

Our favourite was ‘I’m a Believer’ and this a much better rendition….

Long Legs in the Winter Sun

It’s probably a reflection of the rarity of bright sunshine in London in the winter months that I noticed how very long my shadow was on the station platform.  The sun was very low in a brilliant blue sky, and I spent the interlude waiting for my train moving around to observe the effect of my shadow bending up the side of the ugly shelter, across the tracks and intersecting with the shadows of my fellow passengers.  Needless to say I garnered some funny looks too.

The image immediately conjured a memory of reading Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster when I was a child.  The part of the book that has stuck in my mind was the fleeting image the heroine caught of her unknown benefactor, a shadow in a corridor with disproportionately elongated limbs, her re-imagining of what he must be like, and my satisfaction in knowing, when his identity was revealed at the climax of the book, that I had not been fooled by all the misleading clues in the story into believing the same thing as the protagonist.

To write this, I’ve had a quick look online for other people’s comments on the book, and it seems that I’ve not retained the ‘big themes’ in the book about women’s education and the righting of social inequality, and may be alone in recalling the image of the misleadingly attenuated shadow so vividly. But then, each of us remembers something slightly different from every experience.

The last time I thought about Daddy Long Legs was when I read the revelation about Sayuri’s benefactor in Memoirs of a Geisha  by Arthur Golden, because, I think, of a glancing similarity in the relationship between the mystery supporter and the innocent protagonist.  But now I’ve written that down, it looks like quite a controversial comparison to make, and potentially puts me in the same camp as those who criticised Daddy Long Legs for its anti-feminist paternalism, in which I don’t really belong: it’s a book for children about a girl receiving an education, with a dollop of romance at the end.

Meanwhile, maybe there’s a PhD somewhere in the role of the mystery benefactor and the subjugation of women in 20th Century American literature…….

Between – A Photo

This is me between the twins from down the road.  It looks like it must be from another century, and it was.  I think we used to go to their house sometimes to watch television, as their set could get ITV, while ours only had BBC1; although we all seemed to have the same wellingtons.

I wonder if they are still more technologically advanced……

‘The Deep Blue Sea’ and the Gas Supply

There really is no accounting for what thoughts and memories will be conjured by experiences, books and films, is there?

Last week’s viewing of Terence Davies’ film of Terrence Rattigan’s ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ has set off a lot of thinking about gas.  The film, an atmospheric telling of a self destructive love affair set in a sepia toned London in the 1950s, begins with Hester, played by Rachel Weisz attempting to gas herself, lying in front of an unlit fire.  After the drama of the dying days of the romance, she is shown lighting the same fire, symbolically bringing the story to a fitting conclusion.

Suicide by gas fire or oven is a feature of a particular era, between the time of widespread installation of the energy supply to homes, and the conversion in the UK from coal gas to natural gas in the 1970s; so we know we are somewhere between then and the 1920s when we see it in a story.  It also, to me, seems like a particularly tragic British phenomenon; recorded in films and novels taking place in dreary bedsits, chilly little scenes in which the protagonist has to first stoke the meter with enough shillings to pay for the gas to get the job done, and to tape up the drafty doors and windows that will otherwise save them with unwanted ventilation.  You rarely see someone living in a comfortable house, in a warm dressing gown resorting to this.

The strong representation in literary and popular culture must also be a reflection of real life tragedies, and the recognition that a potentially fatal substance was pumped into nearly every household in the country.  The switchover to natural gas may have been overdue when it finally happened.

I remember when my family first travelled to the US in 1967, on arrival we stayed in a rather creepy hotel cum serviced apartment place called the Albany Towers.  As well as being unnerving to a child who had never before been in a hotel, there was a very strange stuffy smell in the lobby and all the corridors which my parents couldn’t identify for me.  It was only when, back in the UK in about 1974, our house was converted to natural gas that I smelt that odour again.

Even now, if I inadvertently delay the lighting of the ring on the hob and get a whiff of the gas it throws me back to that experience, and one morning when my mother sent me down to the lobby on my own to buy some matches.  I crept along the corridors, fearful of being stopped by a stranger, down in the lift to the shop, where the assistant laughed at my cute accent, told me that matches were free ‘in this great country’ and sent me back upstairs with a handful of matchbooks.

‘Take Back Your Mink’ and Other Mysteries

One of the things that A, the friend with whom I’m staying this week, and I share is an appreciation of the Broadway musicals of the 1940s and 50s, including once giving a rousing rendition of ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ from the top of the marble staircase in the deserted building at the railway border crossing from Finland into Russia in the middle of the night.  So it was not really that surprising that for the last couple of days I’ve been watching the film of ‘Guys and Dolls’ with her and two of her daughters aged 10 and 12.

