Sunday, 26 July 2015
Yes, this is a rant. But it's a rant about something real, something meaningful. The metrocentric suits of the current Labour Party should be as outraged at what they've allowed to happen, just as this man is. Where's the passionate argument in the slick, on-message blathering of Kendall, Cooper and Burnham? If it takes a manic performancelike this to stir up anger, then let him rave. He's nailed it, big-style.
Tuesday, 21 July 2015
DAVID CAMERON’S DREAM
Well, comrades, here he is, in all his glory at the poignant and emotional Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival on July 19th - Jeremy Corbyn, the man the Tories fervently hope will win the Labour leadership election. It’s a rousing speech, packed with truth and common sense. But what was once a mighty steam locomotive, the Labour Party, is now nothing more than a battered little clockwork train set, something the Bullingdon Boys’ nanny has scattered over the Axminster for George, David and Boris to play with.
Corybyn’s heartfelt rhetoric is meat and drink to an old leftie like me, but there are bitter social and political bullets to bite. Prominent among these is the fact that the current generation of adult voters are basically ‘Thatcher’s Children’. They have had the notions of equality, compassion, public service and fair play blow-torched from their souls by decades of aggressive right wing corporate propaganda. The poor have participated in their own demonisation; just watch Benefits Street, Benefits by the Sea and all the other poverty-porn, and there they are, being manipulated by media Svengalis with all the skills of Josef Goebbels. They have been taught in a rough fashion that the word ‘socialism’ is some kind of semantic Ebola. They have opted for the quasi-racist vacuity of UKIP and the blatant lies of a cabinet of millionaires who have convinced them that the only viable society is one run by global corporate finance. Profit before people; the only way. Selling socialism to this electorate, or the 56% of young people who decided not to vote, is as valid as selling snow to Eskimos. They don’t want a fair society. They proved that beyond doubt on May 7.
If Corbyn wins the leadership election, such a result would send orgasmic tremors throughout the British media. Murdoch, Dacre, the Barclay Brothers and the entire Tory Party will crack open the Bollinger by the crate. All the fascistic-tinged rhetoric will be wheeled out; ‘Evil, Out-Dated Reds’ will be splashed across front pages, Britain’s ‘recovery’ will be ‘endangered’ and every past aspect of Corbyn’s life will be dragged up. If the Tory establishment could saddle Miliband with the sobriquet ‘Red Ed’, then they’ll have a field day with this leader - he’ll be everything from Stalin through to Trotsky and Pol Pot.
So, is there anything positive for an old socialist to enjoy should Jeremy win? Well, yes, actually, there is. It will highlight the rank and file’s utter disgust for the treachery of fervent Tory-supporters like Harriet Harman and Liz Kendall. But the nicest thing will be this. As the Labour Party is now little more than a shambling zombie shadow, bereft of any of its original values, it will indeed be stone dead by the end of this year. But it would be nice to think that, with Corbyn as leader, as the decaying corpse is lowered into the grave (or tossed into Trotsky’s ‘dustbin of history’) that it will be buried with its old socialist heart still beating.
|Picking up the Banner 1957-1960. Painted by Gely Mikhailovich Korzhev-Chuvelev, 1925-.|
At Russian State Museum. Oil on Canvas, 156 x 290cm.
As for those of us old flat-earthers left behind, we can live out our lives like banished cave-dwellers on the fog-bound slopes of a mountain of dreams. We’re the fag-ends of a vanishing species who believed in a society where everyone cared about everyone else, a world where the words ‘welfare’ ‘care’ and ‘compassion’ had not been replaced by two gilt-edged catch-all nouns; AUSTERITY and GREED.
Vote Corbyn and let’s go out with a bang.
Wednesday, 15 July 2015
Never Forget your Umbrella
Sex: the thing that takes up the least amount
of time and causes the most amount of trouble.
The forbidding exterior in 1930 of what was to become Gravesend Sea Training School.
The following is an extract from my Merchant Navy memoir, ALL ABOARD THE CALABOOSE. In January 1959 I arrived at Gravesend for a 6 week course on catering which saw me eventually entering the Merchant Navy as a steward on my 16th birthday April 1 1959. Back then few of us knew much about sex. Therefore it was down to the government's Crown Film Unit to tell us would-be mariners just how life threatening a bit of illicit nooky could be. DON'T READ THIS IF YOU'RE SQUEAMISH.
