Waking Mr Aiton

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William Aiton opened his eyes on a shimmering scene, kaleidoscopic clouds fluttering across a glass sun, a bright summer sun that burned his bare head.

He was lying on his back and he started to feel around his sides, his palms dusting the warm wooden boards. He lifted his head but the heat and his headache forced it down again and his thoughts were soon back with the multicoloured clouds.

“What are those,” he said aloud. He thought he could make out little winged particles amid the moving mass, little creatures with stained glass wings. One of the winged creatures detached from the cloud and landed on his nose and started to strut towards the bridge. Then he realised, he’d gone to sleep pissed in the butterfly house again.

This was William Aiton, His Majesty’s Gardener at Kew and Richmond and he’d been out swilling and carousing all night with some Dutch sailors at The Frog and Fox on Bucnan Street.

The Frog and Fox on Bucnan Street


“Ale, ale, ale, ale!” William chanted, banging his fists on the bench as one of the Dutchmen brought over a tray of freshly filled tankards.

“You’re quite a drinker for a flower man,” Bork, the officer of the party said to William in a heavy Dutch accent, slapping him on the shoulders, “please tell them down at the flower house that we,” he gestured towards his crew, “are fine drinking fellows too.”

“Well, I will,” William answered, “now, put your cups up,” his request was drowned out by the rising levels of backslapping and yelling going on around the table.

“I say fellas,” banging the palm of his hand on the wooden table, they all stopped and turned to face him, “fellas, put your cups up and let’s make a toast, huh?”

“A toast, a toast,” came the sarcastic grumblings of all those gathered, protesting at any unwelcome ceremonial transgressing on their swilling.

“To King George III, may he never lose his nose for a good posie, and to the Prince of Orange, may he,” William paused abruptly and searched his wanting knowledge of current affairs for a suitable addendum. “Uhm, may he, keep up the good work!” A sentiment that the Dutch seemed to go for.

The Kew Butterfly House

“Will someone oil those pissing hinges,” William shouted, nay screamed, to his assistant, Mr Darlington, who was now clip clopping his way towards his upturned frame which lay half in and half out of a flower box.

“Good morning sir,” Darlington said.

William sighed, looking from shiny shoe buckles upwards, “Good morning Mr Darlington, how about you oil those hinges once in a while, huh, how about you do your job, once in a while, Mr Darlington?”

“I’ll get to it straight away,” and he made off, without a clue what William was talking about, but with his eyes on an early break and a tot of gin, his tail coats brushing the tip of William’s nose as he made a theatrical about face.

“Oh, for God’s sake Mr Darlington, stop being an arse and help me up.”

Putting William upright was an easy task for a man built like Darlington, a man who had trained under the great strongman Thomas Topham at the Apple Tree Inn and could still stand on one leg, for several hours while holding a barrel of malmsey wine over his head, and did so, as an act of contrition, every Good Friday.

William steadied himself while Darlington reached into his coat pocket for his diary and after flicking through the pages for a few moments, looking for no particular destination, he cleared his throat and said, ”You know you have the Board of Green Cloth at eleven, don’t you?”

Reader to Writer: What was The Board of Green Cloth?

Writer to Reader: Picture this:


The Board of Green Cloth, now there was an institution that would put the fear of God into any well meaning public servant’s heart. The Cloth met on the second Thursday of every month at St James’s Palace in order to settle the Royal Household’s financing, the King’s gardens at Kew and the monies allotted to it falling under their remit. William had to testify before them during their meeting to ensure his allowance was not reduced.

The six who sat around the table were certainly not a particularly welcoming assembly, resplendent in their long curly white wigs and golden robes of office, not one of them underweight, the gathered treasurers would sit grunting to each other while casting their eyes over a silver platter of cream cakes that was placed upon the green table cloth at the start of each meeting by a genuflecting flunkey.

The tray would contain an enviable mixture of French Fancies, Cremeschnitte, Tarte Tatin and always one impressively large Chocolate Eclair, which was purposely avoided by the subordinate members of the committee. This allowed the Lord Steward, the gout ridden Duke of Dorset, the opportunity to shout at the top of his voice, as he consistently did just before the first order of business, “will no one take the eclair!” This was always followed by the Duke reaching across the table, knocking over several goblets of wine in the process, yelling, “oh very well,” as he stuffed the cake into his mouth amid an explosion of cream.

The Kew Butterfly House

William stopped dead in his tracks, turned to Darlington and put his hands on his brick built shoulders.

“The Cloth,” he whispered, a look of sheer panic breaking out across his face, like a raging bull bursting through a paper wall, “the Cloth, today, of all days?”

“The Cloth, at eleven,” Darlington repeated, calmly, his eyes darting towards the little beads of sweat now appearing on William’s forehead.

“I dreamed I was having lunch with President Jefferson,” William said, lapsing into remembrances in order to dodge his panic, “after seeing a sign on the White House gates that said ‘Mister Jefferson today is having a buffet.'”

William remained silent for a few moments then huffed an elongated “Christtttt,” before marching off towards the door and declaring, “I am ready to work!”

“Oh, William,” Darlington called as his charge made his way out, clouds of butterflies darting about his moving outline like petals on fishing wire, “you have a paper donkey’s tail pinned to the back of your coat.”

William stopped, turned around and tore the paper impression from behind his back.

“Bork,” he cried to the heavens, brandishing the tail in a clenched fist, “damn you to hell!”

The Alligator Summer

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I was born in Serendipity on a Wednesday in July. The temperature had been so hot that week in Hampstead that my mother had been forced to give birth to me with all the sash windows in the front bedroom wide open. I would forever hear about the heat of the summer of my birth, about the lunchtime my father fried an egg on the bonnet of his Sunbeam Talbot and the tale of the three alligators that crawled out of a sewer in Kensington in the middle of the day, prompting a citywide panic and newspaper sensation. Many people over a particular age still remember those blistering weeks in the middle of 1949 only as the ‘Alligator Summer’, but it’s a piece of history that never meant very much to me.

Serendipity was a magical house to grow up in, nestled amid the greenery of West Heath Road. It had seventeen rooms, living rooms, sitting rooms, single bedrooms, double bedrooms, two bathrooms, a library, a study for my father and a greenhouse. The greenhouse stood at the far end of the garden, bordering the fence, its rusting metal frame filled in with squares of glass, some of them cloudy with mold and condensation, others cracked and broken. Low hanging branches from the great elm tree next to it brushed the top of the glass on a breezy summer’s day and in the autumn leaves cascaded down and covered the glass entirely rendering the insides obscure to me.

Winter was the best time to be in the greenhouse, winter was the best time to be anywhere. There was light inside when the leaves were cleared away and the glass got too hot in the summer. I would brush aside the terracotta plant pots and rusting spades and trowels and I would climb up on the bench that ran around the edge of the interior, in my parka and my gloves and sit with my back to the wet glass and read for hours. Under the benches there were crates and crates of brown bottles, the labels all faded from the damp, I assumed they were beer, stashed there for storage before a party years ago and forgotten about. I kept quiet about them.

My father bought the house from an eminent psychologist Dr. Louis Rose, my nominal godfather, who was not exactly Freud, but he could spin an engrossing sentence out of thin air.

His wife, Maria, had been a Christian Scientist and she would refuse any medical intervention favouring the power of prayer to cure any ill. Serendipity, she told my mother as she handed over the keys, had a remarkable sense of serenity, which she believed enabled her to tune into the Almighty more easily. Four weeks after they moved to Belsize Park, so Dr. Rose could be nearer to the Royal Free, she died of a cerebral haemorrhage.

I can remember vividly running madly from one room to the next at great speed, dashing across landings and down staircases. If you run down staircases, as fast of you can, without holding onto the balustrade, your feet barely touching each step, you can sometimes, very briefly, get the sensation that you are flying, that you aren’t touching the steps at all, but are some how staying upright.

The staircase wall was lined with pencil pictures in varnished frames of scenes from fairy tales by the Brothers Grim and I used to sneak out of bed and stare at them long after I should have been asleep because the flickering shadows cast by the electric lights from the floor below seemed to bring them to life.

I was sat there one night when Dr Rose called by. He’d never called before, not since the move, so it was strange. My mother had taken me to see him a few times in Belsize Park and we’d sat in his consulting room me lying on his red settee like a patient while my mother sat opposite him as his desk imploring him, in cooing tones,  not to abandon his love life despite his loss.

“Do you want me to analyse your dreams Miles,” he would always ask me.

“Yes, tell him your dreams Miles,” my mother would say, expecting revelations each time.

“I don’t really have any,” I’d say, which was true then, I wasn’t really a dreamer in those days, my dreams would only liven up when my surroundings became duller.

I liked Dr Rose there was something very real about him. I think it was because he was a very honest man and it’s only through honesty, as I was to learn later, that you can project any kind of sincerity.

“If you want it back you can have it, we can make other arrangements,” my mother would say of Serendipity,  at least twice during every meeting with Dr Rose.

“It would have happened anyway,” Dr. Rose would reply every time.

“Yes, but she loved that house,” my mother would counter. “You loved being there with her, surely being among all those memories would be a comfort.”