It amused me that the children were as keen to watch it (again) as I was.

I learnt all the words to the show from the original Broadway cast recording LP which I played constantly when I was about 8.  We had a borrowed record player, and I danced up and down the basement singing along.  The words are so well embedded that I notice small differences between Vivian Blaines’ performance for the recording and in the movie, and as a purist, I hold with the original.

There are lines which have entered the normal lexicon for my family.  When I had an English teacher called Mrs McKlusky, no-one could resist adding, ‘but Mrs McKlusky ain’t a good scout’ whenever I mentioned my English homework or exams, or, on Grand National Day should anyone decide to make a bet on the race, someone will launch into ‘I got the horse right here…..and there’s a guy that says if the weather’s clear…..’.

One of the songs that I remember enjoying most was ‘Take Back Your Mink’.  I cannot now remember what I thought it meant at the time.  I know I didn’t realise that both this and ‘I Love you a Bushel and a Peck’ were night club songs; I thought they were part of the story, which puzzled me, but which I accepted because so much in life didn’t make much sense to me then.  I do remember asking my mother what ‘to  hollanderize’ meant (a phrase which I don’t think appears in the movie. meaning a process to repair and refresh fur coats), but I didn’t have the visual image of a striptease in my mind.

So I was fascinated to watch this scene in the movie with two young girls after their mother had left the room to prepare supper.  We all sat on the sofa singing along.

‘That must be quite embarrassing, to have to give back the clothes,’ N said.

‘I suppose so.’ C replied.

‘What did was she meant to do in exchange?’ N asked.

‘Don’t know,’ C replied.

I pretended not to have heard, as offering any kind of explanation on such matters is well above my pay grade.  And anyway, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having no idea what’s going on!

Insect Repellent or Elixir of Memory?

Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking a fair bit about my childhood for ideas for my novel in progress, or maybe because I don’t usually buy insect repellent in an aerosol can, but I have been thrown back into some very specific memories as I’ve doused myself in the ‘Go!’ I bought in the pharmacy in Speightstown.  Maybe it’s the act of spraying myself with the distinctive aroma.  Is that what DEET smells like, or is it the other ingredients that make it so distinctive?

I bought it on the recommendation of the lady in the shop, and it’s manufactured in Barbados, so I’ve definitely never used it before, but as soon as I start spraying it, I’m thrown back to a time when I had no control over how much was sprayed on me, when I felt powerless to stop the onslaught, when I was told to close my eyes and hold out my arms for the anointing.

It brings to mind the feel of clammy warm air on my skin and I can even visualise what I was usually wearing, a sort of shorts all in one thing with buttons on the shoulders to get it on and off (I think something similar may be back in fashion now…..).  I had two of them that my mother had made, and I wore them alternatively.  It can only have been one summer, as I grew so quickly I can’t believe they can have fitted for any longer than that, but I was always hot and sticky in them, and despite frequent washing they probably became impregnated with the ‘Off’ which was so liberally applied to them.

I still got bitten of course.  Nothing changes there, then.

It’s not for want of trying a variety of products produced from the box at the back of the bathroom cupboard marked ‘holiday’.  There are entertaining attempts to be amusing in the naming of these products, as you can see, from the Off’s and Go’s to Shoo and the, possibly most intriguing, Good Knight.

So the fight continues, with back up from the ‘Get Serious, Get Citronella BOP’! which doesn’t really remind me of anything, but is now locked in my memory and will, I suspect always evoke recollections of Barbados.

A Surprising Voice-over

Yesterday I was sitting in Cavendish Square killing a few moments before an appointment, idly watching a woman play with one child, while another slept in the buggy she was pushing.  It looked to me like she’d made a rod for her own back – the child was speeding around the park on a scooter, while she chased after him, the pram bouncing along in front of her.

So speedy was the child that it took him very little time to circumnavigate the grass and pass in front of me again.  What caught my eye were a couple of bags hanging from the handles of the pushchair as the woman trundled past; they were adorned with images of cartoon characters from a children’s programme I encountered only recently when spending time entertaining the young daughter of a friend.

In fact I didn’t know they were from a television show, as my path first crossed with them was as an App on my friend’s iPhone.  The toddler had been walking around shouting something that sounded to my ear like ‘makanaka’ and her mother asked me to supervise play with the phone;  one funny character washing the faces of the other funny characters with a bubbling sponge, with a priceless voice-over by Sir Derek Jacobi.