There were lots of different things we needed to know about before we sailed around the world. Those old Gravesend instructors came from that put-upon, wartime generation where caution and good manners were the order of the day. We were warned about personal hygiene, for example. If I had opted for an apprenticeship as a plumber or a bricklayer I doubt whether my boss would have been too bothered if I farted now and again or had cheesy armpits. It would have been the adept manipulation of the pipes, bricks or wiring which mattered. Nor would he have been concerned if I belched, sneezed or had less than pristine fingernails. The same lack of concerns, for all I know, probably extended to the lads on the deckhand’s course, but for us stewards, everything, from your teeth to your haircut to the shine on your shoes was of maximum importance. And we were constantly reminded about manners and etiquette. Step aside for the lady; open the door for her. Call her madam, call him sir. Smile; assume a posture which demonstrated dignified servility. Always hold a chair for a lady, be discrete and gentle when offering to light her cigarette. Smile graciously. Be clean, clean, clean, and once you’d become clean, get washed again. Not too much Brylcreem or Brilliantine. Teeth cleaned morning, noon and night. Never smell of cigarettes. Those of you already growing whiskers, no five’o’clock shadow, no facial hair. Beards and ’taches were for film stars, not stewards. And tattoos maketh not the sailor. In fact, there were so many aspects to our potential grooming we were only a few places removed from becoming cardiac surgeons. In addition, all this hygiene had to be carried over into our personal life beyond the dining saloon, Mr. Hawkins duly warned us of this one rainy afternoon after showing us how to make mint sauce and carve a leg of lamb.
“After dinner tonight, lads, I need you all to assemble in the recreation hall at 8 ’o’clock for a very important talk about some special ladies who you are bound to meet on your travels. And you’ll have a very interesting film show. So be there – and that’s an order.”
It was a memorable gathering that night in the hall. The chairs were arranged, cinema-style, in rows, a screen had been erected and Mr. Hawkins and a man we were led to believe was a ‘medical officer’ stood at the back of the hall supervising a large film projector on a table. Captain Adams went to the front of the hall and called us all to attention.
“Pay attention, gentlemen, because the film you are about to see is crucial for you all, and if you take on board its implications the memory of this will keep you aware of your duty and your health. You are young men about to embark upon a career which will take you to distant lands, and you will experience exotic cultures and different ways of life. As sailors, it is inevitable that you will strike up relationships with the opposite sex.”
The very mention of the word ‘sex’ resulted in a ripple of subdued guffawing across the hall. Adams looked impatient.
“This means girls, and women.” More guffawing.
“Yes, you may be sniggering now, but unless you pay attention in detail to what you are about to see, then you’ll be laughing on the other side of your faces in a few months’ time and your career could well be over.”
This was all a trifle mystifying. The lights were turned out and the legend in stark white on a black background flickered onto the screen:
Crown Film Unit
Central Office of Information
Ministry of Health
Central Council for Health Education
I can’t recall the actual title of the film, but it involved the words ‘Danger’ and ‘Venereal Disease’. As I’ve already mentioned elsewhere, time and memory play tricks, so what follows is a hazy melange of the things I recall being included in this terrifying few hundred feet of celluloid.
During about 45 minutes we all went from cocky young testosterone-driven whippersnappers to sickened, paranoid wrecks. Images of poor servicemen’s mangy meat and two veg were juxtaposed with recreations of shady ‘foreign’ nightspots where immoral ‘floozies’ flashed their stocking tops as banknotes changed hands between them and various sailors and soldiers who disappeared up darkened stairways. There was maximum drinking and smoking involved and the occasional obligatory smoochy saxophone on the soundtrack. Eventually, these hapless young ‘men of the world’ were back in Blighty, visiting hospitals with pus running out of their willies - and suspicious scabs all over the place. The massed intake of breath from the gathering at each new level of horror almost created a window-crushing vacuum in the hall. There was one sad guy relating the treatment for clearing his urinary tract with the use of something casually referred to as ‘the umbrella’, a device probably designed by the Spanish Inquisition and patented by Torquemada. This would, apparently, in its umbrella-closed mode, be inserted into the end of the penis, thrust deep inside the urethra, and then the umbrella would be opened up and pulled out slowly to ‘scrape’ away any leprous accumulation, accompanied by maximum agony and much screaming. That’d bloody teach us to mess about with ‘loose’ women! The sledge-hammer morality oozing from the screen would have given Mary Whitehouse palpitations, had it not been for the frequent appearance of scabrous, crab-infested todgers. Then, by the time we’d got past the comparatively near-benign nature of gonorrhoea, we entered the mordant twilight zone of syphilis, complete with blindness, brain damage, wheelchairs and agonizing death. The whole thing was rounded up with a look at pubic lice, condoms, personal hygiene, how to wash behind the foreskin, etc., etc. As the whole grisly spectacle flickered to an end, the silence in the hall was complete. Captain Adams dismissed us and everyone filed out into the cold yard in abject silence.
What followed that night, in retrospect, was as poignant as it was hilarious. With just an hour to go before we were all due in our bunks for lights out, the wash house was packed with lads, trousers around their ankles (me included) scrubbing away furiously at their heavily soap-sudded nether regions. Considering that about 85% of us had never got beyond the ‘giggle band’, our only erotic liaison being our right hand, then the power of the Government Information film service was fully proven. To go to sea after this fearfully memorable episode and not see the opposite sex in a totally threatening light would take some doing. How would we know the difference between a woman and a ‘lady’? What lurking horrors of the flesh might lie behind a come-on smile? Not that any of us had ever had a ‘come-on smile’, but it was worrying none the less. For months to come, even the sight of lingerie in a shop window would have us scratching. Considering all this today, it’s also worth noticing how male-orientated such advice was. Men were the victims, women were the threat? But if that was the case, where did the women get these bugs from in the first place? We knew for a fact now, after watching the show that the old idea of contracting syphilis from a toilet seat was a non-runner. There was another film made at the time by the COI entitled The People at Number 19 in which a woman (again) has to face up to the fact she’s caught the clap, and suffer a breadknife-brandishing husband. Hopefully we’ve moved on a little since then, thanks to penicillin.