What a stupid thing of her to say, looking back, she hadn’t lost anybody close then, she’d lived thirty seven years seemingly untouched by real grief.  She’d lost her mother, who she wasn’t very close to and numerous sets of grandparents and great grandparents. She seemed to put all the stock of her life into the men that surrounded her. Other women never interested my mother much, they were like a conquered country to her, nothing much to see.

“It would have happened anyway,” Dr. Rose would repeat, “there is no telling when these things are going to happen the bricks and mortar of house couldn’t have stopped it, nor the power of prayer, or any of that hokum.”

I often wondered how Dr. Rose could claim to be so much in love with a person who’s faith and appraisal of life he so doubted, but that night I realised, when he called round and I was sat at the top of the stairs, you have to let some things go for the sake of the greater whole. Just like for some people the summer of 1949 is an agonising memory and for others it’s only alligators.

Exploring MALBA – Buenos Aires

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Sitting in England, staring at an atlas, if people still have those, Buenos Aires looks like it’s sitting at the end of the earth, but get there and you feel at home very quickly. Wandering around the cobbled streets of San Telmo, soaking up every cliche coming true, in a good way, you swagger around like a local, forgetting the fact you’re lost, as a man in a muted post horn tee shirt sells you prog tango records, while a woman in a kaftan, next door, stuffs blood sausages and slaps veal cutlets into breadcrumbs. All this in a market hall where Eva Peron playing cards sit next to mangoes, in season, or out and bottles of wine and wooden cups crafted every which way to sip Yerba mate tea out of. If you’re willing to brave the never ending plane flight to get there, then Buenos Aires presents itself to you on a plate. You don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to get a gob full of Argentinian culture, be it viewing the bear pit down at La Boca where Maradona used to spirit dance his way around La Bombonera, or admiring the tango dancers down on Caminito, while the River Plate sits, like a millpond, at the end of the street.

Up in Palermo, amid the wide Park Avenue style boulevards, where stylish bars mingle with craft bakeries and coffee houses on streets named after near neighbours like Costa Rica and Uruguay, you will find the excellent MALBA museum. Devoted exclusively to twentieth century Latin American art, the museum is something of a revelation, not least because of the riot of colour you will find upon its walls, Latin American art it seems rarely does drab and when it does the passion bowls you over and kicks you in the knackers anyhow.

Created by Argentine moneybags Eduardo Constantini and designed by AFT architects, the sleek halls take visitors on an artistic journey from the modernism of the early twentieth century when South American artists took their cues from European Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism to the surrealist twenties when artists began to look to South America’s own ancient stories of magic and fantasy for inspiration. The exhibition culminates with the turbulent 1960s when art became a weapon against a brutal dictatorship. Here are some highlights from the collection.

Oscar Bony – El triunfo de la muerte

Oscar Bony was one of the most influential of all Argentinian artists, becoming a key figure in the Instituto Di Tella scene, an art school in Buenos Aries, which was an artistic hotbed. Bony emerged and flourished in Buenos Aires in the early 1960s in the brief period of unfettered artistic freedom between the fall of Juan Peron and the arrival of the military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía in 1966. The rise of Ongania would prompt an intensifying of artistic power in Argentina starting when Eduardo Ruano famously smashed a photograph of John F Kennedy as a protest against American action in Vietnam, but this would ultimately give way to censorship, with the police shutting down anything that carried even a hint of an anti establishment message. This prompted Bony to flee to Milan, where he became a music photographer for a while. El triunfo de la muerte (The Triumph of Death) features a number of images of a man being shot in different theatrical poses, the bullet holes are actually visible in the glass to add to the dramatic effect. The piece offers no real continuity, it is not a comic strip despite appearances, instead it offers the message that there is no escape from death, this is not a picture of a process, rather it is a visualising of finality. There is though a political element, the bullet holes match those fired by a Walther PPK handgun, the same weapon that was used to kill Rodolpho Walsh, an Argentine investigative reporter who was murdered in Buenos Aires in 1977 as he was about to file his famous ‘Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta’ which exposed the damage the regime’s economic policies were having on the Argentine people. This work offers an image of a man reaching the peak of his expression right at the very moment of his death.


Maria Freire – Sudamerica No.10

An example of how South American artists, despite their own rich tapestry of culture, were sometimes inspired by European history. Maria Freire, an artist from Uruguay, was often inspired, when creating her Sudamerica series, by Medieval imagery, which is surprising given the utterly modern feel of her work. Created in 1958, the Sudamerica series features a relatively reserved colour palette, something that she would go on to expand in her later work. Rhythmic patterns and chains of symbols are featured throughout her portfolio.


Oscar Bony – La familia obrera

This piece prompted something of a controversy when it was first shown in 1968, a time when Argentina was in the grip of military dictatorship. The work was originally live action, with Bony ‘hiring’ a mother, father and son to sit on a platform at the Instituto Di Tella, while sounds from their everyday life played behind them, creating a kind of staged voyeurism. MALBA honours the work’s original power by displaying a six foot still of the instillation. La familia obrera was of course a mould breaker, blurring the lines between performance, art and sculpture, but it was more than that, it was a particularly bright spark, in a year full of bright sparks, 1968, which further spread the flames of political tumult already raging around the globe. It was also a piece about the exploitation of the working classes of Argentina. They were Evita’s power base, she called them the descamisados, the shirtless ones, pouring money into charity programmes to help, while docking their pay checks to fund them. The people presented in this picture are representations of the working classes of Buenos Aires at the time, the working classes of wider Argentina must surely have not looked nearly as well healed, but perceptions are everything. The original work proved so controversial that it was shut down by police.


José Pedro Costigliolo – Forma

Costigliolo was one of the most important artists in Uruguayan Modernism. He dipped his toe into Cubism, Purism and Russian Suprematism, producing both figurative and non-figurative works. In 1952 he co-founded the “Non-Figurative Art Group” in Uruguay with his artist wife Maria Freire. He is considered to be a pioneer in his home country and his work is never dull, but always a sharp explosion of pop colour.


Lilliana Porter – Wrinkle

Wrinkle is all about perceptions, it presents pictures of crumpled up pieces of paper next to some typed dialogue, which suggests that the viewer reconsider the beauty of wrinkled paper. Born in Argentina in 1941, Lilliana Porter’s work has a sense of aesthetic austerity running throughout it, sometimes she uses little to say a lot and sometimes she uses little to say nothing at all. The printed conversation between ’emm’ and ‘ett’ kicks off with:

“emm: so are they wrinkled pictures or pictures of wrinkles?

ett: well to begin with, they’re not pictures.

emm: and what would you call them?

ett: i’d call them still-lifes of action paintings.”

Before concluding:

“emm: who needs wrinkles?

ett: you may not need them, but you’ve got them.

emm: that’s what I mean, wrinkles aren’t very nice. Wrinkling things up is messy….destructive.

ett: don’t moralise. So is god……”

Before going onto describe all the majestic things that are wrinkled, ripples of water, your pants, the surface of the moon, oh and this article, when you rip it up and go, ‘that’s enough of all that!’ But, it will still be beautiful and there’s nothing you can do about that, sorry!


The Cloth Nixon

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I was on one of those sightseeing trips out to the caves in Arizona with the Native American paintings on the walls, with Alison Gordon, a friend from LA. Well, I think we got on the wrong bus, because it was full of Second World War veterans each offering hurried salutes, as they filed past us in their garish yellow zoot suits.

We could have made it right there and then, in the semi-darkness of the cave, but I found myself pulling away and making my excuses.

“Something about this cave seems to creep me out,” I said, gazing around open mouthed and I held out my bare arm so she could feel my goose pimples.

Of course we missed the bus back, the veterans waving their sarcastic goodbyes, rubbing mock tears out of their eyes and wah-wah-ing through the open windows as the bus disappeared into a cloud of dust.

I flagged down a fleet side half ton 1973 Chevrolet pick-up truck and asked the driver, Chardeene, a long haired fellow wearing a West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band t-shirt, if he’d be able to take us back to Phoenix. He accepted and told us, as we clambered in, to mind the electric jug that
was deposited in the passenger side footwell.

The seats were covered with old beach towels and the air within the cab was thick with marijuana smoke. Chardeene said he was on his way to see The Morris Majors, an underground West Coast pop sensation, who were appearing in Phoenix that night.

Alison was transfixed by the thought of seeing the Major’s bassist, Declan de Ver-a-Tay, in person, he was something of a dreamboat by all reports, who would furl tiny coloured fairy lights over his Hofner Ignition during gigs to add to his appeal, the natty bastard. Alison declared that we had to go.

“Are you crazy,” I remember saying to her, “have you lost your mind?”

Chardeene snapped, sneering some rubbish about the Supreme Court, leering around the cab with his swimming eyes, pegging me, with just one look, as one of those ya-hoo-ing ‘let’s keep shipping the lads off to Indochina,types.


Realising I had little choice, I quarter-heartedly assented to the trip. It was one of the stages in my life were everyone appeared to be spineless and I put my foot through his electric jug in retribution.

