memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

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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 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!

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