As the weeks rolled on, the January intake of 1959, the amassed owners of the cleanest genitals in Gravesend began to look forward to their final days and ultimate discharge, ready to go home and put their names down for the big adventure - their first ship. We had various tests and exams, and my friend Owen and I got through with flying colours. On the final Friday before being sent home on the Monday, we were given a most peculiar lecture by our favourite catering taskmaster, Mr. Hawkins. For once we’d had a decent lunch that day - sausages, as I remember, with onion gravy. We’d had a boat drill on the pier which jutted out into the Thames, and afterwards we were led into the hall by Hawkins, who snapped us all to rapt attention with a puckish grin on his round visage.
“Well, girls, you lot will be on your way home in a couple of days to your mums and dads.”
We’d noticed before that Hawkins had a penchant for referring to us as ‘girls’, which some of us were not particularly happy about.
“Now, girls, to begin with, when you join your first ship you’ll have the lowliest rank on board - even lower than the ship’s rats or the cat - catering boy. You’ll have to be on your guard, watch, listen and learn - and that means making sure that your superiors are kept very happy by your charming young company. The purser, the cook, the second steward, the chief steward, all these gentlemen will want you to make them happy. So if the chief calls you into his cabin late one night because he’s feeling lonely, then if you want to get on in life, it’ll be up to you to provide him with a little happiness.”
Owen nudged me and we exchanged glances. What the bloody hell was he on about? Somewhat bravely, Owen put his hand up. Hawkins beamed in his direction.
“Ah - a question - an inquiring mind. Yes?”
“Sorry sir,” said Owen, “I’m a bit puzzled - how can we make a chief steward or a cook any more happy - I mean, if we do our job right, won’t that be enough?”
Hawkins chuckled and nodded sagely.
Years later, I think we all had a complete understanding of what was, back then, Mr. Hawkins’s baffling scenario. It would become startlingly clear in the first months at sea that our fresh-faced innocence and lithe youthfulness could fetch a high premium out on the briny - if you were so inclined.
And so the great day came. We cleaned those damned shiny dustbins for the last time, collected our suitcases, all said goodbye to one another - sadly, forever - and caught our trains home. Riding home on Tuesday March 24th 1959 on the bus from Hull’s Paragon Station I was in a state of buoyant elation. I’d done it. I had a whole week to myself, and my 16th birthday, the age at which I was eligible to sail, was but 7 days away on April 1st. I’d had two years at a nautical school and six weeks at a sea training school, I had a passing out certificate, a seaman’s discharge book, and I was ready to go.
 The Giggle Band, you ask? This is a reference to that area of flesh (in the days before tights) where a woman’s stocking tops ended and the knickers began. As the old hands would say, ‘get past there and you’re laughing’.
ALL ABOARD THE CALABOOSE (400 pages) IS ONLY AVAILABLE TO FAMILY, FRIENDS AND OLD SAILORS, BUT IF YOU'D LIKE A COPY, MAIL ME AT firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll give you the details.
Monday, 13 July 2015
“It's only after we've lost everything
that we're free to do anything.”
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
The sun shone through the ornate windows of the Café Delmas and glittered on the cutlery. Sharon gazed out at the Parisians, or perhaps more accurately, the tourists, criss-crossing the Place de la Contrescape. Brian had been right, of course, and as he sat opposite, sipping his coffee, she could see that ‘I told you so’ look in his eyes. His romantic streak had brought them here to the City of Light, and perhaps, after 40 years together, she ought to have recognised what he’d had in mind. Yet dreamy though this all was, as she sat there, she couldn’t help replaying that day of argument a month before …
“Oh, bloody sodding great,” she spat the words out as if ejecting a wayward fly which had entered her mouth.
“Our 40th wedding anniversary, and despite everything I’ve said now you want us to go to Paris?”
“Well,” he said, trying to sound conciliatory, “it’s all about romance, surely?”
“Well it might be, but I know you. You’ve been banging on about Paris and all that period after the First World War ever since you saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. You’re not so much thinking about our romantic anniversary as trawling around places where Picasso and all that Bohemian lot hung out.”
“Well, that’s not fair. That’s all part of the romance of Paris, isn’t it?”
“It might well be, but you ignored me when I suggested Tuscany, and then I thought we’d agreed on Sicily. You’re as big a fan of Inspector Montalbano as I am - I wanted to see his apartment by the sea. Now it’s bloody Paris! And there’s the weather to contend with. It’ll be lovely in April in Sicily - but Paris?”
“Well, doesn’t the phrase ‘Paris in the spring’ mean anything?”
“Yes, but Palermo in the spring sounds even better.”
“But Paris is the most romantic city in the world.”
“And it’s full of pretentious French people!”
“Well - what about the Mafia?” he asked, in a quieter voice.
“The sodding Mafia?”