The car hit the kerb in front of the Kino Club as it came to a full stop, and the jolt knocked the radio into life, a jazzy saxophone part and a lyric about Mexico City forcing its way through the crackly static. We got out and I eyed the club’s neon sign, a geisha girl with a parasol doing a Charleston on the wing of a Sopwith Camel and I blushed, my mouth gaping at the freewheeling mix of cultures there.

Alison walked ahead with Chardeene who shepherded her deep into the Kino. The first room appeared to be some kind of boxing club, an oblong shape with four rings crammed in sideways. I broke away to watch the sparing, an older, balding man and a younger man, both jumping from side to side in black plimsolls and yellow shorts with a white stripe down each leg. The younger man had gag squeakers in his gloves, which let out a comedic eek every time he took a punch.

The air conditioner units thudded overhead (squeak) and a man wearing harem pants, sandals and a tie-dyed turtle neck jumper with the words ‘Dress British, Think Yiddish’ stenciled across the front, approached me. He introduced himself as A. Newton Taylor (squeak), “I’m the owner of the joint,” he announced, leaning on the ropes, taking puffs on his stogie (squeak).

“Do you know that broad who came in with Chardeene, just then? “

“Sure do compadre,” (squeak), I answered.

“You ever get over to Chavez Ravine when you’re in LA,” he asked me, motioning towards the boxers, sprinkling fag ash all over the ring side, “because that’s were all the prize fighters are.”

“Don’t you mean Dodger Stadium?” I said.

And he was struck dumb (squeak), these small town folks sure don’t have a clue.

A. Newton Taylor liked to introduce his acts onto the stage in a verbal torrent of old British music hall slang and he introduced The Morris Majors amid a shower of ‘without further ados’ and ‘ladies and jelly spoons’. The crowd lapped it up, someone even threw a negligée. photo(3)

I wandered into the main room and Alison was idling by an amp, smoking a cigarette as The Majors chugged through a twangy version of Slip Inside my Gilded Octopus House and I thought about the couple of times we’d been out back home, put on our real good looking clothes and taken on the town.

The music got duller, but the drugs were plentiful and the coloured festoons were soon glinting, their multicoloured beams smearing into the wooden ceiling. Alison looked beautiful in the quarter-light, swaying gently to The Morris Major’s pitiful blend of bland muzak.

I considered the side of her face, while she made dreamy eyes at Declan and I wondered what had made me shy away from her earlier. I turned, distracted by a phrase, unusual to these parts, Hudson-Mohawk Dutch slang by the sound of it, I thought that had died out, but hey-ho, and by the time I’d turned back, A. Newton Taylor, the greasy old rooster, was all over her, a trail of black feathers leading from his wilting gilet.

“Hey Django shit-face,” I shouted, “get off my girl!”

That was pushing it a bit, I know, and Alison seemed to be enjoying being with him, but I bet she was thinking about Declan, or maybe me, yeah perhaps she was thinking about me.

“I didn’t even know you two were together,” A. Newton Taylor said, shamelessly, clicking his fingers as he spoke, as if he were auditioning for West Side Story.

“We’re not brother, we’re not, but she clearly wasn’t in to you.” 

He was all ‘yeah, yeah,’ and he was married anyway, to the kind of girl who liked to wear an inordinate amount of woolens and I told him to fuck off back to Chavez Ravine.

A shout went up over the shoddy stoner musak, followed by a chorus of kazoos and slide whistles, which everyone carried around on their person in those days just in case a slapstick situation should develop.

Everyone started to dash outside and Alison followed and grabbed my hand so she wouldn’t leave me behind and we moved with the people, all gabbling away in their Hudson-Mohawk Dutch, until we reached the parking lot and Alison lit a cigarette, and offered me one, can you believe, and I said no thank you very much.


Out of the low hanging desert fog came a military helicopter dangling a cloth Richard Nixon from its left landing skid.

“They’re taking it to Pope Paul in Rome for exorcism,” said some stoner in a Bud Cort t-shirt standing next to me, motioning toward the effigy and I nodded ‘yeahhh’, real solemn like, you know, like I gave a shit.

Stitches, the Morris Major’s drummer, had brought his snare drum outside and performed a drum roll as the copter landed on the lot, overturning Chardeene’s truck in the process. A. Newton Taylor approached the door as the rotors slowed, bowing and curtseying, bowing and curtseying and the crowd, several deep in places, performed an impromptu Mexican wave.

I held Alison close and she had her arm around me, but that didn’t mean anything, and then out of the copter appeared a man wearing some fly duds, priestly garb, his purple and gold vestments covered in brass buttons and crumpled up magazine pictures of pin up girls from the 1950s, I could clearly pick out Lili St. Cyr, Bernie Dexter, even poor old Dotty Dandridge. With an inflatable crucifix in one hand, he made the sign of the vinyl record with the other, just a mid-air circle and a finger jab, and then he led us all in this reverent prayer for musical resurrection: ‘We don’t want Jim Morrison, we want The Electric Prunes, we don’t want Jim Morrison, we want the Electric Prunes.” 

Once the holy man and his retinue had processed inside, with A. Newton Taylor at the head of the group, the helicopter was up for grabs and I motioned towards Alison that she jump in and we take it for a spin.

“I don’t like the idea of stealing from a consecrated reverend,” Alison yelled over the whirling rotors as they started up.

“He’s not a consecrated reverend,” I said, maniacally flicking switches, “well, he is, but of his own church, recognised by a few bus stop dwelling crackpots, downtown.”

“You don’t understand, you’re an atheist,” Alison said, clicking her seatbelt in place and adjusting her seat.

I clapped the headphones on, pulled the collective and the helicopter began to rise, the cloth Nixon springing into life beneath us.

“I don’t think I’m taking advantage of my life enough to be able to say I’m an atheist, even though I want to,” I shouted over the noise as I began to bank over the low rise rooftops. “I’m the kind of guy who needs the reassurance that he’s got a shot at a second chance,” we took a dramatic dive as I spilled a can of beer, “you know, it just takes the pressure out of everything.”

I decided to make for our hotel and then, given that we now had the means, head for home. When Frank, the doorman, appeared running across the car park with our cases, he didn’t even bat an eyelid at the helicopter with the cloth Nixon bobbing about beneath it, he just politely informed me, knowing me to be a New Yorker, born and bred, that Hank Arron had hit the home run that night, which brilliantly rescued a haphazard day.


As we approached the Sierra Nevada, I reached over and started caressing Alison’s thigh, then I thought fuck it and switched on the radio, Quick Silver Messenger Service, fucking primo. I looked down as Los Angeles began to twinkle into view and the cloth Nixon appeared to have its arms wide, with a big grin on its face, like it was embracing the entire city. I was the man who was bringing Richard Nixon back to Los Angeles and he was hugging the city and the city was hugging back.

In LA we landed on top of Don Pedro’s all night delicatessen. I realised too late that the Don had converted his roof into a garden to grow watermelons for his fruit terrine and great big watermelon explosions were soon sending fleshy pink fruit innards shooting upwards in geezers at either side of the copter. The cloth Nixon was covered in an unpleasant fruity gunk and I smiled sheepishly at Alison as slimy pips and assorted bits of goo squeaked down the widescreen.

We went into the shop and Don Pedro offered us spongecake, the coloured icing a papery mixture made from confetti he’d scooped up from outside the registrar’s office in Beverly Hills and then mixed with milk.

“None of that stuff for us, sweetheart,” I told him, “but we’ll have a couple of pieces of your strawberry cheesecake, if there’s any left, ” I said, pointing at the counter, “I know it’s late?” 

We ate the cheesecake on Hermosa Beach golf course, as a cold shower of sprinkled water returned us to our senses and then Alison said that she didn’t want to see me anymore. As the sun came up, the golden beams eviscerated, for a moment, the flapping red flag that marked out the ninth hole in front of us. We really exist at the behest of the universe, I thought, and then I thought of Don Pedro failing to put two and two together when he saw the watermelon footprints we’d left behind us. What a sucker, just wait until he goes up stairs.

Curlew River

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Out of the woods they come, crunching their way across the shale in newspaper shoes, him wearing a Japanese kimono and her, all bones and marzipan, spitting out orange pits at right angles as she walks.

Our Girl stands in the Curlew River while the great grid of power station metal hums in front of her. Shivering, she stares at the grid, the cooling towers and that whole ring-a-ding-ding rhinestone scene they’ve got cooking over there.

The grid, that buzzing electric grid, that’s her life, see? Look, that’s Stevie, up there. She loved Stevie.

“I know you,” Our Girl whispers, breaking her trance when the two arrive. “You’re from the Mystery Plays at the Hornerby Assizes, I saw your tents being packed into rickshaws this morning.”

“Rickshaws, dearie?” Lady Marzipan says, her voice all reedy and rattly from her smokes.

“Never seen a rickshaw in all me life, despite me breeding,” KimonoMan cuts in, boasting a hoity-toity accent now, a put on, long yellow nails tapping the bark of the riverside oak tree he slithered towards.

“There was lots of confetti swirling about,” adds KimonoMan, “a right ribald scene if ever there was one, I doubt you could have picked us out.”

