did you ever think life would be such a party
with bright lights
warming your skin with abandon
abandoned to delights
far from knowing
where they lead
yet secure in
mushy with heady intoxicants
did you ever think that?
did you ever think life would be such a party
with bright lights
warming your skin with abandon
abandoned to delights
far from knowing
where they lead
yet secure in
mushy with heady intoxicants
did you ever think that?
I met Connie in London on a cold, bright November afternoon. I was there on business, or, more precisely, on commission, my job to sell and service photocopiers. He was there grieving. Only the day before his sister, he told me the details later, had been crushed beneath a bus, dying of horrendous injuries and in great pain, probably, both legs amputated above the knee in a hopeless effort by surgeons to save her.
I can still, after all these years, recollect the moment we met. It was on London Bridge. I was looking down at the river boats when I realised this striking figure by my side. Though short he expressed a dignified strength sourced of suffering. I was attracted at once.
– Are you staring at me? he asked.
– At the view, I replied.
– I thought you were staring at me. I’ve just lost my sister. She fell under a bus.
– My deepest condolences. Was it an accident?
– Are you a detective?
– No. But it might help with the insurance.
– How thoughtful mate. I’ll bear that in mind.
– My pleasure. May I be of any further assistance?
– Are you an undertaker? he asked.
– Do I look like one? I replied, somewhat insulted by the suggestion.
– No, your hands are far too dirty. What’s that on them?’
– Are you a writer? he speculated and I saw no reason to challenge this, though the truth was it was grime from an old machine I’d been trying to fix earlier at an office in Tottenham Court Road. I felt I could tell him anything and he’d go along for the ride.
– Yes, I ventured, Crime novels.
(Though I had never read one in my life. I hoped he was not a fan.)
– Trash! He looked disappointed. I prefer history or the old classics. There’s grist in them. Something to chew on.
– I quite agree. I write only for the money.
– Does it pay well?
– Enough so I can travel.
– Where are you from mate?
– A great country. Wonderful people.
He came forward, embraced me. We exchanged names. He hugged me again tightly.
– I love Australia. Kangaroos. Koalas. The Melbourne Cup.
– Have you been?
– I’ve friends there, he answered. Many friends. One in particular. She’s famous.
He looked worried.
– What is it?
– My sister.
– The one who just died?
– We weren’t close to be honest.
– I’m sorry.
– No worries mate. It’s a blessing she’s gone to tell the truth, and I know that’s blasphemy, save me God.
At this he crossed himself extravagantly. Too extravagantly I thought, like someone who mimics in order to make clear their contempt.
– I was hoping to leave this awful country tomorrow, he continued. But I suppose there will have to be an inquest?
– I’m sure you can slip away, leave a note behind, I suggested. The police will be in touch if they need to.
– Are you sure? You sound like you have experience?
– I lost a sister too.
– Beneath a bus?
– That would have been quicker I fancy. No. She slipped in the kitchen, impaling herself on a carving knife left point up in the dishwasher. I happened to be out at the time buying a joint of meat.
– How bizarre.
– Yes. And the joint was quite rotten by the time I was ready to eat again. Stunk the fridge out for months.
Connie started to laugh. A rolling laugh that made passers-by stare, resume their walk eyes cast back revealing either amusement or disdain.
I joined in with his laughter, sealing our friendship, equalled by my joy in what, then, I innocently took to be his delight in buffoonery. It took longer before I understood his urgent need for comfort and recognition. In that he was no different from any of us. Except he bore no hypocrisy. He came at you full chat and needed certainty as he chased death.
Unrecognised he may be. But in my estimation Connie [C.H.] Constantine can hold his head high. How often does a person come along so unreformed?
These stories are his memoir.
[To be continued.]
This afternoon I take a different route to the train station in Sydney. As I walk up the high street I notice a man in a trilby sitting at a small desk typing. There’s some cardboard on the front of the desk scrawled with the word writer. I’m about to move on but the sound of typing stops me and I turn.
I need something to write about, the man says.
He’s about mid-thirties, wearing a pale linen jacket with a tie, plus the trilby.
What’s happened to you today that’s interesting? he asks.
I tell him about the lunch I’ve had at a Japanese restaurant, how I had salmon that was the best I’ve had, literally melting in the mouth.
I like that, he says. I’ll make a note of that.
I ask if he’s always here.
No, he says, and hands me a slip of paper announcing a cultural week in the suburb.
I thank him and step back into the moving line of people heading for the station.
