Ah yes, I remember it well

Last week was a prime illustration of how defective my brain is. As it’s the only one I have I find it somewhat alarming that large chunks of my own history are apparently missing from it. Of late it is definitely a thrill if a friend recounts an event I have no recollection of; who wouldn’t like to hear stories about themselves that were entirely new? But it’s disconcerting to live vicariously through one’s self as if you were standing on the outside of you, looking in. Not good.
So. Having previously known London at least as well as I know my toenails, I clearly now do not. My ex husband Roy knows it infinitely better than I and the man lives in California.
I was walking him back to his hotel in the district of Holborn at night. An hotel I had occasion to be at two years previously, for what I couldn’t remember. As we marched along the streets of Soho (or possibly Covent Garden, I had to ask) a fantastical building hove into view, illuminated by blue lights, big as a cathedral. Enormous thing, old and impressive, prompting me to say with wonder, “Wow. What’s that?”
Roy patiently supplied the answer. “It’s the Freemason’s Hall.”

A small, forgettable building.

“I’ve never seen that before.”
He paused. “Of course you have.”
“I have no memory of it.”
“See that restaurant opposite? We used to go there all the time.”
Did we?”
“Yes. The Freemason Hall’s been there since 1933 so we’d have to assume you’ve seen it before.”
“Oh.”
He added, rather kindly, “It might not have been lit up blue, before recently.”                 This is typical of our exchanges. “Look at that church. It’s amazing.”                            “You’ve been in it.”                                                                                                                    “Have I?”                                                                                                                                      “Yes. We went to Mikey’s sister’s wedding there.”

People find my penchant for keeping ex partners in my life quite odd, but I’d argue it’s the only way of accessing my memory. They are obliged to serve as repositories of my experiences, as I patently seem unable to do so myself. It’s been troubling me, until I read this piece today;
Only a tiny fraction of the brain is dedicated to conscious behaviour. The rest works feverishly behind the scenes regulating everything from breathing to mate selection. In fact, neuroscientist David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine argues that the unconscious workings of the brain are so crucial to everyday functioning that their influence often trumps conscious thought.
Eagleman says;
There is a looming chasm between what your brain knows and what your mind is capable of accessing.
You are not consciously aware of the vast majority of your brain’s ongoing activities, nor would you want to be—it would interfere with the brain’s well-oiled processes. For instance, the best way to mess up your piano piece is to concentrate on your fingers; the best way to get out of breath is to think about your breathing; the best way to miss the golf ball is to analyse your swing. The ability to remember motor acts like changing lanes in a car is called procedural memory, and it is a type of implicit memory—meaning that your brain holds knowledge of something that your mind cannot explicitly access. Riding a bike, tying your shoes, typing on a keyboard, and steering your car into a parking space while speaking on your cell phone are examples of this. You execute these actions easily but without knowing the details of how you do it. You would be totally unable to describe the perfectly timed choreography with which your muscles contract and relax as you navigate around other people in a cafeteria while holding a tray, yet you have no trouble doing it. This is the gap between what your brain can do and what you can tap into consciously
.”

Your brain goes through a mini version of rewiring the subconscious when you go on holiday. Your hotel room becomes a fixed point from which you navigate access to your favourite spots on a beach or in a restaurant. It’s refreshing precisely because you are learning new things and breaking your routine. By logical extension, you’d imagine that moving continents is just a layered process of extending your knowledge bit by bit of your holiday experience. On holiday there is a security in knowing you can let go of the new mental pathways relatively quickly once you get home.
But in order to absorb these new patterns on a permanent basis you have to let go of the old ones completely. Not just because you no longer need them but because the new ones have to supersede your previous knowledge and become your primary, reflexive default.
It takes a concerted effort to do so. During the initial stages, one feels utterly lost at sea. My defensive strategies have included barricading myself inside a new home for months until confident enough to venture out and bouts of pathetic, girly crying.

You will be familiar with this feeling of alienation upon moving house from one neighbourhood to another but if you shift countries almost nothing you know applies.
Sure, you understand that appliances need to be plugged in. But they not only have different plugs, but other voltages. And the switch for off and on, something you have rehearsed as a muscle memory until it is subconscious, is now reversed on the socket or panel. It has to be felt for like a blind person and momentarily considered instead of thoughtlessly hit on your way into a room.
If you move countries, you inevitably change jobs, which is a great deal of information to absorb at once. There might be several hundred new faces and roles to take in,  plus new responsibilities, boundaries and daily routines. It’s a big step. However -
Consider all that you know about your current life and environment:

  • the internal geography of your house
  • furniture placement and location of thousands of personal and household objects
  • local and national geography
  • mapping routes to and from home
  • cultural do’s and don’ts
  • the demeanour and mindset of the society you live in
  • TV channels
  • your friend circle
  • how your toilet flushes
  • telephone numbers: your own and important public services such as directories, operators, emergencies
  • currency denominations and how much items cost
  • how your dozen or more appliances work
  • closing times of shops and places you need to go
  • medical and dental services
  • driving rules
  • hairdressers
  • animal care
  • the correct date order when writing it
  • public holidays
  • the local language or terminology
  • bank accounts and access
  • bill procedures and utility companies
  • taxes and laws
  • your set of keys and what they pertain to
  • alarm codes, passwords
  • your internet browser and provider
  • postal services and rules
  • accessibility to shops: dry cleaning, gardening, hardware, groceries, opticians, pharmacy, clothing, household
  • repair and maintenance services
  • favourite restaurants, take-out menus and what you order
  • cinemas and entertainment
  • route to the airport
  • trash collections
  • local newspapers
  • rent or mortgage procedures
  • public transport and taxis

As you read those items, you will have visualized your own versions of them. You know them, right? Of course you do. You take them for granted as your internal and external landscape, ingrained, built up by years of rote.
Now discard everything you are familiar with and start from scratch.
Do it again.
Now do it again.

That’s where I am.

From England to America, from America to Dubai and back to an England that was so changed after 30 years and different to what I supplanted it with I had to learn everything anew. Add to that 18 house moves on three continents.
I realised with a start that a lot of people (including my brother who seems to have life sorted out in a progressed and organized fashion in comparison to his idiot sister but hasn’t moved house in 20 years and has always lived in the UK) have not had the same experience of the kind of rewiring of their hard drives that, say, enables them to completely erase that they once ordered a lover to return a pair of trophy knickers because they were far too expensive an example of Agent Provocateur finery to leave as a souvenir or told Johnny Mathis to fuck off because he complained of their smoking in a First Class cabin of British Airways. Apparently.
Their collective subconscious has been far freer, to allow them to concentrate on the mechanics of life and productively getting on with all it entails.
It might be just as well though, in my case.

