Saturday, September 1, 2018

Aftermath 9/11

This month, September, marks the 17th anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center.  A day or two later, Lynn and I were staying at the house of friends in Ojai, California when, sitting alone, I read an account of the aftermath in the New York Times.

Here’s what I wrote that afternoon:



Aftermath 9/11

Ojai, California
September 14, 2001

Here, all around me, is a landscape
begging to be painted.
Beyond the redbrick terrace
blue and purple plants crowd in;
species that I’ve never seen before.
drifts of giant sage, lucantha,
and here and there a common rose.

Beyond all this stand orange trees and limes
and lemons. Further out, beyond the reach
of  water pipes and hoses,
are arid places with clusters of spiky succulents,
and part-dismembered, unattended cacti. 

Above the borders, bees dart 
among cascades of flowering herbs,
while butterflies, like shreds of tissue paper,
swirl and rise and fall. 

The scene is mute and motionless.
No foreign sound, no breeze, no barking dog,
no distant drone of planes or traffic,
or the laughter of playing children.

But now look down. Here, open on my lap,
the Sunday paper shows an anguished and
chaotic scene two thousand miles away.
A photo shows the silhouetted,
criss-cross lattice of the shattered towers’ remains.
A devil-made design that could,
were it left unsalvaged where it stands,
become a starker and more telling monument
than any man-made memorial. 
And on another page, portraits of two
dozen wanted men, their faces
grave and troubled, even shameful,
as though they’d had some premonition
of their act’s outcome.

Two pages on – the tragic flip-side of the assault
– are fifteen portraits of dead and missing victims,
their faces smiling, or in repose. Each bears
some eulogistic paragraph:
the scoutmaster; a man called Yang,
who earned ten bucks an hour; Katherine who
loved the stage, Ruben, the Michael Jordan fan
who lived for sport.

Hundreds of such pictures have appeared
and there’ll be thousands more.
Reflect. How different did these gentle faces look
in their last fear-frozen moments? 

Meanwhile, the nation reels, 
vowing not to turn the other cheek,
and speaking of revenge, and war.
And after this carnage, dare I demand:
where is God, all-knowing, just and merciful? 

John Birch

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

LET’S DO LUNCH

She was reading a book when Frank came in.
“Who was it?” she asked, without looking up. “I didn’t recognize his voice.”
“Vogel.”
She made a face. “Burt Vogel? That crook? You haven’t heard from him for years, what did he say?”
“Wants me to go in to New York and have lunch with him next Tuesday. He’s got a problem, needs advice.”
“What sort of advice?”
“He didn’t say.”
“You should’ve asked him,” she said.” And why are you grinning? What’s so damn funny?”
“Well, don’t you think it’s weird? He could hardly wait to see me out the door on my sixty-fifth birthday, and now he wants my advice!”
“And you’re going, I suppose,” she said.
“Sure I am. Why not?”
“Because the man’s a user, that’s why. You owe him squat.”
She’d been like this for quite a while, with her snarky put-downs, like a big sister to a kid brother. Lately she’d actually seemed to dislike him, and it made him uneasy. Frank didn’t tell her he was flattered by the invitation. Nor did he say that for years he’d felt ignored and shut out by Vogel, who’d never once called or written since he retired. This trip back to the office might be a chance to re-connect, to make up. Reconcile, was that the right word?
“I only want to see how much the place has changed, see a few friendly faces maybe, have a free lunch with Vogel’s new colleagues.”
She raised one eyebrow in that way she did. “Come on, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, remember? You’ve forgotten what the guy’s like. He wants something – want to bet?”
“Well, I’m going anyway.”
She seemed not to have heard him, with her head back in her book. She’d always been a big reader. In the last few months she’d been reading two or three books a week from the library in Ossining. Frank wasn’t much of a reader himself, though before he retired he’d told everyone he couldn’t wait to catch up with his reading. But somehow he’d never got around to it. One day he would.
She snapped her book shut and frowned up at him. “You’ll have to wear a suit and tie, you know. You haven’t done that for years, not since your mom’s funeral.”
“They don’t dress up these days,” Frank said. “Not unless they’re meeting a client. But you could be right; he has visitors all the time. Maybe I should dress up a bit.”
“I can’t believe this,” she said. “You’ve been out of that place for ages. You always said you hated it . . . couldn’t wait to retire. You know what? I think you’re still scared of that jerk.”

Frank had been in his workshop in the basement when Vogel called, making a love seat for the yard. He spent more and more time down there on projects for the grandchildren, a rocking horse, a see-saw, a couple of doll-houses, a dog kennel. He was most at ease here. He could do what he wanted, when he wanted, the way he wanted. His wife knew nothing about woodwork, so she didn’t criticize him.
He always ignored the phone when it rang on his downstairs, but she’d yelled down to him.
“Pick it up will you?”   
Vogel’s voice was friendly, almost affectionate. He said something about staffing problems. Could it possibly be that he wanted him to come back? Had he realized over the years what a contribution his older, more experienced colleague had made . . . could still make? If that was it, he’d do it like a shot.
She was wrong about his hating the place. Maybe he’d complained sometimes, but over the past few years he’d yearned for the familiar routine, the challenges, the friendships. He’d even enjoyed the daily commute in the train, when he could read the paper or take a nap if he liked. True, he’d be seventy-four in a couple of months, but he had experience, more than the lot of them put together. He’d be back in the swing of it in no time.

