memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for the ‘short stories’ Category

Great great-uncle shoots tiger in cave

My great grand-mother, Annie Horsley, was born on Nov. 27th 1854 at Pallamcottah in Southern India, where her father worked as civil engineer; he held the rank of Colonel in the Royal Engineers. She was the youngest child, having one older sister and five older brothers. On  their father’s retirement at the surprisingly young age of 41 – a reorganisation of the Indian Army making many officers redundant, Annie’s mother’s two brothers-in-law, Col. William Cantis and Col. Archibald Young both retiring on Pension at the same time – the family returned to England and settled in Canterbury.

Canterbury Cathedral Large Restrike Etching by Anonymous http://www.easyart.com/scripts/zoom/zoom.pl?pid=37556

Canterbury Cathedral at the time when the boys were there.

All the five boys were sent to the ancient King’s School, in the precincts of the vast candle-lit Cathedral. They were contemporaries with their cousins John and Stephen; Canon Horsley recalls how they were all identified in order, in the old manner, Horsley Primus to Horsley Septimus. Of these seven boys, all but one – Canon Horsley himself – passed their working lives abroad in the service of God and the Queen, so strong was the family tradition. Annie’s eldest brother William entered the Indian Civil Service from Cambridge and after a career as forest officer served as a judge in the state of Hyderabad.

He has left a vivid memorial of himself in a series of letters from India which he wrote to his father between 1870 and 1891. The conditions of the correspondence were ideal – an affectionate son writing to a father who had lived almost the same life, and would follow every detail with interest and knowledge. There is an old typescript of the letters on rice-paper (perhaps made up for the father) which is in my brother Gamaliel’s possession, well worth reading for themselves, not merely as family records. They provide in fresh authentic detail, the raw material that Rudyard Kippling was to work up into some of the finest of his elaborately polished short stories. According to family tradition an episode from William The Conqueror – presumably the goat feeding – was furnished by Horsley’s experiences in famine relief; and many parts of the finer story The Tomb of his Ancestors – including the local setting – seem to come straight from the text of the letters. What contact there was between the men is not clear, but contact there must have been.

William Horsley was a good talker, who in later life loved to hold his hearers with tales of forest and hill. Stories of bison-hunt and tiger kill, and of his carefree days as a bachelor forest officer, on his own in his little kingdom in the Satpura hills, an un-mapped forest 200 miles from to end; and the occasion when he, along with an Indian tracker, silently pursued a wounded marauding tiger until they cornered it in a cave whereupon he entered the cave and shot the tiger.

FOREST GLADE

There may be significance in the dates; Kippling settled in England in 1889; Horsley retired in 1892; The Day’s Work was published in 1894. (I have a 1st Edition of it).

William Horsley died in 1915.  A fine photograph brings before us the splendid old man. But even better is the poem in which his daughter evokes …

 

Tiger stories told to me at night by the fire in the library

Light, deflected from the reading lamp, falls close,

Cutting angles on the muscled hand, 

Glittering on the  glinting greying hair.

His tired eyes, wrinkled be the Indian glare,

Stare at the big guns resting on their stand …

My father´s face remains forever fixed, 

His features burnt in steel. 

His tired eyes do not see me,

They reveal steep wooded ghauts,

Ravines drenched in rain.

A Singular Man

Gus Daly is a contented and relaxed man.

He does what he likes doing best – musical busking. He lives alone in a two-room walk-up flat in a house in Peckham. He’s not a tramp by any means nor a vagrant. He’s straight and, apart for the occasional splif, legal; he’s on the grid; he’s above ground. He pays his rent regularly to a tiny landlady who calls once a month accompanied by a huge minder. He shops frugally at his local supermarket, looking for bargains of the buy-one-get-one-free variety and cheap vegetables a day after their eat-by-date. He buys his wine in one of those three-liter boxes with a little spigot at the bottom; sometimes he buys eggs, cheese and off-cuts of smoked sausage and then, laden with his bags of groceries, he goes home and cooks a large Spanish Omelet for his evening meal, eating half of it and stowing the other half in the fridge for the next day (cold Spanish Omelet and a glass of red wine – there’s nothing like it).

CARD HAND-PAINTED by FRANCES MILNER

Gus is neat and meticulous – it was one the things that drove his ex-wife mad – and keeps his simply-furnished little flat tidy and moderately clean. His collection of musical instruments, the two acoustic guitars, the electric guitar (a Les Paul), the violin and a clutch of harmonicas are stored in a corner of his living room. He is slightly overweight and scruffily dressed in the barmy way of someone has no interest in clothes, none whatsoever.