At the station I go and buy a copy of Big Issue, handing the vendor $10 when it costs $9 and saying to keep the change. After my encounter with the writer I feel positive and full of good intent. On the train opposite is an elderly man, perhaps my age but more care worn. He’s got his shoes and socks off and is slouching across two seats. Perhaps he’s tired. He doesn’t look like he’s drunk. There’s a newspaper at his toes in a foreign language I can’t make out. After one stop he shuffles and picks up the paper. I see the masthead: it’s Turkish paper for those living in Australia. To his left at the far end of the bench seat sits a well-dressed woman, perhaps late twenties. She’s also reading a book. I glance at the title The Boy who was raised as a dog. Is she a psychologist? She gets off at the station before mine so I’ll never know.
Some four hours later, at 9.30pm, I’m getting the taxi home from my local airport. The taxi driver speaks about how wonderful the countryside is around these parts, although we can see none, washed out by bright street lights. He has only just taken up driving.
Savings were getting eaten away, he says. I do this a couple of nights a week. Gets me out of the house!
I speak about a nearby town that has an art gallery. He brightens. Says when he was living in Melbourne he used to collect art, and his sister is an artist and she’s visiting at Christmas. Within 30 seconds he’s told me his sister’s life: how she was in corporate, decided she wanted to do art, was poohoo’d by family and others but stuck to her dreams.
When she comes out here she doesn’t go to the beach but to the bush to find things to paint, he says.
Take her to the gallery, I say.
He has an accent I can’t place and when I’m settling up I ask where he’s from.
South Africa, he says. How good to speak to some intelligentsia, he says, as he hands me the receipt.
I laugh and wish him well.
Nice to have met you, he says as I leave.
The piano stands upright and proud in a corner of a spare room. The keys have not been touched for a generation. Many are the colour of bad teeth. The name Bluthner is inscribed in gold leaf on the dark wood, a name so foreign sounding Jessica imagines it might have come from Africa, a place she has been reading about in an old encyclopaedia her Aunt Lydia has given her. A dark and sinful country, it would be sure to have tribes of Bluthners she thinks.
One afternoon she walks up to the instrument purposefully. She knows what she must do. The house is quiet, her aunt is in the kitchen happily occupied baking a cake. She sits herself on the stool with its faded crimson cushion, places her feet gently on the pedals (she has been reading up on Piano in the encyclopaedia), spreads her fingers and counts slowly and deliberately from left to right until she identifies middle C. She pushes it down with her thumb. But there’s no sound. The piano is mute. She tries again. Still nothing. The key sticks and does not rise. She pushes the key to the right, which she has read is called D, and this time there is a response. She does it again, listens intently, is dissatisfied and moves to the next and the next and the next until she reaches the end of the keyboard. She goes the other way and does the same. She remembers how many keys have stuck, closes the lid, tucks the stool under and runs to the kitchen.
– The piano does not sing, she tells her aunt.
– It has lost its voice, Lydia replies, offering Jessica a spoon covered in a sweet creamy mix. We will have to bring it back to life.
The piano tuner is booked for late morning when Lydia knows her husband will be absent. He is an old man, unshaven smelling of drink. The truck he drives is battered, belching grey smoke. He strips the instrument of its outer skin, revealing the massive upright ironwork frame inside, takes some tools from a blue canvas bag and sets to work. He shakes his head a lot, mutters incoherently under his breath, closes his eyes to assist concentration, or because he is tired, and after an hour tells Lydia: It’s not worth the trouble, nor the money. It’s too far gone. Only value is firewood.
Jessica is upset when told the news.
– It has a soul, she says, surprising her aunt. There must be someone else, someone who will understand?
Lydia contacts another firm who send two young men driving a shiny white van, the company name in black copperplate on the sides, underneath the statement: Piano Surgeons. She feels more confident this time and is thrilled when they tell her after their preliminary examination that the Bluthner is worth restoration, that it is: A marvellous instrument, one of the finest of its age we have ever seen. Sure, it is rather sad at the moment after decades of neglect. But the soundboard is in excellent condition. We will restore its spirit for you, young lady.
– Are you the pianist in the family? The other asks as they prepare to manoeuvre it into the van.
– I will be one day, she says.
Lydia engages a piano teacher. Her name, appropriate for a piano teacher, is Ethel, Ethel Jonkins, and she is, it will come as no surprise, a spinster. Jessica is delighted and can barely wait for the first lesson with the thought of meeting a real spinster. She hopes she is friendly.