When Frank dressed in his room on Tuesday morning his collar was a little tight, and so was the waistband of his pants. But then he put on his red suspenders and the jacket of his charcoal suit and made a rare trip into his wife’s bedroom, standing for a full minute in front of the mirror. He smiled to himself. Not bad.
Nowadays, on the few occasions when they went to the city, they drove, parking the car in a fenced lot in the mid-50s, off the West Side Highway. But today he took the train from Croton-Harmon, fearful that there might be some traffic delay.
He left home a few minutes later than he’d planned, and it wasn’t until he came off Route 9 and was approaching the permit-holders’ lot that it struck him – he didn’t have a permit anymore. Hadn’t done for years. He searched for a meter, and glanced at his watch while he circled the adjacent lot. He had about four minutes, and there were no empty spaces. Soon he was driving farther and farther away from the stairway up to the station until he found a vacant meter on the farthest edge of the park. To pay, he’d have to run a good hundred yards back to the attendant’s hut, and another couple of hundred from there to the steps.
He locked the car, started to jog toward the hut and was already out of breath by the time he reached it. He almost threw the bills at the attendant and turned to lollop down the paved road past the taxi rank toward the station. Panting, with his mouth hanging open, he labored up the steep staircase. At the top he leaned against the window by the ticket booth only to see that the 10:06 was approaching Platform 2. He snatched his ticket from the agent and, wheezing now, stumbled down the other stairway to the platform, steadying himself on the hand-rail, and with a final effort leaped into the car only seconds before the doors closed. He heaved in great gulps of air and flopped back in his seat, his head lolling.
Through the window to his right the Hudson glided by. He’d brought the Times from home, but was too tense and unsettled to read. His mind was a blank while he recovered his breath and composure. He gazed out at the passing jumble of sheds and warehouses, rusting, neglected machinery, and then the Tappan Zee Bridge and later, as the line drew farther away from the river, dense trees and sudden glimpses of tidy villages with half-empty streets.
The train stopped only at 125th Street. After that it was minutes before it rumbled through the shadowy underground passages on the last few hundred yards of track outside Grand Central, the lights in the car flashing on and off. People were already standing up, reaching for their coats. When the train drew into the platform a sudden attack of fear gripped him in the chest. This wasn’t going to work. He couldn’t possibly go back to that place. He’d be an anachronism, a dinosaur. Vogel was nearly thirty years his junior, while most of the staff would be less than half his age. The daily routines had changed since he was in business. Communications were hugely more electronic. He’d never used a cell phone and knew nothing about things like hand-held computers, networking and video conferencing that his young neighbors talked about incessantly. There’d be new buzzwords, unfamiliar jargon. How could he hope to catch up?
But after he walked up the slope through the archway and came out into the airy concourse he felt much better. He gazed up into the renovated galaxy in the ceiling, awed by the transfiguration that had taken place since he was last here. It was almost like a spiritual awakening. Now, in contrast with the clutter of scaffolding he remembered, the ear-shattering machine-gun fire of jackhammers and pneumatic drills, it seemed in a way like some consecrated place, with its polished marble walls and lofty majestic windows. A cathedral, even.
He was in perfect time. More relaxed now, he emerged from the station onto the wet sidewalk of 42nd Street under a black, overcast sky, heading up to Madison Avenue and down the few blocks to the office. There were new faces behind the security desk in the echoing entrance hall. Half a dozen years ago they hailed him by name with a grin of recognition. Today there was only a mumbled request to sign the register.
Alone in the elevator he smoothed his hair and straightened his tie. Things had changed on the 46th floor. Gone was the Regency wallpaper he’d chosen, in harmony with a reproduction Louis XVI reception desk with its matching chairs. The style was now minimalist. A young woman seated behind a cantilevered steel and glass table smiled up at him. A tiny black bud microphone like an astronaut’s seemed to hover near her lips.
She beamed at him. “You’ll be Mr. Bradford, right?”
He nodded. “Yes. I’m seeing Mr. Vogel at eleven.”
“He’s expecting you.”  She touched a button. “Mr. Bradford’s here to see Burt . . .”
The receptionist seemed to be listening for a few seconds and then turned to him.
“He’ll be a minute or two.”
The minute or two passed and the young woman turned to him again and smiled. “I’m afraid Burt’s, like, behind schedule. His assistant axed me if you’d mind waiting for a few moments. Would you like a cup of coffee or something?”
He thanked her, but declined. These days he was careful not to drink much coffee or tea, since he tended to have problems finding a bathroom when he was away from home. He’d be embarrassed if he had to leave the room while he was talking to Burt Vogel.
There were papers and magazines on the coffee table, but he was still too much on edge to read them. Instead, he stood up, hands in pockets, and paced about the reception area.
Frank looked up at eight spotlight clocks on the wall, marked New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Buenos Aires, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Sydney. They hadn’t been there in his day. It had always been Burt’s ambition to have a network of wholly owned offices, and it looked as though he was getting there. When Frank retired, the name of the firm had been Focus Public Relations, but now it was Focus Worldwide in ultramarine neon. On another wall were framed awards and, in showcases, Oscar-like trophies, including a cluster of Silver Anvils and some awards he didn’t recognize.
Presently a handsome gray-haired woman in a black pants suit appeared through a glass door and shook his hand, introducing herself as Suzanne, Vogel’s assistant.
“I’m really sorry for the delay, Mr. Bradford. Burt’s been having a bad day, but he’ll be out very soon.”
He sat down again. The clock marked New York said twenty after eleven. The receptionist caught his eye and smiled at him reassuringly, showing faultless, seemingly incandescent teeth.
“What happened to Alisha Brown?” he asked her.
“Alisha? Oh, she left way back. She’s had three babies . . . brought them all in here a few days ago. Cute kids.”
“So you took her place?”
The young woman laughed.  “No way! There were two other girls after her. I’ve only been here a few months.”
“Like it?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Sure, like, it’s a job. Know what I’m saying?”
Frank sat down again, and waited.
What the hell was Vogel up to? A few more minutes passed, and then the glass doors burst open. Burt Vogel stood, his arms raised in greeting.
“Frank Bradford, you old bastard! Good to see ya’!”
Vogel hadn’t changed much. The crew cut, the shifty eyes, the oddly pointy face. No wonder the staff called him ‘The Ferret.’ He wore what Frank’s younger neighbors in Westchester would have called casual chic – an open neck under a Polo sweater, tailored chinos and loafers. He bounded forward and grasped Frank firmly by both shoulders, and Frank couldn’t help wondering whether Vogel was about to kiss him.
“Dunno what you’re doin’ to keep so trim, Frankie, but keep doin’ it. You're’ lookin' great! Come on in.”  
They settled in armchairs, facing each other in a corner of Vogel’s office.
“So how’s business?” Frank asked.