Something about his mellifluous tones incanting ‘Makka Pakka washes Uspy Daisy’s face’ repeatedly at the demands of a chuckling toddler, amused me more than I can tell you.  The last time I saw Sir Derek he was playing King Lear.  Somehow it felt like something of a comedown for him, and  I can only imagine the expression on his face as he informs us that the Tomliboos might also have their faces washed.

I hope he gets a good royalty for each App sold.  Maybe it’s his strategy for building a pension fund.  I’m not sure that he was able to benefit from the Harry Potter franchise that so improved the finances of  nearly every other British actor of a certain age.  But will a generation grow up ignorant of the classic that was ‘I, Claudius’ and instead associate him with Ponitpines?

I recounted my amusement at the juxtaposition of a great Shakespearean Thespian and a the funny face washing thing to a Belarusian  friend and she replied ‘Oh yes.  It’s in the Night Garden.’  It turned out that her one year old daughter also loves watching it on the television.

The whole thing is so surreal I couldn’t resist searching for it online….. and was rewarded with more laugh out loud pretentious silliness. I quote: ‘In the Night Garden is best described as a modern televisual interpretation of a nursery rhyme picture book.’

A ‘modern televisual interpretation’ of anything’s got to be worth 5 minutes of a Knight’s voice-over, hasn’t it?

Miró – Tate Modern

I always approach commenting on art with extreme trepidation as I fear that anything I may say will only reveal my ignorance and show that I don’t really understand ‘Art’, with a capital ‘A’, that preserve of highfalutin culture.

There’s a Tracy Emin retrospective on at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank at the moment, and every time I walk past the gallery the idea that a public space would hold such an exhibition makes me realise that I really do not understand contemporary art at all; not one tiny bit.

And don’t think I’m one of those ‘my five year old could do better’ critics.  I do try; I watched an interview she did with Mark Lawson to try to understand why she is so feted.  It didn’t help.

So with those caveats out of the way, I can tell you I went to the Miró exhibition at Tate Modern last week.

Postcard 'Help Spain' (Private Collection)

I enjoyed it.

Before I went, when I thought of Miró’s work it was largely those large blue canvases with odd round red blobs and stylised creatures set against a bare block of colour, but there was so much more to it than that.

Early in his career his work was characterised by a great degree of detail in landscape.  The detail seems to have disappeared very quickly soon after he encountered members of the Surrealist Movement.  As his colours grew bolder so the works became less and less representational.

As political turmoil and then war engulfed Spain his paintings seem to have become more and more dream like.

I had read reviews of the show before I visited, by people who felt that there was too much social and political history in the story the curators were telling, but for me, the story lover, the historical context added to my enjoyment of the exhibition; to be able to imagine the turmoil in which a person is living while still able to produce work can add texture to my appreciation.

As always, the works which made the deepest impression on me were not reproduced in postcard form… apart from a couple.

Postcard 'Still Life with Old Shoe' MOMA NYC

‘Still Life with Old Shoe’ caught my eye because of the extraordinary colours -even more extraordinary to note that it was painted in 1937.  Somehow that shoe is glowing; but it’s a picture of things falling apart: the apple is stabbed by a huge fork, the bottle is broken, there’s not much bread left.

The Barcelona Series is a collection of 50 black and white lithographs which are fascinating.  Some have some apparent representational element, others rely more on pattern to draw the eye.

They brought to mind a clear memory of my childhood.  I was never very skilled at drawing so would often say that what I had produced was ‘Modern Art’; this generally meant I had drawn a squiggly line around and across the page and had filled in the spaces created within the line with different patterns and colours, sometimes a block of colour, sometimes parallel lines.  I can’t imagine I’d ever seen a Miró, but I think the lithographs would have satisfied my six year old definition of ‘Modern Art’.  There is a very simple and primitive appeal about them.

'The Escape Ladder', MOMA Florence

Towards the end of the exhibition there is a space containing two large triptychs, one sky blue with a line wandering across them, which I think can simply engulf you in colour.  The second one comprises red, green and orange on separate canvasses.

Clearly the choice of the particular tone and shade is key to single colour canvasses, and the red and green reminded me nothing more than the specific red and green lights that are used in eye tests.  This made me wonder what it is about those particular tones and its impact on our vision.  But that is research for another day.

The exhibition is on until 11 September.

Finishing things off….

It may not be simple parsimony or frugality, but I have to finish things off.

Toothpaste tubes are squeezed this way and that until not a drop remains, hand cream bottles are cut open to scrape the last bits off the side, shampoo bottles stand on their heads so that gravity can drain them fully.  Funny shaped bottles, with shoulders where little pools of cream can collect, drive me to crazily poke my fingers inside.

Only when the last tiny bit has been used up, can the empty bottle be thrown away and a new one started.

