The small mean man

Once in 1973 the family went to Wokingham to see Peter Gwynn, a colleague of Dad’s from Masius Wynne-Williams. I’d say he was also a friend of his – but I can’t be sure. It’s so hard with my father to tell who was a real friend as he’s seen no-one since he retired 34 years ago. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma…

Well, we went to see the Gwynns and with them was their late-teenage daughter Jane, who had just discovered Tubular Bells and played us all of the LP. I would have been 9 or 10 – 10 years younger than her. She took a shine to me and it was the beginnings of rumblings of… I didn’t know what. It was the 1st time I got on with a GIRL – not something you could do with my mother or sister. Jane called me – for some reason – ‘the small mean man’. I think we also had a Chinese takeaway for the 1st time, which I thought was exotic.

I don’t remember what she looked like – and I never saw her again. But the name has stayed…

Amsterdam

In July I got the overnight ferry from Harwich International with my middle son and we reached Hook of Holland early in the morning, at 7am. Luckily, Lodewijk and Wanda came to meet us. In the 90s, Lodewijk told us, he had bought his brown 1974 Ford Consul – the car he still drove – in Hook from a man who wrote ‘Darkness’ on his flat wall, so it was always good to drive it back for a visit.

We went the scenic route to Amsterdam, via The Hague, as the room in the Hotel De Looier wasn’t available till 2pm. By 12, though, we’d reached Amsterdam and I was flagging. I suggested going to the hotel anyway, on the off chance that they’d have a room earlier. It was 35 degrees centigrade that day, which didn’t help.

No, said the woman at reception in the Hotel De Looier. The room was being cleaned till 2pm.

Really? I asked. (Housekeeping presumably doesn’t clean ALL rooms at 1.55…)

I played for time, saying could we check in anyway?, making a meal of limping back and forth from reception to where we had stashed our bags to look for our passports, checking which room we were booked for, saying we could have another, whatever was available… Etc, etc. I even said could I have a nap on the armchair in reception, if she didn’t mind? It was really quite hot outside…

Eventually, after much clattering on the computer keyboard, she relented. It would be quicker just to give us a room. There was one available, she discovered! I was ready to drop and so was exaggeratedly grateful. (Though I have to say, since having the stroke, most places are ok in the end, if you keep trying and keep your temper. Though NOT Herne Hill Lido when I wanted to use the disabled loo…)

There was one catch, however. It’s always when you finally let out a deep breath and think ‘phew’ that the obstacle emerges.

I had deliberately rung the hotel from England to check there was a lift. But now – wouldn’t you know – it was being repaired. I’d have to walk up 4 flights of spiral stairs.

For some reason my son had gone up to the room in advance so I had to get the Polish housekeeper to watch me while I slowly went up, backwards because the banister was on the right and I can only use my left hand. She carried my walking stick; she was called Eva and was very smiley.

I said when I first had the stroke, I used to say: 19 steps forward, 18 back. So long as I went ONE step forward, it was better than nothing.

I suppose a lot of people they get in Amsterdam hotels are fairly offhand, so she expressed approval of my positive attitude. She said that in Poland, they had a similar attitude. I can’t say what she said in Polish but she translated for me as well for good measure:

Shit happens…

What happened next

Myxomatosis is back. Yesterday at 5pm I saw a rabbit moving very slowly across the Green until a conscientious owner of greyhounds scooped it up and took it away. My grandfather used to kill ‘myxy’ rabbits to put them out of their misery – but he also used to shoot pheasants, hang them outside in the yard for what seemed like weeks and, when they were virtually rotten, decide they were ready for the oven. I used to hate eating them, with the distinctively yellow fat, cracking my teeth on shot…

The last myxomatosis outbreak was pre 2004, because our rabbit was still alive and we got her vaccinated. She died that year aged 7. We’d bought her in 1997 from a pet shop in Muswell Hill; she was called Isabel after, believe it or not, a character in Spirit Of The Beehive. A work colleague of mine asked me why we didn’t just have children. It was the 1st time that issue had raised its head.

When we bought the house in Essex we used to come down on the train with the rabbit in the basket (it wasn’t till we had kids that we bought a car). She was a great conversation starter. She loved being stroked. She used to chunter quietly and then suddenly roll on her back, with an expression of ecstasy.