I was apt to crow, from time to time, about my prodigious memory for song lyrics. While other people seemingly have a gift for faces, names and routes I’d always supposed that all my RAM was used up with music; why I have been known to spend months in the company of someone only to need to have it explained to me who they are two years down the line. Why I turn useless circles in doorways forgetting what I was aiming myself in the direction of doing. Why I have no idea what day it is, causing me to miss important appointments. Blame it on the music I’d say.                                                                                 I have a new excuse courtesy of David Eagleman.
Meanwhile, I’m eternally pleased to be able to offer you, from the annals of Alison’s brain, a little snippet of song lyric. Spare a conscious thought. Lyrics are all I have at my disposal.

We met at nine
-We met at eight
I was on time…
- No, you were late
…Ah yes, I remember it well
That carriage ride
- you walked me home
You lost a glove
- I lost a comb
…Ah yes, I remember it well

 

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www.alisonlouisehay.com

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The Wait

2012 and here we are again mourning in the age old battle of talent verses chemicals.
Every news report, every tribute page, every Facebook feed will be rubber stamped with the resounding public howl of ‘Why didn’t anyone help? Where were the loved ones to look after them?’
Both are blindingly naive and ignorant comments, the hallmark of a life untrammelled by the ravages of addiction, and they crop up with wearying inevitability every time a fresh corpse arrives on the doorstep.

If you’re interesting in knowing, I’ll tell you where the help was. It was sitting impotently on the sidelines, burned out by decades of failing at every solution that had occurred to it.
The concept that an addict can be helped is a cruel illusion, hanging like the proverbial carrot. Years of education, common sense and experience does not diminish the illusion.
AA’s tried and tested axiom of Awareness, Acceptance, Action as a blueprint for recovery has a quite different meaning applied to parallel programs designed for families and friends of addicts. For them, it means Awareness there is an addiction and that your life is swirling down the plughole as you obsess about how to stop the frightening decline of someone you love. Acceptance that you can do nothing, nothing to stop it. Action in repairing your own life which has been ravaged as surely as if you were taking the drugs in their stead.
For to suggest otherwise, that you have no responsibility for your own life, it is worth nothing and you are undeserving of a modicum of peace of mind or happiness, is to devalue the currency of what it means to be human as surely as if you made the decision to give your life over to chemicals yourself.

Here’s how it begins, in the flush of youth when one has the best of intentions and the belief that if one tries hard enough a change can be effected, if only an addict could see sense and be brought to realize how they are self destructing and bringing their family down with them by their apparently breathtaking insensitivity.
Worry and fear are expressed to deaf ears. Word gets back to you, oh yes, it always does, what social etiquettes have been breached, what borders of scandalous encroachments into decent behaviour have been crossed. How many days an addict has stayed up for, who they have stolen from, who they threw up on at a dinner party, who they assaulted, what financial difficulties they are in, when they were arrested, who died right beside them doing the exact same amounts of drugs.
You begged. You argued. You watched as they left the house at 4am so they wouldn’t have to witness your tears. You listened as they provoked rows as an excuse to storm out, indeed you walked on eggshells waiting for the inevitable build up to a confrontation because you recognized the signs that a binge was coming. You took the blame for being the cause of their turmoil.
You made excuses and lied to cover up how bad things were or why important appointments were ignored. Interviews, jobs, Christmas, birthdays. You invented reasons for absences and nursed the pain, anger and resentment. Then you tidied them all away in order to grocery shop, show up for parent day, clean the house, all the little things that constitute running a life you now did alone so there would be a life to return to should the addict get sober.
You confiscated their access to money, cut cards up, changed joint bank accounts. You threatened anyone you found a number for screwed up in a back pocket when you washed vomit off rancid clothes. You turned down invitations to events you felt might result in not seeing someone for three weeks due to the temptation it might involve. Refused holidays, worrying what might happen to the house, to them, if you left. You sat in night after night babysitting as home made security, monitoring the telephone. Hid car keys. Searched for tiny plastic bags in the back of drawers. You locked up clothing. Staged interventions, consulted professionals, researched meetings, rehabs. You drove optimistically, hundreds of miles to therapy sessions, for you, for them. Modified your reactions and attitudes for fear of being accused of causing an outburst. You arranged kidnaps. Bore the sudden disappearance of all your valuables. Scoured streets in the small hours, burst into parties you heard were happening and caused scenes. Ferried them home with one arm on the door lock.
One day someone has the forethought to explain to you that unless you chain someone to the floor they will continue using, no matter how terrible a depth they have sunk to or brought you to the brink of and to your relief it makes perfect sense. They say, what about you? Do you have a life any more? A light goes on and you see that you do not. You have become a shell who no longer functions save for dedicating an ugly, thankless existence to stopping a destructive path and attending court dates. You would make inroads to change that except for the fact that your attention is currently diverted by saving the home you live in and the life of the one you used to love, or the life of the one you gave life to in the first place, only to watch them squander it.
You lose the home anyway, amongst the mess of bailiffs and bill collectors that you have arranged your life around avoiding and sidestepping to no avail. What might have made a difference has gone into the pockets of lawyers and dealers.

A ray of light appears and sobriety seems to have been achieved. You pour your heart into supportive letters to half way houses, to jails. You give up days, weekends to visitation rights. You accept that strangers, well meaning and callous alike, now supervise your interaction with the person in treatment and you acquiesce to their rules without a murmur. You fork over the last of your money as a lifeline. There is elation, love, a renewal of hope. Promises are made as well as apologies. You shoulder your share of learning new behaviour in order to maintain the peace, treading carefully and remembering not to ask for much or restrict freedoms. You reluctantly let go of fear, thinking hourly that you may need it, you never know. You surrender time that might have been spent on living a life to the structure that has replaced it of AA meetings, Al Anon and counselling, figuring it is the price to pay for the absence of unending horror. You may perhaps be told that now sobriety has been reached, that you represent the past and a life of joy cannot be attained unless it is with someone else who doesn’t carry the baggage you do. The renewed person, with all their hard won wisdom and repaired life, lavishes their best efforts on someone who sees what a sensitive, wonderful person they are, full of morals, ethics and compassion.
Your mouth remains zipped every time a situation occurs, a person appears on the horizon, that might threaten your tenuous hold on something approaching normality but soon you begin to notice that vows are slipping, appointments sliding and periods of time are again being lost and unaccounted for and with a heart of lead you wait. You wait and allow the situation to sink to the lowest depth in the hope it may be the key to a realization that a person has reached rock bottom from which they must surely want to return. You allow them to lose everything afresh, including yourself. You withhold love and contact wishing it would hasten the seemingly impossible to grasp but ridiculously simple truth that life sucks for them due entirely to their addiction even though inside you are dying little by little, hour by hour. Weeks and months go by in which you force yourself into daily activity, a smile, a job showed up to with good grace. When you laugh a small internal voice pipes up wondering how you can find anything funny when so much is at stake. When you surf the internet the thought occurs each morning that you may see a news article announcing the death of the person you love. Each telephone ring – this could be it. You view almost everything in your friend’s lives as trivial, invalidating their small triumphs and woes as petty frippery in comparison to what you shoulder. They are salt in your wounds and you find yourself shunning their company.

Rinse and repeat.