She is bitterly disappointed.
The lessons go badly from the start, Jessica complaining that Miss Jonkins must be a witch because she stinks of something awful, foul smelling. Mothballs, Lydia can tell, very strong ones too.
She asks around and is directed to a Jonathan Swift. She visits his house on the edge of town and is impressed by the two grand pianos in what he describes grandiloquently as his music room. She examines the framed certificates hanging on the wall, the most impressive from the London College of Music, 1947. She likes the fact he is the namesake of a famous writer. It adds another dimension and he is pleased also she has made the connection. Few in this town are as well read as you, he says.
– Is he a spinster? Jessica asks.
– He is a bachelor, she answers, adding, It’s the same as a spinster, but for men.
– Does he smell?
Lydia says no, while recalling there was a dampness about the room.
Jessica is happy and the lessons proceed well for a few weeks, if made more difficult by the lack of the Bluthner at home. Mr Swift says she is welcome to drop by any afternoon to practice, an offer Lydia accepts with enthusiasm, discreetly leaving a few dollars on a table in the hallway as a gratuity, though the teacher insists he is doing this for free because Jessica is such a delight to have around.
– I have few visitors, he says.
Jessica listens to his stories about Mozart, the child prodigy he calls him.
– The greatest musician who ever lived bar one: the incomparable Bach.
He turns his back on her, breathes deeply. She watches his shoulders relax, his long hands rest on the black and white keys and, though she cannot see them, knows his eyes are closed. Only then, settled in a space far removed from this, does he begin the sublime aria from the Goldberg Variations.
On the dusty drive home Jessica tells her aunt she is going to learn that piece. Lydia is thrilled. It is one of her favourites. She still has a treasured vinyl recording of Glenn Gould’s interpretation, something she has revealed to no one. Nor this. That when she was young she too wanted to play the piano but her parents could never afford lessons, let alone the price of an instrument. Instead, she listened to the radio and, when she was old enough to work at weekends, saved hard to buy a record player.
She remembers sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the magic box, entranced, marvelling at how a needle trapped in a spiralling grove can reproduce this polyphony of sounds. She watches it bobbing this way and that, waiting for the moment at the end when it rises, moves back across the surface of the glistening black disk and, with a sharp click, comes to rest from where it started. Decades pass, she marries, moves to the property and there, in a room, is the Bluthner, left by the last owner, or perhaps the one before. Who knows. Her husband wants to get rid of it but she talks him round.
– Maybe when we have children they might show an interest, she ends.
He acquiesces and soon forgets about it as work takes him criss-crossing the country, leaving him exhausted on his return, the last thing on his mind a battered piano. Finding it unplayable Lydia forgets about it too. Until the day Jessica sits on the faded crimson cushion.
Bach now occupies Jessica’s thoughts. In her encyclopaedia she reads the entry about him over and over. Though there are lots of words she does not understand – cantata, counterpoint, fugue – she believes she has found a soul mate, even if he is an old and dead German composer. That night an electrical storm breaks the silence, igniting the sky with jabs of white, filling clouds with bursts of light. In bed, restless and agitated she finds comfort humming the Goldberg aria.
To be continued….
If I was to marry an Australian and move over there I had to learn to swim. I hated water. Not just hated – feared. When I was about six or seven I’d been with my parents in a rowing boat on a river in Somerset. It had capsized and I can still recall being underwater and drowning and somehow being pulled out and the next thing I’m sitting in someone’s bathroom being comforted. But if I had to learn to swim then learn I would. At the time we were living in south London, with a public pool filled with muck, pubic hair and excrement. However, I was fortunate enough to have a good teacher who made me confront my demons. Within a couple of months I could swim a width. Victory.
So, swimming wasn’t an issue.
What about the heat?
My father, always a pragmatic man, reminded me Australia was a hot country. Would I cope? I don’t know, I replied, but isn’t being warm better than being cold? It saves heaps on heating bills. I doubt that convinced him but I was certain Australia was the way to go. Buy acreage. Build a house. Live the simple life. I am a romantic in outlook.
In 2003 we finally took the plunge and put the house on the market. Over the 16 years we’d lived there we’d made huge improvements: an extension at the rear that led directly on the garden and, just finished before we decided to sell, a master bedroom in what had been the loft, complete with en-suite. And, of course, my ‘art studio’ at the end of the garden.