But Gus takes his music seriously: he knows he cannot compete with the frozen figures, jugglers, mime-acts and sword-eaters of Covent Garden – there are about two hundred-odd buskers in central London during the high tourist season – but he realizes the importance of a good pitch. His stamping ground therefore is south of the river, the parks in the summer and shopping malls or the underground stations in winter. Contrary to widely-held belief, buskers, whether young and trendy street-artists hungry of their first break or earnest students from the Royal School of Music playing Schubert quintets or middle-aged guitarists like Gus, are usually proficient musicians – imagine the difficulty of producing raw unvarnished music in the echoing metro tunnels, bereft of the artifice of a studio.

CARD HAND-PAINTED by FRANCES MILNER

Gus can turn his hand to most things. Like many self-taught musicians he has a trained ear and easily picks up a tune or a chord sequence. He plays all the old standards, (his generation’s contribution to the Rock Culture), old classic Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, U2 etc. but what he specializes in is his musical hero, Bob Dylan, with his rhythmic laments and his poetic lyrics: Gus subconsciously mimics Dylan’s nasal wailing (blowing in the wind).

CARD HAND-PAINTED by FRANCES MILNER

It was not always thus. Augustus St. John Spencer-Daly was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. During his comfortable but frigid childhood among the manicured lanes of suburban Surrey, he saw little of his busy parents and was largely brought up by a nanny. From Charterhouse he went up to the London School of Economics, thus entering the high-fueled, pressurized world of business and finance. After leaving the LSE he used family connections to procure for himself a Good-Job-in-the-City. So far so good and if he had any misgivings about life in the fast lane he resolutely suppressed them. He married a colleague, Alexandra and they had one son, Toby. But all the time under the surface Gus was simmering with frustration and discontent. He felt he was being sucked in further and further to a life which was less and less congenial to him. He and Alexandra were slowly drifting apart. She was ambitiously pursuing her career as a top executive in a brokerage consultancy firm and their elegant Georgian house in Regent’s Park was staffed by a housekeeper, a maid, a gardener and the inevitable nanny for little Toby. Gus began to feel more and more like a stranger in his own home and was becoming more dependent on that second pre-prandial whiskey, that third glass of wine with dinner and the brandy after – what started as mere social drinking was becoming mild alcoholism. He then had a brief disastrous affair with his secretary and was found one morning by the housekeeper, sitting on the steps of his house dressed in a suit but without his shoes. The doctors diagnosed a complete nervous breakdown and put him on various tranquilizers and anti-depressants. His company gave him indefinite leave and quietly side-lined him. The whole fabric of his life had collapsed and, after six months, he signed his divorce papers making over to his wife the house and the bulk of his fortune.

CARD HAND-PAINTED by FRANCES MILNER

All this happened about ten years ago. Gus had demonstrated once again that, as a dry scientist once famously wrote (about spiders) the female of the species is deadlier than the male.

Today is a fine sunny day and Gus takes his guitar and harmonica to his usual park, settles on his usual bench and starts to play: today he’s playing mainly Bob Dylan; he starts with a number from the middle period album Blood on the Tracks:

If you see her, say hello … she might be in Tangier … (Gus does Dylan so well that a cluster of strollers stop to listen) … we had a falling out … Our separation, it pierced me to the heart … Oh, whatever makes her happy, I won’t stand in the way … (so sings Gus); he brings the piece to an end, ignores the smattering of applause and begins retuning his guitar for the next song. Some of the people resume their walk enjoying the sunshine and the drowsy atmosphere of the park. Gus becomes aware of a youth regarding him quizzically; there is something familiar about him – it is his son.

CARD HAND-PAINTED by FRANCES MILNER

–          Hello Tobe old son, what brings you to this neck of the woods? Watching your old dad making a fool of himself? No, but seriously it’s good to see you again, how’s your course going? Let’s go over to that café and catch up with the news.

They sit down at one the wooden tables outside the Park Café. Gus reverts to his former style of speech:

–          Well, Toby how do you get on with your new step-father?

–          Simon, he’s OK I suppose, I really don’t see much of him since I left home. Dad, why I came to see you is to say that I’m not going back to Cambridge next year. I’ve decided to drop out of the system just like you did! What I really want to do is to go into acting. I know it’s really difficult but I think I’ve a chance of making it … I’m just on my way to an audition at the Drama School down the road.

–          No need to guess what your mother thinks of all this. Of course you have your own money from the Trust …

–          Wish me luck with the audition, dad, and I’ll drop by at your place later to tell how I got on!

