Out Now!

Friday, 29 January 2010

The 'Belief Gene'

“Your Mound of Venus is soft but very well-formed,” I murmured, tracing my thumb across her skin.

She edged closer, clearly excited. “Will I have children?”

“Three,” I said, holding her palm closer to the light. As chat-up techniques go, it’s hard to beat palmistry.

Just then I sensed movement, a table jerked, the clink of glass. I looked up, too late to relinquish the woman’s hand. A giant of a man was coming towards me, tattoos on either arm. Her boy friend and his eyes were fixed on mine.

I looked round. One friend had gone; the other was staring intently into his drink. I tried a smile, too late to do anything else.

My worst nightmare loomed over the table, his breath a foetid mix of curry, beer and tobacco. His fist hovered inches from my face and then slowly unfurled.

“Can you read mine, mate?”

That was Swansea, a pub in the Mumbles. Then I’d been a student. Now I was in New York, thinking on it as I awaited my turn.

It was a ‘Fortune Telling Party’ – a regular party with food and drink, and a strange old woman sitting in semi darkness. Her name was Madeleine and she read Tarot – about as well as I read palms.

She told me I was disappointed in the US and that I’d be better off at home. I wondered if she worked for Immigration, and examined my cards.

Her finger shot forwards, jabbing several with force. I had all the money cards, which meant financial success, luck with contracts and ‘open doors’. I suppose financial success is relative, but with all those money cards I expected to be working for Goldman Sachs by now.

She did however strike lucky with one prediction. I would marry and have two children, a boy and a girl, but for some strange reason thought my wife would be called Audrey or Jean. Then dark clouds gathered. I was to avoid motor-bikes at all costs. The picture was blurred but death and a motor-bike figured strongly.

Her finger stroked another card. I wouldn’t be in teaching all my life. Great I thought – she ‘foresees’ retirement. Her eyes met mine. “I think you will be a writer,” she said.

She also ‘saw’ someone in my family with mental illness, and another who’d suffered from a stroke. Both were dead but were still looking out for me, one feeling guilty for what he had or hadn’t done.

From then on I couldn’t stop her. She ‘saw’ travel, ‘saw’ me inherit or win money – and then it was over and I was ushered into the light.

Joanne Halpin, an attractive and very intelligent student – one of the many I taught at St Agnes – took my place. She came out confused. She’d be married by twenty-one to a Yugoslav or an Iranian. She would be a therapist and study in a college beginning with the initial P somewhere in Hawaii.

I felt like asking her whether she fancied a second opinion, but my hand-reading days were over, and her ‘future’ seemed interesting at least.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Bud Schuman brought it alive

“Ottilie?” The voice wavered up the lift-shaft into every apartment.


“Aunt Ottilie?”


Ottilie was profoundly deaf, her nephew less so, but neither stood a chance against an intercom system based on voice recognition. Eventually someone in the Apartment block would buzz him admittance and Bud Schumann would enter the building.

Bud was an American of the old school, Republican, prosperous, sensible jacket and a house in Long Island. He was proud of his country, immensely generous and, with his wife Edith, a very gracious lady, took it upon himself to show me everything there was to be shown along with several good restaurants.

On one day alone, December 20th they took me to Riverside Interdenominational Cathedral for a Carol Service followed by supper at the Rockefeller Centre where we watched ice-skaters gliding aimlessly in circles while we ate hot chestnuts, and ended the evening in the Waldorf Astoria where a coffee cost 15 dollars.

Riverside Cathedral and Rockefeller Centre

Waldorf Astoria Main lobby and Waldorf Astoria Silver corridor

Bud was extraordinarily keen to show me everything. Two months earlier they arranged for me to observe 5 classes in a Long Island school (Baldwin). This was followed by a visit to Uniondale School where I saw armed police on the campus and dancing cheerleaders dressed in yellow. Later that night I dreamt of dancing policemen and cheerleaders armed with guns. That might have been due to the food.

We ate in a Burt Bacharach restaurant after a final, very extensive tour of Long Island which included a visit to an Air Museum. This was interesting. It was amazing to see how really primitive the Apollo space capsule looked close up.

The following day (Oct 23) saw another extensive tour of Long Island alleviated by a meal of fried clams at a riverside restaurant followed by another meal at the end of the day at a restaurant called the Rusty Cutter.

It was a great joy when, a few years later Bud and Edith came to Wales and I was able, on a smaller scale, to return their hospitality – receiving in return a large coffee table book on…Long Island. They really loved Long Island.

When he heard that I was teaching Roosevelt and the New Deal to GCSE students he was eager to participate and inadvertently shatter some cosy illusions. All our text books conformed to the accepted convention that Hoover was an unmitigated disaster and that Roosevelt’s charisma and ‘Try anything’ attitude had saved the day.

Bud stood up, a survivor of the Great Depression, full of stories of hardship and adversity and how he’d overcome it through luck and hard work. But what surprised my students most of all was his hatred of Roosevelt. Bud was an old style Republican warrior and he did my students an invaluable service, illustrating that no one source can tell the whole story, whether text book or oral testimony. They knew that in theory, Bud Schuman brought it alive.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

New York doesn't do Tripe

A shapely leg clad in fishnet tights hovered horizontally in shadow, the rest of her body for the moment out of vision. Then the rest of her emerged, or rather erupted: a small, middle-aged woman in black tux jacket, and holding a shiny top hat.

Marge Mallen had the voice of a corn-crake but she belted out ‘New York, New York’ like everything depended on it. Marge was warm and goodhearted, she could be argumentative, held feuds for a time, but above everything else Marge Mallen was fun. She put me in mind of a raucous sparrow and, like me, found kindred spirits in two men, Bob and Tom.