South London was a good place to live. Sure there was crime and violence. Police helicopters would buzz around some nights, searchlights hunting out someone on the run; and we were burgled once by an intruder who got in over the garden fence, slipped in through an open door while we were upstairs, snatching a laptop and a handbag. Then there was the afternoon I returned to find the street cordoned off and police cars stationed at either end. There had been a shooting and it was a few hours before we were let back in, while police patrolled up and down the road far into the night.
But these were isolated incidents, part of living in London. You took it as it came and just got on with things. A few of our Australian friends, especially those who had not travelled, would ring us after some particularly bad incident, a bomb going off or a particularly hideous murder, and ask if we were okay, believing London to tumbling into anarchy and not safe after dark. They watched police shows like The Bill, co-incidentally filmed not far from where we lived, their suspicions confirmed.
Our neighbourhood was culturally diverse. Our son was in the minority as a white kid at school. Not that it mattered one jot – one of his best friends was from Sri Lanka. A couple of doors up from us was a Caribbean family, their daughter a distinguished athlete. They lived next door to Derek, a retired tradie who was always on at the ‘blacks’ and teased them in a roguish way without malice. There was no political correctness here, no need of it, because everyone got on with one another, like people do, helping out when needed, leaving one another alone most of the time.
The house the other side of us was owned by a church and had various tenants, though for a long time there was a family there with three teenage kids who worked and studied hard and were hardly in the garden, which I always thought a little odd. The church didn’t spend on maintenance but when it did come time to redecorate we were taken aback at the sea green colour chosen for the window frames, perhaps because it was going cheap at the hardware store, a colour no one in their right mind would select. When they left a young couple moved in, whose humping antics we could hear clearly through the party wall most nights. They didn’t stay long and were followed by a Ghanaian couple who we never saw until after the birth of our daughter. Seeing so many cars and visitors calling at our house, they knocked one morning thinking there had been a death in the family and wanted to offer condolence. Some months later we knocked on their door and they answered holding a baby we had never known was due.
My father kick started the sale. The agent’s board had been up for some weeks and, though there had been a few viewings, no sensible offers had been made. It was the end of summer 2003, our plans had been to be in Australia by the year-end but that was looking unlikely. Then one Sunday my parents came to visit. Dad was still out the front fiddling with something and when I went to find what was keeping him found him talking to a young couple. They lived in a flat around the corner, had noticed the sign and were interested. My Dad, who had spent his life as a salesman, said: Why not come in now and take a peek? He looked at me encouragingly, biding me to agree, which I did, though the house was a mess, Sunday lunch being prepared and not a bed made anywhere. Everything a house shouldn’t be when showing around prospective buyers. This didn’t bother my father who guided them around, extolling this and that feature, as I made the rear and gradually fell into the pitch.
That night we received a phone call. They would like to make an offer.
Welcome back. Much has changed since my last post back in July 2020. But let’s not talk about the C!
This year I’d like to try something different: to expand the scope of the blog beyond typography, in fact to everything! What got me thinking this way was checking out Substack this morning. I was wondering if this might be the way to go but then realised – hell no. I’ve already got a blog and some who follow it. Surely be better, I mused, to build on this small following than start out afresh. Therefore, I propose to incorporate my musings on life as seen from the perspective of a 60+ year old, white, Englishman who’s lived in Australia for the past 16 years. Yes, there will still be typography from time to time but a lot more too.
Let me know what you think.
To begin here’s something I wrote in 1975: my recording of a conversation between two women sitting on a station platform in south London as they patiently wait for their train.
Someone was singing Waltzing Maltida. The air was given a shrill rendering by a man just coming down the steps leading to the London platform. People cast an eye towards him – someone too gay in the morning is one person too many; it makes all others sad. The two women turned to each other. Both wore glasses, both had their legs crossed.
‘You know you can’t get the bus from Kingston now?’ one of them started. ‘So I’ve had to catch the 171 which takes you right round the world. It’s fortunate I can catch that or else I wouldn’t be able to visit my sisters regularly. You know it’s dreadful the way they’re operating these services. Just like the trains.’
‘And what about the 161?’
‘That goes right out of my way. It has to be the 171.’
‘Yes. Do you know I’ve discovered you can have your teeth repaired as you wait? I never go to work without my teeth. I’d rather have a couple of days sick than be seen without!’
‘How are they now, your teeth?’
‘Well, to be honest, I’ve had some trouble with them. When I first got them they kept slipping out and, of course, I had to send them away for a week or so. But they’ve been okay recently.’
‘I think it’s going to be fine today, though they’ve forecast the rain. There was a red sky this morning.’