The boy hurries eagerly along the path in the direction of the park’s exit. Gus feels an uplifting of his heart; how good it is to see his son again. He realizes that he can’t stay buried away forever; he will have to take a few tentative steps back into the world. For the first time in years he feels the stirrings of hope for the future.

CARD HAND-PAINTED by FRANCES MILNER

Gus goes back to his bench and takes up his guitar again. He decides to do his adaptation of U2’s Beautiful Day:

–          See the world in green and blue

–          See China right in front of you

–          See the canyons broken by cloud

–          See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out

–          See the Bedouin fires at night

–          See the bird with a leaf in her mouth

–          After the flood all the colours came out

–          It’s a beautiful day

(Note: this post is illustrated by my kind sister Frances Milner).

The Red Priest

Luigi Mancini was waiting on tables at one the famous out-door cafés in St. Mark’s Square. Although he had only been working at the job for three weeks – he’d got it through the good offices of his uncle Julio – he took to the work naturally and skillfully, deftly fetching and moving extra chairs, alertly attentive to the customers’ orders with his napkin over one arm and pencil poised in his hand, he was every inch the Venetian waiter that the tourists expected. As 4 o’clock approached he glanced across the square, waiting for the odd couple to appear, you could set your watch by them, he thought. They lurked in the shadows, on the far side of the square, next to Floriano’s. The man elderly and burly in his scruffy raincoat and hat, one brim pinned back Australian fashion, was seated on a folding chair beside his Asiatic-looking diminutive companion crouching modestly next to him. Soon the end of my first shift, thought Luigi, and I can take the weight of my feet, drink a fino and discreetly count up my day’s tips. (Something in the romantic air of Venice seemed to make the tourists dig a little deeper into their pockets).

Robert Pennington gazed across the square barely aware of the scene around him. He was constructing a magazine article in his head and the deadline was looming. The article, part of a series entitled Eminent Venetians was the brain-child of a sub-editor of The Daily Post, a newspaper that occupied that mindless but fertile middle-ground between the Tabloids and the Broadsheets. Rob had worked for The Rag, as it had been known in the old days in Fleet Street, for over twenty years. Time was when he had been at the cutting-edge of reporting, dodging bullets in Beirut or delving into Columbian drug Cartels – ace-reporter R.L. Pennington bringing incisive and pithy articles to your breakfast table each morning!

It was during this period, when he had just filed a background piece about life in post-Pol Pot Cambodia and was kicking his heels in a bamboo-built village, skimming pebbles across the brown waters of the Mekong River, that he met his wife, Mi Sung. She’d lost all her family in the Killing-Fields of Cambodia and had escaped here to this Laotian village. She had found a job working behind a bar and living above it. The moment she saw the tall shambling overweight Englishman, with his grizzled head and weary face, she wordlessly latched onto him, taking him upstairs to her room and into her bed and had stubbornly followed him around ever since.

Now however more than fifteen years later and looking more than his sixty years, Robert had been relegated to the Features page and had been allocated an article on the Venetian composer Vivaldi:

–          … and make it sexy, Rob, and not too technical, not too many contrapuntal motets and more naughty little choirboys … remember our brain-dead readership.

Actually Robert would have preferred Marco Polo or one of the Bellini painters or even Casanova.  And so here in Venice, on this draughty square, with his inscrutable wife crouching at his side, Robert began to compose the piece in his mind:

–          Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice in 1678, where his father was one of the best violinists in the Ducal Chapel at St Mark’s Basilica. From the earliest age he was steeped in the musical tradition, following his father in becoming proficient violinist, but he was marked out for the Church. Ordained priest in 1703 he seemed to settle in this vocation. In eighteenth-century Italy, as elsewhere in Catholic Europe, an ecclesiastical career carried with it considerable prestige …

Robert to his chagrin had been straying back into the stilted style of the school-room; why not just get to point and write that Vivaldi started having asthma attacks which prevented him from celebrating mass. Making the best of a difficult situation the young priest immediately enrolled in the Seminario Musicale, one the most famous conservatories in Venice.