“Yes - the cosa nostra, the mob - Palermo - that’s their headquarters. We might get whacked.”
“Who do you think we are? Tony and Carmela Soprano? Are you some secret ‘made man’ or something? The bloody Mafia - you do talk crap some times.”
He flopped onto the sofa and lit a cigarette.
“OK, let’s do a deal. Three days in Paris, then we’ll fly to Sicily for three days.”
She sighed and shook her head.
“Yeah, right. We barely get unpacked in Paris before we’re packing again for Sicily. Some bloody anniversary holiday this is turning out to be.”
The argument continued. After a good night’s sleep, the next day she had been at the hairdressers. Mavis, the stout, middle-aged happy-go-lucky proprietor listened to the story of Paris vs. Palermo, her voice soaring above the hum of the hairdryers.
“Well, love, if you ask me, Paris is a better bet for an anniversary. I went there with my Jack before he died and it really is as romantic as they say it is. And it’s civilised. You know where you stand in a place like that. You’ve got great transport, the Metro, terrific restaurants, Notre Dame, the Seine … mind you, I don’t know much about Sicily but it looks a bit dilapidated to me. A lot of crime they say. I suppose you can get good pizzas and pasta there, but it’s not what I’d call a top tourist destination. But Paris? Oh, Sharon, you ought to give it a try, honest. You’ll thank me for it. Save Sicily for next year.”
And so they had agreed. A week in Paris and a week in Sicily the following year. Sharon felt defeated, and Brian was elated. Yet now they were in Paris, and indeed the mild spring was everything she’d hoped it would be, she had to admit that as an anniversary venue, there was none better.
After finishing their coffee they wandered along the crowded Rue Moffetard. Getting in with the ambience, Brian lit up a Gitanes and placed an arm around her shoulder.
“Well, what do you think?”
“All right, smartarse,” she said, “it’s all fine but for one thing.”
“You must be psychic. Yes. What’s it called again?”
“The Hotel Saint Medard.”
“I don’t know who Saint Medard was, but he would have to be a saint to have stayed there. And vertically challenged. It’s a dump.”
“Look, love, just because it’s old, and has historical character, doesn’t make it a dump. I know it’s a tough climb up those stairs to that top room - “
“Room? Hell, Brian, it’s a cupboard! Getting out of bed for a pee last night was an obstacle course. I sat on the edge of the bed and almost scraped my knees on the wall. All that creaky old panelling and floorboards. Our garden shed’s more comfortable.”
“Yes, all right, I get the message. But it’s booked and paid for now, and we only need to be there for bed and breakfast, so it’s not the end of the world. Come on, after we’ve checked out where Gertrude Stein and Cole Porter used to live, we’ll find a restaurant for tonight and get some champagne down our necks. That’s why we’re here.”
As they ambled along Sharon mulled over that last bit - ‘that’s why we’re here’. Of course they couldn’t be in Paris and not see all the artistic places of interest which occupied Brian so much, but if they’d been in Palermo there wouldn’t have been quite this amount of cultural tourism to deal with. She swore to herself that when they got to Sicily, she’d be in charge.
The Hotel Saint Medard was a four-storey ramshackle edifice down an ancient cul-de-sac off the Rue Monge. It seemed to have survived everything French history might have thrown at it. The Revolution, Napoleon, two world wars. It had obviously never been built as a hostelry. Perhaps, in the mists of time, some Parisian artisan family had lived here, but judging by the size of the rooms they could well have been dwarves. The un-carpeted stairs creaked with every step, the staircase winding its way up past the first three floors through narrow, almost Stygian gloom, the width so tight that you had to keep your elbows in to avoid scraping them on the ubiquitous timeworn, dark wood panelling.
After an afternoon of walking old streets and photographing various blue commemorative plaques, they had returned to the hotel to freshen up and get ready for their anniversary dinner.
From the tiny top window of their room, they could at least see the open spaces of the Square Capitan. Sharon gazed over at it as the afternoon sun cut low through the trees. It was an unusual sight, a mix of what appeared to be an outdoor arena and colourful flower beds.
“What’s that place, Brian?” He moved over to the window, his guide book in his hand. He leafed through the pages then began to read.
“Square Capitan. It was when Rue Monge was being built in 1870 that the Arènes de Lutèce were discovered. The inhabitants converted this Gallo-Roman amphitheatre into a cemetery when Lutetia was invaded by barbarians in 285 AD. It was then turned into a square in 1918. Square Capitan next to the Arènes de Lutèce is named after doctor, anthropologist and historian Louis Capitan, who redesigned it in the style of a formal Italian garden in 1916.”
“Thank you, Simon Schama,” she said, as he patted her gently on her derriere.
Whilst she struggled with the throes of ablution in the cramped shower cubicle, Brian pushed open the small window so that he could lean out for a smoke. As he moved into position with his elbows on the window ledge, his trousers became snagged on what appeared to be the head of a nail protruding from the wood panelling on the adjoining wall. As he cursed under his breath, tugging at his pants to release them, he began to thoroughly agree with Sharon. This place was too small for anything but hobbits. He’d begun to regret turning down a deal at the Holiday Inn in exchange for his surrender to a more historical experience. He bent down, yet as he tugged to free himself, suddenly the ancient nail slid out of the corner of the old panel. The wood became loose, and as he disentangled the nail from his trousers, he noticed that the panel was now jutting a good two inches from the wall.