A slap for KimonoMan, right across the chops, for giving the game away.

“Remember hitching a ride on the sails of the Montefiore Windmill, Dora, in the snow?” KimonoMan says, edging the subject away from his increasingly haphazard memory.

“You’ve got to keep the sail tight between your legs,” he demonstrates, with an imaginary windmill sail, suddenly real, it’s cream canvas material rippling in the Middle Eastern breeze, sun glinting off the top of the Dome of the Rock, catching Our Girl right in the eye, blinding her momentarily.

“Relax and let your arms dangle when you reach the lower portion of the swing, your fingers might graze the ground, but don’t worry, you’ve just got to move with the mill.”

Drumroll, he performs a somersault, vaudeville style, to much applause. Confetti. Flowers. Curtain.

KimonoMan pops his head around the red velvet. Lordy, Lordy, an encore, tonight of all nights!

The pit band break into After You’ve Gone and KimonoMan waddles, Chaplin style, bamboo cane a-swinging, towards a revolving Billy Brownie Garden blackboard and bows.

“Vault forwards on the upward curve if you want to make it to the top again,” he says, as he slaps the blackboard with the bamboo cane, like Monty outlining the conclusion of a mission. “It’s worth it, if you want to see all Jerusalem in an eyeful.”

Lady Marzipan interrupts, hectoring Our Girl now, meanly, clearing the still-confetti-laden air with a waft of her hand. “Our lives are made of natural light not electricity,” she says. “Your man made power is doing you down,” lurching a hunched shoulder in the direction of the river facing station.

“You need to step out of your river and look a little to the left.”

To the left, well, to the left, we all look to the left. Even Herself gets out of the Curlew River to take a look to her left.

My God, an illusion! These people can do that. Just cover your eyes, Lady, look away, and they’ll be sneaky pete-ing along before you even know it.

“De dum-de-dum-de-diddly-dum,” KimonoMan sings, making out a melody for his song on a Den-den daiko.

“The trees were chewing peppermint gum,” Lady Marzipan answers, vamping.

“Down by the towers and down on the shale, they hung him up on two penny nails!”

On the tree trunk bark Our Girl taps out a rhythm to accompany their song, but she’s wearing silver thimbles on every finger, golden rings on every toe. Her rhythm, you see, only counts if she’s connected and she’s not a part of their ecosystem, she’s not even close.


Bite-sized Reykjavik

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imageIceland had never really been on my radar. I had a vague knowledge of the place; I knew that it was where Bjork came from. I knew that they had taken a terrible hit during the financial meltdown of 2009 and that one of their temperamental volcanoes had brought European airspace to a standstill in 2010. But that was just about it.

All Europe-ed out after a few months of back to back visits to the continent and with a long week-end to spare and a stash of disposable pennies, that little flake of land, mid-Atlantic, began to look more and more attractive. An exciting in-reach wilderness, that wasn’t continental, but offered an independent culture and a thriving music scene.

Iceland, the very word conjures up thoughts of adventure, sliding down bloody great big glaciers, wandering down ravines cut into the earth thousands of years ago, bubbling springs and those grand, chilly, empty vistas of nothing. And Reykjavik too, the world’s northernmost capital of a sovereign state, with it cafe culture and it’s downright cosmopolitan nature, all amid, if you’re lucky, the ethereal shimmer of the Northern Lights. Yes, my initial disinclination gave way to inexplicable enthusiasm when I gave the idea some thought.


The first thing that you realise as the airplane nose nudges into Icelandic airspace is the sheer emptiness of the space and the blackness of the volcanic land. The slightly melancholy introduction is quickly overcome by the friendliness of the airport, with its odd living room feel, a line of hardy out-doors-types reclining in arm-chairs amid the surprisingly, for an airport, relaxed atmosphere. It was like deplaning into an outlet of the Edinburgh Woolen Mill, a sensation that would be often repeated.

The bus to Reykjavik was buzzed by what appeared to be an American Air Force style B52, suddenly appearing over the brow of a grassy hill while I was gazing out across the flat landscape that comprises Keflavik. It was either taking off or landing behind me, I wasn’t quite sure, either way, its roar was such a surprise that I banged my nose on the coach window.


Despite Reykjavik being home to over 200,000 people, the majority of the Icelandic populace, I was surprised at the village feel of Reykjavik central. Many, many coffee shops, enough record stores to satisfy even the most frenzied vinyl junkie and a surprising number of noodle bars make up the narrow, bicycle strewn streets.

My first meal in the Icelandic capital was in one of these eponymous noodle bars, but one recommended by a friend who had been before. The bowl was enormous, brimming with chicken noodle soup and I sat in the window slurping away, staring at the Hallgrímskirkja church, the city’s most bewitching building.

imageThe pristinely white structure sits at the end of the long and straight principle shopping street, Skólavörðustígur, towering over the city, it resembles an ice sculpture, the building’s curved and rippling sides bringing to mind the perfect fossilised shapes sometimes found on a volcano field. The church inside is refreshingly plain, all whites and creams, very calming, for a church, even the traditionally uncomfortable pews are upholstered.

I took a wander to the beautiful lighthouse at Seltjarnarnes, about a half an hours walk from the city centre, still within striking distance of town, but utterly deserted. Miles and miles of empty beach followed miles and miles of empty beach.  It was so quiet that the noiselessness seemed to pressure my ears, as if they were straining to hear something, but couldn’t and the strain to do so was making them ache. It was like the world had gone quiet. It was all right for a while, a different experience, but after a couple of hours I was yearning for a return to civilization and people. It wasn’t the true Icelandic wilderness, but it was interesting to experience the edge of emptiness.


My visit happened, by chance, to coincide with what would have been John Lennon’s 73rd birthday. My temporary landlady told me that Yoko Ono always visited town on that day to light the ‘Imagine Peace Tower’ a light sculpture Ono had built on Videy, a small windswept island about five minutes sail from the harbor. I wasn’t entirely sure if it would be my kind of thing, but I went along anyway, sailing across the freezing water on a rickety boat while “The Ballad of John and Yoko” blared from speakers wedged in the wheelhouse. We all sang “Give Peace a Chance,” and I kind of thought it might be nice if we actually gave it a try, after all I’d been awarded peace in great big chunks during my visit to Iceland and I’d found it roundly enjoyable, so why shouldn’t the rest of the world get a fair crack at it too?

Amid the candlelit emptiness, someone strummed an acoustic guitar, Yoko Ono danced all in black, top hat strangely resistant to the blowing gale. It still wasn’t really my thing, but because of that, I was enjoying it.


The Dandy Lion

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imageI told her I’d meet her on Dandelion Fields where the lion who wears the tatty jackets and the purple polka dot neckerchief lives.

It rained probabilities over there, actual numbers, ones and twos, decimal points and fractions. You can stand up there and hold out your tongue and feel the figures drop into your mouth and then dissolve into a particular kind of liqueur, not sure which one, perhaps, Drambuie?

To get there I had to cut past the fairground with the three interconnecting Ferris wheels, all lashed together with ropes and wooden wedges, so when you set one going it automatically powers the interlocking next one and so on.

I walked through the pines until I came to a circular clearing, with a wind sock dead centre. The sock was multicoloured, red, vanilla and peach. I think the colours were these, or maybe sprout green instead of red, or instead of peach, I can’t remember.

Hammered into the grass, about five meters or so away from the sock, but exactly parallel with it, was a little wooden sign that read, in a graceful Prunella Trieste font, “Don’t shout obscenities at the wind sock.”

Of course there was a fella there doing just that and I ran up to him, wildly flailing my arms about and yelling, “Hey, didn’t you read the sign man, I mean, can’t you read?”

The guy pleaded ignorance and scarpered and I could hear his hobnail boots clip-clapping as he hit the Roman Road that ran directly to the left of the clearing. I stared up at the sock, as it hung limp against the white metal pole, a breeze brought it to life a moment and it fluttered to its full length, before settling back down.

“Don’t shout obscenities at the wind sock,” I chuckled to myself, as I walked on.

When I got to Dandelion Fields Polly Lillianlion was there.

Gee, Polly Lillianlion, how can you not fall in love with a girl with six ls in her name?

Polly was sat on the ground, cradling the Dandy Lion’s head in her lap. It looked like he was dying.

Two crows scattered from the tree behind me.

I got over to them and he was all torn up, his jacket was in tatters, the boutonnière in his top button hole had wilted and was all brown and his pinstripe trousers were ragged at the bottoms. It was raining so both of our macs were covered in multi-coloured numbers, but he was covered mainly in blue nines.

The Dandy Lion’s paws were full of cuts and the white tape, from boxing I suppose, wrapped around them was bloodstained and unravelling. His top hat lay to his left looking like it had been punched straight through and someone had snapped the metal stretchers out of his umbrella.

I waved my hand in front of his face, tugged at his whiskers and peered into his eyes but registered no response. Polly shook her head. He seemed to come to for a moment and he breathed out and said, “I’ve seen some things in our world, but this really takes the cake.” Then he turned over on his side to face away from Polly, brought his knees up towards his chest and died.