Here, Robert hyped an image of the young Vivaldi, nicknamed The Red Priest,  scurrying wheezing across the square, soutane flapping in the April wind, his mind forming and annotating the notes of an embryonic  concerto …

–          In a few years he became a violin teacher, choirmaster and conductor, an established composer, a virtuoso famed throughout Europe, an opera composer and an impresario. History has been very unkind to such a genius; he died in 1741, utterly destitute. Vivaldi’s output was vast and included 470 concertos, more than two thirds of which are concertos for soloists, a genre which found its true master in Vivaldi. He created the actual principle of the concerto, in which the orchestra accompanies a solo instrument for the duration of a work; he would substitute a human voice for an instrument, for example the baritone was replaced by the oboe, the bass voice by the bassoon and the soprano by the mandolin …

Hang about thought Robert this is putting even me to sleep, never mind the readers. His mind drifted back to his student days when, to alleviate a steady diet of pop/rock and jazz music, he would resort to the classical stuff: only the popular pieces as he was just starting to explore that kind of music – never overlook the obvious was his motto in those days; (it still was, now he came to think of it). So he listened to all the favourites – Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Shubert and so on. But even then he was particular fond of an album of Vivaldi’s mandolin concertos, which he played again and again, their calm plangent harmonies providing a soothing antidote to the electrifying frenetic guitar of Jimi Hendrix.

Back to the Padre Rosso; he consulted his notes and remembering his editor’s stricture to spice up the article, he spotted an area which he thought he could develop (translation=invent).

–          Vivaldi, although a frequent traveler abroad as well as to other Italian cities, (he was a kind of eighteen-century version of Robbie Williams), was associated, during most of his working life, with the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four Venetian orphanages for girls. There he first met the lovely Lucrezia, a buxom young orphan girl with jet- black hair and languishing eyes who saw possibilities in the young red-haired priest. In the passing of time Mother Nature took her course and the pair settled into a long-standing liason. Well you can’t keep a secret like that for long in such a closed community; (a more enlightened age would have found much to censure in this relationship) to cut a long story short they became an «item».

Let’s wrap this up now and type it into the lap-top back at the Pensione. Even Mi Sung  sitting patiently at his side with such an oriental self-effacement was becoming restless.

–          Although Vivaldi is recognized today primarily on account of his many fine concertos, he was also the composer of some forty five operas and a considerable amount of church music, the best known of which was the Gloria in D major. The Gloria is in twelve effectively contrasted movements. Venetian composers, like those at Bologna, were inspired no doubt by the architecture of their churches, to experiment with musical colours and sonorities

Robert swung his head back to contemplate the famous be-crossed copulas on the multi-domes of the cathedral. Venice had once been a great maritime state trading as far as Syria and Palestine and bringing back the Eastern styles of architecture, which had inspired St. Mark’s, just as at roughly the same period the Portuguese forays as far as India would bear architectural fruit and decorate with their fantastic twisted carvings the great churches of Belem and Batalha in the Manueline style. Here we go again, Rob, drifting off the subject; try to concentrate:

–          But Vivaldi’s most famous work by far was the dramatic and passionate The Four Seasons; far ahead of its time it was a colossal success wherever it was first performed. But fame is transient and fickle and eventually his name was consigned to oblivion for years.

At last, to Mi Sung’s relief, Robert gathered up his scribbled notes and ideas, folded up his chair, handed it to his long-suffering wife and left the square.

Luigi the waiter was stacking up the chairs and folding the umbrellas; the grey sky presaged rain and the taxis and gondolas on the edge of the Grand Canal bobbed uneasily on the oily water. The tourists were departing from the square to their hotels and restaurants, and Luigi after wiping down the tables would then take his evening break; (he was meeting his girl-friend Teresa for a bite to eat at the Burger-King in the mall).

 

Paris in the spring is a movable feast (II)

After he had been gone for a few minutes, the waiter brought in the oysters, nestling in their bed of ice; Emma waited a few more minutes then, assuming that John was having a bit of a sulk in the bathroom and still annoyed herself, decided to start without him. She squeezed a drop of lemon onto the first oyster and lifted the shell to her mouth and let it slide down her throat – not a dish for the fastidious or over-imaginative. After a sip of wine, Emma became uneasy and decided to go to the bathrooms herself. She explored both the Gents and the Ladies, calling out his name repeatedly, but there was no one there, they were all empty; puzzled and worried she doubled back to their table, but no Johnny. She beckoned to waiter and asked if he had seen her husband leaving the restaurant. Nonplussed the waiter called the manager to the table:

–              Hello, my name is Emma Sawyer and I know that this sounds a bit ridiculous, but I seem to have lost my husband, John …

–              Calmez-vous Madame Sawyer, he can’t have gone far … we’ll search for him.