Ever the curious romantic, Brian stared at this and pondered over the potential fact that this panelling had been in place for perhaps two centuries. Like a kid staring into a cave and expecting bats, he wondered what might be there in that narrow margin of blackness behind the loose corner of the panel. The temptation was too much; he tugged at the wood, and other tiny nails around its edges began to pop out until, with a creak and a cloud of grey dust, it fell away and onto his feet.
He was taken aback by what he saw. There, in a cavity about two feet deep, lay what appeared to be a leather suitcase. It was encrusted with dust and old cobwebs. Then a slight wave of panic overcame him. He was in an ancient Parisian hotel and he’d damaged the fabric of the room. What would the manager say, how much would this cost? Yet he calmed down, realising that he could easily put the panel back and perhaps knock the nails in with the heel of a shoe. It was that leather suitcase which began to obliterate any other concerns. He leaned down, carefully thrust his hand into the cavity and grabbed the handle. Whatever was in the case, it was heavy. He pulled it out but the handle had rotted slightly and bits of old leather flaked between his fingers. It was messy, but he still had the copy of the newspaper he’d read on the plane. He found it, spread the pages out to cover the double bed, and hauled the case onto it.
The locks on the case had all but rusted away, but they still held the lid in place. He tried to free them with his thumbs, but they seemed solid. He went over to his shoulder bag and retrieved his Swiss Army knife. He dug the blade into the key slots in the locks and first one, then the second, clicked open.
“What the bloody hell have you got there?”
Startled, Brian looked round to see his semi-naked wife drying herself with a towel, staring in horror at the mess on the bed. She then glanced at the hole in the wall and the panel on the floor.
“Brian! For God’s sake! Have you taken leave of your senses? What a bloody mess - this is a hotel, not a garden shed! Who do you think you are - Keith bloody Moon?” He realised how bad all this looked yet his heart raced with excitement. He raised his hands, palms outwards.
“It wasn’t my fault, love. I caught the panel on my trouser leg and it came away - and this was hidden in that hole.” Sharon tied the towel in a turban on her head whilst glaring at him.
“It’s bugger all to do with us. It belongs to the hotel. Whatever that is, Brian, put it back, stick that bit of wood back on, and clean that mess up, or this is going to cost us a packet. Good God, you’re like a kid sometimes!”
“Don’t you want to see what’s in it?”
She puffed out her cheeks and blew out in exasperation, shaking her head violently.
“No, put it back! For Chrissakes, Brian - it’s our wedding anniversary, not Raiders of the Lost Ark! “
But he was having none of it.
“Sorry, love. I’ll put it back but first,“ he began to prise the case open, “I want to know what this is.” The old leather seemed to crack and groan as the lid was forced back. What appeared to be some crumpled clothing, perhaps silk, formed a top layer. At the side of this was a small leather satchel. He picked it up and opened it. Inside were some small bottles, a bar of soap, a dried-out, rotting flannel, and what appeared to be a lipstick tube and a rusting powder compact. Sharon stood by, clasping her hand to her mouth in nervous awe. He laid the items on the bed, and the rest of the case’s contents were revealed. Wads of type-written sheets of quarto paper, some tied with faded blue and red ribbons. The whole case was filled with these manuscripts, some obviously carbon copies. Brian deftly removed one and blew the dust from its cover page, then gasped, falling to his knees at the side of the bed. Sharon stared anxiously down.
He held up the manuscript in one hand and traced with a shaky, trembling finger across the title line, which read
INTO THE FOREST
A Short Story
He dropped it onto the bed and frantically rummaged through all the other manuscripts, gasping at each one. He turned to Sharon, who was still frozen in her stunned, mouth-clutching posture.
“Christ, love. Do you know what this is?”
She inhaled and exhaled deeply.
“No, but it smells like trouble. And don’t tell me who Ernest Hemingway was. I’m not that thick.”
“God. We were there this afternoon - 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine!”
“Oh. Yeah, tell me about it - that’s why my feet still ache…”
“Sod your feet! That’s where he would have written all this stuff! This is Hemingway’s missing suitcase. This is all the work he’d written before he was even a published novelist. This must have been here since 1922.”
“What in hell’s name are you on about? Hemingway’s missing suitcase? 1922? How do you know that?”
He stood up, rubbed his hands on his trousers and stared out of the window.
“You see, darling, that’s the difference between Sicily and Paris. I’m not knocking Sicilian history, but big things happened here as well. Big, 20th century things. I was always fascinated by Hemingway.”
“Yes, and I’ve always been tired of you banging on about him. So how do you know what heap of old rubbish is - and how long it’s been here?”
“Get dressed. I’m nipping out to get a bottle of wine or champagne .… no, damn it - whisky. We totally, utterly need a drink. Don’t touch this. Stay in here. Don’t let anyone in. We need to talk.”