Polly looked at me and said, “Let’s bury him and then go home.” So we buried him and started home.

I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter – The Leonard Bernstein Letters

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Leonard Bernstein

It is always a wonder, when doorstop volumes of letters belonging to dead icons are released, that people who led such gargantuan lives in scope and depth, found the time to achieve so much and still be such conscientious correspondents to so many people. But we are talking about a different time here, when you had to write to stay in touch. One of the considerable losses the social networking age will inflict on the generations it has hoodwinked will be to deny them a physical stash of handwritten letters. Thankfully though we can enjoy the archives of past notables who were not so deprived.

Such was the bountiful nature of Leonard Bernstein’s musical output and such was his influence as a conductor and a teacher internationally, that it is unsurprising to see that his correspondence, newly compiled by Nigel Simeone, takes up a whopping 600 pages. Bernstein’s letters are conversational and informal, surprising, given that he was an excellent writer. Strangely though many of the stand out letters in this collection are actually ones that Bernstein received, rather than the ones he wrote.


Of particular note is the letter Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Lennie in the early hours of June 9th 1968, the night after Robert Kennedy’s funeral. Bernstein had conducted an excerpt of Mahler’s 5th Symphony during the funeral mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and Jackie, moved by the performance, wrote to Bernstein to thank him. Jacqueline, who would of course go on to become a literary editor herself, reveals an elegant turn of phrase in her writing, describing her late brother-in law as ‘kaleidoscopic’, before going on to note that Bobby’s wife, Ethel, loved him ‘mystically’.

The Kennedy link is a strong one throughout the book, a childishly excitable Frank Sinatra writes on the 12th of January 1961 of the rehearsals for a gala performance he is organising for the Inauguration of President Kennedy in which Bernstein is to participate. The description of the social element of the Inaugural brouhaha is quintessential Sinatra: “Now for the social side of this hoedown,” he writes. “Exhibit A will be a supper party that Ambassador (Joe) Kennedy is giving in honour of the entire cast. This will be black tie for the fellows and something dazzling for the girls.” He goes on to sign off with a charmingly menacing “Love and kisses and I’ll be waiting for you.”

The correspondence between Jerome Robbins and Bernstein is of particular interest. Robbins was one of the co-creators of West Side Story and was a major influence on Bernstein, cajoling him to work, in often brutal terms, while striving for a punchy, exciting show. “In general,” Jerome writes, “suddenness of action is something we should strive for.”

His letter after receiving one of the first drafts of the show is the politely written equivalent of tearing up the score and shouting ‘no, no, no, take it back and start again!’ He disdains the downbeat nature of the early drafts, “We’re dead unless the audience feels that all the tragedy can and could be averted, that there’s hope and a wish for escape from tragedy and a tension built on that desire.”

Bernstein onstage at the kennedy Inaguration Ball, organised by Frank Sinatra.

Bernstein onstage at the kennedy Inaguration Ball, organised by Frank Sinatra.

Stephen Sondheim, another co-conspirator on West Side Story, also comes across as a sparkling letter writer. “You have the distinct privilege,” he writes to Lennie, “of being the first person in these Continental United States to receive correspondence typed on my new and not completely paid for IBM Electric Typewriter. How about these margins?”

Berstein’s exchanges with his contemparys in the composing world are also illuminating. There are a number of letters to and from Aaron Copland, the composer of the famous Fanfare for the Common Man and the better, but lesser known Appalachian Spring. Bernstein is an affectionate, informal corespondent in his letters to Copland. “I’m a dawg, a dawg, a dawg not to have done this before,” starts one letter dated 28th of September 1944. He goes on to talk about how his work on what would go on to become On the Town is dominating his life and reveals a shaky confidence in the piece: “The show is a wild monster now which doesn’t let me sleep or eat or anything, maybe it will lay the great egg of all time. It’s an enormous gamble.”

His marriage to his wife Felicia Montealegre was not always a happy one, although they were naturally in tune musically, collaborating on performances of Bernstein’s own Kaddish Symphony and Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien. Her letters, written during long periods of separation when he was off on foreign tours, are often the more fragile, but his don’t want for longing either. He writes from the Grand Hotel Duomo in Milan in February 1955: “I miss you terribly and love your letters. They carry a whiff of something warm and familiar and joyful.”

Leonard and Felicia Bernstein

Leonard and Felicia Bernstein

These letters matter because Bernstein matters. He understood and articulated the power of music better that anyone, not just classical music, but any kind of music and that, among many other things, makes him extremely important. “I am very happy tonight for music,” he said, on collecting a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 1995 “And I’ll be even happier and maybe even ecstatic if tonight can be a step toward the ultimate marriage of all kinds of music, because they are all one.”

The breadth of his musical creation, which stretched from musical theatre to boundary breaking classical music, was awe inspiring, but much of it is often overlooked. The collection features a letter from President Reagan, sent to the composer on the day of his seventieth birthday, celebrating his achievements from “West Side Story to Wonderful Town” two valedictory bookends Bernstein would have found dubious. Despite the greatness of his theatre work, he wanted to be remembered for so much more.

Leonard Bernstein died on October 14th 1990 at the age of seventy one and was outlived by his mother, Jennie. One of the last letters in the book is from her, dated 5th of September 1990, “I have confidence in you,” she writes, simply a mother worried about her son’s health, “I think you’re on the right track.”

The Leonard Bernstein Letters – Edited by Nigel Simeone – Is available from Yale University Press now.

‘You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you!’ Hotel Texas – An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs John F. Kennedy

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Skyway, 1964 Robert Rauschenberg - Oil and silkscreen on canvas Dallas Museum of Art, The Roberta Coke Camp Fund, The 500, Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Mark Shepherd, Jr., and General Acquisitions Fund © Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Skyway, 1964 Robert Rauschenberg – Oil and silkscreen on canvas Dallas Museum of Art, The Roberta Coke Camp Fund, The 500, Inc., Mr. and Mrs. Mark Shepherd, Jr., and General Acquisitions Fund © Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

There are many iconic images of the 22nd of November,1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Amid all the poignant pictures the relevance of a small collection of artwork by Picasso, Franz Kline, Thomas Eakins, van Gogh and Charles Marion Russell has become lost. Nearly fifty years on from the tragedy in Dallas, ‘Hotel Texas – An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs John F. Kennedy’ offers a different perspective on those infamous events.

The Kennedy’s three day trip to Texas, an early salvo in the president’s 1964 re-election campaign, had already seen the first couple visit San Antonio and Houston, before they arrived, exhausted, at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, in preparation for visits to Dallas and Austin the next day. In their hotel suite the pair were met by a treasure trove of art hanging from the room’s walls and went to bed assuming the pictures to be replicas. On closer inspection, the next morning, they discovered that the artworks were authenticated originals.

This unprecedented exhibition was the work of Owen Day, a Texan art critic. Day learned that the seventy-five dollar a night suite reserved for the president was not the most luxurious in the hotel, the ritziest room had instead been reserved for the Texas-born Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird. The Johnson’s suite had hand-me-down items from the Ritz Carlton in New York, while the Kennedys had to make do with views of a bus station and some underwhelming furnishings.

Spirit Bird, c. 1956, Morris Graves, Tempera on paper, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Gift of the William E. Scott Foundation.

Spirit Bird, c. 1956, Morris Graves, Tempera on paper, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Gift of the William E. Scott Foundation.

Knowing the first couple were art lovers, Day began to organise a ‘customised art experience,’ in an attempt to brighten the suite where John and Jackie would, ultimately, spend their last night together. After a flurry of telephone calls it was arranged that the rooms would be decorated with a selection of art and sculpture assembled from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Private collectors also offered work, all expertly negotiated by Ruth Carter Johnson, a civic force in Fort Worth, who didn’t vote for Kennedy but still wanted to contribute to the effort.

President Kennedy spent his last night sleeping beneath van Gogh’s ‘Road with Peasant Shouldering a Spade’, while Jackie slept below ‘Swimming’ by Thomas Eakins. It was supposed to have been the other way around, but the couple changed beds unexpectedly.

Traditional American art was represented with the inclusion of Charles Marion Russell’s ‘Lost in a Snowstorm – We Are Friends’, while modernist works, more tailored to Mrs Kennedy’s art tastes than to her husbands, were also featured, such as Franz Kline’s ‘Study for Accent Grave’ and ‘Spirit Bird’ by Morris Graves. There was even a Picasso sculpture, the charming ‘Angry Owl’, which sat in the suite’s entrance hall, running the risk of courting controversy given the artist’s flirtations with Communism.

Lost in a Snowstorm – We Are Friends, 1888, Charles M. Russell, Oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

Lost in a Snowstorm – We Are Friends, 1888, Charles M. Russell, Oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

Of the twelve artworks displayed in Suite 850, Eakins’s ‘Swimming’, is given the most consideration in the book, which features an essay on the painting by Alexander Nemerov. The picture depicts several swimmers lounging upon an eighteenth century sawmill platform by a newly created lake. The ruined platform remains the same, for now, but the water is slowly eroding it and changing its environment. A new world is coming while another is leaving and the figures swimming seem trapped somewhere between the coming and the going. Nemerov notes that when Father Oscar Huber gave Kennedy Extreme Unction, the Last Rights of the Catholic Church, at Parkland Memorial Hospital after the shooting, his words like Eakins’s painting ‘marked Kennedy’s passage from one world to the next’.