Now ten, perhaps even twenty years pass. Hope and expectation have long since fallen away beyond reach and the weight in your chest is taken as much for granted as an old piece of furniture in the corner of the room. You would care, the next time you are informed that addiction has once more been succumbed to, but being numb and the practice of feeling nothing as self-defence is second nature to you and comes as naturally as breathing. The power to shock you fell by the wayside so long ago you are incapable of surprise, it remains as distant as virginity. All you know how to do is once again remove yourself from the firing line. To cease to care. It infects who you are capable of being, this lack of emotion. It floods over what you say, eat, think until life has lost colour and vivacity and has bled into drabness and inaction. You have heard all the wisdom, platitudes and nuggets of positive sayings and yet none of it changes anything or revives a heart that stops beating. Yours. Theirs.

The day dawns that has hung like a spectre over each waking second you lived through. Death. As if the addict has learned nothing, seen nothing, felt not one ounce of the interminable fear and love that you carried for years. You have no surprise or shock left because you have rehearsed this moment for long, dark decades, thousands of times, and here it is.                                                                                                                                         And it is, as you have always known it would be, the final nail in your own coffin too.

People say, where were the loved ones? Why didn’t they help?

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Guardian Angels

Friday was very odd. In the early hours of the morning I got word my Uncle Ian had died, after a protracted and quietly heroic battle with dialysis and chemotherapy, in Cedars Sinai hospital, LA. In the thirty years I knew him, he was a dear friend.

Ian and I sharing a moment at my 40th birthday party

We had a running joke between us that he was my Uncle and I his Niece, due to his brother Doug being my stepdad, to all intents and purposes, even though my mother and Doug never married. In any case, Ian and I adopted each other as such and that was the official explanation we always gave regarding our relationship. The only time it ran aground was when he invited me to be his ‘date’ at the BAFTA awards in Beverly Hills one year, which he was presenting, and the term niece was met with suggestive and knowing winks. However, Ian belonged to a different generation, one that accepted that a private life of a ‘subversive’ nature stayed firmly in the closet and in all the years I knew him, even though times changed and he was well aware of my tolerance, he never came out to me. If a rare person was in his life, he shied away from being gender specific about them.

Ian and his BAFTA date, 2005

He and I shared the bond of being ex-pats in Los Angeles from the obscure and deeply uninviting town of Grays, Essex. It was a small, wryly amusing club, and we welcomed anyone into it who claimed membership. Ian roped in the director Mick Jackson and we had, in his absence, nominated Dave Prowse, the guy who inhabited the Darth Vader costume. When Ian filmed a pilot for a comedy show starring Lee Evans, also from Grays, he invited me to the taping in Burbank. We told Lee that it was our intention to inject a little bit of home onto the set. I’d brought a slim book The History of Grays from my own library, which Lee, delighted,  prominently included on a shelf of the mock sitting room used for filming.

The Grays Homies on set

Ian had a wicked wit and a knack for the absurd. He could always be counted upon to be the most interesting addition to a dinner party and laced his fabulous stories liberally with celebrity names for extra juiciness. He was a master raconteur.                                            One night, when I lived in a high rise building on Wilshire Boulevard, he’d come round for dinner. There was always a pause between anyone arriving and the time it took visitors to get to the front door, having checked in with the security front desk and negotiated the elevators and long corridors, but Ian had taken an especially long time and I began to fret. When he eventually arrived at the door, he was pale and staggering theatrically.          “What happened? Are you OK?” I asked, concerned with his well-being.                            “Oh my God,” He gasped in horror. “The lighting in that elevator!”                                                                                                                                                                In later years, when he knew times were tough for me, I’d have lunch with him on my visits to LA and he’d discreetly slip me a hundred dollar bill as I went on my way. Nobody knew that except me and him. He had an irrational pet hate of what he perceived as family after his money and frequently supposed that his distant relations came to visit him for a free holiday and to tap him for funds – or inveigle their way into his will. Therefore I felt pretty special that he obviously made me an exception in his mind. I had a chuckle when I thought of the reading of the will to come; doubtless he’ll have left it all to some showbusiness charity in a last act of thumbing his nose. I’m counting on it.
Here is his obit in the Hollywood Reporter yesterday:
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/ian-abercrombie-elaine-s-boss-285386
He would have been satisfied at his headline mention and expected no less.

Not that I couldn’t do with an inheritance right now – been extremely stressed over bills I can’t pay and long ignored council taxes. Sometimes it’s live, or pay them. Not both. I’ve reconciled to the fact that life doesn’t appear to work that way for me. I went to bed around 4am, having grieved for Ian and had some quiet, thoughtful time.                           The doorbell woke me at nine, usually sleep right through those. I thought it was Sunny returned from a London jaunt, doing the walk of shame, forgotten her keys again.           When I looked through the door glass I could see it wasn’t her but by then I’d made myself visible and couldn’t very well decline to open it.                                                                          Of late I have a policy of not answering the door. My thoughts are that I can’t be served a court summons for unpaid taxes if they can’t get to me. I kicked myself for being half asleep with stupidity when it turned out to be the postman with a registered letter. A summons.  In a sleep fog I’d answered the door. I didn’t even manage to speak one word to the postman, I don’t think. I presume etiquette does not require one to thank a summons server, even if it’s not their fault. I signed.
I sat on the stairs and gingerly opened it – yep, printed material, pages of it. Here we go. Heart sinking moment. But then, stapled to the front was a small, handwritten note with terrible handwriting, hard to make out what it said or who from. The return address was in Birmingham, nowhere I was familiar with. What I took to be the word ‘scam’ was on closer inspection, ‘sum’. There was a cheque attached. Made out to me. Since this never happens it took rather a long time to sink in.
The letter was from my father’s brother, my uncle Mel. He explained that an obscure insurance policy had matured and it had taken some time for the company to track him down as the executor of my Dad’s will back in December 2009. He reckons my father forgot he had it, as it was never spoken of. The amount was a third of the sum, split between me and my two siblings. Just enough to cover my unpaid bills with a bit left over for a splurge on groceries. Of course it can’t be accessed for 5 working days, but still. Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. How often is life like a game of  Monopoly? You have won second prize in a beauty contest. You have inherited the sum of your council tax bill.
I sort of felt two things: That somehow, kind of, Ian had slipped me a little something to get by…and my Dad had helped me out when I needed it most.

Thank you, rare and wonderful guardian angels.

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Hello Enemy Camp!

Alison: I’m delighted to introduce you all to the beautiful Jewels, AKA Julie Anne Rhodes, who is my soul sistah from another band. Talented, brave and gorgeous, she is gracing my blog today in lieu of feeding me cake and coffee as she usually does at Christmas when I visit Los Angeles. It took the ex wives club to get Duran Duran and Culture Club on the same page after 30 years, but here is Jewels with the story of how we reconnected, along with her own Christmas memories.