“Oh, give over, Brian!”
He grabbed her shoulders and stared intently at her.
“You have no idea how important this is. Just have some faith, Sharon. Believe me - this is big. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
It had taken thirty minutes before he arrived back with a bottle of Vat 69 and a bottle of Moet Chandon. Sharon had got ready for the evening, and in her green velvet dress and make-up she looked attractive as she sat by the small, woodworm-riddled dressing table. He poured two glasses and sat on the bed, staring at the paper filled suitcase.
“Right love. I’m going to tell you a story, then you’ll realise what I mean when I say this is important. This’ll go down as the most historic wedding anniversary in European history. Ernest Hemingway was 23 years old and in Lausanne in Switzerland in December 1922. At that time he was correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star, covering the Peace Conference. The journalist and editor Lincoln Steffens, who Hemingway had met in Genoa, was also there. Steffens really admired Hemingway’s writing and asked to see more. The year before, 1921, Hemingway married Elizabeth Hadley Richardson. He always called her Hadley. They soon moved from the USA to Paris, because this was the most creative artistic and literary community in Europe then. He sent a message to Hadley that she should come to Lausanne on the train. She packed up all of Hemingway’s papers in a suitcase, to take them with her to Switzerland. He hadn’t asked her to take all his writing, but she thought it would be a nice touch to re-unite him with his work. She packed everything she could find, even the carbon copies. Remember, there were no photocopiers then, no laptops or memory sticks - “
“Yes, smartarse, I know that - I’m not stupid …”
“Right, yes, point taken, I’m just adding a bit of drama here, although it doesn’t need it. So off she went to the Gare de Lyon railway station, got on the train, found her sleeper compartment, and there would be a wait before the train set off. So, while the train was still standing in the Gare de Lyon, Hadley went to buy a bottle of Evian water for the trip. Sadly, she left the suitcase unattended on the train. When she came back, it was gone.”
“Crikey. I’ll bet she was popular after that …”
“Not much. At that point, nothing of Hemingway’s fiction had been published. Back at their apartment at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, there was nothing left. She’d packed everything, both the originals and their carbons. Only two short stories survived the disaster. ‘Up in Michigan’, which Hemingway had hidden in a drawer because Gertrude Stein had said it was un-publishable, while ‘My Old Man’ was out with an editor at a magazine. What we have here, must be everything else.”
“So who does it all belong to now?”
“Well, obviously, the Hemingway estate, or maybe his publisher. It was always thought that the thief, whoever he was, would have skedaddled out of the station, opened the case somewhere and been quite disappointed to find nothing more than a load of paper, Hadley’s lipstick and underskirt. People suggested he would have chucked it all the Siene. After all, Hemingway wasn’t famous then. That was to come later. But by God, do you realise what this lot is worth now?”
“How do you know all this stuff?”
“Insomnia. I know this stuff because I read in bed every night while you’re laid there snoring.”
“Charming. It’s just a box of old paper though.”
“You wouldn’t have said that about the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is literature’s Holy Grail, and we got to it before Dan Brown did.”
“But it isn’t ours.”
“It could be.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the hotel probably didn’t know it was here. We could just buy a slightly larger suitcase, stick this inside, and - “
“And get arrested for theft. How would you get it through customs? Where would you say you got it from?”
He blew a raspberry, poured another whisky and lit another Gitanes.
“It’s the story, Sharon, the story. We could be like, what - Howard Carter discovering Tutankhamun or even Indiana Jones!”
“If you were Harrison Ford we’d be on that bed but you’re not. You’re a retired electrician and this is a load of old paper.”
“No. It’s solid gold, love, solid bloody gold. Hemingway shot back to Paris once Hadley had told him what happened. He could hardly believe it. Broke his heart. He wrote a letter to Ezra Pound, in January 1923, ‘I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenilia? I went up to Paris last week to see what was left and found that Hadley had made the job complete. All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped, some correspondence and journalistic carbons.’ I’ve read that bit so many times. See what a bloody great yarn this is? I know all about it down to the fine detail because it’s always fascinated me. Poor Hemingway. Well, Papa, wherever you are, here it all is, safe and sound, waiting to be published, and we found it, two middle aged Brits on their 40th wedding anniversary. The press are gonna love this.”
Brian gathered the stuff together, closed the case and placed it back in the cavity, pushing the panel back in place and tapping two of the rusty old nails in with the base of the Champagne bottle. He was feeling buoyant, half drunk and excited, Sharon less so, as they stepped out into the Parisian night and made their way to the Fleur des Amite restaurant. It was a brilliant meal. Langoustines, a tasty Daube de Boeuf Provencal followed by Tarte au Limon with cream. Sharon enjoyed it all, yet felt totally ill at ease as Brian continued to rave on about the suitcase. As they drank brandy and coffee, she dabbed her lips with a napkin and stared long and hard at her husband.
“Why are you looking like that?” he asked.
“I’m just thinking about the past 40 years. We’ve had our struggles but we’re happy, aren’t we?”
“Yes. I suppose so. The kids have grown up, we’re free, and I’ve got my pension. Mortgage paid off. We’ve a few bob in the bank that’ll see us out. So?”