After searching the restaurant again, the alley at the back and the Boulevard in front, they drew a blank and decided to call the Police. After a while an inspector from the local Arrondisement appeared, along with a chain-smoking sidekick and after taking statements from the waiter and the manager, suggested to Emma that they go down to the station, to fill out a Missing- Person Form. So poor Emma collected her things from the table and went off to the police station. The inspector proceeded to ask questions about Emma’s husband: full name, date of birth, appearance, address in London, address of their hotel etc.

–              Very well, Madame, could you tell me a bit about your husband’s state of mind? For example has he ever «disappeared» before?

–              No, never … I mean he’s been a bit depressed recently; you see, he might be made redundant; this weekend was supposed to take his mind off his problems …

–              And he doesn’t have any friends here that he could go to?

–              No, to my knowledge he doesn’t know a soul in Paris …

–              And has anything out of the ordinary happened today?

–              No, we arrived on the Euro-Star from London this afternoon and we were just, you know, seeing the sights …

–              What did you two talk about in the restaurant?

–              Well nothing much … but actually we did have a bit of a disagreement, you know the usual marital spat … I can’t even remember what it was about now … oh, there was something else, slightly unusual, it’s probably not important, but John was being badgered by a strange looking chap while we were on the Pont Neuf and eventually felt obliged to buy, (Emma rummaged in her bag), this.

«This» was a little souvenir of Paris, a metallic miniature Eifel Tower. The inspector and his sidekick exchanged glances; then he summed up the situation:

–              Madame Sawyer, why don’t you return to your hotel and wait for news, and don’t worry too much; your husband probably had a slight breakdown and is wandering the streets … we’ve contacted all the hospitals. This situation is not as uncommon as you might imagine, Madame.

THEY DO IT WITH MIRRORS - PAINTING BY THOMAS MILNER

Let us leave them there, on that spring night in Paris. Emma waited for a couple more days and then returned sorrowfully to London, where «The Case of The Missing Tourist» was attracting some attention in the tabloids.

Two years have passed since then, and the case of John Sawyer has been archived in the Unsolved Missing Persons file by the French police. Emma takes the Euro-Star to Paris most weekends or Jean-Luc stays at her place in south London.

What exactly happened that night? Did John have a major breakdown and throw himself into the Seine? Or, as he was coming out the Men’s room, was he stabbed or clubbed by a psycho, bundled into a car, which was waiting in the alley in the back, and then thrown into the river? Why did the inspector exchange a significant look with his assistant, when the little Eifel Tower was produced? Who was the little man on the bridge? It is just one of those mysteries, isn’t it?

Paris in the spring is a movable feast

It was an early spring evening and the lights were starting to go on all over Paris.

John and Emma Sawyer were sauntering along the Pont Neuf every now and then leaning over the parapet to watch a Bâteau Mouche slide slowly past beneath, the brightly-lit tourists, holding their little translation-pods, obediently looking first to the left and then to the right, as directed. Then they would look up and contemplate one the most famous cityscapes in the world, dominated by the elegant and iconic Eifel Tower rising up from the Champs de Mars.

They had been married for about fifteen years, and the first flush and excitement of their early relationship, before and immediately after the wedding, had given way first to settled contentment and then finally to mere habit. But all was not well; tiny grits of irritation and resentment were forming, on both sides. They had no children. At first it was because they both led career-driven lives, and later a reluctance to commit to parenthood and change their well-ordered lives made them pause and finally, tacitly admitting to themselves that they had fallen out of love, there seemed to be little point.

And then there were their respective careers. Emma, the better educated and (dare one suggest) slightly more assertive of the two, after studying Fine Art and Modern Languages at university, had secured a curatorship at the British Museum in the Roman and Etruscan Ceramics department, a job which she found congenial and self-fulfilling. John, on the other hand, had held down a soul-destroying teaching post in an inner-city Comprehensive school, trying to beat English literature into uninterested and recalcitrant kids, for about eight years, before having a minor nervous breakdown. He was now managing an up-market wine-bar in the City which, after the collapse of the financial markets, was in danger of being closed down. It was to cheer up her depressed husband that Emma proposed taking the Euro-Star across to Paris for the weekend.

Emma, through frequent professional visits to the Louvre, knew Paris quite well and organized the weekend, from the moment of emerging from the sleek, high-speed train at the Gare du Nord, to the fast cab ride, down the Rue de la Paix, swooping along the rollercoaster tunnels of the north bank of the river and finally to their smart little hotel on the Isle Saint-Louis, in the shadow of Nôtre Dame. Now they were having a stroll before dinner, drinking in the sights and sounds of the beautiful city on that spring evening. It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t really: a key ingredient was missing – contentment. John was tense and moody as Emma enthusiastically kept her end of the conversation going.