“Pretty damn good. Mind you, it’s very different now.”
“How come?”
“We, like, changed course a couple of times. No more of that consumer crap. Not much corporate, neither. We’re really into healthcare and pharma these days. A lot of product and issue-oriented public affairs stuff.”
There it was, the jargon. Well, he could cope with that.
“We – that is, you – were moving into hi-tech,” Frank said, “What happened to all that? It was big.”
Did he imagine it, or did Vogel flinch?
“Most of that went down the drain last year. All those freakin’ dot-coms. Yeah, that hit us pretty hard. We had to let quite a few people go. You probably heard about that.”
Frank said no, he hadn’t heard.
“Bad scene,” Vogel said.
Frank wondered when he’d get to the point. But then Vogel changed the subject. “It’s a long time,” he said. “Remind me. How long is it since you retired?”
“Nearly nine years.”
Vogel whistled. “Enjoyin’ it?”
“Most of the time, I guess.”
“What about the rest of the time?”
Frank had decided he wouldn’t tell Vogel he'd give anything to be back at his desk. Not yet, anyway. He’d mind what he said, with no hint of the aimlessness of his life at home, his wife’s abusiveness, his bad back, the prostate thing, memory lapses.
“Well, I confess I get a little bit restless up there,” he said. “I don’t get quite enough to keep my mind active and, well, I do rather miss the old days at Focus.”
“Don’t think we haven’t missed you too, Frankie,” Vogel said. “They don’t make ‘em like you anymore, ol’ pal.” He paused, leaned forward and patted Frank on the knee. “I’ll be honest, if we have a problem here it’s finding senior people with the skills you brought to the place – energy, creativity, loyalty, integrity. Trouble is, everyone’s been promoted too goddamn fast. It’s the Peter Principle run amok. They’ve no real experience, you see. No precedents to apply to other clients’ problems. What we need is more experienced people.”
“Is that what you wanted to talk about?”
Vogel’s face brightened. “Yeah, kind of. You guessed it. I was broodin’ over this at home last week and I had an idea. In fact I nearly called you.”
He was sure of it. Burt Vogel was going to ask him for help. Maybe full-time, or as a consultant. Frank’s tension of the last hour or two had dissolved and given way to a surge of self-assurance.
“Tell me more about your idea.”
Vogel leaned back in his chair. “Ok, listen. I’ll cut the bullshit. Fact is, we’ve lost a whole bunch of good people. A lot of them have done well and moved up the totem pole. Here’s the idea – how about we hatch a plan to win ‘em back?”
“How?” Frank asked.
“Good question. S’pose we had a party,” Vogel said, “in a cool night spot we’d take over for the night. We’d ask the lot of ‘em, knowing the ones who hate our guts wouldn’t turn up anyway.”
“I get it,” Frank said, “you’d finish up with Focus alumni at every level who still had a residual good feeling about us.”
“Right!” Vogel said. “There’ll be a few who are just plain curious, but what the hell? We’ll give ‘em all a great time, lots to eat and drink, disco and stuff. Hey, we could screen some great nostalgic video, too!”
“And then, I guess, you’ll say a few well-chosen words.”
Vogel shook his head. “Nah! They’ll see what we’re up to – I’ll just make it a quickie. The real recruiting bit comes after everyone’s gone home, see?  We’ll make our people really work the room, sure. But, a few days after the party’s over we’ll sit round the table and compare notes. Then we can draw up a list of people and approach ‘em one-on-one. Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey. Geddit?”
“Sounds great,” Frank said.  “So what’s the next step?”
Vogel grinned. “Aha! This is where you come in.”
“Me?”
“Yeah. Think about it, old buddy. Who knows more than you about the history of this outfit?”
Wasn’t it a certainty by now? In a minute or two Vogel was going to invite him to run his recruiting beano. Wasn’t planning and running events one of his specialties?  It would be worth a few grand. And, as well as that, he’d get a foot back in the door at Focus. Why didn’t Vogel just come out with it and pop the question?
“Ok, Burt, tell me what you want me to do?”
Vogel was talking faster. “You were here for nearly 30 years, and you’re a good judge of character. I bet you could put together a list of workmates as long as your arm,” he said, “and what I’d really like is a list like that, underlining the names of the ones you personally think were hot operators, real pro’s. Would you do that for me?”
Was this all? Just making a measly list of names of former employees to ask to a damn party? Couldn’t he have asked for this in a five-minute phone call, instead of dragging him all the way into New York?
He wanted to say ‘No! Stick it, I owe you nothing. Find some other poor stiff you’ve unloaded a few days after his sixty-fifth birthday.’
But he didn’t. He said, “Glad to,” and hated himself for it.
“Jeez, you're a real pal,” Vogel said, “I knew you’d do it!”  Then he added, “When would be a good time of the year to do it?”
“To do what?”
“The party, of course.”
“Let me think about that,” Frank said.
Vogel’s secretary stood in the doorway and caught her boss’s eye.
“What's up, Suze?” Vogel asked.
Suzanne made a barely perceptible hitch of her head that said, ‘can we talk?’
Vogel excused himself and joined her in the doorway. A whispered conversation followed, at the end of which Frank distinctly heard Vogel say "No problem, tell ‘em I'll be there.”
Vogel sat down again.
“Shit! Gotta problem, Frankie . . . client in real trouble . . . wants me right now in his office on Fifth. Some kind of flap at the FDA.”
He patted Frank’s knee again. “I’m real sorry, I hoped we could have a good lunch at Giovanni’s. Just you and me together, so we could catch up a bit.”
He snapped his fingers. “Hey, tell you what, let's do lunch some other time. Give Suze a call and she'll fix it up. Ok?”
Vogel was pulling on his raincoat and heading for the door, calling instructions to Suzanne. His mind was clearly somewhere else. Seconds later he was gone, leaving Frank stunned, standing in the middle of the room.
He didn’t fix the lunch date with Suzanne, who was all over him with apologies. Instead he nodded a friendly enough goodbye and sat down for a minute or two in the reception area, where the nice young woman had gone to lunch and been replaced by someone else. He had to admit it; he’d been a ninny. It was all a big mistake. His wife had been right about Vogel, he was a user and a jerk, and of course Frank had always known that stuff about free lunches.
But what to do now?  He weighed his options. The first was to have a bite at Grand Central and go home to face a battery of monologues peppered with sneery questions like ‘well, what did I tell you?’ – or ‘why don’t you listen to me?’ But when the second option slipped into his mind he couldn’t suppress a little chuckle, though the stand-in receptionist didn’t seem to notice. He’d play hooky – have a few hours on the loose in Manhattan! There might be no free lunches but there were certainly free afternoons. Hell, he was retired wasn’t he? He’d go to a movie at two o’clock in the afternoon – take in one of the great independent pictures they never showed at their glitzy, plastic MovieMax at home.
Frank opened his newspaper and searched the listings in the Arts section. This was going to be fun! He’d buy himself a damn great bag of popcorn drenched in butter without her nagging him about cholesterol. Why hadn’t he treated himself to a day in the city before, letting his hair down, meeting old pals? A whole new way of life was opening up to him.
Sure, he’d dredge up some names of former colleagues for Vogel’s dumb list. But it would also be a great way to start checking out a list of long lost buddies.
With his umbrella ready, he pushed through the glass doors onto 40th Street, but when he stood on the sidewalk he peered up into the afternoon sky.
The clouds were clearing, and the sun was coming out.

