Thursday, 27 October 2016

Shootin' th' Breeze

Towards the end of May, the week before the Bank Holiday, I was in the Mississippi Delta. I'd never been there before, in Western Tennessee or on a twenty-eight thousand acre cotton plantation, but it was a special occasion: a sixty-fifth birthday, not that the family members knew I was coming because I hadn't had an invite to R.S.V.P to, I just rocked up and hoped a) they wouldn't send me away, or b) I would melt into the background; and melt I did because it was a sultry evening though I don't know if that's usual for the weather there, but even so they were too busy trying to outdo one another with quips and snipes to pay any attention to a perspiring newcomer.
The screamin' tribe of five however did seem aware of my presence though none of them remarked aloud upon it, just gave me sidelong looks or shot a Bang Bang in my direction as they raced in and out on their fat little bodies. And as they ran amongst adult legs, dodging and barging into everybody or shooting them dead with a cap pistol, I walked the upstairs gallery, thinking that was by far the best place to stay inconspicuous, and it would have been except it saw more action than I had anticipated, and so I had to resort to sticking to walls and listening in at doors; in fact, I caught one or two of the family doing the same. Me, I understood, but spying on your own kind is a low-level thing to do, unless it's a prank and not some one-upmanship business. In this instance, it was the latter, but hell, I'm no judge and jury, I didn't know and still don't know these people.
Huh? Didn't know them? That's right. I heard about this party on the grapevine. I was no relation, close or distant, nor did I have anything even resembling a passing acquaintance with any member. It was pure chance that they were mentioned, just one of those bizarre coincidences, a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend thing, and I just thought why not pay them a visit, I'm due a little R&R. It seems a crazy way to have behaved now I think about it but back in May my head was all over the shop. I have periods like that, where every thought feels like a sudden moment of clarity. You know, the perfect idea or plan which must be acted on before there's a time lapse. This particular itch had to be scratched then and there, though I did suffer some in regard to locating their exact whereabouts. There wasn't an awful lot to go on if I'm honest in spite of them being kingpins, and it was only through many false turns and strokes of luck that I found my way there, but that's a whole other story, one which would end in: the right circumstances come about when they're ready.
Their name, which has at one time or another been on most people's lips, is Pollitt, not that I'd heard of it until I was told, but then I choose to be ignorant until I'm interested if you know what I mean. The party, if you can call it that, was already in full swing when a servant let me in; both sons home with their significant others, one successfully drowning his brain in alcohol, the other more tense and righteous, whilst their wives constantly baited each other and tried to be sweet to their parents-in-law. Mae, the eldest brother's wife, was not only clearly pregnant, but rather cloying in her attempts to be winsome, the preferred daughter-in-law, whereas the one called Maggie was simply catty and delicious, rather like an overripe cherry: more than a little tart, yet nonetheless irresistible. She held your attention alright, not for her looks, though she had those in plenty, but for her sarcastic wit. And yet, in my enjoyment of her caustic dialogue, that was when it clicked I'd done a very stupid thing and crashed a private gathering rather than a massive shindig.
I don't know why I hadn't clocked this fact sooner...possibly their din confused my adrenalin-flooded brain and before I could attune to the matter I got too hooked on the family dynamics, so that when I did finally realise I was embarrassed but too far gone to leave. It was later on that I overhead Big Daddy say to Brick, his youngest son, that 'the human animal is a selfish beast', and that, I thought to myself at the time, was a wise and needle-like observation, for wasn't I there for my own amusement? Whereas now I'm just shootin' th' breeze.