One time when my wife was working at the Independent in 1999, they needed a pet for a photo piece on pet containers. I went up on the train with Isabel, sat in a studio in Clerkenwell while she did her stuff; she kept peeing on the pink coloured card and then lapping it up. Her Sarah Miles behaviour, I called it.

I was a bit fed up. I was only getting £50 and expenses, not being an experienced pet wrangler. When the shoot was over, I sat in the shelter in Northampton Square opposite City University with my rabbit in her basket. I wanted to go to the pub but I didn’t have the nerve. I remember thinking my life had come to this.

Then I thought if I was any good as a writer, I’d write a short story beginning with a man in a square with a rabbit in a basket… But I couldn’t think of what happened next.

Hannibal

The 1st time we went out as a couple after we had a child was to see Hannibal. It was February or the beginning of March. My wife’s parents were staying, Hannibal was on at Colchester Odeon, we’d enjoyed The Silence Of The Lambs (it had been one of our 1st dates in Paris) and also, crucially, we just didn’t think. We were too tired for that.

We drove there in the dark. I’d done my research, though, and Hannibal was written by David Mamet and starred Julianne Moore (as good as Jodie Foster) AND Gary Oldman, as well as Anthony Hopkins. But it was so appalling. Maybe a sequel’s nearly always bad?

We went home and went to bed. After a year’s worth of waiting for a night out – THIS.

Now we’re divorcing, you have to ask yourself: did we ever get it back?

Whatever ‘it’ was…

Echoes

In late 1979 my family got a video cassette recorder. It was early in the life of the VCR and the reason was simple: my father was in advertising and OCCASIONALLY would watch a tape of a work in progress. But really it was a perk – something to show the neighbours and our teenage friends.

We recorded films (Sunset Blvd, Jason And The Argonauts and Play It Again, Sam were early entries, I remember) and watched them again and again. (Woody Allen never recovered the early form shown in that Herbert Ross movie, IMO. A controversial opinion – till he was accused of child abuse…)

The videotapes were made by Thorn and cost a lot. I numbered them and tape 2 was devoted to pop music. I used to record things off Top Of The Pops (no remote; I’d sit there with 2 fingers on the keys, not buttons, waiting…)

I remember taping Martha And The Muffins’ Echo Beach. I rerecorded over it quite soon but a fraction of it remained, the introduction.

I’ve just discovered that the sleeve of the single shows a map of Chesil Beach, near which an old friend now lives. And the title refers not to an actual beach but to a reference in Hiroshima Mon Amour by Ultravox! (John Foxx era), which would have meant a lot to me at 16. I know it’s out of fashion and a trifle uncool but…

brain damage

As a brain damage sufferer/survivor, I’ve observed the same symptoms in Dominic Raab. The slowness of speech and the occasional sense that he has no idea what he’s actually saying. My heart bleeds for him – but it does raise the question: should he be Foreign Secretary? Esher and Walton, of which he is the MP, would of course vote in a brain-damaged man as long as he was a Tory. But still…

I wonder if they play rugby at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, of which he is an alumnus? (Along with Roger Moore – I could see Raab fancying himself as James Bond material.) He DEFINITELY was a boxing blue at Oxford and captained the karate club there. Brain damage? That might explain how the son of a Jewish Czech, who came over in 1938, has allied himself with the pro-Brexit wing of the party. A man for whom the racist chant ‘send him back’ could have been invented. (Like Javid and Patel, as it happens.)

As Jodie Foster says in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: WEIRD!

Needs

I told myself, aged 5 or so: Ah well, everybody else seems so sure of things; I’ll just keep quiet about my needs. Which were – primarily – to be loved.

I remember once being at home, aged slightly older than was thought appropriate (maybe – gasp – 6!). I was tired and I wanted to be carried upstairs to bed. Whether I said ‘carry me, carry me’ or I had it said for me, ‘carry me, carry me’ became a joke at my expense. So I lay there on the floor downstairs, wailing, and everybody else went upstairs and ‘laughed’ about it.

And eventually I stopped crying, picked myself up, went upstairs and to bed.

So, that established a pattern – a pattern of not having emotional needs, which finally reached its conclusion in 2014 in the woods outside Mistley…

I had not less needs but MORE, after the stroke, and that was inadmissible.