oo0oo

Sunday, July 1, 2018

NATION OF GARDENERS

Napoleon labeled the English “a nation of shopkeepers.”  But he was wrong – we Brits are a nation of gardeners. Gardening’s in our blood, we love it and we’re good at it. Ask any group of Americans which nation they associate with gardening, and more often than not the English and the Italians will be way up there in the poll.
True, I may be a trifle biased about the Italians. I’ve seen their gardens, and they’re nice enough, so include them if you must, but they don’t quite match up to the Brits’. The Italian talent’s limited to gardens in the villas and palazzos of the wealthy, while in England the passion transcends wealth, class and social status, which I have to admit is a paradox in the world’s most snobbish and class-conscious country.
There are several reasons why we rate so highly in the gardening stakes. The first is that it rains a lot, and this is what makes the British Isles and Ireland so startlingly green, lending a chocolate-box beauty to even the humblest back yard, and making village cricket pitches look like pool tables. Perhaps this is God’s compensation for dealing them some of the world’s most depressing weather.
Two other reasons are history and good soil. The British have been on their knees and up to their elbows in rich brown earth, sowing and planting and weeding their plots for at least two thousand years. The Romans, originators of the Italian garden, knew a thing or two about horticulture, recognized good soil when they saw it, and so became the founders of an ancient tradition in Britain. This was later nurtured by the lords of the manor and the aristocracy, and perfected by such gardening giants as ‘Capability’ Brown, once a gardener’s boy who, in the mid-1700s, rose to become the greatest landscape gardener of all time. It was he who created what the world chooses to call ‘The English Garden.’
So what’s all the fuss about? What is a typical English garden, and  exactly what distinguishes it from those of other countries? Primarily it’s the antithesis of  the great formal, geometric gardens at the Palace of Versailles, or the lavish and incredibly beautiful spreads of the great Russians, Peter and, later, Catherine the Great near the Neva river in St. Petersburg. To begin with, there are no straight lines in the English garden, no neat rows or circles of identical plants, no disciplined box-tree hedgerows, and no rigid pathways. If you like, it’s the art of deliberately creating a disorder that is at the same time orderly -- a natural but deliberately balanced contrast of ying and yang.
If that’s too esoteric, here’s Dan Pearson, a London gardener quoted in an article in The New Yorker, who describes the English garden style with crystal clarity. He calls it “a juxtaposition of formality and informality . . . a controlled chaos, all tumbly and jumbly, where one plant is spilling and spraying over into the next.”  
In the same article Vita Sackville-West, author, poet, wife of writer Harold Nicholson and Virginia Wolff’s lover (and also, for decades, the gardening editor of Britain’s Sunday Times) explained the difference in just ten words when writing years ago about her own famous garden at Sissinghurst Castle. “If roses stray over the path,” she said, “the visitor must duck.”
The British are pretty good at grass, too. As the originators of tennis, cricket and soccer, they became masters of growing the perfect lawn, which is evident not only in sports fields all over the country, but also in city parks and on village greens, and in every dwelling place from hundreds of stately manors and mansions to millions of modest suburban homes. You’ll find none of that bright-green plastic stuff on the pitch at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, or at the stadiums of top-class soccer teams such as Chelsea and Manchester United.
It should be said that gardening’s a great deal tougher in America, and even the most passionate and persistent American garden-lovers are up against natural forces about which their British counterparts know nothing. To begin with, there’s hardly a single four-footed species of plant-eating predator in England. True, there are wild deer in the national parks from the Lake District in the north to Salisbury Plain in the south, but they’re nowhere near as numerous or as voracious as their once-colonial brothers and sisters. They don’t sneak around the suburbs and open countryside by night and in broad daylight, gobbling up every new seedling and emerging shoot, or munching on hibernating flowering shrubs and newly-planted trees. The only groundhogs the English have ever seen were in a silly movie with Bill Murray, while rabbits have never proliferated in England since an outbreak of myxomatosis years ago. As if all this weren’t enough, American gardeners fight a perennial battle with the weather. It’s either too hot , too dry or too cold. Real droughts are commonplace over here, but rare in England.
There’s a story about an American tourist who stood amazed at the lushness and perfection of the lawns at King’s College, Cambridge. An aged gardener stood nearby, leaning on a fence, and the visitor turned to him.
“Gee, that’s mighty fine grass you got there, sir! I never saw anything like it. How do you do it?”
The old man took his hat off and scratched his head.
“Well,” he said, “There ain’t much to it, really. First you rakes it well and puts down some seed. Then you spreads ‘orse manure and bone meal on it, and waits for a bit of rain. Then you rolls it . . .”
“And then what?” the visitor asked.
“Well, it’s easy after that. You just  go on rollin’ it an’ rakin’ it every day for four or five hundred years.”
And that says it all.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Carnival in Kalothos