Thomas Eakins himself, in a self portrait, breaststrokes in the lower right of the picture, echoing, writes Nemerov, a Professor of Art and Art History at Stanford University, JFK’s famous four hour swim to Plumb Pudding Island, with a severely injured man on his back, after his PT boat was sank by the Japanese during WWII.

Swimming, 1885, Thomas Eakins, Oil on canvas - Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Purchased by the Friends of Art, Fort Worth Art Association, 1925; acquired by the Amon Carter Museum, 1990, from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through grants and donations from the Amon G. Carter Foundation, the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, the Anne Burnett and Charles Tandy Foundation, Capital Cities/ABC Foundation, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The R. D. and Joan Dale Hubbard Foundation and the people of Fort Worth. 1990.19.1.

Swimming, 1885, Thomas Eakins, Oil on canvas – Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, Purchased by the Friends of Art, Fort Worth Art Association, 1925; acquired by the Amon Carter Museum, 1990, from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through grants and donations from the Amon G. Carter Foundation, the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, the Anne Burnett and Charles Tandy Foundation, Capital Cities/ABC Foundation, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The R. D. and Joan Dale Hubbard Foundation and the people of Fort Worth. 1990.19.1.

The picture, like the president, is rooted in Catholicism, the figures in the painting with their perfectly sculpted bodies and proud postures are reminiscent of Caravaggio’s religious depictions of martyrs, John the Baptist and David. Yet these characters are simply larking about by the water’s edge, they aren’t saints or apostles, they look like heroes, but they lack a story.

Jackie Kennedy loved the display and remarked that she wished she could have stayed longer to admire the pictures, while Jack Kennedy rang Ruth Carter Johnson to thank her for organising the surprise; it was the last phone call he ever made. After breakfast Kennedy was presented with a ten-gallon cowboy hat by the civic leaders of Fort Worth, he refused to try it on, but promised to wear it on his return to the Oval Office.

Respect and good intentions evidently supported the First Lady of Texas, Nellie Connally, when she turned to President Kennedy, as their open top car moved slowly into Dealey Plaza, and said: “Mr President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you!”

“No, you certainly can’t!” Kennedy answered. A second later, history took its shocking course.

President Kennedy speaks to the crowd outside the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, November 22, 1963. William Allen, photographer/Dallas Times Herald Collection - Courtesy of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

President Kennedy speaks to the crowd outside the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, November 22, 1963. William Allen, photographer/Dallas Times Herald Collection – Courtesy of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

Hotel Texas – An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs John F. Kennedy is available now from Yale University Press.
One of the most shocking moments of radio ever recorded: Erich Leinsdorf breaks the news of President Kennedy’s death to a packed Boston symphony hall:

All Things Brighton Beautiful

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All Things Brighton Beautiful

Robert Leeming


I was drinking a bottle of Sink the Bismarck in one of those bars where supping ale named after historical events and renowned political figures is the thing to do, and I was thinking of Kenneth More getting off with that girl outside the phoney shoe shop in the film of the same name. Anna Maria was drinking a Death of Queen Mary, 1694, an extravagantly morose choice, the brown bottle arriving with its neck dressed in a kind of lacy black ruff, borne atop a leather bound book of English Common Prayer.

“That’s a fine Protestant choice,” I said to her, or something to that effect and she laughed in a half hearted way, which was done only to suggest that she was willing to participate in the evening not that she found the remark funny.

We slept together that night, for the first time, and I left her flat before dawn with my mind replaying only the more certain elements of the evening. As I walked, I remember it seemed to come light in leaps and bounds, not gradually like usual, and it felt almost as though I was a stick-man drawing jumping over fences, under a pencil sketch sun, as someone else flicked the cards.

I spent the next day watching archive video clips, old interviews with Laurence Olivier, in black and white, on reel to reel film projected via my Bolex M-8 onto a white sheet strung across my living room wall and held in place by clothes pegs. Olivier was sitting on the stage of the Old Vic in 1968, talking to Ken Tynan, the interview offering a host of clips and quotes to use in a documentary I was making about Olivier’s life for the Chichester Festival Theatre.

This was one of the few occasions in the fifteen or so years that I had spent as a filmmaker that the given commission actually raised a personal interest. The necessity to eek a reasonable living out of films meant that I spent much of my time putting together presentations to be showed at corporate conferences held in hotel ballrooms.

On the screen Olivier and Tynan were stood up, facing each other, Olivier’s hand was outstretched, his little finger drawing an invisible line down Tynan’s forehead onto the bridge of his nose. “You have a weakness,” Olivier said to Tynan, “right here”. Olivier was recreating a conversation he had had with some old theatrical manager who had identified a particular shyness in his face that hindered his expression at auditions.

I had always admired Olivier. I admired how he carried himself, like the panache of a thousand court jesters was stored between his shoulders. I admired Olivier’s confidence, the way he dressed and how he spoke with equal enthusiasm from one word to the next, appointing his diction with a renewed sense of creativity and vigour at the start of every new sentence.

I liked having dead heroes, because you could impose your own world view on their character and plunder it at will without the deceased saying anything new to cast doubt on your diagnosis or to question your theft. You could piece something together, a cock and bull story from Pathe news clippings and old editions of Picture Parade, a theoretical personal history, that a one-time icon pursued disastrous relationships and sometimes unabashedly thought he was better off alone. And, living in accordance to their philosophy, knowing you had a kindred spirit somewhere in the ether, you needn’t entertain the notion that you were somehow missing out by doing the same, because your one-time icon lived, what appeared to have been a reasonably happy life, and had still been an unrepentant malcontent. And if you neglected to research too far and ruled out of hand any unearthed evidence that proved to the contrary, then your bond would be bulletproof.

They were sitting again now, on my bed sheet screen, Olivier was talking about his performance of Richard III, his characterisation and the opening night. “The second performance was Tuesday afternoon, matinee, for which I was all too ill prepared,” he raised his eyes, as if he was addressing the dress circle, “I approached the footlights, faced the audience and started, and by the middle act, I knew I had them, they say there is a phrase ‘the sweet smell of success’, and I can only tell you, I’ve had two experiences of that and it smells just like Brighton and oyster bars and things like that.”

Anna Maria had a similar malady. Finding an absent hero that inspired her and being jealous of their success made her work harder. She was a fashion designer. A struggling one. And Elsa Schiaparelli was her personal Madonna. She would tell me again and again how Schiaparelli had delivered her first collection at thirty-seven. Anna was twenty-eight and already had more than enough to constitute two but lacked the interest required to reproduce them.

“No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece,” she would say at the first sign that one of her pieces was about to attract a hostile reception. She was certainly a fighter when the qualities of her work were questioned. And her work was controversial, but it was based on a controversy from the past, which surely reduced its relevance.

I remember her excitement after meeting the proprietor of a boutique fashion shop on the Portobello Road at a party hosted by two mutual friends. The couple’s professions made for an interesting group of guests, and I spent the evening talking to a London financier who was making much or his recent investments in Mongolia and the advancing economy there. “I suppose a Mongolian boom is our equivalent of a struck match,” I remember saying, feeling like a character in a New Yorker cartoon, while Anna Maria worked the room.

The man from Portobello expressed an interest in her latest collection, in particular the blue chiffon dress she was wearing at the time, with a bee crafted out of mother of pearl and golden thread attached to the left shoulder. If I didn’t care for anything else she made or wore, and I didn’t much, my love for her in the dark blue dress with the mother of pearl bee on the shoulder would make up for any distaste she might detect in me for her other creations. The keeper of the Portobello Boutique thought the same and announced to the party, theatrically, that the bee would be to Anna Maria what sky blue was to Lady Jane Grey, “something to emblazon on a banner and fly above her castle.”

I had of course warned her in the taxi home, amid her rising excitement, that one should never trust a promise made at a party. But boosted and blinded by the sense of self satisfaction one often gets after a compliment, which does much to convince you, for the moment, that you have after all chosen the right path in life, she loaded up her car with dresses, wrapped turbans, Arab breeches and bodices, harem pants and a hat shaped like a French aristocrat’s slipper.

The man on Portobello Road was polite and respectful but declined to stock her line on the basis that he believed people wanted clothes that walked the line between satisfaction and outrage, but consented to purchasing the navy blue dress with the bee on the shoulder. She dismissed his offer and I remember her labelling him a “crazy talker” in the car home with that look in her eye that people sometimes have when they have shown a misplaced streak of hope in public and have since been chastened.

The Olivier film flipped and fizzed it’s way to a conclusion and I grabbed another circular reel tin from a collection I had amassed during my years in film. Leonard Bernstein, another dead hero, appeared on the screen, he was lecturing from behind a wooden desk with a Harvard University crest behind him. I looked into the mirror that hung on the wall behind an old gram cabinet I had bought to play Davy Graham records on. I looked at my reflected image and thought of Olivier’s comment to Tynan, I ran my index finger down the middle of my forehead as I stared. “You have a weakness,” I repeated out loud to myself, Olivier style, “right here.”