Julie Anne: Hello enemy camp! Well, that’s how Alison describes the relationship between Culture Club and Duran Duran back in the day. I remember the odd bitchy comment in the press but I certainly never felt that way. While we only met a few times in passing, I was always quite fond of Alison and Roy.

Fast forward 25 years and a mutual friend urged me to read a searing commentary on fame (now the Moth to a Flame chapter in her book) that Alison had penned on Facebook. I sent her a friend request that night and was blown away by how eloquently and accurately her words described a phenomenon I still can’t fully fathom, let alone describe. What caught us both off guard was how parallel our lives have been for past few decades. Both now exes of keyboard players, both long distance mothers, both writers – she is my twin sister born into a different band. How did we function without each other all these years?

That cyber reunion cemented a fast and fabulous friendship. For the past couple years we’ve managed a face to face reunion at Christmas time when she’d come to LA. Alas, she’s not coming this year so we decided to exchange Christmas blog posts instead.

My fondest memories of Christmas as a child were of visiting my maternal grandparents in Kansas City. I couldn’t wait to see the fairytale wonderland of Spanish buildings on the plaza all intricately detailed in lights. My Auntie Vera and I would make cookies for Santa, who by the way liked a shot of Dewers in his milk, and put carrots out for the reindeer. I was then tucked into bed, and threatened that if Santa caught me awake – he wouldn’t leave a present for a naughty girl. I would race down those stairs at the crack of dawn to see if Santa had indeed enjoyed his treat. There would be a few crumbs left on the plate, an empty milk glass, and most exciting of all – the chewed up ends of the carrots!

Christmas in England was equally magical. It was always spent, no matter where in the world we were touring previously, back in England at Nick’s parents place in the countryside with a gaggle of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. I would inevitably be stuffed to the gills from the huge roast beef with Yorkshire pudding dinner my mother-in-law would make, yet I still managed to cram Cadbury’s chocolate in my mouth nonstop while watching the Queen’s speech in front of the fire. What? It was the one of two days per year I allowed myself to pig out (the other being my birthday), and dag nappit I was going to make the most of it.

To this day I am a big overgrown kid when it comes round to this time of year, although I was going through a mini melt down two years ago. I had just been diagnosed with a congenital birth defect that required open-heart surgery. Vain creature that I am, the scar concerned me much more than the threat of impending doom. I might as well have a neon sign emblazoned across my chest screaming, “past her sell by date,” I lamented. Only Alison, with her typical extraordinary wit and wisdom, could turn my gargantuan pity party into howls of laughter with, “well, you can’t hide it so you might as well flaunt it – tit bling, that’s what you need!” A few weeks later she showed up on my doorstep with the solution – a bevvy of stick on gems for my cleavage. What better Christmas present could a girl ask for? Especially one called Jewels.

Alison: You can see my blog for Julie Anne here:  http://julieannerhodes.com/2011/12/orange-you-glad-its-the-holidays.html   and also buy her newly released book Party Accomplished, browse her blogs and sign up for her brilliant Personal Chef Approach™.

Pink Prose the book at http://www.alisonlouisehay.com

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Shaggy Fog Stories

Winter is sneaking in and with it an overlay of London fog that makes damp ghosts of houses across the street and reduces cars to rumbling, blurred dots of light.                      The most haunted place in the UK is purportedly Borley Rectory in Essex, built in 1863 and pruned back to a ruin by arson in 1929. Upwards of seven ghosts have been reported there, including a phantom horse drawn carriage, a nun and a liberal sprinkling of poltergeists.                                                                                                                                       As teenagers, my brother Robin and I lived for elaborate, if harmless pranks. As we became mobile with clapped out and mottled second-hand cars the jokes ranged further afield. Whereas before our group of friends limited themselves to pestering long suffering neighbours with midnight jaunts of swapping out washing hanging on garden lines and such, with transport we were more ambitious and liable to plant rowing boats on town hall roofs. So it was, one evening, at a loose end with too much energy that a dozen of us decided to haunt Borley Rectory. It says something – I don’t know what – that such an idea would occur to us more readily than liberating trainers from storefronts.          Reconvening after hastily cobbled together costumes, we heaped into battered and seat-less vans and cars and formed a convoy for the forty-mile trek into the countryside.   I can’t say the outfits were on a par with Night Of The Living Dead; there were a suspicious amount of sheets with holes for eyes, some of them with floral patterns.     Having established that the rectory ruin would not necessarily be a tourist magnet at 11pm on a November Tuesday it was decided the best course of action would be to loom out of nearby bushes at sporadically passing traffic. Pleasing us no end was the special effect of a dense fog rolling in to enhance the spookiness.                                                                Predictably, the only reaction from locals heading home after a pint was either irritation or confusion at a gaggle of numpties flapping across the road shrouded in flannelette. Disconsolate and cold after an hour of crouching in the undergrowth, we repaired to our ramshackle convoy to head home but by then the fog had thickened to such a degree that visibility was at two feet. The last laugh was on us as we crawled home nose to tail at half a mile an hour.