Picture credit: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Triad Stage

Thursday, 20 October 2016

The No-Verandah Room

For the last six months I've travelled the States in book form; fictional form, not encyclopedic tourist guide whose recommendations and maps are not, as they intimate, user friendly. No, my approach was more haphazard but perhaps less lost, unlike the protagonists I read of who were frequently more lost than I. And most of them were male. The females where they featured seemed, if unsure of themselves, to latch on futilely and quicker to something, some spark or gem, whereas the male, however aged, tended towards the farcical.
Disillusionments with the white picket fence life was a common theme, as was escapism; and as they made their escape, I from the comfort of a unrealised verandah went with them, a cocktail in hand. The truth, if it has to be told, is that although I may occasionally sit next to a large window overlooking a pub garden and tarmacked car park, I sit enclosed as if I were the ice cube in my imagined drink, but why deprive you of the fantasy?
Warning: I am as notional as the novelised characters I attract. And I do attract them: they find me, like an all-night café that suddenly leers at you alongside a dirt track, almost as if it were a shimmering mirage, only it doesn't disappear when you swerve, reverse, double back and park with the old Dodges, Chevrolets and Ford trucks, step out and walk in to its wipe-down, cosy interior. And in there, characters corner me, whether I seat myself at the counter or in a red leatherette booth, and beguile me with their tales, however lunatic or soul searching, as I nurse a coffee and a piece of pie which to my inattentive eye the solicitous waitress keeps replenishing until the character sitting across or next to me heaves him or herself up and throws a few folded bills down and with a cursory nod to the waitress, but without so much of a backwards glance to me, exits. Then I, like him or her, after passing a paper napkin over my mouth, take my leave, to continue my journey elsewhere.
And so it goes on...except throughout I've never left my home town, or on some days even my apartment. I have two, maybe three, active parallel universes. I make believe as I prepare to read that I sidle gracefully through an open door onto a verandah, as if I was attending a glamorous party thrown by Fitzgerald's Gatsby and had come up here for a different view of the proceedings, and yet when I commence reading another projection of myself is transported to 1950s and 60s America, to small towns, to bustling cities, to picture shows, to all night cafés, roadside diners, hotel bars and restaurants, and it's there, regardless of the novel's actual setting, that its characters choose to accost me, usually after they've ordered a cheeseburger or an egg and sausage breakfast. The Jazz starlet's gone and I'm more bubblegum poppin' with a small town attitude, used to roughnecks and cowboys; occasionally though the Jazz starlet will disrupt the flow and will look up from the book before her, which she now sees is not a cigarette holder, and gazes into the middle distance to watch a picture show of that future America, not realising this is where a part of her has travelled to, and wonder at her sense of deja vu. Whereas the modern original will never see either of those bygone eras, except in her conjured imaginings, and who, in reality, is standing by a closed window, novel in hand, and most probably subconsciously untying, retying and tightening the belt of her dressing gown, which you should know is her autumn-winter attire and her take on the 1940s housecoat.
The American Dream, but not the America of now. Her person retrogressive in taste and entertainment. Someone who wants the big open road and yet her country of birth being in comparison a very small island cannot tick that box, and neither can America as it is now, for the power of uninhabited nostalgia is stronger than modernity. And so she (and I am that she of whom I've been latterly talking for it's easier in the third person to explain) turns to American-set novels and American novelists, to drink it in, and let the current world she lives in slip away. Goes on the road from a room which has large windows but no verandah.

Picture credit: Woman on the Verandah, 1924, Edvard Munch

Thursday, 13 October 2016


My judgement is shot, it really is, despite all my hours of pensiveness; I'd even go so far as to say it's shady. I don't trust it and it sure as hell doesn't trust me. I size her up (for if I am a she so must be it) and refer to her as a 'wiseguy', resisting the urge to say it in a terrible American Mafioso accent. Though she really is cracked, I tell you, absolutely dotty, with a brazen mouth and swollen-headed. I don't know where she gets it from or what, if anything, made her that way or if she was just born like it. You wouldn't think I had a fruitcake like her in me to look at me, but the brain's a funny thing, it conceals and lies even to the body it's occupying until those angels and devils, at least inwardly, want to be revealed, tired of you thinking it was you or asking all the goddam time who said that? You are not as funny or as smart as you imagine.
But whoa, what a ride when one of them does!
Sleep, what's that?! Mind running in goddam circles, nitpicking at everything and having to break off from whatever you're in the middle of to make goddam lists of things to do and ideas; scrubbing yourself in the shower and finding you're reciting what seems like the perfect prose for that piece you're working on which didn't occur when you wanted it to when you had a notepad and pen handy or a keyboard in front of you, so you recite it over and over like a goddam parrot, only to find that when you come to review the in-progress piece it doesn't work. Or your mind seeming inclined towards one course of action, then later the same day or the next dubious about taking that step, which makes you wonder why you were so wired about it before, or not as the case may be 'cos it works in reverse too.
Man, what a rush, but not when it plummets. That's a bum deal.
The ol' lady is full of wisecracks, but then she's lived a long time, longer than me and not just with me for I think she moonlights, and was probably even around in the days of Fitzgerald, Capote and Salinger, or p'raps she just has a thing for American novelists and their habitual expressions for boy, when she's in one of her moods does she like to goddam and Chrissakes a lot, which then drop into my thoughts as if it were natural that they should do so and not put there. She's a crafty one, making out that she's my buddy and all when she's more like a goddam principal or a Miss Hannigan.
I can't imagine that she was ever a doll for her Americanisms and all are too masculine, calling me ol' sport when she wants to get me on side and a phony when I won't play. I used to tell her without me there wouldn't be these shadow punches, but once when I did she socked me one, so I stopped. Boy, did I have a headache after that, and even had to take to the sack for a couple of days. It was summer and then she tends to go all Miss Hannigan on me and drinks Tom Collins like bathwater. She sure ain't an easy lady to please, but she's kinda fun. Kooky, you know.
As for the schoolmarm persona, she's no fun at all and sort of deaf. She talks over me and don't listen, saying I know, dear, and boy, can she be strict after she's done telling me I do everything backasswards, Miss Hannigan's word not hers for my dumb-ass behaviour. I bet she did used to work in or run a high school or something, not that that prevents her from being insulting and somewhat crass, especially if Miss Hannigan keeps butting in. A Hannigan Hangover, I call it, which often gives me a dose of the grippe, 'cos boy, do they conflict. It's a real pain in the ass. The schoolmarm tho' is not as cruel and asks me questions and all, 'cept she has no interest in answers, providin' or hearin' them, 'cos she just wants me to say yes, ma'am, no, ma'am, rather than Miss Hannigan's goddam or Chrissakes. I'm fond of her tho' 'cos I save much more dough when she's around. She keeps me straight.
Most of the time tho' I walk in goddam circles or sit on a park bench 'cos their wisecracks pull me in too many directions and scrambles my thinkin'... that's where I'm sitting now on a park seat watchin' this kid chase pigeons.