Every inch of Humphrey J. Somerville’s height and girth shouted Big Business as he stepped out of the taxi onto the hot, sunny sidewalk, immaculate in a white suit and broad-brimmed hat. Passers-by nudged each other, seeing him there, an unfamiliar sight with his sunglasses and two-tone shoes, a freshly lit cigar, and his pigskin brief case, die-stamped in gold with his initials, H.J.S.
            Mr. Somerville paid the driver with his customary twenty-five per cent tip, and strolled down Papastratis Street toward the harbor. The street was almost empty, but across the town wafted sounds of music and people singing, while above him rows of flags and streamers hung from the windows of the brightly painted houses and stores. It was Carnival Day in Kalothos.
            “Morning, mister!”
            A small boy, his head shorn like a brush, grinned toothily over a gaudily painted icebox on wheels.
            “Good morning, boy,” Mr. Somerville said.
            “You like nice boddle cola, mister?”
            Mr. Somerville looked at the boy, and the boy looked back at Mr. Somerville.
            “Not today, boy.”
            Boy grinned, even wider. “Okay, mister. Tomorrow maybe, eh?”
            Mr. Somerville passed on.
            The harbor was deserted. Blue red and yellow boats floated on the clear water, with colored bunting festooned from their masts. How pleasant it would be, he thought, to take a quick dip in the sea before resuming his travels. He peered over the seaward side of the rocky wall.
            He could undress there, and swim in his underwear. Not a soul would see him. He had no towel, but the hot sun would dry him and his boxer shorts in minutes. He smiled to himself. What a splendid idea! He undressed quickly behind the wall, peering over it cautiously to make sure he was unobserved, and folded each garment neatly on a clean rock.
            A few minutes later, a large white figure loomed on the rocks, a classic male Aphrodite, in striped underwear, gazing into the blue Mediterranean. First, Mr. Somerville put in his big toe and then the rest of himself gently into the water. He was no stylist, but his ample figure gave him the greater advantage of buoyancy, and he wallowed happily out into the harbor.
            He emerged, cheerful, but a little out of breath, and lay on a rock in the sun for a while. What was the time? He reached toward the pile of clothes for his solid gold watch.  But . . .  he sat up with a jerk, his eyes agog. There was no watch! Nor, which was worse in a sense, were there any clothes, and all his other belongings were miles away at the airport.
            Then, across the harbor came the sound of people enjoying themselves. They played instruments, sang, jigged and bobbed in a noisy, colorful procession down the steep stone steps from the town to the harbor square. Some were dressed in national costume, some as skirted Greek soldiers, others as cowboys and spacemen.
            For Mr. Somerville to miss the meeting in Dubai might strike a fatal blow for international trade. For a moment, considerations of pride fought a losing battle with finance. An astute business mind like his was used to making quick decisions, and it made one now. Mr. Somerville waded back into the sea, wrenching great armfuls of seaweed from the rocks.
            The procession circled the harbor twice, and then moved off up the steep, winding steps to the town. Among the soldiers and cowboys and astronauts a new figure had taken its place. A hideous, green sea monster jigged and bobbed with the best of them.
            Mr. Somerville peered frantically from under a heap of seaweed, searching for a taxi. Every so often he shouted, “Taxi!” at the top of his voice, and the crowd on the pavement cheered him on and waved flags in his face. It seemed he was the highlight of the parade.
            The procession stopped suddenly, and everyone bumped into each other. Mr. Somerville stared anxiously through his dripping green wig. They were in front of the post office. On the top step stood a group of notable citizens of Kalothos, and in the middle a large, jovial man with big whiskers held up his hand. Silence fell on the crowd. The man with whiskers spoke, wind-milling the air with his arms. It was all Greek to Mr. Somerville, as indeed it was to everyone else.
            Individuals from the crowd were being led to the front by laughing policemen, and Mr. Somerville was alarmed to discover that he was one of them. As they hustled him forward, the crowd cheered even louder, tossing their hats into the air.
            He stood in front with four or five others. To his left was a gypsy girl, to his right, a sailor. There was a hush. The group, a committee of some sort, was in a huddle, its members talking excitedly with their hands. Finally they all nodded, and the man with whiskers stood up, beaming from ear to ear. In his hand, as he came down the steps, he held a gold laurel wreath. Mr. Somerville trembled, but he had no need. The big man was presenting the wreath to somebody else. Now the judge was in front of him with another, silver wreath. The crowd went mad with joy as he placed it on Mr. Somerville’s green-bedecked head, and handed him a fist full of drachma.
            So he had won second prize, and doubtless the money for his taxi back to the airport, including his customary twenty-five per cent tip. Still buried under his disguise he stared round wildly for a space through which to dash for a cab. As though by a miracle, the surge suddenly parted and through it, down the narrow street, he saw the hood of a big yellow car with a taxi number plate and the driver in his shirtsleeves, asleep at the wheel.
            Mr. Somerville ran, an involuntary pied piper, pursued by a crowd of excited children blowing whistles and waving flags, and hurled himself into the back seat of the cab, croaking his destination to the astonished driver. As the taxi jerked forward and nosed back up the hill, he glanced at the post office clock. If there was not the least delay, he would still catch his plane with minutes to spare.
            And then it was that Mr. Somerville saw the winner of the first prize, who was grinning toothily under an overlarge white, broad-brimmed hat, round which lay a gold laurel wreath. He wore a white suit, which was hugely too big for him, and was pushing a gaudily painted ice box on wheels. On the ice box among the bottles, was a pigskin briefcase.
            Mr. Somerville looked from Boy to the post office clock, and back to Boy again.
            “Drive on!” He said.