****

I used to have no idea where Strasbourg was, having had scant reason to be there. Now it’s a notch on my travel belt, I still haven’t, forgive me, the foggiest idea and there is no excuse really, one could Google it and be reliably informed that it grandly presides over the European Parliament but you’d have to have an imperative rationale to go there and unless you are a European politician I can’t think of one offhand. I couldn’t even tell you with any certainty what it looks like because it was clouded with fog the morning our tour bus crawled in for a gig in 1984. Luckily we didn’t have far to go from the hotel to the sound check and the weather was so debilitating that we decided to stay at the venue until show time rather than risk another hazardous round of pin the tail on the donkey to locate the town.                                                                                                                                         The tour had been progressing satisfactorily; enthusiastic crowds of 15,000 were packing out stadium venues at the same time that European charts were being conquered and the mood was buoyant. The entourage had expanded from one (me) with the band in a borrowed transit van to me, the band, session players, backing singers, a manager, a tour manager, a travel agent, promoters, agents, assistants, makeup, a photographer, video technicians, lighting crew, sound crew, roadies and drivers. Although upwards of sixty people can comprise a tour it becomes an extended family, a close knit group of Brits in foreign lands, bringing our own set of ‘in jokes’ and sensibilities to wherever we found ourselves. For us, the parental roles were filled by the band manager and his wife, Tony and Avi Gordon, consummate navigators of social minefields, well traveled, worldly and sage. The part of distant alcoholic relatives you were obliged to see at Christmas was awarded to the roadies and drivers, who invariably kept different hours to the rest of us and often stayed in less salubrious hotels nearer to the gigs unless they were driving the equipment onwards to the next location overnight, in which case they slept on the buses. In order to imbue their brief stays with a touch of home, they had a small potted plant and a welcome mat they would station outside the door to the bus wherever they landed.    Most infamous among the drivers were Ted, otherwise known as ‘Lead Foot’ because of his propensity for propelling a vehicle of several tons down the narrowest of roads at reckless speed, and Clive, perhaps not one of the more sensitive of citizens ever to emerge from the West Country of England. For those of you unfamiliar with what a West Country accent sounds like, you may have heard it portrayed with authentic inflection by the American actor Sean Astin in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was the trademark accent of Samwise the Gardener and as it happens, Clive the Drive.                                                                Having had the foresight and luck to arrive at the gig with the day to spare, avoiding the necessity of negotiating fog bedevilled mountain passes, the same cannot have been said of the potential audience. Instead of the expected thousands, only a scant hundred made it through. Once the shock was overcome, jokes abounded of the audience consisting of three people and a dog and a lively debate ensued on whether or not the dog had been charged for a ticket. For a while after the disastrous turnout, any slightly under attended gig became known as ‘a Strasbourg’.                                                                                                 The next morning, even though the fog had lifted, our spirits hadn’t, and we trouped aboard the tour bus dejectedly, ready for the long haul to the next and final destination, Nice.                                                                                                                                              Clive, rotund, denim clad and resplendent with the obligatory Seventies footballer shoulder length perm and moustache, was already installed behind the large wheel of the vehicle and eyed us all through his own fog of a hangover as we clambered up the steps towards our seats. Spotting Roy and I he cheerfully announced he had been assigned the room next to ours in the hotel with a breathtaking lack of diplomacy.                                                 “’Eard you two at it last noight!” he crowed, to a resounding, infuriated silence from Roy and I and the sound of jaws dropping from the other occupants of the bus.                   However, Clive was yet to reveal his finest hour.                                                                        In the city of Nice we were installed in the grandest hotel on the Promenade des Anglais, the 1912 Baroque confection of The Negresco. Everything from the elaborate plasterwork to the antiquely uniformed staff in their 18th century red plumed postilion hats exuded an air of expense and faded gentility. Our suite was housed in the iconic dome at the top of the building. The art on the walls was original and valuable and the bedspread was made of mink. From the stone balustrade balcony we had a fine view of the beach and also of the French hookers plying their trade along the seafront. A friend of ours had joined us for the last gig, having driven our car down to the South of France to meet us, so we would be able to motor off after the tour wrapped and grab some much needed R&R. Parked out front, our Jaguar became the hotly contested backdrop to display tart wares upon; sprawled over the hood of the car they would seduce a customer and disappear, only to be back some fifteen minutes later, presumably stickier than before, ready to be commandeered all over again. Affronted, we took to lobbing grapes from the complimentary basket from the height of the roof at the ladies of the night until they reluctantly moved towards less fruitful ground.                                                                                                                                              To celebrate the end of a successful tour (discounting Strasbourg fog) it was decided that the band would host dinner for all, including roadies and drivers, at the esteemed Negresco Chantecler restaurant, recently restored to its Regency style splendor.                             Like the kids table at Thanksgiving, roadies and drivers sat separately from the band but had graciously been informed by their bosses they could feel free to relax and order whatever they wanted from the extensive menu. Social etiquette in those situations usually dictates that you don’t abuse the hospitality of your hosts but we were genially prepared for a rather large bar bill emanating from the crew table. Roadies are not known for their abstinence. We hadn’t factored in Clive, however.                                               Seated eagerly, napkins readily tucked in to collars like bibs, they pored over the haut cuisine French menu with furrowed brows. Grumbles reached our ears at the dearth of burgers, fried egg & chips. Abandoning the insurmountable task in favor of drinks, it was Clive who broke the stalemate.                                                                                                     He beckoned over the headwaiter, a Master Sommelier, resplendent in a tuxedo with his small, chased silver wine taster on a long chain around his neck, befitting his status.        “Oy. Garson. Come ‘ere,” he bellowed.                                                                                       The Sommelier glided forward and peered down his lengthy nose with an air of thinly disguised distaste. “Er…yes…Monsieur?”                                                                                  Came the fabled line since cherished by us all.                                                                            “Oi want a crate o’ beer,” he stated with quiet menace, stabbing the pristine white linen on the table with a grimy finger for emphasis, “And oi want it fuckin’ now.”

****

Fog, something London has been famous for excelling in, evinces melodramas from what used to be termed Penny Dreadfuls, the forerunners of comic books that an eager Victorian public lapped up. They were spiced with tales of murderers vanishing, top hatted and sinister, into the mysterious cloak of mists formed by a combination of weather and the pollution of a burgeoning industrial age. Fogs so dense that they gained the nickname of ‘pea-soupers’ due to their impenetrability. Nowhere is the image more prevalent than Spitalfields and Whitechapel, legendary stomping grounds of Jack the Ripper.                     I’d always assumed the name Spitalfields derived from spit, or spittle, which is an even less salubrious thought. Turns out it’s an abbreviation of Hospital Fields, from the establishing of St. Mary’s Hospital in 1197. Before that it was the site of a Roman cemetery. Roman nobles were still popping out of the ground as late as 1990 when the marketplace was being remodeled.                                                                                                                                      The very fashionable market now prevailing as the anchor to the region had its roots from back then too, but I wanted to explore the spectre of Dorset Street at the heart of the area, which for centuries held the dubious distinction of the ‘Worst Street In London’ due to its appalling poverty, overcrowding, prostitution and crime. It was also the address of two of Jack the Ripper’s victims.                                                                                                         Dorset Street itself has been entirely erased, paved over. The silk weavers houses with the rooftop skylights to enable them to work until the last dying light of the day, the terraces of the French Huguenots, the Jewish workhouses filled with Russians fleeing from Pogroms and rat infested slum tenements that held four Irish families per room are all but gone now. On the north side are warehouses and to the south is the back of a multi-level car park. It no longer has a street name at all. I walked along it to see if any whisper of it lingered, but if it did, it was only in being able to see some of the same views that long ago residents must have been familiar with.                                                                                     Facing the location of Dorset Street, as testament to timeless design, is the newly restored and elegant Christ Church, designed in 1714 by John Hawksmoor, protégé of Sir Christopher Wren. The area and underground station Whitechapel derives its name from the soaring, tiered exterior that spikes into blue sky, set back from Commercial Street. Rumours abound circling Wren and Hawksmoor’s allegiance to Masonic laws that has the church sitting squarely on a cross hatch of Satanic ley lines. It was the ley lines that perversely sprang to mind when I’d spent an afternoon wandering Spitalfields only to find my house had been burgled when I returned home. In the preceding month it had been on the stone pavement of Lamb Street, opposite the church, on a freezing December evening, that I had been informed of the death of my father.                                                                Beside the church on Commercial Street remains the Ten Bells Pub, first established in 1752, to this day serving the London Porter Ale and gins that Mr. Ripper might have partaken of, seeing as he murdered someone just behind it in 1888. It appears to be sporting its original paintwork too.                                                                                             Two popular occupations in the 1880’s were costermonger and prostitute, born out of the proximity to the market. If you wanted a flea-bitten floorboard to bed down on of a bitter winter’s night your working day had to generate a few pennies for gin and a three more to bribe the door keepers to let you inside their disease ridden houses of squalor. Sanitation ran to one bucket between thirty people. You begin to understand Lionel Bart’s optimistic summation in the musical Oliver, written in 1960, where he depicts the degradation of Dickensian London with the song, ‘It’s A Fine Life’:                                                                 “Small pleasures, small pleasures, who would deny us these?                                                 Gin toddies, large measures, no skimping if you please…                                                         …If you don’t mind having to deal with Fagin, it’s a fine life.                                                  Though diseased rats threaten to bring the plague in, it’s a fine life.”                                                                                                                                                       Gin, more commonly known as ‘Mother’s Ruin’, was the least expensive road to oblivion available then, a vital component of the cycle of poverty, theft, prostitution, rape and murder that blighted the crumbling facades.                                                                                Jack the Ripper culled his easy prey from the ranks of prostitutes that were commonplace to the rabbit warren of soot stained streets that were the first port of call for waves of immigrants looking for cheap accommodation and the company of their compatriots. The influx of the late 20th century has been Indian and Bangladeshi, imprinting their own stamp of culture on the area just as thousands have before them but remnants of Old London is everywhere you look.                                                                                         Speculation upon Jack the Ripper’s identity has ranged from Victorian royalty to a German sailor. Such is the morbid grip of the unsolved crimes that they have spawned an industry, termed ‘Ripperology’. There’s even a monthly magazine.                                                       Grisly artefacts from the most notorious felonies in the history of policing, including The Whitechapel Murders, can still be viewed in The Black Museum, run by today’s Metropolitan Police. Indeed, just around the corner from the site of Dorset Street you can view the decorative tiled frontage of Peel House, former tavern, named for Sir Robert Peel who created the world’s first police force, a constabulary that in its fledgling infancy was charged with hunting down the Ripper with practically no experience in crime solving at their disposal. The subsequent gathering of evidence was the birth of criminal detection. It’s a wonder that any evidence survived at all, but they had the forethought to photograph the victims and save letters written by a man who claimed to be the killer. Photography, also in its early stages, was only employed because it was thought that information on the last scene or person the victim beheld might be stored in the pupils of their eyes. What wasn’t photographed, but hastily scrubbed off the wall adjacent to the second victim by diligent ‘Bobbies’, was a phrase purportedly chalked by the assailant. Subsequent forensic examiners have lamented the lack of foresight ever since.