Marge’s last days were miserable, and she died in a way no one would want to experience for themselves, but then she sang New York, New York, Edith Piaf with a Brooklyn twang.

Bob and Tom lived in the apartment immediately below mine. For me they epitomised the best of New York, generous, urbane, sometimes outrageous, and imbued with a razor sharp wit. Tom was, is still, a very successful interior designer and their apartment took my provincial breath away. The highlight of the week was their telephone call inviting me down for a drink.

Memory is willful and not always accurate, but in my mind I’m sprawled on a deep and comfortable chair, holding a generous Manhattan. The lighting is dim, rich plum-coloured walls highlighting various pieces: small statuettes, in metal or porcelain, vases and bowls.

In the half-light we could have been in Babylon, or Greece, Syracuse, Pompeii. Talking was easy, often ribald, and the scotch - sometimes wine, strong and red was sipped between laughter until the small hours of the morning. Fortunately the elevator always worked and I never needed the stairs.

My own attempts to reciprocate were not entirely successful. I remember them asking me about ‘ethnic’ English cooking once, and racking my brains I came up with Tripe and Onions. Tripe is the inside of a cow’s stomach, cleaned and bleached to a pristine whiteness. Cooked with onions in milk and served with mashed potato it has a sweet and earthy taste and for some, admittedly a diminishing number, it remains the ultimate comfort food.

Bob and Tom looked mildly perturbed but gave me the benefit of the doubt and they came for dinner the following weekend. In the meantime I scoured the shops for tripe, meeting little success. New York doesn’t do tripe.

Eventually I struck lucky, or at least convinced myself that I had. I stared at it. American tripe looked different. It was brownish and had a strong smell. For a second or two I hesitated, then, possessed by fatal optimism, I bought two pounds of the stuff.

Within thirty minutes I knew I’d made a dreadful mistake. The stench was foul, rich and all pervasive. My apartment had become a tannery. Only later did I learn that American tripe is used for dog food and in consequence not cleaned for human consumption.

I forget what I eventually served Bob and Tom, but the windows were open, and it wasn’t dog food.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Just call me Tonto

St Agnes’s began and finished early. By mid afternoon I’d be flat on my back in Ron’s sunroom, drinking beer and watching Barney Miller on TV. Sometimes I’d buy wine or cooked meat from a local charcuterie. Unfortunately both stores were owned by Argentineans, who were at war with us at the time. Moreover they had strong views – one of them burnt the British flag outside the UN.

Sacrifices were made. I ate Italian, but there was no other liquor store within walking distance. From that moment on, what I drank depended on what I could point at, along with my unconvincing American grunt.

Mind you, there were compensations. In the staffroom, elderly nuns gave me the thumbs up, as though I’d just got back from active service or been personally responsible for the sinking of the Belgrano. My stock rose even higher when I got involved in the capture of a mugger.

We were coming home from school. John Scanlon was driving. John was a lean, intense man, who hid his face behind a small but ferocious beard, strange hats, usually tartan, and dark rimmed glasses. Suddenly a woman screamed as a wiry figure in track-top and jeans seized her handbag and veered across the road in front of us. John didn’t hesitate. He swung the car to the kerb and with Napoleonic vigour told me what to do:

‘Follow him down that alley,’ he snapped. ‘I’ll head him off at the other end.’

The car screeched away and I was halfway down the alley before doubt kicked in. What the bloody blue fuck was I doing? Watching Barney Miller was one thing, but this was more Starsky and Hutch - without the cardigans.

My brisk pace slowed to a saunter. Even if I over-powered the guy, was I empowered to make a citizen’s arrest? I pondered on the constitutional position, wondered whether an alien’s arrest would somehow suffice, thought on the nuns and their furtive thumbs up.

Damn John Scanlon, I thought and resumed my pursuit.

I caught up with them at the other end of the alley. John had the mugger pinned against the wall, the woman’s bag sandwiched between their feet. As I arrived the mugger wrenched free – but not for long. He had been delayed and Phone calls had been made. We watched him race across the road - directly into the path of a patrol car. John had been the Lone Ranger, which I guess made me Tonto, only the nuns didn’t see it that way. I’d just sunk another Belgrano. That night I risked the Argentinean liquor store and pointed at a bottle of wine.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A bottle of gin and a very large straw

To this day I don’t know what happened in Alien, other than a brief and disturbing image of something reptilian erupting from a man’s stomach. We were sitting in the Odeon off Chepstow Road in Newport, Lol Lutman, myself, two bottles of gin and a packet of straws, though we only needed two. The cinema was warm, the straws seductive, and we sipped with the same thoughtless compulsion as those eating popcorn close by, only considerably quieter. Long before the film ended I was floating like a baby, in gin rather than amniotic fluid, wondering when and who would deliver me.

Nothing like that happened in America. Checking my diary, I note that on January 11th I saw ‘Reds’ in Manhattan with John Scanlon, Chariots of Fire with a girl called Kathy on the 30th January, followed by a drink in Pub 74 where we overheard ‘love-talk’ from a late middle-aged man to a seventeen year old girl. It was better than the film.

My last excursion to the cinema (or Picture House as we used to call them in Liverpool) was on 28th May when I saw ‘Conan the Barbarian’ in Flushing. Something brushed against my leg. I assumed it was a cat. I don’t know why. Either that or a very short woman. Then I saw two rats gamboling down the central aisle. It was an afternoon matinee, so presumably they got discount. I spent the rest of the film with my feet resting on the seat in front, eating popcorn guardedly and wishing for a bottle of gin and a very large straw.

The cinema in Flushing sans rats.