–              I do love Paris, don’t you Johnny! I think that must be Les Invâlides over there, you know, where the tomb of Napoleon is … and oh, do look, in the distance you can just make out the lights of the Sacré Coeur … and as for the Tour Eifel, all lit up like that!

HEARTSICK - PAINTING BY THOMAS MILNER

Later they had dinner at La Coupole in Montparnasse. The darkly-lit restaurant, once the haunt of writers like Sartre, Hemingway and Henry Miller, was now an expensive tourist trap, full of culture-vultures eager to drink in the air of Bohemian chic. It was a split-level room, with oak railings looking down on the discreet lamps and the white table cloths, lined with shining green leather banquetes – it had oodles of atmosphere, did that restaurant). Emma had booked in advance. As they sat down, she looked around appreciatively:

–              Can’t you just see Hemingway, at that table in the corner, Johnny, scribbling away … perhaps writing the words Paris in the spring is a moveable feast …

–              He’d have been more likely to be leaning against the bar, getting pissed and talking hot air … anyway, at these prices, all that bunch wouldn’t have been able to afford this place. By the way, Em, what made you choose this restaurant?

–              The assistant director of the museum brought me here for lunch on my last trip; you remember, I told you, to celebrate the transfer of those 3rd Century BC Etruscan terracotta bulls? But perhaps you weren’t listening as usual.

–              Perhaps my attention span in 3rd Century Etruscan ceramics is rather limited … anyway what’s he like, this French museum bloke?

–              Oh, you know the type – middle-aged, over-weight – more into management than scholarship; don’t tell me you’re jealous again, Johnny! Anyway, to change the subject, what were you talking about with that strange little chap on the bridge?

–              Oh him, he was peddling souvenirs; he was a tenacious little bugger, I’ll give him that; in the end I bought one of these just to get rid of him.

They both moodily studied the menu; actually Emma had lied about the museum director; Jean-Luc, had been an attractive and charming man with a witty flow of small talk, which made lunch seem to go by in a flash – and her husband had not been deceived by the slight shift in her voice. They ordered costly but simple food and wine, (Huîtres à la Bretagne with a bottle of Muscadet, followed by Escalope de Vaux à la Milanaise accompanied by a bottle of  Chinon). Suddenly John got up abruptly, knocking over a wine glass, and stalked off in the direction of the bathroom and simply vanished. Emma never saw him alive again.

To be continued.

Sugar and spice and all things nice

From The Guardian of 2nd June 2011

Dame Judi Dench, Sir Richard Branson, and Sting have joined an ex-drugs minister and three former chief constables in calling for the decriminalisation of the possession of all drugs.

The high-profile celebrities together with leading lawyers, academics, artists and politicians have signed an open letter to David Cameron to mark this week’s 40th anniversary of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. The letter, published in a full-page advertisement in Thursday’s Guardian, calls for a “swift and transparent” review of the effectiveness of current drugs policies.

 

The Social Worker

Maggie Mitchell was nervous. It was her first day at her new job: you’ve got to have a «first day», said her supervisor not unkindly, so it might as well be this one; it’s a straightforward assignment, there’s been a complaint from a local farmer about some travelers camping on his land, (with a permit I hasten to add); your job is to investigate the situation and then report back to me. I’m afraid you’re going have to go alone – we’re so over-stretched at the moment that I can’t spare you a partner. Interview the farmer first and then go to the site; don’t worry, they won’t bite! They’re just a bunch of harmless hippies.

So Maggie went to interview the farmer:

–          It’s not that I’ve got anything against them as such, I mean it takes all sorts to make a world, doesn’t it? Live and let live, that’s what I say …

–          Yes, Mr. Sargent, but what exactly is the nature of your complaint?

–          Well, it comes under three categories: sanitation, noise and drugs!

–          But I thought that, under the terms of your rental agreement, adequate washing and toilet facilities were provided?

–          They are, they are and the others on the site make use of them, but that lot on that painted bus don’t bother to use them; they just go in the bushes …

–          I see, and the noise?

–          Sometimes it’s unacceptable; they rig those big speaker things outside and play loud guitar music on them or they sound off those horn things they’ve got mounted on the front … at all hours of the day or night!

–          What about the drugs?

–          Well as I said, it was obvious that they were on something, sometimes, but they kept themselves to themselves and we all turned a blind eye if you know what I mean? But yesterday I came across a plantation of cannabis plants hidden behind some bushes among the trees on my land … at first I thought they were overgrown weeds … I might not know drugs but I do know plants …

–          When you say plantation how many plants are you talking about?