In 2008 I offered to pitch in to oversee George’s clothing venture, B-Rude, comprising of a small shop in Shoreditch, right by Spitalfields. Looming ominously out of the fog upon my initial inspection was the three storey blackened brick Georgian building originating from the early 1700’s, around the same time as St. Leonard’s Church (upon whose grounds it borders) although there has been a church on the site since Saxon times over a thousand years hence. Because the grounds surrounding the church predate both buildings, the cemetery contains many Elizabethan luminaries, including James Burbage, the first nationally known actor and founder of the earliest pre-Shakespeare playhouse in England and later, James Parkinson (b.1755) after whom the disease Parkinson’s was named.        St. Leonard’s also has a starring role in the ancient nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’, as the lines goes,                                                                                                                              ‘When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch’.                                                                      The frontage of the B-Rude shop bore the title ‘The Clerk House’, conjuring up staid images of bewigged gentlemen poring over hand-written ledgers of accounts for the parish. In the very back of the shop was a tiny, dank stock room where I spent many hours attempting to make sense of the jumble of old stock and materials, mulling the possibility of the pared back brick and mortar walls retaining echoes of generations that lived or died in the rooms. I never felt at ease there. Only later did I learn that the house’s original purpose was to serve as mortuary for the church and it was in that very space that the body of Mary Kelly, comely brunette and fluent Welsh speaker, fifth victim of the Ripper, was laid out for two days before her burial in Leytonstone, East London.                        Nicely dovetailing into the myths of the East End, my lunchtime smoke one afternoon was enlivened by four policemen sifting the contents of the storm drain outside the store for a murder weapon, thought to have been discarded the night before. With a specially adapted truck designed for drainage and filtering they appeared to be better equipped than their Victorian counterparts but still came away empty handed.                                                       In keeping with tradition, the aforementioned parking lot where Dorset Street used to stand is currently the titleholder of ‘most crime-ridden car park in Britain’, confirmed by my hairdresser David, who relayed that he was mugged there last year.                                 Try as I might, I couldn’t get him to appreciate the honour of being part of living history by being robbed and bashed on the same spot that robbing and bashing has been rampant for nigh on a thousand years.

 

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Scary Monsters

Halloween looms; the time when we conjure up all things ghoulish. I wonder how easy it is to genuinely scare the Bejesus out of today’s children, being used as they are to images that would have sent us quivering under the bed covers for months at their age. One of my vivid memories as a small child is of sitting at the dining table with the family during dinner and bawling in fear: my brother Robin had me convinced the Loch Ness Monster dwelled in the hallway of our three-bedroom semi. I had no firm concept of what a Loch Ness Monster might entail or be capable of, enhancing its reputation and elevating it to Unknown Dread.                                                                                                                             It’s fine though – Robin has been paid back handsomely over the years and also earned an immediate parental cuff round the ear. He would have picked up scare tactics from our older cousin Rory, who had my brother sobbing at the age of five with a tall tale of Daleks on the tracks during an unscheduled train stop between stations. What goes around.             Nowadays I’m less afraid of intangibles although I’m prone to an involuntarily shriek if a person walks into the room unexpectedly. This is particularly frustrating for anyone unfortunate enough to live with me, who should (not unreasonably) expect to enter a room as a natural component of getting on with their life without the unwelcome side effect of having their eardrums perforated. Although my propensity for screaming is an everyday hazard for those close to me, there have been occasions it has caught others off guard:

Backstage, Wembley, 1984. It was the sixth and final night of a run of Culture Club gigs at the famous London venue and the hospitality area was awash with well-known faces, including Ringo Starr, Stephen Fry, Elton John, Herbie Hancock, Paul Young, Meatloaf and Bob Geldof. I was having a delightful and smug gossip with George Michael, due to an unwittingly canny move two years previous to that, whereby Roy and I had chanced upon a newly formed band by the name of Wham at a nightclub opening. Like most at the time, Roy had gravitated towards the vivacious Andrew Ridgeley, assuming he was the power and creative force behind their first single that was nibbling at the edge of the chart. I had immediately engaged the underdog George Michael in conversation at a time when he couldn’t get arrested, if you’ll pardon the phrase. We had been locked in conversation for a couple of hours. George M was shy and overwhelmed at having to promote himself publicly and I gave him a motherly pep talk that was characteristically presumptuous, considering I was a 20-year-old non-mother. Thus when I had extended a hand at Wembley and introduced myself to the megastar he had become, George M laughed, “Don’t you remember me? We talked for two hours at the Embassy!” I was mortified at forgetting, but he couldn’t have been sweeter.                                                                                              An idea had been put forward earlier in the day to attempt to recreate the Band Aid Christmas single as a finale to the last night of the tour but George M also wanted to seize the chance to perform a live version of Culture Club’s song ‘That’s The Way’, something he had long been an admirer of. It hadn’t been included in the set list but at his suggestion, Roy had thought it a splendid notion and sped off to alert Other George. He returned with the nod on the proviso that he could go over the chords to familiarize George M in a brief rehearsal rather than gamely debuting to 13,000 people and cocking it up completely. There wasn’t much time. George M grabbed my hand and we began to dash from room to room, giggling and flinging open doors, searching for an appropriately quiet space to practice. Stymied, our hopes were high on reaching the last door along the corridor and I burst through it hopefully, only to be confronted by the lush sight of Mr. Loaf in his entire splendor, with his underpants around his ankles. Meat & Alison let out simultaneous blood-curdling screams, although his was far more melodic than mine. Frankly, the picture of it is seared upon my memory for evermore.                                                                                   Both songs were later performed flawlessly to the rapture of the audience but I was too traumatized to think of anything else but Meat’s Y Fronts.