“So we don’t need Hemingway’s suitcase.”
“Oh, love, come on!”
“What will it bring us? Maybe a few extra quid and a lot of unwanted attention. In any case, the hotel will claim it as their own. And you can’t simply nick it and hope to get away with it. If you do, this’ll be the last wedding anniversary we’re having.” He regarded her for a few moments. He realised how close they were, how much in love they had always been. Yet he found her attitude over this hard to accept.
“So what do you suggest then? We just finish the week, go home and forget it all? The greatest discovery in modern literature? We have a duty here.”
“Bollocks!” she spat.
“That’s not ladylike language.”
“There’ll be worse if you don’t shape up and listen, Brian. Duty my arse! Before we leave that bloody awful shack of a hotel, make sure you place that wood panel back as securely as possible - no trace that it fell off. Then once we get home, drop an anonymous line to whoever publishes Hemingway’s stuff these days, telling them that his missing case is hidden in room 14 of the crappiest old hotel in Paris. That way we can watch the developments from a safe distance. No intrusion into our lives, and you’ve done your duty to literature.”
“Maybe I should tell the hotel manager that it’s there.”
“Don’t be daft! That’ll bring us into it. We’ll get charged for damaging his crappy room. And suppose he already knows it’s there? Maybe he’s saving it for some kind of retirement pension. And another thing - it doesn’t belong to anyone - not the hotel, not us - but the late Ernest Hemingway’s descendants. It was a theft, after all. Some creepy 1920s French toe-rag crept onto that train and nicked that case. Maybe that hotel used to be where he lived. The only solid thing to come out of this is that we know where it is.”
It was raining heavily when they arrived at East Midlands Airport. Paris now seemed a fantastic blur. They had hardly spoken on the plane. Brian had stared through the window, his thoughts occupied solely by the suitcase, that hidden, historical, stolen, secret suitcase packed with utterly epic literary history. Had he really seen those manuscripts? Would he wake up and discover that this had all been some bizarre dream, and that they were actually coming home from Sicily? But it wasn’t a dream.
Once home they unpacked. He made some tea, sat at the table and lit the last of his Gitanes. Sharon came and sat opposite him. She felt relieved to be back and calmer now that they were well away from the eye of a potential storm.
“Well? Did you enjoy Paris?”
“What do you think,” he said, blowing out a cloud of aromatic smoke. She waved her hand.
“At least I’ll be glad when you’ve finished those bloody awful fags. That stink will always remind me of that hotel. So; what are you going to do?”
“Spill the beans.”
“Don’t do anything stupid, Brian.”
“No. I don’t think it’ll involve the police, or publishers. We need an academic on this.”
Unable to sleep, that night, crouched over his laptop with a glass of Scotch close by, he typed his letter.
Rector of the Academy of Paris, The Sorbonne
47, rue des Ecoles 75230 Paris Cedex 05
Sir or Madam,
This is exclusive and important information which I hope your department can deal with.
I have to inform you that the batch of missing manuscripts written by Ernest Hemingway prior to 1922, which were in a suitcase stolen from a train in the Gare de Lyon in December that year, are hidden in a cavity in the wall of room 14 in the Hotel Saint Medard off the Rue Monge.
Sincerely, A literary well-wisher.
He hit the Google ‘translate’ button and printed the message out in French, along with an address label. After sealing it and applying a stamp, despite the fact that it was now 3 am, he ventured out into the damp street and dropped it into a post box.
Brian’s weekend reading included a regular treat; The Guardian on Saturday and The Observer on Sunday. For two weeks he tuned into every TV and radio news broadcast and scanned every single page of his weekend newspapers. He felt unsettled, uncomfortable, and seethed with regret that he hadn’t removed the case himself and done something more specific and realistic. But it was too late now. It seemed obvious to him now that his letter to the Sorbonne would have been treated as a stupid, cranky prank. Who in their right minds would have believed such an anonymous claim posted from England? Three weeks went by. The nights drew in, the clocks changed and winter was upon them.
Then, one night as they finished dinner, as they watched Channel 4 News, with the sound turned down, Brian spluttered into his teacup as the familiar image of Ernest Hemingway appeared on the studio screen behind presenter Jon Snow. He fumbled for the remote. Sharon started, dropping her cup.
“What the hell - “ he raised his hand at her interjection.
“Shut up! Shut up! This is it!” He turned up the volume as they watched a report from Paris with the voice-over;
“High drama in the French capital this week, after an anonymous tip-off that one of the biggest mysteries in 20th century literature appeared to have been solved. In 1922, a suitcase full of typewritten manuscripts by the then un-published Ernest Hemingway was stolen from a train at the Gare de Lyon station. Until now, it had been suspected that the thief had thought them of no value and probably dumped them in the Seine. On Monday a group of academics from the Sorbonne University descended on this hotel - where the anonymous source claimed the missing suitcase was hidden. But the management were far from helpful. The manager, Claude Lebrauc, refused to co-operate and called the police.”