–          Oh, about ten or so.

–          Right Mr. Sargent, I’ll go and see what they have got to say about all this.

 

The Hippies

It was about 11 o’clock in the morning and Dozy, Dee, Beaky, Mick, Tich and Pete were waking to a new day. They were resurfacing from the deep sleep that follows a stoned rambling night, full of contemplative silences, helpless laughter, music echoing through their heads, flashes of insight, incoherent philosophical ramblings … in other words another session of sustained substance abuse.

The gang had drifted together some five years before. Five of them – three English and two Aussies decided to buy an old bus, paint it up, drop out, tune in and turn on. They dubbed themselves Dozy, Dee, Beaky, Mick and Tich, after a one-hit early seventies cult band. After a few months an American eco-freak called Pete joined them; he had come all the way from up-state New York, via Thailand, and offered as his credential his stash of 10 grams of excellent Afghan Black and so they ended up as Dozy, Dee, Beaky, Mick, Tich and Pete.

Anyway on this particular morning, some of them were on the roof of the bus, pulling themselves out of their torpor, when Dozy, who wasn’t the sharpest tool in that box, just gawped and pointed at the vision picking her way daintily through the mud towards them. It was Maggie. Dressed in a discreet grey skirt and jacket and with her long brown hair tied back in a professional bob, she was still a bit of an eye-full and there was a frisson of appreciation from the boys on the bus; Mick stopped shaving, wiping his face and looking self-conscious, only Pete remained in a trance. Aussie Beaky was their spokesman:

–          G’day miss, anything we can do for you on this fine morning?

–          Yes, good morning, my name is Maggie Mitchell and I’m from the Local Council. I’m afraid we’ve received a complaint from your landlord, Mr. Sargent …

–          That old farmer bloke, what’s he been on about?

–          Well, for a start, there’s the question of noise pollution and a danger to public health through bad hygiene …

–          You mean taking a dump in the bushes …?

–          Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that but yes, among other things, not using the appointed toilet facilities …

Tich appeared, laden with a huge, battered tea-pot, some plastic cups and an old biscuit-tin:

–          Come on you guys, let’s all take it easy and sort this out over a nice morning cuppa and one of Pete’s special cookies … you too, Miss Mitchell, just chill out and join us, won’t you?

So they all sat or lay on the grass beside the bus around the giant tea-pot. Maggie paused for a moment and then hesitantly sat down on the grass with them, tucking her skirt demurely over her legs. There was a faint air of an oriental tea-ceremony about the proceedings, with the cookies at the sacramental center. Maggie sipped her tea and nibbled a cookie: it was sweet and spicy, cinnamon, a hint of paprika and something that she couldn’t identify. She tried to concentrate on why she was here. She felt hot and took off her jacket and began to relax and feel calmer; she felt a little light-headed and was compelled to help herself to another to another of those delicious cookies; from a distance she heard them discussing the dope plants – it was time that they were harvested, the leaves dried and then shared out … good grass … the merits of 5-paper joints over 3-paper ones … Maggie feels unreal disassociated her glance falls on the paintings on the side of bus those swirling colours she lies down and gazes at the sky she imagines going home and saying to her mother guess what mum I’ve got this incredible recipe for cookies … she starts to giggle at the idea. The others exchange glances of approval, look at Maggie, she’s well away. Way to go, Mags, good on you, says Beaky kindly.

Suddenly she realizes that she’s hungry, absolutely starving and there’s Tich serving out platefuls of vegetarian curry and nan bread – perfect food; she wonders dreamily what her boss’s reaction would be if he knew about all this and realizes that she doesn’t really care; someone hands her some headphones and she just lies back and loses herself in the music …

 

DISTORTION - PAINTING BY THOMAS MILNER

The next day Maggie Mitchell goes back to work and an angry boss: why didn’t you come back yesterday, he demands, and why did you switch off your mobile phone and where’s your report? This is just not good enough! She clears away her things and, stopping only to drop her resignation letter on her boss’s desk, she walks out of the building. (What a degenerate, thinks her boss sourly as he takes another pull from the bottle of whiskey which he keeps hidden in the drawer of his desk).

Now the group is called Dozy, Dee, Beaky, Mick, Tich, Pete and Mags.

The Naked Christ

ALEPPO – NORTHERN SYRIA, 1979.