In the late ‘90’s I’d been pleased to host George for a flying visit to LA where he was due to put in a solo appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Even for a seasoned veteran of television, Leno is a daunting prospect, going out as he does to millions of homes across America. George was uncustomarily nervous in the hours leading up to the taping. Typically, he will limit the amount of people he can bear to be around as he readies himself and only a trusted few will have access to his dressing room. Eschewing a make-up artist, George was doing his own, but was getting increasingly agitated as a few beads of anxious perspiration kept threatening to dent his exquisite handiwork. He was in a flap, banning everyone from the room but myself. It became my task to calm him as well as field the continuously interrupting knocks on the dressing room door for ever more disingenuous reasons. One of the Tonight Show staff wanted him to sign the illustrious guest book. Someone else wanted to fit the radio mic. A man arrived with towels. A secretary needed a Performing Rights slip filled. Snacks were offered.                                                         Unbeknown to the two of us, Leno visits his guests before taping, unlike David Letterman, who allows his staff to badly research facts then attacks on air to ambush his interviewee to maximum effect, having grandly had nothing to do with them until the pivotal moment. He likes to emerge as the victor at someone else’s expense. Jay, ever the gentleman, makes a social call to disperse the nerves he understands may occur when not just on air but meeting him for the first time. He would never acknowledge the magnitude of his own celebrity; it is unspoken. He uses the social call to graciously discuss in advance a few anecdotes he might prompt the guest to share, leaving no nasty surprises when in front of cameras and a live audience.                                                                                            Nevertheless, on the seventh knock at the dressing room door, George was at boiling point and instructed me to tell whomever it could be to fuck off and leave him in peace. I cracked the door a fraction, distracted and a little impatient, and Jay Leno’s head popped through suddenly. Instantaneously, I screamed in surprise and dismay almost slamming the door on his face. Quick as you like, the lovely Jay smilingly responded with, “Wow! Am I that ugly?” before introducing himself to me modestly – as if he needed to explain who he was.

My phone just emitted an innocuous bleep to indicate full battery charge, provoking a faint cry of alarm from me. I’m more nervous than a badger in a brush factory. Mostly this is due to last week’s Spider Incident.                                                                                              The quite rainy summer has, according to news reports, made for ideal spider growing and although my house gets cobwebs I rarely see one – until last week. I was watching TV when an enormous one ran out from under the living room curtains and crouched by the VCR. I thought to myself, I’ll ignore that and pretend I didn’t see it. I was hoping it would sidle off behind the TV stand and both the spider and I would be happier, but no. For reasons best known to the giant spider it decided to gallop straight towards me at 50mph across the wood floor. I really hate this because it means I’ll have to deal with it. I whipped off a slipper and thwacked it hard but then was obliged to stare at the slipper for an hour to make sure it didn’t limp out from underneath. The slipper sat for 3 days, in the middle of the room, until I got the courage to lift it up and dispose of the mangled carcass. Damn thing. I was walking around with one slipper on.                                                                        No sooner had my anxiety subsided than one evening I entered the kitchen, snapped on the light and there, pulsing malignantly on the counter, was its parent. A spider the size of a bagel. My scream harmonically resonated at such a high sonic frequency that I set off a passive burglar alarm in the next room. The next room.                                                  Putting aside the disconcerting thought that a burglar alarm coupled with screaming failed to rouse the concern of the neighbours, I was faced with the bald fact that the insect spray resided in the cupboard directly beneath Shelob. With the slow and cautious precision of a bomb disposal expert I levered the cupboard doors open with the longest implement to hand: a bread knife.                                                                                                                         No spray. I was all out. A noise escaped me that can only be described as grizzling.          However, here’s where initiative comes in handy. Under there I also accumulate mounds of plastic recycling bags that get tossed onto my doorstep weekly in an optimistic gesture that I will avail myself of them. They are orange, and are bound in long, thin rolls about two and a half feet in length. I suddenly had a vision of myself, clad in flowing robes, wielding a roll with both hands in the manner of a Jedi Knight. They are ideal weapons, although I’m fairly certain that was far from the goals of the Local Council’s Green Initiative when they were first imagined.                                                                                                              Gingerly liberating one with my foot, I lined myself up with the spider and prepared for an incisive Vader lunge. You only get one chance before the jig is up and efforts descend into a frenzied chaos of panic battering.                                                                                                Got it in one. The Force was with me. But then it was days before I had the courage to confront the corpse and suction it up with a vacuum cleaner extended by several hoses. I’ve since spent cowardly hours lifting the edge of anything not nailed down in the event a domestic monster has claimed habitation rights.

So I’m not best prepared for Halloween and my nerves are on a hair trigger. If anyone shows up at my door dressed as Meatloaf, Leno or a bagel-sized spider, be warned. I have plenty of festively orange recycling bags just itching to be useful.

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High Crowds

“We are say-ring…passing high crowds…”                                                                                Roy and I listened politely to our host, Muraki Kanso the artist, as he mangled the Rod Stewart classic on his guitar. We were settled into the Gothic castle style lounge of the house he shared with his sleekly blonde American wife Sally. As a couple they lived very comfortably; the art commanded respectable prices and Sally was at the top of the executive ladder at Christies Auctions. Although Muraki’s cherished ambition to become a rock star had so far been hampered by the small and inconsequential snag of a complete inability to carry a tune, he was not one to be held back and was pleased to grasp the chance of a jam with a fellow musician.                                                                           Indisputably though he excelled in his career as an artist, painting window sized and detailed Art Deco tableaux of beautiful women, adding his own Japanese flavour to the style of them. I longed to own one and hoped he might bung one in our direction but instead, on a tour of his home studio, he’d decided to execute a simple Japanese line drawing of a woman with a guitar, which he gifted to Roy. I couldn’t say it wasn’t a pleasure to see him masterfully capture an image with spare, well-placed dashes of charcoal. I also couldn’t say I preferred it to one of his full-scale prints but I tried not to be churlish and kept my trap shut for once.