You won’t find a multitude of half finished bottles in my bathroom or kitchen cupboards.  It’s both a good and a bad thing.  There’s a real sense of satisfaction in being ‘allowed’ to throw something away knowing that I have squeezed everything possible out of it; but sometimes  I do secretly wish I could open the new thing before the old is exhausted.  That I might even throw an unfinished something away every now and again.

Ready for a change

I’m the same with my notebooks.  I love notebooks, and I have many beautiful ones.  Some of the most beautiful are the most difficult to contemplate using.  They are so lovely it seems a shame to write rubbish in them; so I start using a cheap one from somewhere like Monoprix (I have a weakness for the squared paper found in French jotters) promising myself that I will use the beautiful red leather one when I know I am on a roll and am only writing good things in decent handwriting.

Of course, I am still waiting for that day to come.

It was only a couple of years ago that I allowed myself not to finish reading a book if I really wasn’t enjoying it.  Until then I would always slog through to the end.  I’d always go back after the interval, no matter how egregious the performance of a play.  I had the ‘I’ve paid for this so I’m going to see it through’ mindset. And then someone asked me: ‘If you’ve already wasted your money, why waste your time as well?’  And I saw the light.

I was talking about this with a friend the other day and realised that it might extend beyond just using things up.  In a household where children were expected to eat what they were given I would often find myself eating the thing I didn’t much like first, in order to be able to reward myself by by having the best things last.

To this day in social situations I can still catch myself adopting this approach rather than admitting to my host that they’ve put something on my plate that I find unappetising.

For a number of years I shared a house with a friend who had Shreddies for breakfast every morning.  Clearly he loved the cereal, but he hated the dusty bits at the bottom of the box.  His economy measure was to sift the remnants when the box was a couple of bowlfuls away from empty; the dust would go in the bin and he would eat the whole Shreddies.

The problem was that sometimes, it was too much effort for him to find the sieve, and he would open a new box.  This could go on for several weeks, so that every time I opened the cupboard 5 boxes of nearly empty cereal would fall out.  One morning in a fury I took all the lining bags and consolidated them into one box: even when really quite irritated I couldn’t throw good food away, but there was no way on earth I was ever going to sieve someone else’s cereal.

I’ve decided that I am going to practice a little profligacy this week and find something to throw away, as well as start a new notebook, even though I have one with blank pages left in it.

It’s writing that ‘s the impossible thing to finish……

Learning to Read

I am taking my inspiration today from one of the search engine terms used to arrive at my blog, if only because I’ve not actually written about it before, which is ‘earliest memories of reading’.

I don’t actually recall learning to read.  One day I couldn’t and then the next I could.  Of course I’m sure it wasn’t like that, but memory will often conflate things, won’t it?

I remember being called up to the teacher’s desk; she told me to stand up straight beside her, and gave me an open book and asked me to read.  I couldn’t and was sent back to my seat; only later did I notice that some children came away from her desk with a book in their hands, and I vaguely wondered what they had done to be given it, and wished I had been one of them.

Some days later, I have no idea how many, I was called up again for the same ritual.  This time I could decipher the words.

‘This is Janet.  This is John.’

I returned to my chair with the book, which I was allowed to take home.  It was as if a switch had been flicked, and it all fell immediately into place.  I read the book to the end on the first evening, and took it back the next day and asked for another one, but I had to wait because no-one else had finished theirs.

My next clear recollection is of reading the Thomas the Tank Engine books; the stories are lost in the mists of time, but I remember liking the smallness of the books themselves and the pomposity of the Fat Controller, and the idea that trains had faces and races.

I don’t recall learning to write either, but I do know that I could already do it fairly proficiently by the time I arrived in the Maryland school system to find that I didn’t do it the way they did it in America.

I had to relearn, writing on a sort of music stave, which was drawn by sweeping a  frame holding 5 sticks of chalk across the blackboard.  Capital letters filled the whole stave, small ‘t’, ‘l’, ‘k’, ‘h’, ‘b’,’d’ went as high as the third line, and other small letters filled the bottom space and no more.

At six, nearly seven, I thought it was a lot of fuss and bother, and all of it was far too loopy to be taken seriously.  But I did as I was told.

So a couple of years later when we returned to the UK, in the period there when italic writing was king, I had handwriting of pure loopiness, to go with my broad American accent and middling confusion over the spelling of certain key words.

At that age it doesn’t take long to shed an accent, nor a style of penmanship, so I decided I’d write the way that suited me, shedding the loops, but scorning the sharp pointyness of the then English fashion; and broadly speaking I’d say it’s usually legible.

In the age of the ubiquity of the keyboard will children still learn to write?

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