On the screen Bernstein was talking about Igor Stravinsky to an audience of rapt music students, their clothes suggesting the encounter took place deep within the 1970s. Still sitting down, but becoming more and more animated, he spoke of the music; “It’s like street vernacular dressed up in white tie and tails,” he said of the Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s work was second hand he claimed, “Yes, second hand; because the best personal statements are made through quotes from the past.”


I told her I loved her while the crows batted about the bars at the crest of the white Ferris wheel. The sky was grey and Brighton seemed broken, but it still meant the world to me. I had spent two years after university living there, in a dingy second floor flat at fifty-four Denmark Villas, while I worked front of house at an art gallery. It was, at the time, the turn of luck I been hoping for, the position offered a new life in a new town and it was a considerable step up from the first summer job I had held working in the National Trust kitchens at Hampton Court Palace.

When Anna Maria told me she had been invited to attend the unveiling of a new menswear collection, designed by an acquaintance with sway and the willingness to put that sway to good use for the sake of a pretty face, I was only too happy to accompany her and show her around my old stomping ground. In fact it had become something of a tradition to take a girlfriend to Brighton for that purpose. It was always an easy romantic trip to make out of the city, and not far enough for any hiccups to occur, either in transit or itinerary, which may reveal a tiny flaw or niggling trait of character that could sow the seeds of later schism.

The event itself attracted what I had come to call the usual crowd, ironically, because they were far from that. Standing under the Georgian era, Oriental style glass, in the banqueting hall of the Royal Pavilion, I watched the party’s fashionable comings and goings, while cradling a glass of champagne that I sipped, slowly, for fear of finishing too quickly and being stranded without a conversation to engage in.

Anna Maria worked her way around the room from one conversation to the next trying to see as many people as she could, while I watched a portly woman who appeared to be the oldest person in the room, and the worst dressed, wearing an ill fitting brash floral pattern in midwinter. The lady fiddled with a ceremonial chain around her neck and repeatedly told a man in a tight, tailored, double-breasted jacket with trousers with cavalry coloured yellow stripes down the sides, that she was the High Sheriff of East Sussex. “Got to talk to the Rotary Club on Monday,” she said, “in the Plough and Harrow and it starts with a meal,” she emphasised “meal” comically while the cavalry officer laughed politely and eyed an escape route.

I was approached by a woman wearing a petticoat that had wide royal blue and gold stripes running down its fabric, her looks were almost Greek, Mediterranean at least, the kind of beauty you knew would mature into a long and healthy old age, without giving up much to time and worry. The tightness of her petticoat lent her an excellent posture which suggested she believed herself to be riding a Lusitano charger.

“Are you enjoying this?” She asked, expecting, I could tell from her tone, and given my position on the periphery of the room, a scathing response.

“It’s not mine to enjoy,” I replied, eying the crowd again, “but it looks pleasant enough to me.”

She said, suddenly doubting my interest, “You do want to talk, don’t you?”

“Depends on what we’re going to talk about,” I answered, avoiding her eyes, “what do you do?” I asked, “Are you a designer like the rest of them?” I waved my hand, dismissively, in the general direction of the party.

“I assist a designer,” she answered.

“You assist,” I replied, “but you want to do, right? Everybody wants to do.”

“Everybody has to learn, I’ve got ambitions though, like we all have.”

The tone of her voice suggested to me that she thought I could well be a man of means in the industry and that if she offered considered answers then she might well gain a useful contact.

I wanted to go on, but Anna Maria had pushed her way through the crowd towards me, hand in hand with another man.

“That’s Edward Quint,” the petticoat woman said to me, as her body language course corrected towards a greater gravity. “It’s his party,” she laughed realising she had said the least important detail first. “It’s his collection,” she shouted.

“And that’s Anna Maria with him,” I said. “She’s with me.”

A jazz ensemble struck up at the opposite side of the room, the saxophone notes hovering over the crinoline mesh of a stave that drifted through my head. I knew the song; it was light and Brazilian, something, perhaps, by Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Quint was very well dressed in a perfectly tailored black suit, jacket pocket filled with a folded white pocket-square embroidered with green holly leaves and red berries. Anna Maria seemed to be in awe of him, which confused me, because I’d never seen her in awe of anybody, and Quint was so opaque, in my mind comprised only of a chalk outline, with no memory of character or meat to fill the middle.

“Have you always been in fashion, or did you jump into it from a more conventional base?” I asked Quint, in an attempt to start a conversation while Anna Maria made for the bar, which had been covered in wildflowers and was staffed by people wearing colourful paper mâché animal masks. The masks were matched to a t-shirt which bore the name of a Ted Hughes poem, “The Thought Fox” one of them read, “The Owl” read another.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Quint said without making eye contact.

“Well, I’m a film-maker, but I haven’t always been, I used to work in a National Trust kitchen serving junket to five year olds’, we’ve all scraped the bottom of the barrel for money, haven’t we?”

“I’ve always been quite lucky,” he answered quickly, almost in a whisper, still looking down.

“So have I,” I answered,” becoming more and more irritated by Quint’s ambivalence to my presence, “I haven’t even spent an evening serving drinks in a paper mâché animal mask yet.”

Anna Maria returned with a drink in each hand, the golden chain on her left wrist clinking against the glass as she passed one to me and turned to Quint and said, “I suppose he’s been talking about National Trust kitchens and junket again as he, well I can tell you right now, it’s a load of old rubbish, he worked for a summer at Hampton Court Palace and spent most of his time fucking a tour guide on Anne Boleyn’s bed.”

“He did mention something along those lines,” Quint replied, “don’t worry, Jonathan, I’m more than liable to tell my own tall tales from time to time.”

His confidence had come alive now, like the recovery of a shy child when backed by his mother.

“There’s nothing tall about it,” I snapped.

“Alright, darling, we’re just teasing.”

“And what do you think of my Anna Maria’s work,” I interrupted, but Quint ignored me, again, instead he clasped her by the arm and said “Anna-Maria, bees to you are what strawberries were to Desdemona, something to embroider on a handkerchief to stir a jealously. ”

Anna Maria and Quint were flirting with each other, and even though I knew this was, on her part more than likely, done simply with an eye on business, I was, nevertheless, filled with an anger that gripped me from time to time, but rarely provoked public ill temper.

I grabbed her by the arm, “What do you think of our Anna-Maria, Eddy?” I repeated, putting emphasis on every word, like Laurence Olivier at the end of The Entertainer.

“Rather beautiful isn’t she? Could almost be one of your models,” I paused, “we’ll maybe.”

Anna Maria laughed uncomfortably and tried to break my grip.

“She has a weakness though, don’t you think, Eddy, right here?” I lent towards her and ran my little finger down Anna-Maria’s forehead and she winced, “Like all her cares and woes are being stored up, right here, and creasing her, don’t you think, Eddy, don’t you think?”

I’m not sure why those words in particular came to mind, at a moment when I found it necessary, in anger, to relate something that would shock and puzzle, in an attempt, a silly attempt admittedly, to gain some intellectual superiority, or some superiority at the least, over the situation. It had been a few months since I had heard Olivier saying the same words to Ken Tynan on the stage of the Old Vic, in the very early days of my relationship with Anna Maria. Perhaps because I had caught them out of context the words had refused to leave me, it certainly wasn’t exhumation for the sake of clarity, if Anna Maria had wanted to know what I had meant, I couldn’t tell her, it was just an attempt to hurt in anger.

Anna Maria’s face dropped and Quint took a deep breath inwards, and I could almost see the smoky air drifting down his see-through windpipe in his see-through chest.

“Am I in the middle of something?” He said weakly, his eyes dipping to graze the floor before rising to meet Anna Maria.

“Nothing,” I said softly, “you’re in the middle of nothing, that’s the problem.”

I had been outlandish and rude, I think I was drunk, but Quint had annoyed me, inexplicably, and the fact that Anna Maria could have any truck with him made it worse, it devalued my opinion of her, whatever her motives.

Stating the obvious again and again, she didn’t seem to understand that I got the fact that I had embarrassed her. That had been the point. And I was not remorseful. What she didn’t seem to understand was that she had embarrassed me, again and again, with company I was unsure of, yet she continued with her lecture.

“I’ve got to admit, I spend most of my time these days wanting to be on my own,” Anna Maria shouted at me when we got back to our hotel room.

“Then have it your way,” I snapped.

She paused and sat down on the bed, she was crying now. “What do you mean, a weakness, what the hell was that supposed to mean?”

My head was banging so I grabbed a bottle of water from the mini-bar and then turned around to face her. “It didn’t mean anything, it was just, something I heard, it wasn’t really even directed at you.”

She laughed, sardonically.

“It was just something I said, well, to baffle, to confuse, to say something that Quint wouldn’t understand, he was being a rude bastard to me all night, all night, but I guess you didn’t notice that.”