The scene cut to Lebrauc standing at the hotel reception desk, with the voice-over translating;
“This is a ridiculous prank. My family have been here in this building since 1912, and if there had been any such items hidden here, they would have been discovered by now. Of course, I welcome the publicity, but since we finally allowed the gentlemen from the Sorbonne to examine the room, they too have come to the conclusion that this is exactly what it appears to be - a wicked hoax.”
The item ended with a shot of room 14 with the wall panels removed. The cavity was empty.
The item finished, and Brian turned off the TV. Sharon turned to face him, smiled, then burst out laughing. Brian was angry.
“Oh, so that’s hilarious, is it?” But she laughed again.
“Yes, in a way. But more than that, it’s a relief. That bloody manager will have nicked that case and any bets it’ll turn up somewhere in a couple of years. But it won’t involve us, so can we get on with our lives now, please?”
Brian stared down at the tablecloth, scratched the back of his head and shrugged. The adventure was well and truly over and done.
As the TGV from Paris came to a halt in Geneva’s busy Genève-Cornavin railway station, a well-dressed Swiss couple stepped onto the platform. He was a big well-built man with a full grey beard, in his late 60s, wearing an expensive Homburg hat and a smart overcoat buttoned up against the Yuletide cold. She was perhaps twenty years his junior, clad in furs, her blonde tresses tumbling onto her shoulders from beneath a sable hat. They ordered a porter to bring a trolley, onto which their luggage was loaded to be taken to a waiting limousine out on the station concourse. It had begun to snow.
Among the expensive Gucci, Rimowa and Victorinox travelling cases, the misshapen, polythene-packed item festooned in parcel tape was totally incongruous.
The uniformed Chauffeur stepped out, opened the boot and began to load the luggage into the car. He wrinkled his nose in a slight expression of puzzlement as he reached for the polythene package. But his tall and elegant master waved him away, lifted the item himself and placed it on the limo’s rear seat.
“A little sentimental souvenir, Maurice,” he purred, as the chauffeur touched the peak of his cap in a salute.
“I will take care of this. It belongs to an old family friend…”
Sunday, 12 July 2015
PENSIONERS: THE NEW PARASITES?
What a damned mess the British Labour Party finds itself in. Its old Socialist heart is buried deep beneath a layer of subcutaneous corporate fat, the obese result of the Blair years, when sucking up to the City was seemingly part of the long-term plan for securing a nice corpulent future for a stars and stripes-kissing warmonger. So today we have one of the original ‘Blair’s Babes’,
Yet there are bigger social problems for an electorate adrift on a sea of effluent.
One of the oldest weapons governments have at their disposal is still in use by our newly-elected rulers. The ancient principle of ‘divide and rule’ encourages divisions among the electorate to prevent organised opposition to government policy. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the growing gulf between Britain’s younger generation and UK pensioners.
George Osborne’s welfare cuts are viciously aimed at the under-25s, for whom the ‘national minimum wage’ will not apply. Scrapping housing benefit for those aged 18 to 21 will impact seriously on many families, where up to 4 million under-30s are still living with their parents. The removal of caps on student loans will soon place a university education beyond the reach of the poor. Even those young people who have found work realise that becoming a ‘hard working tax payer’ is no longer enough to get you on the first rung of the housing ladder. Meanwhile, by a media campaign of insidious stealth, the unfairness of this situation is being diverted from the Chancellor onto another sector of society, the old. Some suggest that David Cameron’s wooing of the aged, by maintaining pension increases and other benefits, was a device to hoover up those extra ‘grey’ votes to put him back in number 10. If so, it worked. But as a ‘divide and rule’ weapon it will no doubt bring Osborne, who still needs to find more massive cuts, much joy. Set the young against the older generation and as the discontent soars, he will have new choices. Rather than redress the imposition of further misery on the young, he may well have hidden plans to level the playing field by ‘punishing’ the aged, now that their votes have served his purpose. This has already begun with the removal of the over 75s TV licence. This gave the new government doubled satisfaction. Not only has it saved them £608 million, they have been able to shift the debt onto an organisation they openly despise and would dearly love to privatise, the BBC.
A new report by a think tank, The Intergenerational Foundation, takes aim at UK pensioners.One of its founders, Angus Hanton, (left) suggests pensioners are ‘bedroom blockers’ because once families have grown up, these old parasites continue to live in houses with spare bedrooms. (His own parents, however, rattle around in a £1.5m five bedroom suburban house …) Hanton castigates the old by suggesting they say “We did something to deserve our comfortable lives, we’re entitled” adding “the baby boomers are experts at that.” Is being old, with all its aches and pains, the daily descent into immobile senility and monthly funerals, such a ‘comfortable life’? Must we feel guilty for working for 50 years for today’s three meals a day, a roof over our heads and a bit of medical attention?
|1931 (the decade Cameron is taking us back to) and look - not an Armani suit in sight!|
If you’re young, consider this; being old is no sin. We can’t help it. It will happen to you, too. However, the drive for social equality and the battle against austerity is a battle we should all be fighting, young and old, shoulder to shoulder. It’s not an age thing: it’s a human fight, and the powerful people we’re struggling against are not human; they are another breed from a strange world, it’s the planet known as Greed.