Muraki had a seemingly permanent houseguest called Lars, who despite his touted Swedish ancestry was tall but with unruly black curls topping his wide face. He claimed to be availing himself of their faux Bavarian guesthouse only until his foreign millions came through to American accounts. Meanwhile, he lived in a style he vowed he was accustomed to, splashing out on bottles of Crystal champagne and ordering lavish take-out meals from expensive restaurants. Lars immediately latched on to Roy upon meeting him and became a fixture at our rented house at weekends, showing up in ever more exotic cars, bearing gifts from prestigious Beverly Hills showrooms and laden with sushi platters to feed at least a dozen people.                                                                                                                               One night Lars took it upon himself to treat a large group of our friends to dinner at the hottest new nightclub; the tab must have run into the hundreds with the vintage champagne he ostentatiously ordered. When the check came he confidently slapped down a platinum Amex, quickly waving it away though not before I’d clocked that the name on the card was Sally, Muraki’s wife. Catching my sideways glance, Lars assured me that he had been added to the account. I filed the information away, not placing much significance to it.

In the summer of 1987 we had been renting a three-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills thanks to a Loni Anderson look-alike realtor who unashamedly revelled in the name of Mary Christmas and drove the cheesiest Seventies car I ever saw, bedecked with mirrors and a burgundy velvet interior. (Relevant to nothing, but you know how I love a digression).                                                                                                                               Tucked away behind trees, the one story house had a rock-surrounded pool and airy rooms decorated in Californian ivory linen tones and generic Spanish tiled floors, although we’d begun to tire of the frequent problems with the aging plumbing. Dealing with the landlady was frustrating. She seemed to be a frail and frizzy haired remnant of the Sixties who had taken one too many acid trips and she swung from outbursts of vehemence to spouting absent minded nonsense, losing the trail of a conversation mid sentence. If pressed to be responsible for house maintenance she’d claim all her money was being funnelled into the big cat sanctuary owned by Doris Day, who happened to be her mother-in-law. It was several weeks before it dawned upon us that her husband, therefore, was Terry Melcher, infamous for producing the music of Charles Manson. When we unearthed some hastily scribbled sheet music in the piano stool annotated by ‘Charlie’ we had a middle England meltdown, clutching each other in light hysteria and flapping about in a panic. My nerves had already been shredded by several encounters with scorpions who conspired to hove into view every time Roy left the house, stranding me whimpering with legs drawn up on the coffee table until such time when he would eventually return with his good stamping shoes on.                                                                                                             Thus when Lars offered us a rental belonging to a friend of his just off Sunset Boulevard we were ready to leap at it. The story was that Lars had been poised to move in but selflessly would give us first refusal instead. However, the house failed to materialize within the promised week and I was uncomfortable with what seemed to be a very laissez faire attitude to any formal agreement. Roy told me I was being obstinate; it would save us three thousand a month. Sensing the deal falling through, Lars hastily supplied another option. His best friend owned a house in the flatland of Beverly Hills that could be ours if we wanted it; the occupants wouldn’t be using it until later in the year when back from touring Europe. If we liked, we could have a look around and see if we thought it would suit us. We arranged to meet Lars at the house one afternoon.                                                        It was a handsome 1940’s Spanish style mansion, three storeys and six bedrooms, surrounded by tall trees that gave it privacy and shrouded it in pools of dark shade. The garden stretched back beyond the house, which sat imposingly on a corner lot encompassing a tennis court. Roy fell in love with it on sight. Having met us outside, stepping adroitly out of an Aston Martin DB5, Lars sheepishly admitted that he had forgotten the keys but if we waited, he knew the combination to the garden door in the alleyway and would let us in forthwith. In no time at all, he bounced to the front door and welcomed us into the vast, beamed ceiling entrance hall.                                                       Inside, it was apparent that the last time the house had seen an interior decorator had to have been 1971. Shabby emerald green carpets clashed with orange walls and musty brown tartan couches. Although I’d been expecting the condition to be rental ready, clear of personal effects, photographs and clothes, it seemed as if the owners had just stepped out that morning; the desk in the heavily panelled study was cluttered with papers and food lay on the counters. Lars explained that he sometimes used the place and occasionally house sat, and if the lease were approved, the house would be cleaned and bare in three days. He certainly knew his way around as if he lived there. I pulled Roy aside and hissed in his ear.                                                                                                                                            “I don’t like this at all. It’s creepy,”                                                                                         “Shut up. It’s great,” he said briskly. “We can tolerate the furniture if it’s saving us thousands. It’s got spare rooms for recording equipment and there’s tennis – you’re just looking for something to complain about, as usual,”                                                           Digging my husband in the ribs, I said we’d have to think about it before making a decision. Alone with Roy later in the evening, I voiced misgivings about the venture and said my instincts were yelling no. I didn’t like the lack of paperwork and thought it sounded risky but was reluctantly persuaded to have another look around the next day after an exhaustive hour of argument. Lars later broke the news on the phone that due to our hesitation the owners had expressed second thoughts and decided to lend it instead to a family member who was in town, causing Roy to fume that I’d blown a really good deal and refuse to speak to me for three days. I didn’t care. The house had given me the willies.

We stayed where we were. Our last few months of renting passed by quickly enough until we headed back to England to pack up our home before the final permanent move to LA.                                                                                                                                               Slouched in front of the television one evening in our Essex house, Roy answered the telephone. It was the Beverly Hills Police. It was a mystery how they’d managed to hunt down an unlisted number for us in England but their reach was long and alarming. Lars had been arrested in a stolen Mercedes and cited Roy as being the owner. However, the police had, by their own tracking methods, been able to establish that the owner of the car was none other than Sylvester Stallone and the detective demanded to know why we were claiming it as ours. Lars was also under investigation for credit card fraud and an impressive pile of other felonies. Sally’s platinum Amex sprang to mind.                     Satisfied for the time being that we were absolved of collusion, the detective rang off, warning us that if further infractions came to light he’d be back on the phone if it seemed likely we’d had some involvement. We quaked for days with the unshakeable sense of impending arrest you get when you’ve done nothing wrong, with melodramatic visions of the first recorded extradition from Billericay to Beverly Hills going down just as we innocently headed for bed with hot cocoa.                                                                                Now the potential rental property made sense. Far from forgetting the keys, Lars had merely barged into an unoccupied house, his largesse at showing us around nothing more than a front for common burglary. Doubtless he had been hoping we would stump up three months rent in advance which he would then ‘pass on’ to his friends.                                We’d had a narrow escape from a glib and practiced con man. Not so lucky had been Muraki and Sally, who were out to the tune of thousands on their American Express bill. Possibly Muraki was already gently weeping with guitar. I could picture him strumming. “Passing high crowds…to be near you…to be flea…”                                                      Providing subsequent hours of idle entertainment for us was Mr. Stallone, as we wondered what he’d been had for, aside from, of course, a brand new Mercedes but what happened to Lars remains in the dusty annals of Beverly Hills Police records.                                           We never did find out.

 

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