End

Friday, May 4, 2018

Brits and Yanks


I met my first American when I was about ten years old, growing up in my native England. It was quite a few more years before another one passed my way, and I was in my twenties when I met more than a couple of them together. Now, of course, living in New York, I’m surrounded by them. In fact, I actually live with one.
It’s probably hard for an American to accept that, to the average stay-at-home Britisher, an American is just another brand of foreigner, little different from a Moroccan or a Madagascan. They look just as foreign, they speak a quite different language, and they have a very, very different culture. George Bernard Shaw  -- note how we say that, Bernurd (not Bernard) Shaw -- wasn’t entirely joking when he wrote of  “two nations divided by a common language.”
The British have a complicated view of Americans. On one hand, they have huge respect for their attitude to democracy and freedom; they’re grateful to “The Yanks” for saving their butts in two world wars; they have a healthy respect for their innovativeness and technological genius, and most of them appreciate the changes the Americans have wrought in almost every aspect of public entertainment  -- especially movies, TV and jazz. And of course there’s a healthy regard for their contribution to pretty much everything else in life that you can think of – space science, medicine, and the convenience (if not the delights) of fast food.
But it has to be said that, probably because they’re envious of Americans in so many ways, the British have one or two negative attitudes, too. Many of them look on Americans as over-indulged. They think they’re over-weight, over-paid, over-medicated, and over psycho-analyzed. I say envy is the cause of these views because the British are traditionally pitifully lower paid, and tend to live much more spartan lives.  They’ve always been jealous of what they see as the average American’s material standard of living, believing after watching countless sitcoms and movies, that all 300 million+ Americans live in spacious homes with walk-in closets and walk-in refrigerators, driving Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals. They also see America as over-opinionated and over-assertive on the world stage. Though they wouldn’t admit it, this, too, is almost certainly because they envy America’s replacement of the British and their empire as the leading world power.
This envy goes back a long way, but reached the British man-in-the-street in a real and understandable way during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of US sailors, soldiers and airman arrived in Britain at a time when the country was desperately short of almost all of life’s necessities.  The average GI earned several times more than his British counterpart, so he had much, much more to spend in the village pub and dance hall. His gabardine uniform was far smarter and form-flattering than the British Tommy’s baggy, ill-fitting serge ‘battle-dress.’ It’s not surprising that the GI’s, with their romantic, movie-star accents and boxes of nylon stockings under their arms, made wall-flowers of the local boys.  For much the same reasons British officers, too, found themselves playing second fiddle to their allied comrades.
The first American I ever met was a shy, self-effacing boy of my age called Lou Taylor at my posh boarding school in England in the 1940s. He was the son of a diplomat. Tall for his age, he had a slight stammer, and his hair fell over his eyes giving him the look of a myopic sheep dog. Lou, who suddenly arrived in the middle of a school semester, soon earned the nickname of ‘Long Island Lou.’ Lou was a likeable lad, but even he was a victim of envy. He had more toy soldiers, guns and tanks and other enviable ‘stuff,’ and more food in his tuck-box than any of us during stringent wartime rationing. It was Lou who gave us our first taste of bubble-gum, home-made brownies and Hershey bars. It was Lou whose parents came down from London to the school in the country most weekends in a chauffeur-driven car, while our parents’ cars were on wooden blocks in the garage at home because no gasoline was allowed for private use. We never saw our parents from one end of term to the other.  So for no fault of his, this quiet American in miniature was a victim of exactly the same envies as his uncles in uniform.
        But for all this talk of envy and resentment, it has to be said that both peoples tend to view the other with considerable affection. The Brits, stuffy and repressed, love the Yanks’ openness and lack of inhibition. Although they may not admit it, they’re moved by images of the Statue of Liberty and the World Trade Centre (er . . . Center). They get a buzz out of old John Wayne movies, and the wide open spaces of the West. They don’t know there are ugly strip malls in Phoenix and El Paso, and ghettos in Washington DC. They used to look on Alastair Cook with almost Old Testament reverence. And when their chill wet British winter sweeps in, it’s to Florida that they flock.
        As for the Americans, they’d be lost without Downton Abbey and almost every Masterpiece Theater presentation, with its plum-in-the-mouth lords and ladies, and tea parties with bone china and sterling silver teapots in the fussy drawing-rooms of ancestral mansions. They don’t know that an English muffin’s really a crumpet, or that you should let tea infuse for at least five minutes and always, always put the milk in the cup first. American tourists never see the dark, satanic mills and streets in London’s East End and the wind-blown, rain-drenched north. To them, every Londoner lives within earshot of Big Ben, and Sherlock Holmes still hunts down villains in an everlasting mist on the Yorkshire moors. And did the Americans weep any less than the Limeys when Diana died, or stand in the crowd outside Buckingham Palace and cheer when Kate married Prince William or when Prince Harry marries Megan Markle? 
         People on both sides of the Atlantic used to refer to the “special relationship” between America and Britain. They still do, but nowadays you’ll hear cynics decrying it. Things have changed, they say, and America’s future peers are emerging in Asia and South America, specifically China, India and, later, Brazil. But the special relationship has nothing to do with GDP, imports and exports or economics. It developed not only historically and emotionally, strengthened by that shared language, but also by victorious alliances in two world wars, and two centuries of mutually beneficial cultural exchange.
        Believe me, it’ll be a long, long time before Chinese and Indian movies are week-by-week fare at your local multiplex. I guarantee it.

oo0oo

Monday, April 2, 2018

Not For Sissies


I’ll be 87 this month, an average-looking old guy of medium height, with all my own hair and pretty well all my teeth. But you wouldn’t look twice at me in the street, and if you needed to ask a passer-by for directions, you probably wouldn’t pick me. No, you’d choose someone who looked more approachable and genial, or more user-friendly, as they say these days.
               It’s not that I look menacing or anything. It’s just that, with my face in repose, advancing age has given me a decidedly stern and somber look. In fact, to be honest, you might take me for a curmudgeon. My mouth turns down and, with the lines on my face, you might reasonably suppose me to be bad-tempered and humorless, even sour.
Of course, the exact opposite is true, I’m nice to small children, I brake for squirrels, and feel guilty when I have to kill even a moth or an ant. I certainly wouldn’t harm a mouse or a muskrat, so you might well say I’m a have-a-heart kind of person. And when it comes to humor I can be almost funny on occasions. Well, at least amusing.
They say that growing old is not for sissies. They’re right. This gruff exterior makes me look sad and wistful. I know you only have my word for it but once, as a soldier, a bridegroom, a soccer dad, and even on the first rungs up the corporate ladder I was – I blush to say this – pretty good-looking. What happened to that dashing young captain who sits in a silver photo-frame on my wife’s writing desk?
Time happened, that’s what. Ok, we all change with age, but in varying degrees. A lot of my friends who are older than I still have nice, open faces and pleasant smiles. So why don’t I? My dear wife, Lynn, normally a paragon of kindness, jokes about my glum appearance. She laughs aloud at the pictures in my passport and driver’s license. “Why didn’t you smile?” she says.      “I was smiling,” I tell her.
I really was. Inside me, I could feel that cheery upturned mouth and the warm twinkle in the eye but, somehow, when the pictures came out, all that was missing was a prison uniform, or a string of numbers hanging on a board around my neck.
My mother-in-law, a lovely old lady with a Giaconda smile and handsome dark eyes, was a fountain of wise saws and sayings. One of these was that the living’s on the inside. By that she meant that many plain pug-ugly or unprepossessing people, and things, too, are often beautiful on the inside. She applied this especially to homes in mean, run-down streets, and to plain-looking people, but the message was clear: never take anything at face value. Instead, search for the beauty within.
               She was right, wasn’t she? All the same, we still go on making judgments based on external appearances. More than in most countries, we Americans put an impossibly high premium on good looks. Not so elsewhere. In my native Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, many relatively plain men and women have made it right to the top on stage and screen. They wouldn’t even have landed a walk-on part on Broadway, or in Hollywood.
Don’t laugh, but behind my fossil-like fa├žade I still believe that, physically and mentally, I’m that young man in the silver picture frame. My wife and I self-published a novel about 20 years ago, a thriller set in exotic South East Asia. It won the Honorable Mention in a national contest published by Writer’s Digest magazine. In it, Mark Gregson, the hero (they call heroes protagonists these days) is a young ex-British Army officer. In my head and heart I’m still thirty-two year old Gregson, chasing heroin traffickers through the Malaysian jungle; racing up three hundred temple steps in pursuit of thugs; saving his lovely girlfriend from drowning and, in the nick of time, disarming a booby trap under the hood of his rented car. The flesh may be a little weaker, and I’ll be 90 in three years’ time, but the spirit’s still willing and, yes, the living really is on the inside.
King Duncan, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth knew just what he was on about when he said: “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”
So if you’re in your thirties, or even much older than that, kindly remember this when you pass some old geezer in the street.
Smile at him, because he may be me.