Picture credit: Angels and Devils, Circle Limit IV, M. C. Escher

Thursday, 6 October 2016


If a bystander saw a young girl on a fairground carousel who was evidently considering leaping off during its languorous rotations, he might try to prevent her from doing so, but if that girl was a grown woman that same bystander might think she was crazy, high on drugs or alcohol or just plain crazy, and look away, uncaring whether she went ahead or waited like the other patrons for the ride to come to a natural halt to alight more gracefully. Or, whichever he'd taken her for – girl or woman - he might bear witness static and silently, recording the split-second decision on his phone for his own voyeuristic pleasure, only realising the perilous conditions belatedly which would be too late had the girl-woman leapt as it was no longer happening in real-time. And so his reactions too would be second-hand for in the first instance he hadn't had any.
None whatsoever. And whether he then does on a second viewing, removed as he is now from the scene, is purely conjectural for perhaps he's as calm as he was then or perhaps the crude cinematic effect thrills, rather than chills, him and so he uploads it on social media. A bold move that claims he was there with the footage to prove it. There as a witness, a spectator, involved, but can he claim to be that? For he wasn't, not really, not with every fibre of his being for his emotions went untouched; the incident studied after like a museum exhibit or confiscated propaganda that his brain at the time failed to register, which even in the aftermath continues to deny him access to its own unedited material, for the uploaded phone version, devoid as it is of his own moral or empathic engagement, is now his truth.
This variant goes viral. The global community watches, re-watches and posts comments about the footage itself as well as the eyewitness that took it, and this, in a matter of hours, becomes a stream of conversation, its many threads stretching out to calculable others in unpronounceable continents and even farther-flung countries. And yet on the surface, it flows ever downwards with profile pictures which underneath or next to it might have one word exclamation, exclamation, or a fuller remark in reference to the footage or in reply to a previous post.
It's a virtual world with sci-fi qualities where everything is unimpeachably shared, and shared, and shared, a bit like a sleeper that transverses long distances and stops at few stations in order to carry gossip from the cities to the less populated towns and remoter villages, and which only runs out of steam when everything that could possibly be said has been said and the furtherest corners have been reached. Then it slows, terminates at the last station or leisurely chugs back to its starting point and entertains those that missed it the first time.
Amidst this opining, the bystander would have been lauded and criticised; been interviewed sympathetically and challenged; been held responsible for his actions – his lack of intervention and his instinctive reflex to stand and record which some take issue with and others ignore because they can't be sure that if they were in that situation they wouldn't do the same: reach for the phone like a cowboy in a modern Western, which they argue does less harm than pulling the trigger on a gun, although others proclaim such images mentally stain those who were there and those who were not; and as this debate wages the capturer usually vanishes.
Quite simply, the furore dies and the matter is forgot. The argument does not conclude or come to an overall consensus. The incident, which could have gone largely unseen, has touched lives unasked because in this rising tide of global culture there is no self-censorship.
The upshot being that a bystander's reactions are not often determined by the will of the individual but by the carousel already in motion.

Picture credit:
Fairground Carousel, St Giles Fair, Oxford, 1895, Henry Taunt