Jamilah – meaning in Arabic, beautiful, graceful, lovely – lives in a small apartment building in an unfashionable district of Aleppo, with her parents and younger sister. She is an obedient Moslem girl, living according to the guide-lines laid down by the Sharia; she never appears in public without her burka and is scrupulous about her diet and hygiene habits; she washes herself at least twice a day as prescribed by Koranic law. Unfortunately there is a shortage of water in their part of the city and so she only manages to have a bath once a week. She makes a ritual of this, waiting till the rest of the family have gone out to the market on Saturday mornings, and then filling up the tub with water, taking off her robe and stepping delicately into the cool liquid; with her long black hair and her olive-toned skin she is like a painting by Ingres; she lies back and closes her eyes …

HAIR-WASHING DAY

Suddenly there is loud crack, the whole building shakes and water slops out of the bath. Jamilah immediately realizes that a tremor has occurred that could pressage an earthquake. Terrified she starts to rise from the water … at that moment, a neighbor, Hassan, is passing the door of her apartment; he bursts into the hall then into the bathroom just as Jamilah is stepping out of the bath, her nude body gleaming in the half-light: instinctively, in her modesty and shame, her hands cover her … (can you guess what? … No, you’ve guessed wrong), her hands fly up to cover her face.

TWICKENHAM  – SOUTH-WEST LONDON, 1979.

Charley woke up that Saturday morning and stretched luxuriously. His girlfriend Bella was sitting at the kitchen table, eating a slice of toast and reading the paper; in the background the TV was saying …. and we interrupt this program with some breaking news: there has been a major earthquake in northern Syria; the quake, measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale, struck the city of Aleppo this morning; so far the authorities are saying that 250 people have been killed but the death toll is bound to rise …

–          Turn that thing off, will you please; don’t you realize Bel that today’s the big day of my demonstration.

–          What! You’re not really going through with that stunt, are you? People will just think you’re another exhibitionist, just one more mad streaker; they just won’t get it! Look, let’s look it up in the dictionary: streak, streak of luck etc. here we are: Streak.ing verb intr. = the non-sexual act of taking off one’s clothes and running naked through a public place. Well you can count me out, I’m not going to be shown up in front of my friends …

–           I just want to get some free publicity for our stand on the Environment and the Green Party.

Not for the first time in their relationship did it occur to Bella that her boyfriend was a bit of a head-case; she was having serious doubts about his sanity – maybe it was time to dump him.

So Charley went alone to the game – a semi-final of the League Cup, Spurs v Liverpool at White Hart Lane, a classic confrontation. He passed innocently through the turnstiles and picked his way to his place on the benches near the edge of the pitch. He had chosen half-time to make his move; he felt completely calm and his face was impassive; only his eyes betrayed him, showing the rich glint of lunacy. The whistle blew for the end of the first half; as the players were leaving the pitch Charley took off all his clothes and ran naked on to the pitch. The rest is history. The TV cameras soon picked him up, streaking down the side of the field, to be quickly joined by the security team which flanked him in a curiously protective tableau.

And then CLICK – the famous iconic photograph was taken and syndicated throughout the western world. Let us examine this image: the pose is heroic and sublime, the white naked man with his arms outstretched and his handsome bearded profile staring sideways at the face of the policeman who is covering his private parts with his helmet. The image is suggestive of a Renaissance painting – Michael Angelo could have drawn that pose, in fact it reminds one of The Creation of Man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Man pointing limply at God (a bit gay)? Or it is redolent of a scene by Leonardo de Vinci – Jesus being helped by the Roman soldiers towards his crucifixion – forgive them Father, for they know not what they do… (Charley sees himself essentially as a martyr for his cause and, in his mad way, glories in the publicity – streaking is, after all, a form of perversion).

ALEPPO (two weeks later)

Hassan had managed to bundle Jamilah out of the building before the main quake struck, and both were saved. Her family was also safe in the market, but they had lost all their possessions. They now live in a tent village provided by the Red Crescent. They are used to crisis-management and count themselves lucky to be alive (Allah be praised). About half the inhabitants of the poorly-built apartment block, including Jamilah’s uncle and aunt, had been killed. Two tents down the row live Hassan and his family. His parents regard Jamilah’s rescue by Hassan as a sign from God and both families agree that Hassan and Jamilah should be betrothed. Out of tragedy comes joy. What the betrothed couple thinks of all this is neither here nor there – the old traditional ways are the best.

So tomorrow Hassan is going to be formally introduced to Jamilah. Hassan is curious about the girl; he hardly knows her; after all, he hasn’t yet even seen her face!

%d bloggers like this: