Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Wooden Legs

            I was always fascinated by my grandfather’s wooden leg. It seemed to have various switches and catches, and perhaps some gears. When he sat down he would click it into place, by moving a latch just above his knee and to the side. But just as I was fascinated by his prosthetic leg I was even more in awe of his absence of leg when he wasn't wearing it. When he came to stay he would come down for breakfast not wearing his artificial leg, and this would involve a good deal of hopping while holding on to the banisters, and then the use of crutches when he arrived downstairs. I can’t remember what he did with the loose and empty leg of his pyjama bottoms: perhaps he knotted one leg, or just tucked the loose material into his waist band.
            Having only one leg meant that he had to drive an automatic car – something of a rarity in late 1960s Britain. His car of choice was a Ford Zephyr with a bench seat and amazingly (for the time) electric windows. I can’t for the life of me think why he needed or wanted such an enormous car. He was the least ostentatious person you could meet: a small-town vicar with an evangelical streak that got wider and wider as he got older (he used to talk-in-tongues when we visited him – which was as scary as it sounds). The car was exotic: everything about it seemed to articulate another world of movement. It wasn't just that the windows moved up and down with a slow purr rather than a jerky hand powered movement: the car itself seemed to move differently. Perhaps it was the way it was driven. My grandfather was the sort of driver who terrified his passengers by his indifference to basic road safety and by his willingness to be distracted. If you sat in the back you would never ask any questions because he would just turn round and start talking to you, forgetting that he was belting along a Norfolk road.
            Of course his leg wasn't wooden. It was, I would guess, mainly plastic with some metal and some textile fastenings. It made him move about in a slightly unpredictable manner – as if he needed more room for turning, as if he required more warning time if he was expected to stop. It was the same with the car: he would let it swing round corners in a manner that felt like a slingshot, and he was always slightly soft when breaking at lights. With the leg and the Zephyr (and perhaps the evangelicalism) there was a sense that he was moving in a different medium to the rest of us, more like a boat manoeuvring in water, or a satellite docking in space. Or perhaps more accurately like a fish out of water. 

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Kew Gardens

In the early 1980s the price of admission to London’s Kew Gardens was two pence (2p). I remember hearing low, dark rumblings at the time about how terrible this was. Apparently admission to Kew had been just a penny, so the hundred percent price hike was seen as pretty staggering. Those with a mind to, blamed decimalisation – though this was ten years earlier. My guess is that ‘a penny’ in pre-decimal currency became a 1p in 1970 (one-pee is how you had to say it so as not to confuse it with ‘a penny’, two-pee rather than tuppence) which was already slightly more than a hundred percent rise. ‘Old money’ consciousness was still going strong in the 1980s and people still translated back into ‘half-a-crown’ and ‘ten-bob’ and such like (20p – you mean four shillings for that!).
I used to go regularly to the gardens and more particularly to the hot houses which looked like versions of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. In the depth of winter, living in houses that were only heated with smelly old paraffin heaters, or noisy fan heaters, Kew was one of the few places where you could get properly warm in winter. In the palm houses warmth would find its way into your bones and you could feel thoroughly tropical even though it was freezing outside. In the houses I lived in none had central heating: these were houses that had been purchased by housing associations and local councils that were waiting for modernisation. They would, eventually, when a new spending budget had been found, become centrally heated, double-glazed, newly wired and plumbed. Some would have their Victorian scale thoroughly diminished as rooms would be carved up into multiple smaller spaces. But by that time we were long gone.
I used to think of the Palm Houses at Kew as these strangely opulent, sensual worlds that were also slightly lascivious. I could imagine prim Victorian couples blushing slightly at the over-ripe state of some of the tropical plants. Years later I went and the cost of admission had reached something staggering like £2 (it is now £14.50). They had added a new hot house, this one dedicated to dry heat. It was filled with all sorts of spiky plants and the occasional one that gobbled bugs. In amongst all this was the most humorous tree I have seen. It looked like a normal tree as seen by a tiny insect sitting at its base. It was ludicrously foreshortened and had a large tree trunk base (about six foot in diameter) but from this it extended towards a miniscule tree top with four weeny leaves. It looked like the plant equivalent of the Eiffel Tower topped off with a little cluster of leaves. You could imagine a massive root system trying to find water in the desert while its tiny leaves photosynthesize the gruelling sunlight. 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Rolling Beatles

I left school in 1979 and took up residence in a world of art schools, dole offices, and legal squats. I loved it. It was the fag end of punk, Thatcher had taken up residence in Downing Street, and for me (despite Thatcher, or more particularly, in spite of her) the world was drenched in vitality: I lapped it up. The music that my friends and I listened to was that firmament of post-punk, of dub reggae, of old soul and funk. Some of the bands we loved seemed to transmogrify from one song to the next. The wonderful Glaxo Babies started off by intoning that permanently splenetic slur that was the hallmark of the punk ethos. In songs like Christine Keeler their choppy, no-nonsense guitar chug, and wailing saxophone, was matched with hectic vocals recovering a murky past of political shenanigans. When I bought their next musical outing it was a funked-up groove with a syncopated brass section. The songs were an elongated dance track. There would be no pogoing to this, no sir.
Inevitably I half-heartedly joined a band. No, that sounds far too active, far too intentional, and far too ambitious. We were obsessed by music, with listening to it (endlessly), and going to concerts (when we could afford it). We talked about becoming a band the way we talked about travelling to Latin America – as something to contemplate, to invoke, but not necessarily something to work towards. While we listened to music we talked a lot, smoked and drank. We were on the dole, what else was there to do? The reason we didn't play much was due to a general ineptness in which I think I was the leader (my other band members were quite talented). We had ideas though. The main one was in our name, which would conjure up the idea of a super-super-group – so we called ourselves ‘the Rolling Beatles’. Our shambolic racket would be neatly framed by the amalgam of the two most famous rock outfits in the UK, in the world. When we practiced (though I think that is overstating what we actually did) we rehearsed a version of ‘Walk on By’ (this would be our busking song, get it?) and a version of ‘Gimme dat ding’ (a swing song from 1970) – for Kazoo, voice and guitar.  
We didn't suffer from what I've heard described as ‘delusions of adequacy’. Nope – our arrogance was much more exaggerated: we imagined that our chronic incompetence would actually be interesting and entertaining. We were radically democratic in that ego-fueled way of youth – you could all join in (after all if we could play then anyone could) it’s just that we would just be your leaders, your pied pipers. If groups like the Raincoats (whom I adored) could make a virtue of bare competence (though clearly the base player was rock solid) and Furious Pig (who supported them) could do without musical instruments and just bellow into cardboard tubes, then clearly traditional skills was no guarantee of success.

Luckily no traces of the Rolling Beatles remain.