oo0oo


Friday, March 2, 2018

Lucy, Soapy, and Dogs

 It took many years for me to realize that the best teachers in my schooldays were the ones who taught from their hearts rather than their heads.
       I enjoyed languages, and Latin, French and German came fairly easily. I also felt comfortable enough with biology, chemistry, geography and history. The people who taught these were competent enough, but what I learned about art, music and literature has lived with me forever, simply because these were taught with a transparent passion for their subject matter.
        But math? Forget it. Mr. Griffin, the math master, taught only from his head. As a result I'm arithmetically challenged. I count on my fingers under restaurant tables to work out how much to tip. I can’t read a balance sheet to save my life, and making change is always a puzzle.
        At the time I thought I was a dunce at math because I was plain dumb, and later that it was to do with being a right-brain person. But now I’m convinced it was because Mr. Griffin, our fast-talking Welsh math master, was all brain and no heart. Gray-haired, short and irascible, he galloped through his lessons, scrawling illegible equations and proofs on the board, laboring under the wrong assumption that everyone in the class was keeping up with him. At almost every lesson he lost his temper, shouting and hurling sticks of blackboard chalk into his bewildered audience. It was only then that he displayed any passion or emotion. Griffin died halfway through my time at the school, and for me the only sad thing about his demise was that although his successor – Mr. Hawkins – was patient and paternal, it was too late to start again. By then the die was cast.
        World War II was raging for the first few years of my days at Cranbrook, a boarding school in South East England. Most of the masters were either too old to be in the armed services, or had some physical or other reason not to be in uniform. Oddly, there was not a single woman on the teaching staff. It seems it occurred to no one then that a woman might be capable of explaining the difference between an equilateral and an isosceles triangle to a bunch of fourteen-year-olds.
        Mr. Lockett was one of the masters whose love of his subjects – art, fine arts and workshop – endeared him to his students. He was a gangling, bony man with hugely thick horn-rimmed glasses who we nicknamed ‘Lucy’, after the character Lucy Lockett in a nursery rhyme. He was a Communist and also a conscientious objector, but never preached about his politics or pacifism. He was impassioned about art in all its forms. In his painting and drawing classes we inherited his love of the Post-Impressionists and Surrealists. It’s no wonder that visitors touring the art room on the annual Parents’ Day were puzzled to find the pervasive influences of Cezanne, Matisse and Dali in our own efforts displayed on the art room walls.
        But it was Lucy Lockett’s fine art classes that affected me for life. He'd amassed what seemed to be hundreds of color postcards of paintings. They ranged from the nativities and crucifixions from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, the Romantics, the Realists, Dada, and contemporary work that included Kandinsky, Klee, Ben Shahn and Homer Winslow.
        With a contraption called an epidiascope, Lockett projected these images on the whitewashed walls of the art room. So profound was his knowledge that he held us spellbound while he explained the artist’s intent, the focus and symmetry of each picture, its balance and the minutiae of the painter’s life and environment. Sometimes we’d discuss a single picture for the entire forty-five minute period, while over a month we’d study, say, the Florentines, the Pre-Raphaelites or the Cubists. So, through the history of art, with Lucy’s help, we dissected the astonishing detail of Vermeer’s interiors, recognized the social messages in Daumier’s grim portrayals of peasants at work, witnessed Van Gogh’s craziness creeping into his pictures, and the threat of Nazism looming over the German painters of the 30s. We weren't only learning about pictures hanging on walls in dusty galleries, but also about the artists themselves, history, psychology, religion, human nature, and life itself.
        It was Lockett who brought bags of broken Lucite into the workshop, fragments of the cockpit covers of enemy and friendly fighters and bombers that plunged from time to time into the farmland and woods around the school. These we cut and polished, fashioning them into useful objects – letter-openers, signet rings, paperweights and napkin holders. Later, we carved figures of humans and animals that bore an almost passing resemblance to pieces from Lockett's treasured collection of Japanese netsuke, exquisite miniature ivory sculptures.
        And then there was Mr.Hudson, the music master who also, like every one else – except the late Mr. Griffin – had had a nickname. ‘Hudson’s Washing Soap’ was the best-known brand of laundry powder, and so he was labeled ‘Soapy’. A darkly handsome man with a perennial five-o’clock shadow, he played seventy-eight-speed records on an ancient phonograph. Much like Lucy Lockett and his artists, Soapy Hudson knew his composers and their lives as though they were members of his own family.
        In the 1940s, the world’s greatest composers were believed to be Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner and Brahms. Soapy Hudson taught us their names in order of birth with an impossible-to-forget mnemonic – Please Bring Half a Hundredweight, Mother, Because Sister Wants Bananas.
        These nine, and many others’ works, were played again and again during my seven years at Cranbrook. We became so familiar with the great symphonies that we could hum along with them. We felt we’d been there when Beethoven was composing his ninth and final symphony, angrily pressing his ear to the lid of the piano in a vain attempt to hear the notes, even though by then he’d been stone deaf for seven years. We all but heard Schumann, a chronic manic-depressive, whistling softly to himself, facing the wall in his favorite coffee shop before his early death in an asylum. We felt for lonely Brahms, a lifelong bachelor who, even when well off, lived in a rented room in Vienna. He rose every day at five a.m., brewed himself cup after cup of pungent black coffee from a samovar, and smoked equally strong cheroots. How, Hudson asked us, could such a man write music that was so heartfelt, so romantic? But he never told us about Brahms’ curiously profound relationship with Clara Schumann for thirty years after her husband, Robert Schumann’s death.