She sat quietly, with a look on her face that seemed to suggest forgiveness rather than hopelessness, but then she stood up again, her bristling anger still in tact.

“Would it kill you to say one original thing, even your insults are stolen,” she shouted.

On that count I was defenceless and I approached her and attempted to put my arms around her, but she pushed me away.

“I want to be on my own when you’re around, you’re a drag, being with you is a drag, trying to placate your conversation is a constant drag, your endless…..”

I grabbed her by the elbows realising her list would continue as she became more and more hysterical.

“Yeah, yeah, a drag,” I snapped, “change the record, can’t you see that all I do is support you, that’s all I do, I follow you around to these things, that I hate, situations that I don’t feel comfortable in.”

“Brighton’s just a nostalgic fuck for you, that’s all, you wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

“Well yeah, maybe it is,” I shouted, “and if you carry on like this you’re going to kill every decent memory.”

She called me a self centred bastard and threw the telephone at me, which I dodged, before she lectured me on how success in life and finding love were not, in her eyes, interdependent. I disagreed with her, although I didn’t doubt Anna Maria’s tenacity and capacity for hard work, I did doubt her sense of knowing when to stop and call it a day.

I dodged the flying bedroom door that would have hit Al Bowlly square in the forehead and killed him outright, as the grand, supernatural explosion of light hit the room, the death of a relationship, amid the usual blaze of anger and malice, as love and fine memories caught flame like kerosene. I felt like burning our letters in the fireplace as one last act of defiance. Then I remembered we hadn’t written any letters.

After the initial blast no shrapnel metal even grazed my shoulders, and I left the rubble, skewed and twisted, to be explained away by somebody else.


I’ve always wanted to be a man of letters, to have a handful of different correspondents around the globe I could write to with little anecdotes, updates and observations about the progression of my life. And this wasn’t really because I enjoyed writing letters, rather I could imagine my foreign correspondents gathering together one weekend after my death, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon in Mayfair, and pooling their collections of crumpled blotting paper filled with my treasured ruminations. And then, or so I would dream, they would club together in order to publish a four hundred to five hundred page collection of my writings with a title that emphasised the prolific nature of my wit.

I had never once written to Anna Maria, there had never been much point; we had always been at close quarters. Actually, I had never once seen her write, only sketch, in charcoal or coloured pencil, the outlined silhouette of her latest creation on blue notepaper. I had seen a writing pad, lying on top of a pile of old Italian Vogue Magazines in her workshop, its pages edged with purple butterflies, but there were no indentations on the top page to suggest that it had ever been used.

One of my long-suffering correspondents, a girl I certainly had numbered among my imaginary Sunday afternoon circle, was Alana McCray. We had been to university together in Ulster and had met in a film club, united by our love for Pier Paolo Pasolini.

I had happened to mention Pasolini in passing during a conversation we had about Italian film after the group had watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s Eclipse. Pasolini had captured my attention for a week the summer previous and I had the tenacity, more out of vanity than obligation, to recommend the St. Matthew’s Passion to her as a good starting point to begin the appreciation of his oeuvre. During the next meeting she tapped me on the shoulder and announced, with a certain degree of pride, that she had watched the film and found it “charged” and if I remember correctly, “rather satisfying”.

This came as something as a surprise, because in all honesty, I had found the St. Mathew’s Passion to be a drag and had given up half way through, but everyone had to have a favourite director, and for the sake of the film club, Pasolini was mine.

Nevertheless, Alana and myself suddenly had a shared interest, a charade admittedly, but a shared charade, which I always considered was the best kind. On the back of this we went for coffee, and I had talked about my favourite Passion scene, the baptising of Christ at the River Jordan, happily twenty five minutes in, and she talked about hers, the public flaying of Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate, which, I guessed, is somewhere near the end. And I showed her the horrific picture of the murdered Pasolini lying on a Roman beach on my iPhone, his brains dashed out and his face flattened by a car wheel and she seemed to tear up briefly and then we had brownies.

Our brief affair was interrupted by her move to Harvard, on a yearlong placement as part of her social sciences course. She completed the year, and decided to quit the course and stay in the United States. We remained in touch, eschewing email at my insistence, in favour of letter writing; I labelled it a romantic gesture and claimed we could be like George Bernard Shaw and Mrs Pat Campbell.

The letters came and went, I looked forward to them from time to time and opened them as soon as I saw them behind the door, and other times, when I was seeing Anna Maria, or when I was working on a film, the letters were left unopened for weeks, on top of my dresser, with sometimes four or five arriving before I managed to dispatch just one. I think she missed them, and when I did read her letters she didn’t appear to be having that much of an interesting time, her tone becoming more and more agitated the longer her notes were left unanswered.

And then, a few months after I last saw Anna Maria in Brighton, Alana was back, working for an independent publisher on Old Brompton Street. We arranged to meet in writing, in two short letters postmarked just a day apart. She signed off “can’t wait to see you soon” and I signed just “Jonathan”.

We arranged to meet in Berkley Square and I sat for fifteen minutes on a wooden bench facing what appeared to be a deconstructed statue of Alf Ramsey, either that or a shattered Pegasus, I wasn’t sure, and I couldn’t believe that the distant figure who had spent so long thinking of me whilst writing her letters would soon be sat next to me and the thought of what I would say first, and not knowing what that would be, made me nervous.

When she did arrive, she walked from the direction of Mayfair, not Green Park, which impressed me.

“Hi,” I said and kissed her on the cheek. She said “Hi” and a silence followed and to fill it I said something along the lines of “this is where the nightingale sang, isn’t it?” Gesturing towards the park.

“What?” she replied, she didn’t know what I meant and furrowed her brow.

“In the song,” I said, and she laughed, and I loved the fact that one night, maybe that very week, I’d be able to play it for her on an old Frank Sinatra record I’d found in Oxfam, and she would hear it for the first time and fall in love with it and think of me every time she heard it.

We saw each other on quite a regular basis from then on, usually at night, sometimes sleeping together, sometimes not, always at my place, because I found it difficult to actually sleep in a bed that wasn’t mine.

I kept an English Book of Common Prayer on my bedside table to use as a coffee mat, one of those free copies that had, at one time or another, supported a Death of Queen Mary, 1694. And with Alana sleeping next to me I thought of Anna Maria. Funny old Anna Maria, she would have known where the nightingale sang, who wrote it and the location in Le Lavandou where it was first performed, and I couldn’t decide if her knowledge was a credit or a drawback.

About ten weekends after our reunion in Berkley Square myself and Alana made the traditional trip to Brighton, although I didn’t tell her the recent personal history that had played itself out there, I did show her my old flat and the cafe on the seafront where I had once spotted a frail Laurence Olivier, Lord Olivier of Brighton by then, and his wife Joan Plowright, having a cream tea by the seaside. I knew he had always loved Brighton and had made it his home for many years, but I was still surprised to see him. I wanted to go over to say hello, but I decided to leave them be and take in the moment privately. He died a few weeks later.

It was good to be back, I felt much more settled then than I had done when I had visited with Anna Maria. My Olivier film was finished and had received a good reception, with more work promised, and now I had Alana, who wasn’t Anna Maria, but she was more reachable.

Alana spotted what appeared to be a ramshackle clothes boutique on Foundry Street called “Miraculous Champion”. On two floors, the shop was the kind that yells thrift from the outside but on the inside stocks nothing in double figures. And I idled casually by a mirror starring at my reflection, playing with my scarf in Harvard colours, while Alana flicked through the rails and admired everything that she saw.

“I love this,” I heard her shout behind me, “but it’s so expensive,” and I caught her holding a blue dress to her thin frame in the mirror, with a shimmering creature on the top left breast, before she disappeared behind a red curtain to try it on. I immediately thought of a bee, but doubted Anna Maria’s disparate sense of style would ever appeal to Alana, or that Anna Maria would have had the luck or business acumen to get her line into a store like that.

I told the shop assistant to tell Alana that I had gone to wait outside for her, and she appeared fifteen minutes later, with a blue crate paper bag, talking of how the expense was bearable for such a beautiful thing and she said the dress leant an extraordinary silhouette to an ordinary figure, and mentioned the mother of pearl bee that shimmered on the left shoulder as if it were in flight.

I told her that her figure was far from ordinary, but she was already walking with a spring in her step, like one does when one makes a spur of the moment purchase and is proud of the proven decisiveness. Alana mentioned that she had seen the designer’s name mentioned in one of those thick, high brow fashion magazines one often finds lying about on cabinets in boutique art galleries, on a list of names to watch, and I said that I couldn’t wait to see her wear it, and I meant that, sincerely.

Jumping up on the rail which separated the esplanade from the beach below, I shouted towards the sea, “I don’t like the look of the mist Mr Redburn!” quoting the first lines of Act Two of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. I jumped down and kissed Alana.

“Do you smell that? That’s the sweet smell of success right there,” I said, looking into her eyes.

She breathed the sea air in then placed her hand around my waist and looked back at me, puzzled.

“What does success smell like, to you?” She replied, thinking my comment original and sensing an imminent proposal of persistent adventure.

“To me?” I answered, “To me, success, smells, just like Brighton.”