        And then there was ‘Dogs’ Saunders, who taught English Literature. Larger than life, he was as different from Lucy Lockett and Soapy Hudson as chalk is from cheese. Since he had fought in several campaigns in the trenches in World War I, he was probably in his sixties, as much as thirty years older than his arty and musical counterparts.
        Throughout the Twenties and Thirties, before his blondish hair had grayed, earlier student generations had called him ‘Sandy.’ But by the 1940s, because he could be ferocious at times, and actually bared his teeth when he was upset, he had become ‘Dogs.’ Yet it didn’t take us long to discover that his bark was worse than his bite.
        Dogs Saunders was florid-faced, gravel-voiced, and corpulent, and had an oddly distinctive walk. Seeing him hurrying to a class, or heading down the village street for one of his all too frequent visits to the bar of the George Hotel, even on the calmest summer day he walked as though he were wading into a strong wind. Besides teaching English lit., he was also the school’s deputy headmaster, and the commanding officer of its highly active wartime unit of the OTC, the Officers’ Training Corps.
        Dogs’ classes focused almost entirely on three playwrights, whom he called ‘The Three S’s: Shakespeare, Sheridan and Shaw. These weren’t remotely representative of the whole compass of English letters but, luckily, two other masters more than capably handled the real gamut from Chaucer, through Milton and Wordsworth, to Joyce and Woolf. There are ample reasons why Saunders belonged up there with the two other memorable teachers; he had an abiding and infectious passion for Shakespeare, and taught it superbly, if idiosyncratically. As a student himself, he must have studied the plays and sonnets with almost the same labored devotion with which an Imam learns the Koran. For me, a thorough grounding in Shakespeare turned out to be a perfect foundation for a later, broader study of English. Like Lucy Lockett and his postcards, Dogs unveiled insights that formed the beginnings of an early understanding of human personality and behavior.
        It certainly wasn't the major’s ability to read aloud that endeared us to Shakespeare's plays. In fact, he read them terribly badly, with a total absence of feeling for the words. His reading of Richard III's impassioned plea for "a horse . . . my kingdom for a horse . . ." had all the fire and pathos of someone reading a telephone book. And when he read the lines of Ophelia and Cordelia – two of the Bard’s most tragic and feminine characters, he made no attempt to alter or soften his voice. His pitch and key were no different from his voice for Hamlet and Lear.
        Where was the magic, then, the fascination, the thrill? Strangely, Dogs’ monotonous tone didn't matter. It was his self-interruptions, his asides and translations of the language that made him the wizard he was. There seemed to be nothing he didn't know about the characters, their motivations, the different facets of their personalities and the actual construction of the plays. But for him, when seeing As You Like It on the stage, we’d never have known that melancholy and philosophical Jaques (whom Dogs correctly pronounced ‘Jaqueez’ and not Jacques) was there to inject some gravity and reflectiveness into what would otherwise have been little more than a saccharine Harlequin romance. In the same way he explained comic relief, showing how the bawdy nurse in Romeo and Juliet, the wisecracking grave digger in Hamlet and the lewd Porter in Macbeth were inserted at exactly the right point in the plays to offset these tragedies’ stark horror. Here was one of our first lessons in the craftsmanship of writing.
        There was no doubt that Saunders’ favorite play was Henry V. He was, after all, a bemedaled, battle proven veteran who profoundly believed that King and Country came before all else. Henry V is an enactment of war, courage and loyalty to the Crown, and probably the most patriotic play ever written, so it’s not surprising that the old man became watery-eyed, and his voice sometimes cracked when he read Henry’s rousing speeches. Is it too fanciful to believe that, in his mind, he was not a spectator at Agincourt, but back at war in France himself? Instead of the chaos of Henry’s battlefield in France, was he hearing the chatter of German machine-gun fire at Ypres, or on the Somme, the sudden bursts of flares in the night sky, the silence before the charge? Could he see and hear the writhing, unattended wounded, or smell the first pungent whiff of poison gas?
        Dogs could become fiercely loquacious whenever anyone dared suggest that the superhuman outpourings of Shakespeare, a mere glove maker’s son and a grammar school boy, were written by someone else. He scoffed at the suggestion that more worldly, university-educated men such as Bacon, Marlowe, an earl or two or even the well-educated and studious King James I might have been responsible. He took the side of the ‘Stratfordians,’ who were equally dismissive of the theory, but whose case these days holds as little water as that of the Flat Earth Society, or the Creationists. Even then, half a century ago, I found his rebuttals over-defensive and unconvincing.
       Dogs’ other playwrights – both Irishmen , Sheridan and Shaw – received short shrift compared with Shakespeare. But during our study of two of Sheridan’s plays, The School for Scandal and The Rivals, he seemed to become a different person altogether. The sheer zest of these two Regency comedies, with their racy tales about marital infidelity, fraud and mistaken identity, seemed to bring him beaming out of his shell. He was tickled by the very names of the characters such as Lady Sneerwell and Mrs. Candour in School for Scandal, and Lydia Languish and verbally-inept Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals, and he positively chortled at their antics.
        When it came to Shaw, the major unexpectedly revealed his true political colors. Who would have thought that this dyed-in-the-wool, stiff upper-lip Englishman was not a staunch Conservative but instead leaned somewhat to the left? There was no hint of this when we were immersed in Saint Joan, but when we got to Pygmalion there was no doubt he was a latent lefty. Unlike My Fair Lady, Shaw’s play is almost a political tract, a parody of the idle rich, an attack on class distinction and a billboard for the cause of feminism. Dogs made no secret, at least in the classroom, that he, too, was a champion of the working man and woman.
        Lucy, Soapy and Dogs were three men with uniquely different personalities and beliefs. They shared their passions and played a part in making me whatever I‘ve become. In their way they were the lions of my boyhood – a pride of pedagogues.